When I was a student studying English literature this was the perennial problem of poetic analysis. I knew what I wanted to say about the poem, but it seemed like every other point I wanted to make would require the word ‘suggest’: ‘stony suggests the hardness of the person’s life’, ‘ticking’ suggests a clock, ‘roar’ suggests an engine, and so on and so on. I had to stretch for a synonym for ‘suggest’, and often failed to find one.
And at the root of the problem is the fact that, as Anthony Esolen likes to point out, there’s really no such thing as a direct synonym. The closest things to a synonym for this meaning of ‘suggest’ are show, mean, or imply. But just try putting them into the same sentence and watch what happens: does ‘stony’ show you the hardness of the person’s life? Not really. Does ‘tick’ imply a clock? No. Does ‘roar’ mean an engine? Well, no, and the question doesn’t strictly make sense; but this is what happens when you try to force a word into the space left by the one you really wanted to use.
As useful as it would be to have a set of interchangeable words for ‘suggest’ close at hand whenever I needed them, no such thing exists. The answer to the problem of over-reliance on suggest is to master a set of different words and terms, that like ‘suggest’ are used to describe secondary meanings and connotations, each of which has its own precise meaning and usage. To get the hang of a few, let’s look at the first seven lines of the Seamus Heaney poem ‘The Follower’
My father worked with a horse plough,
His shoulders globed like a full sail strung
Between the shafts and the furrow.
The horses strained at his clicking tongue.
An expert. He would set the wing
And fit the bright-pointed sock.
The sod rolled over without breaking.
(from Selected Poems 1965-1975, Seamus Heaney, Faber and Faber)
Here are some analytical sentences (not, by the way, an attempt at a coherent interpretation) that employ a variety of critical terms. I’ve allowed myself just the one ‘suggest’.
The title ‘Follower’ suggests that the son wants to follow in the footsteps of his father
It is a word with religious connotations as well
It also alludes to the son’s literal following of the plough
Heaney emphasises the antiquity of the practice with the compound noun ‘horse-plough’
The father’s ‘globed’ shoulders imply a mighty stature. There is even a touch of Atlas about this figure, a figure carrying a heavy burden
Much of the imagery evokes a naval setting, and lend the father the heroic aspect of a sea captain
We sense a tension in words like ‘strung’ and ‘strain’…
… indicating the difficulty of the work involved
The father’s clicking tongue is a signal for the horses, but it can also express disapproval
The word used for mud, sod, is also an insult: is this an echo of the Father’s disappointment?
The father’s actions indicate mastery of the land
- Perhaps the sod ‘roll[ing] over’ intimates the son’s own submission to his father’s personality
It’s worth pointing out, by the way, that this vocabulary is useful not only to those studying literature, but anyone who needs to analyse the use of language (for example, the reading section of the GCSE language exam). If you can think of any other useful terms not included above, tell me in the comments section, and I’ll throw them in.
Analyse another poem using the terminology above. Heaney is always rich in suggestion, so his poems are a good place to start.