Literary Terms Used in the Study of Poetry

1. Alliteration:

The device refers to the repetition of consonant sounds in a sequence of words in a line. The term is applied only when the recurrent sound occurs is a conspicuous position at the beginning of a word or of a stressed syllable within a word. Alliteration is used only for special stylistic effects, such as to reinforce the meaning, to link related words, or provide tone colour.

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“Let me not to the marriage of true minds”

(True Love: William Shakespeare)

Mark the repetition of the ‘m’ sound.

“And’ tis my faith every flower”


(Written in Early Spring: William Wordsworth)

2. Assonance:

Repetition of identical or similar vowel sound in a sequence of nearby words is known as assonance.



Thou still unvarnished bride of quietness,

Thou foster child of silence and slow time.

(Ode on a Gracian Urn: John Keats)

Note the recurrent long ‘I’ in the lines.

3. Allegory:

An allegory is a narrative in which the agents and action, and sometimes the setting as well, are contrived not only to make sense in themselves, but also to signify a second, correlated order of persons, things, concepts, or events.


John Dryden’s Absalom and Achitiophel: in this poem King David represents Charles II, Absalom represents his natural son the Duke of Monmouth and the biblical plot allegorizes a political crisis in contemporary England.

Walt Whitman’s O captain, My Captain in which the Captain represents Abraham Lincoln, the ship represents America and the countrymen represent the American.

4. Allusion:

Allusion refers to a brief reference, direct or indirect, to a person, place or event, or to another literary work of passage. In the lines from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, describing a modern woman at her dressing table,

“The Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne,

Glowed on the marble,”

We notice an ironic allusion to Shakespeare’s words

“The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,

Burned on the water,”

in Antony and Cleopatra.

5. Antithesis:

This figure of speech is a contrast or opposition in meaning emphasized by a parallel in grammatical structure.


“Willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike.”

Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot: John Dryden

“Resolved to win, he meditates the way

By force to ravish, or by fraud betray

(Rape of the Lock: Alexander Pope)

6. Conceit:

It refers to the figures of speech which establish a striking parallel between two apparently dissimilar things or situations. There are two different types of conceit. The Patrarchan conceit is a type of figure used in love poems which had been novel and effective in the Italian poet Petrarch, but often became hackneyed in his imitators, the Elizabethan sonneteers. The figure consists of detailed and exaggerated comparisons applied to the disdainful mistress, as cold and cruel as she is beautiful, and to the distresses and distresses of the worshipful lover. Shakespeare satirized some standard objects pressed into service for similes by Petrarchan sonneteers, in his sonnet beginning.

“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;

Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;

If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;

If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.”

The Metaphysical Conceit is a characteristic figure in John Donne and other metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century. The metaphysical poets exploited all knowledge for the vehicles of these figures. Their comparisons were novel, witty and startlingly effective. Donne’s “The Fla” is a poem that used a flea who has bitten both lovers as the basic reference for its argument against the lady’s coyness. The most famous sustained conceit is Donne’s parallel (in “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”) between the continuing relationship of his and his lady’s soul, despite their physical parting, to the coordinated movements of the two feet of a draughtman’s compass.

7. Dramatic Monologue:

The name designates a type of poem that was perfected by Robert Browning. In his poem we notice a single person, who is not the poet himself, utters the entire poem in a specific situation at a critical moment. This person addresses and interacts with one or more other people.

8. Epic Simile:

Epic similes are formal and sustained similes in which the secondary subject, or “vechicle”, is developed far beyond its parallel to the primary subject, or “tenor”. This figure was imitated from Homer by Virgil, Milton and other writers of epics, who employed it to enhance the ceremonial quality of the epic style.


Milton’s description of the fallen angels thronging toward their new-built palace of Pandemonium by an elaborale comparison to the swarming of bees:

“As Bees

In spring time, when the sun with Taurus rides,

Pour forth their populous youth about the Hive

In clusters, they among fresh dews and flowers

Fly to and fro, or on the smoothed Plank,

The suburb of their straw-built Citadel,

New rubb’d with Balm; expatiate and confer

Their state affairs. So thick the aery crowd

Swarm’d and were strait’n’d……….”

9. Epigram:

Epigram refers to an inscription or very short poem which polished, condensed and pointed. An epigram often ends with a surprising or witty turn of thought. It was much cultivated in England in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by Donne, Johnson and Herrick. Many of Alexander Pope’s closed couplets are detachable epigrams.

10. Eurphony:

Eurphony is language which seems smooth, pleasant and musical to the ear, as can be noticed in Keats’s.

And lucent synops, tinct with cinnamon,

Manna and dales, in argosy transferred

From fez, and spiced dainties, everyone,

From silken Samarcand to cedared Lebanon.

