Beginner’s Guide to Poetic Terminology

The definitive list for poetic terminology can be found here, but it takes a bit of wading through and for our purposes you certainly don’t need to know everything on their list.

I’ve broken this down to the terms that I think are useful to know for the purpose of iGCSE, AS and A2-level analysis. Remember that you are not being marked on your ability to spot techniques or structural elements, but the bottom line is your ideas about the message or meaning of a poem and how well they are expressed.

I’ve listed each piece of terminology in sections relating to the way I break down a poem (to find out why I break a poem down like this, click here). Hope it all makes sense and is of help.

Context – background information about the poem

PersonalPoliticalHistoricalSocialCultural

Information about the poet’s life and relationships that could have an impact upon our understanding of their words.

e.g Sir Thomas Wyatt’s alleged relationship with Anne Boleyn provides a clear suggestions about who the ‘once in special’ may have been and explains why he may feel she has left him for some ‘newfangleness’.

 

An understanding of the political situation at the time a poem is written can reveal pressures and influences upon a poet.

e.g. The conflict between the Church of England and the Catholic Church during Elizabeth I’s reign meant that Catholics were driven underground and unable to wield power and influence in England. There was a high degree of resentment on both sides as a result of Mary I’s cruel treatment of Protestant during the previous reign and the reciprocated treatment delivered during Elizabeth’s reign.

An understanding of the history of a nation, a region, a religious group, a political group or even a family can reveal potential influences on a poet.

e.g. The hostile history between England and France caused a huge degree of resentment when Elizabeth I was considering marrying the French prince: Francis, Duke of Anjou. 

 

Social norms and values are not a constant and evolve over time as well as differing from country to country. By understanding the viewpoint of the society within which the poem was written we can gain an insight into where ideas may have come from and understand perspective more clearly.

e.g. Women’s role in the seventeenth century was hugely different to that of men. Women were seen as wives and mothers and were not expected to have a life independent of their husband or father; as such the women depicted in ‘They Flee From Me, That Sometime Did Me Seek’ as promiscuous and forward would risk family shame and embarrassment should their behaviour become public. 

 

Not all poets share your background, beliefs or religion. Finding out about the culture of a poet can reveal religious beliefs, traditions or stories that influence their work.

e.g. Sujata Bhatt feels split between the two cultures that have had the biggest impact in her life. Indian culture is associated with respect and faith in direct contract with the science and order of her western existence.

Themes – the main ideas or subject of a poem.

Content – the ideas or story in a poem.

Poetic VoiceAllegory

A poet does not always write from their own perspective, but sometimes uses a character as a device to get his message across. The poetic voice is the speaker in the poem.

e.g. ‘Why so pale and wan, fond lover?’ – the poetic voice is Orsames rather than Suckling, who is the poet.

A poem that conveys a deeper message or moral.

Language and techniques – significant vocabulary and technique usage.

AlliterationAllusionAmbiguityAssonanceCarpe DiemConsonanceEmotive LanguageEuphony

The repetition of the same opening letter within words in close proximity.

e.g. ‘And be you blithe and bonny’

When a poem makes a reference to another poem or text.

e.g. ‘Lilian and Lilas smiled in trudging by’ – allusion to the story of Adam and Eve.

A word or phrase whose meaning is open to multiple interpretations.

e.g. In reference to love: ‘It is a fire’ – meaning could be related to warmth or the potential to get burnt.

The repetitive use of the same vowel sound within words in close proximity.

e.g. ‘sinking as the light wind lives or dies’

This Latin phrase means ‘seize the day’ and is a common theme in poetry and literature.

e.g. ‘Go, lovely rose!/Tell her that wastes her time’

The repetitive use of the same consonant sounds within words in close proximity.

e.g. brick and clock

Elevated language that is highly emotional.

e.g. ‘You endless torments that my rest oppress’

Pleasing sound of a combination of words.

e.g. ‘Season of mist and mellow fruitfulness’

Figurative LanguageHyperboleImageryOxymoronOnomatopoeiaPathetic FallacySymbolism

Language used without the intention of being interpreted literally, but to show a relationship between two diverse things. We usually talk about this in terms of similes, metaphors and analogies.

Similes – clear comparison generally using ‘as’ or ‘like’:

e.g. ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ – many aspects of Shakespeare’s lady friend are compared to a sunny day.

Metaphor – direct comparison by saying one thing is another thing:

e.g. ‘Care is heavy’ – meaning care weighs heavily on our minds.

Analogy – an extended comparison between two things.

e.g. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 compares various characteristics of a lover with a summer’s day.

The highest form of exaggeration used for dramatic effect.

e.g. ‘Adieu, farewell, earth’s bliss’ – the suggestion of life on earth as having been perfect when the whole country is blighted by plague.

Words or phrases used to create a picture in the listener/readers’ minds often used metaphorically.

e.g. ‘the grass did weep for woe’

Two statements that are seemingly contradictory.

e.g. ‘It is a prick, it is a sting,/It is a pretty, pretty thing’

Words that sound like the noise they are meant to represent.

e.g. ‘Bang! Boom! Crash!’

The use of nature or natural elements to represent human emotions.

e.g. ‘The wind flapped loose, the wind was still’ – representing Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s listlessness.

Words, phrases or images that represent more than they literally represent.

e.g. ‘With how sad steps, O Moon, thou clim’st the skies!’ – the moon represents the poets own pale and wan lovesickness.

Author: Mr Sir

Although I've only been teaching Literature since 2011 and did my degree in History, I think that makes me better placed than many Lit teachers to provide notes that make sense and aren't garbled and wrapped up with inaccessible terminology and effluent nonsense. After adventures in Uganda and Uzbekistan, I am now settling down in the Netherlands. However, currently I am just about as unsettled as I have ever been, with a new job, a new baby, a new country and a hundred other things going on! Ask me a question, collaborate or abuse me.

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