Glossary Terms

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Abecedarian
Related to acrostic, a poem in which the first letter of each line or stanza follows sequentially through the alphabet. See Jessica Greenbaum, “A Poem for S.” Tom Disch’s “Abecedary” adapts the principles of an abecedarian poem, while Matthea Harvey’s “The Future of Terror/The Terror of Future” sequence also uses the alphabet as an organizing principle. Poets who have used the abecedarian across whole collections include Mary Jo Bang, in The Bride of E, and Harryette Mullen, in Sleeping with the Dictionary.

Allegory
An extended metaphor in which the characters, places, and objects in a narrative carry figurative meaning. Often an allegory’s meaning is religious, moral, or historical in nature. John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene are two major allegorical works in English.

Alliteration
The repetition of initial stressed, consonant sounds in a series of words within a phrase or verse line. Alliteration need not reuse all initial consonants; “pizza” and “place” alliterate. Example: “We saw the sea sound sing, we heard the salt sheet tell,” from Dylan Thomas’s “Lie Still, Sleep Becalmed.” Browse poems with alliteration.

Allusion
A brief, intentional reference to a historical, mythic, or literary person, place, event, or movement. “The Waste Land,” T. S. Eliot’s influential long poem is dense with allusions. The title of Seamus Heaney’s autobiographical poem “Singing School” alludes to a line from W.B. Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” (“Nor is there singing school but studying /Monuments of its own magnificence”). Browse poems with allusions.

Ambiguity
A word, statement, or situation with two or more possible meanings is said to be ambiguous. As poet and critic William Empson wrote in his influential book Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), “The machinations of ambiguity are among the very roots of poetry.” A poet may consciously join together incompatible words to disrupt the reader’s expectation of meaning, as e.e. cummings does in [anyone lived in a pretty how town]. The ambiguity may be less deliberate, steered more by the poet’s attempts to express something ineffable, as in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “The Windhover.” At the sight of a bird diving through the air, the speaker marvels, “Brute beauty and valor and act, oh, air, pride, plume here / Buckle!” The ambiguity of this phrase lies in the exclamation of “buckle”: The verb could be descriptive of the action, or it could be the speaker’s imperative. In both cases, the meaning of the word is not obvious from its context. “Buckle” could mean “fall” or “crumple,” or it could describe the act of clasping armor and bracing for battle.

Anachronism
Someone or something placed in an inappropriate period of time. Shakespeare’s placing of a clock in Julius Caesar is an anachronism, because clocks had not yet been invented in the period when the play is set. In Charles Olson’s epic The Maximus Poems, the central figure encompasses the poet’s alter ego, the second-century Greek philosopher Maximus of Tyre, and the fourth-century Phoenician mystic Maximus. This persona arises from outside of time to reflect on the state of American culture by recounting the history of Gloucester, Massachusetts.

Anaphora
Often used in political speeches and occasionally in prose and poetry, anaphora is the repetition of a word or words at the beginning of successive phrases, clauses, or lines to create a sonic effect.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, which uses anaphora not only in its oft-quoted “I have a dream” refrain but throughout, as in this passage when he repeats the phrase “go back to”:

                           Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, 
                           go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and
                           ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can
                           and will be changed.

In Joanna Klink's poem “Some Feel Rain,” the phrase "some feel" is repeated, which creates a rhythm and a sense of an accumulating emotions and meanings:

                 Some feel rain. Some feel the beetle startle
                 in its ghost-part when the bark
                 slips. Some feel musk. Asleep against
                 each other in the whiskey dark, scarcely there.

See Paul Muldoon’s “As,” William Blake’s “The Tyger,” or much of Walt Whitman’s poetry, including “I Sing the Body Electric.” See also Rebecca Hazelton's explanatory essay, “Adventures in Anaphora.”

Anthropomorphism
A form of personification in which human qualities are attributed to anything inhuman, usually a god, animal, object, or concept. In Vachel Lindsay’s “What the Rattlesnake Said,” for example, a snake describes the fears of his imagined prey. John Keats admires a star’s loving watchfulness (“with eternal lids apart”) in his sonnet “Bright Star, Would I Were as Steadfast as Thou Art.”

