image--guide to literary terms


English 241: Survey of the Literature of England

A Guide to Literary Terms


Over the semester, this page will accrue a list of definitions for literary terms discussed in English 241: Survey of the Literature of England. I will attempt to add new terms as they are brought up in class, so that by the end of this semester the guide will provide a useful resource for students preparing for final papers and exams.


A alliteration assonance    



blank verse




conversation poem

D doppelgänger dramatic monologue    


end-stopped line



F frame narrative      


gothic novel/fiction


heroic couplet



in medias res






O ode      




slant rhyme




Alliteration is the repetition of identical consonant or vowel sounds. Here's what C. Hugh Homan's Handbook to Literature has to say about alliteration:

A good example of consonantal alliteration is Coleridge's lines:

The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,
The furrow followed free.

Vowel alliteration is shown in the sentence: "Apt alliteration's artful aid is often an occasional ornament in prose." Alliteration of sounds within words appears in Tennyson's lines:

The moan of doves in immemorial elms,
And murmuring of innumerable bees.

Old English versification rested in large measure on alliteration, as did much Middle English poetry. INDEX


Assonance refers to similar vowel sounds in syllables that end with different consonant sounds, for example the words, "skies," "fire" and "thine." Here's what C. Hugh Homan's Handbook to Literature has to say about assonance:

Assonance differs from rhyme in that rhyme is a similarity of vowel and consonant. "Lake" and "fake" demonstrate rhyme; "lake" and "fate" assonance.

Assonance is a common substitution for end-rhyme in the popular ballad, as in these lines from "The Twa Corbies":

—In behint yon auld fail dyke,
I wot there lies a new-slain Knight.

Such substitution of assonance for end-rhyme is also characteristic of Emily Dickinson's verse, and is used extensively by many contemporary poets.

As an enriching ornament within the line, assonance is of great use to the poet. Poe and Swinburne used it extensively for musical effect. Gerard Manley Hopkins introduced modern poets to its wide use. The skill with which Dylan Thomas manipulates assonance is one of his high achievements. Note its complex employment in the first stanza of Thomas' "Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait":

The bows glided down, and the coast
Blackened with birds took a last look
At his thrashing hair and whale-blue eye;
The trodden town rang its cobbles for luck. INDEX


Here's the definition of "ballad" in C. Hugh Holman's Handbook to Literature:

I'll finish with a passage from M. H. Abrams's definition of "ballad" in his Glossary of Literary Terms: INDEX

Blank Verse:

This is a verse form commonly used in Elizabethan drama and in long narrative poems generally. The form consists of unrhymed iambic pentameter lines. "Of all English verse forms," writes M. H. Abrams in his A Glossary of Literary Terms, blank verse "is closest to the natural rhythms of English speech, yet the most flexible and adaptive to diverse levels of discourse; as a result it has been more frequently and variously used than any other type of verse." INDEX


Here's the definition from C. Hugh Holman's A Handbook to Literature: "A pause or break in the metrical or rhythmical progress of a line of verse.... Usually the caesura has been placed near the middle of a verse. Some poets, however, have sought diversity of rhythmical effect by placing the caesura anywhere from near the beginning of a line to near the end." The pause is often underlined through the use of some form of punctuation. See, for example, the heroic couplet below. INDEX


Also sometimes termed slant or half rhyme, consonance refers to when consonants in stressed syllables agree but vowels differ (for example, the rhyme "up" and "drop" in the final sestet of Yeats' "Leda and the Swan." INDEX

Conversation Poem:

A "conversation poem" is a sustained blank-verse lyric of description and meditation, in the mode of conversation addressed to a silent auditor. Examples include Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" and Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight" and "The Eolian Harp." The form is an important precursor of the Victorian dramatic monologue. INDEX


A literary technique by which a character is duplicated (usually in the form of an alter ego, though sometimes as a ghostly counterpart) or divided into two distinct, usually opposite personalities. The use of this character device is widespread in nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature, and indicates a growing awareness among authors that the "self" is really a composite of many "selves." A well-known story containing a doppelgänger character is Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which dramatizes an internal struggle between good and evil. The convention first gets established in literature through German gothic fiction of the turn of the nineteenth century, and through that tradition influenced Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. INDEX

