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2. OBJECTIVES- a). to offer students knowledge and perspective on the

nature of poetry;

- b). to provide students with the tools of poem analysis and


- c). to make students aware of the fact that poetry has an

essential role in education.


a). Trying to describe the nature of poetry;

b). Procedures for interpretation: reference and representation;

c). Dissociation from context: the poem on the page;

d). Time and place in a different dimension;

e). Alternative realities;

f). Intertextual associations;

g). The meaning escapes .. ;

h). Glossary of terms.


At the end of the semester,students present a project based on the information

acquired. Participation in the courses will also count.


Carter R.A. Language and Literature: An Introduction in Stylistics,

London: Allen and Unwin, 1982

Culler J. The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics,Literature, Deconstruction,

London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981.

Fowler R.Literature as Social Discourse: The Practice of Linguistic

Criticism, London: Batsford, 1981.

Levinson S. Pragmatics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.


H. G. Stylistics and the Teaching of Literature, London: Longman,



H. G. Explorations in Applied Linguistics 2, Oxford: Oxford University

Press, 1984.


There are lots of ways of describing the nature of poetry and accounting for its significance, all of them theoretical constructs designed to demonstrate by argument that they are right, while others are wrong. However, they are ultimately based on individual attitude, subjective dispositions that persuade the others to accept them as having more general validity. Therefore, it seems only appropriate to tackle the issue in a personal key.

We will start from a place usually regarded as one where man finds his eternal peace, you have surely guessed – a cemetery. Here, the gravestones bear the record of bereavement; all that is left of love and grief is an engraved trace in simple words: died, fell asleep, passed away, called to rest. The conventional euphemisms are attempts to disguise this awful final deprivation. It is not very impressive poetry by any aesthetic standards. It is mere verbal carrying. It can be easily dismissed as doggerel. And yet, these faltering attempts at giving shape to sorrow reveal a good deal about the essential nature of poetic art.

His memory is as dear today

As in the hour he passed away.

(Ernest C. Draper ‘Ern’. Died …)

There is a link death cannot sever,

Love and remembrance live for ever.

(Jonn Reed. Died …)

Certainly, all these cannot be true. Love and remembrance do not live for ever, they fade in the minds of the living until they die in their turn. Then why do we record such falsehood in stone? Perhaps because at the time they were not felt as falsehoods, but as true to some sense of reality which is not accountable to conventional conditions of truth. They represent expressions of conviction at a different level of awareness. On the other hand, the fact that I (or anybody in the cemetery) can read these lines means that in a sense the love and remembrance which prompted the composition do live for as long as the gravestone remains. The very recording of the falsehood ensures its survival as a kind of truth situated in a different dimension, not subject to conventional concepts of time. One point about poetry is that it outlives and transcends the occasion of its composition, and transfers its significance to strangers in another time and place.

Day by day we all do miss her.

Words would fail our loss to tell.

But in heaven we hope to meet her,

Evermore with her to dwell.

(Daisy Hiller. Died…)

Here is one answer to the problem of truth and permanence: the plane of religious reality. Heaven is by definition an absolute that exists for ever. Poetry as an attempt to capture what is fleeting coexists with different institutionalized formulations of other worlds. The text on the gravestone carries the sound of church singing, and this too is part of its meaning. As with all poems, this one vibrates with intertextual implication, for all poetry is a kind of reverberation of endless echoes. There is, in this verse, a certain alignment with orthodox religion. But this co-occurs with unorthodox resoning, e.g.:

Words would fail our loss to tell.

This is a contradiction: the words do tell the loss. The logical implication of the line is denied in its very expression. Words would fail, so we will not use them; but we do use them, and so, they do not actually fail. This paradox cannot be rationally resolved. Again, this seems to be a feature of poetry in general: it cannot be interpreted by a direct application of conventional logic. In these lines, the expression of religious conformity coexists with a contrary expression of rational non-conformity. There is a similar disparity between the regularity of the sound patterns of the poem, its rhythm and rhyme, and the irregularity of its grammar. Words would fail our loss to tell, instead of the usual word order: Words would fail to tell our loss. This seems to suggest that in order to express an awareness of experience which is out of the ordinary, we need to mould ordinary language into a different shape. We need to disrupt conventional patterns of thought and expression and reformulate them into patterns observing different principles of order.

Thus, we can discern in these simple epitaphs features that are common to all poetry: the fashioning of thought and language to capture the elusive sense of reality in a different dimension, the paradoxical expression of what cannot be expressed, the verbal echoing. To be sure, these epitaphs lack the artistry of poems canonized as works of literature. Only the stone they are carved in gives them permanence. None would survive in print. And yet, they are humble kin to the sonnets of Shakespeare and the odes of Keats.

It is important that this kinship should be recognized. The need to give poetic form to feelings which cannot be adequately contained within conventional utterance is everywhere apparent in our daily life. We see it in clumsy compositions of epitaphs and obituaries, in greeting cards and valentines, in popular songs, etc. Unfortunately, this poetic instinct is suppressed in our schooling by a discontinuity between these rhymes and simle verses and the canonized work of established poetry. Children are confronted with a literature which is culturally distanced from them, remote and sanctified, one which they cannot relate to, by reference to their own experience. No wonder that they regard it as classroom drudgery and reject it. How many people read poetry willingly and for pleasure? The fact that they are so few is evidence of a massive educational failure.

Sanctifying poetry, literature in general, is falsifying it. The only reality it will suggest is the conventional one of classroom values which call for condformity. Instead of inspiring an exploration of individual experience, it will simply confirm that which is established by authority.

And with sanctity comes solemnity, which is again a misrepresentation. The epitaphs quoted earlier are testimony to the baffled sorrow of bereavement. They deserve respect, but, like all taboo topics, death can also provoke deliberate disrespect; it can be made comical, e.g.:

Lie heavy on him earth, for he,

Laid many a heavy weight on thee.

Funeral ritual conventionally calls for social decorum, but feelings cannot be easily contained within such conventions and they will occasionally break out into irreverence, e.g.

Here lies the body of Mary Ann Lowder,

She burst while drinking a seidlitz powder.

Called from this world to her heavenly rest,

She should have waited till it effervesced.


Beneath this slab

John Brown is stowed

He watced the ads

And not the road.

(Ogden Nash)

Therefore, not all literature is solemn, and none of it is sacrosanct. Poetry may be sublime, but it can also be ridiculous. And it may ridicule itself by parody. To surround poetry with an aura of sanctity is to bestow upon it established social values which it is its very essence to transcend.

W.H.Auden’s lines are relevant in this respect:

By all means let us touch our humble caps to

La poésie pure, the epic narrative;

But comedy shall get its round of claps too,

According to his powers, each may give;

Only on varied diet can we live.

The pious fable and the dirty story

Share in the total literary glory.

(Letter to Lord Byron)

At this point it would be easy to conclude that canonized poetry, being so culturally remote, should be removed from the curriculum, in favour of writing of more immediately popular appeal. This would be a mistaken conclusion. Literature needs to be democratized, but not by deprivation. To deny children access to great literature is to keep it within the preserve of an elite. So, it is not a matter of replacing the prestigious with the popular, but of developing an awareness of how they are related, how they share the literary glory which everybody is entitled to experience. The task of education is to reveal their kinship.

As it was mentined earlier, one common feature of poetry is the fashioning of language to represent awareness which eludes conventional expression. The effect is to give poignancy to words which ultimately cannot be explained, but only experienced. What happens to poetry, whether lofty or lowly, is that the customary correspondences between words and the world are disrupted and realigned.

These customary correspondences are crucial, since they bind us to the world we live in, and provide us with the necessary illusions of security and control. The Bible asserts their primacy: In the beginning was the word. Thus, it is not surprising that Adam’s first recorded act in Genesis is the setting up of such correspondences in the naming of the animals. He is not free to give his own names; he is directed by divinity. And we are all directed in upbringing to the formulation of correspondences between words and world which are recognized in our own languages. The idiosyncratic names that children give as they begin to categorize the reality around them are modified into conformity, essential condition of membership of their community. In this way, individuality is subordinated to the communal values of society. What poetry does is, in some measure, to restore individuality by allowing for the expression of alternative values. The old Adam in the poet finds other names for the familiar, and no Lord God or social convention can tell him he is wrong. Similarly, an Australian myth has it that once the world is named, or sung into existence, it becomes authorized. Yet, this does not prevent us from sensing other potential worlds which might have been called into being but were not. All presences imply absences, and our routine reality is haunted by what could be, should be, might have been. Poetry explores these absences, the meanings which lie unrealized in the interstices of conventionalized thought. It sings other worlds into existence, by exploring the unused resources of language.

As far as the content of poems is concerned, if we try to sum up the essentials of ordinary observation, we will find it unimpressive. Time passes, being in love is a wonderful feeling, nature is beautiful, life is lonely. Very true, these truisms, and so what? The essentials of poetry lie in the way language is used to elaborate on such simple propositions, so that they are reformulated in unfamiliar terms which capture the underlying mystery of the commonplace.

Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,

So do our minutes hasten to their end…

(Shakespeare: Sonnets, 60)

Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,

Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time…

(Donne: The Sun Rising)

The trees are in their autumn beauty,

The woodland paths are dry,

Under the October twilight the water

Mirrors a still sky…

(Yeats: The Wild Swans at Coole)

And I, the last, go forth companionless,

And the days darken round me, and the years,

Among new men, srange faces, other minds…

(Tennyson: Morte d’Arthur)

Poems are uses of language, and they can only be understood as such. But since these uses are unusual, they have to be understood in ways which are different from those which are common in the management of ordinary life. That is why, the significance and releance of poetry will reveal themselves only if we personalize it.



What procedures might be employed for the interpretation of poetry? Let us consider a short and seemingly simple poem by W.B. Yeats.


One had a lovely face,

And two or three had charm,

But charm and face were in vain

Because the mountain grass

Cannot but keep the form

Where the mountain hare has lain.

