By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Poetry is often full of examples of specific literary devices and techniques. Some of these, such as simile and metaphor, are well-known, and it’s important to be familiar with the terminology used to describe poetic imagery. We’ll come to that in time.
But we’re also interested in the features of a poem’s versification (the things which make it a poem rather than a work of prose) and language and syntax (grammar, punctuation, and so on).
In other words, this post is concerned with the structural building-blocks of poetry: rhyme, metre, and the various other literary devices poets often employ to make their poems what they are.
So, let’s take a look at fifteen of the most important literary devices you might encounter in poems.
We’ll begin with one of the most obvious and prevalent features of poetry: metre. This is often used synonymously with the term ‘rhythm’, and the two are broadly similar. The metre is the overall ground-plan for a poem’s rhythm. For example, sonnets tend to be written using the same metre: iambic pentameter. We can see that in this line from Christina Rossetti’s ‘Remember’:
Remember me when I am gone away
Iambs are metrical feet comprising two syllables: the first is lightly stressed and the second is heavily stressed, as in ‘Re-MEM-ber ME when I am GONE a-WAY’. Another common metrical foot is the trochee, which is the reverse of an iamb and contains a heavy stress followed by a light stress (present in, for instance, ‘PO-em’ or ‘NOV-el’ or ‘PUP-py’).
Rhyme is an important part of many poems, although much poetry has done without it: the classical epic poetry of Homer and Virgil didn’t rhyme, nor does Shakespearean blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter), nor does much modern poetry written as free verse (which also does without regular metre).
Rhyme is a way of bringing two words, and thus two ideas, together neatly, as in the following couplet from Alexander Pope:
Words are like leaves, and where they most abound
Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found.
Sometimes, poets use something that is neither full rhyme (as we find in ‘abound’ and ‘found’) nor a total absence of rhyme. Sometimes they instead bring together two words whose sounds chime together but don’t rhyme, as in these famous lines from Wilfred Owen’s ‘The Show’:
My soul looked down from a vague height with Death,
As unremembering how I rose or why,
And saw a sad land, weak with sweats of dearth,
Gray, cratered like the moon with hollow woe
Obviously ‘Death’ and ‘dearth’ don’t rhyme as such, but they are joined by the same consonant sounds at the beginnings and ends of words. This is sometimes known as consonance, but when it’s found at the ends of verse lines it can also be called pararhyme.
The opposite is assonance: the repetition of specific vowel sounds.
This is a kind of ‘cousin’ to full rhyme, whereby two or more words look as though they will rhyme, but when we speak them aloud, their sounds are different. For example, most and lost are pronounced differently, but on the page they look as though they’ll rhyme perfectly. The same is true of quay and bay, or prove and love.
Eye rhyme can be used to suggest a disjunction between how things seem and how they are, just as the words which appear to rhyme turn out to have different sounds.
After rhyme, one of the most important sound-effects a poet can draw upon is alliteration: the repetition of the initial sounds of adjacent (or near-adjacent) words. (Note that it’s not just the letters: George Gallop is a name that contains the repetition of the same initial letter, but one is pronounced with a soft ‘G’ and the other with a hard ‘G’, so there’s no repetition of sound.)
Sometimes, this can be used to suggest soft, lulling sounds, as in Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s Warm lip to lip and limb to limb, but sometimes a repeated ‘s’ sound is utilised to suggest either slow languid feeling or something sinister and serpentine sliding along the slimy ground (for instance). This example of ‘S’ alliteration is also known as sibilance.
When a line of verse ends with punctuation, this is known as end-stopping. For instance, consider these lines from Alexander Pope:
Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never Is, but always To be blest.
The soul, uneasy, and confin’d from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.
Because these are rhyming couplets ending in punctuation, they’re known as closed couplets.
But sometimes a line of verse doesn’t end with punctuation, and instead we have to read onto the next line to finish the sentence or clause. Consider these lines from William Wordsworth’s ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey’:
Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur.—Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs …
Every line spills over into the next, or runs on over into the next; for this reason, these lines are sometimes known as run-on lines.
You’ll have noticed in the Wordsworth lines above that, although he doesn’t punctuate the ends of his lines, there are some pretty decisive pauses in the middle of the line:
Of five long winters! and again I hear
This is one such example. Here’s another:
With a soft inland murmur.—Once again
A mid-line pause – it might be a full stop or a (semi-)colon, a dash, or even just a comma – is known as a caesura. This can be used to surprise us, since we don’t as readily expect to find a pause before the end of the line.
A simile is a literary device whereby you liken one thing to another, using the word like or as. Sometimes we use similes in everyday language: describing someone as being as sick as a parrot, for instance.
But sometimes a poet finds a simile too weak for their purposes. After all, by likening one thing to another thing using the actual term like (or as), you’re also acknowledging that the two things are separate and different – otherwise you wouldn’t need to draw them together via the simile.
A metaphor is more direct and does without such weak terms as like or as. Instead of saying someone’s heart is as hard and cold as a stone, you could simply say they have a heart of stone. You can immediately see the difference: a metaphor acts as though the two things are literally the same for literary or rhetorical effect.
Another form of imagery beloved of poets is personification, which involves giving nonhuman objects the qualities we associate with humans. For instance, death is not a person, but we often treat or address ‘him’ as such, as John Donne does in his famous sonnet which addresses ‘death’, beginning, ‘Death, be not proud’.
Poets sometimes like to compare and contrast two opposite things: good and evil, beauty and ugliness, and so on. In his An Essay on Criticism, Alexander Pope contrasts human error with a divine ability to forgive others’ mistakes:
Good nature and good sense must ever join;
To err is human; to forgive, divine.
This second line balances two opposites: To err is to make a mistake, but to forgive is to overlook another’s mistakes; human is the opposite to divine.
A specific kind of antithesis involves presenting two things in such a way that, when the second half of the thing is mentioned, the order is reversed. For example, if Alexander Pope had written,
To err is human; divine, to forgive
That would have been not just an example of antithesis but, more specifically, an example of chiasmus, which literally means ‘crossing’ (because you ‘cross’ over the order of the wording in the second half).
For example, Oliver Goldsmith famously wrote, ‘To stop too fearful, and too faint to go’. This is chiasmus because to go is the opposite of To stop, but look at the way he orders things: instead of saying, To stop too fearful, and to go, too faint, he switches around the order in the second half of the line. Clever, eh?
One other kind of literary device used by poets which turns on opposites involves juxtaposing the two opposites: literally placing them side by side. So for instance, loving hate would be an example of an oxymoron (which is literally from the Greek meaning ‘sharp-dull’, so the word is itself an oxymoron).
Other examples include absent presence (used by Sir Philip Sidney in one of his sonnets) and the common word bittersweet.
Let’s conclude this selection of the most prominent literary devices in poems with something that takes place at the beginning rather than the ends of verse lines (or clauses). Anaphora involves the repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of successive lines, clauses, or sentences, as in Christina Rossetti’s ‘In an Artist’s Studio’:
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.