The Literary Encyclopedia Glossary of Literary Terms.
Part One: A-L.

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This glossary provides a quick check-list of common poetic terms. The same or more extended entries can be found in the Topics table of The Literary Encyclopedia. Other terms not included in this list may also be found in our Topics database.

ACCENT

There is a normal pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables associated with each word in a language. The metre of a poem reinforces this or varies it in establishing its own pattern of stress. If metrical stress works against the normal accent it is called wrenched or forced accent, a feature common to ballads. For typical patterns of accent, see METRE.

AESTHETICISM

A literary movement in the nineteenth century of those who believed in “art for art’s sake” in opposition to the utilitarian doctrine that everything must be morally or practically useful. Key figures of the aesthetic movement were Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde.

ALEXANDRINE

A line of iambic hexameter (i.e. twelve syllables divided into six feet of iambic stress pattern). The Alexandrine being a long line, it is often divided in the middle by a pause or caesura into two symmetrical halves called hemistiches. Pope’s Essay on Criticism offers this exemplary comment on the Alexandrine: “A needless Alexandrine ends the song / That, like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along.”

ALLEGORY

A pattern of reference in the work which evokes a parallel action of abstract ideas. Usually allegory uses recognisable types, symbols and narrative patterns to indicate that the meaning of the text is to be found not in the represented world but in a body of traditional thought, or in an extra-literary context.

ALLITERATION

Also called “initial rhyme”, alliteration is a rhyme-pattern produced inside the poetic line by repeating sounds at the beginning of words. For example, “With old woes new wail my dear time’s waste” Shakespeare, Sonnet 30.

ALLUSION

A brief or implicit reference to something outside the text.

AMPHIBRACH

A metrical foot of three syllables: one weak, one strong, and one weak.

ANACRUSIS

The insertion of one or more unstressed syllables at the beginning of a line where the poetical metre would normally demand a stressed syllable.

ANALOGY

The invocation of a similar but different instance to that which is being represented, in order to bring out its salient features through the comparison.

ANAPEST

A metrical foot of two weak stresses followed by a strong stress. Anapests tend to be used in Rising Rhythm.

APOSTROPHE

Via Latin from the Greek apostrephein, meaning to turn away, a digression. Used to describe a moment when a speaker turns away from the main line of discourse, usually in order to address a real or imagined person and usually with an intense emotion that can no longer be held back.

ARCADIA

A mountainous region of Greece which was represented as the blissful home of happy shepherds. Arcadia is associated with simplicity and is usually seen as a retreat from the complexities of sophisticated life in the court or the city.

ARGUMENT

The poem’s plot or sequence of ideas that forms its conceptual structure.

ASSONANCE

The rhyme-pattern produced inside the poetic line by repeating similar vowels, or clusters of consonants and vowels.

BALLAD

A narrative poem which was originally sung and so often includes a refrain. Ballads tend to tell simple stories in simple language. See Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” for literary imitations of the ballad form.

BALLAD STANZA

A quatrain that alternates tetrameter with trimeter lines, and usually rhymes a b c.

BATHOS

Bathos comes from the Greek for deep (as in bathyscape, bathymetric) and in the arts refers to an abrupt descent from the exalted to the banal, either in style or content.

BEAST EPIC

A genre beginning with Aesop’s fables (6th century BC) and common in the middle ages. It comprises a sequence of tales (beast fables) about animals with human characteristics which were intended to be read allegorically.

BLANK VERSE

Verse in iambic pentameter without rhyme scheme, often used in verse drama in the sixteenth century (Marlowe and Shakespeare) and later used for poetry (Milton, Wordsworth’s The Prelude, Browning).

BURLESQUE

An imitation of a literary style, or of human action, that aims to ridicule by incongruity of style and subject. High burlesque involves a high style for a low subject (Pope’s The Rape of the Lock; low burlesque involves a low style with a high subject, as in much political satire.

CAESURA

A pause within a line of verse dictated by speech rhythm rather than meter.

CARPE DIEM

A poem advising someone to “Seize the day”. Usually the genre is addressed by a man to a young woman who is urged to stop procrastinating in sexual or emotional matters.

