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Abstract diction
accentual verse
accentual syllabic verse
affective fallacy
affect/affect theory
alienation effect
anxiety of influence
aspect ratio

abstract diction: Any language that exists on the level of conceptual thought, involving ideas rather than things and tending toward generalizations rather than particularities. Abstractions are often used to indicate the overall theme or subject of a text (“blindness,” “the passage of time”) and are generally immaterial and theoretical, while concrete diction includes words that can be accessed by the five senses (an eye, a clock). The concluding lines of John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819) illustrate the use of abstract diction:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. (l. 49-50)

Here the language is almost completely functioning on the level of abstraction, as Keats’ speaker is making general claims using immaterial terms (“beauty,” “truth,” “know”). A section from his poem “The Eve of St. Agnes” (1819), however, illustrates the use of concrete diction:

And still she slept an azure-lidded sleep,
In blanched linen, smooth, and lavender’d,
While he from forth the closet brought a heap
Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd;
With jellies soother than the creamy curd,
And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;
Manna and dates, in argosy transferr’d
From Fez, and spiced dainties, every one,
From silken Samarcand to cedar’d Lebanon. (l. 262-270)

Keats relies almost entirely on words that can be represented physically (“linen,” “candied apple,” “cinnamon”). It is important to note, however, that any composition depends upon the interplay between both kinds of diction. That is, no text is either concrete or abstract; what differs is the degree to which a text uses both in tandem.


absurd: The term used to denote the sense that life is irrational and ridiculous, and that man’s struggle against this situation is fundamentally futile as he is helpless in his position within it. Albert Camus writes in The Myth of Sisyphus (1942):

In a universe that is suddenly deprived of illusions and of light, man feels a stranger. His is an irremediable exile…This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, truly constitutes the feeling of Absurdity. (qtd. in Abrams 1)

A particular focus of modern and contemporary literature, the absurd is illustrated by writers who acknowledge that man can react “with either laughter or despair (and sometimes with both)” (Frye et al 2). M.H. Abrams notes that the absurd is a condition that “can be adequately represented only in works of literature that are themselves absurd” (1). We therefore get a philosophy and literature of the absurd from figures like Jean-Paul Sartre, Franz Kafka, and Samuel Beckett, as well as a Theatre of the Absurd from playwrights including Beckett, Tom Stoppard, Edward Albee and Eugene Ionesco. Notable works include Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1952) and Endgame (1958), Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1966), and other texts by Kurt Vonnegut, Harold Pinter and Thomas Pynchon.


accentual verse: In poetry, the oldest form of English verse (also called alliterative verse) in which the syllables may vary but only the accents (strong stresses) are counted. Differing from syllabic or accentual-syllabic verse, accentual verse was the dominant form of English poetry until the time of Geoffrey Chaucer and is used in works like Beowulf, William Langland’s Piers Plowman and “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” as well as in ancient oral poetry and folk ballads. The formal features of accentual verse include 1) an identical number of strong stresses per line; 2) an audible medial caesura; and 3) heavy use of alliteration. Although these rules are variable, the most popular form of accentual verse is the four-beat line with the medial caesura, and the elements of accentual verse can be seen in some popular nursery rhymes (“Star Light, Star Bright”; “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep”).

We can see the pattern of strong stresses and alliteration in the first few lines of Piers Plowman:
In a SOmer SEson, whan SOFTE was the SONNE,
I SHOOP me into SHROUDES as I a SHEEP were,
In HAbite as an HEremite unHOly of WERKES,
WENTE WIDE in this WORLD WONders to here. (l. 1-4)

Accentual verse gave way in the fifteenth century to accentual-syllabic verse, which counts both stresses and syllables in a line and is the dominant meter form in English verse.


accentual-syllabic verse: In poetry, a kind of English verse which counts both the syllables and the accents in a line. Accentual-syllabic verse is the most common metered form since Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400); he and his contemporaries combined the features of English accentual verse with those of French syllabic verse to create this new form, iambic pentameter being perhaps the most widely used technique of this particular versification. Texts that rely on the elements of accentual-syllabic verse include Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, the English or Shakespearean sonnet, works by John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, and many works by the romantic poets. The first stanza of Lord Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty” (1814) illustrates the elements of accentual-syllabic verse:

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies. (l. 1-6)

An iambic foot (an unstressed followed by a stressed syllable) is used here, and the stresses are organized into a regular pattern (four in each line); the meter is therefore iambic tetrameter.

And ALL that’s BEST of DARK and BRIGHT
Meet IN her ASpect AND her EYES:
Thus MELlowed TO that TENder LIGHT
Which HEAven to GAUdy DAY deNIES.

