Glossary of Poetic Terms

Accentual meter: A base meter in which the occurrence of a syllable marked by a stress determines the basic unit, regardless of the number of unstressed syllables. It is one of four base meters used in English (accentual, accentual-syllabic, syllabic, and quantitative). An example from modern poetry is “Blue Moles” by Sylvia Plath, the first line of which scans: “The′y’re ou′t of the dar′k′s ra′gbag, these tw′o.” Because there are five stressed syllables in this accentually based poem, the reader can expect that many of the other lines will also contain five stresses.

Accentual-syllabic meter: A base meter that measures the pattern of stressed syllables relative to the unstressed ones. It is the most common base meter for English poetry. In the first line of William Shakespeare’s sonnet 130, “My∪ mi′stre∪ss’ e′yes ar∪e no′thin∪g li∪ke th∪e su′n,” there is a pattern of alternating unstressed with stressed syllables, although there is a substitution of an unstressed syllable for a stressed syllable at the word “like.” In the accentual-syllabic system, stressed and unstressed syllables are grouped together into feet.

Allegory: A literary mode in which a second level of meaning—wherein characters, events, and settings represent abstractions—is encoded within the surface narrative. The allegorical mode may dominate the entire work, in which case the encoded message is the work’s primary excuse for being, or it may be an element in a work otherwise interesting and meaningful for its surface story alone.

Alliteration: The repetition of consonants at the beginning of syllables; for example, “Large mannered motions of his mythy mind.” Alliteration is used when the poet wishes to focus on the details of a sequence of words and to show relationships between words within a line. Because a reader cannot easily skim over an alliterative line, it is conspicuous and demands emphasis.

Allusion: A reference to a historical or literary event whose story or outcome adds dimension to the poem. “Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost, for example, alludes to the biblical account of the flood and the prophecy that the next destruction will come by fire, not water. Without recognizing the allusion and understanding the biblical reference to Noah and the surrounding associations of hate and desire, the reader cannot fully appreciate the poem.

Anacrusis: The addition of an extra unstressed syllable to the beginning or end of a line; the opposite of truncation. For example, anacrusis occurs in the line: “the∪ir sho′ul/der∪s he′ld th∪e s′ky/su∪spe′nde∪d.” This line is described as iambic tetrameter with terminal anacrusis. Anacrusis is used to change a rising meter to falling and vice versa to alter the reader’s emotional response to the subject.

Anapest: A foot in which two unstressed syllables are associated with one stressed syllable, as in the line, “Wi∪th th∪e si′ ft/ed∪ , ha∪rmo′n/i∪ou∪s pau′se.” The anapestic foot is one of the three most common in English poetry and is used to create a highly rhythmical, usually emotional, line.

Anaphora: The use of the same word or words to begin successive phrases or lines. Timothy Steele’s “Sapphics Against Anger” uses anaphora in the repetition of the phrase “May I.”

Approximate rhyme: Assonance and half rhyme (or slant rhyme). Assonance occurs when words with identical vowel sounds but different consonants are associated. “Stars,” “arms,” and “park” all contain identical a (and ar) sounds, but because the consonants are different the words are not full rhymes. Half rhyme or slant rhymes contain identical consonants but different vowels, as in “fall” and “well.” “Table” and “bauble” constitute half rhymes; “law,” “cough,” and “fawn” assonate.

Archetype: 1) Primordial image from the collective unconscious of humankind, according to psychologist Carl Jung, who believed that works of art, including poetry, derive much of their power from the unconscious appeal of these images to ancestral memories. 2) A symbol, usually an image, that recurs so frequently in literature that it becomes an element of the literary experience, according to Northrop Frye in his extremely influential Anatomy of Criticism (1957).

Aubade: A type of poem welcoming or decrying the arrival of the dawn. Often the dawn symbolizes the separation of two lovers. An example is William Empson’s “Aubade” (1937).

Ballad: A poem composed of four-line stanzas that alternate rhyme schemes of abab or abcb. If all four lines contain four feet each (tetrameter), the stanza is called a long ballad; if one or more of the lines contain only three feet (trimeter), it is called a short ballad. Ballad stanzas, which are highly mnemonic, originated with verse adapted to singing. For this reason, the poetic ballad is well suited for presenting stories. Popular ballads are songs or verse that tell tales, usually impersonal, and they usually impart folk wisdom. Supernatural events, courage, and love are frequent themes, but any experience that appeals to people is acceptable material. A famous use of the ballad form is The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Ballade: A popular and sophisticated French form, commonly (but not necessarily) composed of an eightline stanza rhyming ababbcbc. Early ballades usually contained three stanzas and an envoy, commonly addressed to a nobleman, priest, or the poet’s patron, but no consistent syllable count. Another common characteristic of the ballade is a refrain that occurs at the end of each stanza.

Base meter: Also called metrical base. The primary meter employed in poems in English and in most European languages that are not free verse. Based on the number, pattern, or duration of the syllables within a line or stanza, base meters fall into four types: accentual, accentual-syllabic, syllabic, or quantitative. Rhythm in verse occurs because of meter, and the use of meter depends on the type of base into which it is placed.