Dramatic Monologue:

Here's the definition of "dramatic monologue" from M. H. Abrams's A Glossary of Literary Terms:

A monologue is a long speech by a single person; the dramatic device, in which a character in a play utters a monologue that expresses the character's private thoughts, is called a soliloquy. What is called a dramatic monologue is not an element in a play, but a type of lyric poem that was perfected by Robert Browning. In its fullest form, as represented in Browning's "My Last Duchess," "The Bishop Orders His Tomb," "Andrea del Sarto," and many other poems, the dramatic monologue has the following features; (1) A single person, who is patently not the poet, utters the entire poem in a specific situation at a critical moment: the Duke is negotiating with an emissary for a second wife; the Bishop lies dying; Andrea once more attempts wistfully to believe his wife's lies. (2) This person addresses and interacts with one or more other people; but we know of the auditor's presence and what they say and do only from clues in the discourse of the single speaker. (3) The principle controlling the poet's selection and organization of what the lyric speaker says is the speaker's unintentional revelation of his or her temperament and character.

Even Browning, in monologues such as "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister" and "Caliban upon Setebos," omits the second attribute, the presence of a silent auditor; but attributes (1) and (3) are essential distinctions between the dramatic monologue and the dramatic lyric, which is also a monologue uttered in a specified situation at a dramatic moment. Thus John Donne's "The Canonization" and "The Flea" (1613) are dramatic lyrics that, although very close to the dramatic monologue, lack one essential feature: the focus of interest is primarily on the speaker's elaborately ingenious argument, rather than on the character he inadvertently reveals in the course of arguing. And although Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" (1798) is spoken by one person to a silent auditor (his sister) in a specific situation at a significant moment in his life, it si not properly a dramatic monologue, both because we are invited to identify the speaker with the poet himself, and because the organizing principle is not the revelation of the speaker's distinctive temperament so much as the evolution of his observation, thought, memory, and feelings.

Tennyson wrote "Ulysses" (1842) and other dramatic monologues, and the form has been used by Robert Frost, E. A. Robinson, Ezra Pound, Robert Lowell, and other poets of this century. The best-known modern instance is T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1915).


End-stopped line:

An end-stopped line is one in which both the grammatical structure and the sense reach completion at the end of the line. In other words, this is the opposite of an enjambement. The following is a good example from Alexander Pope's An Essay on Man (this one's in your Reader):

All Nature is but Art, unknown to thee;
All Chance, Direction which thou canst not see;
All Discord, Harmony not understood;
All partial Evil, universal Good. INDEX


Here's the definition from C. Hugh Holman's A Handbook to Literature:

The continuation of the sense and grammatical construction of a verse or couplet on to the next verse or couplet. Enjambement occurs in run-on lines and offers contrast to end-stopped lines. The first and second lines from Milton given below, carried over to the second and third for completion, are illustrations of enjambement:

Or if Sion hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa's brook, that flow'd
Fast by the opracle of God. INDEX


The revelation of a god to a particular character. Athena, for example, often reveals herself to Odysseus throughout the Odyssey (though she often begins in disguise). This convention is connected to the convention of supernatural machinery in the traditional epic. The term gets re-worked by James Joyce who makes it apply to the quotidian world. Here's what M. H. Abrams says of "epiphany" in his Glossary of Literary Terms:

Epiphany means "a manifestation," and by Christian thinkers was used to signify a manifestation of God's presence in the created world. In the early draft of A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, entitled Stephen Hero (published posthumously in 1944), James Joyce adapted the term to secular experience, to signify a sense of a sudden radiance and revelation while observing a commonplace object. "By an epiphany [Stephen] meant a sudden spiritual manifestation." "Its soul, its whatness, leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance. The soul of the commonest object... seems to us radiant. The object achieves its epiphany." Joyce's short stories and novels include a number of epiphanies....

