3. Critical Terms for Studying Literature

3.1 Most of the terms we use in discussing literature are also a part of our common vocabulary: people talk about the TRAGEDY of 9/11, the IRONY of the Peter Principle, or the maple leaf as a SYMBOL of Canada. The same terms when applied to literary works usually carry the same general meaning but often also a more specialized and precise meaning. The dictionary definition of a term is usually a good starting point. You can find fuller definitions in literary handbooks (such as those listed at the end of this section), and many books have been written to examine the ramifications of each of these concepts, but for your study, the importance of these terms lies in the way they appear in the works you are reading–for example, the TRAGEDY of Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman, the IRONY of Elizabeth's friendship with Mr. Wickham in Pride and Prejudice, the albatross as a SYMBOL of the burden of guilt in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and so on. You should have in mind a basic definition of the following terms, and then explore how they take on fuller meaning as you see them illustrated and developed in your reading.

The terms discussed below are listed here alphabetically so that you can click on them to go directly to their definition, but be aware of the way in which a term is often defined in relation to other terms in the same category, discussed in the preceding or following paragraphs, or discussed in more than one paragraph, as indicated by the paragraph numbers following each term.

Alliteration, 16 narrative, 3, 5-8
anapest, 13 narrative perspective, 4
apostrophe, 22 novel, 8
assonance, 16 ode, 17
ballad stanza, 15 pentameter, 14
ballads, 17 personification, 21
comedy, 9 plot, 6
consonance, 16 point of view, 4
dactyl, 13 pyrrhic, 13
drama, dramatic, 3,5-7,9 rhyme, 16
elegy, 17 scansion, 12
figurative language, 18-24 short story, 8
  26-27 simile, 18
foot (metrical), 13 song, 17
genre, 8 sonnet, 17
iamb, 13 spondee, 13
imagery, 24 stanza, 15
irony, 1, 26 symbol, symbolism, 1, 23
literature, 2 tetrameter, 14
lyric 3,5-7,10 tone, 25
metaphor, 19, 20 tragedy, 1, 9
meter, metrical, 11-14 trochee, 13