Blank verse: A type of poem having a base meter of iambic pentameter and with unrhymed lines usually arranged in stichic form (that is, not in stanzas). Most of William Shakespeare’s plays are written in blank verse; in poetry it is often used for subject matter that requires much narration or reflection. In both poetry and drama, blank verse elevates emotion and gives a dramatic sense of importance. Although the base meter of blank verse is iambic pentameter, the form is very flexible, and substitution, enjambment, feminine rhyme, and extra syllables can relax the rigidity of the base. The flexibility of blank verse gives the poet an opportunity to use a formal structure without seeming unnecessarily decorous. T. S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton,” written in the 1930’s, is a modern blank-verse poem.

Cadence: The rhythmic speed or tempo with which a line is read. All language has cadence, but when the cadence of words is forced into some pattern, it becomes meter, thus distinguishing poetry from prose. A prose poem may possess strong cadence, combined with poetic uses of imagery, symbolism, and other poetic devices.

Caesura: A pause or break in a poem, created with or without punctuation marks. The comma, question mark, colon, and dash are the most common signals for pausing, and these are properly termed caesuras; pauses may also be achieved through syntax, lines, meter, rhyme, and the sound of words. The type of punctuation determines the length of the pause. Periods and question marks demand full stops, colons take almost a full stop, semicolons take a long pause, and commas take a short pause. The end of a line usually demands some pause even if there is no punctuation.

Cinquain: Any five-line stanza, including the madsong and the limerick. Cinquains are most often composed of a ballad stanza with an extra line added to the middle.

Classicism: A literary stance or value system consciously based on the example of classical Greek and Roman literature. Although the term is applied to an enormous diversity of artists in many different periods and in many different national literatures, classicism generally denotes a cluster of values including formal discipline, restrained expression, reverence for tradition, and an objective rather than a subjective orientation. As a literary tendency, classicism is often opposed to Romanticism, although many writers combine classical and romantic elements.

Conceit: A type of metaphor that uses a highly intellectualized comparison; an extended, elaborate, or complex metaphor. The term is frequently applied to the work of the Metaphysical poets, notably John Donne.

Connotation: An additional meaning for a word other than its denotative, formal definition. The word “mercenary,” for example, simply means a soldier who is paid to fight in an army not of his own region, but connotatively a mercenary is an unprincipled scoundrel who kills for money and pleasure, not for honor and patriotism. Connotation is one of the most important devices for achieving irony, and readers may be fooled into believing a poem has one meaning because they have missed connotations that reverse the poem’s apparent theme.

Consonance: Repetition or recurrence of the final consonants of stressed syllables without the correspondence of the preceding vowels. “Chair/star” is an example of consonance, since both words end with r preceded by different vowels. Terminal consonance creates half or slant. Consonance differs from alliteration in that the final consonants are repeated rather than the initial consonants. In the twentieth century, consonance became one of the principal rhyming devices, used to achieve formality without seeming stilted or old-fashioned.

Consonants: All letters except the vowels, a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y; one of the most important soundproducing devices in poetry. There are five basic effects that certain consonants will produce: resonance, harshness, plosiveness, exhaustiveness, and liquidity. Resonance, exhaustiveness, and liquidity tend to give words—and consequently the whole line if several of these consonants are used—a soft effect. Plosiveness and harshness, on the other hand, tend to create tension. Resonance is the property of long duration produced by nasals, such as n and m, and by voiced fricating consonants such as z, v, and the voiced th, as in “them.” Exhaustiveness is created by the voiceless fricating consonants and consonant combinations, such as h, f, and the voiceless th and s. Liquidity results from using the liquids and semivowels l, r, w, and y, as in the word “silken.” Plosiveness occurs when certain consonants create a stoppage of breath before releasing it, especially b, p, t, d, g, k, ch, and j.

Controlling image/controlling metaphor: Just as a poem may include as structural devices form, theme, action, or dramatic situation, it may also use imagery for structure. When an image runs throughout a poem, giving unity to lesser images or ideas, it is called a controlling image. Usually the poet establishes a single idea and then expands and complicates it; in Edward Taylor’s “Huswifery,” for example, the image of the spinning wheel is expanded into images of weaving until the reader begins to see life as a tapestry. Robert Frost’s “The Silken Tent” is a fine example of a controlling image and extended metaphor.

Couplet: Any two succeeding lines that rhyme. Because the couplet has been used in so many different ways and because of its long tradition in English poetry, various names and functions have been given to types of couplets. One of the most common is the decasyllabic (ten-syllable) couplet. When there is an endstop on the second line of a couplet, it is said to be closed; an enjambed couplet is open. An end-stopped decasyllabic couplet is called a heroic couplet, because the form has often been used to sing the praise of heroes. The heroic couplet was widely used by the neoclassical poets of the eighteenth century. Because it is so stately and sometimes pompous, the heroic couplet invites satire, and many poems have been written in “mock-heroic verse,” such as Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock (1712, 1714). Another commonly used couplet is the octasyllabic (eight-syllable) couplet, formed from two lines of iambic tetrameter, as in “L’Allegro” by John Milton: “Come, and trip as we go/ On the light fantastic toe.” The light, singsong tone of the octasyllabic couplet also invited satire, and Samuel Butler wrote one of the most famous of all satires, Hudibras (1663, 1664, 1678), in this couplet. When a couplet is used to break another rhyme scheme, it generally produces a summing-up effect and has an air of profundity. William Shakespeare found this characteristic particularly useful when he needed to give his newly invented Shakespearean sonnet a final note of authority and purpose.