While the rules of accentual-syllabic verse are in a sense limiting, it is in their variance and testing of metrical patterns that poets make their forms dynamic (observe the irregularity at the end of the excerpt).


aesthetic: Of or relating to the theory or practice of art, “aesthetics” being the specific study of the nature and tasks of artistic production. “Aesthetics is the branch of philosophy concerned with defining the nature of art and establishing criteria of judgment” (Frye et al 6).


affective fallacy: A term used by W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley to indicate an error in literary judgment which confuses how a text works with what sort of response it elicits from a reader. In The Verbal Icon (1954), Wimsatt and Beardsley claim that the affective fallacy is

a confusion between the poem and its results (what it is and what it does)… It begins by trying to derive the standards of criticism from the psychological effects of the poem and ends in impressionism and relativism. The outcome… is that the poem itself, as an object of specifically critical judgment, tends to disappear. (qtd. in Norton 1388; emphasis original)

Their claims were in response to critics—and in particular, I.A. Richards—who argued that “the value of a poem can be measured by the psychological responses it incites in its readers” (Abrams 4); that is, by the emotional response of an individual (the “affect” of the text). Wimsatt and Beardsley argued instead for a renewed focus on the objective elements of a work—its forms, literary devices, and so forth.


affect/affect theory: “Affect” refers to a feeling or emotion experienced by a perceiving subject and is an integral part of any interaction between individuals and various kinds of phenomena or stimuli. In psychology, affect theory attempts to categorize affects, organizing them according to their typical response. For example, the affect of “sorrow” is primarily observed through the physical reaction of crying. In literature and literary theory, affect is considered in terms of the reader’s reaction to a text—though the difference between the visible, external response and the internal emotion or mood is acknowledged, problematized, and a subject of study. For theories on affect in psychology, see Silvan Tomkins (Affect Imagery Consciousness, 1962-63); in literature, see Eve Sedgwick (Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, 2003).


agitprop: A word derived from the combination of “agitation” and “propaganda,” agitprop is a form of theater developed in Soviet Russia and which flourished in Europe and the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. Agitprop is characterized by its political and social agenda and considers art a necessary force in the communist struggle for revolution; as such, it revolts against the dominant bourgeois drawing-room theater and instead calls on its audience to perpetuate action beyond the borders of the theater. Bertolt Brecht’s stage play Saint Joan of the Stockyards (1931) relies on the techniques and agenda of agitprop.


Alexandrine: In poetry, a line which is composed of twelve syllables or six iambs. Its usage originated in the twelfth century and was used in French romances honoring Alexander the Great. The alexandrine was popular in French narrative and dramatic poetry through the sixteenth century, and is found in works by Racine, Corneille, and Molière. In English, Edmund Spenser used the alexandrine in The Faerie Queen (1590), and in “To a Sky-Lark” (1820) Percy Bysshe Shelley uses it to close each stanza:

                        Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert—
That from Heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art. (l. 1-5)

In Part 2 of Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism (1711), the alexandrine’s ponderous length is satirized:

                        A needless Alexandrineends the song
That, like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along. (l. 356-357)


alienation: The state or condition of feeling estranged or isolated from the outside world; a sense of feeling separated from other people or detached from reality. The alienation of modern man is a prevalent theme in much twentieth century literature and is explored in Franz Kafka’s novella The Metamorphosis (1915), The Stranger (1942) by Albert Camus, and in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1917), but is also evident in works as early as Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1601) and Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground (1864). Alienation is also the focus of much of the philosophical inquiry of Friedrich Nietzsche.


alienation effect: In theater, a collection of techniques used by German playwright Bertolt Brecht and others to distance the audience from the characters as a way of emphasizing social action and instruction rather than emotional identification or catharsis. This was “achieved through various devices that remind the audience of the play’s artificiality: stylized acting, nonrepresentational sets, interruptions, slogans, and songs” (Frye et al 12). Brecht emphasized the importance of this effect as a way of creating a particular “attitude” in the spectator, which he or she is able to mobilize into social commitments which extend beyond the theater itself.


allegory: In general, an allegory is a narrative that exists on at least two levels simultaneously, the first being the immediate textual situation (what the text says), and the second being the larger situation the narrative represents (the more general state of affairs it’s meant to signify). Allegory is, in a sense, a form of metaphorical language. George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm (1945) details the struggle various farm animals undergo to achieve autonomy and maintain their livelihood; however, it is also an allegory about the distress the Russian people endured under Josef Stalin in the years leading up to and through World War II. We can think of allegory then as “A story that suggests another story” (Frye et al 12).

