PlayShakespeare.com: The Ultimate Free Shakespeare Resource
PlayShakespeare.com: The Ultimate Free Shakespeare Resource
PlayShakespeare.com: The Ultimate Free Shakespeare Resource
PlayShakespeare.com: The Ultimate Free Shakespeare Resource

Poetry Glossary

A glossary of terms for teaching and learning poetry.

accent
The prominence or emphasis given to a syllable or word. In the word “poetry,” the accent (or stress) falls on the first syllable.
alexandrine
A line of poetry that has 12 syllables. The name probably comes from a medieval romance about Alexander the Great that was written in 12-syllable lines.
alliteration
The repetition of the same or similar sounds at the beginning of words: “What would the world be, once bereft / Of wet and wildness?” (Gerard Manley Hopkins, Inversnaid). Also known as paroemion or “like letter”.
antithesis
A figure of speech in which words and phrases with opposite meanings are balanced against each other. An example of antithesis is “To err is human, to forgive, divine.”
apostrophe
Words that are spoken to a person who is absent or imaginary, or to an object or abstract idea. The poem God’s World by Edna St. Vincent Millay begins with an apostrophe: “O World, I cannot hold thee close enough! / Thy winds, thy wide grey skies! / Thy mists that roll and rise!”
assonance
The repetition or a pattern of similar sounds, especially vowel sounds: “Thou still unravished bride of quietness, / Thou foster child of silence and slow time” (Ode to a Grecian Urn, John Keats).
ballad
A poem that tells a story similar to a folk tale or legend and often has a repeated refrain. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is an example of a ballad.
ballade
A type of poem, usually with three stanzas of seven, eight, or ten lines and a shorter final stanza (or envoy) of four or five lines. All stanzas end with the same one-line refrain.
blank verse
Poetry that is written in unrhymed iambic pentameter. Shakespeare wrote most of his plays in blank verse.
caesura
A natural pause or break in a line of poetry, usually near the middle of the line. There is a caesura right after the question mark in the first line of this sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”
canzone
A medieval Italian lyric poem, with five or six stanzas and a shorter concluding stanza (or envoy). The poets Petrarch and Dante Alighieri were masters of the canzone.
chanson de geste
An epic poem of the 11th to the 14th century, written in Old French, which details the exploits of a historical or legendary figure, especially Charlemagne.
climactic order
The arrangement of words or phrases in rising order of importance.
conceit
A fanciful poetic image or metaphor that likens one thing to something else that is seemingly very different. An example of a conceit can be found in Shakespeare’s sonnet “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” and in Emily Dickinson’s poem “There is no frigate like a book.”
consonance
The repetition of similar consonant sounds, especially at the ends of words, as in lost and past or confess and dismiss.
contraction
The omission or suppression of syllables within a word (e.g. “e’er” for “ever”). Contraction is the opposite of expansion.
couplet
In a poem, a pair of lines that are the same length and usually rhyme and form a complete thought. Shakespearean sonnets usually end in a couplet.
dead metaphor
A metaphor that has lost its liveliness, likely through becoming stale (e.g. “table leg”) or the meaning has changed since Shakespeare’s time.
diminution
Also known as litotes, it is a form of understatement or denial that actually intesifies or affirms (“’twas nothing at all”).
diphthong
The combination of two vowel sounds in a single vowel combination (e.g. “nice”, “joy”)
elegy
A poem that laments the death of a person, or one that is simply sad and thoughtful. An example of this type of poem is Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.
elision
The running together of the end of one word into the beginning of the next so that the two together form fewer syllables thant the two apart (e.g “th'one”).
enjambment
The continuation of a complete idea (a sentence or clause) from one line or couplet of a poem to the next line or couplet without a pause. An example of enjambment can be found in the first line of Joyce Kilmer’s poem Trees: “I think that I shall never see / A poem as lovely as a tree.” Enjambment comes from the French word for “to straddle.”
envoy
The shorter final stanza of a poem, as in a ballade.
epic
A long, serious poem that tells the story of a heroic figure. Two of the most famous epic poems are the Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer, which tell about the Trojan War and the adventures of Odysseus on his voyage home after the war.
