Glossary of literary terms



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GLOSSARY OF LITERARY TERMS

Created, compiled & edited from Various Sources *



 

Sound Devices_____________________________
ALLITERATION: A literary device which creates interest by the recurrence of the same or similar sounds at the beginning of words, e.g.: the "s" and "h" sounds in: “A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid” (Matt. 5:14b). The repetition calls attention to the phrase and fixes it in the reader's mind, and so is useful for emphasis as well as art. Many tongue twisters utilize alliteration: “She sells sea shells by the sea shore.”
ASSONANCE: The close repetition of similar vowel sounds, in successive or nearby words, usually in stressed syllables.  For example, there is assonance in every line of the popular nursery rhyme: "Twinkle, twinkle, little star, How I wonder what you are!  Up above the world so high, Like a diamond in the sky."
CACOPHONY: Cacophony in literature refers to the use of words and phrases that imply strong, harsh sounds within the phrase. These words have jarring and discordant sounds that create a disturbing, objectionable atmosphere. For example, in Lewis Carrol’s novel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, a sequel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Alice discovers nonsense poetry, “The Jabberwocky” in her nonsensical world. The verse reads, 'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves/ Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;/ All mimsy were the borogoves,/ And the mome raths outgrabe.” Here, the harsh, discordant, nonsensical sounds mirror the playfully creepy world Alice finds herself in.

CONSONANCE: is the repetition, close together, of the final consonants of accented syllables or important words; e.g. I had to think about the blank on the form at the bank. In this regard consonance can be understood to be a kind of alliteration. What sets it apart from alliteration is that it is the repetition of only consonant sounds. Consonance is the opposite of assonance, which implies repetitive usage of vowel sounds.
ENJAMBMENT: Enjambment is the continuation of a sentence or clause over a line-break. If a poet allows all the sentences of a poem to end in the same place as regular line-breaks, a kind of deadening can happen in the ear, and in the brain too, as all the thoughts can end up being the same length. Enjambment is one way of creating audible interest.
ONOMATOPOEIA: The use of words which sound like what they describe; e.g. "buzz, whir, babble," for bees, saws, and gossip; e.g.: “There be more wasps that buzz about his nose" (Henry VIII, 3.2).
REPETITION: The return of a word, phrase, stanza form, or effect in any form of literature. Repetition is an effective literary device that may bring comfort, suggest order, or add special meaning to a piece of literature.
RHYME SCHEME: The rhyme scheme is the practice of rhyming words placed at the end of the lines in the prose/ poetry. Rhyme scheme refers to the order in which particular words rhyme. If the alternate words rhyme, it is an “a-b-a-b” rhyme scheme, which means “a” is the rhyme for the lines 1 and 3 and “b” is the rhyme affected in the lines 2 and 4. Rhyme can add rhythm and voice to a poem; it also contributes to mood.


How do I ANALYZE these sound devices when I am writing paragraphs to analyze poetry?
Questions to Consider:

  • What mood do the sound devices put me in? How? Why?

  • Do the sound devices inhibit or enhance the flow of the poem? When do sound devices make the poem move faster? Why? How? When do the sound devices slow down the reading of the poem or create pauses in the flow? How? Why?

  • Are there patterns of sound devices? How do these patterns create an effect in the poem?

  • Do these sound devices create a sense of rhythm in the poem? What does this rhythm feel like? How does it appeal to readers’ emotions, and why?





