Along with metaphors and allusions, poets will sometimes insert symbols into their poems. A symbol is something that not only has meaning by itself, but also represents something else. Symbols are a part of our everyday lives. For example, the eagle is a symbol of America; a skull and crossbones on a bottle symbolize poison; the dove is a symbol of peace.

Symbolism allows a poet to compress a very complex idea or set of ideas into one image or even into one word. Some symbols appear often in literature. Winter is often used to symbolize death, while a butterfly can be used to symbolize the human soul.

In the introduction of this lesson, you looked at a poem by Robert Frost. Here is another of Frost’s poems, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Read it and think about what its meaning might be.

A photograph of a path in snowy woods.The path goes through an archway of trees.

Source: Snowy archway - – 1633196, edward mcmaihin, Wikimedia

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

The most significant symbol in Frost’s poem is the woods which may symbolize memories--both enjoyable and unpleasant ones. The speaker is traveling to an unknown destination but stops to admire the beauty of the woods symbolizing those enjoyable memories. Not only are the woods lovely, they are also "dark, and deep,” possibly symbolizing unpleasant memories. The speaker has "promises to keep" and must leave the woods or his memories behind and move on in life.

take notes icon
Now, read the contemporary poem below. After you have read it, return to the ending of the poem and determine what the tower of books might symbolize. Use your notes to record your answer. When you are finished, check your understanding to see a possible response.

A photograph of a man walking with a notebook in his hand. His shadow appears next to him on the ground.

Source: Walking Shadow, themactep, Flickr

Do You Have Any Advice For Those of Us Just Starting Out?

By Ron Koertge

Give up sitting dutifully at your desk. Leave
your house or apartment. Go out into the world.

It’s all right to carry a notebook but a cheap
one is best, with pages the color of weak tea
and on the front a kitten or a space ship.

Avoid any enclosed space where more than
three people are wearing turtlenecks. Beware
any snow-covered chalet with deer tracks
across the muffled tennis courts.

Not surprisingly, libraries are a good place to write.
And the perfect place in a library is near an aisle
where a child a year or two old is playing as his
mother browses the ranks of the dead.

Often he will pull books from the bottom shelf.
The title, the author’s name, the brooding photo
on the flap mean nothing. Red book on black, gray
book on brown, he builds a tower. And the higher
it gets, the wider he grins.

You who asked for advice, listen: When the tower
falls, be like that child. Laugh so loud everybody
in the world frowns and says, “Shhhh.”

Then start again.

Check Your Understanding

Sample Response:

The tower that falls could be symbolic of a person’s dreams. The speaker is telling young writers that when they fail or when their dreams are smashed, they should simply start over and build another “tower.”

Once you start identifying symbols in poetry and in other types of literature, you will become better at it. Just like riding a bike, this skill takes practice. When you are reading, ask yourself if there is a deeper meaning implied in the words. If so, you may have found symbolism! Be careful, though, that you don’t go overboard and start seeing symbols in every noun you come across. Sometimes a tree really is just a tree!