CATACHRESIS

A misuse of words, i.e. to use a word violating its normal or proper sense. This can be an error, as when students confuse ‘Hippocratic’ and ‘hypocritical’, but in literary language it can be intentional and to powerful effect.

CATALEXIS

A catalectic line omits the final unaccented syllable or syllables of the meter.

CATHARSIS<

Aristotle's theory of tragic drama was that it assisted order in the social body by enabling the purging (catharsis) of unhealthy emotions, especially by evoking the emotions of pity and fear.

CHIASMUS

A rhetorical figure with two syntactically parallel constructions, one of which has the word order reversed. For example Alexander Pope’s “They fall successive, and successive rise.”

CLOSED COUPLET

An end-stopped, rhymed couplet that contains a complete thought. Such couplets were usual ways of closing and resuming Renaissance sonnets, although they are found elsewhere as well.

COMPLAINT

A poetic genre in which the poet complains, often about his beloved. Chaucer's Complaint to his Purse and Edward Young's book-length The Complaint, or Night Thoughts are other examples.

CONCEIT

Literally meaning a ‘concept’, a ingenious comparison between things seemingly unlike. Shakespeare’s sonnet which begins “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” makes fun of standard Renaissance conceits which were to an extent modelled on those of Petrarch, the fourteenth-century Italian poet. “Metaphysical conceits,” used in the early seventeenth century by Donne and others, established connections between many aspects of the new sciences, the world of commerce, and human existence.

CONNOTATION

The linguistic term used for the associations which may be usually evoked by the word, or which may be evoked by a specific context, as opposed to the literal sense of a word or its strict dictionary definition which is called its denotation.

CONSONANCE

Repetition of consonantal sounds to make a pattern, usually in verse.

COUPLET

A pair of lines of verse, usually rhymed and of the same number of feet.

DACTYL

A metrical foot of one strong stress and two weak.

DENOTATION

The literal sense of a word or its strict dictionary definition, as opposed to connotation which refers to the attitudes, emotions and values which may be usually evoked by the word, or which may be evoked by it in a specific context.

DICTION

The social position (the sociolect or idiolect) indicated by the choice of words for the poem.

DIEGESIS

Plato's concept of narration, as opposed to mimesis (imitation or representation).

DIONYSIUS

The Greek god of vegetation, vineyards, and wine. Dionysian connotes intoxication, ecstasy, frenzy, madness, and the inspiration for music and poetry.

DIRGE

A lyric poem or song commemorating a death and expressing grief.

DISSONANCE

The use of discordant sounds either to create an unpleasant effect or to create an interesting variation from what is rhythmically expected.

DISTICH

A couplet.

DITHYRAMB

In ancient Greece, an irregular and wildly passionate choral hymn or chant sung in honour of Dionysius at a sacrificial festival.

ECLOGUE

A pastoral poem, especially a pastoral dialogue, usually indebted to the Virgillian tradition.

ELEGY

Originally in Greece a funeral ovation written in couplets of hexameter followed by a pentameter, the word ‘elegy ’ was later applied by Ovid to describe love poems such as his Amores. Donne’s elegies followed Ovid and were sometimes witty and ribald. Generally the term elegy signified a meditation on love inflected with a sense of mortality.

ELISION

The omission of part of a word (o’er, ne’er) to make a line conform to a metrical pattern.

ENCOMIUM

A poem praising a person, object or idea.

END STOPPED LINE

A poetic line in which the end of the line coincides with the end of the grammatical unit, usually the sentence.

ENJAMBMENT

A line which ends before grammatical and semantic unity has been achieved and where the sense therefore carries on to the next line without a pause.

ENVOY (ENVOI)

A poem, or the final stanza of a poem, that blesses or gives advice to someone departing.

EPIC

A long narrative poem with an exalted style and heroic theme.

EPIGRAM

A polished, terse and witty remark that packs generalised knowledge into short compass.

EPIGRAPH

A short quotation cited at the start of a book or chapter to point up its theme and associate its content with learning. Also an inscription on a monument or building explaining its purpose.

