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Literary names and terms: glossary.


In an allegorical form of narrative, the characters, places, and actions represent abstract ideas at the same time that they operate as parts of the story. In an allegory, characters may, for instance, stand for the good or bad traits of humankind, places may represent the status or the goals of the characters, actions may represent right or wrong choices. For example, in an allegorical story, a road may stand for the way, right or wrong, that a character proceeds on during his or her journey through life. The goal of that journey may be represented as a splendid castle, a city of light or a beautiful garden. In allegories, the names of the characters may indicate what traits or abstractions are being represented by the character. If, for instance, a character is called Mankind or Everyman, the character stands for the universal condition of human beings in relationship to the moral forces at work in the narrative. If, as in Hamlet, the character's name is Fortinbras, which means strong arm, then it is likely that he represents physical strength. Calling a character Sir Politic Would-be as in Ben Jonson's Volpone indicates that the character represents a person who wishes to be thought of as shrewd and well informed in political matters.

In the working out of an allegorical narrative, the shifting relationships among the characters are intended to show the reader how these qualities or traits function in relationship to each other. The final victory of the characters who stand for "the best way" or the "right" qualities produces the meaning of the narrative.

In interpreting an allegory, however, it is usually best to assume that not all the traits of every character are translatable into abstractions. Certain details may be included merely to advance the story or to make it more exciting. Some major allegorical works in English literature before 1785 include Everyman, The Faerie Queene, Volpone, and Gulliver's Travels.


Two or more words are said to alliterate if they have the same initial sound. "Lovely lilies lying along a lonely lane" alliterates on the L sound; five of the words start with L. Notice also that the word along, while it does not start with L, has that letter as the first sound of its stressed syllable; therefore, it is also part of the alliterative pattern. In Old English poetry, alliteration is the primary sound pattern. Sounds used to create alliteration are ordinarily consonants, but in Old English poetry, initial vowel sounds are also used to alliterate.

The use of alliteration is a way of giving emphasis, but it can also be used merely to create a pleasant, singing effect. Further, it may have been used by the scop as a memory aid to assist in delivering the oral literature. The Vision of Piers Plowman takes place "on a May morning on Malvern Hills."

Sometimes alliteration is also used in prose, especially formal prose, to emphasize parallel phrases or corresponding ideas; for example, "He was trained and taught and tediously raised." Sometimes alliteration and rhyme are used together in the same poem to reinforce each other, as in the ballad of The Wife of Usher's Well.


When a writer refers indirectly to some well-known person or event, expecting the reader or audience to recognize the reference although it has not been specifically named, that writer is making an allusion. To mention, for example, "the fall of our first father" is a way of bringing to the reader's mind the story of Adam and his expulsion from the Garden of Eden without digressing into a complete retelling of Adam's story. The author expects the reader to catch the reference and to understand its relevance to the present text. Of course, allusion requires that both the writer and the reader are familiar with the same body of literature and information; otherwise the allusion does not work. The reference will not be recognized and the additional meaning will be lost. In a Christian culture, for example, allusions to the Bible will be frequent, but allusions to Islam's Koran will be almost nonexistent.

Topical allusions, those that refer to a recent and local event, cause a literary work to become dated and difficult to read by a new generation of readers. It thus becomes the work of scholars and editors to seek out the sources and meanings of the allusions and to add them, in the form of notes, to literature of a past era or different culture.

One of the most allusive poets in English was John Milton, whose wide reading and vast knowledge of the literatures of various cultures and religions made even the early readers of Paradise Lost feel the need of explanatory notes.


The literary term anatomy was borrowed from early medical science and indicates an investigation by dissection and/or complete and exhaustive analysis of a subject--its causes and effects and all the known opinions on and studies of it, all systematically arranged. The writer of an anatomy seeks to be, or at least claims to be, more comprehensive than an essayist; the anatomist surveys everything that was ever written, in ancient or modern literature, on the particular topic of his or her work. The best known anatomy in English literature is The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton. While it has some of the characteristics of an intellectual treatise, the anatomy also can be personal in tone or it can be slanted to support a particular attitude about the subject.


Anglo-Saxon is the name of the Germanic tribes who invaded Britain during the Middle Ages. It is also the name of their language, which was spoken throughout most of what is now called England until the Norman invasion and conquest of 1066. It is the language of Beowulf and of other early medieval poems and prose. Anglo-Saxon is also called Old English to distinguish it from Middle English (the language of Chaucer) and modern English (the language used since the Renaissance). Although Anglo-Saxon is the root of the modern English language, it is so totally different in vacabulary and grammar that most modern readers need translations of works written in it.

Anglo-Saxon is heavily inflected, which means that the forms of the words change in systematic ways to indicate their grammatical functions within the sentence. A noun's ending, for instance, will depend on whether it is used as a subject or an object in the sentence.