The first impression we get as we read the poem is that the meaning seems to pass us by, fleeting and elusive, like images seen from a moving train, and we arrive at the end of the poem without any clear idea of what has actually been said: something about faces and charm and mountain grass and mountain hare. We return, try to get the poem into focus by recurrent reading. This initial elusiveness, and the refocusing that it provokes, are, of course, part of the significance of the poem, because they are phases in our experience of its meaning. If we hold the poem still and look at it more closely, what features come into focus?

We are presented with a complex proposition contained within a single orthographic sentence. We customarily process written language by taking such orthographic sentences (consisting as they might of several grammatical sentences) as units of meaning, assuming that whatever is incomplete or unclear will be resolved by reference to other sentences coming before or after, or to some knowledge of external context – who produced the sentence, when, where, and under what circumstances? It is because such assumptions prove to be mistaken on this occasion, that we find ourselves suddenly stranded at the end of our first reading. For this sentence is self-contained and makes no connection. We do not know the contextual conditions of its composition. It follows from nothing that has preceded, and anticipates nothing in the way of continuity. It comes out of the blue and it goes nowhere. We have a number of related propositions arranged syntactically as a series of clauses comprising one orthographic sentence, and arranged prosodically as six lines of verse. And that is all. It is because it is so cut off, thus denying us the usual recourse to cross-reference, that we are prompted to return to the poem to find out what we might have missed on the first time round. And this incitement to re-reading carries the implicit claim that what we missed is particularly significant, and well worth returning for. Of course, we can always resist this prompting of the poem and refuse to re-read. We can be frustrated rather than stimulated, and abandon efforts at understanding.

Let us come back to our poem, though. Let us try to get its meaning into focus. We know from the title that it is memory, not a memory, or the memory, or memories. On the most natural interpretation, therefore, the poem is about the capacity for remembering. So, the title primes the reader to expect the poem to say something about the nature of memory in general. What then, according to the poem, is memory?

It is not at all clear. To begin with, instead of some general statement about memory, we first encounter particular remembrances of individual people. Only in the second half of the poem is the expectation prompted by the title actually satisfied, by the assumption that memory is likened to trace of the hare in the mountain grass. This is a striking image, but an elusive one. For how does it represent a generalization based on what is said in the rest of the poem? And why does it appear in the second three lines and not at the beginning, where the title might lead us to expect? We might try to adjust the poem so that it does conform more closely to this expectation and make connections between the general nature of memory and particular remembrances more explicit.


Memory is like the mountain grass

That cannot but keep the form

Where the mountain hare has lain

So though one has a lovely face,

And two or three had charm,

Face and charm were in vain.

The poem thus recomposed conforms more closely to the title. It is about memory in general, and particular remembrances are mentioned as supporting illustration, whereas the original is about remembrances in particular and the general nature of memory is mentioned as explanation. The rhetoric is changed, but the logical relationship between the propositions remains the same: A because B (the original)= B so A (the reformulation). In this sense, the two versions can be said to express essentially the same meaning.

They do not, of course, have the same effect. Our rhetorical variant seems clumsy in comparison, awkward in its very conformity. But it has heuristic, if not aesthetic value in that it draws attention to features of the original which are lost in the variant. For in the reformulation of the propositional content of the poem, we are necessarily made aware of the logic of the argument.

And it turns out to be very curious, even contradictory. If memory is like the mountain grass which cannot do otherwise than retain the impression of the mountain hare, then we would normally conclude that the face and the charm associated with people in the past would not be in vain, since they would be similarly impressed on the memory. Conversely, if they are in vain, then we would suppose that this is because they are not remembered, which would be consistent with the mountain grass not taking the impression of the mountain hare.

One way of making our revised version consistent with a normal pattern of reasoning, would be to adjust the first part to accommodate the second. We could do this by omitting but in the second line. We could also regularize the original in just the same way. Alternatively, we might adjust the second part of our variant to accommodate the first. This could require rather more emendation. So, we propose the following:


Memory is like the mountain grass

That cannot but keep the form

Where the mountain hare has lain,

So the one with a lovely face

And the two or three with charm

Their face and charm retain.

So far, we have been trying to make the argument conform to conventional reasoning,while still retaining the semblance of poetic utterance by working within Yeats’s prosodic framework. Of course, we could dispense with the vertical arrangement, the patterns of meter and rhyme, and simply transpose the essentials of the argument into ordinary prosaic terms. The inconsistency mentioned before is thus brought out even more starkly:

Memory can be likened to the mountain grass, which will take the impression of the mountain hare that has lain down on it. So the lovely faces of people I have known, and their particular charm, fail to leave an impression on the memory.

Yet, even if we were to normalize the argument (by the simple expedient of deleting fail to form the text) the prose paraphrase raises further doubts about its coherence. The mountain grass, for example, may take the impression of the hare, but this is only a trace, a sign of absence, and it is, furthermore, transient, for it does not keep the impression for long. So we are to draw the implication that memory, in like manner, can only provide us with fading traces of past experience? Is that why face and charm are in vain? Again, the mountain grass, it is said, cannot but take the form of the resting hare; this seems reasonable since, being inanimate, it is the passive receiver of the impression. Is there an implication, then, that memory is similarly inert, that things impinge upon it, that it cannot be activated to respond, cannot be subject to volition? If so, then the very attempt at remembering is in vain. The prose paraphrase reveals how much of the argument remains inexplicit and in need of explanation.

These reformulations in prose and verse are attempts to recast the propositional content of the original poem to conform to conventional procedures of understanding. What they reveal is that the meaning of the poem cannot be captured in this way. We need to take another tack. Rather than to adapt the poem to our understanding, we should perhaps try to adapt our understanding to the poem.

The difficulties arise from the assumption that, given its title, the poem should be read as making reference to human memory in order to describe it, or define it, or explain its effects. As we have seen, measured against customary criteria, it is unclear and confusing. But what if the poem is not meant to be read referentially in this way? What if we were to read it, not as a reference to the nature of memory, but as a representation of the very experience of remembering? In this case, the unclarity and inconsequence are entirely appropriate, for these are common features of the experience. So, let us focus on the poem again, but adjusting the lens of our perception to this particular perspective.

We might begin by noticing that the first lines of the poem set it straightaway in a non-referential key. In normal communicative circumstances the pronoun one and two or three (in the sense of ‘a few’ – a small but indefinite number) would be used in reference to things, events, persons which are known already and can be identified. If someone were to say in conversation that one had a lovely face, then we would naturally want to know, if we did not know already, who or what exactly was being referred to. The pronoun is indexical: it points towards knowledge assumed to be shared. But as the pronouns occur in the poem, they point into a void and identify nothing. Who are they, this one, these two or three? They are presumably people, probably women, perhaps young women. We might infer this by invoking usual associations of loveliness and charm. But there is no way of knowing for certain. No identification is provided in the poem, and none is possible by considering any context outside the poem, because no such context exists. The terms fail to refer. What do they do then? They represent. They represent minimal traces of individuals retained in memory, separate, but not easily distinguished, with only the impression of their appearance and manner (face and charm) remaining as vestiges of their identity.

These images of the past seem to increase in vagueness as the poem proceeds through the first three lines, representing perhaps the gradual fading in memory. All of the images in these three lines are expressed through indefinite noun phrases, but they diminish in particularity, line by line. Thus, we begin with a specific indefinite person (one), go on in the next line to a non-specific number of them (two or three), and then to their attributes (charm and face), now dissociated from the persons concerned, and expressed as disembodied abstractions. We might note that these attributes occur in the third line in the reversed order of their previous mention (charm and face, not face and charm) which further strengthens the impression of dissociation. Perception of these effects can be sharpened by comparing the original with a version rewritten along the following lines:

One had a lovely face,

Another had lively charm,

But their face and charm were in vain …

Here, the language no longer represents the experience of remembering; The sense of the elusive fading of images in memory is lost in the increased referential precision.

What about the last three lines? If the first three represent the actual working of the mind in the effort of remembering particulars, what do these last lines represent? They might represent the working of the mind in thinking, in reflecting on the nature of memory in general. The actual process of thinking does not have to conform to the canons of logical exposition, it can work by intuitive association, by cognitive scatter, by metaphorical connection of images. This process has its own reality and carries its own conviction.

The most obvious indication that we are moving from the actual to the abstract is the appearance in line 4 of the logical connector because, heralding an explanation. We also note that whereas all the NPs in the first three lines were indefinite, here in the last three lines, they are all definite (the mountain grass, the form, the mountain hare). But although definite, these NPs do not make specific reference to particulars assumed to be mutually shared. They have generic meaning and so express a generalization. These lines seem to be an explanation, but actually they do not explain anything. Just as the first lines, the last ones represent the process of reflecting on an experience, not as explanation, but as rumination.

In this view, we can note that it is not just any grass which takes the impression of any hare; it is the mountain grass, the mountain hare. Why? The mutual modifier ‘mountain’ has the effect of bringing the two into close association, and the image of the mountain is made prominent by repetition. What is it about the nature of remembering that is represented by this metaphor? One idea might be that the hare and the grass are of their nature associated, so what is impressed on the mind is something which the mind is already disposed to receive. Another idea might be that since grass is inanimate and it is the animate hare that acts upon it, so the memory is the passive receiver of impressions and is acted upon in the same way. This interpretation, based on the association of images resolves the apparent contradiction in the argument of the poem that was discussed earlier. If we read these lines as ruminative association rather than rational argument, as representation rather than reference, there is no contradiction.

Mountain grass, mountain hare. The mental landscape of memory can be likened to mountains. One might think of the world perceived from a mountain and receding into distance, details becoming indistinct as they do in the memory over time. One might think of the mountain as remote from the surrounding reality as memory is remote from the actuality of experience.

These are some ideas that might be invoked by these images. Unconstrained by the usual communicative requirement to shape language to fit contextual conditions, or a conventional pattern of accepted sense, the mind is free to exploit the possibilities of meaning. However, the ideas do not disperse in aimless scatter, they reform into different patterns of meaning consistent with the patterning of the poem. Nothing can be clear and definite. The meaning is bound to be elusive, for the process of rumination, of trying to discover significance is similarly imprecise. The poem represents the process of understanding, of discovering order; it does not provide us with a finished product fashioned to conform to conventional standards of rational explanation.