M.H. Abrams claims there are two kinds of allegory: 1) the historical or political, in which the characters and events represent actual figures and situations (Animal Farm), and 2) the “allegory of ideas,” in which “the literal characters represent concepts and the plot allegorizes an abstract doctrine or thesis” (5). In this type, “the central device is the personification of abstract entities.” In the medieval morality play Everyman (fifteenth century), for example, the characters Everyman meets include Death, Knowledge, Strength, and Discretion. 

Genres which rely primarily on allegory include the fable (“The Tortoise and the Hare”); the parable (Plato’s “Parable of the Cave” or some teachings of Jesus Christ, including the parable of the Good Samaritan); and the exemplum (Chaucer’s “The Pardoner’s Tale,” Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies). While any genre can use allegory, canonical examples include the epic (Dante’s Divine Comedy); the romance (Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen); prose fiction (John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels), and drama (Everyman).

It is important to note the difference between allegory and other metaphorical tropes, perhaps most importantly that of symbol. Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) is a narrative which follows Everyman through a series of settings meant to represent the trials humans experience before attaining salvation but which are fabrications, not modeled on actuality (as symbols are). “The whole work is a simplified representation or similitude of the average man’s journey through the trials and tribulations of life on his way to Heaven. The figures and places, therefore, have an arbitrary existence invented by the author; and this distinguishes them from symbols which have a real existence” (21, emphasis added). Allegory, then, is at a further remove from reality than symbolic representation. In The Statesman’s Manual (1816), Samuel Taylor Coleridge further notes this crucial difference between allegory and symbol. He writes that “an Allegory is but a translation of abstract notions into picture-language…On the other hand a Symbol…always partakes of the Reality which it renders intelligible” (qtd. in Norton 490).


alliteration: In poetry, the repetition of consonant sounds or syllables within a line as a way to create pattern or aural meaning. The overt use of alliteration is common in nonsense verse or tongue twisters (“Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,” “She sells seashells by the seashore”), but its subtleties can been seen in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “The Windhover” (1877):

Caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
Dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing (l. 1-4)

The repetition of consonant sounds (“morning morning’s minion,” “daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn,” “wimpling wing”) works to create a rhythm, a texture and, by extension, an argument in the poem as a whole.


allusion: A metaphor making a comparison to an historical event, figure, or myth that lies outside the immediate text and which relies on a shared body of knowledge between author and reader in order to be recognized as such. “Since allusions are not explicitly identified, they imply a fund of knowledge that is shared by an author and the audience for whom the author writes. Most literary allusions are intended to be recognized by the generally educated reader of the author’s time, but some are aimed at a special coterie” (Abrams 10). In T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1917), the speaker likens himself to John the Baptist:

though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter:         (l. 81-83)

While this is a somewhat direct allusion, its “success” depends upon the reader’s body of knowledge. Eliot assumes his audience will know the Biblical story, and in order for the allusion to function, readers should be able to make the parallel between Eliot’s text and the reference.


analysis: Analysis involves the detailed examination or breakdown of an entity into its parts in order to identify defining features and otherwise make claims about how it functions and why. In literary criticism, analysis entails the study of a textual whole and its parts (chapters, paragraphs, acts, lines, and so forth) in order to understand the author’s meaning and the form of the work. This can involve scrutiny of language (diction and syntax), identification of structural patterns, recurring images or dominant themes.


anapest: In poetry, the combination of syllables (a metrical “foot”) in which two unstressed syllables are followed by one stressed syllable; the opposite of a dactyl. A line from Lord Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib” (1815) illustrates this rhythm:

The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold (l. 1)

The AsSYRian came DOWN like a WOLF on the FOLD


anaphora: A rhetorical and poetic device which involves the repetition of words or phrases at the beginning of a line. Anaphora is a popular technique for oral forms including sermons, eulogies and performance poetry, as the heavy repetition and sense of ascending argument lends itself to the development of heightened intensity. Walt Whitman relies a great deal on anaphora in “Song of Myself” (1855), and Allen Ginsberg uses anaphora in many of the long lines that characterize his poem “Howl” (1956). An excerpt from section 31 of “Song of Myself” illustrates Whitman’s particular use of the device:

In vain the speeding or shyness,
In vain the plutonic rocks send their old heat against my approach,
In vain the mastodon retreats beneath its own powder’d bones,
In vain objects stand leagues off and assume manifold shapes,
In vain the ocean settling in hollows and the great monsters lying low,
In vain the buzzard houses herself with the sky,
In vain the snakes slides through the creepers and the logs,
In vain the elk takes to the inner passes of the woods,
In vain the razor-bill’d auk sails far north to Labrador,
I follow quickly, I ascend to the nest in the fissure of the cliff. (l. 12-21)