Dactyl: A foot formed of a stress followed by two unstressed syllables (′ ∪ ∪). It is fairly common in isolated words, but when this pattern is included in a line of poetry, it tends to break down and rearrange itself into components of other types of feet. Isolated, the word “me′anin∪gles∪s” is a dactyl, but in the line “Po∪li′te/ me′anin∪g/le∪ss wo′rds,” the last syllable becomes attached to the stressed “words” and creates a split foot, forming a trochee and an iamb. Nevertheless, a few dactylic poems do exist. “A′ fte∪r th∪e/pa′ngs o∪f a∪/de′spe∪at∪ e/lo′ve∪r” is a dactyllic line.

Denotation: The explicit formal definition of a word, exclusive of its implications and emotional associations.

Depressed foot: A foot in which two syllables occur in a pattern in such a way as to be taken as one syllable without actually being an elision. In the line: “To∪ ea′ch/ th∪e bou′l/der∪s (tha′t h∪ave)/fa′lle∪n/to∪ ea′ch,” the base meter consists of five iambic feet, but in the third foot, there is an extra syllable that disrupts the meter but does not break it, so that “that have” functions as the second half of the iambic foot.

Diction: The poet’s “choice of words,” according to John Dryden. In Dryden’s time, and for most of the history of English verse, the diction of poetry was elevated, sharply distinct from everyday speech. Since the early twentieth century, however, the diction of poetry has ranged from the banal and the conversational to the highly formal, and from obscenity and slang to technical vocabulary, sometimes in the same poem. The diction of a poem often reveals its persona’s values and attitudes.

Dieresis: Caesuras that come after the foot. They can be used to create long pauses in the line and are often used to prepare the line for enjambment.

Dramatic dialogue: An exchange between two or more personas in a poem or a play. Unlike a dramatic monologue, both characters speak, and in the best dramatic dialogues, their conversation leads to a final resolution in which both characters and the reader come to the same realization at the same time.

Dramatic monologue: An address to a silent person by a narrator; the words of the narrator are greatly influenced by the persona’s presence. The principal reason for writing in dramatic monologue form is to control the speech of the major persona through the implied reaction of the silent one. The effect is one of continuing change and often surprise. In Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” for example, the duke believes that he is in control of the situation, when in fact he has provided the emissary with terrible insights about the way he treated his former duchess. The emissary, who is the silent persona, has asked questions that the duke has answered; in doing so he has given away secrets. Dramatic monologue is somewhat like hearing one side of a telephone conversation in which the reader learns much about both participants.

Duration: The length of the syllables, which is the measure of quantitative meter. Duration can alter the tone and the relative stress of a line and influence meaning as much as the foot can.

Elegy: Usually a long, rhymed, strophic poem whose subject is meditation on death or a lamentable theme. The pastoral elegy uses the natural setting of a pastoral scene to sing of death or love. Within the pastoral setting the simplicity of the characters and the scene lends a peaceful air despite the grief the narrator feels.

Elision: The joining of two vowels into a single vowel (synaeresis) or omitting of a vowel altogether (syncope), usually to maintain a regular base meter. Synaeresis can be seen in the line “Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit,” in which the “ie” in “disobedience” is pronounced as a “y” (“ye”) so that the word reads dis/o/bed/yence, thereby making a five-syllable word into a four-syllable word. An example of syncope is when “natural” becomes “nat’ral” and “hastening” becomes “hast’ning.” Less frequent uses of elision are to change the sound of a word, to spell words as they are pronounced, and to indicate dialect.

Emphasis: The highlighting of or calling attention to a phrase or line or a poem by altering its meter. A number of techniques, such as caesura, relative stress, counterpointing, and substitution can be used.

End-stop: A punctuated pause at the end of a line in a poem. The function of end-stops is to show the relationship between lines and to emphasize particular words or lines. End-stopping in rhymed poems creates more emphasis on the rhyme words, which already carry a great deal of emphasis by virtue of their rhymes. Enjambment is the opposite of end-stopping.

Enjambment: When a line is not end-stopped—that is, when it carries over to the following line—the line is said to be “enjambed,” as in John Milton’s: “Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints, whose bones/ Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold.” Enjambment is used to change the natural emphasis of the line, to strengthen or weaken the effect of rhyme, or to alter meter.

Envoy: Any short poem or stanza addressed to the reader as a beginning or end to a longer work. Specifically, the envoy is the final stanza of a sestina or a ballade in which all the rhyme words are repeated or echoed.

Epic: A long narrative poem that presents the exploits of a central figure of high position.

Extended metaphor: Metaphors added to one another so that they run in a series. Robert Frost’s poem “The Silken Tent” uses an extended metaphor; it compares the “she” of the poem to the freedom and bondage of a silken tent.

Eye rhyme: Words that appear to be identical because of their spelling but that sound different. “Bough/ enough/cough” and “ballet/pallet” are examples. Because of changes in pronunciation, many older poems appear to use eye rhymes but do not. For example, “wind” (meaning moving air) once rhymed with “find.” Eye rhymes that are intentional and do not result from a change in pronunciation may be used to create a disconcerting effect.

Fabliau: A bawdy medieval verse, such as many found in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400).

Falling rhyme: Rhyme in which the correspondence of sound comes only in the final unstressed syllable, which is preceded by another unstressed syllable. T. S. Eliot rhymes “m∪e-ti′c-u∪-lou∪s” with “r∪i-di′c-u∪-lou∪s” and creates a falling rhyme.

