Most Common Literary Terms in English Literature

Mofizur Rahman

Most Common Literary Terms in English Literature

Most Common Literary Terms in English Literature (Part-1)

Literary Terms For English Department Student
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Most Common Literary Terms in English Literature (Part-1)

Literary Terms

Most Common Literary Terms in English Literature (Part-1)
Most Common Literary Terms in English Literature (Part-2)
Literary Device and Definition (English Literature, Part-3)


Repetition of a consonant at the beginning of two or more words or stressed syllables. Notice the following examples:-

“Puffs, powders, patches, Bibles, billet-doux”.
(Pope: The Rape of the Lock)
Here “p” has been repeated thrice and “b” twice. So there are two cases of alliteration in this line.

More examples:
The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,
The furrow followed free;
(Coleridge: “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”) Here “f' and “b” have been repeated.
“To spend too much time in studies is sloth;”
(Bacon:“Of Studies”)

Here “s” has been repeated.
“Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,”
(Coleridge:“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”)

In this line two words begin with “b”and two words with “g”.In the word “velvet”,“v”.is repeated at the beginning of two stressed syllables-“vel” and “vet”. Similar alliteration is in each of these words: fulfil, fruitful, bramble, disdain, etc.


An implicit or indirect reference to another work of literature, a historical or mythical person or event.

Not half so fixed the Trojan could remain, While Anna begged and Dido raged in vain. (Pope:The Rape of the Lock)

Here is an allusion to the dilemma of Aeneas, the hero of Virgil's Aeneid.Aeneas falls in love with Dido, the queen of Carthage. Dido implores Aeneas to marry her and get settled permanently in Carthage. Aeneas was in dilemma. He had a noble duty to find out a new territory for the Trojans.

But he was also deeply in love with Dido. He was torn between love and duty. Hówever, he finally decides to continue his voyage in search of a permanent empire for the Trojans. This dilemma of Aeneas has been recalled here to suggest the intensity of Belinda's crisis.

More examples:-
The wingéd boy I knew;
But who waste thou, O happy,happy dove? (Keats:“Ode to Psyche”) The “winged boy” is an allusion to Cupid, the god of love.

Perhaps the selfsame song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
(Keats: “Ode to a Nightingale”)

These lines allude to the suffering of Ruth, a character of the Old Testament.
An allusion, which clarifies meanings and suggests a lot in a few words, may make a literary work difficult but it enriches its literary quality.


A metrical foot comprising three syllables of which the first two are unstressed and the third is stressed.

Like a chíld / frǒm the wómb,/ lǐke å ghóst/ from thě tómb,
I aríse / and unbuíld / it agaín. (Shelley: “The Cloud”)
Whěn Ï thínk lốf my ówn/ nătǐve lánd,
Ïn ă mó/měnt Ĩ seém/ tǒ bě thére;
(W. Cowper: “The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk”)

The use of anapaest gives swiftness to the movement of the verse line in which it is used. When the meanings or the events demand easeful swift movements, poets create the illusion of'swift movements by the uses of anapaest.


Repetition of a word or phrase at the beginnings of two or more successive verse lines, clauses, or sentences. Examples:

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. (Shakespeare: “Sonnet XVIII”)

In every cry of every man,
In every Infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear:
(W. Blake: “London”)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope,

it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way. (Charles Dickens: A -Tale of Two Cities)

In Martin Luther King Jr's famous speech, “I Have a Dream”, there are two uses of anaphora. “I have a 'dream” and “with this faith” have been repeated several times. Writers use anaphora to emphasize the pointsthey want to make.

Anti-climax or Bathos

A statement in which there is a sudden fall from the serious to the trivial or from the sublime to the ridiculous. Examples:

Not louder shrieks to pitying heaven are cast,
When husbands, or when lapdogs breathe their last;
(Pope: The Rape ofthe Lock)

Here is a sudden fall of importance from husbands to dogs.
Whether the nymph shall break Diana's law,
Or some frail china jar receive a flaw,
(Pope:The Rape ofthe Lock)

Here is. a sudden fall from the importance of virginity to the brittleness of chinaware. This sudden fall is a case of anti-cliamx that suggests thạt Belinda's virginity is as brittle as that of a china jar.

