Now you know what to expect from your English Literature poetry assessment, and how to revise poetry, to plan and write a comparative poetry essay, but what about the terminology required to make a strong argument and emphasise your points to the pleasure of your examiner?
While it is great to have good ideas, you must also demonstrate your knowledge of poetry terms used for analysis.
The good news is that poetry language is the same for all, so all of the terms you learned at GCSE level can be used and built upon during your next stage of education.
It’s not like the poems you study at A Level will only have advanced poetry techniques in them, they will show just as many of the more basic tools you have learned to identify in your past course! All that you may notice when moving onto A Level content is that the techniques may be less obvious and that there are more profound meanings to them.
Whether a GCSE or A Level student, you’ll find that the terminology is pretty much the same across the two courses. Photo credit: Gareth1953 All Right Now on VisualHunt.com
Below is a list of twenty-five poetry analysis terms that you may or may not have come across at some point during your course, many with examples to demonstrate how they work.
Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds in a series of words which feature in a phrase or verse line.
From Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”
“The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,
The furrow followed free;
We were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea.”
In this citation, there are examples of alliteration with the repetition of ‘f’ and ‘s’ sounds.
Ambiguity is a word, situation or statement with two or more possible meanings leading to deliberate confusion.
From William Blake’s “The Sick Rose”
“O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy;
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy”
In this citation, there are many abiguities including the meaning behind ‘crimson joy’ and ‘dark secret love’.
An anagram is a word spelled out using a different arrangement of letters from another word.
David Shulman’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware”
This highly intellectual sonnet from 1936, is made up fourteen lines which are each an anagram of the title.
Canon is the term that best describes a list of authors or works considered to be central to the identity of the given period or movement.
Canon is the term that best describes a list of authors or works considered to be central to the identity of the given period or movement. Photo credit: Joris Leermakers on Visualhunt
A couplet is a pair of successive rhyming lines that are usually the same length. A couplet can be described as closed when the lines together form a full, grammatical sentence.
From William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”
“Parting is such sweet sorrow / That I shall say good night till it be morrow.”
Enjambment is when a sentence or phrase runs over to the next line in the poem, without terminal punctuation.
From William Wordsworth’s “Beauteous Evening”
“The holy time is quiet as a Nun
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquility;”
Free verse is best described as non-metrical and non-rhyming lines, whereby the poet does not adhere to any metrical rules in the composition.
Walt Whitman’s “After the Sea-Ship”
“After the Sea-Ship—after the whistling winds;
After the white-gray sails, taut to their spars and ropes,
Below, a myriad, myriad waves, hastening, lifting up their necks,
Tending in ceaseless flow toward the track of the ship.”
The word genre is used to group together a class or category of texts that share similar traits, i.e. in form, style of subject matter. Genre isn’t a fixed definition as it can change over time and texts can interact with more than one genre at once.
A hyperbole is like an inflated exaggeration of the truth.
Robert Burns’ “A Red, Red Rose”
“As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will love thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.
Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun:
O I will love thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.”
There are many examples of hyperbole in this extract, such as when the poet says he would love his beloved until the seas have gone dry and the rocks have melted.
Iamb is a metrical foot made up of an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one.
From William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
“And I do love thee: therefore, go with me;
I’ll give thee fairies to attend on thee,
And they shall fetch thee jewels from the deep,
And sing while thou on pressed flowers dost sleep;”
Imagery is highlighted in a poem when the poet uses any of the five senses to create a mental image, often with the use of vivid or figurative language.
T S Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
“Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells”
A metaphor is a direct or indirect comparison which points out a similarity without using words such as ‘like’, ‘as’ or ‘than’.
From John Donne’s “The Sun Rising”
“She’s all states, and all princes, I …”
Meter is the rhythmical pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in verse. The different meters in English poetry include accentual-syllabic, accentual, syllabic, and quantitative.
William Blake’s “Song”
“I love the jocund dance,
The softly breathing song,
Where innocent eyes do glance,
And where lisps the maiden’s tongue.
I love the oaken seat,
Beneath the oaken tree,
Where all the old villagers meet,
And laugh our sports to see.”
Onomatopoeia represents the technique used when the sound of a word imitates its sense (i.e. ‘buzz’ or ‘hiss’).
From Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Come Down, O Maid”
“The moan of doves in immemorial elms,
And murmuring of innumerable bees…”
An oxymoron is yet another figure of speech that describes the bringing together of contradicting words, such as ‘deafening silence’.
From Alexander Pope’s “Essays of Criticism”
“The bookful blockhead ignorantly read,
With loads of learned lumber in his head,
With his own tongue still edifies his ears,
And always list’ning to himself appears.”
In the above, we can examples of an oxymoron when the poet says “bookful blockhead” and “ignorantly read”.
A parody is a comic imitation of another piece of work or style.
Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels”
Although not a poem, Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” is a perfect example of a parody of travel narratives.
A pastiche is a patchwork of lines from another writer destined to be like an imitation. Or, it can be an original composition that mimics another’s style in a spirit of respect as opposed to satire.
Allen Ginsburg’s “Howl”
Allen Ginsburg’s “Howl”is a pastiche of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”. He uses Whitman’s poetic form in an attempt to speak to his generation in the same way Whitman did to his own.
Personification is a when the poet describes an object as if it were a person.
From Emily Elizabeth Dickinson’s “Have You Got A Brook In Your Little Heart”
“Have you got a brook in your little heart,
Where bashful flowers blow,
And blushing birds go down to drink,
And shadows tremble so?”
In this citation, we can see clearly that the ‘bashful flowers’, ‘blushing birds’, and ‘trembling shadows’ are examples of personification.
A pun is a term that describes wordplay that uses two different words that are spelled identically to deliver multiple meanings at once.
From John Donne’s “A Hymn to God the Father”
“When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done for I have more.
That at my death Thy Son / Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore
And having done that, Thou hast done;
I fear no more.”
In this section of the poem, Donne is playing with his own surname, and that of his wife Anne More. In addition, he refers to ‘Son’, as in Christ, instead of the sun.
A rhyme is the repetition of syllables, usually at the end of a line in a poem. The different types of rhymes include Eye rhyme, End rhyme, Feminine rhyme, Identical rhyme, Internal rhyme, Masculine rhyme, Monorhyme, and Pararhyme.
From Miles Kington’s “A Scottish Lowlands Holiday Ends in Enjoyable Inactivity”
“In Ayrshire hill areas, a cruise,
Inertia, hilarious, accrues,
A simile is a direct comparison made using the words ‘as’, ‘like’, or ‘than’.
Robert Burns’ “A Red, Red Rose”
“O my Luve’s like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve’s like the melodie
That’s sweetly played in tune.”
A simile is used here to describe the beauty of the poet’s beloved.
A stanza is a group of lines that are separated from others in a poem. In prose writing, you would describe this as a paragraph marking a shift in time or mood.
Stress is used to describe a syllable uttered in a higher pitch, or with greater emphasis, than others.
Tone, or mood, refers to the poet’s attitude and is interpreted by the reader. A combination of things can affect tone such as vocabulary, syntax, language, rhyme and metric regularity or irregularity.
From Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”
“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
Frost describes his past with a “sigh,” offering an unhappy tone.
Verse is a line of poetry, typically used to refer to poetry that possesses more formal qualities. You can learn more about how to analyse poetry here.