Literary Terms Poetry Words: diction

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Literary Terms - Poetry


diction: choice of words.  A writing style may vary according to the level of diction: formal or informal.  Other terms to distinguish diction are monosyllabic or polysyllabic, concrete or abstract, specific or general.  Words that derive from Anglo-Saxon (Old English) tend to be monosyllabic, simple, and familiar (e.g., “Cats eat meat”); words that are Latinate in origin are often polysyllabic, formal, general and abstract, and they produce a different effect (e.g., “Felines are carnivorous mammals”).  Other terms for diction: ornate, elevated, learned, technical, simple, colloquial, regional, archaicJargon is a derogatory term for the needless use of technical terms.

abstract diction: words that express ideas or concepts, as opposed to details perceptible to the senses.  The opposite is concrete diction.  The sentence below, by J. S. Mill, uses mainly abstract diction: “The despotism of custom is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement, being in unceasing antagonism to that disposition to aim at something better than customary, which is called, according to circumstances, the spirit of liberty, or that of progress or improvement.”

concrete diction: words that express details perceptible by the senses.  The language of poetry tends to be highly concrete, but of course, there are many exceptions.  The sentence of prose below, by Thomas Hardy, relies heavily on concrete diction: “She went stealthily as a cat through this profusion of growth, gathering cuckoo-spittle on her skirts, cracking snails that were underfoot, staining her hands with thistle-milk and slug-slime, and rubbing off upon her naked arms sticky blights which, though snow-white on the apple-tree trunks, made madder stains on her skin. . . .”

colloquial diction: the casual diction of informal speech and writing.  With his line “Get stewed.  Books are a load of crap,” Philip Larkin deliberately seeks an unpoetic effect.

connotations: overtones or suggestions of additional meaning that a word gains from the contexts in which readers have previously encountered it.  The term connotation is understood in contrast to denotation, which is the dictionary definition of a word.


persona (plural personae): the speaking voice in a poem, as distinguished from the poet’s own voice.  The term is most useful when the speaker is clearly not the poet, as in “My Last Duchess,” where Robert Browning assumes the persona of a murderous duke in Renaissance Italy.

voice: a term often used vaguely, but useful to describe the speaking voice in a poem that uses no persona.  Voice can refer to an unidentified third-person speaker, or even to the “I” in a poem that does not distinctly characterize the speaker.  In Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est,” voice is a more accurate term than persona, even though the speaker is obviously a soldier who happens to be the poet.  Every poem has a voice, even if the poem only describes something and directs the reader’s attention away from the person understood as speaking.  That voice is not necessarily the same as the poet’s.

attitude: a judgment which an author, character or work expresses.  To be distinguished from tone (the emotion with which views are expressed).  Tone is emotional, attitude intellectual.  Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” expresses the attitude that efforts to glorify war in the name of patriotism are lies that distort its ugly reality.  Often in good poetry the tone is mixed and the attitude complex.

tone: the emotion with which views are expressed.  To be distinguished from attitude, which is a judgment of something.  Tone is emotional, attitude intellectual.  The tone of a love poem might be awestruck, pleading, self-pitying, bitter, or many other things; it may involve more than one emotion.  In good poetry the tone is often mixed and the attitude complex.

irony: a difficult term to define, irony can refer to a manner of expression or a quality in the thing perceived.  In both cases, irony involves the perception of discrepancy, usually between apparent and real significance.  It is an indirect way of communicating an attitude.  Irony can vary in tone, from humorous to bitter.

verbal irony: the rhetorical use of language to mean the opposite of what is expressed.  When Andrew Marvell writes, “But sure as oft as women weep / It is to be supposed they grieve,” he is making an indirect comment on coyness.

irony of situation: a situation in life or a literary work in which an ironic discrepancy is apparent.  When a song entitled “Almost There” peaked at number two on the pop charts, it was an example of irony of situation.  An example from literature comes at the climactic point in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, when Boo Radley, the neighbor whom the child protagonist feared, rescues her; the fact that it is Halloween when Boo emerges enhances the irony.

satire: a form of literature or art that criticizes something (e.g., an idea or institution) by making it seem ridiculous.  The term can apply to a writing technique (“Jonathan Swift uses satire in Gulliver’s Travels”), a genre (“Swift excelled at satire”), or a particular work (“Gulliver’s Travels is a satire”).  The adjective is satirical; satirize is a transitive verb.

