The function of synecdoche in poetry is to emphasize specific aspects of the thing or person that the synecdoche represents and to minimize the importance of the thing itself. A synecdoche is a figure of speech in which a part of something represents the whole thing or vice versa. Although synecdoche can be used for animals and inanimate objects, it often dehumanizes a person, emphasizing a certain characteristic or function.
Synecdoche in poetry comes in many forms. The most basic type is when a part refers to a whole. A synecdoche is also formed when a general category is used to refer to a specific category or object, such as saying “The Book” to refer to the Bible, and when a material refers to something made of that material, such as “plastic” for a credit card. In addition, each of these types has an opposite synecdoche: a whole refers to a part, a specific class refers to a general one, and a container refers to its contents.
One purpose of synecdoche in poetry is to emphasize the function of the specific part mentioned. In Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue, “My Last Duchess,” the speaker discusses a portrait of his late wife, saying “Fra Pandolf’s hands / Worked busily a day, and there she stands.” This synecdoche enforces the view of Fra Pandolf as a worker, whose importance lies in what he did with his hands, not in him as a person.
Similarly, Browning used synecdoche in his long poem “The Ring and the Book.” Beginning in line 286, he writes “Pert tongue and idle ear / By this, consort ‘neath archway, portico.” People are gathering beneath archways, but the emphasis is on the talking and listening they do. Poets also use synecdoche to diminish the value of the thing represented.
Synecdoche in poetry is often confused with its close relative, metonymy. In a synecdoche, the thing mentioned typically includes or is included in the thing represented. Metonymy is when one object, such as a crown, is substituted for something closely related, like a king. Many poets use both figures of speech for added meaning and imagery.