Anglo-Saxon: The term for the culture, peoples and language of the three tribes (Angles, Jutes and Saxons) who invaded Celtic England in 449 and thrived until William of Normandy’s conquest in 1066. The Anglo-Saxons developed the first written literature of the Germanic people, and it is from this time that Old English literature emerges, including Caedmon’s Hymn (seventh century)and Beowulf (eighth century). In its popular use, “Anglo-Saxon” refers broadly to anyone of English ancestry.


anthology: From the Greek anthologia, meaning “a gathering of flowers,” an anthology is any collection of texts from a variety of authors assembled under certain guidelines. These guidelines can be historical (medieval literature; eighteenth or nineteenth century literature; postmodern poetry), generic (short fiction, collected essays); gendered or racial (women’s writing, African-American poets), or any combination of the above (African-American women poets of the twentieth century).


anxiety of influence: A theory developed by Harold Bloom in his 1973 book of the same name which is meant to indicate the sense of unease or fear young writers feel when confronted with the accomplishments of their literary predecessors and literary history on the whole. Bloom claims that this “sense of belatedness,” of arriving too late on the scene, causes the poet to rebel against the “literary father,” ward off the anxiety of influence and respond by developing an original voice by means of a misprision (an act of contempt or of misreading) of past poets” (Frye et al 42, emphasis original). This act of “misreading” enables the younger writer to create original work.


apostrophe: Greek for “turning away,” apostrophe is a literary device in which an abstract idea, inanimate object, or otherwise absent figure is directly addressed as if it were present or sentient. In John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet X” (1633) he speaks to personified Death and concludes with “Death, thou shalt die” (l.14). William Blake opens “The Sick Rose” (1794) with “O Rose, thou art sick” (l.1), and Percy Bysshe Shelley uses apostrophe in “Ode to the West Wind” (1820), opening the poem with “O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being” (l. 1).


archetype: An original form or fundamental pattern which represents essential features or characteristics of a class of things; a prototype, model or standard. M.H. Abrams writes that in literature, archetypes are “recurrent narrative designs, patterns of action, character-types, themes, and images which are identifiable in a wide variety of works of literature, as well as in myths, dreams, and even social rituals. Such recurrent items are held to be the result of elemental or universal forms or patterns in the human psyche” (12). Archetypal patterns or narrative designs include stories of birth, of coming of age, marriage, and death; archetypal characters include the hero, the villain, the rake, the witch, the sidekick, and the damsel in distress. An archetype is closely related to a myth or a symbol, though myths are not necessarily universal, and symbols are not necessarily archetypal.


aspect ratio: In film studies, the width of a movie’s image in relation to its height. Most of today’s films have a rectangular shape (usually a 1.85:1 aspect ratio) but some, especially epic and spectacular productions, are shown in widescreen (a 2.35:1 aspect ratio).


assonance: In poetry, the repetition of similar vowel sounds; an aural resemblance or pattern. Assonance produces what can be called “vocalic rhyme” or “sound textures,” and differs from standard rhyme in that the words (and in particular, consonants) vary to a greater degree. In Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight” (1798) we can see this at play:

The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings   (l. 4-6)

“That solitude, which suits/Abstruser musings” relies heavily on the repetition of similar vowel sounds but manages to avoid the regularity of exact rhyme or end rhyme. In a similar way, Tennyson’s “The Lotos-Eaters” (1832) uses assonance—the repeated “o” sound—to enact a sense of drowsiness or slumber:

All day the wind breathes low with mellower tone;
Through every hollow cave and alley lone
Round and round the spicy downs the yellow Lotos dust is blown. (l. 147-149)


Augustan: The term for the period of European culture and literature produced during the first half of the eighteenth century, roughly from 1700-1750, also known as the Enlightenment or Neoclassical Age. During the reign of Caesar Augustus (27 BC-AD 14) many writers thrived, including Ovid, Virgil, and Horace. Writers of the Neoclassical or Augustan age—most notably Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, John Dryden, and Joseph Addison—worked to emulate a similar sense of rational balance, decorum, and elegance in writing. Translations of the classical authors flourished, as did irony, satire, and social criticism. In French literature, the term is applied to the work of authors including Corneille, Racine and Molière.


avant-garde: Originally a French military term meaning “advance guard,” when applied to art and literature the avant-garde indicates innovation, experimentation, or work that is ahead of its time. As such, the avant-garde writer struggles with tradition and literary convention, and functions in a sense as a revolutionary force within the arts. Use of the term in aesthetics began in the mid- to late nineteenth century and was applied to the work of Charles Baudelaire and Alfred Jarry, and later to much of the literature of modernism, including that of James Joyce, Guillaume Apollinaire and Gertrude Stein. Artistic “movements” that can be considered avant-garde include (among others) Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, Dogme 95, Futurism, Oulipo, and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry.



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