3.2 LITERATURE may include everything that is written—literally, everything that appears in letters, from the Bible to graffiti—but in general usage the term has been limited to writings in a specific field (as scientific literature). When not specified, the field is usually understood as imaginative and creative writing, or more narrowly, the best of such writing. What is “best” will of course vary according to who makes the judgment. De gustibus non disputandum, as the Romans recognized: taste is not to be disputed—we each have our own preferences. Nevertheless people have continued to argue for what they think is best in literature because they feel that, although a story may be fictitious, the values it contains are important, as is the way in which it is presented. Such arguing can become tedious and futile when it bogs down in prejudice and personal opinion, but it leads to fuller understanding when it is based on accurate observation of the literature, careful examination of how the language works, and sound logical explanation, as is the purpose of an English literature class. How the language works can often be understood in terms of the conventional forms and techniques of literature, as outlined in what follows.
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3.3 Literature is generally divided into three kinds: NARRATIVE, DRAMATIC, and LYRIC. You may think of these categories in more common terms as stories, plays, and poems: a work of narrative literature tells a story, a drama acts out a story, and a lyric expresses an emotion. These general divisions often overlap, and many works of literature combine two or all three of these kinds, but the three kinds have formal differences that distinguish each one from the other two. Narrative literature has a narrator or story-teller intervening between us (the audience) and the story, and that intervention may affect the way we understand the story. Drama and lyric, on the other hand, are immediate: in drama we see the characters directly acting out the events rather than listen to someone else telling us about them; in lyric we hear or overhear the poet directly, usually speaking about personal feelings. Lyric is therefore usually subjective; in drama each character's subjective position is pitted against the others’ subjective positions, leaving us with a sense of an objective presentation.
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3.4 Narrative can vary from objective to subjective, depending on how much the narrator’s own feelings enter into the story, and how much his or her point of view shapes the story. POINT OF VIEW has come to mean opinion, but for literary analysis, take the term literally: it is the point or place (geographic, temporal, emotional, etc.) from which the narrator or other character views things—the point that determines what the character sees and how the character sees it (which in turn gives rise to the character's opinions on what is viewed). POINT OF VIEW is also called NARRATIVE PERSPECTIVE. Some stories are told in FIRST PERSON, in which the narrator, the “I,” tells a story in which he or she is involved. In other stories the narrator remains anonymous and tells the story in THIRD PERSON so that no “I” appears, just “he” and “she,” the characters of the story. When the narrator tells a story from an OMNISCIENT point of view, the narrator is able to get into the minds of all of the characters. However, if the point of view is LIMITED, we know only what the narrator or one of the characters thinks, feels, sees, and understands
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3.5 Narrative usually relates a story that has already happened, so it is in the past tense. Lyric usually expresses the poet’s present emotion, or one that recurs, so it is in the present tense. If it is a past emotion, it will be rekindled and made present. Drama presents a story that may have been completed some time in the past but which is acted out as though it were happening right now on the stage in front of us, so it is also basically in the present tense.
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3.6 Narrative and drama have a PLOT, a sequence of events rising to a climax and ending in some kind of resolution. Lyric, by contrast, generally has a single event, the expression of emotion which is the poem itself. A lyric poem may well rise to a climax and end with a resolution, but it will be not a sequence of events but an evolution of the emotion as the poem expresses it.
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3.7 These three kinds of literature--narrative, dramatic, and lyric—are sometimes referred to as the three genres of literature; more accurately they are the three presentational modes. T. S. Eliot called them the three voices of literature. You may think of them as three different ways of shaping human experience. They come from fundamental human impulses that express themselves in art, religion, history, and psychology: telling stories of where we come from, celebrating our joys and sorrows in song, and acting out significant events over again. In literature these three kinds of expression attain a highly refined form.
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3.8 The term GENRE is more properly reserved for the categories within each one of these kinds of literature. NARRATIVE, for example, includes the genres of NOVEL (such as The Handmaid’s Tale) and SHORT STORY ("The Snows of Kilimanjaro"). Each of these tells a story, developing a plot through the actions of its characters, but the way in which each genre tells its story differs in form, technique, and purpose. The brevity of the short story allows an intensity of design and effect that cannot be sustained in other longer forms, whereas the length of the novel allows a fuller development of character and a more complex plot.
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3.9 The principal genres of classical DRAMA are TRAGEDY and COMEDY, distinguished most simply, as in common usage, by the outcome, whether sad or happy, but more significantly by the conventions that develop the profundity of individual suffering in tragedy, and the celebration of the human community in comedy.
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3.10 LYRIC as a general category characterizes all poetry; more specifically it refers to the short simple verses in which the speaker expresses a personal emotion. Lyric verse is so called because in ancient Greece poetry was accompanied by the lyre. The name continues to be appropriate because lyric verse retains the features of song: the sound of the language—particularly in its use of rhythm and rhyme—corresponds to the sounding features of music. We need to hear poetry to comprehend its full effect, preferably by reading it aloud, and when reading silently, by hearing it with our inner ear--as a singer can read a musical score silently and hear its melody and harmony.
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3.11 Its METRICAL form usually distinguishes poetry most clearly from prose: the number of syllables in each line is measured (usually eight or ten syllables), and the accents alternate in a regular pattern. (Earlier narrative and drama were also written in metrical form, for example Shakespeare’s plays, but we usually refer to these works as plays rather than as poems because their dramatic features are more important than their poetic features in accounting for their literary form.) Much poetry in the past century has dispensed with regular meter, yet it continues to employ rhythm and other sound effects to achieve its meaning.
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3.12 SCANSION is the exercise of determining the metrical pattern of a poem. This appears difficult to some people because we learn to ignore the sound of language and attend only to its meaning, to read silently without moving our lips, to speed-read by taking in a whole phrase at a glance rather than hearing individual syllables. Reading poetry is slow reading, being aware of all the dimensions of language. If you do not hear the rhythmical pattern of accents, you can figure it out by paying closer attention to the accent of words. Meter depends upon the normal pronunciation of words, so you can start identifying the stressed and unstressed syllables in words of more than one syllable. (If you cannot hear where the accent falls, look up the accentuation in a dictionary.) The main parts of speech—nouns and verbs—are usually accented, though pronouns, helping verbs, and forms of the verb “to be” are usually unaccented. The minor parts of speech—articles ("a," "an," "the"), conjunctions, and prepositions—are usually unaccented. Modifiers–adjectives and adverbs—vary according to the relative stress or lack of stress preceding and following, and according to their importance to the meaning of the sentence. Accent or stress in a sentence is highly complex: in speech we accent a syllable by speaking it louder, by prolonging its duration, by giving it a higher pitch, or by some combination of these features. In scansion we reduce this complexity to a simple binary system in which we consider each syllable as either accented or unaccented. That establishes the fundamental pattern that predominates in the poem. If every pattern were completely regular, the poem would have a sing-song effect, as in "Mary had a little lamb." Usually a poet varies the meter, sometimes for emphasis, sometimes to affect the flow of a phrase, and sometimes simply to avoid monotony. Skillful control of meter may convey the sense of the lines moving quickly or slowly, lively or sedately, gayly or somberly.
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3.13 The names for the different metrical feet, lines, and stanzaic forms are useful for recognizing some of the major conventions in English poetry. The unit that normally contains one accented syllable and one or two unaccented syllables is called a FOOT. The most common foot, the IAMB, consists of two syllables with the accent on the second syllable, as "ă-grée." The other feet, in order of their frequency in English verse, are as follows: the TROCHEE, an accented syllable followed by an unaccented one (the reverse of the iamb), as
trochee example

