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caesura: Meaning “cut” (Latin for “a cutting”), this is the term for a pause or break within a line of poetry, indicated by any kind of punctuation. A line of poetry may have one caesura, more than one, or none at all. If the caesura occurs near the beginning of a line, it is called the “initial” caesura; near the middle, the “medial” caesura; and near the end, the “terminal” caesura. In Old English verse the medial caesura (“midline grammatical pause”) was the dominant form, but with the development of iambic pentameter (particularly in Chaucer’s works), more subtle uses of the technique became possible. Beyond this innovation, the development of blank verse further allowed a wider range of ways to account for the variety of speech rhythms. Some verse may rely solely on terminal caesura, as in Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “We Real Cool” (1960):
Some poetry may employ no caesurae at all, as in Paul Eluard’s “La terre est bleue comme une orange” (“The earth is blue like an orange”) (1929):
And in section 30 of John Berryman’s “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet” (1956) we see the use of each kind of caesura (initial, medial and terminal):
Though the caesurae vary greatly here, the line endings do as well; caesura is effective particularly in terms of its relationship to enjambment. “The caesura…corresponds to a breath-pause between musical phrases, and its constant intersection with the more or less constant metrical scheme of the poem provides a form of expressive counterpoint” (Preminger 95-96).
canon: A body of literary works considered significant, authentic or genuine according to assessments and value judgments made by scholars in the field. The term originally developed with reference to Biblical texts, as in those books which were considered canonical versus related texts found in the Apocrypha, but came to be applied to individual authors (the Shakespeare canon, the Chaucer canon) as well as to genres and forms. Canons are developed with the emergence of new evidence, and are subject to change depending on the discovery of lost texts, the writing of new texts whose merit warrants inclusion (a complex issue in itself), or when the criteria for constructing canonical borders is reconsidered:
Since the 1970s, the nature of canon formation, and opposition to established literary canons, have become a leading concern among critics of diverse viewpoints, whether deconstructive, feminist, Marxist, postcolonial, or new historicist…The demand is [often] “to open the canon” so as to make it multicultural instead of “Eurocentric”, and to make it represent adequately the concerns and writings of women and of ethnic, non-heterosexual, and other groups. (Abrams 28-31)
While concerns for canon formation and reformation continue to emerge, “canonical” still to some degree denotes “classical” or significant texts that are taught in a university setting and which are gathered in anthologies as characteristic of a standard of literary excellence.
catachresis: From the Greek for “misuse” or “misapplication,” catachresis can be understood in two ways. The first involves the (accidental or deliberate) use of mixed metaphor: “A leopard can’t change his stripes” (Al Gore) or “A rolling stone is worth two in the bush” (David Beck), in which one word is used wrongly for another. The second way to understand catachresis is as a wresting of words from their common usage into a metaphoric comparison which seems farfetched, strained, or exaggerated. In this way, catachresis is similar to conceit or hyperbole. Literary examples include texts by John Donne, Shakespeare (“To take arms against a sea of troubles” (Hamlet 3.1.59)), Milton (“Blind mouths! that scarce themselves know how to hold/A sheep-hook” (Lycidas l.119-120)) and Emily Dickinson. A more specific example is seen in a quatrain from Alexander Pope’s Peri Bathous (1727):
catharsis: Greek for “purgation,” catharsis is, for Aristotle, an essential component of the dramatic cycle and one that is meant to be experienced by the audience. It is the purification or “cleansing” of the spectator via the experiences of the tragic characters; put differently, it’s the end goal of the process an audience goes through when viewing a tragic performance. In Poetics, Aristotle claims that drama succeeds when “arousing pity and fear in such a way as to accomplish a purgation of such emotions” (qtd. in Princeton 106), and there has been considerable concern regarding what he meant by this. “Critics have interpreted this differently as (1) a discovery that pity and terror destroy, and thus should be disciplined; (2) a vicarious experience that unloads pity and terror on the hero as a scapegoat; (3) a detached pity and an involved terror that leave the spectator, like John Milton’s Samson, with ‘calm of mind, all passion spent’” (Frye et al 95). Consensus seems to be that Aristotle’s ideas of pity and fear were prompted by Plato’s concern that poetic drama “encouraged anarchy of the soul” (qtd. in Princeton 106). What seems important to Aristotle, though, is that this response (not necessarily anarchic) occurs in a “regulated” way. The cathartic process is significant because it “involves a new emotional perspective, and even, arising from that, a new intellectual vision” (ibid).
