Basic Literary Terms



Poetry - Basic Terminology

alliteration repetition of initial sounds in a series of words, e.g.: note the repetition of the letters b, y, and s in this excerpt from Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Counting-Out Rhyme":
Silver bark of beech, and sallow
Bark of yellow birch and yellow
allusion reference, often to literature, history, mythology, or the Bible, that is unacknowledged in the text but that the author expects the reader to recognize. In the poem "On His Blindness" John Milton alludes to the parable of the talents (from the book of Matthew 25:14-30) when he writes:
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
archetype image or symbol that is so common or significant to a culture that it seems to have a universal importance. This theory originates from Carl Jung who posited such things as a "tree," for instance may represent "growth, life, unfolding of form in a physical and spiritual sense"
assonance repetition of vowel sounds in a series of words, e.g.:
All is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
--"God's Grandeur" Gerard Manley Hopkins
blank verse lines of unrhymed iambic pentameter in no particular stanzaic form.
conceit extended or complicated metaphor that is impressive largely because it shows off an author’s power to manipulate and sustain a striking comparison between two dissimilar items. A famous conceit occurs in John Donne's "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" where he compares himself and his beloved to two legs on a compass.
dramatic monologue type of poem perfected by Robert Browning that consists of single speaker talking to one or more unseen listeners and often revealing more about the speaker than he or she seems to intend.
end-stopped line line of poetry that has a full pause at the end
enjambment enjambment occurs when the sense of a poetic line runs over to the succeeding line, e.g:
In that blest moment from his oozy bed
Old father Thames advanc'd his reverend head.
--Alexander Pope
haiku a Japanese poem in three lines, of 5, 7, and 5 syllables, which represents a clear picture so as to at once to arouse emotion and suggest spiritual insight, e.g.:
The falling flower
I saw drift back to the branch
Was a butterfly
hyperbole figurative speech that depends on intentional overstatement or exaggeration. In the poem "To His Coy Mistress" Andrew Marvell uses hyperbole when he declares that "if there were world enough and time" he'd spend centuries adoring each part of his lover's body.
imagery words and phrases that describe the concrete experience of the five senses, e.g.:
Nothing is so beautiful as spring--
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush's eggs look like low heavens . . .
--"Spring" Gerard Manley Hopkins
metaphor concise form of comparison equating two things that may seem at first dissimilar, e.g.:
Life the hound
Comes at a bound
Either to rend me
Or to befriend me. --Robert Francis
meter regular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables, each repeated unit of which is called a foot (iamb, trochee, anapest, dactyl, spondee, pyrrhic).
onomatopoeia word whose sound resembles what it describes (snap, crackle, pop).
oxymoron phrase combining two seemingly incompatible elements ("darkness visible").
personification attributing of human qualities to things that are not human', e.g.: In the following excerpt Sylvia Plath gives a "mirror" human qualities:
I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see I swallow immediately
simile comparison of two seemingly unlike things using the words like or as. Toni Morrison uses a startling simile in The Bluest Eye when she writes: "Nuns go by as quiet as lust."
sonnet a fourteen line poem following a strict rhyming scheme.
stanza group of lines in a poem that forms a metrical or thematic unit.

Drama Terms

Narrative Terms

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