When we discussed Yeats’s poem, we observed that the indefinite pronoun in the first line (One had a lovely face) could not be assigned referential meaning in the normal way, because there was nothing in the context for it to refer. We suggested that the very indefiniteness of the pronoun became prominent, and could be said to represent the experience of imprecise recollection. The general point here is that the very detachment of a poem from context, its dislocation, has the effect of focusing the reader’s attention on the language itself, and the way it connects with the patterning of language within the poem. The appearance of the poem on the page represents this dislocation; it is set aside, surrounded by white space, like a picture frame. This signals that we are to read it for representational, not referential significance.

With this in mind, let us consider the following piece of language:

This is just to say that I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox. They were delicious, so sweet and so cold. But you were probably saving them for breakfast. Forgive me.

This is most naturally read as a note, written on a scrap of paper, left in a kitchen for somebody to find in the morning, when coming down for breakfast; a little domestic confession and apology, a casual and hasty scribble. As such, its purpose would be served just as well by an alternative phrasing:

This is just to say that I found some plums in the icebox. They were so deliciously sweet and cold that I ate them all. But then I realized that you were probably saving them for breakfast. Sorry about that. See you later.

The recipient of such a note, the wife probably, would in all likelihood glance at it, take in the gist, react with exasperation, or tolerance, and think no more about it. It would be strange if she were to subject the language to close scrutiny and look for any special significance in the choice of word or phrase. After all, it is only a note. As such it connects up with a familiar context and is part of the continuity of domestic life.

How about the propositions expressed in the note, being fashioned into a poem?

This is just to say

I have eaten

the plums

that were in

the icebox

and which

you were probably


for breakfast.

Forgive me

they were delicious

so sweet

and so cold.

(William Carlos Williams)

This is no longer a note. The propositions make no reference to any shared knowledge of plums or icebox: they are displayed as significant in themselves, without connection with context, disposed in a pattern that lays claim to its own independent coherence.

One consequence of this contextual detachment is that we are positioned differently as readers. In the case of the note, we are in the position of the third-person observer of other people’s private communication, which has point only for them, and which we have no business to read, even if we thought it of any interest to do so. In the case of the poem, on the other hand, we are drawn into engagement. The supposed participants and the context they appear to share are incorporated into a text which has been composed and made public by somebody else, a superordinate first-person writer, and open to interpretation by a superordinate second-person reader. The people who are involved as participants in the note take on third-person status in the poem, and, in consequence, the reader shifts from observer to participant role.

In this role, the reader is called upon to interpret what is expressed. This cannot be done by usual referential means, for this depends on contextual location, but only by a consideration of what language enclosed within the poem might represent. What might it represent?

We might notice that the expression ‘Forgive me’ is made prominent by the only appearance in the text of a capital letter, its occurrence at the beginning of the verse, and by the fact that it is the only time up to this point in the poem that a complete sentence is enclosed in a single line. All the others are linked together in a syntactic continuity, but this one stands structurally independent. We might further notice that the expression itself seems to be rather formal, which we normally associate with actions that are more reprehensible than the eating of plums. The ‘I’ of the poem has taken his pleasure (let’s suppose that the first person is male) by depriving the second person ‘you’ of the poem of something that she (let’s suppose) has been saving. The word ‘saving’ is also given prominence, for it is the only line in the poem which has a line to itself. What implications or images are called to mind by such emphasis? Saving, keeping carefully, preserving. Could it be that the eating of plums represents the tasting of forbidden fruit, and the deprivation of a “long preserved virginity”(Andrew Marvell)? Perhaps. At all events, whatever the experience, the first person here emphasizes his pleasure, rather than his guilt, for this, too, is made prominent by being expressed within a single line: ‘they were delicious’. And this seems odd. One normally associates confession with contrition. One would expect an apology, but here, on the contrary, what is expressed is not regret, but relish. It is as if this first person is suggesting that the pleasure of the experience is itself a reason for forgiveness.

Yet, the pleasure itself is ambivalent. The last two lines provide a gloss on the one preceding and explain why the plums were delicious (they were sweet and cold). But, whereas all the other lines consist of syntactic elements which are combined in sequential structure, these last two lines consist of elements which are structurally in parallel, i.e. they do not combine, they co-occur. They are like two chords completing the movement of a musical composition. The repetition suggests the insistence on a particular point. The point has to do with contrast, signaled by the conjunction and the repeated word so: ‘so sweet and (yet) so cold’. If there were no such repetition, the contrastive effect would lose its force. Consider for example, this remark by Lear to Cordelia and her reply:

LEAR:So young, and so untender?

CORDELIA:So young, my lord, and true.

In the concluding chords of these last lines, the final note is one of coldness.

As we focus on the particular way in which the propositional content of the poem is formulated, we begin to discern the possibilities of an undercurrent of implied significance. The eating of the plums, apparently so trivial an act in itself, can be read as expressing the experience of a human relationship and an ambivalent attitude towards it: in part guilt, in part gratification; in part positive and pleasurable, in part negative and alienating. This further significance is faint, subjectively apprehended, inexplicit and elusive, as all represented meanings.

Thus, the poem is not just to say that he has eaten the plums in the icebox, as the title says. It is to say more than that, and it is in the manner of saying that this other dimension of meaning is represented. It follows that if the manner of saying were to be altered, then the meanings would no longer have the same warrant in the text.

Let us focus on another feature of the poem. We observe that it is markedly free of the verbal devices which are traditionally associated with poetry: there are no tropes, no figures, no alliteration, no metrical regularity or rhyme. It is as though there is a deliberate avoidance of obvious artifice, as if we are being provoked into finding something remarkable in the unremarkable events of everyday life. So, apart from any significance can be attached to the eating of plums, what seems to be suggested here, more generally, is the way in which commonplace occurrences and common language can be transposed into a different key. In this respect, what the poem represents is the transfiguration of the trivial. A musical analogy was indicated before. A parallel with a painting is also possible. A casual note is taken out of its kitchen context, and fashioned into a poem on a page; a dish of plums might be similarly dislocated from their surrounding, and painted on a canvas as still life.


In the case of Wordsworth’s poem, the relevant co-ordinates were those of aspect (period of time/point in time). Let us consider a case where those of tense (present/past) come into play. The text is Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and in particular the opening verses. The focus is on how the simple tenses of English are used at the beginning of the poem to create an appropriate setting for the mariner and the tale he has to tell.

The mariner makes his appearance in the very first lines of the poem:

It is an ancient Mariner,

And he stoppeth one of three …

We might note that right from the start he has something of an air of mystery about him; for the grammar of this first line makes him appear suddenly out of nowhere. The pronoun ‘it’ in conventional referential use is either deictic, and so presupposes presence, or anaphoric, and so presupposes previous mention. Either way, known pre-existence is assumed. So the structure ‘It is … (+NP) would normally be used to identify someone (or something) known to the speaker and in response to a request for information, as, for example:

A: Who is that person over there?

B: It is an ancient mariner. Let me introduce you.

The question provides a context in that it refers to some pre-existing state of affairs. But in the poem there is no preceding context, no previous existence, the mariner just appears out of the blue: an apparition, indeed, rather than an appearance. We can best demonstrate this by (as before) comparing the original with alternative versions. Consider the difference in effect if the opening lines had run like this:

There was once an ancient mariner

And he stopped one or three …

An ancient mariner one day

Came by, stopped one or three …

These variants also differ from the original version in that the tense has been changed from simple present to simple past. And here is the main theme of this course. For the mystery of the mariner’s abrupt appearance is sustained by the idiosyncratic use of tense.

Coleridge’s mariner appears in the present. But in spite of the use of the simple present, he is not simply in the present. For the events in the opening lines of the poem are represented as taking place in the past as well. The mariner’s existence and his encounter with the wedding-guest (the one or three) would seem to belong simultaneously to two quite separate temporal worlds. He inhabits a (referentially) impossible space in time, defined by incompatible dimensions. Thus, in the first two lines he appears in the present and accosts the wedding-guest in the present. The follows the wedding-guest perplexed expostulation, recorded in direct speech:

It is an ancient Mariner,

And he stoppeth one or three.

‘By thy long grey and glittering eye,

Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?

The Bridegroom’ doors are opened wide,

And I am next of kin;

The guests are met, the feast is set:

May’st hear the merry din.’

The next three verses show no less than seven shifts of tense, backwards and forwards, from simple present to simple past:

He holds him with his skinny hand

‘There was a ship’ quoth he.

‘Hold off! Unhand of me, grey-beard loon!’

And soon his hand dropt he.

He holds him with his glittering eye-

The Wedding-Guest stood still,

And listens like a three years’ child:

The Mariner hath the will.

The Wedding-Guest sat on a stone;

He cannot choose but hear;

And thus spake on that ancient man,

The bright-eyed Mariner.

The mariner holds the wedding-guest with his skinny hand in the present, but releases his hold in the past; only to hold him again, with his eye in the present. The wedding-guest stands still and sits down in the past, but manages to listen to the mariner in the present, although the mariner speaks to him in the past. It is all very bewildering. What reason can it be for all this shifting of tense?

One explanation might be that there is no reason at all. Perhaps Coleridge was simply careless. It should be noted that in all cases the tenses could be altered into regularity without affecting either the rhythm or rhyme, so Coleridge is not constrained by the exigencies of verse composition. If these shifts are not required by rhyme, by what reason are they required? Considering, as Coleridge himself did, that everything in a poetic text carries an implication of relevance, then, what is the significance of this alternation of tense? In referential terms it is contradictory. Can it be coherently understood as representation?

We should know by now that the simple present relates to point in time. It is naturally used to specify an event which occurs at the moment of speaking, within the same framework of time and space as the speaker. This was the use identified in Wordsworth’s line:

The small birds twitter.

Here, the event and the experience of the event are co-occurrent. This tense can also denote a recurrence of events displaced from the immediate context and generalized. So, this tense can on the one hand denote particular perceptions of actual events, contextually present, and on the other hand it can denote generalized events, not directly perceived, but conceptually present, as an abstract proposition. Again, this tense expresses experience of events along a scale from the perception of actual instances, the immediacy of here and now, at one end, to the conception of abstract generalities at the other.