ANAPEST, two unaccented syllables followed by an accented one, as

anapest

and DACTYL, the reverse of the anapest, as

dactyl example

Truncating (that is, shortening) the final foot is common in trochaic and dactylic verse, allowing the line to end with an accent, as in the trochaic line above. Occasionally you will encounter an irregular foot, such as a SPONDEE, two accented syllables, for emphasis, or a PYRRHIC foot, two unaccented syllables. The names are Greek because the Greeks devised the system of metrics we still use, though their meters were based on long and short vowel patterns. Coleridge shows how these different feet embody different kinds of movement in lines he wrote for his son:

foot stanza

As you progress through these lines, consider how the sound and pace change to correspond to what the poet is saying about each of the different poetic feet.
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3.14 Line length is usually four or five metrical feet, called respectively TETRAMETER and PENTAMETER. Tetrameter is more common in simple lyrics, such as nursery rhymes and songs. Pentameter is the most frequently used line length in English poetry: it seems to suit the phrasing and rhythm of the English language. (It also suits scanning: you can tap out the five beats with your five fingers.) Unrhymed iambic pentameter, called blank verse, has been used in some of the greatest of English poetry, such as Shakespeare’s dramas, Milton's Paradise Lost, and Wordsworth's Prelude.
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3.15 Various feet and line lengths are often combined to form the larger pattern of the stanza. A number of stanzaic forms have become conventional. Among the most common of these is the BALLAD STANZA: four lines that alternate from iambic tetrameter to iambic trimeter (three metrical feet), rhyming on the second and fourth lines (and sometimes on the first and third lines as well):

The boy stood on the burning deck,
  Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck
  Shone round him o’er the dead.

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3.16 The other feature besides meter that distinguishes most traditional poetry is RHYME: the last accented syllable of a line repeats the sound of another line-ending, except that the initial consonant differs. More broadly, the principle of rhyme includes any repetition of sound: ALLITERATION, or the repetition of initial sounds of syllables; ASSONANCE, or the repetition of vowel sounds; and CONSONANCE, or the repetition of consonant sounds. An example that is more complex and subtle than usual occurs in Wordsworth's line "The still sad music of humanity": the phrase attains a music of its own in the consonance ( s, m ) and in the pattern of its repeated vowels. More goes on in the sounds of poetry than you will be able to account for, but you should at least keep your ears open and attentive to the sound effects. The ways in which sound and rhythm create special effects is well illustrated in Pope’s Essay on Criticism:

True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learned to dance.
’Tis not enough no harshness gives offense,
The sound must seem an echo of the sense.
Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;
But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,
The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar.
When Ajax strives some rock’s vast weight to throw,
The line too labours, and the words move slow;
Not so when swift Camilla scours the plain,
Flies o’er the unbending corn, and skims along the main.

