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Understanding the difference between these two terms has been an issue for many people. In fact many of us think they are one and the same. But this is not so. In the barest of terms

Imagery in literature is used to paint a mental image of something while Symbolism is using something literal, often seemingly minor, in order to evoke a bigger and deeper meaning.

I did a research online and came up with 4 analysis of the differences between the two by different people. Read and learn:


a. Imagery  is defined as any type of description that relates to a person’s five senses.  Technically, however, there are seven types of specific imagery related to our senses:

  • Visual:  related to things that may be seen
  • Auditory:  related to things that may be heard
  • Olfactory:  related to things that may be smelled
  • Gustatory:  related to things that may be tasted
  • Tactile:  related to things that may be touched (with the hand or some other body part)
  • Kinesthetic:  related to motion and/or movement
  • Organic:  related to feelings inside the body (i.e. hunger, emotions)

b. Symbolism refers to things that represent other ideas.  For example, a white lamb in a poem may be a symbol for innocence.
So, although there might be symbols used in descriptive images, the two terms are not interchangeable.


a. Imagery is the formation of mental images, figures, or likenesses of things, or of such images collectively: the dim imagery of a dream.
b. Symbolism is the practice of representing things by symbols, or of investing things with a symbolic meaning or character.


a. Imagery is a term used when referring to any descriptive language used by a writer.  When you see something in real life, or in a photo or a film, you see an image.
When you read a description of something a writer wants you to visualize (or sense in some other way), he/she must use imagery to get the picture across to the reader.

b. Symbolism is one thing that stands in for or represents another.  Colors are common symbols in literature:  white for purity, virginity or cleanliness; red for passion, anger or evil.
Usually a color or other object needs to be repeated in order for the reader to understand that the writer intends it to be symbolic.


a. Symbolism is using something literal, often seemingly minor, in order to evoke abigger and deeper meaning.
For example, in the book To Kill A Mockingbird, mockingbirds are frequently mentioned- Scout’s father, Aticus, tells Scout that she shouldn’t ever kill a mockingbird because it is a beautiful creature that only aims to provide us with beautiful music, and mockingbirds don’t do anything to harm us, so why not just let them be?

The actual book is about prejudice towads African-Americans, and one can infer that the mockingbird represents the African-American in that it does no harm and in fact sings beautiful songs.
b. Imagery helps to create a more vivid image for the audience with the use of description and figurative language.

Both imagery and symbolism are techniques given to the reader to help him/her understand the speaker’s message or image.

However imagery and symbolism are two extremely different things, in that imagery relates to the five senses and gives the reader a detailed image, while symbolism is used to specify something broad into and add meaning to the piece.

See the poem below:

I once was Love’s foolish vagabond
Fool, I looked for a clean diamond
In large field of coloured pebbles
I turned mountains into rubble
Got nothing for my troubles!

*Reading this poem, one imagines someone digging into a mountain to search for precious stones, diamonds particularly…that is imagery. However, the poet is not talking about precious stones, no, not at all.

The diamonds actually symbolize purity…pure women, precious while the pebbles symbolize ordinary women who have no value.

So the poet’s lament is that he looked for a good woman (clean diamond) in a world with many women (field of comoured pebbles) and found nothing.

BOTTOM LINE: Imagery describes, symbolism using something to represent another.

This article was written with help from: ENOTES and Wiki Answers.

Author: Kukogho Iruesiri Samson

KIS, author of two poetry collections, ‘WHAT CAN WORDS DO?’ and ‘I SAID THESE WORDS’, is an award-winning Nigerian writer, photographer, and media professional with experience in journalism, PR, publishing and media management. In 2016, he was listed in Nigerian Writers Awards’ list of 100 MOST INFLUENTIAL NIGERIAN WRITERS UNDER 40. The same year 2016, he won the Nigerian Writer’s Award for ‘Best Poet In Nigeria 2015.’ he had also won the Orange Crush 1st Prize for Poetry in 2012.
He is the CEO of Words Rhymes & Rhythm LTD.

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