As far as the past tense is concerned, it signifies a detachment from shared space and time. It expresses the there and the then of events remote from the immediacy of direct perception. But, as with the simple present tense, the events can either be perceived as particular and actual, or conceived as abstracted into generality.

Returning to the opening lines of the poem, we can interpret the alternation of the two simple tenses as representing an alternation between different perspectives on time. One of these has to do with the temporal location of events. The mariner is mysteriously here and now, and there and then, inhabiting a world in which past and present are fused and unified in some time/space dimension that defies explanation. The other perspective has to do with the nature of events. These are in a sense particular, but since they cannot of their nature be referred to (as they cannot be contextually located outside the poem), they cannot be actual. They represent events which are particular, and by implication actual, yet abstract too, and so by implication general.

The kind of reality that the ancient mariner carries with him, and creates by his presence, is projected by the use of simple tenses like frames in a film, with close-up and distance shots providing different perspectives on the ‘same’ event. The mariner is indeed a ghost-like apparition: actual and existing in both present and past time, here and now, there and then, here and then, there and now. And yet, because of these contradictions, he is abstract too, with no particular existence in time and place at all. His mode of being resembles that of God.

Here, in the poem, time and space are timeless and without location. The mariner’s being is the very ‘life-in-death’ which his tale describes as he passes ‘like night, from land to land’. The voyage of the ship, the killing of the albatross, the sight of water snakes, though all perceived and described as particular events, are also momentuous in their general and abstract significance. Thus, contradictions are reconciled. In the world of poetry there is no referential stability in truth, the only truth is achieved by the manner of its representation through specific usesof language.


We have seen examples where we discussed how the grammatical categories of tense and aspect are realigned to provoke the reading of poetry as representation. But this manipulation is not confined to such categories, nor to this level of language. The principle of realignment, or reassembly of linguistic encodings in poetry operates across all levels. As far as the phonological and lexical levels are concerned, the principle has traditionally been given recognition in the description of alliteration, assonance, metre, and rhyme on the one hand, and of metaphor on the other. The point here is that although these features are distinguishable by their level of operation, they all have a common representational function, which in particular instances they combine to discharge. It is this that we need to realize in interpretation. In other words, what we need to do is to consider how phonological, lexical, and grammatical realignments pattern together to representational effect. Therefore, let us consider two examples, and see how alignments at different levels are worked into a combined and coherent pattern. Both of them deal with the experience of time, so in that respect they continue the theme of the poems by Wordsworth and Coleridge we have just been considering.

The first is an extract from a poem by Alexander Pope entitled An Epistle to Miss Blount, on her leaving the Town after the Coronation. It is about a young woman of fashion in the early eighteenth century who has been obliged to leave town to spend some time in the country.

She went from Op’ra, Park, Assembly, Play,

To morning walks, and pray’rs three hours a day;

To part her time ‘twixt reading and bohea,

To muse, and spill her solitary tea,

Or o’er cold coffee trifle with the spoon,

Count the slow clock, and dine exact at noon …

To begin with, consider how the patterning of sound in the first line expresses the liveliness of the entertainments of the town. The metrical tempo is apparently sprightly: the stressed syllables, reinforced by the plosive consonants (Op’ra, Park, Play), beat out a sequence of crowded events. And these events are expressed as a lexical list of abstract nouns which is of itself suggestive of a breathless round of indiscriminate pleasure; no sooner is one type of entertainment over than the next begins, with no time to appreciate the difference. And yet, although this lexical listing suggests a sameness, there are phonological indications of variety, for the letter a in these four words corresponds with different sound values (oprə, pa:k, əsembli, plei).

The second line, which completes the couplet, is in marked contrast. Here the tempo slows down, drawn out by the long vowels (morning, walks, pray’rs, hours), so that the events are represented as elongated and dreary. Time which tripped so rapidly before, now drags its feet. Whereas the events in town were all crowded feverishly into one line, these two country events, dull in themselves, the nouns which describe them heavy with modification (morning walks, pray’rs three hours a day), now struggle to fill the same space.

Consider line 5. The trifling with the spoon, the cold coffee are, one might suggest, the lexical signals of lassitude. This is reinforced by the repetition of sound in the first two syllables of the line (or o’er), which is the onomatopoeic representation of a yawn. This comes significantly enough, after three lines which , in describing the dull repetition of routine, all begin with the same word (To), whose equivalent position in the line diminishes the difference of grammatical function.

In the last line tedium is described by the expressions slow clock and dine exact at noon, but the description is again enhanced by the sound patterns. Every word but one in this line is monosyllabic and six of them carry stress. The monosyllables spell out monotony. The line has a beat which represents the counting out of moments of time in the slow course of a tedious day.

The point is that the experience of this young lady exiled in the country is expressed in the verbal patterns of the verse which are fashioned out of the congruent realignments of language at different levels: phonological, lexical, grammatical. To discover these patterns is to find grounds for interpretation. To change the patterns is to change the interpretative possibilities. Thus, the following variants on the lines of Pope would have different ( and diminished) representational effects:

She went from evenings at a ball or play

To stables, churches, walks and prayers each day;

Parting her time ‘twixt reading and bohea,

Taking her time to drink her lonely tea,

Trifling over coffee with her spoon,

Counting each minute, dining just at noon.

The second example is a translation from the Chinese of two lines:

Swiftly the years, beyond recall.

Solemn the stillness of this spring morning.

The first thing to be noted of these lines is that either of them has the appearance of a sentence. The fact that each one begins with a capital letter is not decisive, of course, since this is customary in verse. But each one also ends with a full stop, and this would usually mark sentential closure. But these lines are, grammatically speaking, not sentences at all. A crucial element is missing, namely the finite verb. As we know, it is the finite verb which signifies the temporal location and nature of events. In referential terms, therefore, there is no specification of time in these lines.The propositions expressed are incomplete: since they are grammatically non-finite, their meaning is infinite. But although no time can be referred to in these lines, it can be represented, and this is done by the patterning of the lexis with grammatical categories other than those of the verb.

There are two NPs which express time, one in each line. One of these, the years, expresses a long period of time, and the other, this Spring morning, a brief one, which, by virtue of the demonstrative determiner this, is located in the immediate present. But it is also associated with another period of time, namely the season of Spring. So in these lines we have three periods of time in decreasing size: year, season, morning. Notice that the period of time in line 1 keeps company with the adverbial phrases swiftly and beyond recall. Although adverbs are a notoriously complex category, they can be generally associated with the VP and so are bound up with the notion of process. The short period of time in line 2, on the other hand, keeps company with adjective and noun expressions (solemn, stillness) and these parts of speech are generally bound  up with the notion of state rather than process.

These combinations of lexical item and part of speech category represent time in the first line as a continuing process over a long period, apart from present perception, and indeed beyond recall, and in the second line as a state over a brief period , here and now in the present , as indicated by the determiner, but only fleetingly so, not fixed in finiteness. The effect is of the stillness of the morning held temporarily in suspense from time in a moment of elusive stability. The dynamic process of time through the years, and the static immediate moment of the spring morning coexist on the same plane of infinity, in a different dimension from that which we can refer to conventionally by tense and aspect marking on the finite verb.

Again, we can bring out the significance of the verbal patterning of the original by comparing it with rephrased variants. We could, for example, provide finite verbs and alter the structures in certain ways:

Swift are the years, beyond recall.

Solemn and still is this Spring morning.

The years are swift, beyond recall.

This Spring morning is solemn and still.

We might, more ambitiously, expand the original by rendering an interpretation into an alternative poem:

The years run swiftly on, their past

Fades to a distant time, and all

The present moments are the last,

As years recede, beyond recall.

And yet the stillness of this day

Holds all time, motionless, to bring

A sense of present things that stay

And solemnize this morning Spring.

This version, cast in conventional poetic idiom, brings out a further feature of the original lines. The very fact that each consists of a set of phrases syntactically unconnected with each line and across lines means that the images they express cannot be combined, but only associated. The two lines, apparently in parallel, suggest not sequence, but simultaneity: one image of time is superimposed on the other. The vertical juxtaposition itself, the physical alignment of the lines, keys in with the way the experience of time is represented by lexical amd grammatical means.


Thus far we have talked about contextual interpretation, which yields referential meaning, and textual interpretation which yields representational meaning. In the former, the significance of what is said depends on the extent to which it engages features of a context which are shared, or accessible to those concerned in the communication. Contextual interpretation is, in this sense, essentially convergent. Textual interpretation allows for the projection of a range of different, contextually unconstrained meanings, and so is essentially divergent. The basic point is that freed from the constraint of having to make language fit in with any particular context, poets can exploit the language code itself and fashion its elements into patterns of an alternative order. To interpret poetry is to discern the pattern, and infer its possible significance. But there is another feature of representational meaning which needs to be noticed, i.e. that of intertextual interpretation.

If one is attuned to the effect, all texts reverberate with the echoes of other texts. All uses of language have a history of previous uses. Whatever we say or write is a continuation of our experience of language, a kind of recurrence. It is not something which is compiled anew each time by direct consultation of the language code, but composed rather from partially assembled combinations which have previously proved serviceable in similar contexts. But in the usual referential use of language it would be inconvenient for previous contextual uses to be invoked, for this would disrupt the process of convergence on the particular context concerned. The echoes would be an interference on the line which one would normally wish to eliminate so as to tune in more clearly.

Communication is normally effective only to the extent that it is selective of meanings which are recognized as contextually relevant; all other meanings are set aside – not only those which are conventionally established as intrinsic to the code (and recorded in grammars and dictionaries), but also those of individual association accumulated through a lifetime of contextual use. This is inevitably the case, for in using language for communication in the ordinary way, we enter into a kind of cooperative contract whereby we undertake to achieve convergence on a relevant outcome with the minimum of processing effort.

Since with poetry there is no context to be relevant to, readers are provoked to find relevance in the way language is textually patterned, and this involves picking apart and reassembling elements of the code. But readers are also free to conjure up all manner of intertexrual associations in their quest for significance, for there is no purpose, no pressure, no obligation to make mutual sense which would otherwise hold them in check. You do not have to reply to a poem, or take action on it, or fit its meaning into the established schemes of socially sanctioned reality. Its meaning is, of its nature, non-acountable. There can be no penalties for misunderstanding, for the normal requirements on understanding simply do not exist.