When characters in a play speak, the audience assumes that they are talking to one another and that each character hears what the others say. However, sometimes characters speak an "aside," which means that the remark is directed not to the other characters but to the audience. The playwright will usually indicate that the remark is an "aside" in the stage directions or by somehow separating it from the character's ordinary dialogue. In an aside, the character is understood to be expressing his or her real feelings or the actual truth as he or she sees it, while within the context of the play the character may be making false or misleading statements to other characters. The author uses the aside to reveal, for example, hidden motives or secret plans that help the audience understand characters' motives and enable it to anticipate the action of the play. Asides were extensively used by playwrights of the Elizabethan and Jacobean ages.


An autobiography is a personal narrative about the author's own life. The writer presents his or her own life story as he or she sees it and recollects it. An autobiography differs from a diary, which is written daily or almost daily over a long time, because in an autobiography, the writer has the benefit of hindsight and can show how certain early events or conditions led up to latter events. The autobiographer thus presents his or her life as a unified whole and traces one or more themes through its development.

The autobiographical form is sometimes borrowed for novels. In a fictional autobiography, the author pretends that the narrator is telling his or her own story. Early novels, such as Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders are fictional autobiographies.


A ballad is a song that tells a story. This poetic form is both narrative and lyric. The narrative ballad usually focuses on some single striking incident or event, often the violent crisis of a sequence of actions not fully explained. The characters of the narrative ballad are usually described sketchily in conventional formulaic phrases; their motivations are implied rather than stated. The story of the ballad may be developed through dialogue between the central characters. Love, treachery, betrayal, and death are common themes of ballads. In love ballads, rejection and infidelity are found more often than sincerity and truth.

Folk ballads were transmitted orally in the early stages of their development. As they were repeated, minor variations were introduced. The less dramatic stanzas often were forgotten, so that various versions of a ballad sometimes came into existence. Later, when the ballads were written down, it was not possible to retrieve the "original" version or even to say which version was the original one. When folk ballads were first being collected in print in the eighteenth century, the collectors and editors also introduced some changes. Nevertheless, these old story-songs retain their vitality. Many are still sung.

Beast Fable

A fable is a brief narrative that illustrates a legendary story or a moral. If the characters are animals with human characteristics, the story is called a beast fable. The animals allegorically represent various human traits or weaknesses. Thus, a fox is often used to illustrate slyness or trickery; a lamb often represents innocence or meekness, and a pig usually stands for greed or gluttony. Beast fables are found in many cultures. The famous beast fables of Aesop, an ancient Greek, have been popular since their creation. In the best beast fables, human qualities or motivations are blended with details of actual animal behavior so that the character is both beastlike and human at the same time. For example, the cock Chauntecleer form Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales is described as an actual fowl with gorgeous plumage, but his pride and vanity are recognizably human characteristics.


Biography is the narrative account of a person's life. The term implies that the writer has investigated the person's life and that the authenticity of the events recounted can be vouched for. The biographer may have consulted written records, letters, diaries, journals, and even account books and may also have gathered anecdotes or gossip. However, as a biographer, he or she is obliged to have weighed the relative accuracy of all such materials and exercised judgment about what to include. Thus a biography is more historical than literary. It can also be considered a literary work if it is well written, and if the biographer brings to the subject sufficient imagination, sympathy, and perception, and if the biographer has developed a theme or idea that the life illustrates.

Biography was a late development in the history of English literature. Dryden invented the term during the Restoration period. The most monumental and standard-setting biography in English is James Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson.

Blank Verse

A poem written in iambic pentameter (a line of five iambic feet) with no rhyme is said to be written in blank verse. This form, rarely found in lyric poetry, is used most commonly in narrative, dramatic or philosophical poetry because the relatively long and open line it provides gives the poet freedom and flexibility to imitate speech or to discuss ideas at length. Because blank verse does not rhyme, Renaissance dramatists were able to use it to create effective dialogue that could be either lofty or natural-sounding.

Blank verse was introduced in English by Henry Howard, the earl of Surrey, in the sixteenth century; he used it to translate epic poetry. Because Marlowe adapted blank verse to the drama, Ben Jonson referred to it as "Marlowe's mighty line." It was the dominant line used by Shakespeare in his plays. In the seventeenth century, Milton used blank verse in his great epic poem, Paradise Lost.

A wide variety of effects can be achieved in blank verse by making the lines either end-stopped or run on. Also, a pause within the line (a caesura) can be placed at the end of any one of the five poetic feet. The poem's pace and smoothness can thus be adjusted to suit the subject matter and mood. This flexibility accounts for the past and present popularity of blank verse.


When the subject of a literary or dramatic work is deliberately and grossly ridiculed, the resulting work is called a burlesque. In a burlesque, lofty matters may be presented in a low, vulgar or silly way, or trivial matters may be given a mock-serious treatment. The lack of harmony between the subject matter and the way it is presented becomes a source of comedy or satire. Burlesque can be the broad mockery of a literary form or style, such as grand opera or sentimental plays. If one particular work, such as a play or a poem, is being made fun of, the effort is called a parody. In The Beggar's Opera, for example, John Gay burlesques Italian opera in general by having the characters sing out their feelings to the tunes of common London street songs. Burlesque is often noisy and rowdy in order to lower the dignity of high art forms; thus the name has been loosely applied to some stage entertainments that are merely loud and vulgar but do not intend to make any satiric point.