Style and rhetoric:

rhetoric: Rhe art of using language persuasively; or the adornment of literal, straightforward language to produce emphasis or emotional effect.  Nowadays the word is often used with unfavorable overtones (“phony political rhetoric”).  Rhetorical device is a useful term for an expression (e.g., paradox, apostrophe, repetition) that is not strictly speaking a figure of speech.

allusion: an indirect reference to a famous person, place or thing, usually from the Bible, history, other literature, or mythology.  The use of allusion assumes a common cultural background with readers, whether the writer says, “Pride was his Achilles heel” or “She was in Heartbreak Hotel.”

apostrophe: a rhetorical address to someone or something invisible, inanimate, or not normally addressed.  John Donne apostrophizes death in the line “Death, be not proud.”

hyperbole or overstatement: a figure of speech in which exaggeration is used for emphasis or effect.  E.g.: “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.”

understatement: a rhetorical device, usually ironic in tone, in which something is emphasized by being understated.  E.g. from a bumper sticker: “One nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day.”

paradox: a statement that at first seems self-contradictory but that on reflection makes sense.  E.g.: Alexander Pope mocks false architectural grandeur as “huge heaps of littleness.”

oxymoron: a rhetorical device in which contradictory terms (usually an adjective and a noun) are combined.  E.g.: “Beautiful tyrant! Fiend angelical!” (Juliet describing Romeo).

pun: a play on words.  A pun can be strictly for humor, as in Dorothy Parker’s telegram after a much-publicized pregnancy: “Dear Mary, we all knew you had it in you.”  Poets sometimes use puns to suggest more than one meaning.  Satirizing small-minded critics, Alexander Pope writes, “’twere a sin to rob them of their mite,” playing on mite (small bit) and might (power).  The terms wordplay and ambiguity are also used; ambiguity may refer more to phrasing than words.

rhetorical question: a question used for emphasis, not to gain information.  The question “Do snakes have ears?” is literal, but “Hath not a Jew eyes?” (spoken by Shylock in The Merchant of Venice) is a rhetorical way of saying, “Jews are human beings with feelings, just like Christians.”

parallelism: the use of similar grammatical constructions to express related ideas.  E.g.: “Wild as wind, and light as feather” (Samuel Johnson).  It should not be confused with parallel, a similarity of situations in a work of literature.

antithesis: the use of similar grammatical constructions to express contrasting ideas.  It is similar to parallelism, but antithesis refers only to the use of parallel phrasing to express contrasts.  E.g.: “Oft she rejects, but never once offends” (Alexander Pope).

inversion: reversal of normal word order for the sake of emphasis.  E.g.: “And all the air a solemn stillness holds” (Thomas Gray), “Once upon a midnight dreary” (Edgar Allan Poe).

Figures of Speech:

image: a sensory experience rendered in language.  According to the sense, an image is visual, auditory, tactile (touch), gustatory (taste), or olfactory (smell).  E.g.: John Keats describes a beaker of wine “With beaded bubbles winking at the brim, / And purple-stained mouth.”  The collective function of the images in a work, or an author’s use of images, is imagery.

figure of speech or figurative language: language that describes a thing by comparing it to some-thing else.  The most common figures of speech are metaphor, simile, personification, metonymy and synecdoche.  The opposite of figurative is literal.

metaphor: a figure of speech in which a thing is described as something else.  On a sharp-witted old man, “the white locks of age were [. . .] the thatch of an intellectual tenement in good repair” (Nathaniel Hawthorne).  The term metaphor is sometimes used to refer to the collective use of figurative language, even if some examples might be similes or other figures.

extended metaphor: a metaphor developed at length and in detail, typically over an entire poem, stanza or paragraph.  E.g.: Robert Frost’s poem that begins, “She is as in a field a silken tent.”

