By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Repetition in poetry can take many forms. A particular clause or phrase might be repeated in the same line, or in successive lines; the same line might conclude more than one stanza of a longer poem; or a whole stanza might be repeated, such as when the first stanza is repeated as the final stanza of a poem.
With this in mind, let’s take a look at some classic examples of repetition in some famous poems. These examples showcase the variety of ‘repetitions’ a poet can use to different effect; so we’ll say a little about the intended effects of the repeated phrases for each poem, too.
1. William Blake, ‘The Tyger’.
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In this classic poem from Blake’s 1794 collection Songs of Experience, we get two kinds of repetition: the word ‘Tyger’ is repeated at the beginning of the poem, the strong trochee (that is, a heavily stressed syllable followed by a lightly stressed one: ‘TY-ger’) drawing attention to the captivating presence of the animal.
But the whole of this first stanza is also repeated as the poem’s closing stanza, with the word ‘Could’ suggestively altered to ‘Dare’ in the final line.
2. Thomas Hood, ‘I Remember, I Remember’.
I remember, I remember,
The house where I was born,
The little window where the sun
Came peeping in at morn;
He never came a wink too soon,
Nor brought too long a day,
But now, I often wish the night
Had borne my breath away!
In this poem from Thomas Hood (1799-1845), the poet recalls his childhood, and how far he has fallen from that blissful, innocent state since he attained adulthood.
This anthology favourite uses repetition at the beginning of each stanza, with the repeated phrase, ‘I remember, I remember’, beginning every stanza of the poem as the speaker’s memories come flooding back to him.
3. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ‘Bianca among the Nightingales’.
The cypress stood up like a church
That night we felt our love would hold,
And saintly moonlight seemed to search
And wash the whole world clean as gold;
The olives crystallized the vales’
Broad slopes until the hills grew strong:
The fireflies and the nightingales
Throbbed each to either, flame and song.
The nightingales, the nightingales.
This is a tragic love poem, and an example of the dramatic monologue form which Barrett Browning (1806-61) did so much to popularise during the Victorian era.
Set in Italy, the poem sees Bianca weeping for her lost love, among the sorrowful song of the nightingales. The plaintive repetition of ‘the nightingales’, twice, at the end of each stanza helps to create the poem’s mournful mood.
4. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘Break, Break, Break’.
Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me …
This poem from another great Victorian poet, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92), this short lyric is essentially a poem about the desire to grieve and the inability to do so.
The poem sees Tennyson addressing the waves of the sea, and drawing a comparison between the powerful action of the sea’s waves and Tennyson’s inability to move beyond his grief, although moved. The repetition of ‘Break, break, break’ three times – in both the first stanza and again in the final stanza – reinforces this inability to move on.
5. Christina Rossetti, ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’.
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
So begins this poem by another Victorian poet, Christina Rossetti (1830-94). Originally published as ‘A Christmas Carol’, this poem eventually became a classic Christmas song set to music by both Gustav Holst and Harold Darke.
Part of the poem’s beauty is the simplicity of its words, and its use of repetition: the phrase ‘in the bleak midwinter’, the word ‘snow’ (five times), ‘snow on snow’, and the vowel sounds (the ‘o’ of ‘snow’ in ‘moan’, ‘stone’, ‘ago’: a fine example of assonance).
6. Lewis Carroll, ‘Jabberwocky’.
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
Here’s a classic example of nonsense verse from the Oxford mathematician and children’s author who wrote the Alice in Wonderland books. And it was in Through the Looking-Glass (1871), the second Alice book, that ‘Jabberwocky’ appeared (though parts of it had been published back in the 1850s).
This is a narrative poem as well as a slice of nonsense verse, telling of a brave hero who goes off to fight the mysterious monster known as the Jabberwock. The voyage-and-return-home narrative is mirrored by the poem’s form, whereby the final stanza is a word-for-word repetition of the first: order has been restored, the hero has triumphed, and all is well in the world again.
7. Robert Frost, ‘Acquainted with the Night’.
Published in 1928, this poem by the great American poet Robert Frost (1874-1963) sees him focusing on the urban rather than rural world (his usual terrain). The title of the poem is repeated at the beginning and the end of this poem, which describes a nocturnal journey.
But what does it mean to be ‘acquainted with the night’? We have discussed the poem’s meaning here.
8. William Empson, ‘Missing Dates’.
One of the finest examples of the poem containing repetition is the villanelle, a remarkably strict 19-line verse form which contains two refrains which are repeated numerous times throughout the short poem.
The poet and critic William Empson (1906-84) helped to popularise the villanelle among poets of the mid-twentieth century. In one sense, he was re-popularising it, since it had enjoyed a brief moment of popularity during the late nineteenth century, but Empson showed how the form could be used to make weighty and profound statements – here, about how untidiness in one’s life can become a kind of living death.
9. Elizabeth Bishop, ‘One Art’.
Since the villanelle is such a perfect example of the repetitive poem, here’s another well-known example. This late poem by the American poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911-79) is about the ‘art of losing’, and is suitably meditative, even poignant, since it was written not long before Bishop’s own death.
The repeated lines of a villanelle are often ambiguous, even gnomic and elliptical, refusing to yield up their meanings to us easily. This is partly because the form requires the refrains to be usable several times across the short poem, and thus they need to be adaptable. Bishop doesn’t stick as rigidly to the demands of the form as Empson, and sometimes she only repeats the final word of a refrain, rather than the whole line verbatim.
Here, as the poem repeats its refrains, we come to suspect (as we discuss in more detail in our analysis of the poem) that the art of losing things is not so easy to master, or at least to cope with emotionally, despite the confidence with which the speaker begins the poem.
10. Maya Angelou, ‘Still I Rise’.
Let’s conclude with a straightforwardly affirmative and empowering use of repetition, from Maya Angelou (1928-2014). In this, one of her most famous poems, the simple statement ‘I rise’ is repeated three times as the poem’s concluding lines, but the title of the poem is itself repeated throughout the poem.