A caesura is a stop or a pause within a line of poetry. The pause may be indicated by punctuation or simply by the natural grouping of words that would occur if the line were spoken. For example, the first line of a couplet in Alexander Pope's An Essay on Criticism has a caesura marked by a comma:

True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,

As those move easiest who have learned to dance.

Although it is not indicated by punctuation, the pause after the word easiest in the second line is also a caesura because the rhythm of the line seems to hesitate at that point.


A canto is a section of a long narrative poem. It is similar to a chapter in a prose narrative. Cantos are usually numbered, as in Spenser's epic poem The Faerie Queene.

Carpe Diem

The Latin phrase carpe diem translates as "seize the day." It is taken from the from the Roman poet Horace. In the lyric poetry of the English Renaissance and the poetry of the early seventeenth century, poets frequently express the idea that the pleasures of the present moment should be indulged in without restraint because the future is uncertain and similar pleasures may not come again. In love poetry, the carpe diem theme was standard part of the argument of seduction. The lover points out to his lady that youth and beauty do not last, and he urges her to enjoy the pleasures of love while she is still at the peak of her charm and while they both have the vigor and capacity to make love well. The most famous carpe diem statement in English poetry may be Robert Herrick's lyric To Virgins to Make Much of Time, which begins with the well-known line, "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may." The poet suggests that the beauty of virgins is like the beauty of the rose because it too is fragile and temporary. Thus, virgins should take advantage of their beauty to find and enjoy lovers before it is too late.


The term Cavalier applies to both a political position and a poetic style. The courtly poets who supported King Charles I against the rising tide of Puritanism during the 1620s and 1630s tended to write in a similar poetic style. They wrote mainly light and smooth lyric poems. They sought ease and melody, in contrast to their contemporaries the "metaphysical" poets, who were more intellectual and also more abrupt and difficult. The Cavalier poets were also called "Sons of Ben" to indicate that they followed the example and poetic standards set by Ben Jonson. Most of them were courtiers and aristocrats rather than professional men of letters. The best known Cavalier poets include Robert Herrick, Thomas Carew, John Suckling, and Richard Lovelace. Gallant and witty men, they did not produce a great volume of poetry.


During the Middle Ages, the aristocracy in England and other European countries was organized into a system of mutual protection, service, and obligation based on the honor of each individual knight. The knight vowed obedience to his king, loyalty to his fellow knights, and faithful love to a single maiden, whose protector and champion he became. The knight followed, or tried to follow, a lofty code of conduct.

As a literary character, the knight was the hero of the medieval romance. Although actual knights were often less than ideal, the chivalrous knight of romance sought glory in self-sacrifice and heroic risk-taking against any odds. He was a devout Christian, chaste and humble before God and a defender of Christianity against pagans. On the other hand, the knight would undertake seemingly impossible tasks in service to his chosen lady. He would go on long journeys and wait years for the fulfillment of his desires. The code of chivalry blended Christian morality with military honor to provide a comprehensive set of standards for actions. The knights of King Arthur's Round Table, as described in Malory's Morte Darthur, illustrate the life of chivalry.


In the most general sense, any literary work that ends happily for its major characters is a comedy. More specifically, the term comedy applies to a kind of play that makes fun of human weaknesses and follies. Comedy shows the less-than-ideal aspects of human nature and makes them the objects of laughter. Often the characters of a comedy are of low social rank, rustic fellows or simple folk. Aristocratic comedy riducules the middle class.

Comedy of Humors

This form of comedy bases its characterizations on the theory of humors, which states that every individual's personality has a single dominant trait or bias that inclines the character to behave always in the same way regardless of circumstances. Thus a character in this type of comedy often behaves inappropriately and even ridiculously. For example, the miser hides his gold even from himself; he continues to hoard treasure but fails to attend to any other needs or responsibilities, thus ruining his life. Humor characters were used in Renaissance comedies, but it was Ben Jonson who made them the center of his comedies, including the play Every Man in His Humour (1598). A humor character's name usually describes his or her humor or inclination. For example, Sir Politic Would-be in Jonson's Volpone likes to be well informed about political secrets and pretends to have inside knowledge of the actions of great men.

Comedy of Manners

Plays whose main object was to criticize manners dominated the stage during the Restoration period. In a comedy of manners, the courtship customs, social behavior, and superficial values of a fashionable and style-dominated set of characters are shown to be artificial and false. Hypocrisy and pretense are exposed to ridicule. Characters for whom the play ends happily have somehow risen above the general level of affectation and found a way to express their feelings sincerely or to maintain genuine honor rather than merely holding on to reputation or avoiding scandal. The appeal of a comedy of manners lies often in the quick wit of the dialogue, or repartee. Despite the artificiality of the characters' charm or glamor, they are nevertheless appealing. Like the romantic comedy, a comedy of manners usually ends in the marriage of those characters who represent the right way.

