By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
A simile is a literary device whereby you liken one thing to another, using the word like or as. Sometimes we use similes in everyday language: describing someone as being as sick as a parrot, for instance.
This can be contrasted with metaphor, which is more direct and does without such weak terms as like or as. Instead of saying someone’s heart is as hard and cold as a stone, you could simply say they have a heart of stone.
So similes in poems act somewhat differently from metaphors. They acknowledge that the two things being compared are different, and are not identical as such. Instead, similes often bring two different worlds together: the human and the non-human, for instance, or the natural and the everyday or man-made.
Although similes may be less direct or literal-sounding than metaphors, they can still surprise and arrest us, so let’s take a look at some of the most notable examples of similes from classic poetry.
1. Robert Burns, ‘A Red, Red Rose’.
O my Luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve is like the melody
That’s sweetly played in tune …
As Salvador Dali said, the first person to compare the cheeks of a beautiful woman to a rose was obviously a poet; the first to repeat it was possibly an idiot. And many people – poets and idiots, or both – have repeated the idea of a beautiful beloved being as fresh and pretty as a ‘red, red rose’.
But the Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-96) offered perhaps the definitive example of this romantic simile in this poem, which is also often sung as a song: one which Bob Dylan called the single biggest influence on his work.
2. William Wordsworth, ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’.
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils …
This poem, often known simply as ‘Daffodils’, was first published in 1807. Its opening line is one of the most famous in all of English poetry, partly because of Wordsworth’s memorable use of simile, which suggests that the speaker is aimlessly drifting, without companion, across the landscape of his beloved Lake District.
3. Emily Dickinson, ‘Tell All the Truth but Tell It Slant’.
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind –
This short poem from the American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-86) tells us that that we should tell the truth but do so indirectly. The truth, she says, is too bright and dazzling for us to be able to cope with it in one go. We can be overwhelmed by it.
The second stanza introduces a striking simile into the poem: the way that lightning and thunderstorms are explained to children in kinder terms (‘eased’), so as not to frighten them. Dickinson concludes by saying that the truth, if shown too directly, has the power to blind us.
4. T. E. Hulme, ‘Autumn’.
A touch of cold in the Autumn night –
I walked abroad,
And saw the ruddy moon lean over a hedge
Like a red-faced farmer …
In 1908, the English poet T. E. Hulme (1883-1917) wrote what could be called the first modern poem: ‘Autumn’, which boldly likened the moon to a red-faced farmer, rather than something more grand and romantic (such as a goddess, or the pale face of a lovesick lover).
Gone are the lovelorn shepherds of a thousand pastoral poems: instead, we have the down-to-earth comparison between the moon – its pale surface tinged red by the dying rays of the sunset – and the farmer’s ruddy face. Even the word ‘ruddy’ is less romantic than, say, ‘rosy’ …
5. T. S. Eliot, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’.
Written in 1910 and first published in 1915, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ was the breakthrough poem for the American-born modernist poet and critic Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965).
This dramatic monologue begins with an arresting simile in which Prufrock likens the sunset on the horizon to a patient ‘etherized’ (that is, under ether, or general anaesthetic) on the operating table.
This clinical and unexpected simile paves the way for other striking similes in the poem: streets follow the speaker ‘like a tedious argument’, and Prufrock’s disordered state of mind is ‘as if’ a magic lantern were throwing his nerves across a screen.
6. Edna St. Vincent Millay, ‘Ebb’.
I know what my heart is like
Since your love died:
It is like a hollow ledge
Holding a little pool
Left there by the tide,
A little tepid pool,
Drying inward from the edge.
Some of Millay’s best-known poems are very short – see also ‘First Fig’ – and this is another one, albeit one with a less uplifting message. In just seven short lines, Millay unfolds a poignant simile for the experience of losing somebody whom one loves.
7. Langston Hughes, ‘Harlem’.
This is a short poem by the poet, novelist, and short-story writer Langston Hughes (1901-67), who was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance in New York in the 1920s.
The speaker of the poem asks a series of questions. He asks first, what happens to a dream that is deferred – that is, a dream or ambition which is never realised? Does it try up like a raisin in the sun, shrivelling away and losing something of itself? Lorraine Hansberry borrowed Hughes’ simile for the title of her play, A Raisin in the Sun.
8. Philip Larkin, ‘Deceptions’.
When Philip Larkin met the then UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, she told him that she liked his poem with the woman whose ‘mind was full of knives’. She was recalling this poem, written in 1950, and perhaps Larkin’s earliest great poem, in which he responds to the account, from Henry Mayhew’s work of Victorian journalism, London Labour and the London Poor, of a young woman who had been drugged and ‘ruined’ by a man.
The line which Thatcher (half-)remembered is one of the most memorable in this poem, not least because of the sharpness (in multiple senses) of the simile.
9. Mary Oliver, ‘When Death Comes’.
Here’s a poem from the American poet Mary Oliver (1935-2019), who, at the time of her death, was reckoned to be the bestselling poet in the United States.
Beginning with a string of similes to describe the threatening and fearsome idea of approaching death, this poem develops into a plea for curiosity in the face of death and what might come next. Eternity, Oliver asserts, is a ‘possibility’, but this is a poem more concerned with living a curious life now, in this one guaranteed life we have.
10. Margaret Atwood, ‘You Fit into Me’.
We’ll conclude with a poem from the Canadian novelist and poet Margaret Atwood (born 1939). This four-line poem from sets up a simile worthy of a million Valentine’s Day cards, only to take the image in a very different direction …