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Imagery (part 5)

4. Conceptual imagery

Often conceptual imagery manifests itself in metaphor, the extension of metaphor, or a moment of sensory perception in a phrase or sentence presenting an idea rather than a thing.
Sonnet 116 – William Shakespeare

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Some of the metaphors in this sonnet evolve into conceptual imagery when they become physical or extended. For example: the many metaphors used to describe what love is: an ever-fixed mark, something that isn’t moved by tempests. Love is made into both a place and a person, a personified place. We can imagine a monolith not moving as waves in a winter storm pound against it, but that image is brief and in the service of a discussion of love’s constancy rather than a poem about a storm. Or about a star.

Many of Shakespeare’s less extended usages can also be thought of as conceptual imagery, though some may or may not give you a glimpse of a picture or an experience. Let’s start with the first line. “True minds” stand in for the whole of the people who possess them (the fancy AP literature term is synecdoche). Even his word choice carries the shadow of imagery – he uses active verbs like “alters” and “bears” to describe the action of an emotion. In this sonnet, even the descriptions of what love is are active and physical and employ verbs like “shaken” that give us a picture.

Modern writers also employ conceptual imagery:
The Snow Man – Wallace Stevens

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

This poem employs sensual imagery at the beginning and conceptual imagery at the end. You could also consider it a poem with concrete details serving an abstract meaning. The “mind of winter” is a conceptual thing, though the winter landscape is concrete. But the landscape sets up a blank and cold space, a nothingness: and that nothingness is conceptual. The last two lines of the poem fall under my definition of conceptual imagery. Nothing is both an abstract concept and a standard abstraction. But because of the way the different types/denotations of nothing are combined with each other and with the blank landscape they become more real, more like images. The man is nothing, seeing what exists, and that which exists is nothing: witness the white landscape buried under snow and made blinding by the sun. The images at the beginning of the poem cling to the word “nothing” at the end of the poem and transform it into something. Sort of.

I’m not completely sure how to handle conceptual imagery well, because I usually stick to the first three types of imagery in my own work. However, from reading lots of poetry both published and not I can tell you one way you should not approach conceptual imagery. It is not enough to attach a concept or abstraction to a concrete noun. It is tempting, it sounds poetic, and it rarely communicates as well as you would think. For example: “seas of sorrow” or “mountains of adversity” or even “secrets of love”. All of these seem to be images … but all are in fact difficult or impossible to experience in our minds. This is the [noun] of [abstraction] construction, an insidious beast. Either it is used to try to describe an abstraction in a single word, or to qualify some concrete thing with an abstraction. In both cases, the potential specificity of the noun is lost.

Instead, if you want to incorporate an abstraction into an image, consider using some kind of extended metaphor. Take a look at the way Shakespeare does it in Sonnet 116: He tells us he’s talking about love in the second line, but develops the comparisons of what love is/is not in a number of different directions. He doesn’t say “the stars of love”, but instead:

Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.​

This metaphor transforms as it goes and takes up a number of lines, and encompasses a number of different images in the poem. The incorporation of the abstract idea isn’t an afterthought, and neither is the image attached to it.


i like it when you read something and some time later you go through an experience and you suddenly ark back to something you read and get it...

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