epigram
A very short, witty poem: “Sir, I admit your general rule, / That every poet is a fool, / But you yourself may serve to show it, / That every fool is not a poet.” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge)
epithalamium (epithalamion)
A poem in honor of a bride and bridegroom.
expansion
The lengthening of words by the addition of extra sound or extra length of sound (e.g. “admiréd” for “admired”). Expansion is the opposite of contraction.
feminine rhyme
A rhyme that occurs in a final unstressed syllable: pleasure/leisure, longing/yearning. Also known as a feminine ending. If the unstressed syllable occurs mid-line, it is referred to as a feminine middle.
figure of speech
A verbal expression in which words or sounds are arranged in a particular way to achieve a particular effect. Figures of speech are organized into different categories, such as alliteration, assonance, metaphor, metonymy, onomatopoeia, simile, and synecdoche.
free verse (vers libre)
Poetry composed of either rhymed or unrhymed lines that have no set meter.
four-level scansion
A system of scansion where there are four levels of stress instead of the two comprising an iamb (a stressed and unstressed sylllable). It can be described as a two-syllable configuration in which the second syllable is at a higher level of stress than the first. It can often give a more accurate representation of how verse is actually spoken.
haiku
A Japanese poem composed of three unrhymed lines of five, seven, and five syllables. Haiku often reflect on some aspect of nature.
heroic couplet
A stanza composed of two rhymed lines in iambic pentameter.
hyperbole
A figure of speech in which deliberate exaggeration is used for emphasis. Many everyday expressions are examples of hyperbole: tons of money, waiting for ages, a flood of tears, etc. Hyperbole is the opposite of litotes or dimunition.
idyll, idyl
Either a short poem depicting a peaceful, idealized country scene, or a long poem that tells a story about heroic deeds or extraordinary events set in the distant past. Idylls of the King, by Alfred Lord Tennyson, is about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
lay
A long narrative poem, especially one that was sung by medieval minstrels called trouv’res. The Lais of Marie de France are lays.
limerick
A light, humorous poem of five usually anapestic lines with the rhyme scheme of AABBA.
litotes
A figure of speech in which a positive is stated by negating its opposite. Some examples of litotes: no small victory, not a bad idea, not unhappy. Litotes is the opposite of hyperbole.
lyric
A poem, such as a sonnet or an ode, that expresses the thoughts and feelings of the poet. A lyric poem may resemble a song in form or style.
masculine rhyme
A rhyme that occurs in a final stressed syllable: cat/hat, desire/fire, observe/deserve.
metaphor
A figure of speech in which two things are compared, usually by saying one thing is another, or by substituting a more descriptive word for the more common or usual word that would be expected. Some examples of metaphors: the world’s a stage, he was a lion in battle, drowning in debt, and a sea of troubles.
metonymy
A figure of speech in which one word is substituted for another with which it is closely associated. For example, in the expression “The pen is mightier than the sword,” the word pen is used for “the written word,” and sword is used for “military power.”
narrative
Telling a story. Ballads, epics, and lays are different kinds of narrative poems.
ode
A lyric poem that is serious and thoughtful in tone and has a very precise, formal structure. John Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn is a famous example of this type of poem.
onomatopoeia
A figure of speech in which words are used to imitate sounds. Examples of onomatopoeic words are buzz, hiss, zing, clippety-clop, and tick-tock. Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale not only uses onomatopoeia, but calls our attention to it: “Forlorn! The very word is like a bell / To toll me back from thee to my sole self!” Another example of onomatopoeia is found in this line from Tennyson’s Come Down, O Maid: “The moan of doves in immemorial elms, / And murmuring of innumerable bees.” The repeated “m/n” sounds reinforce the idea of “murmuring” by imitating the hum of insects on a warm summer day.
ottava rima
A type of poetry consisting of 10- or 11-syllable lines arranged in 8-line octaves with the rhyme scheme ABABABCC.
pastoral
A poem that depicts rural life in a peaceful, idealized way.
