The Literary Encyclopedia Glossary of Literary Terms.
Part Two: M-Z.

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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.

MEIOSIS

From the Greek meioun to diminish. Another word for litotes (q.v.), i.e. a rhetorical understatement.

METAPHOR

A statement of identity between two things which usually has the form he is a dog” or she is a peach. The relationship must not use the comparatives “like”, “as”, “as if”, and “than” for if these are present the figure is a simile (q.v.) or analogy (q.v.).

METER / METRE

The regular pattern of accented and unaccented syllables. The line is divided into a number of feet (e.g. tetrameter has four feet, pentameter has five feet). According to their stress pattern the feet are classed as iambic, trochaic, anapestic, dactylic, spondaic, or pyrrhic (q.v.).

METONYMY

A figure of speech in which a word referring to one attribute of something is used to signify the whole of the thing. For example “the crown” is used to signify “the monarchy”, and in the expression “he’s taken to the bottle” one means “he’s taken to drinking”.

MOTIF

A recurrent image, word, phrase, theme, character, or situation.

NEGATIVE CAPABILITY

Keats’ definition of the poet as able to be “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

OBJECTIVE CORRELATIVE

A term introduced by T.S Eliot in his essay “Hamlet and His Problems” and defined as the set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which will set of a specific emotion in the reader.

OCCASIONAL POEM

A translation of the French vers d’occasion (literally, verse of the moment or occasion) – a poem written to commemorate a specific occasion, such as Yeats’ “Easter 1916” or, possibly, Donne’s “Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day”.

OCTOSYLLABIC COUPLET

A stanza in which each of the two lines contains eight syllables.

ODE

In English, a long, serious poem with an elaborate stanzaic structure for which there is no conventional form.

ONOMATOPOEIA

The use of words to imitate non-verbal sound, for example ‘hiss’, ‘bang’, ‘pop’ or even ‘kerpow’.

ORPHIC

Having the magical properties of music made by Orpheus whose songs charmed inanimate things and wild beasts.

OTTAVA RIMA

A stanza of eight lines of iambic pentameter rhymed a b a b a b c c. Used by Italian writers such as Ariosto, it was brought into English writing by Wyatt in the sixteenth century and used to great effect by Byron in Don Juan.

OXYMORON

A figurative use of language in which two opposite qualities are conjoined, as in bitter-sweet.

PAEN

A song or hymn of praise, joy, or triumph, originally sung by Greeks in gratitude to Apollo.

PANEGYRIC

A discourse in praise of someone.

PARODY

Writing or utterance which exaggerates another person’s style so as to reveal its salient features.

PASTORAL

A genre that represents the pleasures of rural life, typically that of shepherds.

PATHETIC FALLACY

A kind of personification that involves the attribution of human emotions, or other human characteristics, to inanimate objects, in order to evoke a sympathy which is usually facile.

PENTAMETER

A poetic line of five feet and the most common poetic line in English.

PERIPHRASIS

The way of speaking around a topic, rather than stating it directly. Periphrasis may be intended to heighten anticipation through delay, to enable ornament, or to delay coming to pain, as in euphemism.

PERSONA

The fictitious narrator imagined by the poet to speak the words of a poem.

PERSONIFICATION

A figurative use of language which attributes human qualities to ideas or things.

POET

Originally from the Greek poiein, a person who ‘makes’.

POETIC LICENCE

The permission taken by writers to alter facts or use unconventional language in order to produce aesthetic satisfaction.

PROSODY

The technical study of versification, including meter, rhyme, sound effects, and stanza patterns.

PROTHALAMION

A name coined by Edmund Spenser for a poem announcing a marriage. (C.f. epithalamion.)

PROSOPOPEIA

Deriving from the Greek term for ‘making a face’ or ‘making a mask’ (and hence meaning to dramatise -- to put on a mask), this term is sometimes used simply as another word for ‘personification’ (q.v.). More sublty it names the rhetorical representation of an absent person speaking or acting.

PUN

A figure of speech where a word is used ambiguously, thus invoking two or more of its meanings, often for comic effect.

QUATRAIN

A four line stanza.

RHAPSODY

A poem or piece of prose that expresses intense emotions, usually of love or emotional transport, in a from which may be irregular.

RHETORIC

The language and science of persuasion, in other words, oratory. In the middle ages, rhetoric was one of the important liberal arts and was studied as a separate discipline along with grammar and logic. Rhetoric today comprises all the techniques used to sway a hearer or reader, notably the figures of speech, rhythm, diction or idiolect, temporal and logical structure.

RHETORICAL QUESTION

A question posed for effect and to which it is assumed there will be no answer.

RHYME

The pattern of sound that establishes unity in verse forms. Rhyme at the end of lines is “end rhyme”; inside a line it is “internal rhyme”. End rhyme is clearly the most emphatic and usually relies on homophony between final syllables (for example, fight-might, blue-true-flew). If the end rhyme is exact it is called “perfect”, if not, it is called “imperfect”.

RHYME ROYAL

A seven-line stanza of iambic pentameter with the rhyme scheme a b a b b c c. It was named for James I who wrote verse in this form, although it had also been used by Chaucer and others.