simile: a metaphor using an explicit connective such as like or as.  E.g.: “Man, like the generous vine, supported lives, / And gains his strength from the support he gives” (Alexander Pope).

personification: a figure of speech in which something abstract or internal (e.g., time, love) is represented as a person.  The term is sometimes used for pathetic fallacy to refer to the attribution of feelings or thoughts to subhuman things (e.g., “whispering breeze”), but the more important use is for abstract things.  E.g.: “Yet Reason frowns on War’s unequal game” (Samuel Johnson).  Not all personification is indicated by capital letters.

synecdoche: a figure of speech in which a part of a thing stands for the whole.  E.g.: “Lend me your ears” (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar).

metonymy: a figure of speech in which one word or phrase is substituted for another with which it is closely associated.  In “The pen is mightier than the sword,” pen and sword are metonymies for the printed word and military force, respectively.

symbol: a thing that suggests more than its literal meaning.  A symbol can be a thing (e.g., the ruined statue in “Ozymandias,” or the statue of “Neptune [. . .] / Taming a sea-horse” in “My Last Duchess”) or an action (Robert Frost’s choice of the road not taken).  Symbolism is the collective function of symbols in a work, or an author’s use of symbols.

allegory: a symbolic story in which characters, places and things correspond to other things at a different level of meaning.  Usually an allegory is a longer work.  Characters are personified abstractions such as Mercy, Disdain, or Faith.  Allegory was more common in the Middle Ages, but modern works like Animal Farm and “Young Goodman Brown” use allegorical symbolism.


euphony: the use of language to produce a pleasing, harmonious sound.  E.g.: “To watch the crisping ripples on the beach, / And tender curving lines of creamy spray” (Tennyson).

cacophony: deliberate use of harsh, dissonant sounds.  E.g.: “Their clenched teeth still clench’d, and all their limbs / Locked up like veins of metal, clamped and screwed” (John Keats).

onomatopoeia: the use of sound to suggest the qualities of the thing described.  Poets use meter, vowel sounds, and consonant sounds to suggest sound, time, movement, effort, texture or tone.  Watching the tide retreat, Matthew Arnold writes, “Now I only hear / Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.”

alliteration: repetition of an initial sound (usually a consonant).  E.g.: “beaded bubbles” (Keats).

assonance: repetition of a vowel sound.  E.g.: “Through the long noon coo” (George Meredith).

rhyme: identical or similar sounds, usually at the end of a line of poetry.

masculine rhyme: rhyme on the last stressed syllable.  E.g.: LEAVE and perCEIVE

feminine rhyme: rhyme of two or more syllables with stress on a syllable other than the last.  E.g.: HEAV-en and SEV-en.

slant rhyme: rhyme in which final sounds are similar but not identical.  The opposite of exact or true rhyme.  Also called near or half rhyme.  E.g.: good and cod.

lost rhyme: words which no longer rhyme.  In Shakespeare’s time, love and move rhymed.

internal rhyme: rhyme within a line in a poem.  E.g.: “I bring fresh showers for the thirsting flowers” (Percy Bysshe Shelley).

rhyme scheme: the order in which rhymed words recur.  In a stanza of four lines, the possible rhyme schemes include abab, abcb, and abba.


versification or prosody (PROSS-uh-dee): the study of meter, rhyme and poetic form.

meter: a rhythmic pattern of stress in a poem.  Double meter (usually iambic) is much more common in English.  Its basic pattern has one unstressed syllable between every two stressed syllables.  Triple meter (usually anapestic) has two unstressed syllables between every two syllables.  E.g. of triple meter: “The Night Before Christmas,” “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

stress or accent: greater force given to one syllable in speaking.

metric foot: a unit of poetic meter (usually one stressed and one or two unstressed syllables).  These terms are used for the metric feet and line lengths most common in English poetry:

  • iamb: unstressed‑stressed.  Ex.: away

  • trochee: stressed-unstressed.  Ex.: double

  • spondee: stressed-stressed.  Ex.: dim sea

  • pyrrhic: unstressed-unstressed.  Ex.: is the

  • anapest: a metrical foot with an unstressed-unstressed-stressed pattern.  Ex.: and away

  • dactyl: stressed-unstressed-unstressed.  Ex.: This is the

  1. monometer: (“mo-NOM-eter”) a line of poetry consisting of one metric foot.