Cavalier poets: A group of English lyric poets associated with the court of Charles I (1625-1649) including Robert Herrick, Thomas Carew, Sir John Suckling, and Richard Lovelace. These poets are characterized by their light, witty, and polished verse, which revolves primarily around themes of love. They were heavily influenced by Ben Jonson, some considering themselves “Sons of Ben.” Like him, the Cavaliers essentially abandoned the sonnet form in favor of more variable forms. Examples of Cavalier poetry include Lovelace’s “To Althea, from Prison” (1642), Herrick’s “Delight in Disorder” (1648), and Suckling’s “Why so pale and wan, fond lover?” (1637).
character: A figure in a work of narrative or dramatic literature to whom the reader gains access through action (what they do), dialogue (what they say), and narration (what others say about them). Characters may be dynamic, changing throughout the course of a text (Emma Woodhouse in Jane Austen’s eponymous novel, Pip in Dickens’ Great Expectations, Shakespeare’s King Lear), or may be static, remaining essentially the same from beginning to end (Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary). Characters may also be “round,” meaning complex and fully developed, or “flat,” meaning undeveloped. “Flat” characters are often “types” or stock characters, built around one defining characteristic or element (the bully, the tease, the townspeople). Characterization is the method through which an author reveals and develops his characters.
chiasmus: Greek for “a placing crosswise” (chi, or the letter X), chiasmus is a formal or rhetorical structure which balances grammatical phrases or clauses by reversal or inversion. Popular examples include John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you: ask what you can do for your country,” as well as Knut Rockne’s quip popularized by John Dean during the Watergate scandal: “When the going gets tough, the tough gets going.” Literary examples include various Biblical texts (“There are last which shall be first, and there are first which shall be last” (Luke 13:30)), and Alexander Pope (“Destroying others, by himself destroyed” (An Essay on Man 2.2.l.14)). Beyond the context of a phrase or clause, the chiasmus can also be applied to the structure of a larger work, as in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914), which is organized on a grand scale like a chiasmus and the action can be charted as such. Richard Lanham claims that the significance of this form is that it “sets up a natural internal dynamic that draws the parts closer together” (33).
classical: A term that can be understood in a variety of ways, all of which involve the idea of literary value, significance, and excellence according to the assessment of scholars and critics. One way “classical” can be defined is as a specifically Greek and Roman aesthetic; that is, as belonging to the arts and letters of ancient Greece and Rome, which are characterized by “qualities of order, harmony, proportion, balance, discipline” (Cuddon 138-9). Another way to define “classical” is as an imitation of this ancient classicism during particular historical epochs; i.e., as a period designation (German classicism, 1787-1800, French classicism, 1660-1700). “Classical” is also at times considered to be the antithesis of “romantic”:
Schlegel…saw classicism as an attempt to express infinite ideas and emotions in finite form…Mme. de Staël…in De ’Allemagne (1813) engendered 19th-c. views of classicism vs. romanticism as meaning “conservative” vs. “revolutionary” as well as “bound by sterile rules” vs. “originally creative”…Goethe (in a conversation with Eckermann, 1820) originated yet another view of this antimony by equating classicism with health and romanticism with sickness… 20th-c. critics have come to see the contrast between classicism and romanticism as an emphasis on poetic form and conscious craftsmanship opposed to a poetics of personal emotion and logically incommensurable inspiration. (Preminger 140)
Finally, “classical” or “classic” can be applied to the merits of a single text or work, as in “A Tale of Two Cities is a classic”; i.e., it’s considered “first-class,” a standard among great works of literature.
cliché: A trite, overused or commonplace phrase; an expression which was once sharp but has dulled from repetitive use (“good as gold,” “right as rain,” “shiny as a new penny”). The following sentence makes use of eight common clichés: “When the grocer, who was fit as a fiddle, had taken stock of the situation he saw the writing on the wall, but decided to turn over a new leaf and put his house in order by taking a long shot at eliminating his rival in the street—who was also an old hand at making the best of a bad job.” Alexander Pope criticizes the use of such clichés in Part II of “Essay on Criticism”:
Like Pope, some modern and contemporary writers use cliché deliberately to call attention to worn-out language. This is found particularly in avant-garde or postmodern texts; see John Barth, Robert Coover, or Thomas Pynchon.
closeup: In film studies, a closeup occurs when the camera observes an actor’s face or other object at close range. If the shot is of an actor’s face, usually only the head and shoulders are visible in the frame; usually conveys dramatic intensity.
cognitive estrangement: A term used often in literary criticism of science fiction, cognitive estrangement was coined by Darko Suvin in the early 1970s and is meant to indicate a kind of alienation or defamiliarization effect that identifies serious science fiction from its pulp counterparts. Similar to the Russian formalist idea of ostranenie, a technique which attempts to present literary objects as strange, new, and wrested from their common contexts, Suvin’s “cognitive” estrangement is such in order to distinguish the critical and ideological work being done by the science fiction he was defending from the uncognitive and unreflective “sense of wonder” commonly attributed to much pulp science fiction by the advertising that promotes it. See Suvin, “Estrangement and Cognition,” in Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (1979).
