Literary Terms


Introduction and A-C

All that this section tries to do is to give a brief glossary of terms. These are mostly those that have been used elsewhere on this part of the site, but some others have been added. I have deliberately excluded many that seem to me to be insignificant or pointless. I have been arbitrary in my judgements. This section makes no pretence to be comprehensive. If you're looking for something more detailed, then I suggest you buy a book - you know, one of those paper things.


Accentual verse: Verse that only counts for metrical puposes the number of stressed syllables in a line.

Acrostic: A poem of which the (usually) initial letters can be read (usually) down the page to give some 'concealed' message.

Afflatus: This is a Latin term for poetic inspiration, not a digestive problem. You can get one if you sit in a chair for too long hoping that your muse will turn up, though.

Alexandrine: This is a verse line of twelve syllables. It was used for the standard French metre in the middle years of the last millennium but is rarely seen in English.

Alliteration: This is also known as 'head rhyme', which should give you some idea of its use. It is normally found as initial consonants (but can also be stressed syllables in a sequence of words. It was a required form of Old English poetry and thus has a longer heritage than end-rhyme in the Germanic languages. This example is a line from one of the best Anglo-Saxon poems, Wulf and Eadwacer: 'Wulf, min Wulf,           wena me řine' ('O Wulf, my Wulf, my desire for your coming). Wulf is thought to be Viking raider, and Eadwacer a Saxon woman.

Alliterative metre: This was the standard verse form of Anglo-Saxon poetry. The standard line comprised two half-lines divided by a caesura. These were linked by alliteration as in the example above.

Anapest: A metrical foot comprising two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed one.

Anaphora: A rhetorical device where a word or phrase is repeated, usually at the beginning of a line.

Antiphon: A poem in which two voices or sets of voices respond alternately to one another.

Assonance: The repetition of similar or identical vowel sounds. Sometimes it's called vowel rhyme.

Aubade: A lyric poem regretting the arrival of dawn for two lovers.


Ballad: This is a narrative verse telling a folk-story in a direct and dramatic way. Originally ballads were in quatrains in alternately four- and three-stressed lines but later a variety of verse forms were used. See Ballad.

Ballade: A French form comprising three stanzas of eight lines rhyming ABABBCBC, and a final envoi rhyming BCBC. The last line of the first stanza is used as the last line refrain of the three subsequent stanzas. See Ballade

Bathos: A sudden, and normally accidental, slip into the ridiculous by a poet intending more elevated expression.

Beat Poets: An American group of poets in the 1950s who favoured a free form of expression reflecting their rejection of middle-class values. They often recited poetry to a jazz accompaniment. Leading beat poets include Alan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, and Gary Snyder. William S. Burroughs could be included in this list but he is better-known for his prose.

Blank Verse: See the Separate entry on this.

Broken Verse: A device usually associated with light verse. It is the splitting of the last word at a syllable to allow a rhyme on the next line.


Cadence: A rising and falling of the rhythms of speech in a poem. Not necessarily as strict as formal metre.

Caesura: See alliterative metre above.

Canto: The equivalent of a prose chapter in a longer poem.

Chant Royal: A French form. It consists of five stanzas of eleven ten-syllable lines rhyming ababccddede followed by an envoi rhyming ddede. See Chant Royal

Chorus: Equivalent to a refrain or repetend and designed to be sung, often by the audience or other participants, with a piece of music.

Clerihew: A comic verse form named for its inventor Edmund Clerihew Bentley. See Nonsense Verse

Coda: Also called a tail-line stanza. A stanza that combines a number of longer lines with two short ones or 'tails'.

Conceit: An on the face of things unusual or stretched metaphor or simile, which however provides an arresting comparison between two very different things.

Concrete poetry: A poem where the type is laid out to present a pictorial representation of the subject of the poem. It is a development of the pattern poetry which dates back to Greek classical times.

Consonance: The use of the same or similar consonant sounds in words with different vowel sounds in proximity or near proximity.

Couplet: A pair of lines that rhyme with each other.

Crossed rhyme: Two words in similar positions in separate (normally adjacent) lines that are made to rhyme with each other.

Cut-up:A form popularised by one of the beats, William S. Burroughs, where an existing text is cut up line by line and shuffled to give a new work.


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A Note on Formal Poetry
A Sample Poem Analysed
Vers Libre

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