Falling rhythm: A line in which feet move from stressed to unstressed syllables (trochaic or dactyllic). An example can be seen in this line from “The Naming of Parts,” by Henry Reed: “Gli′sten∪s/ li′ke co′r/a∪l in∪/a′llo∪fthe∪ /ne′ighbor∪in∪g/ga′rden∪s.” Because English and other Germanic-based languages naturally rise, imposing a falling rhythm on a rising base meter creates counterpointing.

Feminine rhyme: A rhyme pattern in which a line’s final accented syllable is followed by a single unaccented syllableand the accented syllables rhyme, while the unaccented syllables are phonetically identical, as with “fli′cker∪ /sni′ck-er∪” and “fi′n-ge∪rs/ma∪-li′nger∪s.” Feminine rhymes are often used for lightness in tone and delicacy in movement.

First person: The use of linguistic forms that present a poem from the point of view of the speaker. It is particularly useful in short lyrical poems, which tend to be highly subjective, taking the reader deep into the narrator’s thoughts. First-person poems normally, though not necessarily, signal the use of the first person through the pronoun “I,” allowing the reader direct access to the narrator’s thoughts or providing a character who can convey a personal reaction to an event.

Foot/feet: Rhythmic unit in which syllables are grouped together; this is the natural speech pattern in English and other Germanic-based languages. In English, the most common of these rhythmic units is composed of one unstressed syllable attached to one stressed syllable (an iamb). When these family groups are forced into a line of poetry, they are called feet in the accentual-syllabic metrical system. In the line “M∪y mi′s/tre∪ss’ eye′s/ar∪e no′ th/in∪g lik∪e/th e su′n” there are four iambic feet (∪ ′ ) and one pyrrhic foot (∪ ∪), but in the line “The′re whe′re/th∪e vin∪es/cli′ng cri′m/so∪n o∪n/th∪e wa′ll,” there are three substitutions for the iamb—in the first, third, and fourth feet. The six basic feet in English poetry are the iamb (∪ ′ ), trochee (′ ∪), anapest (∪ ∪ ′ ), dactyl (′ ∪ ∪), spondee (′ ′), and pyrrhus (∪ ∪).

Form: The arrangement of the lines of a poem on the page, its base meter, its rhyme scheme, and occasionally its subject matter. Poems that are arranged into stanzas are called strophic, and because the strophic tradition is so old, a large number of commonly used stanzas have evolved particular uses and characteristics. Poems that run from beginning to end without a break are called stichic. The form of pattern poetry is determined by its visual appearance rather than by lines and stanzas, while the definition of free verse is that it has no discernible form. Some poem types, such as the sestina, sonnet, and ode, are written in particular forms and frequently are restricted to particular subject matter.

Found poetry: Poems created from language that is “found” in print in nonliterary settings. They can use any language that is already constructed, but usually use language that appears on cultural artifacts, such as cereal boxes. The rules for writing a found poem vary, but generally the found language is used intact or altered only slightly.

Free verse: A poem that does not conform to any traditional convention, such as meter, rhyme, or form, and that does not establish any pattern within itself. There is, however, great dispute over whether “free” verse actually exists. T. S. Eliot said that by definition poetry must establish some kind of pattern, and Robert Frost said that “writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.” However, some would agree with Carl Sandburg, who insisted that “you can play a better game with the net down.” Free verse depends more on cadence than on meter.

Ghazal: A poetic form based on a type of Persian poetry. It is composed of couplets, often unrhymed that function as individual images or observations but that also interrelate in sometimes subtle ways.

Gnomic verse: Poetry that typically includes many proverbs or maxims.

Haiku: A Japanese form that appeared in the sixteenth century and is still practiced in Japan. A haiku consists of three lines of five, seven, and five syllables each; in Japanese there are other conventions regarding content that are not observed in Western haiku. The traditional haiku took virtually all of its images from nature, using the natural world as a metaphor for the spiritual.

Hyperbole: A deliberate overstatement made in order to heighten the reader’s awareness. As with irony, hyperbole works because the reader can perceive the difference between the importance of the dramatic situation and the manner in which it is described.

Iamb: A foot consisting of one unstressed and one stressed syllable (∪ ′ ). The line “S∪o lon′g/a∪s me′n/ca∪n bre′ athe/o∪r eye′s/ca∪n se′e” is composed of five iambs. In the line “A∪cold′ /co′min∪g/w∪e ha′ d/o∪f i′t,” a trochaic foot (a trochee) has been substituted for the expected iamb in the second foot, thus emphasizing that this is a “coming” rather than a “going,” an important distinction in T. S. Eliot’s “The Journey of the Magi.”

Iambic pentameter: A very common poetic line consisting of five iambic feet. The following two lines by Thomas Wyatt are in iambic pentameter: “I find no peace and all my war is done,/ I fear and hope, I burn and freeze like ice.”

Identical rhyme: A rhyme in which the entire final stressed syllables contain exactly the same sounds, such as “break/brake,” or “bear” (noun), “bear” (verb), “bare” (adjective), “bare” (verb).

Imagery: The verbal simulation of sensory perception. Like so many critical terms, imagery betrays a visual bias: It suggests that a poetic image is necessarily visual, a picture in words. In fact, however, imagery calls on all five senses, although the visual is predominant in many poets. In its simplest form, an image recreates a physical sensation in a clear, literal manner, as in Robert Lowell’s lines, “A sweetish smell of shavings, wax and oil/ blows through the redone bedroom newly aged” (“Marriage”). Imagery becomes more complex when the poet employs metaphor and other figures of speech to re-create experience, as in Seamus Heaney’s lines, “Right along the lough shore/ A smoke of flies/ Drifts thick in the sunset” (“At Ardboe Point”), substituting a fresh metaphor (“A smoke of flies”) for a trite one (a cloud of flies) to help the reader visualize the scene more clearly.