During the Restoration period (1660-1700), the English stage produced a number of excellent comedies of manners. They were written to appeal to an elite, sophisticated audience of courtly and upper-class spectators who came to see their own attitudes and manners, slightly exaggerated, displayed on the stage. Although the playwrights who produced these comedies might have intended to correct the faults of the audience, they also tended to glamorize their behavior by presenting it in heightened and refined form. The epitome of the Restoration comedy of manners is perhaps William Congreve's best play, The Way of the World (1700). The comedy of manners was briefly revived in the mid-eighteenth century by Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan and again in the late nineteenth century by Oscar Wilde.


Found mainly in Renaissance and seventeenth-century poetry, a conceit is a figure of speech that draws a rather far-fetched and strained comparison between two things. A conceit is enjoyed not because it is obvious or natural but because it is ingenious and shows how cleverly the poet is able to sustain various details of the comparison. In a short lyric poem such as sonnet, the working out of a single extended conceit may comprise the whole structure of the poem. There are two special kinds of conceits in English poetry. One, the Petrarchan conceit, which was used by sonneteers of the Renaissance, compares the lover to some object such as a storm-tossed ship or a baffled warrior. The other, the metaphysical conceit used by John Donne and his followers, compares some unlikely object such as drawing compass or a biting flea with the situation of the lovers in the poems. When applied to modern poetry the term conceit usually refers to an especially important and witty extended analogy.


A writer who uses the forms, devices, and techniques that were used by earlier writers within a certain genre is following the conventions of the genre. The advantage of a writer's adhering to literary conventions is that his or her readers or audience will be familiar with the conventions and will therefore understand the new work more readily and react to it in somewhat predictable ways. The audience of the Elizabethan theater, for example, were familiar with the convention of the aside, in which a character sharing his or her private thoughts with the audience is understood to be unheard by other characters. When Milton uses the conventional invocation of the Muses at the beginning of his epic poem Paradise Lost, he is following a classic precedent. However, he does not call on the same Muses that the ancients did because he is writing a Christian poem. Conventions provide familiar signposts to experienced readers, helping them recognize the structure and strategies of the literary work and enabling them to put it into a context of other works of the same kind.


Copia is a characteristic of some prose styles, especially in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The term comes from the Latin phrase copia verborum, which literally means "plenty of words." The writer with a copious style does not try to be simple or economical; he or she piles up words, including many synonyms and variations. Preachers also used copia in pulpit oratory to overwhelm the listeners with multiple allusions and example that advanced a point. Unlike mere wordiness, copia is a planned effect, aimed at convincing the reader of a truth through the sheer abundance of evidence and illustration. Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy employs copia in its mass of materials of all kinds.


A female stock character, the coquette avoids falling in love herself but flirts and teases so as to make men fall in love with her. She typically keeps several young men dangling, encouraging each suitor enough so that he does not give up hope of winning her favor, but never actually yielding to any lover's pleas or committing herself to any frank declaration of her own feelings. The coquette must necessarily be very pretty to attract a variety of suitors and at least somewhat clever to keep them under control. In comedies of manners, the coquette may find herself finally abandoned by all her lovers, who give up in disgust. Or, the heroine may behave like a coquette to some foolish suitors but reveal sincere affection for one suitor, whom she wins at the end of the play. The most famous coquette in English poetry is Belinda in Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock. The false and unkind behavior of the coquette makes her a standard object of attack in satires of various genres.


Two lines of poetry that end with the same rhyme sound comprise a couplet. Ordinarily, both lines of a couplet are the same length. That is, they have the same numbers of metrical feet and the same meter. The most common couplet in English is made up of two rhyming lines of iambic pentameter with the sentence or sentence within the couplet having a complete grammatical structure--that is, not running forward into the first line of the next couplet. Such couplets are called heroic couplets because they were used in the heroic literature of the seventeenth century, particularly in the heroic drama. This form of couplet was also widely used in satiric literature of the eighteenth century. Here is an example from Alexander Pope:

True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,

As those move easiest who have learned to dance. (11.363-364)

These lines from An Essay on Criticism contain one complete thought, stated as a general truth in the first line and repeated as a simile in the second. Couplets are also found as concluding lines in other forms, such as the last two lines of an English sonnet or the last two lines of scene of play written in blank verse.

