What Are Sensory Images in Literature?

Sensory images, known as “imagery” in literature, are when an author uses descriptive language to engage one of the reader’s five senses. This makes a piece of writing more powerful because the reader can easily picture the actions or characters in a story or poem. Writers also use imagery to create a specific tone or mood.

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms distinguishes three uses of the term “imagery.” The first refers to the group of images found in a text as a whole, while the second refers to specific word images that appeal to the five senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell or touch. The third use refers to figurative language, like simile or metaphor. Simile compares two dissimilar things using the words “like” or “as;” metaphor also compares two unlike objects, but without the explicit use of “like” or “as.”

The poet Pablo Neruda employs striking imagery in his work. In the poem “Ode to My Socks,” he uses the simile “two socks as soft as rabbits” to invoke the sense of touch vividly. A few lines down, he describes his feet through metaphor: “my feet were two fish made of wool, / two long sharks / sea blue, shot through / by one golden thread.” Here, he primarily uses imagery connected to sight, but the use of the word “wool” also calls upon touch.

Another use of imagery, synesthesia, involves mixing two or more senses in the same image. For example, the phrase “the golden voice of the cello” blends sight (“golden”) with hearing (“voice”).