Interior monologue: A first-person representation of a persona’s or character’s thoughts or feelings. It differs from a dramatic monologue in that it deals with thoughts rather than spoken words or conversation.

Irony: A figure of speech in which the speaker’s real meaning is different from (and often exactly opposite to) the apparent meaning. Irony is among the three or four most important concepts in modern literary criticism. Although the term originated in classical Greece and has been in the vocabulary of criticism since that time, only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did it assume central importance. In Andrew Marvell’s lines, “The Grave’s a fine and private place,/ But none I think do there embrace” (“To His Coy Mistress”), the speaker’s literal meaning—in praise of the grave—is quite different from his real meaning. This kind of irony is often called verbal irony. Another kind of irony is found in narrative and dramatic poetry. In the Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611), for example, the reader is made privy to the counsels of the gods, which greatly affect the course of action in the epic, while the human characters are kept in ignorance. This discrepancy between the knowledge of the reader and that of the character (or characters) is called dramatic irony. Beyond these narrow, well-defined varieties of irony are many wider applications.

Limerick: A comic five-line poem rhyming aabba in which the third and fourth lines are shorter (usually five syllables each) than the first, second, and last lines, which are usually eight syllables each. The limerick’s anapestic base makes the verse sound silly; modern limericks are almost invariably associated with bizarre indecency or with ethnic or anticlerical jokes.

Line: A poetical unit characterized by the presence of meter; lines are categorized according to the number of feet they contain. A pentameter line, for example, contains five feet. This definition does not apply to a great deal of modern poetry, however, which is written in free verse. Ultimately, then, a line must be defined as a typographical unit on the page that performs various functions in different kinds of poetry.

Lyric poetry: Short poems, adaptable to metrical variation, and usually personal rather than having a cultural function. Lyric poetry developed when music was accompanied by words, and although the lyrics were later separated from the music, the characteristics of lyric poetry have been shaped by the constraints of music. Lyric poetry sings of the self, exploring deeply personal feelings about life.

Mad-song: Verse uttered by someone presumed to have a severe mental illness that manifests in a happy, harmless, inventive way. The typical rhyme scheme of the mad-song is abccb, and the unrhymed first line helps to set a tone of oddity and unpredictability, since it controverts the expectation that there will be a rhyme for it. The standard mad-song has short lines.

Masculine rhyme: A rhyme pattern in which rhyme exists in the stressed syllables. “Men/then” constitute masculine rhyme, but so do “a∪f-te∪r-no′ons/spoo′ns.” Masculine rhyme is generally considered more forceful than feminine rhyme, and while it has a variety of uses, it generally gives authority and assurance to the line, especially when the final syllables are of short duration.

Metaphor: A figure of speech in which two strikingly different things are identified with each other, as in “the waves were soldiers moving” (Wallace Stevens). Metaphor is one of a handful of key concepts in modern literary criticism. A metaphor contains a “tenor” and a “vehicle.” The tenor is the subject of the metaphor, and the vehicle is the imagery by which the subject is presented. In D. H. Lawrence’s lines, “Reach me a gentian, give me a torch/ let me guide myself with the blue, forked torch of this flower” (“Bavarian Gentians”), the tenor is the gentian and the vehicle is the torch. This relatively restricted definition of metaphor by no means covers the usage of the word in modern criticism. Some critics argue that metaphorical perception underlies all figures of speech. Others dispute the distinction between literal and metaphorical description, saying that language is essentially metaphorical. Metaphor has become widely used to identify analogies of all kinds in literature, painting, film, and even music.

Meter: The pattern that language takes when it is forced into a line of poetry. All language has rhythm; when that rhythm is organized and regulated in the line so as to affect the meaning and emotional response to the words, then the rhythm has been refined into meter. Because the lines of most poems maintain a similar meter throughout, poems are said to have a base meter. The meter is determined by the number of syllables in a line and by the relationship between them.

Metonymy: Using an object that is closely related to an idea stand for the idea itself, such as saying “the crown” to mean the king. Used to emphasize a particular part of the whole or one particular aspect of it.

Mnemonic verse: Poetry in which rhythmic patterns aid memorization but are not crucial to meaning. Ancient bards were able to remember long poems partly through the use of stock phrases and other mnemonic devices.

Modernism: An international movement in the arts that began in the early years of the twentieth century. Although the term is used to describe artists of widely varying persuasions, modernism in general was characterized by its international idiom, by its interest in cultures distant in space or time, by its emphasis on formal experimentation, and by its sense of dislocation and radical change.

Narrator: The person who is doing the talking—or observing or thinking—in a poem. Roughly synonymous with persona and speaker. Lyric poetry most often consists of the poet expressing his or her own personal feelings directly. Other poems, however, may involve the poet adopting the point of view of another person entirely. In some poems—notably in a dramatic monologue—it is relatively easy to determine that the narrative is being related by a fictional (or perhaps historical) character, but in others it may be more difficult to identify the “I.”

