Glossary of Literary Terms
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accentual meter: Lines of verse organized by number of stresses rather than by feet or number of syllables. This was the form of poetry written in Old English (which combined stress with alliteration). For a modern example, see Richard Wilbur, "Junk" (1961). Accentual meter is the basis of sprung rhythm.
allusion: An indirect reference to a text, myth, event, or person outside the poem itself (compare echo). Although it is woven into the context of the poem, it carries its own history of meaning: for example, see the reference to Hamlet in T. S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1917).
anaphora: Repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive lines. For example, see Anne Bradstreet, "To My Dear and Loving Husband" (1678).
assonance: The repetition of vowel sounds in a line or series of lines. Assonance often affects pace (by working against short and long vowel patterns) and seems to underscore the words included in the pattern. For example, see the beginning of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "Kubla Khan" (1816).
ballad: A narrative poem, impersonally related, that is (or originally was) meant to be sung. Characterized by repetition and often by a repeated refrain (a recurrent phrase or series of phrases), the earliest ballads were anonymous works transmitted orally from person to person through generations. For example, see "Sir Patrick Spens." Modern literary ballads imitate these folk creations (e.g., Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" ).
ballad stanza: A four-line stanza, the second and fourth lines of which are iambic trimeter and rhyme with each other; the first and third lines, in iambic tetrameter, do not rhyme. This form, frequently used in hymns, is also known as "common meter"; a loose form of it is often used by Emily Dickinson.
blank verse: Unrhymed iambic pentameter; for example, see Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "Ulysses" (1842).
concrete poetry: An attempt to supplement (or replace) verbal meaning with visual devices from painting and sculpture. A true concrete poem cannot be spoken; it is viewed, not read (compare pattern poetry).
confessional poem: A relatively new (or recently defined) kind of poetry in which the speaker focuses on the poet´s own psychic biography. This label is often applied to writings of Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton.
connotation: What is suggested by a word, apart from what it explicitly and directly describes (compare denotation). For example, the "cypresses" of Eavan Boland´s "That the Science of Cartography Is Limited" (1994) connote death, because of their traditional associations with mourning.
controlling metaphors: Metaphors that dominate or organize an entire poem. For example, metaphors of movement structure John Donne´s "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning" (1633).
conventions: Standard ways of saying things in verse, employed to achieve certain expected effects. Conventions may pertain to style (e.g., the rhyme scheme of the sonnet) or content (e.g., the figure of the shepherd in the pastoral).
dactyl: A stressed syllable followed by two unstressed ones, as in "screwdriver" (see foot).
denotation: The direct and literal meaning of a word or phrase (as distinct from its implication). Compare connotation.
dramatic poetry: Poetry written in the voice of one or more characters assumed by the poet. For example, Geoffrey Chaucer´s Canterbury Tales are dramatic narratives.
dramatic monologue: A poem written in the voice of a character, set in a specific situation, and spoken to someone. This form is most strongly identified with poems of Robert Browning (e.g., "My Last Duchess" ); see also Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "Ulysses" (1842).
echo: A reference that recalls a word, phrase, or sound in another text. For example, "And indeed there will be time" in Eliot´s "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1917) recalls both Ecclesiastes 3.1 ("To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven") and Andrew Marvell, "To His Coy Mistress" (1681; "Had we but world enough and time"). It is less specific than an allusion.
elegy: In classical times, any poem on any subject written in "elegiac" meter (dactylic couplets comprising a hexameter followed by a pentameter line), but since the Renaissance usually a formal lament for the death of a particular person. For example, see W. H. Auden, "In Memory of W. B. Yeats" (1940).
end stop: A line break that coincides with the end of the sentence (vs. a run-on line; compare enjambment).
English sonnet: Three four-line stanzas and a couplet, rhymed abab cdcd efef gg. For example, see William Shakespeare, Sonnet 146 (1609; "Poor soul, the center of my sinful earth").
enjambment: The use of a line that "runs on" to the next line, without pause, to complete its grammatical sense (compare end stop). For example, see Gwendolyn Brooks, "We Real Cool" (1960).
epic: A long poem, in a continuous narrative often divided into "books," on a great or serious subject. Traditionally, it celebrates the achievements of mighty heroes and heroines, using elevated language and a grand, high style (e.g., Homer´s Iliad), but later epics have been more personal (e.g., William Wordsworth´s Prelude [1805 / 1850]) and less formal in structure (e.g., H. D. ´s Helen in Egypt ).
epigram: Originally any poem carved in stone (on tombstones, buildings, gates, etc.), but in modern usage a very short, usually witty verse with a quick turn at the end (e.g., much of the light verse of Ogden Nash).
extended metaphors: Detailed and complex metaphors that extend over a long section of a poem (e.g., the metaphor of grass in Whitman´s "Song of Myself" , section 6 or of the compass in Donne´s "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning").
feminine rhyme: Rhymes comprised of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable (e.g., see George Gordon, Lord Byron, Don Juan 1.38 : "He learn´d the arts of riding, fencing, gunnery, / And how to scale a fortress- or a nunnery"). Compare masculine rhyme.