Courtesy Book

A type of treatise, often in the form of a dialogue, was written in the Renaissance to explore the necessary qualities and appropriate behavior of an ideal courtier. The role of the courtier was not only to defend but also to advise the king. Therefore, he should seek to perfect himself in political wisdom and especially in moral virtue. This virtue would be reflected in all his actions and give his manners a polish and refinement, making him both gentle and honorable. The most famous courtesy book, which influenced the composition of all later ones, was Il Cortegiano (The Courtier) by the Italian Baldassare Castiglione. It was translated into English by Sir Thomas Hoby in 1561, and several imitations were published during the following decades. The general idea of the courtesy book--the education of the courtly young man--is also associated with Edmund Spenser's epic, The Faerie Queene, which is not a courtesy book in form. The form has also been applied loosely to eighteenth-century novels that teach refined manners, such as Fanny Burney's Evelina.

Courtly Love

In the Middle Ages, the relationships of men and women were governed, in literature at least, by a code of conduct and set of ideals called courtly love. Based on ideas found in writings of the Latin poet Ovid, the courtly love ideal was a part of the knight's life of chivalry. Courtly romances followed a conventional pattern: lovers fell in love completely, at first sight; they felt absolutely overwhelmed by emotion so that they became restless, sick, pale, and distracted; they sigh, weep or complain about their state, feeling weak and helpless from the effects of love and from despairing of ever being worthy to be loved in return. If the lady recognizes the courtly lover, he is joyous and inspired with hope; he undertakes to perform some difficult or dangerous task to prove his worthiness. Meanwhile, he keeps his love a secret and protects the lady's name and reputation, defending it with his life, if necessary. Thus, courtly love combines an idealization of the lady with sensuous, even illicit, pleasure. The courtly lover is, above all, absolutely faithful despite all obstacles and delays. The origin of many ideas about courtly love in England was the twelfth-century treatise The Art of Love by the Italian Andreas Capellanus.


This adjective can be applied to any literary work whose purpose is to teach a lesson or illustrate a moral. The message of a didactic work is usually unambiguous. Unlike fables, which may be ironic, didactic stories provide clear examples of the wrong way and/or the right way to act or think. Didactic works tend to rank rather low artistically because they do not deal imaginatively with the complexities of human behavior. However, since every effective piece of literature expresses some values, it is not possible to say what is or is not didactic in any absolute sense. Rather, the term didactic is applied to those poems, stories, and plays that teach a lesson in an obvious or heavy-handed way. The term has negative connotations of narrowness of view or dullness of presentation.


A form of verse that is below the level of poetry, doggerel is crude, jogging, and trite. It is full of cliches and tired phrases. Doggerel is sometimes used for satiric purposes, to make fun of ideas or to mock sentiments by putting them into low, undignified form. Written for comic effect, doggerel uses obvious rhymes, but sometimes the rhythm or meter is grossly out of order, creating false emphasis and awkward phrasing. One fixed form of doggerel is the limerick, but almost any verse form, if exaggerated and poorly executed, can become doggerel. Samuel Butler's Hudibras uses doggerel to mock the political opponents of the royalist cause during the English Civil War.


This is a kind of satire that describes a bad society. It is the opposite of a utopia, which describes a good or ideal society. In a dystopia, faulty doctrines or flawed concepts of human nature determine the power structure and distort the relationships among people. Characters may mistakenly admire the orderly dystopia at first, but more experience reveals that it somehow violates basic concepts of fairness or individual integrity. One of the most famous dystopias of English literature is found in Book IV of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, in which Gulliver admires the society of horses, only to be rejected by it as an intolerable deviant.


This form of lyric poem is a type of pastoral poetry in which idealized shepherds are the speakers. The shepherds may converse in alternating stanzas, or one shepherd may sing a song to the other. The stanza forms are varied. The purpose of such poetry is to create a smooth and beautiful effect. The English eclogue is mainly exemplified by Edmund Spenser's Shepheardes Calender.


A type of lyric poem, the elegy expresses serious or mournful feelings. It is usually a meditation on death. Many elegies are written to mourn the death of a particular person. For example, John Milton's poem Lycidas is an elegy on the death of his school friend Edward King. This poem contains some conventional elements of a pastoral elegy: the questioning of fate, the procession of mourners, the strewing of flowers, and the final consolation. Other elegies are more general meditations on the meaning of death, its inevitability, and the sense of loss associated with it. One of the most famous of such elegies is Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, in which the poet contemplates the graves of the common folk and honors the dignity of their simple lives and obscure deaths. The elegiac poem sustains a mournful mood.


This adjective is applied to the literature produced in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I from 1558 to 1602. This period may be considered the height of the Renaissance in England. A period of great national growth and prosperity, the Elizabethan age saw the flowering of both lyric poetry (the sonnets) and dramatic poetry (that of Shakespeare and his contemporaries). Allusions to the queen herself were abundant, as in Spenser's The Faerie Queene.


An emblem is a simple, symbolic picture printed above a poem and corresponding to some idea or image in the poem. A heart, a rose, a ship or a tree might be used to focus the reader's attention on some concept developed in the poem. An emblem might also be accompanied by a brief motto, the meaning of which is explored in the poem. Collections of poems with printed emblems and mottoes were created during the seventeenth century; they were called emblem books. The best-known of these was compiled by Frances Quarles. Simply called Emblems, it was published in 1635.