Visual (& other sensory) Devices___________

JUXTAPOSITION: The arrangement of two or more ideas, characters, actions, settings, phrases, or words side-by-side or in similar narrative moments for the purpose of comparison, contrast, suspense, or character development. 
IMAGERY: The use of words to create pictures or to evoke other senses (smell, touch, sound, taste).  An author can use lively description to create vivid pictures in the mind or appeal to other sensory experience; e.g. "Why do the lilies goggle their tongues at me/ When I pluck them" (Amy Lowell’s Grotesque). Shakespeare's description of incessant ocean waves to convey the inevitability of death: "Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore, So do our minutes hasten to their end" (Sonnet 60).  Any figures of speech such as SIMILES and METAPHORS to visualize a mood, idea or CHARACTER.  Imagery may involve all the senses, but usually involves the sense of sight.
METAPHOR: A figure of speech in which one thing is equated with something else.  A comparison of different things by speaking of them directly, as if they were the same. One of the most famous metaphors is Shakespeare’s, “All the world’s a stage,” a line from As You Like It, 2.7.  Metaphor is one of the most common and powerful of all literary devices.
PERSONIFICATION: Attributing human qualities to inanimate objects, to animals, things or ideas; e.g. “the man in the moon.”  
SIMILE: A comparison of different things by speaking of them as "like" or "as" the same; e.g. "thy two eyes, like stars.”  The simile "Oh, my love is like a red, red rose," for example, serves as the title and first line to a poem by Robert Burns. 
SYMBOLISM: The use of words or objects to stand for or represent other things. A symbol is something that stands for something else; if a work of literature or poetry were to come to life, the symbol would materialize with the rest of the story. Symbols may convey a number of meanings. In Markus Zusak’s novel, I Am the Messenger, the Ace of Hearts symbolizes Ed’s most personal challenges. Hearts get right to Ed’s heart, his closest friends, and his most personal issues, and the Ace is the most powerful card in the deck, so it cuts right into Ed where it matters and where it hurts.


  • How do I ANALYZE these visual and sensory devices when I am writing paragraphs to analyze poetry?
    Questions to Consider:

    • Are the images literal or figurative, abstract or concrete? What is the effect on the reader?

    • What sensory experiences are evoked? How do these experiences make readers feel (mood)?

    • Are certain images repeated? What is the significance of these patterns?

    • Does any image or action suggest such complex abstract meanings beyond itself that it functions as a symbol with greater meaning in this work?

    • Are the sensory literary devices ordinary and conventional, or unique and surprising? How does this affect the meaning of the piece?


Diction and Syntax Terms

(Words and sentence structure!)____________
CONNOTATION: The emotion or association that a word or phrase may arouse; the suggested, implied or evocative meaning of a word. For example, an author may use the figurative meaning of a word for its effect upon the reader, as in the line: "Dost thou look up?" the speaker is really asking: Are you looking for help from above, i.e. from heaven? (Leonato to the Friar in Much Ado, 4.1). In this instance, the meaning of the word “up” goes beyond its literal, directional meaning.

 

DENOTATION: The explicit or literal meaning of a word used in order to emphasize a specific, important fact; e.g. In Much Ado About Nothing, Claudio is asked if he comes "to marry" the lady (Hero), and he replies, “no.” Leonato uses the denotative meaning of “marry” as "to officiate a wedding ceremony," as opposed to "getting married" to try to laugh off the situation and help the wedding move smoothly (4.1).


 

DICTION: The distinctive vocabulary chosen by a particular author.  The author’s decision to use each particular word influences the writing’s ability to persuade, create an effect, convey a meaning, and appeal to readers’ emotions.

 

DOUBLE-ENTENDRE: From the French: “double meaning” (pron.: “DOO-bluh on-TAWN-dreh).  A literary device which consists of a double meaning, especially when the second meaning is impolite or risqué.  For example, Romeo and Juliet opens with a crude conversation full of sexual innuendo between Samson and Gregory, servants of the house of Capulet, that continues even when Montagues show up and Samson says, “My naked weapon is out” (1.1.33-34). Gross!


HYPERBOLE: From the Greek; pron.: high-PURR-beh-lee.  Exaggeration for effect; Jonathan Swift’s satiric essay, “A Modest Proposal” uses hyperbole extensively Proposals to roast the children of the poor, use their skin to make fashionable gloves, and so on, are ridiculously exaggerated to create a gruesome effect in an incisive satire.
MALAPROPISM: A comic misuse of common words; e.g. Dogberry exclaims to Borachio that he will be "condemned to everlasting redemption," a mistake that makes Dogberry look foolish and adds comic relief (Much Ado About Nothing, 4.2).
OXYMORON: A figure of speech that combines opposite qualities in a single term; e.g. open secret; original copy; definite maybe. Notice the oxymorons in A Midsummer Night's Dream, as Theseus speaks: "A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus And his love Thisby; very tragical mirth.' Merry and tragical! tedious and brief!  That is hot ice and wondrous strange snow" (5.1).  Etymology: from the Greek: oxys- sharp, keen; moros- foolish.  
PUN: A humorous use of words which sound alike; how punny! (See double-entendre for more comprehensive definition. They are essentially the same thing.)
SYNTAX: An author’s distinctive form of sentence construction.  Distinctive forms include: very long sentences; very short sentences; sentence types, and sentence patterns.  Good authors are very intentional about sentence construction.  Very long sentences may be intended to suggest confusion or to simulate a rapid flow of ideas or emotions; or perhaps to illustrate the enormity or weight of a situation.  Very short sentences may be intended to emphasize factuality, create shock, or to stress a key idea.  
UNDERSTATEMENT: A statement which says less than is really meant.  It is a figure of speech which is the opposite of HYPERBOLE. Hyperbole exaggerates; understatement minimizes.  In Much Ado About Nothing, when Benedick says, "This looks not like a nuptial," he is greatly understating the fact that what was supposed to be a joyful wedding has turned into bitter hostility, a veritable nightmare for Hero (Much Ado, 4.1). 