(Zephyr is god of the West Wind, Ajax a Trojan hero noted for his strength, and Camilla a fleet-footed virgin warrior queen.) Note how the sounds and meter of each couplet correspond with its imagery and subject.
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3.17Genres of poetry are frequently defined at least in part by their metrical form as well as by their function or purpose. BALLADS usually use the ballad stanza (or a variation of it) to tell a story. SONG is more loosely used for any simple lyrical verse. ELEGY laments someone’s death, or concerns itself more generally with death. ODE, the most elevated lyrical genre, has a formal stanzaic structure, traditionally in a repeated three-part pattern, the second stanza opposing the first, and the third stanza resolving the opposition. The SONNET is the most highly structured form: 14 lines of iambic pentameter, sometimes rhyming abba abba cdecde (or a variation thereof)—called a Petrarchan sonnet (after its originator) or Italian sonnet, or sometimes rhyming abab cdcd efef gg—called a Shakespearean sonnet (after its first major practitioner) or English sonnet. The divisions within the Petrarchan sonnet—an octave and a sestet—often complement one another: for example, the octave may pose a difficulty which the sestet resolves. In the Shakespearean sonnet the three quatrains may be used to present three complementary images or three successive stages, which are capped off by a couplet that may turn the meaning of those quatrains in a new direction. Some sonnets combine the Petrarchan and Shakespearean features.

3.18 All three kinds of literature—lyric, dramatic, and narrative— employ FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE as a way of giving shape and impact to what may otherwise be abstract or vague or remote. Of the various figures of speech, SIMILE explicitly draws a comparison between two objects by using like or as, but unlike an analogy, where the comparison is based on logic, a simile makes a more fanciful or imaginative comparison. While the act of comparison may be straightforward, the grounds for that comparison are often more complex. “My love’s like a red, red rose / That’s newly sprung in June”: this simile points explicitly to the similarity of newness or freshness, but also implicitly to the quality of beauty. It also calls to mind other resemblances, such as the passion suggested by the color red, and the fulfilment of blooming. Still other likenesses may be possible—does the poet mean to call attention to the frailty and the short life of the rose?—while other features, such as the rose’s thorn or its photosynthesis, seem inappropriate in this context and therefore beyond the meaning of this simile. Interpretations will vary. Whatever your reading may be, if you want it to be valid critically, you need to account for it logically. Note how the two terms of the figure establish a relationship that generates a much fuller and more complex meaning than would be possible without such a figure. The comparison of love to a rose is traditional. Whether this instance of it is then trite and flat, or timeless in its simplicity and refreshing in its straightforwardness, depends on the frame of mind you bring to your reading of the line, and the sensitivity with which you take into account the ramifications of the simile.
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metaphor animation

