Images and Symbols

I want to think and talk a bit about images and symbols. I’m posting this on my poetry blog and not on sibathehat on blogspot, so I see this as leading hopefully to some perceptions about images in poetry, but I’m going to start by looking at some images outside the literary world in the hope this will shed some light.


In Britain there are three major or fairly major political parties operating across Britain (Northern Ireland mostly has its own local parties). They all have badges or logos which are extensively publicised.


Symbols or badges in politics are nothing new. The first in England, as far as I know, were the sea-green ribbons worn by Levellers during the Civil War and early Cromwellian period and revived by the Whigs of Charles II’s reign (in other words, mid to late 17th century). As far as I know, no-one else wore ribbons then as a mark of political allegiance, so you could argue that the ribbon AND its colour stood for the political movement; but by the 18th century rosettes (descended from the ribbons) were in wide use and the message was conveyed by the colour. In the early 19th century, for example, Byron wrote in a poem “I still keep my buff and blue”, meaning he was a Whig at a time when the Tories (using red) were in the ascendent. By the late 19th century Liberals (mainly descended from the Whigs) mainly used yellow, and Conservatives (Tories) blue. The Labour Party, when it rose in the early 20th century, used red, which had socialist and revolutionary connotations.


So here’s one point of interest: a colour itself can have a figurative meaning. Red = action, strength, warmth, but also danger and conflict; blue = safety and coolness (even though in the U.S. the POLITICAL meaning of these colours is reversed); green (as in the Green Party) = nature, restfulness (it’s the most restful background colour) and life. So mention of a colour in a poem might not be a straightforward description, but might indicate a mood, or danger, renewed life, or whatever. Also some of these meanings may be hard-wired into all humans, but others are culturally determined: red among Chinese suggests good fortune and prosperity, while white in south-east Asia generally is the colour of death (as black is among Westerners) and is not, I think, associated with purity.


The Labour Party used to have a torch (enlightenment, education, leading people somewhere, but a bit dangerous) but now has a red rose. The red appeals to Labour traditions, but a red rose is a powerful and common image in literature and painting. It can mean sexual experience as opposed to the virginal and pure white rose (not, I think, what Labour had in mind) but it is also a traditional image of England with any number of references to the English rose: an “English rose” is usually an attractive English girl, but English rugby players have red roses on their shirts and Rupert Brooke wrote, comparing England and Germany, “There roses grow as they are told/ Unkept about these hedges blows/ An English unofficial rose”. The rose suggests attractiveness and tradition, but is not a very dynamic image (roses, after all, stay still unless they’ve been cut). There was also another problem for Labour: the rose being a traditional ENGLISH image, it annoyed Welsh people and even more, Scots.


So use an image in poetry, as in politics, and you can find others reading things into it you may not want. Tough.


The Liberal Democrats (descended from the Liberals mainly) made do without an image for a long time, though their striking orange and black posters were widely recognised (dynamic, distinctive, but if it was an insect it would have a sting), but more recently adopted a stylised bird known as “the bird of Liberty”. The image is a bit complicated (perhaps not instantly recognisable as a bird and also a bit like the Barclay’s Bank symbol) but it does look dynamic – the bird appears to be in motion and birds can mostly fly. As a symbol of liberty, change and independence it’s quite effective. It could have been a more naturalistic bird, but then it might have been unhelpfully associated with particular kinds of bird (pigeon or crow, not always popular, duck or sparrow, slightly ridiculous; hawk – definitely not). So here’s another link to poetry: make your image vague and it may confuse people; make it very specific and it may carry associations too specific for your meaning. If there’s an unfortunate subliminal message, it’s that the bird looks just a bit disorganised and more than a bit like it’s just been blasted with a shotgun.


At one time both Labour and the Conservatives were using torches as symbols. The red Labour one was tilted at a dynamic but possibly unsafe angle and the blue Conservative one stood safely, uprightly but slightly boringly upright. The Conservatives ditched that in favour of an oak tree. At this time their new leader, one David Cameron, was trying to present them as an environmentally-friendly party, and they are strong in rural areas and the “leafy suburbs”, so choosing a native British plant (shown in summer with a green, leafy top) made sense. So it suggested nature. The oak, like the rose, is a very old English symbol associated with the Royal Navy, but it doesn’t have quite the English nationalist tinge the red rose has and Wales has famous and extensive oakwoods (the Scots have a few oaks too, though they cut most of them down). So the symbol suggests traditions, as Labour’s does and the Liberal Denocrat one doesn’t. Oaks are solid, safe (relatively) and long-lived. Like the Liberal Democrat one (but not Labour’s) it’s stylised and might puzzle people for a moment. Probably the biggest unintended message is that Conservatives are thick, immobile and rather boring. That may not matter much except that a party symbol suggesting immobility (more strongly than Labour’s) may be a minus.


Used in a poem other than straightforwardly to describe the wildlife of an oakwood, mention of an oak by an English poet might suggest national pride (“hearts of oak”), age, tradition or solidity, but modern urban, computer-attached Britons don’t mostly think much about trees, less than they think about birds or flowers. So – another thing for the poet to consider. Is your chosen image widely understood and does it hit a gong, a bell or something much les noisy? There, I was using images and ran into a problem because I couldn’t think of something insignificant you could hit to produce a very slight noise. Well, I can, any number, but U.K. libel law is notoriously friendly to the supposedly libelled.


More perhaps on images some other time.



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