figures of speech: Uses of a word or words that go beyond the literal meaning to show or imply a relationship, evoking a further meaning. Such figures, sometimes called "tropes" (i.e., rhetorical "turns"), include anaphora, metaphor, metonymy, and irony.
foot: The basic unit, consisting of two or three syllables, into which a line is divided in scansion. Verse is labeled according to its dominant foot (e.g., iambic) and the number of feet per line (e.g., pentameter). Lines of one, two, three, four, five, and six feet are respectively called monometer, dimeter, trimeter, tetrameter, pentameter, and hexameter. See anapest, iamb, dactyl, spondee, and trochee.
free verse: Poetry that does not follow the rules of regularized meter and strict form. However, these open forms continue to rely on patterns of rhythm and repetition to impose order; for example, see Whitman, "Song of Myself" (1881).
heroic couplet: A pair of rhymed lines of iambic pentameter. For example, see Geoffrey Chaucer, "The Pardoner´s Tale." Perhaps the most polished instances of this form are provided by Alexander Pope.
iamb: An unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one, as in "above" (see foot). Iambic is the most common meter in English poetry.
irony: A figure in which what is stated is the opposite of what is meant or expected. For example, see Wilfred Owen´s ironic use of Horace, Odes 3.2.13, in "Dulce Et Decorum Est" (1920).
Italian sonnet: An octave (eight lines) and a sestet (six lines); typically rhymed abbaabba cdecde, it has many variations that still reflect the basic division into two parts separated by a rhetorical turn of argument (e.g., see Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnets from the Portuguese ).
limerick: A five-line light poem, usually in anapestic rhythm. The first, second, and fifth lines are rhymed trimeter; lines three and four are rhymed dimeter. The rhymes are frequently eccentric, and the subject matter is often nonsensical or obscene.
lyric: Originally a poem meant to be sung to the accompaniment of a lyre. Now, a lyric is the most
common verse form: any fairly short poem in the voice of a single speaker, usually expressing personal concerns rather than describing a narrative or dramatic situation.
masculine rhyme: Rhymes that consist of a single stressed syllable. This is the most common form of end rhyme in English (compare feminine rhyme).
meditation: A contemplation of some physical object as a way of reflecting upon some larger truth, often (but not necessarily) a spiritual one. For example, see Wallace Stevens, "Sunday Morning" (1923).
metaphor: A figure of speech that relies on a likeness or analogy between two things to equate them and thus suggest a relationship between them. For example, in "A Far Cry from Africa" (1962) Derek Walcott portrays the continent as an animal, with a "tawny pelt" and "bloodstreams." Compare metonymy, simile.
metonymy: A figure that relies on a close relationship other than similarity (compare metaphor) in substituting a word or phrase for the thing meant. For example, the "scepter" in Tennyson´s "Ulysses" (1842) represents the rule of Ithaca.
motif: A recurrent device, formula, or situation that deliberately connects a poem with preexisting patterns
and conventions. For example, Edmund Spenser´s Sonnet 75 (1595; "One day I wrote her name upon the strand") relies on the motif of immortality through poetry (cf. William Shakespeare, Sonnet 55 ).
mythologies: Large systems of belief and tradition on which cultures draw to explain and understand themselves. These are often political or religious, and often become conventional over time (for example, see the use of "Venus´ son" in Elizabeth´s "When I Was Fair and Young").
occasional poem: A poem written about or for a specific occasion, public or private (e.g., Maya Angelou´s
poem for the 1993 presidential inauguration, "On the Pulse of Morning"). Such poems can transcend the particular incident that inspired them; for example, see William Butler Yeats, "Easter 1916" (1916).
off-rhyme: Rhyme that does not perfectly match in vowel or consonant sound; for example, see William Butler Yeats, "Easter 1916" (1916): faces / houses, gibe / club, etc.
oxymoron: A figure of speech that combines two apparently contradictory words (e.g, John Milton´s description of the flames of hell as giving "No light, but rather darkness visible" in Paradise Lost 1.63 ).
parody: A poem that imitates another poem closely, but changes details for comic or critical effect. For example, "The Dover Bitch" by Anthony Hecht (1968) parodies Matthew Arnold´s "Dover Beach" (1867).
pastoral: A poem (also called an eclogue, a bucolic, or an idyll) that portrays the simple life of country folk, usually shepherds, as a timeless world of beauty, peace, and contentment. From its beginnings (the Greek Idyls of Theocritus, third century B.C.), pastoral has idealized rural life; poets have used the conventions of this highly artificial form to explore subjects having little to do with any actual countryside (for example, see Christopher Marlowe, "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" [1599, 1600]). There is also a large subgenre of pastoral elegy (e.g., see John Milton, "Lycidas" ).
pattern poetry: A poem with lines in the shape of the subject of the poem. This form was popular in English poetry in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (e.g., George Herbert, "Easter Wings" ) and again in the twentieth century (notably by John Hollander and May Swenson). Compare with concrete poetry.
persona: A voice assumed by the author of a poem. See speaker.
personification: Treating an abstraction as if it were a person, endowing it with humanlike qualities. For an extended example, see Emily Dickinson, #712 (1890; "Because I could not stop for Death").
