Think of an image as a picture or a sculpture, something concrete and representational within a work of art. Literal images appeal to our sense of realistic perception, like a nineteenth-century landscape painting that looks "just like a photograph." There are also figurative images that appeal to our imagination, like a twentieth-century modernist portrait that looks only vaguely like a person but that implies a certain mood.

Literal images saturate Samuel Coleridge's poem, "Kubla Khan: or, A Vision in a Dream":

So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And here were gardens bright with sinuous rills
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And there were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery. (lines 6-11)

A figurative image begins T. S. Eliot's famous poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock":

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;

To see the evening in the way Prufrock describes it requires an imaginative leap: He's doing much more than setting the scene and telling us that it's nighttime. We are encouraged to see stars, to feel the unconscious and infinite presence of the universe, but these things are only implied. In either case, poetic imagery alters or shapes the way we see what the poem is describing.

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