The word image means ‘representation’ or ‘picture’: in language, an image is a ‘word picture’, or a mental picture created by the author and recreated in the reader’s mind with words. We often find it useful to create such pictures when communicating on an everyday level with one another:
He’s got a list as long as your arm
An image draws upon the reader’s experience and awareness of the world about him to create a clearer and more meaningful ‘picture’ of the object or idea the writer wishes to describe. For instance, the famous opening lines of William Blake’s poem:
Tiger, tiger burning bright,
In the forests of the night.
contain the powerful image of the tiger as a fire burning in darkness. There is a comparison between the tiger and a fire. The tiger is not literally ‘burning’ but the word reminds us of fire, and brings associations of brightness, orange and red colours, flames, warmth and danger. The word may, therefore, conjure up pictures of the vivid orange of a tiger’s coat; perhaps the streaks and stripes are like flames. Apart from these visual associations, the word ‘burning’ conjures up an idea of danger, especially when in forests, and this adds to our sense of the tiger’s wild and dangerous strength. By the use of a single image, ‘burning bright’, Blake has enabled us to visualise the tiger clearly, bringing it alive, and also introduced an idea (that of dangerous power) which becomes very important later in the poem.
At its simplest level, an image may consist of recalled visual details, built up to form a clear picture in the reader’s mind. For instance, in his long poem ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’, Keats describes events which take place on a very cold winter’s night. One of the images he constructs to emphasize the ‘bitter chill’ is
The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass.
The reader imagines a small creature, perhaps stumbling because it is extremely cold, quivering and making its way slowly across stiffened, icy grass. This in itself creates an expressive picture of crippling cold; it also derives effectiveness from an implied contact with the supposedly vigorous and springy movements of a hare in normal conditions. This image differs from Blake’s because it does not require us to make a comparison between two things (the tiger, and fire), when imagining the picture of the tiger. It is literally possible for a hare to limp, but not (in the sense of Blake’s poem) for a tiger to burn. However, both are ‘mental pictures’ created by words, they require the reader to use his imagination, and both are equally effective in their different ways.
Look at another example of an image which draws on the reader’s experience of fire in order to convey a precise and vivid visual image from nature: Gerard Manley Hopkins, writing in a poem about the ‘Pied Beauty’ of rural nature, describes ‘fresh fire-coal chestnut falls’. Chestnuts are not literally fire-coal, nor are they exactly like fire-coals, but by making the implicit comparison, the poet suggests the vibrant, shiny colour of newly fallen chestnuts. The image can be explored with more precision still: just as fragments of coal fall from a fire, cooling on the outside and therefore dark-dull in colour, and then break on impact to reveal the warm ambers glowing inside, Hopkins is suggesting that chestnuts fall in a similar way, in their green casings, and then split open to reveal the warm brown colour beneath. The poet is drawing on our observation and knowledge of fires, and using it to make us look at part of nature in a new way.
Look at the following extract from a poem by John Silkin in which he describes a dandelion:
(…) The sight is compelled
By small, coarse, sharp petals,
Like metal shards (…)
You might note that the extract works in two stages. Firstly, the poet chooses some very precise visual / tactile adjectives to describe as minutely as he can the shape of dandelion petals: ‘small, coarse, sharp’. Perhaps the use of this final word suggests the next part of the image to him: he reminds us of metal and suggests the petals are like ‘shards’ of metal. This conveys very precisely the rather spiky shape of the petals, but is unusual when we consider that petals are associated with softness and delicacy.
The contrast between the flower and the image which has been used to describe it makes us think carefully and imagine what the poet is seeing. He is helping us to envisage the extremely slender, slight and pointed petals of the dandelion, which stick out rather boldly from the centre of the flower, as though they had the hardness and stiffness of needle points.
An image may also work through the other senses to convey a mood or an abstract idea. For instance, Hardy’s poem ‘ The Darkling Thrush’ written on 31st December 1900, begins:
I leant upon a coppice gate
When frost was spectre Gray,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.
Here Hardy uses several images which work on the senses to create a dreary picture of the landscape: the frost has formed a grey film over everything, the sun’s light is pale and weak, and streaked with clouds. The leafless ‘bine-stems’ stand out against the sky’s grey expanse like dark scratches. But the imagery has a deeper effect than this of landscape painting, adding another dimension, beyond the visual. The frost is not only grey (more dreary than white) but ghostly grey, carrying the idea of death echoed later in the word ‘haunted’.
The clouds are called winter’s dregs as they straggle across the sun, an image which carries the implication that Hardy is writing about the end of something. As with wine, the dregs remain when all the goodness has been drunk, perhaps all that is left of the year (note the date of the poem) or even the century. The bine-stems provide a dark visual image (‘scored’) and also, in being compared to ‘strings of broken lyres’, convey a sense of broken harmony, depression and loss. This mood continues, more or less unbroken, throughout this pessimistic poem, which deals with Hardy’s thoughts as he contemplates his situation and the situation of Victorian culture at the end of the 19th century, and the loss of religious faith.