Occasional verse: Any poem written for a specific occasion, such as a wedding, a birthday, a death, or a public event. Edmund Spenser’s Epithalamion (1595), which was written for his marriage, and John Milton’s “Lycidas,” which commemorated the death of his schoolmate Edward King, are examples of occasional verse, as are W. H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939” and Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died.”

Octave: A poem in eight lines. Octaves may have many different variations of meter, such as ottava rima.

Ode: A lyric poem that treats a unified subject with elevated emotion, usually ending with a satisfactory resolution. There is no set form for the ode, but it must be long enough to build intense emotional response. Often the ode will address itself to some omnipotent source and will take on a spiritual hue. When explicating an ode, readers should look for the relationship between the narrator and some transcendental power to which the narrator must submit to find contentment. Modern poets have used the ode to treat subjects that are not religious in the theological sense but that have become innate beliefs of society.

Ottava rima: An eight-line stanza of iambic pentameter, rhyming abababcc. Probably the most famous English poem written in ottava rima is Lord Byron’s Don Juan (1819-1824), and because the poem was so successful as a spoof, the form has come to be associated with poetic high jinks. However, the stanza has also been used brilliantly for just the opposite effect, to reflect seriousness and meditation.

Oxymoron: The juxtaposition of two paradoxical words, such as “wise fool” or “devilish angel.”

Pantoum: A French form of poetry consisting of four quatrains in which entire lines are repeated in a strict pattern of 1234, 2546, 5768, 7183. Peter Meinke’s “Atomic Pantoum” is an example.

Paradox: A statement that contains an inherent contradiction. It may be a statement that at first seems true but is in reality contradictory. It may also be a statement that appears contradictory but is actually true or that contains an element of truth that reconciles the contradiction.

Pentameter: A type of rhythmic pattern in which each line consists of five poetic feet.

Periphrasis: The use of a wordy phrase to describe something that could be described simply in one word.

Prose poem: A poem that looks like prose on the page, with no line breaks. There are no formal characteristics by which a prose poem can be distinguished from a piece of prose. Many prose poems employ rhythmic repetition and other poetic devices not normally found in prose, but others use such devices sparingly if at all. Prose poems range in length from a few lines to three or four pages; most prose poems occupy a page or less.

Pun: The use of words that have similar pronunciations but entirely different meanings to establish a connection between two meanings or contexts that the reader would not ordinarily make. The result may be a surprise recognition of an unusual or striking connection, or, more often, a humorously accidental connection.

Pyrrhus: A poetic foot consisting of two unstressed syllables, as in the line “A∪ppe′ar/an∪d di s/a∪ppe′ar/in∪ th∪e/ blu′e dep′th/o∪f th∪e sk′y,” in which foot four is a pyrrhus.

Quatrain: Any four-line stanza. Aside from the couplet, it is the most common stanza type. The quatrain’s popularity among both sophisticated and unsophisticated readers suggests that there is something inherently pleasing about the form. For many readers, poetry and quatrains are almost synonymous. Balance and antithesis, contrast and comparison not possible in other stanza types are indigenous to the quatrain.

Regular meter: A line of poetry that contains only one type of foot. Only the dullest of poems maintain a regular meter throughout, however; skillful poets create interest and emphasis through substitution.

Relative stress: The degree to which a syllable in pattern receives more or less emphasis than other syllables in the pattern. Once the dominant stress in the line has been determined, every other syllable can be assigned a stress factor relative to the dominant syllable. The stress factor is created by several aspects of prosody: the position of the syllable in the line, the position of the syllable in its word, the surrounding syllables, the type of vowels and consonants that constitute the syllable, and the syllable’s relation to the foot, base meter, and caesura. Because every syllable will have a different stress factor, there could be as many values as there are syllables, although most prosodists scan poems using primary, secondary, and unstressed notations. In the line “I a∪m the∪re like∪ th∪e dea′d, or∪ the∪ bea′st,” the anapestic base meter will not permit “I” to take a full stress, but it is a more forceful syllable than the unstressed ones, so it is assigned a secondary stress. Relative to “dead” and “beast,” it takes less pressure; relative to the articles in the line, it takes much more.

Resolution: Any natural conclusion to a poem, especially to a short lyric poem that establishes some sort of dilemma or conflict that the narrator must solve. Specifically, the resolution is the octave stanza of a Petrarchan sonnet or the couplet of a Shakespearean sonnet in which the first part of the poem preents a situation that must find balance in the resolution.

Rhyme: A correspondence of sound between syllables within a line or between lines whose proximity to each other allows the sounds to be sustained. Rhyme may be classified in a number of ways: according to the sound relationship between rhyming words, the position of the rhyming words in the line, and the number and position of the syllables in the rhyming words. Sound classifications include full rhyme and approximate rhyme. Full rhyme is defined as words that have the same vowel sound, followed by the same consonants in their last stressed syllables, and in which all succeeding syllables are phonetically identical. “Hat/ cat” and “laughter/after” are full rhymes. Categories of approximate rhyme are assonance, slant rhyme, alliteration, eye rhyme, and identical rhyme. Rhyme classified by its position in the line includes end, internal, and initial rhyme. End rhyme occurs when the last words of lines rhyme. Internal rhyme occurs when two words within the same line or within various lines recall the same sound, as in “Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation” in which “below” and “snow” rhyme. Initial rhyme occurs when the first syllables of two or more lines rhyme.