EPILOGUE

A final section of a work which serves to conclude the whole.

EPITAPH

A poem that sums up someone’s life, sometimes in praise (panegyric), sometimes in satire.

EPITHALAMION

From the Greek word for a bridal chamber, a lyric poem to be sung on the wedding night.

EPITHET

From Latin epitheton, from Greek, from epitithenai meaning “to add”, an adjective or adjectival cluster that is associated with a particular person or thing and that usually seems to capture their prominent characteristics. For example, “Ethelred the unready”, or “fleet-footed Achilles” in Pope’s version of The Iliad.

EULOGY

A poem or discourse in praise of a dead person.

FABLE

A fictitious moral tale or legend of ancient origin.

FALLING METER

Meter which uses strong stress followed by one or more weak stresses and so creates a falling sense to the poem. See ‘trochee’ and ‘dactyl’.

FANCY (IMAGINATION)

Fancy was used interchangeably with imagination in the eighteenth century but during the Romantic period came to signify the faculty of arranging ideas and images in pleasant combinations, as opposed to imagination which was more profound, intellectual and radically inventive.

FLYTING

A popular pastime in which two people try to outdo each other in the richness of their rhetorical scorn.

FOOT

The metrical unit of verse comprising a number of stressed and unstressed syllables. These are usually marked up with the sign ‘u’ over the unstressed syllable and a forward slash over the stressed syllable. Thus the kinds of feet appear as:

Anapest: u u /
Dactyl: / u u
Iamb: u /
Trochee: / u
Spondee: / /

As an aid to memory, each Greek word actually has the stress pattern it names. Thus Spondee has two stresses, spond-dee.

GENRE

A term used to designate a type of literature according to its subject matter and how the subject is treated.

GEORGIC

A poem about rural life modelled on Virgil’s Georgics which extolled the life of the farmer as the moral and political basis of Republican health.

HAIKU

A Japanese verse form dating from the thirteenth century which consists of seventeen syllables divided into lines or groups of five, seven, and five. The Haiku uses extreme economy to express intense emotion.

HEMISTICH

Half of an Alexandrine line, i.e. a semantic group of six syllables. See “Alexandrine”.

HEPTAMETER

A poetic line of seven iambic feet used widely in England during the sixteenth century before it was replaced by the pentameter. The heptameter has the advantage of being readily divided in groups of four feet, then three, as often found in ballads.

HEROIC COUPLET

A couplet of two lines of iambic pentameter with the same end rhymes and forming a logical whole.

HEROIC QUATRAIN

Like an Heroic Couplet but a group of four lines rhymed a b a b.

HEXAMETER

A line of six feet.

HOVERING STRESS

A metrical accent that could be placed equally well on either of two adjacent syllables so that it seems to hover between them.

HYPERBOLE

Overstatement or exaggeration for the sake of emphasis, as when the little boy says “Hey Dad there’s thousands of cats in our yard!” As literary devices, hyperbole, and its opposite understatement (litotes), are much used in comedy and satire.

IAMBIC

The most common metrical foot in English poetry – a foot of two syllables, with a weak stress followed by a strong.

IDYLL

A poem which represents the pleasures of rural life.

LEITMOTIF

A German expression meaning literally “leading motif” which first appears in the nineteenth century applied to Wagnerian musical dramas to designate a motif which is used recurrently to designate a particular character, mood or thing. The term thereafter was applied to the repetition of key words, phrases, images or themes in literary works, especially modernist works which were often composed around such motifs rather than by rational or didactic intentions. The compositional use of leitmotifs implies that the text is conceived, rather like music, as a weave of particular notes or even colours, rather than as a transparent imitation (mimesis) of the world, or as motivated by conscious intentions. Like symbolism, it implies reliance on the intuition, fantasy and the unconscious in the process of comprehending the artistic work. For more information, see the longer entry in the Encyclopedia.

LITOTES

From the Greek litos meaning ‘small’, the rhetorical use of understatement (diminishing) to imply the opposite. For example, “He was not a little concerned at the loss of his fortune.”

LYRIC

A poem expressing personal emotion, or the words of a song.

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