11. Cacophony:

Cacophony means language which seems harsh, rough and unmusical. The discordancy is the aggregate effect of difficulty in pronunciation, sense and sound.


“Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.”

(Dover Beach –Matthew Arnold)


They fought the dogs and killed the cats…..

Split opens the kegs of salted sprats,

Made nests inside men’s Sunday hats.”

(Pied Piper – Robert Browning)

12. Heroic Couplet:

Lines of iambic pentameter which rhyme in succession. The adjective ‘heroic’ was applied in the latter seventeenth century. This verse form was introduced into English poetry by Geoffrey Chaucer and has been in constant employment ever since. From the age of Dryden through that of Dr. Johnson, the heroic couplet became the predominant English measure for all the poetic kinds. Some poets including Alexander Pope used it almost to the exclusion of other meters.


See how the world its veterans rewards!

A youth of frolics, an old age of cards;

Fair to no purpose, artful to no end,

Young without lovers, old without a friend;

A fop their passion, but their prize a sot;

Alive, ridiculous, and dead, forgot!

13. Imagery:

An image “is a picture made out of wards….a poem may itself be an image composed from a multiplicity of images”. Imagery is used to signify all the objects and qualities of sense perception referred to in a poem, whether by literal description, by allusion; or in the analogues used in its similes and metaphors. In his In Memoriam, number 101. Tennyson’s references are to qualities of smell and hearing as well as sight, in the lines.

Unloved, that beech will gather brown……

And many a rose-carnation feed

With summer spice the humming air….

Imagery is used to signify only descriptions of visible objects and scenes, especially if the description is vivid and particularized as in Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner”.

The rock shone bright, the kark no less,

That stands above the rock:

The moonlight steeped in silentness

The steady weathercock.

Most commonly, imagery is used to signify figurative language especially the vehicles of metaphors and similes.

14. Irony:

Irony is a statement in which the implicit meaning intended by the speaker differs from that which he ostensibly asserts. An ironic statement usually involves the explicit expression of one attitude or evaluation, but with the implication of a very different attitude or evaluation.

15. Metaphor:

Metaphor is an indirect or implicit comparison between two things.

“She was our queen, our rose, our star,”

Here the word “rose” is a metaphor.

16. Onomatopoeia:

“Onomatopoeia” is commonly applied to a word or a combination of words whose sound seems to resemble the sound it denotes : “hiss”, “buzz”, “rattle”, “patter”, “bang”, “mew” etc. the seeming similarity is due as much to the meaning, and the feel of uttering the words, as to their sounds. Two lines from Tennyson’s “Come Down, O Maid” are often cited as an instance of onomatopoeia.

The moon of doves in immemorial elms,

And murmuring of innumerable bees.

In the broad sense, “onomatopoeia” is applied to words or passages which seem to correspond to what they denote in anyway whatever in size, movement, or force, as well as sound. According to Alexander Pope “the sound should seem an echo of the sense. He goes on to illustrate this by mimicking two different kinds of motion by the words and metrical movement of his lines:

When Ajax strives some rock’s vast weight to throw,

The line too labors, and the words move slow;

Not so when swift Camilla scours the plain,

Files o’er th’ unbending corn, and skims along the main.

17. Paradox:

A paradox is a statement which seems on its face to be self-contradictory or absurd, yet turns out to have a valid meaning.

“One short sleep past, we wake eternally

And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.”

(Death be not Proud: John Donne)

18. Oxymoron: A paradoxical utterance that combines two terms that, in ordinary usage,are contraries, is called an “oxymoron”. An example is Tennyson’s “O Death in life, the days that are no more.”

19. Simile:

Simile is a direct comparison between two things, usually dissimilar.

“I wandered lonely as a cloud.”

(Daffodils: William Wordsworth)

20. Personification:

The term means a reference to or the treatment of an abstract concept or a nonliving object as if it were a person. Keats personified the Gracian urn when he calls it “the foster child of silence and slow time”. He also personifies Autumn in ‘To Autumn’ when he describes Autumn sitting on her granary floor with her hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind.

21. Synesthesia:

The term refers to the experience of two or more modes of sensation when only one sense is being stimulated. In literature it applies to descriptions of one kind of sensation in terms of another; colour is attributed to sound, odor to colours, and sound to odors and so on. The following lines from Shelley’s The Sensitive Plant are an example of such “sense transfer.”

And the hyacinth purple, and white and blue,

Which flung from its bells a sweet peel anew

Of music so delicate, soft and intense,

It was felt like an odor within the sense.

The varicoloured bell-shaped flowers send out a peal of music which affects the sense as through it were the scent of the hyacinths.

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