But in the course of one revolving moon
Was chymist, fiddler, statesman, and buffoon;
(Dryden: Absalom and Achitophel)


A terse, memorable expression of a universal truth.
“Wives are young men's mistresses; companions for middle
age; and old men's nurses.”
(Bacon:“Of Marriage and Single Life”)

“Men fear death, as children fear to go in the dark;”
(Bacon: “Of Death”)

“That it is impossible to love and to be wise.”
(Bacon: “Of Love”)

“To err is human, to forgive divine.”
(Pope: An Essay on Criticism)

“Authority forgets a dying king”
(Tennyson: “Morte d' Arthur”)

The use of aphorism reflects the range of an author's experience and adds universality to the text in which it is used.

Aphorism is different from a proverb: a proverb is an anonymous expression of a general truth while an aphorism is a truth taken out of one's personal experience. Proverbs are traditional but aphorisms are individual. “Man proposes, God disposes”, is an example of proverb. Aphorism is also different from epigrams. [see Epigram]


An address to someone absent or something abstract as if the person or the thing were present. It is often introduced by the exclamation “O”.Shelley makes use of apostrophe in “Ode to the West Wind” at least seven times. Here is one of them:
O Wind,

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
Pope also uses Anaphora many times in The Rape of the Lock. Here is one:
“O wretched maid!” she spreads her hands, and cried
(While Hampton's echoes,“Wretched maid!” replied)

Here the maid who helped Belinda in her preparation for the day has been addressed. The maid is absent at the place where Belinda wails for the loss of one of her locks.

Here is an example from Keats's “To Autumn”:
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
(Keats: “To Autumn”)
Here the speaker addresses the personified “Autumn” throughout the poem. It is an example of expanded apostrophe.


Use of a word or a style of writing which has already been old-fashioned. For example:
Lord, thou hast examined me and knowest me.
Thou knowest all, whether I sit down or rise up;
thou hast discerned my thoughts from afar.
Thou hast traced my journey and my resting places,
and art familiar with all my paths.
(The Bible,“Psalms”-139)

Here the words “thou” for you, “knowest” for know, “art” for are and “hast” for has are archaic words.

A modern writer uses archaic words to add grandeur to his writing. Coleridge uses it inmany lines of “The Rime of the Ancient' Mariner”. In the first line of the following quotation there are two examples:

He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.


Repetition of a vowel sound in nearby words (without the recurrence of consonant sounds which would make a rhyme).

There is assonance in make and hate as the vowel “a” is only repeated and the consonants after it --'ke' and 'te'-- are different. But Love and dove are a case of rhyme as both vowel and consonant sounds are repeated.

Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, bornealoft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
(Keats: “To Autumn”)

In these lines, “o” and “i”are repeated.
Till morning touching mountain-
And Jacob,waxing strong,
The Angel begged permission
To Breakfast-to return-
(Emily Dickinson: “A little East of Jordan”59)

In these lines “a”, “e”, “i” and “o” are repeated.
“Studies serve for delight, for ornament, and for ability.”
(Bacon: “Of Studies”)

Here 'i', and 'a' are repeated. Repetition of 'for' is a case of rhyme. Assonance, like alliteration, is used for musical effects.

Blank Verse

Iambic pentameter verse lines without the end. An iambic pentameter line is a verse line of five iambic feet. In blank verse, the last word of a line does not rhyme with the last word of any of the successive lines.

How cán/I líve/ without/thee? hów/ foregó/
Thy sweet converse and love so dearly join'd,
To live again in these wild woods forlorn?
Should God create another Eve, and I
Another rib afford, yet loss of thee

Would never from my heart; no, no, I feel
The link of nature draw me; flesh of flesh,
Bone of my bone thou art, and from thy state
Mine never shall be parted, bliss or woe.
(Milton: Paradise Lost,Book IX)

All these lines, like the scanned one, are in iambic pentameter and none of the last words of these lines rhyme with any other end-word.

More Examples:
Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ileum?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss,
Her lips suck forth my soul: see where it flies!
(Marlowe: Doctor Faustus, Act V, Scene I)

These mighty lines are written in iambic pentameter without end-rhyme.
It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match'd with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
(Tennyson: “Ulysses”)

Poets and dramatists use blank verse to avoid the monotony of traditional rhyme schemes, to use a wide variety of differing tones, to add elegance and to match the heroic or elevated voice.