Let us consider an example of how intertextual effects can be read into the interpretation of poetry. Here is the opening verse of W.B. Yeats’s poem The Wild Swan at Coole:

The trees are in their autumn beauty,

The woodland paths are dry,

Under the October twilight the water

Mirrors a still sky;

Upon the brimming water among the stones

Are nine-and-fifty swans.

This verse does not only describe a scene, but also sets the poem in a particular key of atmosphere and attitude, and this can be attributed to the resonant effect throughout the line of words like autumn and twilight. These reverberate with associations carried over cumulatively from other contexts of use, so that they are not understood in a referential way particular to the occasion, but are evocative of experience gathered from all other occasions of reference. Autumn – achievement, but only as an ending; ripeness as fulfillment which presages in its own decline; beauty which only comes with withering; colours in a final flourish before fading; the mists; the days drawing in, the falling leaves, a chill in the air, and signs of approaching winter, and so on. Twilight – the setting sun, the close of the day, lengthening of shadows and the onset of darkness; time slowing down and sounds settling into silence; people going home, the prospect of rest, and so on. Associations of this kind spread out pervasively from these words and provide an appropriate aura for the poem. Or take the word swan. It too, has associative meanings, congruent with those of autumn and twilight, and quite other than those of, say, goose or duck. Quite apart from distinctions of denotation, they have differences of customary contextual occurrence and so give rise to different resonances.

Consider, for example, the appearance of the word swan in the opening lines of Tennyson’s poem Tithonus:

The woods decay; the woods decay and fall,

The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,

Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,

And after many a summer dies the swan.

As has been pointed out by Aldous Huxley, the effect of the last line would be changed quite radically, and would be incongruent and incongruous, it it were to read:

And after many a summer died the duck.

The cumulative associations which set up such resonances come not only from the countless times these words have been used in reference, but also from our experience of other literary texts. Anyone who has read Keats’s Ode to Autumn, for instance, will naturally be disposed to read other poems on that subject against the background of that experience. There are times when this more specific intertextual relationship is quite clearly marked in the text itself, and directly invoked. Thomas Hood’s Autumn Ode, for example, resounds very clearly with verbal echoes from Keats. Here are the opening lines:

I saw old Autumn in the misty morn

Stand shadowless like Silence, listening

To silence, for no lonely bird would sing

Into his hollow ear from woods forlorn.

The question arises as to what extent recognizing the specific intertextual relationships enhances interpretation. This depends on whether such recognition can be read as relevant, as congruent with the meaning assigned to other features of the poem. In some cases, writers will indicate that the intertextual connection is intended by incorporating obvious citation in their text. This is not the case with Hood’s poem, where the words of Keats are scattered randomly throughout, giving simply the impression of pastiche. If the poem was intended as a variation on a theme of Keats (as in music, an entirely worthy enterprise, though infrequent in verbal art), one would expect the intention to be indicated in some way, and, of course, the reader would be primed to interpret it accordingly. In the case of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, on the other hand, there is no room for doubt. Not only do we find obvious citations, but the poem is provided with a set of notes to refer the reader to the original sources. Take these lines, for instance:

Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song,

Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long.

But at my back in a cold blast I hear

The rattle of bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear …

The first line, as Eliot acknowledged , is a direct quotation from Spenser’s Prothalmion, the second is a variation on it, and the third draws phrases from Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress. It is clear that Eliot’s text is a kind of verbal collage, and that its interpretation is meant to be dependent on our invoking the originals and reading a significance into the way extracts from them have been worked into the pattern of the poem as a whole.

In the case of another poem by Eliot, on the other hand, intertextual recognition would appear to have little bearing on interpretation. Reference is made to Journey of the Magi. The opening five lines were, when first published, placed within inverted commas, as follows:

‘A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a long journey;

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.’

The inverted commas indicate not direct speech (the first person narrative continues without them), but direct quotation, for the lines are closely derived from a piece of prose from a sermon given by the Bishop of Winchester, Lancelot Andrewes, before King James in 1622. The original runs as follows:

It was no summer progress. A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and especially a long journey in. the ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun furthest off, in solstitio brumali, ‘the very dead of winter’.

This time there are no notes to direct us to this source, which would seem to suggest that the poet does not himself feel that the significance of his lines depends on intertextual recognition. This is perhaps as well since there cannot be many readers who would be acquainted with the original.

But how far can the significance of a poem depend on intertextual recognition anyway? What if the language in a poem does not resonate for us with verbal echoes, either from multiple contextual uses, or from a specific textual source? Does this mean that the significance of the poem is lost on us, that our interpretation will be invalid? It would seem on the face of it that these intertextual aspects restrict the accessibility of poetry, narrow its appeal, and sustain its status as reserved text which only the privileged can appreciate. If poems resound with echoes that only some people are attuned to hear, then how can their meaning be apprehended by others who are not so attuned?

One answer to this is that since poetic meaning is, of its very representational nature, unbounded, there can be no criteria for what counts as valid reading. People with different linguistic and literary experience will read different meanings into a text. If we do not identify an expression as a literary citation or allusion, then we cannot interpret it as such. However, we will simply interpret it in another rway. It is true that the wider the range of our experience of contextual uses of language and of literary texts is, the more scope there will be for the reverberant associations, but this does not validate one response and invalidate another. There can be no definitive interpretation. The point of poetry (the point of all art) is that it denies authority. It is sadly ironical, therefore, that the teaching of poetry so often imposes authority in the name of critical expertise. This does not mean that literary criticism has nothing to offer, but its contribution has to do not with the provision of interpretations, but with the process of interpreting. Its value, like the value of the kind of stylistic analysis depends on the extent to which it helps people to make poems their own by individual response.

There is one further point about intertextual associations: the absence of contextual constraint allows the reader to let the mind loose to range over possible meanings in free association, but the very patterning of language in verse carries the implication of order. Thus, the poem is a kind og challenge: how can all this proliferation of possible meanings be made coherent? For the intertextual association of particular expressions with experience of language outside the poem has to be read as consistent with the textual association of these expressions with others inside the poem. What poetry does is to suspend the usual contextual constraints of its own devising, setting the mind free so that it can more effectively realize meaning within different limits, within a different order of significance. The essential point about poetry is that no matter how unbounded and elusive the meanings are, these do not randomly disperse, but are somehow contained and made coherent within its patterns of language. Like the Indian god Siva, poetry is both destroyer and creator, undermining the conditions necessary for reference in order to create the conditions necessary for representation.


The reality which is represented in poems, fashioned in patterns of language detached from context and reassembled into a different order, is a reconciliation of contraries. It is both particular and general, private and public, actual and abstract, divergent and convergent, fleeting, yet held in perpetual poise. It is a reality which cannot be explained, but only expressed and experienced through the expression. It seems appropriate to conclude the discussion about the representational nature of poetry, with a kind of meta-poem, a poem about poetry and the meaning of art. It is a poem by Wallace Stevens, called Metaphors of a Magnifico :

Twenty men crossing a bridge,

Into a village,

Are twenty men crossing twenty bridges,

Into twenty villages,

Or one man

Crossing a single bridge into a village.

This is old song

That will not declare itself …

Twenty men crossing a bridge,

Into a village,


Twenty men crossing a bridge

Into a village.

That will not declare itself

Yet is certain as meaning …

The boots of the men clump

On the boards of the bridge,

The first white wall of the village

Rises through fruit-trees.

Of what was I thinking?

So the meaning escapes.

The first white wall of the village …

The fruit-trees …

The composition of different realities expressed through the grammatical features of the poem can be read as representations of the images conjured up in the lexis. And so, the range of possible significance is extended, the ideas which come from divergent association reconverge on the poem. But the meaning still escapes, because it is elusive of its very nature. The poem cannot declare itself. At the end of it, we are left with incomplete images and intimations of meaning whose very elusiveness is held stable, momentarily and for always, in the unique expression of the poem itself.


Alliteration repetition of the same sound beginning several words in sequence.

Let us go forth to lead the land we love. J. F. Kennedy, Inaugural

Veni, vidi, vici. Julius Caesar

Anadiplosis ('doubling back') the rhetorical repetition of one or several words; specifically, repetition of a word that ends one clause at the beginning of the next.

Men in great place are thrice servants: servants of the sovereign or state; servants of fame; and servants of business. Francis Bacon

Anaphora the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive phrases, clauses or lines.

We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender. Churchill.

Antistrophe repetition of the same word or phrase at the end of successive clauses.

In 1931, ten years ago, Japan invaded Manchukuo -- without warning. In 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia -- without warning. In 1938, Hitler occupied Austria -- without warning. In 1939, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia -- without warning. Later in 1939, Hitler invaded Poland -- without warning. And now Japan has attacked Malaya and Thailand -- and the United States --without warning. Franklin D. Roosevelt

Antithesis opposition, or contrast of ideas or words in a balanced or parallel construction.

Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice, moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue. Barry Goldwater

Brutus: Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more. Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

Assonance repetition of the same sound in words close to each other.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.

Asyndeton: lack of conjunctions between coordinate phrases, clauses, or words.

We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardships, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty. J. F. Kennedy, Inaugural

Catachresis a harsh metaphor involving the use of a word beyond its strict sphere.

I listen vainly, but with thirsty ear. MacArthur, Farewell Address

Climax: arrangement of words, phrases, or clauses in an order of ascending power. Often the last emphatic word in one phrase or clause is repeated as the first emphatic word of the next.

One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. Tennyson, Ulysses

Euphemism: substitution of an agreeable or at least non-offensive expression for one whose plainer meaning might be harsh or unpleasant.

