10 Classic Poems with Metaphors

It’s easy to find poems with metaphors. We’ve collected some of the best-known classic examples of metaphors below.

Reading poetry can be extremely rewarding, especially for readers who are limited on time. Most poems come in at only a page or two, meaning that you can dip into them between other tasks. These poems with metaphors allow readers to transport themselves and also find a little inspiration for work of their own.

We’ve reviewed some of the best poetry books to come up with this selection.

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Classic poems with metaphors

1. Emily Dickinson – Hope Is the Thing with Feathers

Classic Poems with Metaphors: Emily Dickinson - Hope Is the Thing with Feathers
Author Martha Dickinson Bianchi, Emily Dickinson, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In this poem, American poet Emily Dickinson uses a bird as the personification of hope. The comparison starts in the first stanza, then continues:

Sale
The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson
  • 1,775 poems
  • only 11 ever published
  • Emily Dickinson (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 770 Pages - 01/30/1976 (Publication Date) - Back Bay Books (Publisher)

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

Emily Dickinson

2. Langston Hughes – Mother to Son

African-American poet Langston Hughes compares a mother’s life to a staircase she must climb. This extended metaphor comments on dangers she must navigate through comparisons to splinters, missing boards, and tacks sticking up.

The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (Vintage Classics)
  • Vintage
  • Hughes, Langston (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 736 Pages - 10/31/1995 (Publication Date) - Vintage (Publisher)

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor–
Bare.

Langston Hughes

3. William Shakespeare – Sonnet 4

William Shakespeare is renowned for his colorful use of figurative language. Some of the most enduring and famous metaphors we use today originated in his work. 

In Sonnet 4, he bemoans the frivolity of young people, comparing them using their beauty in their younger years to someone who spends money unwisely. He further compares youthful beauty to a loan that must be repaid in the form of creating a valuable legacy. The warning comes in the first four lines, and is expanded upon through the rest of the poem:

Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Upon thy self thy beauty’s legacy?
Nature’s bequest gives nothing, but doth lend,
And being frank she lends to those are free:

William Shakespeare

4. John Donne – Death Be Not Proud

John Donne’s poetry alternates between spiritual musings and cleverly constructed bits about physical life. In this poem, he compares death to a swaggering male braggart:

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not some,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me

John Donne

5. Maya Angelou – Caged Bird

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
  • Amazon Kindle Edition
  • Angelou, Maya (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 317 Pages - 04/15/2009 (Publication Date) - Random House (Publisher)

Birds are a frequent subject of metaphor poems. In Caged Bird, Angelou talks about the differences in the behavior of free birds versus ones trapped in cages. This is a metaphor for her own personal feelings of powerlessness and oppression that she experienced growing up in Stamps, Arkansas. She expands on the metaphor further in the autobiography that takes its name from a line in the poem:

The caged bird sings  
with a fearful trill  
of things unknown  
but longed for still  
and his tune is heard  
on the distant hill  
for the caged bird  
sings of freedom.

Maya Angelou

6. Sylvia Plath – Lady Lazarus

The Collected Poems
  • Harper Perennial
  • Plath, Sylvia (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 384 Pages - 03/06/2018 (Publication Date) - Harper Perennial Modern Classics (Publisher)

In this wry poem, Plath uses the story of Lazarus, who came back from the dead, as a metaphor for her repeated suicide attempts. There are a number of additional metaphors within the poem. She variously compares herself to a cat with nine lives, her skin tone to a Nazi lampshade, and the people around her to a crowd of spectators munching peanuts. 

I have done it again.  
One year in every ten  
I manage it——

A sort of walking miracle, my skin  
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,  
My right foot

A paperweight,
My face a featureless, fine  
Jew linen.  

Sylvia Plath

7. Robert Frost – The Road Not Taken

Classic Poems with Metaphors: Robert Frost - The Road Not Taken
Unknown authorUnknown author at the source., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The Road Not Taken
  • Hardcover Book
  • Frost, Robert (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 32 Pages - 03/01/2019 (Publication Date) - Familius (Publisher)

Robert Frost frequently employed metaphors to shed light on everyday experiences. In this poem, he compares two different career paths that both looked enticing, describing them as literal paths in the woods. His narrator dawdles for a while before ultimately making a choice since he could not travel both:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, 
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could 
To where it bent in the undergrowth

Robert Frost

8. Mary Oliver – The Black Snake

Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver
  • Oliver, Mary (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 480 Pages - 11/10/2020 (Publication Date) - Penguin Publishing Group (Publisher)

American poet Mary Oliver often looked to the natural world to find examples she could link to everyday concerns both mundane and metaphysical. In The Black Snake, she recounts the emotions she felt witnessing a black snake crushed by a truck on the highway. In a series of similes, she compares the snake to an old bicycle tire, a braided whip, and a dead brother. However, she turns to metaphor when she recounts the warring feelings of the inevitability of death and our sense that it won’t come for us. Our justifications are compared to bright light:

reason burns a brighter fire, which the bones
have always preferred.
It is the story of endless good fortune.
It says to oblivion: not me!

It is the light at the center of every cell.
It is what sent the snake coiling and flowing forward
happily all spring through the green leaves before
he came to the road.

Mary Oliver

9. Dylan Thomas – Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night

The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas: The Original Edition
  • New Directions
  • Thomas, Dylan (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 240 Pages - 04/23/2010 (Publication Date) - New Directions (Publisher)

The motif of light and darkness is used once again in this poem about the approaching death of Dylan Thomas’s father. He acknowledges that death is both inevitable and the proper conclusion to life. However, he says that we instinctively fight against these events, both on our own behalf, and on that of people who we care about:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Dylan Thomas

10. Alice Walker – Be Nobody’s Darling

Sale
Revolutionary Petunias (Harvest Book)
  • Walker, Alice (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 96 Pages - 03/21/1973 (Publication Date) - Amistad (Publisher)

Alice Walker spent much of her early life feeling discounted and unvalued. Her parents were told that, as Black children, she and her brother did not need a formal education. Later on, an accident scarred her and blinded her in one eye. In Be Nobody’s Darling, Walker reflects on the benefits of being an outcast. She compares the status to a protective shawl that parries stones (insults and hardships) and keeps you warm:

Be nobody’s darling;
Be an outcast.
Take the contradictions
Of your life
And wrap around
You like a shawl,
To parry stones
To keep you warm.

Alice Walker

The Final Word on Poems with Metaphors

It’d be harder to find poems without metaphors than poems with them. They are a key writing tool poets deploy in many types of poems. They’re also memorable and fun to read… and writers can learn a lot from these choices.

Use the classic examples on our list for inspiration, when analyzing a poem. Then, start comparing these choices to one from modern poets. That’ll help you use this writing technique more effectively.

Further Reading

Allegory Vs Metaphor: What’s The Difference

Metaphor Examples in Literature

Simile Vs. Metaphor: What’s The Difference?

FAQs About Poems with Metaphors

What are the differences between metaphors? 

Some of the poems with metaphors above use short and direct metaphors, such as comparing an emotion with a bird. Others use extended metaphors, such as the path in the woods in Robert Frost’s poem.

What’s the difference between a metaphor and a simile?

Similes use “like” or “as” to make a comparison. Metaphors have an “X is Y” construction.

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