Literary Terms and Definitions

On this page you will find various literary terms that have been presented in class. It will be updated as new terms are introduced.


Below are the literary terms I will use for quizzes and the final exam.  The definitions can be found below, in the links provided, or in the lectures posted on our website.


metonymy irony narrative sight rhyme
closed form end-stopped line alliteration free verse
meter enjambment satire verse
irony allusion assonance foot
tone personification caesura sight rhyme
synecdoche image anaphora epigraph
metaphor imagery sonnet (both types) speaker
simile         internal rhyme intertextuality aesthetics
stanza form rhyme scheme text
octave Romanticism Sublime Other
theme rhyming couplet canon persuasive essay
hyperbole exaggeration cliche discourse
antagonist hero anthropomorphism protagonist
imperialism colonize theme onomatopoeia
genre creative non-fiction parody myth
tercet canon tradition ambiguity
iambic pentameter figurative language form slant rhyme
aesthetics lyric compare contrast
volta iambic tetrameter tone unreliable narrator
creative non-fiction settler colonialism palillogy  


text: A work that is legible or readable and subject to interpretation

A visual work that uses signs and symbols (language, but also other sign systems ) to produce meanings.

The object being studied, whether it be a novel, a poem, a film, an advertisement.

image: a literal and concrete representation of a sensory experience of an object that can be known by one or more of the senses, an image is an element in the production of meaning in a literary text.

An image does not have to be fixed to a “real” object: it can be figurative, requiring you to trace not simply what the image represents, but what it suggests through that representation.

Thus, images suggest further meanings and associations in ways that go beyond the simple, obvious interpretation.



a grammatical mistake or absurdity

non-standard use of English language


metaphor: you probably learned in high school that a metaphor is a comparison that does not use “like” or “as.” Often this comparison is made between two seemingly unrelated subjects.

For instance, you might say, “She has a heart of stone,” to convey the notion that she is hard-hearted; her heart is not literally stone, but like a stone. Or, my computer is a real memory hog, meaning that it uses an excessive amount of memory.

While it is true that a metaphor is a comparison , this definition somewhat oversimplifies a complex idea. A metaphor is the ascribing of the qualities of one object to another; the application of a name or descriptive term or phrase to an object or action to which it is imaginatively but not literally applicable—that is, not just comparing two things, but representing one thing by showing how it has certain qualities recognizable in another thing.

“All the world's a stage,

And all the men and women merely players."

  W. Shakespeare

Here, the metaphor is more complex. We equate our lives with the idea of drama and performance. In our social world, we are on “stage” in front of others. As well, the phrase “merely players” implies that we are insignificant within the vastness of the world. It could also infer that we do not have as much control over our lives as we believe.

simile: a comparison between two things using like or as, and sometimes than or the verb resembles.  A simile usually compares two things that initially seem unlike but are shown to have significant resemblance.

My love is like a rose.                   He was as precise as a surgeon

You also could think of metaphor as an equation and a simile as an approximation .

- for example, the snow was like a blanket

More complex forms of simile also invoke imagery and other literary devices, including punctuation.

“Death has many times invited me: it was like the salt invisible in the waves.”

Pablo Neruda


•  Big genres: lyric, narrative, drama

What is a genre?

•  A type of composition, be it literary, musical, cinematographic, etc.

•  How do we recognize a genre?

•  Stylistic conventions

•  Poetry Sub-genres: sonnet, elegy, ballad

•  Narrative Sub-genres: novel, short story; essay

•  Drama Sub-genres: tragedy, comedy

•  Displays definitive stylistic conventions;

•  Elicits a certain kind of reader expectations and response.



In literary terms refers to how something is represented . Such representation is both that which is presented to us as reader, and that which we engage in as reader. For form in literature, we look to how the text is arranged.

•  Form is structure ( verse, stanza, shape ), in a visual sense.

Verse --- one line of poetry

Stanza ---a grouping of verses

Shape --- how the poem is presented

Form is metre and rhyme , in a experiential sense.

Rhythm is the pattern of sounds and emphases in a text.

Metre is an imposed ordered pattern with stressed and unstressed syllables.

The foot is the basis of metre. It is the smallest unit repeated over and over. It consists of a number of syllables with different stresses on each syllable.

This is Iambic pentameter

Shakespeare's Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day.