A break or pause in the rhythmic progression in a verse. line. It is indicated by the mark “Il” as is shown in the following examples:

The boast of heraldry, || the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, I| all that wealth e'er gave,
(Gray: “Elegy”)

Where are the songs of Spring? || Ay,where are they?
Think not of them, || thou hast thy music too,-
(Keats: “To Autumn”)

In friendship false, || implacable in hate,
Resolved to ruin || or to rule the state;
(Dryden; Absalom and Achitophel)

“To err is human, Il to forgive divine.”
(Pope:An Essayon Criticism)

Caesura is used to bring variety in the natural rhythm. It also produces metrical subtlety and makes meanings sharp and distinct.


Catastrophe is the dreadful consequence of the story of a tragedy. It is the final scene in which the action ends with the death of the hero and other characters. Catastrophe takes place in the last scene of Doctor Faustus in which Faustus begs for God's forgiveness but Lucifer drags him to hell.

In Othello it occurs when Othello kills Desdemona and then kills himself. The catastrophe of Hamlet is in the death scene of Hamlet (the hero),Gertrude(the Queen),Claudius (the present king)and Laertes.


The purgation or purification of pity and fear in tragedies. A dramatic presentation of sufferings or death arouses pity and fear in the spectators to such an extent that they, after watching such scenes, feel relieved of those harmful emotions. Milton describes this state of a cleansed mind in the last line of Samson Agonistes: “And calm of mind all passion spent”.


The inversion in the order of words or phrases when repeated. Examples:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”
(Keats: “Ode on a Grecian Urn”)
“Fair is foul, and foul is fair,”
(Shakespeare: Macbeth)

“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”
(Shakespeare: As You Like It, Act V,Scene I)
“Better a witty fool than a foolish wit”.
(Shakespeare:Twelfth Night,Act I,Scene V)

“Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind.”


Chorus is a group of performers who sing, dance and at times take part in the action of a play. The number of persons in a chorus may be reduced from a group to a single person.

According to Aristotle (Poetics, Chapter XII) it is one of the constituent elements of tragedy. The functions of chorus in classical tragedies are many.

  • It determines the structure of a Greek tragedy;
  • creates background and sets tone and atmosphere;
  • comments on past and present events and hints at what is coming next;
  • sometimes takes part in action;
  • covers the time-gap between episodes;
  • affirms the wise views of the society;
  • gives touches of religious solemnity and common humanity.
Chorus is an integral part of all classical tragedies. Sophocles has used it in Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone.Modern writers have also used it. 

Marlowe has used it in Doctor Faustus; Milton has used it in Samson Agonistes. Some modern dramatists replaced the chorus by a character. For example, the fool in King Lear does what the chorus would have done.

Circumlocution or Periphrasis

A roundabout way of stating or writing ideas. In it several words are used where a few words can serve the purpose. For examples:

“Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,”
(Shakespeare: “Sonnet XVIII”)

Here “the eyẹ of heaven” is a roundabout expression for the “sun”.
In Keats'“To Autumn”, “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”(for Autumn), “clammy cells” (for beehive),“The red-breast”(for robin), etc. are all examples of circumlocution.

Here are two more examples:
The Peer now spreads the glittering forfex wide,
To inclose the Lock; now joins it, to divide.
Even then, before the fatal engine closed,
A wretched.Sylph toofondly interposed.
(Pope:The Rape of the Lock)
The “glittering forfex” and the “fatal engine” are circumlocutions; each of them can be replaced by “scissors”. Poets use it to impart importance, enhance poetic beauty and, at times, provoke ironic laughter.


A work of literature which has stood the test of time for its timeless qualities. A classic engages such human qualities which appeal to the people of all ages, all countries and all races. The classics mean all the never-dying art and literature of ancient Greece and Rome. The classics are never-dying because they appeal to us, more or less, in the way they appealed to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Modern classics, are those modern literary works which, ever since their appearance, have never lost their appeal to the readers of all countries.

The word classical refers to Greek and Roman literature or any work of art and literature that possess the qualities of Greek and Roman literature.
Examples of ancient classics:-

Sophocles' Antigone, Oedipus Rex and. Oedipus at Colonus; Euripides' Medea and Hippolytus; Aristophanes' Wasps and Frogs, Seneca's Thyestes, Phaedra and Medea; Ovid's Metamorphoses, Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil's Aeneid and many other ancient texts are Greek and Roman classics.

