What is Symbol?

The symbol is the most complex metaphorical device of word game. In its simplest sense, it is a comparison between a concrete entity and an abstract idea. So, the 'rose' as representing 'love', 'youth' or 'beauty', is a symbol. But, in its deeper meaning any object, image, event, story, or anything that can be interpreted as having broader conceptual meaning outside the literal meaning is said to be symbolic.

In that sense, anything in a poem that must be, or can be, interpreted in relation to general ideas of life and reality is a symbol. In one sense all words are symbolic because a sound sequence (concrete) represents an idea or concept (meaning); but in poetry, symbols are usually images with conventional meanings. The rose, clay, sky, spring, cupid and dove are some examples. All these have conventional symbolic meanings. However, poets can also create their own symbols called ‘private’ symbols. If we cannot give literal meaning or conventional symbolic meaning of a word in a poem, it is necessary to give it a ‘private’ symbolic meaning. Poets create private symbols with pressing implications, often repeated and reinforced.

Most poems have symbolic meanings. Anything with a range of meaning beyond itself is symbolic in poetry. Most poets make a partial analogy between images and ideas. We should supply the missing part and give it plausible meaning by exploring the situation and interpreting with the help of clues. Sometimes the whole poem stands only in symbolic relation with life and reality.

William Butler Yeats’ "The Dolls" is such an example.
A doll in the doll-maker’s house
Looks at the cradle and bawls:
“That is an insult to us”….

Everyone knows that a doll cannot bawl (shout aggressively) and say that the child in the cradle is an insult to the dolls, in the real world. Now, it is necessary to interpret the symbolic meaning of the ‘doll’, its ‘shouting’, the ‘cradle’ and child it is referring to, and also in what sense the child of the doll-maker is an ‘insult’ to the dolls. This means that the whole situation, the characters, the actions and the like are all symbolic. If we read the poem carefully, we find out that the doll symbolizes the world of ‘art’ and the artist’s experience of the perfectly beautiful, ideal and satisfying existence. In contrast to the doll’s symbolic world of permanence, pleasure and perfection, the child in the cradle symbolizes the practical world of the artist’s family, the world of all the trouble, pain, burden and responsibility. Now, the talking about the doll also represents the symbolic speaking of the artist’s consciousness: living in the two worlds, he becomes conscious of the difference of reality and art, burden and beauty, problems and perfection. That is the symbolic sense in which the doll speaks to him. The symbol in the poem always requires the reader to be more tactful and resourceful.

Published on 2 Dec. 2013 by Kedar Nath Sharma

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