A central or recurring image or action in a literary work that is shared by other works. Unlike themes, which are messages, statements, or ideas, motifs are details whose repetition adds to the work’s larger meaning; multiple and varying motifs can take place within one work and across longer collections. For example, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress both feature the motif of a long journey. The repeated questions of an ubi sunt poem also compose a motif on the fleeting nature of life. Motifs are sometimes described as expressions of a collective unconsciousness; see archetype.
Browse through the full archive of Poetry magazine back to 1912.