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Literary Terms (Definitions)

Allegory- saying one thing (the “vehicle” of the allegory) and meaning another (the allegory’s “tenor”).  Allegories may be momentary aspects of a work, as in metaphor (John is a lion), or through extended metaphor, may constitute the basis of narrative.

Alliteration- the repetition of an initial consonant sound or consonant cluster in consecutive or closely positioned words 

Anagnorisis- the moment of protagonists’ recognition in a narrative, which is also often the moment of moral understanding

Anaphora- the repetition of words or groups of words at the beginning of consecutive sentences, clauses, or phrases

Antithesis- juxtaposition of opposed terms in clauses or sentences that are next to or near each other

Apostrophe- an address, often to an absent person, a force, or a quality (ex. A poet makes an apostrophe to a muse when invoking her for inspiration) 

Apposition- the repetition of elements serving an identical grammatical function in one sentence, but in doing so to add extra semantic nuance to repeated elements

Assonance- the repetition of identical or near identical stressed vowel sounds in words whose final consonants differ, producing half-rhyme. 

Bathos- a sudden and sometimes ridiculous descent of tone (not louder shrieks to pitying heaven are cast, / when husbands, or when lapdogs breathe their last)

Blazon- a topos whereby the individual elements of a beloved’s face and body are singles out for hyperbolic admiration

Burlesque- a work that adopts the conventions of a genre with the aim less of comically mocking the genre than of satirically mocking the society so represented (Pope’s Rape of the Lock)
Catastrophe- the decisive turn in tragedy by which the plot is resolved and, usually, the protagonist dies

Catharsis- according to Aristotle, the effect of tragedy on its audience, through their experience of pity and terror, was a king of spiritual cleansing
Chiasmus- the inversion of an already established sequence (the crimes was common, common be the pain)

Conceit- two vastly different objects are compared to each other with the help of metaphors or similes. A comparison becomes a conceit when the author tries to make the reader admit a similarity between two things even though we know that there is no real comparison between the two; this is why conceits are often surprising.

Consonance- the repetition of final consonants in words or stressed syllables whose vowel sounds are different. (consort, both heart and lute…)

Ecphrasis- a topos whereby a word of visual art is represented in a literary work (Auden’s “muse des beaux arts)

Emblem- a picture allegorically expressing a moral, or a verbal picture that is open to interpretation

Euphemism- the figure by which something distasteful is described in alternative, less repugnant terms (he passed away)

Homophone- a word that sounds identical to another word but has a different meaning (bear/bare)

Hyperbaton- the rearrangement, or inversion, of the expected word order in a sentence or clause.

Hyperbole- overstatement, exaggeration

Irony- strictly, a subset of allegory: whereas allegory says one thing and means another, irony says one thing and means its opposite

Litotes- strictly, understatement by denying the contrary

Metaphor- the identification or implicit identification of one thing with another with which it is not literally identifiable.

Metonymy- using a word to denote another concept or other concepts by virtue of habitual association. (the press designation printed news media)

Occupatio- denying that one will discuss a subject while actually discussing it (ex. Nun’s Priest’s Tale – Chaucer)

Omniscient narrator- a narrator who, in the fiction of the narrative, has complete access to both the deeds and the thoughts of all characters in the narrative (Thomas hardy’s “on the western circuit”)

Onomatopoeia- verbal sounds that imitate and evoke the sounds they denotate. 

Oxymoron- conjunction of normally incompatible terms (darkness visible)

Paradox- an apparent contradiction that requires though to reveal an inner consistency (O sweete harm so quainte)

Parody- a worth that uses the conventions of a particular genre with the aim of comically mocking a topos, a genre, or a particular exponent of a genre (Shakespeare parodies the topos of blazon in sonnet 130)


Pathetic fallacy- the attribution of sentiment to natural phenomena, as if they were in sympathy with human feelings (“with cowslips wan that hang the pensive head, / and every flower that sad embroidery wears”)

Peripeteia- the sudden reversal of fortune (in both directions) in a dramatic work

Periphrasis- circumlocution; the use of many words to express what could be expressed in few or one (Sidney, Astrophil and Stella 39.1-4)

Personification- the attribution of human qualities on nonhuman forces or objects

Pun- a sometimes irresolvable doubleness of meaning in a single word or expression (whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will- Shakespeare’s “sonnet 135”

Refrain- usually a single line repeated as the last line of consecutive stanzas, sometimes with subtly different wording and ideally with subtly different meaning as the poem progresses

Sarcasm- a wounding remark, often expressed ironically

Simile- comparison, usually using the word “like” or “as,” of one thing with another so as to produce sometimes surprising analogies

Synecdoche- using a part to express the whole, or vice versa (in what torn ship soever I embark/ that ship shall be my emblem of thy ark)

Topos- a commonplace in the content of a given kind of literature, originally, in classical rhetoric, the topoi were tried-and-tested stimuli to literary invention: lists of standard heading under which a subject might be investigated. In medieval poems, for example, it was commonplace to begin with a description of spring

The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Sixteenth Century/The Early Seventeenth Century. 8th edition. Vol. B. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. Norton: New York, 2006. A41-A62.


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