How do I ANALYZE diction and syntax when I am writing paragraphs to analyze poetry?
Questions to Consider:

  • What words does the author choose to emphasize? What does this choice in words show about the speaker’s/author’s background and purpose in writing?

  • What are the connotative and denotative meanings of the word choice? For important words in the text, which meaning is more important—the connotative meaning or the denotative meanings? Why does this matter in the poem?

  • How does the speaker’s decision to use each particular word influence the speaker’s ability or failure to persuade, set a tone, or elicit an emotional response in the reader?

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  • What grammatical structure does the author choose to make his or her point?

  • How long or short are the sentences or lines? How does this affect the writing?

  • Why did the author choose this sentence structure?

  • How does this sentence structure contribute to tone and enhance meaning & effect?

  • How does this sentence structure convince others to agree with the speaker or cause the speaker’s message to offend, push away, or disgust listeners or readers?





Deeper Thinking Literary Terms_____________
ALLEGORY: An extended story which carries a deeper meaning below the surface.  The story makes sense on a literal level but also conveys another more important meaning.  The deeper meaning is usually spiritual, moral or political.  An allegory (character, setting or action) is one-dimensional: it stands for only one thing. Parables, fables and satires are all forms of allegory.  Famous allegories include: Dante's, Divine Comedy; Bunyan's, Pilgrim’s Progress; and C.S. Lewis’s, Chronicles of Narnia. 

 

ALLUSION: A literary device which creates interests through a brief, indirect reference to another literary work, usually for the purpose of associating the tone or theme of the one work with the other.  Shakespeare's plays are full of allusions to the Bible and Greek mythology. In Edgar Alan Poe’s poem, “To Helen” he worships the unmatchable beauty encapsulated in Greek mythology when he opens his poem with, “Helen, thy beauty is to me/ Like those Nicéan barks of yore.” On the other hand, H.D.’s indirect allusion to Helen, “All Greece hates/ the still eyes in the white face,/ the lustre as of olives/where she stands,/ and the white hands,” also references Helen of Troy’s mythical beauty, but does so in a way that expresses bitterness against the shallow idolization of female beauty in patriarchal Western culture.



CONFLICT: A struggle between two opposing forces or characters in a short story, novel, play, or narrative poem. Conflict can be internal or external, and it can take one of these forms:

  1. Person vs. self

  2. Person vs. person

  3. Person vs. society

  4. Person vs. nature

  5. Person vs. technology

  6. Person vs. supernatural

FORESHADOWING: Hints of future events through unusual circumstances in the present; for example, the prologue to Romeo and Juliet, while not discreet, foreshadows the play’s tragic end.

 

IRONY: Using a word or situation to mean the opposite of its usual or literal meaning, usually done in humor, sarcasm or disdain; e.g. "It's as easy as lying."  A contradiction between what something appears to mean and what it really means. Sophocles' created a dramatic or tragic irony in the structure of his play Oedipus Rex.  The king exerts himself throughout the play in an effort to find his father's murderer; it turns out that the one he seeks is himself.  In literature there are three primary types of irony, as just mentioned:

 

  1. verbal irony, when a character says one thing and means something else.



  2. dramatic irony is when an audience perceives something that a character in the literature does not know, or when one character is unaware of his/her situation but other characters are aware.

3. situational irony is when what happens is the opposite of what is expected to happen.