Colonial/Post-colonial: “Colonial” refers to any literature produced by peoples or cultures under colonial rule. This would include, for instance, the colonial period of American literature (1609-1776), as well as any literature written in cultures controlled by outside forces, such as in South America, Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean islands. Postcolonial literature is that which is produced after former European colonies have achieved independence, and is often characterized by “changes in language, forms, and dissemination of literature in places touched by imperialism, especially in the Third World” (Frye et al 367). A considerable selection of postcolonial texts work to modify the image which was promoted by colonizers through their own writings: “Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958) aimed in part to revise the picture of Nigerians given wide currency in the Englishman Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson (1939)” (ibid). Postcolonial studies, then, is the analysis of the culture, history, and discourse of former colonies of England, France, Spain, and other European nations, much of it focusing on Third World countries in Africa, Asia, and South America. As a kind of cultural criticism, postcolonialism focuses on the power struggles between empowered and disempowered factions and investigates post-oppression in colonial cultures, considering what it means to produce literature in a formerly colonized culture and in response to colonial domination. It also seeks to understand the political, social, cultural, and psychological operations of colonialist and anti-colonialist ideologies. Texts important within postcolonial studies include Edward Said’s “Orientalism” (1978), Gayatri Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (1988), Homi Bhabha’s The Location of Culture (1994), and works by Anita Desai, Rabinadrath Tagore, Naguib Mahfouz, Wole Soyinka, V.S. Naipaul, Derek Walcott, Salman Rushdie, Terry Eagleton, and Fredric Jameson.
comedy: The word “comedy” derives from the Greek komos, meaning “revel” or “merrymaking” and was originally associated with fertility rites, celebrations of the new year and spring, and by extension, of renewal and birth. Under the umbrella of “comedy” are a host of genres and subgenres including romance, satire, parody, burlesque, the comedy of manners, the comedy of intrigue, farce, black comedy, tragicomedy, musical comedy, Theatre of the Absurd, and commedia d’ell arte. It is safe to say that one way of distinguishing a comedy from another kind of art is that it can easily be contrasted to tragedy, as articulated in Aristotle’s Poetics. Comedy for Aristotle deals in a light way with ordinary characters in typical situations, whereas a tragedy deals with noble or heroic characters in often extreme situations. The action of a comedy primarily ends in birth or marriage (Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing or Twelfth Night), while in tragedy the action primarily ends in death (Hamlet or Macbeth).
Early examples of comedy originate with the Greek playwright Aristophanes (Lysistrata, 411 BC) and the Romans Plautus and Terence (third and second centuries BC). In England, the first known comedy is Nicholas Udall’s Ralph Roister Doister (1552), later followed by Gammer Gurton’s Needle (1566, authorship unknown), though there are elements of comedy in earlier medieval plays, such as in the Wakefield master’s Second Shepherd’s Play (circa 1500). Aside from these theatrical texts, until the Renaissance the word “comedy” had been applied to any narrative or poem with a happy ending. Dante’s Divine Comedy (1320) is a prime example of this, and Dante claimed that comedy “begins with harshness but ends happily” (qtd. in Preminger 146). With the Renaissance, Aristotle’s distinction is renewed: “tragedy attempts to depict persons who are ‘better’ than we are; comedy, those who are ‘worse’” (ibid). Later theories refine this a bit, claiming “the comedy begins with misfortune and ends with joy. Tragedy is the opposite” (Cuddon 149).
M.H. Abrams notes four main kinds of comedy:
1) Romantic comedy, developed by Elizabethan dramatists and which involves love relationships between two primary characters (Shakespeare’s As You Like It, romantic comedy films).
2) Satiric comedy, which “ridicules political policies or philosophical doctrines, or else attacks deviations from the social order by making ridiculous the violators of its standards or morals or manners” (39). This includes works such as Ben Jonson’s Volpone (1606), Samuel Butler’s mock heroic narrative poem Hudibras (1684), Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock (1714), and the television shows Desperate Housewives or The Colbert Report.