"Epiphany" has become the standard term for the description, frequent in modern poetry and prose fiction, of the sudden flare into revelation of an ordinary object or scene. Joyce, however, merely substituted this word for what earlier authors had called "the moment." Thus Shelley, in his Defense of Poetry (1821), described the "best and happiest moments... arising unforeseen and departing unbidden," "visitations of the divinity" which poetry "redeems from decay." William Wordsworth was a preeminent poet of what he called "moments," or in more elaborate instances, "spots of time." For instances of his short poems which represent a moment of revelation, see Wordsworth's "The Two April Mornings" and "The Solitary Reaper." Wordsworth's Prelude, like Joyce's narratives, is constructed as a sequence of such visionary encounters. Thus in Book VIII, lines 539-59, Wordsworth describes the "moment" when he for the first time passed in a stagecoach over the "threshold" of London and the "trivial forms/ Of houses, pavement, streets" suddenly manifested a profound power and significance:

    'twas a moment's pause,--
    All that took place within me came and went
    As in a moment; yet with Time it dwells,
    And grateful memory, as a thing divine.

Frame Narrative:

A story within a story, within sometimes yet another story, as in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The form is significant in Mary Shelley and Joseph Conrad since it seems to echo in structure the thematic search for, as Conrad puts it, a heart of darkness, something deep, dark, and secret at the heart of the narrative. The form thus also resembles the psychoanalytic process of uncovering the unconscious behind various levels of repressive, obfuscating narratives put in place by the conscious mind. In each of the frames, a different individual is narrating the events of a story. This structure of course also leads us to question the reasons behind each of the narrations since, unlike an omnicient narrative perspective, the teller of the story becomes an actual character with concomitant shortcomings, limitations, prejudices, and motives. The process of transmission is also highlighted since we often have a sequence of embedded readers or audiences, like the audience that sometimes interrupts Marlow's tale in the Heart of Darkness. This audience, by necessity, reminds us of our own reading process. Indeed, one could say that the faceless narrator in the outer frame of Conrad's text remains faceless because that makes it easier for us to identify with his role as receiver of Marlow's tale. INDEX

Gothic novel/fiction:

Here's a definition of "gothic" from J. A. Cuddon's A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Liteary Theory:

See also doppelgänger.


Heroic Couplet:

This verse form consists of iambic pentameter lines with rhymed couplets. In the eighteenth century, when this verse form was most popular, poets tended also to write in closed couplets, which is to say that the end of each couplet, and even each line, tended to coincide with the end of a sentence or a self-sufficient unit of syntax. The form became the predominant English measure in the eighteenth century and is in some ways reflective of eighteenth-century ideals of order, balance, and closure. That sense of balance was also achieved by a strong caesura usually right in the center of each verse line. A good example is the last lines of the First Epistle of Alexander Pope's An Essay on Man:


in medias res:

This is the technical term for the epic convention of beginning "in the middle of things," rather than at the very start of the story. In the Odyssey, for example, we first learn about Odysseus' journey when he is held captive on Calypso's island, even though, as we find out in Books IX through XII, the greater part of Odysseus' journey actually precedes that moment in the narrative. We have some good examples of poems that start in the middle of things, for example Coleridge's "This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison" or Browning's dramatic monologues. INDEX


An invocation is any address to a deity, usually for help of some sort. The epic traditionally begins with an invocation to the Muse (a request for help in the telling of the tale). In fact, in an oral culture, the storyteller or "rhapsode" is considered merely a vessel through which the gods (and particularly the Muses) speak. (This is the reason Plato makes fun of oral storytellers in Ion.) There are traditionally nine Muses, each presiding over a different genre of literature. The traditional Muse of epic poetry is Calliope, although Homer does not address her by name in his invocation at the beginning of the Odyssey. INDEX


Here are the two forms of irony that most closely concern us in this course. The second form, structural irony, applies both to the unreliable narrators of Frankenstein or Heart of Darkness, as well as to the unreliable speakers of the Victoiran dramatic monologue. M. H. Abrams describes these two forms of irony in his A Glossary of Literary Terms:

Verbal irony... is a statement in which the speaker's implicit meaning differs sharply from the meaning that is ostensibly expressed. Such an ironic statement usually involves the explicit expression of one attitude or evaluation, but with indications in the speech-situation that the speaker intends a very different, and often opposite, attitude or evaluation....