Antithesis
Contrasting or combining two terms, phrases, or clauses with opposite meanings. William Blake pits love’s competing impulses—selflessness and self-interest—against each other in his poem “The Clod and the Pebble.” Love “builds a Heaven in Hell’s despair,” or, antithetically, it “builds a Hell in Heaven’s despite.”

Aphorism
A pithy, instructive statement or truism, like a maxim or adage. See Benjamin Franklin’s “How to get RICHES.”  Browse more aphorisms.

Apostrophe
An address to a dead or absent person, or personification as if he or she were present. In his Holy Sonnet “Death, be not proud,” John Donne denies death’s power by directly admonishing it. Emily Dickinson addresses her absent object of passion in “Wild nights!—Wild nights!”

Archetype
A basic model from which copies are made; a prototype. According to psychologist Carl Jung, archetypes emerge in literature from the “collective unconscious” of the human race. Northrop Frye, in his Anatomy of Criticism, explores archetypes as the symbolic patterns that recur within the world of literature itself. In both approaches, archetypical themes include birth, death, sibling rivalry, and the individual versus society. Archetypes may also be images or characters, such as the hero, the lover, the wanderer, or the matriarch.

Assonance
The repetition of vowel sounds without repeating consonants; sometimes called vowel rhyme. See Amy Lowell’s “In a Garden” (“With its leaping, and deep, cool murmur”) or “The Taxi” (“And shout into the ridges of the wind”). Browse poems with assonance.

Cacophony
Harsh or discordant word sounds; the opposite of euphony. See dissonance.

Carpe diem
In Latin, “Seize the day.” The fleeting nature of life and the need to embrace its pleasures constitute a frequent theme of love poems; examples include Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” and Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.”

Chiasmus
Repetition of any group of verse elements (including rhyme and grammatical structure) in reverse order, such as the rhyme scheme ABBA. Examples can be found in Biblical scripture (“But many that are first / Shall be last, / And many that are last / Shall be first”; Matthew 19:30). See also John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”).

Circumlocution
A roundabout wording, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “twice five miles of fertile ground” (i.e., 10 miles) in “Kubla Khan.” Also known as periphrasis.

Collage
From the French coller, meaning to paste or glue. In visual arts, a technique that involves juxtaposing photographs, cuttings, newspapers, or other media on a surface. Widely seen as a hallmark of Modernist art, collage was first developed in the early 20th century by Pablo Picasso and other Cubists. Avant-garde groups such as the Dadaists and Surrealists also used the form to create new visual and language-based work. Tristan Tzara famously advocated a “cut-up” method of composition, involving cutting out words from a newspaper and drawing them randomly from a hat to create a poem. Collage in language-based work can now mean any composition that includes words, phrases, or sections of outside source material in juxtaposition. An early example is T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” which includes newspaper clippings, music lyrics, nursery rhymes, and overheard speech. Ezra Pound’s Cantos also use the technique extensively. For more examples of language-based collage see Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson and Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets.

Complaint
A poem of lament, often directed at an ill-fated love, as in Henry Howard’s “Complaint of the Absence of Her Love Being upon the Sea,” or Sir Philip Sidney’s “Astrophel and Stella XXXI.” A complaint may also be a satiric attack on social injustice and immorality; in “The Lie,” Sir Walter Ralegh bitterly rails against institutional hypocrisy and human vanity (“Tell men of high condition, / That manage the estate, / Their purpose is ambition, / Their practice only hate.”).

Conceit
From the Latin term for “concept,” a poetic conceit is an often unconventional, logically complex, or surprising metaphor whose delights are more intellectual than sensual. Petrarchan (after the Italian poet Petrarch) conceits figure heavily in sonnets, and contrast more conventional sensual imagery to describe the experience of love. In Shakespeare’s “Sonnet XCVII: How like a Winter hath my Absence been,” for example, “What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen!” laments the lover, though his separation takes place in the fertile days of summer and fall.