personification
A figure of speech in which things or abstract ideas are given human attributes: dead leaves dance in the wind, blind justice.
poetry
A type of literature that is written in meter.
pun
A form of word play that suggests two or more meanings, by exploiting multiple meanings of words, or of similar-sounding words, for an intended humorous or rhetorical effect.
quatrain
A stanza or poem of four lines.
refrain
A line or group of lines that is repeated throughout a poem, usually after every stanza.
rhyme
The occurrence of the same or similar sounds at the end of two or more words. When the rhyme occurs in a final stressed syllable, it is said to be masculine: cat/hat, desire/fire, observe/deserve. When the rhyme occurs in a final unstressed syllable, it is said to be feminine: longing/yearning. The pattern of rhyme in a stanza or poem is shown usually by using a different letter for each final sound. In a poem with an AABBA rhyme scheme, the first, second, and fifth lines end in one sound, and the third and fourth lines end in another.
rhyme royal
A type of poetry consisting of stanzas of seven lines in iambic pentameter with the rhyme scheme ABABBCC. Rhyme royal was an innovation introduced by Geoffrey Chaucer.
run-on lines
Text lines where the sense carries from one line onto the next line. If the sense concludes at the end of the line (often in rhyming verse), it is called an end-stopped line.
scansion
The analysis of a poem’s meter. This is usually done by marking the stressed and unstressed syllables in each line and then, based on the pattern of the stresses, dividing the line into feet.
senryu
A short Japanese poem that is similar to a haiku in structure but treats human beings rather than nature, often in a humorous or satiric way.
simile
A figure of speech in which two things are compared using the word “like” or “as.” An example of a simile using like occurs in Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem”: “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?”
sonnet
A lyric poem that is 14 lines long. Italian (or Petrarchan) sonnets are divided into two quatrains and a six-line “sestet,” with the rhyme scheme ABBA ABBA CDECDE (or CDCDCD). English (or Shakespearean) sonnets are composed of three quatrains and a final couplet, with a rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. English sonnets are written generally in iambic pentameter.
stanza
Two or more lines of poetry that together form one of the divisions of a poem. The stanzas of a poem are usually of the same length and follow the same pattern of meter and rhyme.
stress
The prominence or emphasis given to particular syllables. Stressed syllables usually stand out because they have long, rather than short, vowels, or because they have a different pitch or are louder than other syllables.
stichomythia
A technique in verse drama in which single alternating lines, or half-lines (called hemistichomythia), or occasionally pairs of alternating lines (called distichomythia), are given to alternating characters. It typically features repetition and antithesis (QUEEN: Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended. HAMLET: Mother, you have my father much offended.).
subtext
The undertone of a character's behavior representing their thoughts and motives. It's conveyed underneath the spoken dialogue.
supertext
A word defined by Shakespearean Dakin Matthews as the sum total of all the contexts a playwright uses to achieve his or her super-objective or the sum total of all the dramatic conventions which a playwright uses to structure his or her play.
synecdoche
A figure of speech in which a part is used to designate the whole or the whole is used to designate a part. For example, the phrase “all hands on deck” means “all men on deck,” not just their hands. The reverse situation, in which the whole is used for a part, occurs in the sentence “The U.S. beat Russia in the final game,” where the U.S. and Russia stand for “the U.S. team” and “the Russian team,” respectively.
tanka
A Japanese poem of five lines, the first and third composed of five syllables and the rest of seven.
terza rima
A type of poetry consisting of 10- or 11-syllable lines arranged in three-line “tercets” with the rhyme scheme ABA BCB CDC, etc. The poet Dante is credited with inventing terza rima, which he used in his Divine Comedy. Terza rima was borrowed into English by Chaucer, and it has been used by many English poets, including Milton, Shelley, and Auden.
triphthongs
Similar to a diphthong, a triphthong is a combination of three vowel sounds in a single vowel combination (e.g. “fire”, “hour”).
trope
A figure of speech, such as metaphor or metonymy, in which words are not used in their literal (or actual) sense but in a figurative (or imaginative) sense.
verse
A single metrical line of poetry, or poetry in general (as opposed to prose).
 
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