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A central or recurring image or action in a literary work that is shared by other works and may serve an overall theme. For example, the repeated questions of an ubi sunt poem compose a motif of the fleeting nature of life. Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress both feature the motif of a long journey. Motifs are sometimes described as expressions of a collective unconsciousness; see archetype.

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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