Semantics of Symbol

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b) Transfers by similarity of properties. In the above-mentioned ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ the holy city of Byzantium is W.B. Yeats’s individual symbol of paradise, one of the principal conceptual symbols in his mythology. The transposition here is based on the analogy of properties of the real Byzantine Empire and its capital Byzantium with the assumed properties of the paradise: Byzantium – flourishing of art, poetry and philosophy = the realm of beauty, intellect, lofty spirit – paradise.

Other individual symbols of this kind are found in Theodore Roethke’s ‘The Lost Son’ (Roberts  1970: 211-215), for example, the hothouse, which, according to Roethke himself, is ‘a symbol for the whole of life, a womb and heaven-on-earth’, ‘a universe, several worlds, which even as a child one worried about, and struggled to keep alive’ (Roethke 1965: 8-9). The ground in this symbol is ‘holding a great variety of creatures, providing good conditions for their growth’. Another important symbol in the poem, the open house, stands for human soul; the ground here is, on the one hand, ‘hearty, hospitable’ and on the other hand – ‘desolate, lonely’.

c) Transfers of spatial characteristics up/down to abstract concepts. In Robert Frost’s ‘Birches’ swinging birches appears as his individual symbol of harmony of spirit and body (the text of the poem is in (Jimbinov 1983: 232-234)). The transposition in this case is based on the analogy of the properties of a physical action with those of a mental action. Through the link of the mental action the name of the physical action itself is transposed to an abstract notion: swinging the birches – unity of rise and fall, going up and down = changing orientation from material to spiritual life and vice versa – harmony of spirit and body.

d) Chronotopic (space-time) transfers. In Thom Gunn’s ‘The Nature of Action’ (Roberts 1970: 392-393) we come across the individual symbols of a room as rest, stagnation and a corridor as movement, progress. The transposition in this case is based on the analogy of a room as a confined space, which restricts movement, with rest in time, and of a corridor as a narrow passage, leading from one place to another, with movement. Schematically: room - immutability, restriction of movement = immobility - stagnation of a man, corridor - motion, instability = movement - progress of a man.


The main subtypes of metonymic symbols are as follows.

1. Stereotype metonymic symbols with the transposition of the name of an object (action, process, property) to a concept on the basis of their immediate and generally acknowledged contiguity. The name of an object is transposed to either a characteristic apparently implied by it or to a notion connected with it by an essential relation. The immediate and secondary designata are close logical predicates of each other. Among stereotype metonymic symbols I specify the following.

a) Transfers ‘object – its characteristic / property’ and ‘object – its function’. For example, in W. C. Williams’ ‘The Thousand Things’ (Roberts 1970: 289) a green vine and a dry vine are the symbols of life and death, while the fire is a symbol of purification. Transpositions: dry vine leaves -> death (object - characteristic); a green vine -> life (object - characteristic); fire -> purification, clearing the way for new life (object – its function, cf. the ritual funeral pyre).

b) Transfer ‘object as a cause – notion as an effect’. For example in T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Fire Sermon’ (‘The Waste Land’, from (Roberts 1970: 97)) occurs the stereotype symbol of a rat as decay, ruin and death. The transposition here is based on the fact that the rat lives in dilapidated places, damages foodstuffs, feeds on carrion, etc., bringing about decay, ruin, and death (cause - effect). In this symbol metonymy is combined with synaesthesia (rat – repugnance, fear).

One more example: in the stereotype symbol of yew as death7 from T. S. Eliot’s ‘Burnt Norton’ there are at least four types of metonymic connections. Yew – a) the tree with poisonous berries, b) the tree of death whose branches were used as wreaths for the sacrificial bulls, c) material used for long-bows, deadly weapons, d) an evergreen often planted in churchyards. The secondary designatum of this symbol is ‘death’ no matter what type of connection one has in mind, viz.: а) cause-effect, b) object-function, c) object-function d) contiguity in space.

2. Archetypal metonymic symbols, based on syncretism of primary ideas, on identifying different notions with each other by their assumed properties. Sometimes the secondary designatum of these symbols is fictional (e.g. mountain – abode of gods), less frequently the immediate designatum is fictional (e.g. the golden bough – happiness, immortality; unicorn – purity, strength). Archetypal metonymic symbols can also be called mytho-metonymic. The logical links between notions in these symbols follow the plot of a related myth.

a) Transfer ‘object – its function’. In W. B. Yeats’s ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ the golden bough is the symbol of immortality and happiness. It should be noted, that the myth about the golden bough is attendant to the myth about the Tree of Life: broken off the Tree of Life it gives immortality to its owner, cf. Aeneas travelling with it to the realm of the dead. The transposition here is: golden bough - > immortality (mytho-metonymy: object – its function). Alongside with metonymy we identify here synaesthesia based on positive evaluation: gold – beautiful –> good.

b) Synecdoche (part – whole). In Dylan Thomas’ ‘The Hand That Signed the Paper Felled a City...’ we find the archetypal symbol of the hand, meaning God, the supreme power. Transposition: the hand – a ruler (synecdoche: part-whole) – rulers (synecdoche: one of the group – the group) - power in the abstract sense (metonymy: people-their abstract characteristic) -> supreme (evil) power (metonymy: abstract characteristic- supernatural concept).

c) Simultaneity (involvement in a common situation). The archetypal symbols of sunflower and marigolds as love in T. S. Eliot’s ‘Burnt Norton’ and W. C. Williams’ ‘A Negro Woman’ may serve as examples of this type. The transpositions here are ‘flowers turning their faces with the sun -> love for the sun-god -> love’ (mytho-metonymy, involvement in a common situation).