Less conventional, more esoteric associations characterize the metaphysical conceit. John Donne and other so-called metaphysical poets used conceits to fuse the sensory and the abstract, trading on the element of surprise and unlikeness to hold the reader’s attention. In “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” for instance, John Donne envisions two entwined lovers as the points of a compass. (For more on Donne’s conceits, see Stephen Burt’s Poem Guide on John Donne's “The Sun Rising.”)

Consonance
A resemblance in sound between two words, or an initial rhyme (see also Alliteration). Consonance can also refer to shared consonants, whether in sequence (“bed” and “bad”) or reversed (“bud” and “dab”). Browse poems with consonance.

Dissonance
A disruption of harmonic sounds or rhythms. Like cacophony, it refers to a harsh collection of sounds; dissonance is usually intentional, however, and depends more on the organization of sound for a jarring effect, rather than on the unpleasantness of individual words. Gerard Manley Hopkins’s use of fixed stresses and variable unstressed syllables, combined with frequent assonance, consonance, and monosyllabic words, has a dissonant effect. See these lines from “Carrion Comfort”:

          Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
          Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
          Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, cheer.

Gertrude Stein’s “Susie Asado” does not lack a musical quality, but its rapid repetition of sounds and varied sentence lengths create dissonance through tension and instability:

          This is a please this is a please there are the saids to jelly. These are the wets these say the sets to leave a crown to Incy.
          Incy is short for incubus.
          A pot. A pot is a beginning of a rare bit of trees. Trees tremble, the old vats are in bobbles, bobbles which shade and shove and render clean, render clean must.
          Drink pups.
          Drink pups drink pups lease a sash hold, see it shine and a bobolink has pins. It shows a nail.

Ekphrasis
“Description” in Greek. An ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art. Through the imaginative act of narrating and reflecting on the “action” of a painting or sculpture, the poet may amplify and expand its meaning. A notable example is “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” in which the poet John Keats speculates on the identity of the lovers who appear to dance and play music, simultaneously frozen in time and in perpetual motion:

               What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
            What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
               What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

            Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
                     Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
            Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
                     Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
            Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
                     Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
                 Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
            Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
                   She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
                         For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

            Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
                       Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
            And, happy melodist, unwearied,
                       For ever piping songs for ever new. . . .

See W. S. DiPiero’s poem guide on Robert Browning for more on ekphrasis. Browse more ekphrastic poems.

Elision
The omission of unstressed syllables (e.g., “ere” for “ever,” “tother” for “the other”), usually to fit a metrical scheme. “What dire offence from am’rous causes springs,” goes the first line of Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, in which “amorous” is elided to “am’rous” to establish the pentameter (five-foot) line.

Ellipsis
In poetry, the omission of words whose absence does not impede the reader’s ability to understand the expression. For example, Shakespeare makes frequent use of the phrase “I will away” in his plays, with the missing verb understood to be “go.” T.S. Eliot employs ellipsis in the following passage from “Preludes”:

              You curled the papers from your hair,
              Or clasped the yellow soles of feet
              In the palms of both soiled hands. 

The possessive “your” is left out in the second and third lines, but it can be assumed that the woman addressed by the speaker is clasping the soles of her own feet with her own hands.

Enjambment
The running-over of a sentence or phrase from one poetic line to the next, without terminal punctuation; the opposite of end-stopped. William Carlos Williams’s “Between Walls” is one sentence broken into 10 enjambed lines:

       the back wings
       of the

       hospital where
       nothing

       will grow lie
       cinders

       in which shine
       the broken

       pieces of a green
       bottle

Epic simile
A detailed, often complex poetic comparison (see simile) that unfolds over the course of several lines. It is also known as a Homeric simile, because the Greek poet Homer is thought to have originated the device in the epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey. In the following passage from Book I of Paradise Lost, John Milton compares Lucifer’s massive army to scattered autumn leaves:

            His legions—angel forms, who lay entranc’d
            Thick as autumnal leaves that strow the brooks
            In Vallombrosa, where th’ Etrurian shades
            High over-arch’d embow’r; or scatter’d sedge
            Afloat, when with fierce winds Orion arm’d
            Hath vex’d the Red-Sea coast, whose waves o’erthrew
            Busiris and his Memphian chivalry,
            While with perfidious hatred they pursu’d
            The sojourners of Goshen, who beheld
            From the safe shore their floating carkases
            And broken chariot-wheels: so thick bestrown,
            Abject and lost, lay these, covering the flood,
            Under amazement of their hideous change.