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer's lease hath all too short a date:

•  iamb is a type of foot----“ unstressed syllable then a stressed one”

pentameter means this is repeated 5 (pent) times

It is the most popular metre in English Literature.

•  It is considered by many to be the closest to English speech, and thus the most “natural” and powerful metre.

•  Metre is not just a convention, but orders and adds to the words

•  The slow pace (metre) of “Innisfree” reinforces the calm that the words are describing.


Free verse is a kind of poetry that does not conform to any metre. The lines don't have a definite length, nor is the rhyme, if any, regular. If we compare it to metrical verse, free verse displays different relations of regularity to irregularity, and of the auditory to the visual. Metre plays no role in free verse, but that does not mean there is no structure to it.

Instead of metre, free verse uses other kinds of devices or rhythmic groupings, such as grammatical breaks, or anaphora, which is a kind of repetition. Whereas repetition refers to one word, anaphora designates the repeated use of a phrase, such as "How should I presume." in Eliot's "Prufrock,"  or "me seh me cyaan believe it" in Smith's poem of the same name.  All these devices that free verse uses to replace traditional metre amount to what is known as cadence.


Conceit (also called a metaphysical conceit)

An elaborate, far-fetched, or unusual comparison—especially one using unlikely metaphors, similes, or contradictions. Before the beginning of the seventeenth century, the term conceit was a synonym for "thought" and roughly equivalent to "idea" or "concept." It gradually came to denote a fanciful idea, or a particularly clever remark. In literary terms, the word denotes a fairly elaborate figure of speech, especially an extended comparison involvingunlikely metaphors and similes

Conceits work best when the reader is given a perception of a real but previously unsuspected similarity that is enlightening; then they may speak to our minds and emotions with force. Examples of potential conceits: love is like an oil change; love is like a postage stamp; love is like a pair of glasses

As you can see, the temptation to be merely clever is hard to resist, while the difficulty in making such a conceit truly effective is quite considerable.

“The Flea” employs conceit because the comparison between having sex and being bitten by a flea is ridiculous.  Furthermore, the conceit is carried throughout the poem, with the flea changing its significance in each stanza.


In this instance, Donne’s conceit is meant to be shocking to his readers.  His poems often reflect the speech of arguments or conversations.  Notice also that the action takes place between the stanzas. 


A sonnet is fourteen-line poem in iambic pentameter with a carefully
patterned rhyme scheme.

Sonnets can be split into two categories:

Italian (Petrarchan)
-an octave (8 lines), which usually rhymes abbaabba, but which may
sometimes be abbacddc or even (rarely) abababab;
-a sestet (6 lines), which may rhyme xyzxyz or xyxyxy
-usually develops a subject in the octave, then executes a turn at the
beginning of the sestet and completes the subject

The English (Shakespearean)
-three quatrains (4 lines) and a couplet
-rhymes abab cdcd efef gg.
-introduces an idea in the first quatrain, complicates it in the
second and the third, and resolves everything in the final
epigrammatic couplet.
The last 2 lines also rhyme, making it a rhyming couplet as well.

An epigrammatic couplet has a rather broad definition, but it essentially means a clever and memorable statement to conclude the poem.


Caesura refers to a break within a line of poetry, often marked by a comma or a period or a dash; a point at which you have to stop or at least pause as you’re reading the poem

Two ways to think about a caesura:

What matters is that you see it as a visual and grammatical break in a line that makes meaning change


Narrative: This term, as we will be using it in class, refers to the telling of a story in a literary (or sometimes non-literary) text. Narrative is not a literary genre (or category), but the process of relating the sequence of events, circumstances, changes, movements which constitute the story within literary genres, such as novels, short stories, plays, and long narrative poems, as well as non-literary genres such as murals or other visual arts, television shows, advertising, etc. Narrative is not synonymous with plot, but can sometimes be used interchangeably with that term—when, for instance, you are referring to things that happen in a literary text.  Narrative includes the question of how—as well as what—things are represented in a story. Narrative represents what purports to be a natural ordering of events into a sequence:  there is usually logic in narrative (cause and effect, for instance).  At one level, narrative can be understood in terms of a desire to find or to impose a kind of order on events: thus we look for it in events or series of events (telling stories of things that happen to us) or impose it on events (configuring a set of circumstances as a story, with a beginning and an end--or “closure”).




A literary movement is period in literary history characterized by its common concerns and techniques.


