Glossary Terms

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Madrigal
A song or short lyric poem intended for multiple singers. Originating in 14th-century Italy, it became popular in England in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. It has no fixed metrical requirements. See “Rosalind’s Madrigal” by Thomas Lodge.

Marxism
A type of literary criticism based on the writings of German philosopher Karl Marx. In its simplest form, Marxist criticism attempts to show the relationship between literature and the social—mainly economic—conditions under which it was produced. Originally, Marxist critics focused on literary representations of workers and working classes. For later Marxists, however, literature became a document of a kind of knowledge and a record of the historical conditions that produced that knowledge. Like cultural criticism, Marxist literary criticism offers critiques of the “canon” and focuses on the ways in which culture and power intersect; for a Marxist critic, literature both reproduces existing power relations and offers a space where they can be contested and redefined. Important 20th-century Marxist literary critics include Georg Lucáks, Antonio Gramsci, Louis Althusser, Terry Eagleton, Raymond Williams, and Frederic Jameson.

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.

Metaphysical poets
A group of 17th-century poets whose works are marked by philosophical exploration, colloquial diction, ingenious conceits, irony, and metrically flexible lines. John Donne is the foremost figure, along with George Herbert, Andrew Marvell, Abraham Cowley, Richard Crashaw, and Henry Vaughan. For more on metaphysical poetry, see Stephen Burt’s poem guide on John Donne's “The Sun Rising.”

Meter
The rhythmical pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in verse. The predominant meter in English poetry is accentual-syllabic. See also accentual meter, syllabic meter, and quantitative meter. Falling meter refers to trochees and dactyls (i.e., a stressed syllable followed by one or two unstressed syllables). Iambs and anapests (i.e., one or two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed one) are called rising meter. See also foot.

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.

Mock epic
A poem that plays with the conventions of the epic to comment on a topic satirically. In “Mac Flecknoe,” John Dryden wittily flaunts his mastery of the epic genre to cut down a literary rival. Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” recasts a petty high-society scandal as a mythological battle for the virtue of an innocent.

Modernism
A broadly defined multinational cultural movement (or series of movements) that took hold in the late 19th century and reached its most radical peak on the eve of World War I. It grew out of the philosophical, scientific, political, and ideological shifts that followed the Industrial Revolution, up to World War I and its aftermath. For artists and writers, the Modernist project was a re-evaluation of the assumptions and aesthetic values of their predecessors. It evolved from the Romantic rejection of Enlightenment positivism and faith in reason. Modernist writers broke with Romantic pieties and clichés (such as the notion of the Sublime) and became self-consciously skeptical of language and its claims on coherence. In the early 20th century, novelists such as Henry James and Virginia Woolf (and, later, Joseph Conrad) experimented with shifts in time and narrative points of view. While living in Paris before the war, Gertrude Stein explored the possibilities of creating literary works that broke with conventional syntactical and referential practices. Ezra Pound vowed to “make it new” and “break the pentameter,” while T.S. Eliot wrote The Waste Land in the shadow of World War I. Shortly after The Waste Land was published in 1922, it became the archetypical Modernist text, rife with allusions, linguistic fragments, and mixed registers and languages. Other poets most often associated with Modernism include H.D., W.H. Auden, Hart Crane, William Butler Yeats, and Wallace Stevens. Modernism also generated many smaller movements; see also Acmeism, Dada, Free verse, Futurism, Imagism, Objectivism, Postmodernism, and Surrealism. Browse more Modern poets.

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.

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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