Epigraph
A quotation from another literary work that is placed beneath the title at the beginning of a poem or section of a poem. For example, Grace Schulman’s “American Solitude” opens with a quote from an essay by Marianne Moore. Lines from Phillis Wheatley’s “On Being Brought from Africa to America” preface Alfred Corn’s “Sugar Cane.” Browse more poems with epigraphs.

Figure of speech
An expressive, nonliteral use of language. Figures of speech include tropes (such as hyperbole, irony, metaphor, and simile) and schemes (anything involving the ordering and organizing of words—anaphora, antithesis, and chiasmus, for example). Browse all terms related to figures of speech.

Hyperbole
A figure of speech composed of a striking exaggeration. For example, see James Tate’s lines “She scorched you with her radiance” or “He was more wronged than Job.” Hyperbole usually carries the force of strong emotion, as in Andrew Marvell’s description of a forlorn lover:

             The sea him lent those bitter tears
             Which at his eyes he always wears;
             And from the winds the sighs he bore,
             Which through his surging breast do roar.
             No day he saw but that which breaks
             Through frighted clouds in forkèd streaks,
             While round the rattling thunder hurled,
             As at the funeral of the world.

Invocation
An address to a deity or muse that often takes the form of a request for help in composing the poem at hand. Invocations can occur at the beginning of the poem or start of a new canto; they are considered conventions of the epic form and are a type of apostrophe. See the opening of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Alexander Pope mocked the convention in the first canto of “The Rape of the Lock.” A contemporary example is Denise Levertov’s poem “Invocation.”

Irony
As a literary device, irony implies a distance between what is said and what is meant. Based on the context, the reader is able to see the implied meaning in spite of the contradiction. When William Shakespeare relates in detail how his lover suffers in comparison with the beauty of nature in “My Mistress’ Eyes Are Nothing like the Sun,” it is understood that he is elevating her beyond these comparisons; considering her essence as a whole, and what she means to the speaker, she is more beautiful than nature.

Dramatic or situational irony involves a contrast between reality and a character’s intention or ideals. For example, in Sophocles’ Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex, King Oedipus searches for his father’s murderer, not knowing that he himself is that man. In “The Convergence of the Twain,” Thomas Hardy contrasts the majesty and beauty of the ocean liner Titanic with its tragic fate and new ocean-bottom inhabitants:

             Over the mirrors meant
                          To glass the opulent
            The sea-worm crawls — grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.

Kenning
A figurative compound word that takes the place of an ordinary noun. It is found frequently in Old Germanic, Norse, and English poetry, including The Seafarer, in which the ocean is called a “whale-path.” (See Ezra Pound’s translation)

Litotes
A deliberate understatement for effect; the opposite of hyperbole. For example, a good idea may be described as “not half bad,” or a difficult task considered “no small feat.” Litotes is found frequently in Old English poetry; “That was a good king,” declares the narrator of the Beowulf epic after summarizing the Danish king’s great virtues. See also Irony.

Metaphor
A comparison that is made directly (for example, John Keats’s “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” from “Ode on a Grecian Urn”) or less directly (for example, Shakespeare’s “marriage of two minds”), but in any case without pointing out a similarity by using words such as “like,” “as,” or “than.” See Sylvia Plath’s description of her dead father as “Marble-heavy, a bag full of God” in “Daddy,” or Emily Dickinson’s “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers— / That perches in the soul—.” Browse poems with developed metaphors.

Metonymy
A figure of speech in which a related term is substituted for the word itself. Often the substitution is based on a material, causal, or conceptual relation between things. For example, the British monarchy is often referred to as the Crown. In the phrase “lend me your ears,” “ears” is substituted for “attention.” “O, for a draught of vintage!” exclaims the speaker in John Keats’s “Ode to Nightingale,” with “vintage” understood to mean “wine.” Synecdoche is closely related to metonymy.

