Literary and Cultural Terms
The following list contains basic terms with which you should already be familiar, and more specialized terms that we will use throughout this term. These definitions are adapted from earlier editions of the Longman Anthology of British Literature.
Rhythm and Meter
foot—the unit repeated that gives a steady rhythm to poetry; generally an accented syllable with accompanying light syllable or syllables
iamb (iambic foot)—unstressed followed by stressed: unite, repeat, insist
trochee (trochaic foot)—stressed followed by unstressed: unit, reaper, instant
anapest (anapestic foot)—two unstressed followed by stressed: intercede, disarranged
dactyl (dactylic foot)—stressed followed by two unstressed: Washington, applejack
spondee (spondaic foot)—two stressed: heartbreak, headline
trimeter—a verse line of three feet
tetrameter— a verse line of four feet
pentameter— a verse line of five feet
hexameter— a verse line of six feet
caesura—strong pause (usually grammatically marked) in a verse line
end-stopped lines—verse lines that end with a strong mark of punctuation
enjambment—lines where the sense flows over the ends into the next
Sense and Sound
alliteration—beginning with same consonant or consonant sound
assonance—repetition of same or similar vowel sounds
consonance—repetition of pattern of consonant sounds with varied vowels: languor/linger, reader/raider
Rhyme and Stanza
ballad stanza—alternate tetrameter and trimeter lines usually rhyming abcb (or abab)
blank verse—unrhymed iambic pentameter
canto—a major division in a long poem
closed couplet—couplet expressing a complete thought (ending with semicolon or period)
couplet—rhymed successive lines
feminine rhyme—two syllable rhyme with second syllable unstressed
heroic couplets—poetry written in a series of closed couplets
masculine rhyme—last syllable rhyme
quatrain—any four line stanza
sonnet—a poem consisting of fourteen lines of iambic pentameter; Petrarchan or Italian sonnets emphasize octave (8 lines) and sestet (6 lines) divisions while the Shakespearian form divides into three quatrains (4 line stanzas) and a closing couplet.
Spenserian stanza—a nine-line stanza form rhyming ababbcbcc devised by Spenser for The Faerie Queene and used by Byron in Childe Harold
stanza—a recurring unit of a poem
verse paragraphs—divisions in long blank verse or irregularly rhymed verse, usually marked like prose paragraphs (indented first lines)
allegory—a narrative where concepts are represented as persons who act out a plot; also when a progression of events or images suggests a translation or them into a conceptual language
allusion—a meaningful reference, such as when Yeats writes “Another Troy must rise and set,” calling to mind the tragic history of Troy
analogy—comparison between things similar in a number of ways; often used to explain the familiar by reference to the familiar
anthropomorphism—giving human attributes to animals, plants, rivers, winds, and so on, or to such entities as Grecian urns and abstract ideas
antithesis—the placement of opposing ideas in parallel grammar
apostrophe—an address to an absent or imaginary person, a thing, or a personified abstraction
archaism—deliberate use of an archaic or
old-fashioned word; for example, o’er, ere, childe
classical allusion—reference to classical literature or mythology
epic simile—an extended simile in which the thing compared is described as an object in its own right
image—a concrete picture, either literally descriptive such as “Red roses covered the white wall,” or metaphoric as in “She is a rose,” each carrying sensual and emotive connotation
metaphor—comparison that likens one thing to another without a word of likening
oxymoron—the combination of seemingly incompatible ideas, such as “darkness visible,” or “fearful joy”
paradox—a statement that on the surface seems improbable but which turns out to be rational, usually in some unexpected sense
persona—a mask; the speaker or narrator of a work when not designated as a character in the work is assumed to be a persona of the author
personification—the technique of treating abstractions, things or animals as persons
simile—comparison marked with specific word of likening, such as “like” or “as”
symbol—something standing for its natural qualities in another context, with human meaning added—the eagle, standing for the soaring dominance of Rome; symbols, though, do not always point to a public and agreed upon referent and thus are broader and more interpretable than allegories
Literary and Cultural Terms
ballad—a narrative poem in short stanzas
burlesque, mock heroic—forms of satire; the burlesque ridicules its subject by cutting it down; the mock heroic does so by inflating it
character—an imaginary person that inhabits a literary work.
characterization—the means by which writers present and reveal character. While there are many techniques of characterization, the most common are through attention to a character's speech, dress, manner, and actions, as well as through direct statement by the narrator or some other character.
closet drama—a play written for reading in the “closet,” or private study and not for performance
decorum—in literary criticism, refers to the principle that there should be fitness between characters, actions and language
didactic—Greek for “teaching”; often applied to literature intended for instruction or containing a strong moralistic element
elegy—an elegy is a formal, usually long, poetic lament for someone who has died
emphasis—stress placed on words, phrases, ideas to show their importance; in literature emphasis is often shown through increased use of figurative language or poetic devices
Enlightenment—philosophical movement of the 17th and 18th centuries which held that reason could achieve all knowledge, supplant organized religion and ensure progress toward happiness and perfection
eulogy—eulogy is a work of praise for either a very distinguished or recently dead person
fancy, imagination—after Coleridge distinct terms; fancy is the power of combining several known properties into new combinations; imagination is the faculty of using such properties to create something entirely new
frame narrative—a narrative enclosing one or more separate narratives
genre—genre is an established literary form or type, such as the epic, the sonnet, the Pindaric Ode, a stage comedy, and so on;
Gothic, Classic, Neoclassic—Gothic originally referred to German works, later adapted to refer to any work considered primitive or irregular; Classic implies lucid, rational, orderly works, such as are usually attributed to Greek and Roman writers of the classic era; Neoclassic implies an ideal of life, art, and thought deliberately modeled on Greek and Roman examples
irony, sarcasm—ways of saying one thing but meaning another; irony implies an attitude on the part of the speaker quite different from the thoughts being expressed; sarcasm is a more broad and taunting form using apparent praise to denigrate
lyric—a short poem emphasizing sound and pictorial imagery rather than narrative or dramatic movement
narrator—the voice and implied speaker of a fictional work, to be distinguished from the actual living author.
ode—a long lyric poem serious in subject and treatment, written in an elevated style and using (often) an elaborate stanza.
pathos, bathos—pathos refers to scenes or passages designed to evoke the feelings of pity or sympathetic sorrow from an audience; bathos is the unintentional descent from high to low which occurs when an author attempts to be lofty and ends up ridiculous
plot—the arrangement of events in telling a story to achieve an intended effect; while a story is simply a chronological retelling of events, a plot can alter, re-sequence, and select the events so as to achieve specific effects.
poetic diction—the distinctive language used by a poet which is not current in the discourse of an age
point of view—the perspective from which a story is narrated; generally, a work is usually narrated from either a first-person (the narrator refers to him/herself as "I") or third-person with either perspective capable of being all-knowing (omniscient) or limited with varying degrees of reliability.
romance, novel—romances were verse narratives of adventure, usually involving quests, and both natural and supernatural trials; the novel often attempts to be a more realistic representation of common life and social relationships
satire—literary forms which diminish or derogate a subject by making it ridiculous and by evoking toward it amusement, scorn, or indignation
sensibility—sensitive feeling, emotion; used to denote the tender undercurrent of feeling during the Neoclassical period
setting—the time and place of a literary work that establish its context.
sublime—the effect of terror and pleasure produced by contemplation of the vast, obscure and powerful
theme—a key or central idea conveyed by a literary work; the overall meaning of a literary work.