3.19 A METAPHOR makes the same kind of comparison but does so implicitly. For example, “my love is a rose beyond compare” treats “my love” as though it were a rose, though of course we take this figuratively, not literally (unless it is a bee that is speaking). Logically we understand that in some sense “my love” is like a rose: by leaving out like, the statement goes beyond comparison to present imaginatively a unified conception of the two objects. Metaphor is the Greek word for transfer, which in turn is the Latin word for carry over: we carry over or transfer the meaning of “rose” to “my love.” We see the one in terms of the other. The two parts of a metaphor have been designated tenor and vehicle: “rose” is the vehicle that carries the meaning for the tenor or subject of “my love.”
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3.20 Sometimes metaphors and other figures of speech are thought of as ornamental or “poetic,” but in a philosophical sense all language is metaphoric: a word is a vehicle that designates something other than the sounds or letters of which it is composed. In our minds we transfer automatically the concept, idea, or image of the thing named to the word that represents it (automatically, that is, once we have learned the language). Metaphor in our more specialized literary sense applies to the artistic transfer of meaning, but sometimes that transfer is so subtle that we're barely aware of it. When we say “the wind roars,” we may be giving a literal description of its noisiness, but then again we may be ascribing to it a hostility, an aggressiveness, or a beastliness that makes “roar” metaphoric.
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3.21 PERSONIFICATION is the specialized form of metaphor that ascribes human quathe birth of venuslities to abstract ideas, animals, or things. Liberty is personified in New York harbor as a robed woman holding her torch high. Time is commonly personified as an old man carrying a scythe and hourglass. The North Wind has a cloud-like face, puffing out his cheeks as he blows.Most classical deities may be understood as forms of personification: Venus personifies love; Diana personifies chastity. Satan personifies evil: in Hebrew “satan” means adversary, that is, the one who opposes God’s will, thus embodying the principle of evil. In each of these cases the personification has gone beyond a rhetorical figure of speech to become a character in its own right.
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3.22 APOSTROPHE is often a means of introducing personification. Apostrophe (meaning literally a turning away from) occurs when a speaker turns away from his normal audience to address something or someone that could be present as a person not actually but only imaginatively. For example, Ben Jonson tells the earth “to cover lightly” the grave of his daughter. The very act of addressing an object implies that it has the ability to hear and respond, as though it were a person. Such an address may appear highly artificial, but it may also result from being deeply moved emotionally, as with Jonson’s apostrophe to earth. The psychological truth of apostrophe may be reflected in a person’s response to walking unexpectedly into a half-open door: “You blasted stupid door!” shouts the wounded victim, shaking a fist and blaming the door as if it were the door’s fault. Apostrophe is used to address not only things but also people who are not present, as Wordsworth calls out to his deceased daughter in “Surprised by Joy.” Addressing her like this invokes her presence imaginatively and establishes his immediate relationship to her.
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3.23 SYMBOLISM allows an object to represent something greater than itself: our flag represents or symbolizes our nation; a heart symbolizes love; the cross symbolizes Christianity, the Star of David Judaism, and the crescent Islam.religious symbols As with simile and metaphor, two things are brought together, usually an abstraction and a concrete object, and usually sharing some common features or having some other sort of connection, but symbolism has a different purpose--not to compare the two objects but to allow us to manage or comprehend an idea that may be excessively large. The symbol gives us a concrete and present object to stand for the values that may be abstract and vast, perhaps even beyond our comprehension. Thus a symbol may seem to take on the very essence of what it stands for, to participate in the reality of what it symbolizes. Hence soldiers have died in defense of their flag: the flag then is not simply a piece of cloth bearing an emblem on the end of a stick; it is the symbol of their country. Perhaps the most universal symbolism is money: a green piece of paper imprinted with a greenish picture of Queen Elizabeth and the figure 20 is twenty dollars, we say. Its intrinsic value is only a few cents, but because we all are willing to say that it is worth $20.00, we can act on this agreement, and the symbol becomes, for all intents and purposes, what it symbolizes. Language itself may be understood as symbolic, similar to the way in which it is metaphoric (each term emphasizes a slightly different aspect of how language functions). Literary symbols may be traditional and conventional, as the cross or the flag. The rose has become a traditional symbol for love simply by being used this way so frequently over the centuries. A literary symbol may also be personal or esoteric, its symbolic meaning arising out of the particular way an author uses it, for example the compass as a symbol of the union between Donne and his wife in “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” or the turning gyres as a symbol of history in poems by Yeats.
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3.24 Figures of speech are one way of introducing IMAGERY into otherwise abstract language. Robert Burns gives the abstraction of love a concrete form and color by comparing it to a red, red rose. Imagery refers to anything that can be apprehended by the rose imagesenses—sight or hearing, less often touch, taste, or smell, and sometimes bodily sensations such as balance or kinesthesia. Love itself is not an image, though the concept of love may be presented through such images as a red rose or the beautiful shape of Venus or the act of Christ’s washing his disciples’ feet. Notice how an image has a more or less definite form or outline. Imagery may be literal as well as figurative, as in Felicia Heman’s description of "The flame that lit the battle's wreck" in "Casabianca," but literal imagery always has the potential to become figurative. Memories often come to us through images, and one image tends to evoke others by association. Images can be loaded with feelings—of attraction or revulsion, of desire or fear, of consolation or guilt—often without our being able to name exactly what those feelings are. Then the image becomes a way of expressing that unique feeling, functioning itself as though it were a word. A single feature may elicit a much fuller image, a series of images, or a complex system of imagery, just as a name elicits a whole person, and perhaps an image of that person and a sense of what that person means to you. Often the imagery of a literary work will be drawn from a particular area that helps to characterize the subject and mood. Understanding literature involves taking account of the imagery—imagining what an object looks like and how it feels to be in its presence.
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3.25 Our response to a story or poem may also be due to the TONE in which it is presented. Tone is usually a subtle and difficult term to define in literature. You may think of it as tone of voice from the oral tradition: a storyteller can indicate suspense, excitement, revulsion, etc., through his pace, pitch, and emphasis in speaking. A written text lacks these signals, but often the writer will imply them through techniques of style, diction, or organization. Whether the tone is cynical or naive, humorous or earnest, insulting or complimentary will make a big difference in how we understand a literary work.
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3.26 IRONY is one of the most subtle and interesting tones of literature, one that can usually be identified by the way the writer sets it up. An ironic statement says one thing and means another, calling our attention to some disparity in what things mean--perhaps a disparity between appearance and reality, or between motive and stated intention. For example, look at the opening of Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” How can you tell this is ironic? Would all single rich men agree that they want a wife? The statement then is not a truth and certainly not universally acknowledged, so why would Austen say so? Most readers move into the story before fully appreciating the irony here, and soon come to see that this statement represents the point of view most particularly of Mrs. Bennet, who is anxious to marry off her daughters: the ironic statement reveals her egocentric point of view, her limited outlook on the world. Irony is not necessarily sarcastic (just as sarcasm is not necessarily ironic): Austen’s statement does not insult Mrs. Bennet but humorously and obliquely reveals how Mrs. Bennet projects her views onto the object of her designs.
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3.27 These various figures of speech occur in our everyday language, as you have seen in some of the examples above, only we usually use them in a conventional manner without giving much thought to how they work. The literary artist refines these figures, developing them in more subtle and more complex ways, controlling them more carefully, and giving them greater impact. To understand our reading fully, we need not merely to label and classify the various forms and figures of literature, but also to explore how they function to create the meaning of the literary work. Careful study of how these forms and figures are developed in the works we read is the best way to gain a fuller understanding of them. When a passage you are reading strikes you as especially significant or powerful, see if its effect is due to one of the techniques listed above, and if so, examine the particular way the author has used that technique. Is the figure of speech prominent or unobtrusive, trite or fresh, strange or common? How fully can you develop its implications? How well does the technique fit in with the form of the work?
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3.28 The definitions of literary terms given here are partial and incomplete; they are intended to be a starting point for your study and a guide to some of the interesting aspects of literature. There are many more literary terms, such as emblem, allegory, myth, allusion, metonymy, synecdoche, paradox, hyperbole, and onomatopoeia. Some of these may come up in your course of study, and some of them you may want to look into if you find them useful or interesting The terms discussed above cover the basics needed for first-year English courses. For fuller treatment of these terms and more, there are many good literature handbooks. Here is a highly selected list. Some of these works refer you to more detailed studies.