 

MOOD: The atmosphere that pervades a literary work with the intention of evoking a certain emotion or feeling from the audience. The moods evoked by the more popular short stories of Edgar Allen Poe, for example, tend to be gloomy, horrific, and desperate.
MOTIF: One of the key repeating ideas or literary devices which supports the main THEME of a literary work.  It may consist of a character, a recurrent image or verbal pattern. In Sophocles’ Antigone, repeated familial interactions (motif) lead readers toward larger themes such as: loyalty to family trumps loyalty to the state.   

 
PARADOX: A statement that appears to be contradictory, but which reveals a deeper (or higher) truth.  For example, one of the most important principles of good writing is this: “Less is more.”  It means that the most effective writing is clear and focused; everything extraneous is avoided.  G.K. Chesterton was a master of paradox.  He called it: “truth standing on its head to gain attention.”  As Chesterton used the term, a paradox can refer both to a true statement, which at first seems to be false; and to a false statement, which at first seems to be true.  For example: “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.” Another example is Christ’s paradox: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it” (Lk. 9:24).


POINT OF VIEW: The intellectual or emotional perspective held by a NARRATOR in connection with a story. Here are the main possibilities:

 

1. FIRST PERSON PARTICIPANT - the story is narrated by one of the main



   characters in the story (e.g. Markus Zusak’s I Am the Messenger).

2. FIRST PERSON OBSERVER - the story is narrated by a minor character,

   someone plays only a small part in the plot

3. THIRD PERSON OMNISCIENT - the story is narrated not by a character,

   but by an impersonal author who sees and knows everything,

   including characters’ thoughts (e.g. Ursula LeGuin’s The Ones Who Walk



Away from Omelas).

4. THIRD PERSON LIMITED - the story is narrated by the author, but he/

   she focuses on the thinking and actions of a particular character.

5. OBJECTIVE- the story describes only what can be seen, as a newspaper reporter.


PROTAGONIST and ANTAGONIST: A protagonist is the central character in a literary work. An antagonist is a character who is opposite to, or challenges, the protagonist.

 

SATIRE: a literary genre used to ridicule or make fun of human vice or weakness, often with the intent of correcting, or changing, the subject of the satiric attack. Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal is an example of satire.

  

THEME: A theme is an author’s insight about life.  It is the main idea or universal meaning, the lesson or message of a literary work. A theme may not always be explicit or easy to state, and different interpreters may disagree.  Common literary themes involve basic human experiences such as: adventure; alienation; ambition; anger; betrayal; coming-of-age; courage; death; the testing of faith; overcoming fear; jealousy; liberation; love; loyalty; prejudice; the quest for an ideal; struggling with fate; truth-seeking; vengeance.  

  

TONE: The writer’s attitude, mood or moral outlook toward the subject and/or readers, e.g.: as angry, cynical, empathetic, critical, idealistic, ironic, optimistic, realistic, suspicious, comic, surprised, sarcastic or supportive; e.g. when William Carlos Williams tells the reader that he ate his last plum in This is Just to Say, the tone is teasing or mocking. The speaker in Williams poem is laughing at the subject.



 


How do I ANALYZE these deeper thinking literary terms when I am writing paragraphs to analyze poetry?
Questions to Consider:

  • What outside knowledge or connections are necessary to understanding the use of this literary device in the text? What can I infer based on these connections?

  • Is the speaker the poet or a specific persona? How is the speaker involved in the poem? Is the speaker an omniscient narrator or casual observer? Does the speaker refer to himself/ herself in the 1st person? Is the speaker from an identifiable time period? How does knowing the historical context of the poem change your understanding of the speaker’s attitude? How does who the speaker is in the poem influence its meaning?

  • What is the conflict or point of tension in the poem? Is there an external or internal conflict? Physical, spiritual, moral, philosophical, social, etc? How is the tension in that conflict developed with poetic elements? Is it resolved? Why does its resolution or lack thereof matter to the meaning of the poem?

  • Does the tone change as the poem progresses? Is it consistent at the beginning and ending of the poem? Why does this change or consistency matter to the meaning of the poem overall?