When the final news came, there would be a ring at the front door -- a wife in this situation finds herself staring at the front door as if she no longer owns it or controls it--and outside the door would be a man come to inform her that unfortunately something has happened out there, and her husband's body now lies incinerated in the swamps or the pines or the palmetto grass, 'burned beyond recognition,' which anyone who had been around an air base very long (fortunately Jane had not) realized was quite an artful euphemism to describe a human body that now looked like an enormous fowl that has burned up in a stove, burned a blackish brown all over, greasy and blistered, fried, in a word, with not only the entire face and all the hair and the ears burned off, not to mention all the clothing, but also the hands and feet, with what remains of the arms and legs bent at the knees and elbows and burned into absolutely rigid angles, burned a greasy blackish brown like the bursting body itself, so that this husband, father, officer, gentleman, this ornamentum of some mother's eye, His Majesty the Baby of just twenty-odd years back, has been reduced to a charred hulk with wings and shanks sticking out of it. Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff

Hendiadys use of two words connected by a conjunction, instead of subordinating one to the other, to express a single complex idea.

It sure is nice and cool today! (for 'pleasantly cool')

Hyperbole exaggeration for emphasis or for rhetorical effect.

My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow;
An hundred years should got to praise
Thine eyes and on thine forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest. Andrew Marvell, 'To His Coy Mistress'

Irony: expression of something which is contrary to the intended meaning; the words say one thing but mean another.

Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man. Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

Litotes: understatement, for intensification, by denying the contrary of the thing being affirmed. (Sometimes used synonymously with meiosis.)

A few unannounced quizzes are not inconceivable.

War is not healthy for children and other living things.

One nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day. (meiosis)

Metaphor: implied comparison achieved through a figurative use of words; the word is used not in its literal sense, but in one analogous to it.

Life's but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage. Shakespeare, Macbeth

. . . while he learned the language (that meager and fragile thread . . . by which the little surface corners and edges of men's secret and solitary lives may be joined for an instant now and then before sinking back into the darkness. . . ) Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!

Metonymy substitution of one word for another which it suggests.

He is a man of the cloth.

The pen is mightier than the sword.

By the sweat of thy brow thou shalt eat thy bread.

Onomatopoeia use of words to imitate natural sounds; accommodation of sound to sense.

Oxymoron apparent paradox achieved by the juxtaposition of words which seem to contradict one another.

Festina lente.

I must be cruel only to be kind. Shakespeare, Hamlet

Paradox an assertion seemingly opposed to common sense, but that may yet have some truth in it.

What a pity that youth must be wasted on the young. George Bernard Shaw

Paronomasia use of similar sounding words; often etymological word-play.

Thou art Peter (Greek petros), and upon this rock (Greek petra) I shall build my church. Matthew 16

The dying Mercutio: Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man. Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

Pleonasm: use of superfluous or redundant words, often enriching the thought.

No one, rich or poor, will be excepted.

Polysyndeton: the repetition of conjunctions in a series of coordinate words, phrases, or clauses.

I said, 'Who killed him?' and he said, 'I don't know who killed him but he's dead all right,' and it was dark and there was water standing in the street and no lights and windows broke and boats all up in the town and trees blown down and everything all blown and I got a skiff and went out and found my boat where I had her inside Mango Bay and she was all right only she was full of water. Hemingway, After the Storm

Prolepsis the anticipation, in adjectives or nouns, of the result of the action of a verb; also, the positioning of a relative clause before its antecedent.

Consider the lilies of the field how they grow.

Simile an explicit comparison between two things using 'like' or 'as'.

My love is as a fever, longing still
For that which longer nurseth the disease, Shakespeare, Sonnet CXLVII

Reason is to faith as the eye to the telescope. D. Hume [?]

Syllepsis use of a word with two others, with each of which it is understood differently.

We must all hang together or assuredly we will all hang separately. Benjamin Franklin

Synecdoche: understanding one thing with another; the use of a part for the whole, or the whole for the part. (A form of metonymy.)

Give us this day our daily bread. Matthew 6

The U.S. won three gold medals. (Instead of, The members of the U.S. boxing team won three gold medals.)

Tautology repetition of an idea in a different word, phrase, or sentence.

With malice toward none, with charity for all. Lincoln, Second Inaugural

Zeugma two different words linked to a verb or an adjective which is strictly appropriate to only one of them.

Nor Mars his sword, nor war's quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.



A deceiving or self-deceived character in fiction, normally an object of ridicule in comedy or satire, but often the hero of a tragedy. In comedy he most frequently takes the form of a miles gloriosus or a pedant.


Relating to literature as a total order of words.


A form of prose fiction, traditionally known as the Menippean or Varronian satire and represented by Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, characterized by a great variety of subject-matter and a strong interest in ideas. In shorter forms it often has a cena or symposium setting and verse interludes.


The thematic term corresponding to 'myth' in fictional literature: metaphor as pure and potentially total identification, without regard to plausibility or ordinary experience.


A symbol, usually an image, which recurs often enough in literature to be recognizable as an element of one's literary experience as a whole.


A form of drama in which the main subject is sacred or sacrosanct legend, such as miracle plays, solemn and processional in form but not strictly tragic. Name taken from Calderon's Autos sacramentales..


Autobiography regarded as a form of prose fiction, or prose fiction cast in the form of autobiography.


The meaning of a work of literature, which may be the total pattern of its symbols (literal meaning), its correlation with an external body of propositions or facts (descriptive meaning), its theme, or relation as a form of imagery to a potential commentary (formal meaning), its significance as a literary convention or genre (archetypal meaning), or its relation to total literary experience (anagogic meaning).


The adaptation of myth and metaphor to canons of morality or plausibility.


A self-deprecating or unobtrusively treated character in fiction, usually an agent of the happy ending in comedy and of the catastrophe in tragedy.

Encyclopaedic Form:

A genre presenting an anagogic form of symbolism, such as a sacred scripture, or its analogues in other modes. The term includes the Bible, Dante's Commedia, the great epics, and the works of Joyce and Proust.


The literary genre in which the radical of presentation is the author or minstrel as oral reciter, with a listening audience in front of him.


The internal social context of a work of literature, comprising the characterization and setting of fictional literature and the relation of the author to his reader or audience in thematic literature.


Literature in which the radical of presentation is the printed or written word, such as novels and essays.


Relating to literature in which there are internal characters, apart from the author and his audience; opposed to thematic.

High Mimetic

A mode of literature in which, as in most epics and tragedies, the central characters are above our own level of power and authority, though within the order of nature and subject to social criticism.


A symbol in its aspect as a formal unit of art with a natural content.


A primary consideration governing the process of composition, such as the metre selected for a poem; taken from Coleridge.


A mode of literature in which the characters exhibit a power of action inferior to the one assumed to be normal in the reader or audience, or in which the poet's attitude is one of detached objectivity.


The mythos (sense 2) of the literature concerned primarily with a 'realistic' level of experience, usually taking the form of a parody or contrasting analogue to romance. Such irony may be tragic or comic in its main emphasis; when comic it is normally identical with the usual meaning of satire.


The verbal 'texture' or rhetorical aspect of a work of literature, including the usual meanings of the terms 'diction' and 'imagery.'

Low Mimetic:

A mode of literature in which the characters exhibit a power of action which is roughly on our own level, as in most comedy and realistic fiction.


A literary genre characterized by the assumed concealment of the audience from the poet and by the predominance of an associational rhythm distinguishable both from recurrent metre and from semantic or prose rhythm.


A species of drama in which music and spectacle play an important role and in which the characters tend to be or become aspects of human personality rather than independent characters.


The rhythm, movement, and sound of words; the aspect of literature which is analogous to music, and often shows some actual relation to it. From Aristotle's melopoiia.


A relation between two symbols, which may be simple juxtaposition (literal metaphor), a rhetorical statement of likeness or similarity (descriptive metaphor), an analogy of proportion among four terms (formal metaphor), an identity of an individual with its class (concrete universal or archetypal metaphor), or statement of hypothetical identity (anagogic metaphor).


A conventional power of action assumed about the chief characters in fictional literature, or the corresponding attitude assumed by the poet toward his audience in thematic literature. Such modes tend to succeed one another in a historical sequence.


A symbol in its aspect as a center of one's total literary experience; related to Hopkins's term 'inscape' and to Joyce's term 'epiphany.'


A symbol in its aspect as a verbal unit in a work of literary art.


A narrative in which some characters are superhuman beings who do things that 'happen only in stories'; hence, a conventionalized or stylized narrative not fully adapted to plausibility or 'realism.'


The narrative of a work of literature, considered as the grammar or order of words (literal narrative), plot or 'argument' (descriptive narrative), secondary imitation of action (formal narrative), imitation of generic and recurrent action or ritual (archetypal narrative), or imitation of the total conceivable action of an omnipotent god or human society (anagogic narrative).

One of the four archetypal narratives, classified as comic, romantic, tragic, and ironic.


Primitive or popular, in the sense given those terms of an ability to communicate in time and space more readily than other types of literature.


The spectacular or visible aspect of drama; the ideally visible or pictorial aspect of other literature.


The character in an ironic fiction who has the role of a scapegoat or arbitrarily chosen victim.


One of the five contexts in which the narrative and meaning of a work of literature may be considered, classified as literal, descriptive, formal, archetypal, and anagogic.

One of six distinguishable stages of a mythos (sense 2).

Point of Epiphany:

An archetype presenting simultaneously an apocalyptic world and a cyclical order of nature, or sometimes the latter alone. Its usual symbols are ladders, mountains, lighthouses, islands, and towers.


The mythos of literature concerned primarily with an idealized world.

A form of prose fiction practised by Scott, Hawthorne, William Morris, etc., distinguishable from the novel.


A fictional mode in which the chief characters live in a I world of marvels (naive romance), or in which the mood is elegiac or idyllic and hence less subject to social criticism than in the mimetic modes.

The general tendency to present myth and metaphor in an idealized human form, midway between undisplaced myth and 'realism.'


A symbol in its aspect as a verbal representative of a natural object or concept.


Any unit of any work of literature which can be isolated for critical attention. In general usage restricted to the smaller units, such as words, phrases, images, etc.


Relating to works of literature in which no characters are involved except the author and his audience, as in most lyrics and essays, or to works of literature in which internal characters are subordinated to an argument maintained by the author, as in allegories and parables; opposed to fictional.


