Symbolism is another way of creating imagery through comparison. This is what metaphor, smiles, personification and metonymy do.
If all these devices create imagery through comparison just like symbolism, what then are the peculiar features that distinguish symbolism as a device in poetry?
COMMON CONVENTIONAL SYMBOLS: These are objects whose mention alone calls to our minds particular persons, objects or ideas.
Let us look at colour symbols for example. The colour green is generally used to bring to our minds, the idea of freshness (fruits for example), growth and rebirth.The colour red is the conventional symbol for danger. Notice that all signs meant to warn you are usually printed in red.
Some religious symbols are conventional. Wherever you go in the world, the Cross is a symbol of the christian religion.
SYMBOLISM IN POETRY: Symbolism in poetry is a complex or sustained metaphor because like metaphor, it is an indirect expression. This indirect expression has a deeper meaning which is not immediately apparent.
The poet or writer helps us to get at such deeper meaning by constantly leaving us hints in the body of his writing.
For example, instead of talking about a person in prison, the writer may keep describing the prisoner watch how tree branches sway in the wind and how birds fly over the place.
In this case the tree branches, the wind, and the birds are not important themselves as objects but are important hints (symbols) of the yearning for freedom which the prisoner experiences.
This is because the tree branches, wind and birds he watches, move about freely unlike himself.
Another example, Lawino describes her woman rival in Okot p’Bitek’s‘Song of La Wino’ thus:
Her lips are red-hot
Like glowing charcoal,
She resembles the wild cat
That dipped its mouth in blood,
Her mouth is like raw yams
It looks like an open ulcer,
Like the mouth of a field!
Tina dusts powder on her face
And it looks so pale;
She resembles the wizard
Getting ready for the midnight dance
She dusts the ash-dirt allover her face
And when little sweat
Begins to appear on her body
She looks like the guinea fowl!
When the beautiful one
With whom I share my husband
Returns from cooking her hair
That has fallen into a pond;
Her hairs looks
Like the python’s discarded skin
In the above lines, the poet consistently (through Lawino’s descriptions) depicts Tina as a woman who does all kinds of things to make her look like a White woman.
A few of these things include painting her lips very red, dusting her face with powder and ‘cooking’ her hair.
The picture of Tina is so consistent that the poet’s intention becomes clear: Tina does not belong to the culture of her people. She is alienated. She is the symbol of alienation.
Notice that in the example above, we arrive at the symbolism eventually because Tina’s portrait throughout the poem is not varied.
This consistency of intention in depicting people, objects and ideas is one of the basic distinguishing features between symbols and metaphors. A symbol recurs many times with the same consistent meaning.
Another way of advancing the same argument would be to say that when a metaphor occurs many times in a piece of writing and with the same meaning it becomes a symbol.
For example, it is true to say that Tina is compared to a white woman.
However, this image of her recurs throughout the poem and sustains the intention to such an extent it ceases to be an ordinary metaphor.
The same kind of argument goes for symbols of the the Cross for Christianity and the Crescent moon for Islam. Wherever and whenever these two images appear they consistently represent Christianity and Islam respectively.