3) The comedy of manners, which
Early examples are seen in the works of Plautus and Terence, and it was out of their style that the English comedy of manners is derived, as is the Restoration comedy of Molière (The Misanthrope, 1666, Tartuffe, 1669), William Congreve (The Way of the World, 1700) and William Wycherley (The Country Wife, 1675), as well as the nineteenth century plays of Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw.
common meter: In poetry, the stanza form which alternates lines of iambic tetrameter with iambic trimeter. The first part of Emily Dickinson’s poem “Because I could not stop for Death—” (1863) illustrates the rhythms of common meter:
concrete diction: Words that involve material, representable things rather than ideas or immaterial concepts; the opposite of abstract diction. Concrete words or phrases can often be defined by their ability to be accessed by the five senses: “cinnamon,” “Mount Olympus,” “Mrs. Robinson” and “skateboard” are all words that can be represented materially, whereas “joy,” “think,” “rapture” or “feeling” cannot, and are therefore considered abstract.
connotation: The associations evoked by a word or phrase in the mind of a reader; the range of responses, ideas, or emotions suggested by language, contrasted to “denotation,” the thing the word stands for. Thus, “ocean” denotes a large body of water but, depending on the individual, can connote openness and freedom, or alternately a sense of inconquerable immensity. Similarly, the word “home” signifies or denotes the place where one lives, but connotes privacy, safety, or intimacy. In a general sense, connotations can be positive, negative or neutral, depending on the context and the reader’s experience; that is, a word like “liberty” may have a positive connotation, whereas a word like “regime” may have a negative connotation (again, depending on the individual). Similarly, the word “chair” may be neutral, but when paired with “electric” suggests a negative connotation.
context: The immediate situation which surrounds a particular event, person, thing, or text; background, milieu; from Latin contextus (“to surround”). The context of a literary work gives significance to its material and can be narrow, broad, or somewhere in between:
For instance, the opening line of Marianne Moore’s 1924 poem “Poetry” (“I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle”) means something quite different on its own than what it means within the broader context of the poem. The line also gains complexity when considering the larger context of her collected poems, her modernist contemporaries, as well as the history out of which Moore’s aesthetic emerges. Similarly, one can gain a greater knowledge of a novella like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) when one understands the political, economic and social context in which the text was produced.
contradiction: A contradiction occurs when a term, phrase or sentence seems, through its diction, to produce an incongruity in meaning; contradiction is often used interchangeably with paradox. An example of this is seen in the chant of the three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair:/ Hover through the fog and filthy air” (I. 1. 11-12). The words “fair” and “foul” seem diametrically opposed; however, here they are inextricable. See also oxymoron.
couplet: In poetry, a stanza which consists of two lines, usually rhymed (a heroic or rhyming couplet), and which is one of the primary verse units in Western literature. Geoffrey Chaucer was one of the first English poets to use this form, and it’s seen in a good portion of The Canterbury Tales. Subsequent poets who rely on the couplet include Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe and John Donne. The couplet in all forms of meter “has proved an extremely adaptable unit: in lines of different lengths; as part of more complex stanza forms; as a conclusion to the sonnet; as part of ottava rima and rhyme royal; and for epigrams” (Cuddon 185-6). The first four lines of Anne Bradstreet’s “Before the Birth of One of Her Children” (1678) shows the rhythmic and aural potential of the rhyming couplet:
The couplet of two iambic pentameter lines became the favored form and was developed in the seventeenth century particularly by John Dryden (Mac Flecknoe, 1682) and Alexander Pope (The Rape of the Lock, Essay on Criticism), though variations on what the couplet can do were emphasized with the nineteenth century romantic poets, in particular William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and later, Alfred, Lord Tennyson. In the twentieth century the couplet is used widely, though its original meter and rhyme have been replaced in some cases with free verse, as in Bei Dao’s “Apple and Brute Stone” (1993):
creative nonfiction: A literary genre which takes as its subject the actual events and situations of its author or other real persons. Unlike other kinds of nonfiction (journalism, technical writing), creative nonfiction relies on literary styles and techniques to create accurate narratives; that is, there is a greater consideration of aesthetics in creative nonfiction than in other branches of the genre. Kinds of creative nonfiction include nature and travel writing, the personal memoir or personal essay, and the nonfiction novel.