In the early development of scientific thought, the English philosophers Francis Bacon and John Locke both advocated an examination of actual objects and events. This approach contrasted with that of the rationalist philosopher Descartes, who started with abstractions and made deductions from them. The empiricists believed that a broad and systematic examination of nature would reveal natural laws, the principles by which the universe operates. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), Locke examines and explains his own mental processes and asks the reader to verify his conclusions by looking into his or her own mind.

End-stopped Line

When the end of a grammatical unit of expression--a clause, a phrase or a sentence--coincides with the end of a line of poetry, that line is said to be end-stopped. Reading aloud, one would pause slightly at the end of such a line, even if no punctuation is given. This line from Milton is end-stopped:

Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.

For lines that are not end-stopped, the term is "enjambement."


Enjambement results when a line of poetry does not contain a complete meaning, and the reader must proceed to the next line to grasp the sense. Here is an example from Milton:

Here at least

We shall be free: th' Almighty hath not built

Here for his envy....


A philosophical movement commonly called the Enlightenment developed during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in England and western Europe. This name refers to its basic premise that many beliefs of the past had been dark, that is, mere superstitions or false systems of thought based on faulty authority. The new philosophers tried to free their minds of all established and traditional explanations of humanity and nature, getting down to essential, directly observable or self-evident propositions. They laid the foundations for the modern scientific method and at the same time tended to undermine religious faith by seeking rational explanations for all phenomena. However, many individual Enlightenment thinkers retained faith in God even as they came into conflict with church authorities who feared the effects of their new ideas. France was the center of Enlightenment thinking, but its influence was felt in all the major European cities. The father of French rationalist thinking was Rene Descartes, whose Discourse on Method (1637) shows the necessity for radical doubt of all received opinions. In his treatise Novum Organum (1620) the English essayist Francis Bacon analyzed the various "idols" or false ideas that distort thinking. He advocated direct observation of nature as the source of truth. Building on these foundations, Enlightenment philosophers undertook to reexamine the laws of nature and the foundations of human nature. Their studies led them to political theory, mathematics, physics, psychology, astronomy, and new theories of education, as well as many other fields. The new ideas generated in the Enlightenment are often cited as one cause of the social unrest that culminated the end of the eighteenth century in the French Revolution. While Enlightenment thinkers were not revolutionaries, their writings tended to undermine traditional sources of authority and to stress the essential equality of human beings.


Sometimes spelled envoi, this term has the root meaning of "to send." It refers to a final stanza that "sends" or directs a poem to specific person. However, sometimes the term merely indicates a conclusion or a repetition of a refrain found earlier in the poem.


A long, narrative poem, the epic was considered the highest form of literature in classical and Renaissance critical theory. Expressing the values and the legendary history of a culture or national group, the epic focuses on the deeds of a central hero who embodies those qualities most admired and worthy of imitation. The narrator of the epic poem comments on the hero's actions, maintaining a tone of objectivity but also pointing out certain truths about human experience illustrated by the hero's fate. The style of an epic poem is serious, lofty, and dignified. Characters make lengthy speeches, often including long lists, called catalogs, of the names of warriors, ships or armor. Some other conventions of the epic poem are: the poet calls upon a Muse or deity for help or inspiration in telling the epic story; the action begins in the middle of things (in medias res) and the earlier episodes are added later; supernatural beings oversee and sometimes direct events that either help or hinder the hero's progress; extended metaphors (epic similes) and allusions extend the range of reference of the epic to include other actions or situations from other literary sources. The epic hero is usually both physically strong and courageous; he is also clever and wise and a good speaker and skillful leader of other men. He represents an ideal version of manhood, which frequently has begun to decline by the time the epic poet speaks.

Epics are classified folk or literary. Folk epics are derived from the compilation and organization by one poet of a wide range of legendary tales of heroic or fantastic deeds. The major English folk epic is Beowulf. In a literary epic, the poet may deal with traditional materials, but he creates a more original and individual composition based on his own unified poetic idea. Two of the finest English literary epics are Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene and John Milton's Paradise Lost. Other works that use some of the conventions of epics are also referred to as "epic." For example, Henry Fielding calls his novel Joseph Andrews a "comic epic in prose."

Epic Simile

The kind of simile or figurative comparison found in most epic poems is more extended and more fully developed than other similes. In making such a simile, the epic poet seems to interrupt the flow of the action in order not only to describe, by comparison, the present setting, character or incident but also to present the content of the simile, the thing compared, for its own sake. That is, the epic simile may temporarily take the reader into a realm that is only loosely parallel to that of the poem. In imitation of the style of Homer, John Milton uses the epic simile to create complex effects. For example, at the end of Book I of Paradise Lost, he compares the swarm of demons approaching Pandemonium with a swarm of bees pouring out of a hive, buzzing around spring flowers and conferring about "state affairs." This simile both gives a visual impression of the bees' swarming and suggests that the nature of Satan's followers is insect-like in that it is busy but trivial.