Mimesis (imitation)
Greek for “imitation.” In aesthetic theory, mimesis can also connote “representation,” and has typically meant the reproduction of an external reality, such as nature, through artistic expression. Plato disparaged mimesis for merely providing inferior copies of original forms; Aristotle, in his Poetics, recuperated the idea, alleging that mimesis is “natural” to humans. For Aristotle, mimesis in part both recreates the objects of reality and improves them; it provides humans with a special kind of symbolic order. In the 17th and 18th centuries, thinkers and writers such as Rousseau and Lessing began to emphasize the relationship between mimesis and inner experiences and emotions, not just objective reality or nature.  

By the 20th century, the term housed a number of theories, theorists, and schools of thought. Erich Auerbach’s highly influential book Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1953) attempted to chart the history of culture through representational practices in literature. Thinkers such as Walter Benjamin and Theodore Adorno, on the other hand, described mimesis as fundamental to human experience, a practice that precedes language but is suppressed or distorted by society. Rather than mimesis as the process of reproducing copies of nature, reality, or experience, these theorists suggested that mimesis has to do with social practices and inter-subjective relationships. Jacques Derrida also claimed mimesis for deconstruction, focusing on texts as “doubled” objects, which can never refer to an original source.

Motif
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.

Negative capability
A theory of John Keats, who suggested in one of his famous letters that a great thinker is “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” A poet, then, has the power to bury self-consciousness, dwell in a state of openness to all experience, and identify with the object contemplated. See Keats’s “To Autumn.” The inspirational power of beauty, according to Keats, is more important than the quest for objective fact; as he writes in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Neologism
A newly coined word. Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” is filled with them, including “slithy” and “gimble.”

Objective correlative
T.S. Eliot used this phrase to describe “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion” that the poet feels and hopes to evoke in the reader (“Hamlet,” 1919). There must be a positive connection between the emotion the poet is trying to express and the object, image, or situation in the poem that helps to convey that emotion to the reader. Eliot thus determined that Shakespeare’s play Hamlet was an “artistic failure” because Hamlet’s intense emotions overwhelmed the author’s attempts to express them through an objective correlative. In other words, Eliot felt that Shakespeare was unable to provoke the audience to feel as Prince Hamlet did through images, actions, and characters, and instead only inadequately described his emotional state through the play’s dialogue. Eliot’s theory of the objective correlative is closely related to the Imagist movement.

Onomatopoeia
A figure of speech in which the sound of a word imitates its sense (for example, “choo-choo,” “hiss,” or “buzz”). In “Piano,” D.H. Lawrence describes the “boom of the tingling strings” as his mother played the piano, mimicking the volume and resonance of the sound (“boom”) as well as the fine, high-pitched vibration of the strings that produced it (“tingling strings”).

Oxymoron
A figure of speech that brings together contradictory words for effect, such as “jumbo shrimp” and “deafening silence.” For instance, John Milton describes Hell as “darkness visible” in Book I of Paradise Lost.

Palindrome
A word, phrase, or sentence that reads the same backward and forward. The words “civic” and “level” are palindromes, as is the phrase “A man, a plan, a canal—Panama.” The reversal can be word by word as well, as in “fall leaves when leaves fall.”

Paradox
As a figure of speech, it is a seemingly self-contradictory phrase or concept that illuminates a truth. For instance, Wallace Stevens, in “The Snow Man,” describes the “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” Alexander Pope, in “An Essay on Man: Epistle II,” describes Man as “Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all.” Paradox is related to oxymoron, which creates a new phrase or concept out of a contradiction.

The metaphysical poets often fixated on the paradoxical nature of the Christian God’s triune nature (Father, Son, Holy Ghost). In his “Holy Sonnet: Batter my heart, three-person’d God,” John Donne considers God’s power to restore the spirit to life by first dismantling it:

            Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
            As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
            That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
            Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

Parody
A comic imitation of another author’s work or characteristic style. See Joan Murray’s “We Old Dudes,” a parody of Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool.”