Aboriginal: Indigenous; existing in a land at the dawn of history, or before arrival of colonists

In Canada, usually First Nations or Native; in the US, usually Native American


Politically we can refer to a work of indigenizing, something that pertains both to the recognition of what is Native and to the process of building a social order in which Native history, culture, identity: ie indigenizing social studies at the elementary school level; indigenizing the study of literature in university English classes


Intertextuality is often used to refer to literary relations of conscious influence. For ex, you could say that there are echoes of WB Yeats when you read Eliot’s “Prufrock.” 

Intertextuality should not be, but frequently is, used to refer to the intentional allusion (overt or covert) to, citation or quotation of previous texts in literary texts.    A text’s meaning sometimes exists in the text’s relation to the numerous other texts which go to make up the multiple discourses of culture. When we read texts intertextually, we immediately go outside of them in our search for meaning, since a text considered intertextually has no inside or, to be more specific, a text’s inside comes from the cultural discourses which exist on its outside


Imperialism: The national policy of conquest of other regions or peoples for the purpose of extending political and economic control and of exploiting the resources of other regions or people.


Colonialism is the exploitation of a weaker country by a stronger one.  It includes the use of the weaker country's resources to strengthen and enrich the stronger country.  It is a feature of European expansion since sixteenth century, as Western powers took control of people and territory across much of globe. Last wave in Africa, late-nineteenth century. South American colonies gained independence in nineteenth century, African and Asian colonies after WW II.


Is it an imaginary construct, or is it a real place? 

Is it political, ideological, cultural? 

•The act of drawing up borderlines defining a nation-state and a national identity is deeply problematic. On what criteria do you define a nation’s essence? shared language? hair colour? size of ears? Who belongs and who is excluded, and who decides? Nations like to see themselves as natural phenomena, but are in fact imagined communities.


The Other refers to the colonized others who are marginalized by the imperial discourse, identified by their difference from the centre and become the focus of anticipated mastery by the imperial power.  For example, in "Pocahontas to her Husband, John Rolfe, the physical difference of the “savages” is an excuse for their abuse by various Europeans. 

This Other can be compared to the imperial centre, imperial discourse, or the empire itself, in two ways:


Postcolonial Criticism

In a very general sense, postcolonial criticism is the study of the interactions between European nations and colonies following the establishment of independence in a colony.



protagonist: the chief character in a work of fiction or drama. The term was originally applied to the “first” actor in early Greek drama. In Greek drama an agon is a contest. The protagonist and the antagonist, the second most important character, are the contenders in the agon. The protagonist is the leading figure both in terms of importance  and of ability to enlist the readers’ or audience’s interest and sympathy, whether the cause is heroic or ignoble.


satire: conveying criticism with humour for the purpose of improving human institutions or humanity (n.b. satire is not a genre but a manner or mode)

Romanticism and Sublime (see lecture on Other Resources)


Irony is a contrast between what is expected and what actually happens. There are three types of irony in literature.

Ø      Verbal irony occurs when a character states one thing and means another.

Ø      Dramatic irony occurs when the reader knows more about a situation or character than the characters in the story do.

Ø      Situational irony is a contrast between what the reader expects to happen and what actually happens.

Unreliable Narrator: A narrator, often in the first-person, whose account may be partial, misinformed, or otherwise misleading.
Why might they be unreliable?
Child or lack experience to understand events
Something to hide or reason to misinterpret events
Rhetorical strategy

A form of story or narrative sequence, often traditional and anonymous, through which a given culture ratifies or changes its social customs for the origins of human and natural phenomena.
Today, modern myths are regarded as fictional stories containing deeper truths, expressing a society’s collective attitudes towards fundamental matters of life, death, divinity, and existence.
Myth also includes themes or character types embodied in an idea.
Example: In Never Cry Wolf, Mowat argues that we are willing to mistreat the North because we believe the myth that it is a cold, empty space with no life. 

Another example is the image of a pale Dracula who comes from Transylvania and sucks blood contributes to what we believe embodies the history Dracula and vampires. It is a “story” or “narrative” that is difficult to alter. Indeed, unconsciously, many people wish to maintain this characterization of Dracula, as it reflects a supposedly simpler, less complicated period when enemies were identifiable by race and citizenship.

Myths are different from legends in that they have less historical basis. King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, for example, would be a legend because there might have been an actual King Arthur. However, Dracula is a myth because there was no actual Dracula, although some have made connections to Vlad the Impaler.