RHYME SCHEME

The pattern made by placing words which end in similar sounds at the ends of lines. To mark out a rhyme scheme, letters, starting with a, are assigned to the first occurrence of a sound, such that line 1 is always a and the first occurrence of the next sound is always b and so on. For example, the pattern of the Shakespearean sonnet is three quatrains rhyming a b a b, c d c d, e f e f then a closing couplet rhyming g g.

RISING METRE

Meter in which an unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed syllable (as in the iamb and the anapaest) such that there is a rising movement in each foot. (C.f. falling meter.)

ROMAN-A-CLEF

From the French meaning novel with a key, a novel where the fiction represents actual persons and events thinly disguised by pseudonyms. The reader who has the key can read the novel as real history.

RUN-ON LINE

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.

SATIRE

A work which censures folly or wickedness.

SCANSION

The analysis of stressed and unstressed syllables in a poem in order to establish its metre.

SENSIBILITY

In the eighteenth century, the term was a cult as literature positively valued the ability to respond emotionally to the feelings of others and the beauties of natural landscape. In the twentieth century, the term became a critical shiboleth for the ability to respond sensitively to the aesthetic.

SENTIMENTALISM

A literary tendency of the late eighteenth century which found pleasure in sympathising with suffering. The emotion was soon derided and considered pathetic, but the benevolent concern with human goodness can now be seen as a way station on the road to a more humane and just society. Prime examples of sentimental novels are Oliver Goldsmith, The Vicar of Wakefield, Henry Mackenzie, The Man of Feeling, Laurence Sterne, A Sentimental Journey.

SENTIMENTALITY

A negative term implying a emotion is excessive in degree or weak in quality and in either case cultivated for its own sake.

SESTET

A six-line poem or stanza.

SIMILE

A figure of speech that expresses the resemblance of two different things usually introduced by as or like. For example, "Come. Let's away to prison; we two alone will sing like birds in the cage." King Lear, 5.3.8-9. (C.f..metaphor.)

SONNET

A fixed verse form, usually of fourteen lines but occasionally twelve or sixteen, following a sophisticated rhyme scheme. The English form is usually written in of iambic pentameter. The Petrarchan, or Italian, sonnet is divided into an octave which rhymes a b b a, a b b a, and a sestet which usually rhymes c d e c d e, or c d c d c d. The sestet usually replies to the argument of the octet. The Miltonic sonnet follows the Petrarchan but without significant break in meaning between the octave and sestet. The Shakespearean sonnet has three quatrains and a final couplet which usually provides an epigrammatic statement of the theme. The rhyme scheme is a b a b, c d c d, e f e f, g g, or else a b b a, c d d c, e f f e, g g. The Spenserian sonnet rhymes a b a b, b c b c, c d c d, e e, and often has no break in meaning between the octave and sestet.

SPENSERIAN STANZA

A nine-line stanza of iambics rhymed a b a b b c b c c. The first eight lines are pentameters; the final line is a hexameter, in other words an Alexandrine.

SPONDEE

A metrical foot of two stressed syllables which is used to vary other feet, such as iambs or trochees.

STRESS

See Accent.

SPRUNG RHYTHM

A term used by Gerard Manley Hopkins to describe the rhythm of most language and music which he observed to be patterned by a regular beat of stressed syllables, interspersed with a variable number of unstressed syllables.

STANZA

A group of lines considered as a unit and forming a division of -a poem, and recurring in the same pattern or variations of the pattern.

SYMBOLISM

Symbolism came into English literature in the late nineteenth century from France and sought to use newly-created or pre-existing symbols to provide intense complexes of emotion and thought which have a transcendent and unifying effect on the hearer or reader.

SYNECDOCHE

A figurative use of language and a special kind of metonymy (q.v.) in which a part is made to stand for a whole, or a whole for a part.

SYNAESTHESIA

A technique common in Symbolist verse whereby the writer tries to bring many senses into play, for example describing sounds as colours, or colours as tastes.

TERCET

A three-line stanza. When all three lines rhyme the tercet is a triplet.

TERZA RIMA

This verse form was made particularly famous because Dante used it in The Divine Comedy. It requires three-line stanzas (tercets) with the rhyme scheme a b a, b c b, c d c and so on.

TETRAMETER

A line of four metrical feet.

THRENODY

A song or speech in lamentation for the dead.

TOPOS

A concentional way of organising thought by associating key terms and entities into a mental picture. .

TROCHEE (TROCHAIC)

A metrical foot of with a strong stress followed by a weak.

TROPE

Any use of a word that turns its meaning from literal to figurative. Metaphor and metonymy are the most frequent forms.

VERISIMILITUDE

The quality of seeming true, having the semblance of reality.

VERSE

Either an individual line of a poem., or metrical language as distinguished from prose.

WIT

In the Renaissance it meant ‘intelligence’ or ‘wisdom’; in the seventeenth century it meant ‘fancy’ or ‘agility of thought’; in the eighteenth century the ability to judge correctly.

ZEUGMA

a figure of speech, the origin of which is the Greek zeugnunai" [to yoke together], in which a word is "put in harness" with two or more other words such that its values are transferred apparently inappropriately but with illuminating or comic effect. One famous example is when Charles Dickens says Mr Pickwick "took his hat and leave". Another famous example is when Alexander Pope in The Rape of the Lock has Belinda's dressing table arrayed with “Puffs, powders, patches, bibles, billet-doux”, the Bible evidently being reduced to a mere vain ornament by the company it keeps.