  2. dimeter: (“DIM-e-ter”) a two-foot line. 

  3. trimeter: (“teh-TRAM-eter”) a three-foot line. 

  4. tetrameter: (“TRIM-eter”) a four-foot line. 

  5. pentameter: (“pen-TAM-eter”) a five-foot line. 

  6. hexameter: (“hex-AM-eter”) a six-foot line. 

elision: omission of an unstressed syllable in scansion for the sake of regular meter.  In William Wordsworth’s line “I was a traveler then upon the moor,” the second syllable in traveler (-el-) is elided.  Elided syllables may be read aloud although they do not weigh in the meter.  Poetic contractions like ’tis, e’en, and o’er exist for the sake of elision.

caesura (plural caesurae): a light pause within a line; it may or may not be marked with punc-tuation.  E.g.: “Downward to darkness || on extended wings.”

end-stopped and run-on lines: an end-stopped line ends in a full pause, marked by punctuation.  Enjambment is the use of enjambed or run-on lines, in which sentences cross line breaks without punctuation.  In these lines by Robert Browning, lines 2 and 3 illustrate enjambment:

That’s my last duchess standing on the wall,

Looking as if she were alive.  I call

That piece a wonder, now; Frà Pandolf’s hands

Worked busily a day, and there she stands.

scansion: the act of scanning the meter of a poem or line: identifying stressed and unstressed syllables and breaks between metric feet.

Poetic Forms:

form: the general design or structure of a poem or literary work as a whole.

free verse (from the French term vers libre): poetry in an open form, without rhyme and meter.

blank verse: unrhymed iambic pentameter.  The most common verse in Shakespeare’s plays.

stanza: a group of lines whose pattern (number, meter, rhyme) recurs throughout a poem.  Certain stanza forms are common in English verse: couplets (a two-line pattern of rhyme), triplets (three rhymed lines), quatrains (four-line stanzas, usually rhymed abab), ballad stanzas (four lines rhymed abcb, alternating four- and three-foot lines).  The term stanza is loosely used for any group of lines set apart in a poem.

sonnet: a fourteen-line poem, usually in iambic pentameter, in a fixed rhyme scheme.  The sonnet originated in Italy.  Early sonnets (through Shakespeare’s time) were often about unrequited love.

English (Shakespearean) sonnet: a sonnet with a rhyme scheme of ababcdcdefefgg.  The first twelve lines are quatrains; the last two form a couplet.  A turn, or transition in the thought, usually comes at the start of line 13 or line 9.

Italian (Petrarchan) sonnet: a sonnet with a rhyme scheme of abbacddc in the octave (the first eight lines).  The sestet (the last six) has a combination of two or three rhymes (e.g., cdcdcd, cddcdd, or cdecde).  The turn usually comes in line 9, at the start of the sestet.

heroic couplet: an iambic pentameter couplet, the first line ending in a light pause, the second more heavily end-stopped.  Widely used in eighteenth-century poetry, heroic couplets lend themselves to witty satire and epigrammatic poetry.  E.g. from John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester:

Birds feed on birds, beasts on each other prey,

But savage man alone does man betray.

Pressed by necessity, they kill for food;

Man undoes man to do himself no good.

elegy: a sadly meditative poem, often expressing grief for the dead.  E.g.: Walt Whitman’s elegy on Abraham Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”  Not to be confused with eulogy, a formal expression of praise, not necessarily for someone who has died.

epigram: a short poem culminating in a witty turn of thought.  Usually rhymed and ironic in tone.  E.g.:  “Thy praise or dispraise is to me alike: / One doth not stroke me, nor the other strike” (Ben Jonson, “To Fool, or Knave”).  The term is also used for a witty saying.  E.g.: Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic as “A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

ode: a formal lyric, usually serious in tone, which expands upon a theme.  Usually addressed to a subject which it praises or contemplates.  Odes are an ancient Greek form which modern writers have imitated, notably eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English poets.
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