Petrarchan sonnet: See Italian sonnet.
prosopopoeia: See personification.
protest poem: An attack, sometimes indirect, on institutions or social injustices. For example, see Anna Letitia Barbauld, "The Rights of Woman" (1825).
quantitative meter: Lines of verse divided into feet, which are scanned by syllable length (actual duration of the sound) rather than stress (compare accentual meter). This is the form of classical Greek and Latin verse, and it is very difficult to reproduce in English, which privileges stress.
rhyme royal: A seven-line iambic pentameter stanza, rhymed ababbcc. For example, see Thomas Wyatt, "They Flee from Me" (1557).
scansion: The analysis of a line of poetry (by "scanning") to determine its pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables, which usually are divided into metrical feet. See foot.
sestina: Six six-line stanzas and a final three-line stanza in a complex form that repeats words, not lines (as in the villanelle) or rhymes. The final word in each line of the first stanza becomes the final word in other stanzas (in a set pattern: ABCDEF, FAEBDC, CFDABE, ECBFAD, DEACFB, BDFECA); the lines in the concluding stanza, or envoy, usually end ECA and each line contains one of the remaining three end words. Invented in the twelfth century by the troubadours, the form has again come into use in the twentieth century (e.g., by Marilyn Hacker); the repetitions often convey a sense of circling around a subject.
Shakespearean sonnet: See English sonnet.
simile: A direct, explicit comparison of one thing to another that usually draws the connection with the words "like" or "as." Compare metaphor.
sonnet: A form, usually only a single stanza, that offers several related possibilities for its rhyme scheme; however, it is always fourteen lines long and usually written in iambic pentameter. See English sonnet, Italian sonnet, and Spenserian sonnet.
speaker: The person, not necessarily the author, who is the voice of a poem. See persona.
Spenserian sonnet: Three four-line stanzas (interwoven by overlapping rhyme) and a couplet; this sonnet is rhymed abab bcbc cdcd ee. For example, see Edmund Spenser, "Sonnet 71" (1595; "One day I wrote her name upon the strand").
Spenserian stanza: Eight lines of iambic pentameter and a ninth line of iambic hexameter, called an alexandrine, rhymed ababbcbbc. The name of the stanza comes from Edmund Spenser´s use of it in "The Faerie Queene" (1596); see also John Keats, "The Eve of St. Agnes" (1820).
spondee: A stressed syllable followed by another syllable of approximately equal stress, as in "hot dog" (see foot).
sprung rhythm: Gerard Manley Hopkins´ blending of accentual meter with the more familiar feet of accentual-syllable meter. In his system, each foot begins with a stress; the line is measured by the number of stresses, which fall with normal word stress (and need not be separated by unstressed syllables).
subject: The general or specific area of concern of a poem; also called its topic.
syllabic verse: A form in which the poet establishes a precise number of syllables to a line, without regard to their stress, and repeats them in subsequent stanzas. For example, see Marianne Moore, "Poetry" (1921).
symbol: A word or image that stands for something else in a vivid but indeterminate way: it suggests more than what it actually says. For example, see Li-Young Lee, "Persimmons" (1986).
symbolic poem: A poem in which the use of symbols is so pervasive and internally consistent that the larger referential world is distanced, if not forgotten. For example, see Adrienne Rich, "Diving into the Wreck" (1973).
synesthesia: Figurative expression of the perception of one sense in terms of another. For example, see William Blake, "London" (1794): "And the hapless Soldier´s sigh / Runs in blood down Palace walls."
terza rima: A series of three-line stanzas with interlocking rhymes, invented by Dante for The Divine Comedy (aba, bcb, cdc, ded, etc.) in the early fourteenth century. For an English example, see Percy Bysshe Shelley, "Ode to the West Wind" (1820).
theme: The statement a poem makes about its subject. Although, generally speaking, the theme is what a poem is "about," the meaning of a poem can never be reduced to one or more of the themes within the poem.
topic: See subject.
trochee: A stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one, as in "liar" (see foot).
villanelle: A poem that contains five three-line stanzas and a final four-line stanza. Only two rhyme sounds are permitted in the entire poem, and the first and third lines of the first stanza are repeated, alternately, as the third line of subsequent three-line stanzas; the last stanza ends with these two lines. Like the sestina, the villanelle is a circular form; its movement recalls a dance, and indeed it was originally derived from an Italian folk song. For a loose example, see Rita Dove, "Parsley: 1. The Cane Fields" (1983); for a stricter example, see Dylan Thomas, "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night" ).
vowel rhyme: Rhyme words that have only their vowel sounds in common. For example, see Dylan Thomas, "Fern Hill" (1946): boughs / towns, green / leaves, etc.
zeugma: The use of one word (usually a verb) to "yoke" two or more words to which it applies in different senses (e.g., see Alexander Pope´s Belinda, who may "stain her Honour, or her new Brocade"; The Rape of the Lock 2.107 ).