Accentual Verse: Verse in which the metre depends upon counting a fixed number of stresses (which are also known as 'accents') in a line, but which does not take account of unstressed syllables. The majority of Germanic poetry (including Old English) is of this type.

Accentual-Syllabic Verse: The normal system of verse composition in England since the fourteen century, in which the metre depends upon counting both the number of stresses and the total number of syllables in any give line. An iambic pentameter for example contains five stressed syllables and a total of ten syllables.

Alexandrine a line of six iambic feet, often used to mark a conclusion in a work which is in heroic couplets: Alexander Pope in his Essay on Criticism (1709) satirised this technique (which he was not above using himself): ' Then, at the last and only couplet fraught | With some unmeaning thing they call a thought, | A needless Alexandrine ends the song, | That like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along.' The final line of that extract is of course itself an alexandrine. Spenser used an alexandrine to end his modified form of ottava rima. The same word is used to describe a line of twelve syllables which is the dominant form of French verse.

Allegory: the saying of one thing and meaning another. Sometimes this trope works by an extended metaphor ('the ship of state foundered on the rocks of inflation, only to be salvaged by the tugs of monetarist policy'). More usually it is used of a story or fable that has a clear secondary meaning beneath its literal sense. Orwell's Animal Farm, for example, is assumed to have an allegorical sense.

Alliteration: The repetition of the same consonants (usually the initial sounds of words or of stressed syllables) at the start of several words or syllables in sequence or in close proximity to each other. In Anglo-Saxon poetry and in some fourteenth century texts such as Piers Plowman and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight rigid patterns of alliteration were an essential part of poetic form. More recently it is used for expressive or occasionally onomatopoeic effect.

Anapaest: A metrical foot consisting of three syllables. The first two are unstressed and the last is stressed: 'di di dum'.

Anaphora: Repetition of the same word or words at the beginning of consecutive syntactic units.

Apostrophe: In rhetoric the word is used to describe a sudden address to a person or personification. In punctuation the same word is used to describe the mark ' which can be used to indicate the beginning and end of direct speech, a quotation, or an elision. From the late sixteenth century an apostrophe was used, very irregularly, to indicate a possessive form of a noun: by the mid-nineteenth century it was established by convention that singular possessive forms should be indicated by ''s' ('the cat's pajamas') and that regular plural possessive forms should be indicated by 's'' ('my parents' house'). If a plural does not normally end in 's' then the form ''s' is used for the plural possessive form ('the children's tea was delicious'). The main exception to this rule is 'it's', which is used as the contracted form of 'it is' or 'it has'. The form 'its' is reserved for the possessive use ('the door has lost its paint').

Assonance : The word is usually used to describe the repetition of vowel sounds in neighbouring syllables (compare Alliteration. The consonants can differ: so 'deep sea' is an example of assonance, whereas 'The queen will sweep past the deep crowds' is an example of internal rhyme. More technically it is used to describe the 'rhyming of one word with another in the accented vowel and those which follow, but not in the consonants, as used in the versification of Old French, Spanish, Celtic, and other languages' (OED).

Asyndeton : The omission of a conjunction from a list ('chips, beans, peas, vinegar, salt, pepper')..

Blank verse : is the metre most frequently used by Shakespeare. It consists of an unrhymed iambic pentameter. It was first used in Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey's, translation of Books 2 and 4 of Virgil's Aeneid, composed some time in the 1530s or 40s. It was adopted as the chief verse form in Elizabethan verse drama, and was subsequently used by Milton in Paradise Lost and in a wide range of subsequent meditative and narrative poems.

Caesura : A pause or breathing-place about the middle of a metrical line, generally indicated by a pause in the sense. The word derives from a Latin word meaning 'cut or slice', so the effect can be quite violent. However in many lines of blank verse the caesura may be almost inaudible. A medial caesura is the norm: this occurs in the middle of a line. An initial caesura occurs near the start of a line; a terminal caesura near its end. A 'masculine caesura' occurs after a stressed syllable, and a 'feminine caesura' occurs after an unstressed syllable.

Couplet : a rhymed pair of lines, which are usually of the same length. If these are iambic pentameters it is termed a heroic couplet. This form was made popular by Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and became the dominant poetic form in the latter part of the seventeenth century. In the work of Alexander Pope it becomes a flexible medium for pointed expression. Couplets of four iambic feet (i.e. eight syllables in all) are called octosyllabic couplets. These were favoured by John Gower, Chaucer's near contemporary, and became a vehicle for a comically brisk style in Samuel Butler's satirical poem Hudibras (1663-78).

Dactyl : A metrical foot consisting of three syllables, in which the first is stressed and the last two are unstressed.

Decorum : In literary parlance, the appropriateness of a work to its subject, its genre and its audience.

Diction : or lexis, or vocabulary of a passage refers to nothing more or less then its words. The words of a given passage might be drawn from one register, they might be drawn from one linguistic origin (e.g. Latin, or its Romance descendants Italian and French; Old English); they might be either very formal or very colloquial words.

Elision : The omission of one or more letters or syllables from a word. This is usually marked by an apostrophe: as in 'he's going to the shops'. In early printed texts the elided syllable is sometimes printed as well as the mark of elision, as in Donne's 'She 'is all States, all Princes I'.

Enjambement : The effect achieved when the syntax of a line of verse transgresses the limits set by the metre at the end of the verse. Metre aims for the integrity of the single verse, whereas syntax will sometimes efface that integrity. Thus 'Black drizzling crags that spake by the way-side/ As if a voice were in them, the sick sight/ And giddy prospect of the raving stream'

End-stopping : The effect achieved when the syntax of a line coincides with the metrical boundary at the end of a line. The contrary of enjambement.

Fabliau (plural fabliaux): A short, pithy story, usually of a bawdy kind.

Foot : the basic unit for describing metre, usually consisting of a certain number and combination of stressed and unstressed syllables. Stressed and unstressed syllables form one or other of the recognised metrical forms: an iamb is 'di dúm'; a trochee is 'dúm di', a spondee is 'dúm dúm' (as in 'home-made'), an anapaest is 'di di dúm', and a dactyl is 'dúm di di'.

Feminine Rhyme : a rhyme of two syllables in which the final syllable is unstressed ('mother | brother'). If an iambic pentameter ends in a feminine rhyme the last, unstressed, syllable is usually not counted as one of the ten syllables in the line ('To be or not to be, that is the question' - the 'ion' is unstressed and takes the line into an eleventh syllable). Feminine rhyme can be used for comic effect, as it is frequently in the works of Byron: 'I've spent my life, both interest and principle, | And think not what I thought, my soul invincible.' It can also be sometimes used to suggest a feminine subject-matter, as in Shakespeare's Sonnet 20, which is addressed to the 'master mistress of my passion' and which makes extensive use of 'feminine' rhymes.

Form: The term is usually used in the analysis of poetry to refer to the structure of stanzas (such as ottava rima). It can also be used less technically of the general structural principles by which a work is organised, and is distinguished from its content.

Free Verse : verse in which the metre and line length vary, and in which there is no discernible pattern in the use of rhyme.

Genre (from Latin genus, type, kind): works of literature tend to conform to certain types, or kinds. Thus we will describe a work as belonging to, for example, one of the following genres: epic, pastoral, satire, elegy. All the resources of linguistic patterning, both stylistic and structural, contribute to a sense of a work's genre. Generic boundaries are often fluid; literary meaning will often be produced by transgressing the normal expectations of genre.

Homophones : Words which sound exactly the same but which have different meanings ('maid' and 'made').

Hypermetrical: having an extra syllable over and above the expected normal length of a line of verse.

Iambic pentameter : an unrhymed line of five feet in which the dominant accent usually falls on the second syllable of each foot (di dúm), a pattern known as an iamb. The form is very flexible: it is possible to have one or more feet in which the expected order of accent is reversed (dúm di). These are called trochees.

Irony : strictly a sub-set of allegory: irony not only says one thing and means another, but says one thing and means its opposite. The word is used often of consciously inappropriate or understated utterances (so two walkers in the pouring rain greet each other with 'lovely day!', 'yes, isn't it'). Irony depends upon the audience's being able to recognise that a comment is deliberately at odds with its occasion, and may often discriminate between two kinds of audience: one which recognises the irony, and the other which fails to do so. Dramatic irony occurs when an audience of a play know some crucial piece of information that the characters onstage do not know (such as the fact that Oedipus has unwittingly killed his father).

Lexical set : words that are habitually used within a given environment constitute a lexical set. Thus 'Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday' form a lexical set.

Metaphor : the transfer of a quality or attribute from one thing or idea to another in such a way as to imply some resemblance between the two things or ideas: 'his eyes blazed' implies that his eyes become like a fire. Many metaphors have been absorbed into the structure of ordinary language to such an extent that they are all but invisible, and it is sometimes hard to be sure what is or is not dead metaphor: 'the fat book' may imply a metaphor, as may also be the case when we talk of a note of music as 'high' or 'low'. Mixed metaphors often occur when a speaker combines two metaphors from very diverse areas in such a way as to create something which is physically impossible or absurd ('the report of the select committee was a bombshell which got right up my nose'). These often result from the tendency of metaphors to become received idioms in which the original force of the implied comparison is lost.

Metonymy: A figure of speech in which the name of one object is replaced by another which is closely associated with it. So 'the turf' is a metonym for horse-racing, 'Westminster' is a metonym for the Houses of Parliament, 'Downing Street' is a metonym for the Prime-Minister or his office. 'Sceptre and crown came tumbling down' is a metonymic way of saying 'the king fell from power'.

Metre : A regular patterned recurrence of light and heavy stresses in a line of verse. These patterns are given names. Almost all poems deliberately depart from the template established by a metrical pattern for specific effect. Assessing a poem's metre requires more than just spotting an iambic pentameter or other metrical pattern: it requires you to think about the ways in which a poem departs from its underlying pattern and why. Emotion might force a reverse foot or trochee, or the normal patterns of speech might occasionally cut across an underlying rhythm.

Monorhyme : A rhymescheme in which all lines rhyme (aaaa etc.)

Onomatopoeia : The use of words or sounds which appear to resemble the sounds which they describe. Some words are themselves onomatopoeic, such as 'snap, crackle, pop.'