Rhyme scheme: A pattern of rhyme in a poem, designated by lowercase (and often italicized) letters. The letters stand for the pattern of rhyming sounds of the last word in each line. For example, the following A. E. Housman quatrain has an abab rhyme scheme. Into my heart an air that kills From yon far country blows: What are those blue remembered hills, What spires, what farms are those? As another example, the rhyme scheme of the poetic form known as ottava rima is abababcc. Traditional stanza forms are categorized by their rhyme scheme and base meter.

Rime royal: A seven-line stanza in English prosody consisting of iambic pentameter lines rhyming ababbccc. William Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece (1594) is written in this form. The only variation permitted is to make the last line hexameter.

Romanticism: A widespread cultural movement in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the influence of which is still felt. As a general literary tendency, Romanticism is frequently contrasted with classicism or neoclassicism. Although there were many varieties of Romanticism indigenous to various national literatures, the term generally suggests an assertion of the preeminence of the imagination. Other values associated with various schools of Romanticism include primitivism, an interest in folklore, a reverence for nature, and a fascination with the demoniac and the macabre.

Rondeau: One of three standard French forms assimilated by English prosody; generally contains thirteen lines divided into three groups. A common stanzaic grouping rhymes aabba, aabR, aabbaR, where the a and b lines are tetrameter and the R (refrain) lines are dimeter. The rondel, another French form, contains fourteen lines of trimeter with alternating rhyme (abababa bababab) and is divided into two stanzas. The rondeau and rondel forms are always light and playful.

Rubaiyat stanza: An iambic pentameter quatrain that has a rhyme scheme of aaba.

Scansion: The assigning of relative stresses and meter to a line of poetry, usually for the purpose of determining where variations, and thus emphasis, in the base meter occur. Scansion can help explain how a poem generates tension and offer clues as to the key words. E. E. Cummings’s “singing each morning out of each night” could be scanned in two ways: (1) sin′ gin∪ g/ea∪ ch mor′ n/in∪ g o′ ut/o∪ f ea∪ ch ni′ ght or (2) sin′ g/in∪ g eac′ h/ mo′ rnin∪ g/o′ ut o∪ f/ea′ ch ni′ ght. Scansion will not only affect the way the line is read aloud but also influences the meaning of the line.

Seguidilla: An imagistic or mood poem in Spanish, which, like a haiku, creates emotional recognition or spiritual insight in the reader. Although there is no agreement as to what form the English seguidilla should take, most of the successful ones are either four or seven lines with an alternating rhyme scheme of ababcbc. Lines 1, 3, and 6 are trimeter; lines 2, 4, 5, and 7 dimeter.

Sestet: A six-line stanza. A Petrarchan or Italian sonnet is composed of an octave followed by a sestet.

Sestina: Six six-line stanzas followed by a threeline envoy. The words ending the lines in the first stanza are repeated in different order at the ends of lines in the following stanzas as well as in the middle and end of each line of the envoy. Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina” is a good example.

Simile: A type of metaphor that signals a comparison by the use of the words “like” or “as.” William Shakespeare’s line “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” is a simile that establishes a comparison between the woman’s eyes and the sun.

Sonnet: A poem consisting of fourteen lines of iambic pentameter with some form of alternating rhyme and a turning point that divides the poem into two parts. The sonnet is the most important and widely used of traditional poem types. The two major sonnet types are the Petrarchan (or Italian) sonnet and the Shakespearean sonnet. The original sonnet form, the Petrarchan (adopted from the poetry of Petrarch), presents a problem or situation in the first eight lines, the octave, then resolves it in the last six, the sestet. The octave is composed of two quatrains (abbaabba), the second of which complicates the first and gradually defines and heightens the problem. The sestet then diminishes the problem slowly until a satisfying resolution is achieved. During the fifteenth century, the Italian sonnet became an integral part of the courtship ritual, and most sonnets during that time consisted of a young man’s description of his perfect lover. Because so many unpoetic young men had generated a nation full of bad sonnets by the end of the century, the form became an object of ridicule, and the English sonnet developed as a reaction against all the bad verse being turned out in the Italian tradition. When Shakespeare wrote “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,” he was deliberately negating the Petrarchan conceit, rejoicing in the fact that his loved one was much more interesting and unpredictable than nature. Shakespeare also altered the sonnet’s formal balance. Instead of an octave, the Shakespearean sonnet has three quatrains of alternating rhyme and is resolved in a final couplet. During the sixteenth century, long stories were told in sonnet form, one sonnet after the next, to produce sonnet sequences. Although most sonnets contain fourteen lines, some contain as few as ten (the curtal sonnet) or as many as seventeen.

Narrator Split foot: The alteration of the natural division of a word as a result of being forced into a metrical base. For example, the words “poi′ nt/e∪ d,” “la′ d/de∪ r,” and “sti′ ck/ in ∪ g” have a natural falling rhythm, but in the line “M∪ y lo′ ng/tw′ o-po′ int/e∪ d la′ d/de∪ r’s sti′ ck/in∪ g th′ rough/a∪ tr′ ee” the syllables are rearranged so as to turn the falling rhythm into a rising meter. The result of splitting feet is to create an uncertainty and delicate imbalance in the line.

Spondee: When two relatively stressed syllables occur together in a foot, the unit is called a spondee or spondaic foot, as in the line “A∪ ppe′ ar/an∪ d di′ s/a∪ ppea′ r/in∪ th ∪ e/blu′ e de′ pth/o∪ f th∪ e sk′ y.”