3. Individual metonymic symbols, based on an uncommon type of contiguity of notions. More often than not, in this case there are intermediate designata between the immediate designatum and the secondary one, which provide a gradual passage from the direct to the transferred meaning.

a) Hypo-hyperonymic symbols, for example, mowing as the symbol of work in Robert Frost’s ‘Mowing’. (Matthiessen 1950: 541) Highlighted in the title, the main symbol is sustained throughout the poem. The transposition in it is directed from the hyponym to the implied hyperonym: mowing -> any kind of labor (hyperonymy: species - genus). However, as we proceed in our reflection on the poem, we may also narrow the hyperonym, modifying it in a new way: any kind of labor -> labor of the mind, e.g. poetry (hyponymy: genus-species).

b) Synecdochal (part-whole), for example the fortress in the valley and the chapel in the forest in W. H. Auden’s ‘Spain’. (Skelton 1964: 133) The direct meanings of these symbols become generalized and serve to characterize ‘the whole’ – Spain: fortress -> strength, vigilance, militancy (object - characteristic) -> Spain (synecdoche: part-whole), chapel in the forest -> inherent religiousness (metonymy object-characteristic) -> Spain (synecdoche: part-whole).

c) Simultaneity (involvement in a common situation), as in Carl Sandburg’s ‘Population Drifts’ (Matthiessen 1950: 300), where we find the symbol of new-mown hay smell as full-blooded life, ‘passion for life’. Transposition: new-mown hay smell - mowing – farmer’s work -> strength, vigor - full-blooded life in the country (attendant circumstances – action -> concept as characteristic of this action).


I will close my exposition with Table 1 and Table 2 representing the identified types of metaphoric and metonymic symbols.



Table 1. Types of metaphoric symbols




Archetypal (mytho-metaphoric, mytho – metonymic)


by similarity of function

bird – singer, poet, orator;

wall – prejudice, hostility, causing division, estrangement;

sunlight – revelation of the spirit

crow – mediator between this world and the other world

cry – an disturbing driving force present in the outer world and the mind

by similarity of form and appearance


gold – the sun;

sunflower, marigold – the sun


by similarity of properties

night - death (darkness, inability to see, the unknown)

woods – death (something strange, unknown, mysterious, dangerous);

gold – immortality of humans (durable, ageless)

the holy city of Byzantium – paradise;

hothouse – the Universe, the womb, paradise on earth;

house – human soul

by affinity of space – time characteristics – chronotopic symbols

train – time;

road – course of life;

faring (journey) – course of life

river – linear time, a course of human life;

sea – cyclic time, the eternity

room – rest, stagnation;

corridor – movement, progress

by affinity of spatial characteristics ‘up and down’ with certain abstract concepts


lotos – spiritual growth

swinging birches – harmony of spirit and body

by similarity of connotations (emotion, evaluation, intensity) – synaesthesic metaphoric symbols

rose-garden – love, paradise;

night – death; light – life


by affinity of colors with certain notions – a subtype of synaesthesic metaphoric symbols


white horse - chastity,  the Holy Spirit


by affinity of numbers with certain notions (primary mythological syncretism)


three (trees) - threefold sacrifice practiced in the ancient times – three crosses on the Golgotha -> Holy Father, Holy Spirit, Christ




Table 2. Types of metonymic symbols





by the contiguity ‘object – its characteristic/property’

a dry vine – death;

a green vine – life


by the contiguity ‘object – its function’

fire – purification

golden bough – immortality and happiness (mytho-metonymy)


by synecdochal (part-whole) contiguity


hand – God, the demiurge

a fortress in the valley – Spain,

a chapel in the forest – Spain

by hypo-hyperonymic (species – genus) contiguity


mowing – work as such

by contiguity ‘object as a cause – notion as an effect’

rat – ruin, decay, death;

yew – death


by simultaneity or involvement in a common situation (mythological syncretism, based on false understanding of cause and effect)


sunflower, marigold -> love for the sun-god (Apollo) – the sun, love

new-mown hay smell – full-blooded life in the country

by contiguity of connotations of objects with abstract concepts

valleys – passiveness, inertia, stagnation;

mountains – mystery, a promise of a better life, a hope





* Candidate of Philology, Professor at Urals Pedagogical University, Ekaterinburg, Russia.

1 However, we cannot exclude metaphors here based on similarity of manner (‘twist something like twisting the mouth when speaking’ and ‘tie things together like words’).

1 Later I came to the discovery of ‘illogical’ types of links between concepts in symbols, i. e. some conventional and accidental neuropsychic relations (see the part of this work concerning irrational symbols).

2 Stochasticity factor rises with the increase of the number of random, unpredictable elements and relationships (H) in a text or in the case of absence of some elements and relationships in the recipient’s thesaurus (H) relative to the elements and relationships being determined (D):  G = (Morokhovsky 1991:34).

3 Metonymic periphrasis, metonymic simile, metonymic quasi-identity and metonymic personification.

4 These mythological associations are common for all birds, cf. a thrush in T. S. Eliot’s ‘Burnt Norton’, a blackbird in Wallace Stevens’ ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’, etc.

5 Compare this symbol with the previously discussed stereotype symbol night-death.

6 According to (Tokarev 1988: 375) the river is an ancient symbol of life, where the source is the world of souls, the middle part is the course of earthly life and the lower reaches are the world of the dead

7 This symbol is sensed as archetypal, but the data in (Garai 1973) are that it pertains mostly to the English culture.


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  1. Table 1. Types of metaphoric symbols
  2. Table 2. Types of metonymic symbols

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The present paper is the summary of my views on imaginative symbols in the aspects of their semantic structure and conceptual transpositions in them. As was defined in one of my earlier works, symbol is a multi-notion conventional sign which represents, apart from its inherent and immediate designatum, an essentially different, usually more abstract designatum, connected with the former by a logical link. (Shelestiuk 1997: 125)1
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