Pastiche
A patchwork of lines or passages from another writer (or writers), intended as a kind of imitation. The term also refers to an original composition that deliberately mimics the style of another author, usually in a spirit of respect rather than mockery or satire.

Pathetic fallacy
The assignment of human feelings to inanimate objects, as coined by the Victorian literary critic John Ruskin. For him, a poet’s tendency to project his or her emotions outward onto the workings of the natural world was a kind of false vision. Today the term is used more neutrally, and the phenomenon is usually accepted as an integral part of the poet’s craft. It is related to personification and anthropomorphism, but emphasizes the relationship between the poet’s emotional state and what he or she sees in the object or objects. For instance, in William Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” the speaker sees a field of daffodils “tossing their heads in a sprightly dance,” outdoing the nearby lake’s sparkling waves with their “glee.” The speaker, in times of solitude and introspection, is heartened by memories of the flowers’ joy.

Persona
A dramatic character, distinguished from the poet, who is the speaker of a poem. The persona who describes the process of composing and playing music in Robert Browning’s “Abt Vogler” is a German organist by the same name. Similarly, three historical figures (Erasmus Darwin, James Whitfield, and Josiah Wedgewood) narrate Linda Bierds’s three-part poem “The Ghost Trio.” The identity of the speaker is not always so clear; John Berryman’s sequence of Dream Songs is narrated primarily by a persona named Henry, who refers to himself in the third person.

Personification
A figure of speech in which the poet describes an abstraction, a thing, or a nonhuman form as if it were a person. William Blake’s “O Rose, thou art sick!” is one example; Donne’s “Death, be not proud” is another. Gregory Corso quarrels with a series of personified abstractions in his poem “The Whole Mess . . . Almost.” Personification is often used in symbolic or allegorical poetry; for instance, the virtue of Justice takes the form of the knight Artegal in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene.

Poetic diction
The vocabulary, phrasing, and grammatical usage deemed appropriate to verse as well as the deviations allowable for effect within it. Aristotle discussed the proper diction for writers in his Poetics, and English poets have long struggled with which kind of language to employ and when. Wordsworth argued against the ornate language of his predecessors in the preface to Lyrical Ballads. Poetic diction is distinguished from common speech by effects such as circumlocution, elision, personification and Latinate terminology such as “azure skies.”

Poetic license
A poet’s departure from the rules of grammar, syntax, and vocabulary in order to maintain a metrical or rhyme scheme; can also mean the manipulation of facts to suit the needs of a poem.

Prosody
The principles of metrical structure in poetry. See meter.

Pun
Wordplay that uses homonyms (two different words that are spelled identically) to deliver two or more meanings at the same time. Harryette Mullen riffs on the multiple meanings of “slip” in [Of a girl, in white]. “Ah, nothing more obscure than Browning / Save blacking,” writes Ambrose Bierce in “With a Book,” making a pun on the name of poet Robert Browning and the color brown.

Simile
A comparison (see Metaphor) made with “as,” “like,” or “than.” In “A Red, Red Rose,” Robert Burns declares:

                   O my Luve is like a red, red rose
                   That’s newly sprung in June;
                   O my Luve is like the melody
                   That’s sweetly played in tune.

“What happens to a dream deferred?” asks Langston Hughes in “Harlem”:

                   Does it dry up
                   like a raisin in the sun?
                   Or fester like a sore—
                   And then run?
                   Does it stink like rotten meat?
                   Or crust and sugar over—
                   like a syrupy sweet?

Browse poems with developed similes.

Strophe
In Greek drama, the strophe (turning) signified the first section of a choral ode, and was recited by the Chorus as it moved across the stage. The Chorus’s movement back to its original side was accompanied by the antistrophe. Finally, the Chorus stood still to chant the epode, the final section of the ode, which used a new metrical structure. This classic structure is explicitly foregrounded in Ben Jonson’s “A Pindaric Ode.” Strophe came to be synonymous with the stanzas in an ode; see Coleridge’s “France: An Ode.” It has also been used to describe units or verse paragraphs in free verse. See Robert Duncan’s, “A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar” and Geoffrey Hill’s “On Reading Crowds and Powerfor examples of this contemporary usage.