Sprung rhythm: An unpredictable pattern of stresses in a line, first described near the end of the nineteenth century by Gerard Manley Hopkins, that results from taking accentual meter is to its extreme. According to Hopkins, in sprung rhythm “any two stresses may either follow one another running, or be divided by one, two, or three slack syllables.”

Stanza: A certain number of lines meant to be taken as a unit, or that unit. Although a stanza is traditionally considered a unit that contains rhyme and recurs predictably throughout a poem, the term is also sometimes applied to nonrhyming and even irregular units. Poems that are divided into fairly regular and patterned stanzas are called strophic; poems that appear as a single unit, whether rhymed or unrhymed, or that have no predictable stanzas, are called stichic. Both strophic and stichic units represent logical divisions within the poem, and the difference between them lies in the formality and strength of the interwoven unit. Stanza breaks are commonly indicated by a line of space.

Substitution: The replacement of one type of foot by another within a base meter. One of the most common and effective methods by which the poet can emphasize a foot. For example, in the line “Th∪ y li′ fe/a∪ lon′ g/de′ ad ca′ lm/o∪ f fix′ ed/re∪ po′ se,” a spondaic foot (′ ′) has been substituted for an iambic foot (∪ ′ ). Before substitution is possible, the reader’s expectations must have been established by a base meter so that a change in those expectations will have an effect.

Syllabic meter: The system of meter that measures only the number of syllables per line, without regard to stressed and unstressed syllables.

Symbol: Any sign that a number of people agree stands for something else. Poetic symbols cannot be rigidly defined; a symbol often evokes a cluster of meanings rather than a single specific meaning. For example, the rose, which suggests fragile beauty, gentle ness, softness, and sweet aroma, has come to symbolize love, eternal beauty, or virginity. The tide traditionally symbolizes, among other things, time and eternity. Modern poets may use personal symbols; these take on significance in the context of the poem or of a poet’s body of work, particularly if they are reinforced throughout. For example, through constant reinforcement, swans in William Butler Yeats’s poetry come to mean as much to the reader as they do to the narrator.

Synecdoche: The use of a part of an object to stand for the entire object, such as using “heart” to mean a person. Used to emphasize a particular part of the whole or one particular aspect of it.

Tercet: Any form of a rhyming triplet. Examples are aaa bbb, as used in Thomas Hardy’s “Convergence of the Twain”; aba cdc, in which b and d do not rhyme; aba bcb, also known as terza rima.

Terza rima: A three-line stanzaic form in which the middle line of one stanza rhymes with the first line of the following stanza, and whose rhyme scheme is aba bcb cdc, and so on. Since the rhyme scheme of one stanza can be completed only by adding the next stanza, terza rima tends to propel itself forward, and as a result of this strong forward motion it is well suited to long narration. .

Theme: Recurring elements in a poem that give it meaning; sometimes used interchangeably with motif. A motif is any recurring pattern of images, symbols, ideas, or language, and is usually restricted to the internal workings of the poem. Thus, one might say that there is an animal motif in William Butler Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium.” Theme, however, is usually more general and philosophical, so that the theme of “Sailing to Byzantium” might be interpreted as the failure of human attempts to isolate oneself within the world of art.

Third person: The use of linguistic forms that present a poem from the point of view of a narrator, or speaker, who has not been part of the events described and is not probing his or her own relationship to them; rather, the speaker is describing what happened without the use of the word “I” (which would indicate firstperson narration). A poet may use a third-person point of view, either limited or omniscient, to establish a distance between the reader and the subject, to give credibility to a large expanse of narration, or to allow the poem to include a number of characters who can be commented on by the narrator.

Tone: The expression of a poet’s attitude toward the subject and persona of the poem as well as about himself or herself, society, and the poem’s readers. If the ultimate aim of art is to express and control emotions and attitudes, then tone is one of the most important elements of poetry. Tone is created through the denotative and connotative meanings of words and through the sound of language (principally rhyme, consonants, and diction). Adjectives such as “satirical,” “compassionate,” “empathetic,” “ironic,” and “sarcastic” are used to describe tone.

Trochee: A foot with one stressed syllable and one unstressed syllable (′ ∪), as in the line: “Do′ uble∪ /do′ uble∪ to′ il an∪ d/tro′ uble∪ .” Trochaic lines are frequently substituted in an iambic base meter in order to create counterpointing.

Truncation: The omission of the last, unstressed syllable of a falling line, as in the line: “Ty′ ger∪ ,/ty′ ger∪ / bu′ rnin∪ g/bri′ ght,” where the “ly” has been dropped from bright.

Verse: A generic term for poetry, as in The Oxford Book of English Verse (1939); poetry that is humorous or superficial, as in light verse or greeting-card verse; and a stanza or line.

Verse drama: Drama that is written in poetic rather than ordinary language and characterized and delivered by the line. Verse drama flourished during the eighteenth century, when the couplet became a standard literary form.

Verse paragraph: A division created within a stichic poem by logic or syntax, rather than by form. Such divisions are important for determining the movement of a poem and the logical association between ideas.

Villanelle: A French verse form that has been assimilated by English prosody, usually composed of nineteen lines divided into five tercets and a quatrain, rhyming aba, bba, aba, aba, abaa. The third line is repeated in the ninth and fifteenth lines. Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” is a modern English example of a villanelle.



Categories: Literary Terms and Techniques, Literary Theory, Literature, Poetry

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