VOICE: An author’s distinctive literary style, basic vision and general attitude toward the world.  This “voice” is revealed through an author’s use of SYNTAX (sentence construction); DICTION (distinctive vocabulary); PUNCTUATION; CHARACTERIZATION and DIALOGUE.  
Poetry Specific Terms______________________
BLANK VERSE: Unrhymed poetry written in iambic pentameter.
FREE VERSE: A type of poetry which avoids the patterns of regular rhyme or meter.  Rhyme may be used, but with great freedom.  There is no regular meter or line length.  The poet relies instead upon DICTION, IMAGERY and SYNTAX to create a coherent whole.  Most contemporary poetry is written in free verse.  However, it is not without its detractors.  T. S. Eliot once said that: "No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job," and Robert Frost remarked that writing free verse was like "playing tennis without a net".  
HEROIC COUPLET: One of the most common forms of English poetry.  It consists of two rhymed lines of iambic pentameter which together express a complete thought. Shakespeare's sonnets typically end with a heroic couplet, e.g.: “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see/ So long lives this, and this gives life to thee;” (18); “For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds:/ Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds” (94).
LYRIC POETRY: A type of poem which was originally a song meant to be sung to the accompaniment of a musical instrument, the lyre.  It was associated with songs of celebration and dancing.  Ancient examples include some of the Psalms of David, in the Old Testament, and some of the choral odes in the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles.  The SONNET is also considered a form of lyric poetry.
METER: Repeated patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables in poetry (from the Greek, "metron": “measure”).  In English the most common patterns are these:

 

  1. iambic, with measures of two syllables, in which the first is unaccented and the second is accented; e.g. “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” (A. Tennyson, “Ulysses”);



  2. dactylic, with measures of three syllables, in which the first is accented, the other two are not, e.g.: “Rage, goddess, sing the rage, of Peleus’ son, Achilles” (Homer, The Iliad);

  3. trochaic, with measures of two syllables, the first accented and the second unaccented, e.g.: “”Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater” (Nursery Rhyme);

  4. anapestic, with measures of three syllables, with the only accent on final syllable, e.g.: “The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold, And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold” (Byron, Destruction of Sennacherib);

  5. spondaic, with measures of two syllables, both of them accented, e.g.: “Rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs, dens and shades of death” (Milton, Paradise Lost).

 

The number of times these patterns are repeated in a single line is referred to as the number of metrical “feet”: once: monometer; twice: dimeter; thrice: trimeter; four times: tetrameter; five times, pentameter; etc.  The great epics of Greece and Rome were composed in dactylic hexameter (Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, and Virgil's Aeneid) in their original languages (Greek and Latin).  Shakespeare usually wrote in iambic pentameter, e.g.: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” (Sonnet 18). Today most poetry is characterized by FREE VERSE, a type of poetry which does not conform to a regular meter.



 

PROSE POEM: Though the name of the form may appear to be a contradiction, the prose poem essentially appears as prose, but reads like poetry. In the first issue of The Prose Poem: An International Journal, editor Peter Johnson explained, "Just as black humor straddles the fine line between comedy and tragedy, so the prose poem plants one foot in prose, the other in poetry, both heels resting precariously on banana peels." While it lacks the line breaks associated with poetry, the prose poem maintains a poetic quality, often utilizing techniques common to poetry, such as intense imagery, alliteration, repetition, and rhyme. The prose poem can range in length from a few lines to several pages long, and it may explore a limitless array of styles and subjects.
SONNET: The sonnet is a fourteen-line lyric poem in predominantly iambic pentameter, with a formal rhyme scheme. Although there can be considerable variation in rhyme scheme, most English sonnets are written in either the Italian (Petrarchan) style or the English (Shakespearean) style.

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*  Sources which have been used for reference in the creation of this glossary include: "Guide to Literary Terms," enotes.com; "Glossary of Fiction Terms," McGraw-Hill Higher Education Online; "Glossary of Literary Terms," Robert H. Harris; “Literary Terms and Definitions,” Dr. L. K. Wheeler, Carson-Newman College; “Glossary of Literary Terms,” the Reading/Writing Center, Hunter College; J.A. Cuddon, The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms (1991); Karl Beckson and Arthur Ganz, A Reader's Guide to Literary Terms (1967); Chris Baldick, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (2001); A Guide to the Study of Literature: A Companion Text for Core Studies 6, Landmarks of Literature, English Department  Brooklyn College; Eng. 1001: Using Effective Diction, Randy Rambo; poets.org


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