Some literary works exhibit structural irony: the author, instead of using an occasional verbal irony, introduces a structural feature which serves to susain a duplicity of meaning and evaluation throughout the work. One common literary device of this sort is the invention of a naive hero, or else a naive narrator or spokesman, whose invincible simplicity or obtuseness leads him to persist in putting an interpretation on affairs which the knowing reader—who penetrates to, and shares, the implicit point of view of the authorial presence behind the naive persona—just as persistently is called on to alter and correct. (Note that verbal irony depends on knowledge of the speaker's ironic intention which is shared by the speaker and the reader; structural irony depends on a knowledge of the author's ironic intention which is shared by the reader, but is not intended by the speaker.)

I should add that "irony" is one of the most misused terms in the English language. Let's just say that none of the following are examples of irony: "An old man turned ninety-eight/ He won the lottery and died the next day/ It's a black fly in your Chardonnay/ It's a death row pardon two minutes too late/ And isn't it ironic... dontcha think?" (Alanis Morissette, "Ironic"). These are only examples of bad luck.




Here's an excerpt from M. H. Abrams' definition of "meter" in A Glossary of Literary Terms (fifth edition):

Here are the major metrical feet, as given (with some changes by me) in Abrams:

Two other feet, often distinguished, occur only as occasional variants from standard feet:

A metric line is named according to the number of feet composing it:


one foot


two feet


three feet


four feet


five feet


six feet


seven feet


eight feet

Now back again to M. H. Abrams and his Glossary of Literary Terms:



Here is a strong definition of narration from The Harper Handbook to Literature, edited by Northrop Frye, Sheridan Baker, and George Perkins:

[Narrations] take their names from the grammatical stance employed by the narrator: first-person narration for a narrative perspective inside the story, third-person narration for one outside. The first-person narrator speaks as an "I" and may be identified in one of three roles; first person as protagonist, the hero or heroine of the story; first person as participant, a character in a subsidiary role; first person as observer, a character without essential function except to observe and record, sometimes developed fully as an individual with a name, history, and personality, sometimes almost nonexistent except for the "I" that appears occasionally as a reminder of the individual's personal relation to the story.... [A] third-person narrator... stands outside the story, speaking of those within it in the grammatical third person (he, she, they).... [One kind of third-person narration] is called THIRD-PERSON OMNISCIENCE, because the [third-person] narrator assumes the privileges of omniscience, moving about in time and space, entering freely into the unverbalized thoughts and motives of the characters.... All-knowing should not, however, be confused with all-revealing, in either traditional or modern tales.... [T]he third-person omniscient narrator will seldom reveal the mysteries and secret motives of the story before the moment of greatest effect. Knowing all, the story teller teases the reader with bits and pieces until all comes together at the end. [In other words, the story teller discursively re-orders the chronological events of the story.]

In THIRD-PERSON LIMITED OMNISCIENCE, the narrator frequently limits the revelation of thoughts to those of one character, presenting the other characters only externally. As a result, the reader's experience is conditioned by the mental state, the qualities of perception, ignorance, or bias of the filtering or reflecting mind.



Here is a strong definition of "ode" from M. H. Abrams's A Glossary of Literary Terms:

A long lyric poem that is serious in subject, elevated in style, and elaborate in its stanzaic structure.... The prototype was established by the Greek poet Pindar, whose odes were modeled on the songs by the chorus in Greek drama. His complex stanzas were patterned in sets of three: moving in a dance rhythm to the left, the chorus chanted the strophe; moving to the right, the antistrophe; then, standing still, the epode.

The regular or Pindaric ode in English is a close imitation of Pindar's form, with all the strophes and antistrophes written in one stanza pattern, and all the epodes in another; the typical construction may be conveniently studied in Thomas Gray's "The Progress of Poesy" (1757). The irregular ode was introduced in 1656 by Abraham Cowley, who imitated the Pindaric style and matter but disregarded the recurrent strophic triad, allowing each stanza to establish its own pattern of variable line lengths, nuber of lines, and rhyme scheme. This type of irregular stanzaic structure, which is free to alter in accordance with shifts in subject and mood, has been the most common for the English ode ever since; Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality" (1807) is representative.

