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literary terms

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. This 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)

Figurative Language

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

hyperbole—willful exaggeration

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

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

imagination—see fancy

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

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

poetic diction—the distinctive language used by a poet which is not current in the discourse of an age

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

sublime—the effect of terror and pleasure produced by contemplation of the vast, obscure and powerful


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Last Update: 03/28/2011