5 Practical Tips for Understanding Symbolism in Poetry
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 5 min read


  1. Read the poem several times
  2. Identify the imagery
  3. Consider the poem's context
  4. Look for patterns
  5. Consult reliable sources

Have you ever read a poem and wondered, "What does that mean?" If so, you're not alone. Poetry can be layered with complex meanings, which often come to us in the form of symbolism. But don't worry, understanding symbolism in poetry isn't as daunting as it may seem. The beauty of poetry lies in its rich, symbolic language, and with a few practical tips, you can unlock these hidden meanings. So, let's dive into our first tip: reading the poem several times.

Read the poem several times

When it comes to understanding symbolism in poetry, a quick read-through just won't cut it. You'll need to read the poem several times, each time with a different focus. Let's break this down into a few steps:

First reading: Get the overall feel

During your first reading, simply enjoy the poem. Don't try to analyze anything yet—just let the words wash over you and soak in the overall feel of the poem. Try to grasp the general theme and mood.

Second reading: Pay attention to the words

Now, on your second reading, start to pay closer attention to the words. Look for words that jump out at you or seem to carry more weight. These could be potential symbols. Remember, in poetry, every word counts.

Third reading: Look for symbolism

This time, as you read, keep an eye out for symbolism. Consider which images or ideas appear repeatedly or hold special significance. These could be keys to understanding the poem's symbolism. But how do you know what's a symbol? That's what we'll explore in the next section of this guide.

Remember, understanding symbolism in poetry isn't about finding the "right" answer—it's about exploring the many possible layers of meaning that make poetry so rich and rewarding. So, don't be afraid to dive in and enjoy the journey.

Identify the imagery

Once you're familiar with the poem and have a sense of where the potential symbols might lie, the next step in understanding symbolism in poetry is to identify the imagery. Imagery in poetry refers to the language and descriptions that appeal to our five senses. By identifying and understanding the imagery used in a poem, you can gain insight into its symbolic meaning. Let's delve into this process.

Visual Imagery

The most commonly used type of imagery in poetry is visual. It's where the poet uses language to create vivid pictures in our minds. To identify visual imagery, look for detailed and descriptive language that paints a picture. For example, a dark forest could symbolize fear or the unknown.

Auditory Imagery

Auditory imagery, on the other hand, uses words to represent sounds. The buzzing of bees, the rustling of leaves, or the patter of rain—all these can have symbolic meanings. Could the buzzing bee symbolize industry and hard work, or perhaps a looming threat?

Other Forms of Imagery

Remember, imagery isn't limited to what we see and hear. A poem can also use tactile (touch), olfactory (smell), and gustatory (taste) imagery. For example, the description of a sweet taste could symbolize pleasure or indulgence.

Through understanding the imagery, you're well on your way to unlocking the symbolism of the poem. However, to deepen your understanding, it's also important to look at the poem's context, which we'll cover in the next section.

Consider the poem's context

Context is key in understanding symbolism in poetry. It's like a key that can unlock a chest of hidden meanings. But what does context refer to, exactly?

Historical Context

Historical context refers to the time period in which the poem was written. For instance, a poem written during the Romantic era might use nature as a symbol for freedom and spontaneity, while a poem written in the Victorian era might use the same symbol to represent the power of the industrial revolution. Thus, understanding the historical context can significantly add to your interpretation of the poem's symbolism.

Cultural Context

It's also helpful to understand the cultural background of the poet. Symbols can vary greatly in meaning across different cultures. For example, a dove generally symbolizes peace in many Western cultures, but in some Eastern cultures, it can symbolize longevity and health. So, knowing the cultural background of the poet can give you a new lens through which to view the symbolism in the poem.

Personal Context

Last but not least, consider the personal context of the poet—their life experiences, beliefs, and values. For instance, if a poet has experienced a significant loss, symbols of death or grief may appear in their work. Peeking into the poet's life can provide you with valuable clues about the symbolism in their poetry.

Remember, context is a tool to aid your understanding. It's not about finding the "right" interpretation, but rather expanding your perspective. Now, let's move on to our next tip—looking for patterns.

Look for patterns

Patterns are like a secret map in understanding symbolism in poetry. They guide you down paths poets have laid out to help you discover the deeper meanings of their work. So, how do you spot these patterns?

Recurring Images

One of the first things you might notice is recurring images. Maybe the poet mentions a tree several times, or perhaps there's repeated imagery of the moon. These aren't just repetitions—they're symbols, purposefully placed to convey a deeper meaning. If a poet keeps bringing up the same image, you can bet they're trying to tell you something important.

Structural Patterns

Then, there are structural patterns. Look at how the poem is organized. Is there a rhyme scheme? Are certain lines or stanzas repeated? These decisions aren't arbitrary. They're carefully chosen to support the poem's overall symbolic message. For example, a circular structure could symbolize infinity or the cyclical nature of life.

Theme Patterns

Lastly, pay attention to thematic patterns. These could be recurring ideas, feelings, or concepts throughout the poem. If the poem frequently talks about freedom, for instance, that's a strong hint that symbols related to this theme might be present.

Remember, patterns in poetry are like breadcrumbs leading you to the heart of the poem's symbolism. Spot them, and you're well on your way to understanding the poem on a deeper level. Next, we're going to explore how consulting reliable sources can provide additional insight.

Consult reliable sources

While your personal interpretation is a significant part of understanding symbolism in poetry, it's also valuable to consult reliable sources. These can provide expert insights that might not be apparent at first glance.

Literary Criticism

One great source of information is literary criticism. These are analyses and interpretations of literary works—like poetry—done by scholars in the field. They can offer a fresh perspective on the symbolism in the poem you're reading.

Historical Contexts

Don't forget to look into the historical context of the poem. Knowing what was happening in the world when the poet was writing can clarify some symbols. Let's say you're reading a poem written during the Civil Rights movement. Understanding that context might reveal that a symbol of a bird, for example, could represent the desire for freedom and equality.

Annotated Editions and Study Guides

Finally, annotated editions and study guides can be incredibly helpful. These resources often include notes from experts who explain the symbolism in the poem, making it easier for you to grasp the underlying meanings.

While it's fun to discover symbols on your own, there's no harm in seeking help from those who've studied these poems in depth. Remember, understanding symbolism in poetry is like solving a puzzle—the more pieces you have, the clearer the picture becomes. Now that you have these tips under your belt, you're ready to tackle any poem that comes your way!

If you enjoyed these practical tips for understanding symbolism in poetry and want to challenge yourself to write more poetry, we recommend checking out Alieu Drammeh's workshop, '10 Minute Poetry Challenge: THINK LESS, WRITE MORE!.' This workshop will help you unleash your creativity and improve your poetry writing skills through fun and engaging exercises.