Pindar's odes wiere encomiastic, or written to praise and glorify someone—in his instance, a victorious athlete in the Olympic games. The earlier English odes, and many later one, were also written to eulogize something; either a person (Dryden's "Anne Killigrew"), or the arts of music or poetry (Dryden's "Alexander's Feast"), or a time of day (Collins' "Ode to Evening"), or abstract concepts (Gray's "Hymn to Adversity" and Wordsworth's "Ode to Duty"). Romantic poets perfected the personal ode of description and passionate meditation, which is stimulated by (and sometimes reverts to) an aspect of the outer scene and turns on the attempt to solve either a personal emotional problem or a generally human one (Wordsworth's "Intimations" ode, Coleridge's "Dejection: An Ode," Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind")....

The Horatian ode was originally modeled on the matter, tone, and form of the odes of the Roman Horace. In contrast to the passion and visionary boldness of Pindar's odes, Horatian odes are calm, meditative, and restrained, and they are usually homostrophic—that is, written in a single repeated stanza form—as well as shorter than the Pindaric ode. Examples are Marvell's "An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland" (1650) and Keats's ode "To Autumn" (1820).



C. Hugh Holman's A Handbook to Literature describes pantheism in the following way:

Slant Rhyme :

See consonance.



A sonnet is a lyric poem of fourteen iambic pentameter lines linked by an intricate rhyme scheme. There are three main variants to the rhyme scheme in the tradition of English literature:

Here is what M. H. Abrams has to say about the sonnet in A Glossary of Literary Terms:

The stanza is just long enough to permit a fairly complex lyric development, yet so short and so exigent in its rhymes as to pose a standing challenge to the artistry of the poet. the rhyme pattern of the Petrarchan sonnet has on the whole favored a statement of problem, situation, or incident in the octave, with a resolution in the sestet. The English form sometimes uses a similar division of material, but often presents a repetition-with-variation of a statement in the three quatrains; the final couplet, however, usually imposes an epigrammatic turn at the end....

Following Petrarch's early example, a number of Elizabethan poets wrote sonnet sequences, or sonnet cycles, in which a series of sonnets are linked together by exploring the varied aspects of a relationship between lovers, or by indicating a development in that relationship which constitutes a kind of implicit plot.



The sublime can be best distinguished in relationship to the beautiful. The beautiful is that in nature which can be admired calmly and appreciated for its surface appearance (color, depth, material, balance). The sublime is that in nature which is so much greater than man that its attraction actually includes a certain degree of fear and trepidation on the part of the beholder, although a fear not so immediate that it traumatizes. The stolen boat episode in Book I of the Prelude (starting at line 372) relates Wordsworth's first experience with this terrible, frightening, but nonetheless attractive, side to Nature's otherwise gentle and calming beauty. Natural landscapes that often evoke the sublime include mountains, chasms, Northern wastelands, massive waterfalls, etc.. Consider, for example, J. M. W. Turner's painting "The Passage of the St. Gothard" (1804) to the right of this text. (Note: if you click on the image, you will link to a larger reproduction of the same painting with slightly better resolution.) Here's the definition of the sublime in Hugh Holman's A Handbook to Literature:

Edmund Burke in 1756 wrote A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful . Kant followed Burke's line of thinking in his Criticique of Judgment (1790), where he linked beauty with the finite and the sublime with the infinite. Burke's doctrine of the sublime was powerfully influential on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writers. He believed that a painful idea creates a sublime passion and thus concentrates the mind on that single facet of experience and produces a momentary suspension of rational activity, uncertainty, and self-consciousness. If the pain producing this effect is imaginary rather than real, a great aesthetic object is achieved. Thus, great mountains, storms at sea, ruined abbeys, crumbling castles, and charnel houses are appropriate subjects to produce the sublime. INDEX


Course Syllabus | Class Policies

Last Revised: February 19, 2005

Painting courtesy of
Carol L. Gerten