Abrams, M. H. and Geoffrey Harpham. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 8th edition. Thomson Nelson, 2005. 9th edition. Wadsworth, 2008. Earlier editions are also useful. This is one of the most widely used books of its kind.

Frye, Northrop, Sheridan Baker, and George Perkins. The Harper Handbook to Literature. Addison-Wesley, 1985. This and the next handbook include some alternate explanations and some additional terms.

Holman, C. Hugh, and William Harmon. A Handbook to Literature. 6th ed. New York: Macmillan, 1992.

Preminger, Alex, ed. The Princeton Handbook of Poetic Terms. Princeton U P, 1986. “Poetic terms” include imagery, irony, figurative language, and other terms that apply to prose and drama as well as poetry.

Preminger, Alex, and T. V. F. Brogan, eds. The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton U P, 1993. Incorporates the above and much more.

You can also find reference works on the internet, such as http://newark.rutgers.edu/%7ejlynch/Terms/.

The following handbooks focus on poetry:

Hollander, John. Rhyme’s Reason. 2nd ed. Yale U P, 1989. Explains the effects of meter in metrical lines that exemplify those effects.

Pinsky, Robert. The Sounds of Poetry. Farrar Straus & Geroux, 1998. A popular and perceptive approach.

Steele, Timothy. All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing: An Explanation of Meter and Versification. Ohio U P, 1999. Another good treatment of the mechanics and the effects of meter.

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