Most simply, an epistle is a letter. A literary epistle is a dignified and serious letter in poetic form. Frequently it is written on some issue of state or to convey advice to a group or person. Alexander Pope, in imitation of the Latin poet Horace, called many of his verse compositions epistles. He addressed each one to some important person who represented the values or the moral position he advocated in the poetic epistle. However, Pope also used the term epistle loosely; his Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot is a satiric dialogue that honors Pope's friend Dr. Arbuthnot as an ideal friend.


In the later seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries, many novels were presented in the form of collections of letters supposedly written by the characters of the novel. In these letters the characters described to each other the events of their lives and explained their feelings about these events. Thus the novel had no objective narrator; the reader had only the characters' own versions of events. The letters gave an air of authenticity to the fiction; frequently an "editor" claimed in a preface that these letters were the records of actual people that had been found or mysteriously left to be discovered and printed. Such a preface was, of course, part of the total fiction. The advantage of an epistolary novel is that it allows the characters to present spontaneous and private thoughts about events soon after they happen or even while they are going on. The character can be presented as being interrupted in the midst of writing a letter by the events of the story and can be supposed to return to the letter immediately afterward to report what has occurred. Also, the same event can be described from the points of view of several characters. Characters can comment about other characters and can anticipate what might happen next. In the absence of a reliable narrator, however, the reader is left to sort out the "truth" of the story from among competing accounts.

The most famous and influential epistolary novel in English is Samuel Richardson's Clarissa Harlowe (1748), a novel of abduction and rape in which the heroine confides her fears and distress to her friend and correspondent while the abductor details his schemes in letters to his fellow rake. The use of the epistolary form of novel declined in the nineteenth century; some of its qualities of intimacy and psychological subtlety are found in the modern stream-of-consciousness technique.


An essay is a short prose work loosely organized around a unifying topic but admitting many variations in form and digressions in content. The essay gives the personal thoughts, notions, recollections, and anecdotes of the essayist in an informal or conversational style. The father of the essay is the French writer Montaigne, whose Essais were published between 1580 and 1595. The word essay means to try or to attempt, indicating that the essay was not a finished treatise but was more tentative, a sketch or preliminary thought. In England in the eighteenth century, series of essays were published in daily, weekly or thrice-weekly periodicals. The best known of these periodical essays were Addison and Steele's The Tatler and The Spectator.


An exemplum is a story or tale that is used to illustrate a moral point. It gives an example of the right or the wrong way. Exempla (the plural form) were a popular form in the medieval period, often being used in sermons and gathered into anthologies. Although intended to give moral guidance, good exempla are also marked by the human interest and amusing detail of an anecdote told for its own sake. Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale is an exemplum exposing the destructive power of greed.


A French medieval form, the fabliau is a story tale in verse, usually concerning the ordinary activities of middle or lower-class characters. Its tone is the opposite of courtly; it is frequently vulgar or obscene and almost always humorous. Chaucer wrote fabliaux (the plural form). The Miller's Tale in The Canterbury Tales is an ingenious and complexly plotted fabliau.


A farce is a short play that provokes laughter by means of physical humor such as slaps and falls or low-level verbal games that are sometimes merely pointless repetitions. Plot is minimal, situations are absurd, and characters are stock types. Elements of farce are sometimes included in comedy; the low characters of a subplot may engage in farcical actions, as the drunkards in Shakespeare's The Tempest, who beat the subhuman character Caliban.


The Anglo-Saxon word for a part or division of a poem is fit. The term corresponds to Canto or chapter, in Italian. In Beowulf, each major division of the epic is numbered as a separate fit.


In drama, a foil is a character who contrasts with the central character. The foil character highlights the hero's traits by being different or opposite. Thus in Hamlet the character Fortinbras is an aggressive young prince who will fight at the slightest excuse, unlike Prince Hamlet himself, who is hesitant and intellectual.


In early book printing, the size of the book page was determined by the number of times the standard printed sheet from the press was folded. For a large book, the paper sheet was printed so as to be folded in half only once, creating two leaves or four pages. The first standard editions of Shakespeare's plays were printed in such large books so that the term is associated with these early, authoritative editions.


A foot is a standard unit of meter or rhythm in a poetic line. In the line, a pattern of accented and unaccented syllables (or stressed and unstressed syllables) is divided into a number of similar units, each called a foot. In English, the most commonly used foot is the iamb, which consists of two syllables, the first unaccented and the second accented. The words forget and begin make iambic feet, as does the phrase "to grieve." Five such feet in one line makes iambic pentameter, the most frequently used line in narrative and dramatic poetry. Here is a line of five iambic feet:

Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?

