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  Key terms


Here is a list of some key terms relevant to this course, which may be helpful to students who have just started the study of literature. For more terms, go to A Glossary of Literary Terms or the Handbook of Rhetorary Devices. also has some good definitions for terms regarding poetry. The explanation of the terms below are collected from these sites.

Allegory. A figurative work in which a surface narrative carries a secondary, symbolic or metaphorical meaning. In The Faerie Queene , for example, Red Cross Knight is a heroic knight in the literal narrative, but also a figure representing Everyman in the Christian journey.  Many works contain allegories or are allegorical in part, but not many are entirely allegorical.

Alliteration. The repetition of initial consonant sounds in neighboring words. For example, in clichés: "sweet smell of success", "a dime a dozen", "bigger and better", or in Wordsworth: "And sings a solitary song That whistles in the wind." A famous example is to be found in the two lines by Tennyson: "The moan of doves in immemorial elms, / And murmuring of innumerable bees."

Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds but not consonant sounds as in consonance. Example: "fleet feet sweep by sleeping geeks."

Ballad. It is essentially a narrative poem, that is, a poem that tells a story. One of the characteristics of the ballad is its beginning close to (or even with) the climactic episode of the story. Another marked characteristic of the folk ballad is the objectivity with which the story is told.

Canon. In relation to literature, this term is half-seriously applied to those works generally accepted as the great ones.

Coming-of-age story. A type of novel where the protagonist is initiated into adulthood through knowledge, experience, or both, often by a process of disillusionment. Understanding comes after the dropping of preconceptions, a destruction of a false sense of security, or in some way the loss of innocence.

Conflict/Plot. The struggle found in fiction. Conflict/Plot may be internal or external and is best seen in (1) Man in conflict with another Man: (2) Man in conflict in Nature; (3) Man in conflict with self.

Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds, but not vowels, as in assonance. Example: "lady lounges lazily, dark deep dread crept in."

Elegy. A poem "of lamentation for the dead." The poet chooses freely his metrical pattern, rhyme scheme (if he uses rhyme), and method of treating his theme. There is a more special form of the elegy called the pastoral elegy. The pastoral tradition in English-the tradition of dealing with characters in literature under the guise of poetic shepherds in an idyllic environment-has its roots in classical literature; Vergil and Theocritus are two of the most notable poets who wrote in the pastoral vein. Many pastoral poems were written in English between the middle of the sixteenth century and the middle of the eighteenth. When applied to the elegy, the pastoral tradition resulted in a rather formalized type of poetry most successfully used by Milton in Lycidas (on the death of Edward King), Shelley in Adonais (on the death of John Keats), and Arnold in Thyrsis (on the death of Arthur Hugh Clough). Traditionally, the pastoral elegy begins with a statement of the reason for the grief and an invocation to the Muses for assistance in the task of composition.

Epic. An extended narrative poem recounting actions, travels, adventures, and heroic episodes and written in a high style (with ennobled diction, for example).

Epistolary novel. A novel consisting of letters written by a character or several characters.

Epithet. A word which makes the reader see the object described in a clearer or sharper light. It is both exact and imaginative. Distinctive epithets are found in the ancient Greek classic, The Odyssey: "wine-dark sea," wave-girdled island," and " blindfolding night."

Flashback. A device that allows the writer to present events that happened before the time of the current narration or the current events in the fiction.

Foot. The basic unit of meter consisting of a group of two or three syllables. Scanning or scansion is the process of determining the prevailing foot in a line of poetry, of determining the types and sequence of different feet.

Foreshadowing. The use of hints or clues to suggest what will happen later in literature.

Free verse. Verse that has neither regular rhyme nor regular meter. Free verse often uses cadences rather than uniform metrical feet

Genre. Type of literature.

Irony. A mode of expression, through words (verbal irony) or events (irony of situation), conveying a reality different from and usually opposite to appearance or expectation. A writer may say the opposite of what he means, create a reversal between expectation and its fulfillment, or give the audience knowledge that a character lacks, making the character's words have meaning to the audience not perceived by the character.

Metaphor. Comparison of two unlike things using the verb "to be" and not using like or as as in a simile. Example: "He is a pig" or "Thou art sunshine." The simplest and also the most effective poetic device is the use of comparison. It might almost be said that poetry is founded on two main means of comparing things: simile and metaphor. We heighten our ordinary speech by the continual use of such comparisons as "fresh as a daisy," "tough as leather," "comfortable as an old shoe," "gay as a lark," "pretty as a picture." These are all recognizable similes; they use the words "as" or "like." A metaphor is another kind of comparison. It is actually a condensed simile, for it omits "as" or "like."

Meter. The rhythmic pattern produced when words are arranged so that their stressed and unstressed syllables fall into a more or less regular sequence, resulting in repeated patterns of accent (called feet). Feet are combined to make a line of poetry. The length, or measure, of a line is called the meter. The shortest line of poetry contains only one foot (monometer); one of the longest (octameter) consists of eight feet.

Ode. More complex in structure than most other forms, the ode is a poem of some length treating an elevated theme in a lofty, dignified manner. It has its origins in ancient Greece and was initially written to be delivered with musical accompaniment. There are 3 major types of modern odes. The Pindaric or regular ode, like Thomas Gray's Progress of Poesy: it is divided into three triads, each of which has a strophe, antistrophe, and epode. The second type of ode is called the homostrophic ode. Coleridge's Ode to France supplies a good example of the homostrophic ode as do Keats' Ode on Melancholy and Ode to a Nightingale . The third type of ode is called the irregular or Cowleyan ode (after the poet Cowley who used the form in the seventeenth century). As its name indicates, the irregular ode consists of a number of stanzas that are unlike in structure-that is, in the number of lines, length of lines, and rhyme scheme. More flexible obviously than the other two types, the irregular ode can be seen superbly used by William Wordsworth in Ode on the Intinations of Immortality.

Pathetic fallacy. The attribution of human traits to nature or inanimate objects. [Coined by John Ruskin in 1856.]

Sarcasm. A form of sneering criticism in which disapproval is often expressed as ironic praise.

Satire. A literary mode based on criticism of people and society through ridicule. The satirist aims to reduce the practices attacked by laughing scornfully at them--and being witty enough to allow the reader to laugh, also.

Setting. The total environment for the action of a fictional work. Setting includes time period (such as the 1890's), the place (such as downtown Warsaw), the historical milieu (such as during the Crimean War), as well as the social, political, and perhaps even spiritual realities.

Simile. The comparison of two unlike things using like or as. Related to metaphor. Example: "He eats like a pig."

Stanza. Every poem has a pattern, and it is the line which determines the pattern. The foot is the unit of the line; the measured line is the unit of the verse, or stanza; the stanza is the unit that shapes the poem as a whole.

Symbol. Something that on the surface is its literal self but which also has another meaning or even several meanings. For example, a sword may be a sword and also symbolize justice. A symbol may be said to embody an idea. There are two general types of symbols: universal symbols that embody universally recognizable meanings wherever used, such as light to symbolize knowledge, a skull to symbolize death, etc., and constructed symbols that are given symbolic meaning by the way an author uses them in a literary work, as the white whale becomes a symbol of evil in Moby Dick.


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