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Poetry Analysis Study Guide: Examples of Metaphors in Poetry

written by: Trent Lorcher • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 2/14/2012

Everyone knows the guys who understand poetry get all the girls. Learn to identify and explain metaphors in poetry to impress your friends and neighbors.

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    Become a Metaphor Master

    Make sure that what you learn is valuable beyond the walls of the classroom. As you study examples of metaphors in poetry, focus on the lasting benefits of becoming a metaphor master. Use the following guidelines.

    1. You should know what a metaphor is if you are studying examples of metaphors in poetry. Simply knowing the definition, however, is not sufficient.
    2. You should be able to identify examples of metaphors in poetry on your own.
    3. You should be able to explain the purpose for the metaphor and analyze how it contributes to the theme of the poem. I have provided analysis with my examples to show you what I mean.
    4. You should be able to write poems containing a metaphor.
    5. You should be able to use metaphors in your own writing to communicate more clearly.

    Once you are able to own metaphors and use them to promote your ideas clearly, you will have become a metaphor master. Let's begin by analyzing the following examples.

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    Poems with Metaphors

    Poem: "I know why the caged bird sings" by Maya Angelou

    Metaphor: The entire poem is a metaphor, with the caged bird representing those who have not freedom. Let's take a look at the second and third stanzas:

    But a BIRD that stalks down his narrow cage / Can seldom see through his bars of rage / His wings are clipped and his feet are tied / So he opens his throat to sing. / The caged bird sings with a fearful trill / Of things unknown but longed for still / And his tune is heard on the distant hill for / The caged bird sings of freedom.

    Analysis: A caged bird is unable to enjoy the freedom of other birds due to its cage, clipped wings, and tied feet. African-Americans during Angelou's time were restricted by unfair laws and societal oppression. Freedom is symbolized by the caged bird's beautiful song. As long as the bird is in the cage, he will not reach his true potential. Although the context of the poem is important, one shouldn't limit its application to one group of people or one period.

    A caged bird could be any group of oppressed people. It could mean individuals. The cage could represent society, physical barriers, fear, addiction or any self-defeating behavior, with the bird's song representing the true self that longs for something greater in life.

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    Another Example

    Poem: "Sympathy" by Paul Laurence Dunbar

    Metaphor: I know why the caged bird beats his wing / Till its blood is red on the cruel bars; / For he must fly back to his perch and cling / When he fain would be on the bough a-swing; / And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars / And they pulse again with a keener sting-- / I know why he beats his wing!

    Analysis: Dunbar uses a metaphor comparing a caged bird beating its wings against its cage until they bleed to his own struggle against oppression. The bird's physical scars metaphorically refer to the mental scars of oppression. The phrase old, old scars may represent the entrenched racism that had existed in the United States since its founding.

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    One More Example

    Poem: "Alley Rats" by Carl Sandburg

    Metaphor: The title is a metaphor comparing gangsters to alley rats.

    Metaphor: And another manner of beard assumed in their chatter a verbal guise / Of “mutton chops,” “galways,” “feather dusters.”

    Analysis: Sandburg lists different names for beards worn by gangsters. He cleverly notes that the names of the beards are a verbal guise used to cover their hideous acts, much in the same way the beards disguise their faces.

    Metaphor: two of them croaked on the same day at a “necktie party” … if we employ the metaphors of their lips.

    Analysis: Sandburg uses a gangster metaphor to describe two gang members being hanged--irony at its finest, but no more ironic than the glorified press reports of their doings.