The examples of modern classics are many. Here are a few: Shakespeare's great comedies and tragedies, Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot; Earnest Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea,

William Golding's Lord of the Flies, George Orwell's Animal Farm, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness; the famous poems of Milton, Thomas Gray, T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats and many many others.


The ancient doctrine of art and literature. It was developed in the pre-Christian era in Greece and Rome. It is opposite to romanticism. All or most of the following literary criteria contribute to classicism:
  • Restraint or control (over imagination);
  • Predominance of reason over emotion;
  • Adherence to recognized forms;
  • Symmetry or unity of design and aim; in drama, observance of three unities;
  • Clarity, simplicity and balance;
  • Respect for tradition;
  • Elegance;
  • Objectivity;
  • Moral lesson;
  • Universal subjects rather than temporal or local subjects.
  • Lofty language.


The peak of importance in a play or in a story. It is the point at which the rise of action ends and the fall of action begins. Antigone's death in Oedipus's Antigone is the most important event after which the action falls. Her death is the climax of the tragedy.

The climax of Macbeth is the point at which, so far ambitious and brave, Macbeth first gets afraid at the appearance of Banquo's ghost. It is the turning point of his fall. A statement may also have a climax. For instance, “He smiles, he laughs and he roars”. The climax is at the end of the sentence.

Comic Relief

A humorous scene in between serious scenes of a tragedy. Its purpose is to relieve the tension of the foregoing tragic scenes for a short time, and thus, heighten the tragic effect by contrast.

The comic scenes of Doctor Faustus are bright examples: In Act III, Scene IV, Wagner makes fun of the clown. This scene is a comic relief to the serious scenes that precede and follow it.

In Hamlet, the humorous dialogues between the grave diggers in Act V, Scene I, offer comic relief to the deeply tense action of its foregoing scenes and enhance the tragic effect of the subsequent scenes.


Comparison between two far-fetched objects of different kinds. It surprises its readers by its ingenious discovery and delights them by its intellectual quality. A famous example is Donne's comparison between two lovers' souls and the two arms of a pair of compasses in “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning”:

If they be two, they are two so
A stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th'other do.

Of the several conceits in “The Good-Morrow”, here is one:

Where can we find two better hemispheres,
Without sharp North,without declining West?

The comparison between two hemispheres and two lovers is an unusual, thought provoking one, and so, it is a conceit.


The indirect meaning of a word. It is the suggestion or associated significance implied by a word. Examples:-

'Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in'.
(Frost: “The Death of the Hired Man”)

“Home” literally means a roofed structure to live in (denotation) but its connotative meaning, as it is suggested here, may be peace, intimacy, family bond, etc. Thus, a “bird” is a winged biped (denotation) but the connotation of the word “bird” may be freedom, or sweet voice; “island” is piece of land surrounded by water (denotation) but its connotation is “isolated” as in the sentence “Every man is an island in a crowded city”.

The “bridge party” in E. M. Forster's Passage to India, literally means a party to reduce the gap between the natives and the English. But its connotative meaning is the party to discover others' intentions through intimacy. Connotative meanings may be positive or negative. [see Denotation]


Repetition of consonants without similar vowels for two or more times at the end of accented syllables. For examples in “shock”, “luck” and “pick”, 'ck' has been repeated but the accompanying vowels are different.

“Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,”
(Shakespeare: “Sonnet XVIII”)

“A lawn about the shoulders thrown”
(R. Herrick: “Delight in Disorder”)

“The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all.”
(G. Orwell: “Shooting an Elephant”)


Two verse lines rhyming together at the end. Examples:
Blow, blow thou winter wind,
Thou art not so unkind

These trimeter lines end with the same sound, “ind”, and thus, they rhyme together.
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
(Nursery rhyme)

These two tetrameter lines end with the same sound, “all”.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
(Robert Frost: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”)

Each of the couples of these tetrameter lines ends with the same sound, and thus, rhyme together.

All human things are subject to decay,
And when fate summons, monarchs must obey.
(Dryden: Mac Flecknoe)

These iambic pentameter lines end with the same sound, and thus, they rhyme together.[see Heroic 

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