Ottava rima : an eight line verse stanza rhyming abababcc. In English it is usually in iambic pentameter. It was introduced into English by Sir Thomas Wyatt in the 1530s, and was widely used for long verse narratives. Sir John Harington translated Ariosto's Orlando furioso into ottava rima in 1591; Byron used the form in Don Juan (1819-24). Edmund Spenser produced a nine line modification of the form which ends with an alexandrine and rhymes ababbcbcc. for his Faerie Queene (1590-6). This is known as the Spenserian stanza, and was quite widely used by Wordsworth, Byron and Keats.

Personification : the attribution to a non-animate thing of human attributes. The thing personified is often an abstract concept (e.g. 'Lust'). Personification is related to allegory, insofar as personification says one thing ('Lust possessed him') and really means another. But it is opposed to allegory insofar as it aims for the maximum degree of explicitness, whereas allegory necessarily involves greater degrees of obliquity.

Plosive: A consonantal sound in the formation of which the passage of air is completely blocked, such as 'p', 'b', 't'. The blockage can be made in a variety of places (between the lips, between the tongue and teeth, between the tongue and palate). A 'bi-labial plosive' is made with the lips (Latin labia): examples are 'p' and 'b'; a 'dental plosive' is made by blocking the passage of air with the tongue and the teeth ('d', 't'); an 'uvular' plosive is made right at the back of the throat ('q', 'g'). Phoneticists (people who study the science of pronunciation) distinguish between 'voiced' and 'unvoiced' plosives. This is the distinction between 'b' (in saying which you have to make a sound as well as simply letting the air escape between your lips; hence it is 'voiced') and 'p' (in saying which you do not have to make a sound; hence it is termed 'unvoiced'). Similarly 't' is an unvoiced dental plosive; 'd' is a voiced dental plosive.

Polysyndeton : The use of multiple conjunctions, usually where they are not strictly necessary ('chips and beans and fish and egg and peas and vinegar and tomato sauce').

Quantitative Metre : A metrical system based on the length or 'weight' of syllables, rather than on stress. This is the norm in classical Latin and Greek, but is rare in English. Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86) made some attempts to write in quantitative metre in order to bring English poetry closer to its classical models, but he had few imitators.

Quatrain : a verse stanza of four lines, often rhyming abab. Tennyson's In Memoriam rhymes abba.

Refrain : A repeated line, phrase or group of lines, which recurs at regular intervals through a poem or song, usually at the end of a stanza. The less technical term is 'chorus'.

Register : a term designating the appropriateness of a given style to a given situation. Speakers and writers in specific situations deploy, for example, a technical vocabulary (e.g. scientific, commercial, medical, legal, theological, psychological), as well as other aspects of style customarily used in that situation. Literary effect is often created by switching register.

Rhetorical Figures : Linguistic effect can be perceptible to the mind and/or the eye. Figures of thought appeal to the mind by twisting language in a way that is strictly improper, but licensed by usage. Thus the word 'is' is used improperly in the sentence 'John is a lion', but the metaphorical usage is permissible. Or when we hear the sentence 'All hands on deck', we understand that the word 'hands' is being used as a synecdoche for sailors. Figures of thought are sometime called tropes (from a Greek word meaning 'turn', 'twist') or conceits (from a Latin word meaning 'concept', because the conceit appeals to the mind). Figures of speech are perceptible to the eye and the ear. Thus rhyme is a figure of speech, as is alliteration and anaphora. Figures of speech are sometimes called schemes (Greek 'forms').

Rhyme : When two or more words or phrases contain an identical or similar vowel-sound, and the consonant-sounds that follow are identical or similar (red and dead). Feminine rhyme occurs when two syllables are rhymed ('mother | brother'). Half-rhyme occurs when the final consonants are the same but the preceding vowels are not. ('love | have'). Eye rhyme occurs when two syllables look the same but are pronounced differently ('kind | wind' - although sometimes changes in pronunciation have made what were formerly perfect rhymes become eye rhymes). Rime riche occurs when the same combination of sounds is used in each element of the rhyme, but where the two identical sounding words have different senses ('maid | made'). This was in the medieval period regarded as a particularly perfect form of rhyme. Leonine rhyme occurs when the syllable immediately preceding the caesura rhymes with the syllable at the end of the line. The Rhyme Scheme, or regularly recurring patterns of rhyme within a poem or stanza, is recorded by using a letter of the alphabet to denote each rhyme, and noting the order in which the rhymes recur (aabbcc is the most simply rhyme scheme of all, that of the couplet).

Rhythm : a term designating the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in verse or prose. Different lines of verse can have the same metre but a different rhythm. Thus two lines of alliterative verse in Middle English poetry might have the same metrical pattern of four stressed syllables, but their rhythm might differ by having a greater or lesser number of unstressed syllables intervening between the stressed syllables.

Rhyme Royal : A form of verse which consists of stanzas of seven ten-syllable lines, riming a b a b b c c. It was first used by Chaucer, and was also the form chosen by Shakespeare for the tragic gravity of his narrative poem Lucrece (1594).

Simile : a comparison between two objects or ideas which is introduced by 'like' or 'as'. The literal object which evokes the comparison is called the tenor and the object which describes it is called the vehicle. So in the simile 'the car wheezed like an asthmatic donkey' the car is the tenor and the 'asthmatic donkey' is the vehicle. Negative similes are also possible (as in Shakespeare's Sonnet 'My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun'). Epic similes are more extended similes, which might involve multiple points of correspondence between tenor and vehicle. The frequently occur in long heroic narrative poems in the classical tradition, such as Milton's Paradise Lost (1667), as when Milton describes the combat of Satan and Death:

'Incenst with indignation Satan stood
Unterrifi'd, and like a Comet burn'd,
That fires the length of Ophiucus huge
In th' Artick Sky, and from his horrid hair
Shakes Pestilence and Warr. Each at the Head
Level'd his deadly aime; thir fatall hands
No second stroke intend, and such a frown
Each cast at th' other, as when two black Clouds
With Heav'ns Artillery fraught, come rattling on
Over the Caspian, then stand front to front
Hov'ring a space, till Winds the signal blow
To joyn thir dark Encounter in mid air:
So frownd the mighty Combatants, that Hell
Grew darker at thir frown, so matcht they stood'

This double simile (first Satan is compared to a comet, then to a cloud) reflects back on the literal action: the violent energy of the comet is damped down by the immobile clouds. This change of vehicle reflects back on the fight which is the simile's tenor: it suggests that Satan starts off blazing with eagerness to fight Death, and then pauses, perhaps nervously.

Sonnet : In its earliest usages this can mean just 'a short poem, often on the subject of love.' Now it is almost always used to denote a fourteen line poem in iambic pentameter. There are two main forms of Sonnet: the 'Shakespearean Sonnet' rhymes abab cdcd efef gg. It was the form favoured by Shakespeare, in his Sonnets (1609), although it is first found in the work of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. The three quatrains can be linked together in argument in a variety of ways, but often there is a 'volta' or turn in the course of the argument after the second quatrain. The final couplet often provides an opportunity to sum up the argument of the poem with an epigram. Edmund Spenser's Amoretti (1595) introduced a variant form in which the quatrains are connected by rhyme: abab bcbc cdcd ee. The 'Petrarchan Sonnet', which is the earliest appearance of the form, falls into an octet, or eight line unit, and a sestet, or six line unit. The Petrarchan sonnet form rhymes abbaabba cdecde (although the sestet can follow other rhyme-schemes, such as cdcdcd). Often there is a marked shift in the progression of the argument after the octet in the Petrarchan sonnet, which is sometimes vestigially registered in the Shakespearean form by a change of argument or mood at the start of the third quatrain. Sonnets may be free-standing poems, or they may form part of an extended sequence of poems which might relate in a loose narrative form the progress of a love affair (as is the case in Sidney's Astrophil and Stella, Spenser's Amoretti and Petrarch's Canzoniere).

Stanza : 'A group of lines of verse (usually not less than four), arranged according to a definite scheme which regulates the number of lines, the metre, and (in rhymed poetry) the sequence of rhymes; normally forming a division of a song or poem consisting of a series of such groups constructed according to the same scheme' (OED). This term is preferable to the less technical 'verse', since that word can also refer to a single line of a poem. In printed poems divisions between stanzas are frequently indicated by an area of blank space.

Stress : Emphasis given to a syllable in pitch, volume or duration (or several of these). In normal spoken English some syllables are given greater stress than others. In metrical writing these natural variations in stress are formed into recurrent patterns, such as iambs, anapaests or trochees.

Strophe : A stanza or other grouping of lines within a poem. In classical odes the term is used of the first group of lines which might be followed by an antistrophe which exactly replicates the form of the strophe.

Syllable : The smallest unit of speech that normally occurs in isolation, or a distinct sound element within a word. This can consist of a vowel alone ('O') or a combination of a vowel and one or more consonants ('no', 'not'). Monosyllables contain only one syllable ('dog', 'big', 'shoe'); polysyllables contain more than one syllable. The word 'syllable' contains three syllables.

Syllabic Verse : A metrical system which depends solely on syllable count, and which takes no account of stress. This is the norm in most Romance languages (French, Italian, Spanish), but is unusual (and almost always consciously experimental) in English.

Synecdoche : the rhetorical figure whereby a part is substituted for a whole ('a suit entered the room'), or, less usually, in which a whole is substituted for a part (as when a policeman is called 'the law' or a manager is called 'the management').

Topos : from a Greek word meaning 'place', a 'topos' in poetry is a 'commonplace', a standard way of describing a particular subject. Describing a person's physical features from head to toe (or somewhere in between) is, for example, a standard topos of medieval and Renaissance poetry.

Trochee : a foot of two syllables, in which the accent falls on the first syllable (dúm di). Some words which are trochaic include 'broken', 'taken', 'Shakespeare'.

Trope : a general term for any figure of speech which alters the literal sense of a word or phrase: so metaphor, simile and allegory are all tropes, since they affect the meaning of words. In the rhetorical tradition tropes are contrasted with figures, which are rhetorical devices which affect the order or placing of words (so the repetition of a particular word at the start of each line is a figure).

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