critical race theory: A set of philosophical commitments and methodologies that is committed to investigating the relationships among race, racism, and power. Critical race theory (CRT) is often considered to be a coherent movement of scholars and activists (including Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Angela Harris, Charles Lawrence, Mari Matsuda, and Patricia Williams) that examine issues that had been addressed by civil rights theorists, sociologists and ethnologists, but it is interdisciplinary in its embrace of many discourses from law, economics, rhetoric, psychology, and literary studies. Critical race theorists often take theoretical positions on law and society that show how supposedly equal rights and political institutions are permeated by race politics, and how traditional notions of citizenship are based upon racist exclusions. See Richard Delgado and Jean
critical theory: Critical theory is the study of the beliefs and assumptions underlying literary criticism; in a sense, it is the study of the study of literature. It explores the reasons and understandings that lie behind any interpretation that literary criticism yields; it seeks to expose values and beliefs that shape criteria used by and often presented as neutral by critics. Similarly, critical theory focuses on the knowledge and experiences that shape the way readers read and understand the world (and the world of a text); essentially, critical theory strives to reach an understanding of what motivates any critical perspective.
criticism: The study of the nature and tasks of literature; that is, what literature is and what literature does. “Criticism” derives from the Greek kritikos, with the root meaning of “discernment”;
Literary criticism begins with Aristotle’s Poetics (composed around 330 BC), as well as Plato’s theories of literature. While Aristotle is concerned with the systematic classification and organization of literary ideas, Plato is more interested in the philosophy of art and literature. “Criticism’s concern with extra-textuality began with Plato, who emphasized the power of poetry to move humanity for good or for ill, and so distrusted its effects on the morality of society that he banished it from his ideal commonwealth” (136). Criticisms that are similarly concerned with the effects of literature on the world include biographical criticism, which “seeks the clues to the work in the life of the writer”; psychoanalytic criticism, which “probes the relationship between the writer’s psyche and his or her creation or between a character’s motivation and behavior”; historical criticism, which “examines the era in which the work was produced”; Marxist criticism, which “interprets literature in terms of class struggle,” and rhetorical criticism, which “combines an interest in aesthetics with a concern for moral effect, analyzing the formal elements of a work to show how the writer arranges material for the most effective communication of feelings and ideas to the reader” (ibid).
In contrast to this Platonic emphasis on extra-textuality are the schools emerging out of the Aristotelian interest in the text itself. “Aristotle is the father of text-centered criticism. As analytic criticism, it draws on the model of Aristotelian analysis to consider the elements that distinguish one kind of work from another”: Genre criticism “examines the characteristics of a [type or kind of text] or illuminates a particular poem or story with reference to the characteristics of the genre to which it belongs”; formal criticism “embraces any approach that considers the form of the work without particular reference to its content”; this includes aestheticism, and particularly the New Criticism, which “suggested that form and content are inseparable, analyzing form as the expression of content”; structural criticism “illuminates a work by analyzing the way its pieces go together” (137), or takes an objective approach to the text, considering it an autonomous object; poststructuralism and deconstruction are similarly interested in the linguistic components of literature.
Early seminal texts include Horace’s Ars Poetica (first c. BC), Longinus’ On the Sublime (first c. CE), as well as the writings of Plotinus, Thomas Aquinas, Boccaccio, and Sir Philip Sidney. Later significant works of literary criticism include Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790), Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (1817), Matthew Arnold’s “Culture and Anarchy” (1867), T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919), and Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935), as well as a host of other twentieth and twenty-first century texts. Schools and movements of literary criticism include cultural studies, deconstruction and poststructuralism, feminist theory and criticism, formalism, gay and lesbian criticism and queer theory, Marxism, new historicism, phenomenology and hermeneutics, postcolonial theory and criticism, psychoanalytic theory, race and ethnicity studies, reader-response theory, and structuralism and semiotics.
critique: A detailed review and assessment of a literary work which analyzes and evaluates the text and is meant to determine its nature, function and value. From the Greek term kritike (the art of “discerning”), critiques are often brief, but the term may also refer to a treatise such as Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790) or Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s A Critique of Postcolonial Reason (1999).
cultural materialism: A term found in various fields (including anthropology, political science, cultural studies, and literature), this theory holds that most elements of culture and cultural development can be explained in material terms; put differently, that things including environment, technology, and resources influence social, political, and cultural change. Important proponents of this idea include Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and G. W. F. Hegel, but in terms of its use and application in literature and literary theory, Raymond Williams is responsible for its development, which took place in the early 1980s alongside New Historicism. The term was coined by Williams and is meant to indicate the theoretical merging of Marxist analysis and leftist culturalism. Texts are analyzed and understood as part of a larger historical context and as products of the political and social realities in which they were produced. Thus, the dominant hegemonyof a text’s place and time can be scrutinized, as can the rebellion against or subversion of that dominant hegemony. Cultural materialists are interested in questions of class, race, gender, sexuality, and the power structures under which these coordinates exist; issues of representation are frequently considered. See also ideology, hegemony, critical theory, Marxism, New Historicism, and poststructuralism.
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