Literary Terms

Anaphora: When a word or phrase is repeated at the beginning of consecutive lines, sentences or clauses in a poem. NOTE: Is similar to, but not to be confused with, an alliteration which is the repetition of a letter or sound in words that are close together.

Allegory: A device in a story or poem which can be interpreted to have a real world meaning. Allegories typically use a one-to-one representation between allegorical objects and their real-world analogs. Spenser's The Faerie Queen is an example of an allegorical poetic sequence. During the metaphysical period, allegories largely gave way to the more expansive conceit (see below). See Herbert for other examples of allegories.

Blank Verse: Poetry composed of unrhymed iambic pentameter. The entirety of John Milton's Paradise Lost is written in blank verse.

Blazon: A poetic mode wherein the speaker uses metaphor, simile and hyperbole to describe the parts of his or her lover's body. Examples can be found in Sir Philip Sydney's Astrophil & Stella. William Shakespeare plays with the form in his Sonnet 130. This "anti-blazon" uses typical blazon modality to compare his lover to unfavorable objects.

Caesura: A pause within a line of verse that interrupts the flow of speech. Caesura features prominently in the verses of John Donne.

Cavalier: The Cavalier poets were royalist supporters of Charles I. Their poetry, though sometimes lighthearted or libertine, tackled political questions of the period with wit and insight. Carew, Herrick, Lovelace, and Suckling are all generally considered to be Cavalier poets.

Conceit: A fanciful expression in writing: an extended metaphor constructed from elaborate or extravagant speech.

Country House Poetry: A poetic form popular in 17th century England that praised the property of a wealthy patron, relating the grandeur of an estate to the virtue of its owners. The form was tightly linked with patronage since only wealthy statesman and present (or would-be) courtiers could afford such manors. Country House poems often contain pastoral elements and laud the beauty of the natural world. Although Ben Jonson is traditionally credited with composing the first Country House poem in "To Penshurst", Aemilia Lanyer's earlier "Description of Cookham" may well hold that title.

Couplet: A pair of rhymed lines. A "Heroic" couplet is written in iambic pentameter. The English or Shakespearean Sonnet (see below) terminates in a heroic couplet. Ben Jonson wrote extensively in heroic couplet form, as did Thomas Carew.

Elegy: A lyric poem that reflects on someone's death. John Donne and Ben Jonson were both popular elegists during their lifetimes. Many of the poets represented in this Wiki wrote elegies.

Enjambment: A passage of poetry that is split across two lines both logically and grammatically. Most Renaissance poets utilized enjambment in places, but some were especially talented in the technique, particularly the Cavalier poets (Carew, Herrick, Lovelace, Suckling).

Epigram: A short poem infused with wit. Epigrams could be written to patrons or passed around in literary circles. Like the elegy, epigrams were popular short poem forms and many Renaissance poets penned them. See Jonson and Donne.

Iambic Pentameter: A poetic meter whose lines consist of ten beats constructed from five "iambs:, a two syllable unit accented on the second.

Imagery: a function of a literary work which results in visual or descriptive language.

Irony: The discrepancy between explicit and implicit meaning. Irony often relies upon the audience's comprehension of a truth that evades a literary or dramatic character.

Italian Sonnet Italian sonnets are organized in an octet-sestet arrangement. The first eight lines, or octet, outline a problem or question; the sestet then offers an answer or resolution to the question. The transition between these two units is termed the "volta", or turn. A typical rhyme-scheme for an Italian Sonnet is abba abba cdcdcd.

Lyric Poem: A brief poem that expresses personal feelings or emotions. Virtually all the poets represented on this Wiki wrote lyric poetry.

Masque: A special form of play performed exclusively at court that employed flamboyant costumes, grandiose sets, and large stage-machinery. Masques often retold mythological tales with present monarchs featuring in their plots. The actors were courtiers themselves; and all masques ended with a grand spectacle where the actors descended the stage and danced with the audience. Ben Jonson wrote many popular masques for the court of Charles I, often teamed with the architect Inigo Jones.

Metaphor: A comparison made by treating one subject as though it were another. Extended metaphors give this comparison a more thorough treatment and fall into two types: allegories and conceits (see above)

Metaphysical: Describes a poem or poet that utilizes strong conceit or metaphor to elaborate upon a central emotion or non-physical idea. John Donne is a prime example of this style.

Meter: The pattern and rhythm of a poem's accents.

Octet: A set of eight lines of poetry.

Ode: A long poem that deftly, intelligently praises a person or object. Though the ode was not overly common in 17th century poetry, Edmund Spenser's Epithalamium and Prothalamium both use the form. Also, Ben Jonson famously wrote two odes to himself.

Pastoral: Literature portraying an idealized version of country life.

Petrarchism A poetic style modeled from the works of the Italian Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374). Petrarch wrote a collection of sonnets to a woman named Laura that was later titled Il Canzoniere. Petrarchanism is marked by a profound fixation on a single woman whose fairness tantalizes the speaker. The Petrarchan lover is attracted to his beloved's holiness, but frustrated because her chastity keeps him from physical intimacy with her. Sir Thomas Wyatt was the first to translate some of Petrarca's sonnets into english. Along with Surrey, Sir Philip Sidney continued the translational legacy and also composed Petrarchan sonnets of his own. These works culminated in Sidney's Astrophil & Stella.

Picture Poem: A poem whose lines are typographically situated on the page to form a specific shape or outline which matches the content of the poem. George Herbert's "The Altar", for example, takes the shape of a Christian altar so that its shape embodies its content.

Puritan: A member of the protestant reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries who maintained staunch morals regarding faith, pleasure and sex.

Quatrain: A stanza with four lines.

Satire: A literary criticism of human nature or vanity. Satires are apt to use metaphor, simile, and irony to make their points. John Donne's popular Satire 3 criticized modern religious thought by metaphorically comparing different religious beliefs (catholicism, puritanism, atheism e.g.) with Greek and Roman mythological characters.

Sestet: A set of six lines of poetry.

Shakespearean Sonnet: The Shakespearean sonnet form is composed of three quatrains terminated by a rhyming couplet. The first two quatrains introduce an idea; the third quatrain reanalyzes this idea in a new way; the final couplet adds a summarizing thought or reflection. The conjunction of the second and third quatrains often reflects a "volta", a holdover from the older Italian Sonnet form (see above). A typical rhyme-scheme for a Shakespearean Sonnet is abab cdcd efef gg.

Sonnet: A fourteen-line, iambic pentameter poem (see Italian Sonnet & Shakespearean Sonnet).

Sprezzatura: The technique of appearing nonchalant about one's poetic ability to the end of making all a poem's artfulness appear easily realized. Sonnet 74 from Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophil & Stella spends its opening octet in sprezzatura.

Stanza: A unit of poetry whose form is repeated throughout a poem.

Tercet: A set of three lines of poetry.

Tone: The implied attitude of a writer toward the subject and characters of a work.

Volta: The turning point in a poem (usually a sonnet) that usually takes place in the final six lines before the couplet.


1. Picture from:
2. "Irony." Examples Help. Web. 19 Apr. 2011. <>.
3. "Literature | Glossary of Poetic Terms." Your Page Title. Web. 19 Apr. 2011. <>.
4. "Renaissance Country House Poetry as Social Criticism." English Literature Web Sites Essays Books & Forum. Web. 19 Apr. 2011. <>.
5. "Silva Rhetoricae: The Forest of Rhetoric." Silva Rhetoricae: The Forest of Rhetoric. Web. 19 Apr. 2011. <>.

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