Sublime
A lofty, ennobling seriousness as the main characteristic of certain poetry, as identified in the treatise On the Sublime, attributed to the 3rd-century Greek rhetorician Cassius Longinus. The concept took hold in the 18th century among English philosophers, critics, and poets who associated it with overwhelming sensation. In A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), Edmund Burke identified the sublime as the experience of the infinite, which is terrifying and thrilling because it threatens to overpower the perceived importance of human enterprise in the universe. Aesthetes and writers of the era saw the natural world and its wild, mysterious expanses as a gateway to the experience of the sublime. Romantic poets such as Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Wordsworth were influenced by this notion.

Symbol
Something in the world of the senses, including an action, that reveals or is a sign for something else, often abstract or otherworldly. A rose, for example, has long been considered a symbol of love and affection.

Every word denotes, refers to, or labels something in the world, but a symbol (to which a word, of course, may point) has a concreteness not shared by language, and can point to something that transcends ordinary experience. Poets such as William Blake and W.B. Yeats often use symbols when they believe in—or seek—a transcendental (religious or spiritual) reality.

A metaphor compares two or more things that are no more and no less real than anything else in the world. For a metaphor to be symbolic, one of its pair of elements must reveal something else transcendental. In “To the Rose upon the Rood of Time,” for instance, Yeats’s image of the rose on the cross symbolizes the joining of flesh and spirit. As Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren write in their book Understanding Poetry (3rd ed., 1960),“The symbol may be regarded as a metaphor from which the first term has been omitted.”

See also allegory and imagism.

Synecdoche
A figure of speech in which a part of something stands for the whole (for example, “I’ve got wheels” for “I have a car,” or a description of a worker as a “hired hand”). It is related to metonymy.

Synesthesia
A blending or intermingling of different senses in description. “Light laughs the breeze in her castle of sunshine,” writes Emily Dickinson. In her heavily synesthetic poem “Aubade,” Dame Edith Sitwell describes the “dull blunt wooden stalactite / Of rain creaks, hardened by the light.” In George Meredith’s “Modern Love: I,” a woman’s heart is made to “drink the pale drug of silence.”

Tautology
A statement redundant in itself, such as “free gift” or “The stars, O astral bodies!” Also, a statement that is necessarily true—a circular argument—such as “she is alive because she is living.”

Tone
The poet’s attitude toward the poem’s speaker, reader, and subject matter, as interpreted by the reader. Often described as a “mood” that pervades the experience of reading the poem, it is created by the poem’s vocabulary, metrical regularity or irregularity, syntax, use of figurative language, and rhyme.

Ubi sunt
A number of medieval European poems begin with this Latin phrase meaning “Where are they?” By posing a series of questions about the fate of the strong, beautiful, or virtuous, these poems meditate on the transitory nature of life and the inevitability of death. The phrase can now refer to any poetry that treats these themes. One of the most famous ubi sunt poems is “Ballade des dames du temps jadis” (“Ballad of the Ladies of Times Past”) by medieval French poet François Villon, with its refrain “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” See also Thomas Nashe’s “Adieu, Farewell, Earth’s Bliss,” Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella CII: ‘Where be the roses gone, which sweetened so our eyes?’”, and “Where Are the Waters of Childhood?” by Mark Strand.

Volta
Italian word for “turn.” In a sonnet, the volta is the turn of thought or argument: in Petrarchan or Italian sonnets it occurs between the octave and the sestet, and in Shakespearean or English before the final couplet. See Thomas Wyatt’s “Whoso List to Hunt, I Know Where Is an Hind” and William Shakespeare's Sonnet CXXIX, “Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame” for examples of voltas of each type.

Zeugma
A figure of speech in which one verb or preposition joins two objects within the same phrase, often with different meanings. For example, “I left my heart—and my suitcase—in San Francisco.” Zeugma occurs in William Shakespeare’s “Fear No More the Heat o’ the Sun”: “Golden Lads, and Girles all must / As chimney-sweepers come to dust.” Here, “coming to dust” refers to the chimney-sweeper’s trade as well as the body’s decay.

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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