Other types of feet commonly found in English poetry are these:

Trochee: two syllables, accent on the first--reason

Spondee: two syllables, both accented--May day

Anapest: three syllables, accent on the last--for a while

Dactyl: three syllables, accent on the first--heavenly

It is usual for a poet to vary meter by substituting an occasional foot of a different kind into lines written primarily in one foot. Another common variation is to omit the unaccented syllable at the beginning or ending of a line of poetry, leaving a foot of just one syllable.

Formal Verse Satire

This is a form of satiric poem, developed in Latin by the satirists Horace and Juvenal, in which the satirist speaks directly of the follies and evil conduct of the people in his city, describing their bad actions in strong terms, and in a sarcastic tone. This satirist usually locates himself in some open, public place, such as the street or the marketplace, where he can make observations on the passing fools and knaves. The satirist may seem to be addressing another person, called the adversarius, who may provoke even more intense disgust and condemnation in the satirist by taking a more moderate position. Formal verse satire is not highly structured; it does not develop a plot or follow a logical pattern. Rather, it is loosely unified by a central theme and contains multiple examples of one kind of corruption or human weakness. Formal verse satire may be witty, but its predominant mood is not comical. Its apparent intention is to make the reader scornful of the kinds of actions satirized. Formal verse satires were written by John Donne; John Wilmot, the earl of Rochester; and Samuel Johnson, whose poem The Vanity of Human Wishes is an imitation of a formal verse satire of Juvenal.


In late medieval literature, an ideal of manners and good conduct became known as gentilesse. It did not depend on the high social rank of the individual; it consisted of courteous speech and gentle and kind behavior to all persons, no matter what their rank. Gentilesse is closely allied to the broad concept of charity in medieval Christianity. It emphasizes not elegance, but generosity of spirit. In Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, the ugly wife in The Wife of Bath's Tale gives a lecture to her unkind husband on the virtue of gentilesse.


Geo means the earth. A georgic poem is one that deals with the cultivation of the earth, that is, with farming and the life of the farm. The Latin poet Virgil first used the term to describe his writing on such topics. While describing some technical aspect of farm work, the georgic poem also celebrates the seasons and the style of life that farming creates.


Gothic style is a medieval style named after the Goths, a Germanic tribe that prevailed in Europe between the ancient classical era and the Renaissance. The word describes the architectural style of the medieval cathedral, with its tall and narrow spaces, pointed arches, and elaborate stained glass windows. In a literary context, Gothic may have negative connotations, implying a crude and old-fashioned style, as seen by later, neoclassical critics. In the era of Alexander Pope and Joseph Addison, Gothic style was considered irregular and barbaric, without essential discipline, unity or restraint. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, the Gothic novel was one that neglected realism is favor of suspense, horror, and mysterious incidents. Anne Radcliffe's novel The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) is a prominent example of this type of fiction. In the romantic era that followed, Gothic became a term of praise, suggesting what was free, wild, primitive, and unspoiled by too much civilization.

Gothic Novel

A form developed and made popular in the late eighteenth century, the Gothic novel does not observe the conventional realism of the mainstream English novel but borrows some of the techniques and devices of the medieval romance. It exploits the supernatural and the grotesque. It contains highly improbable incidents set in remote and threatening locales such as ancient, isolated castles. The characters of a Gothic novel tend to be stock figures; the emphasis is on mysterious situations and shocking events rather than on subtlety of characterization. The famous Gothic novel by Anne Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho, was satirized by Jane Austin in Northanger Abby, a mock-Gothic novel.

Hack Writer

A hack writer is one who writes to order, producing pages of fiction, poetry or essays on demand at a fixed rate of pay per page or, if poetry, per line. The term arose in the early eighteenth century when publishing became an industry and books became a commodity sold to a mass market. Many hack writers survived by doing translations, abridgements or reviews of more complex original works by others. Most hack writers remained poor and obscure; they were standard objects of satiric scorn. Samuel Johnson emerged from the hack-writing trade to become a recognized literary talent and authority. Nevertheless, he made it clear that he wrote mainly because he was being paid to do so.


A hagiography is an account of the life of a saint, detailing the saint's good deeds, sufferings, and miracles. By extension, any biography of an individual that presents him or her as much better than ordinary or as unbelievably good can be called a hagiography. This broader use of the term implies some skepticism.


A hero is the central character of a literary work, whose choices or actions determine the outcome of events. (If such a character is female, she may be called a heroine.) In classical dramatic theory, the tragic hero must be a person of high rank, and he must suffer from a flaw or weakness that causes his downfall. However, the term is also used more broadly to apply to any main character whose fortunes and struggles are central to the plot of a fiction or drama. In heroic literature, such as the epic, romance or heroic play, the hero exemplifies admirable conduct; courage and self-sacrifice are among his prominent traits. He represents an ideal, the best that human capacities can accomplish. But in more realistic genre, the novel, for instance, the hero is shown as developing from a state of immature and mistaken behavior to a better, wiser, and more capable condition. His heroism consists partly in discarding childish or inadequate ways; he is rewarded by being received as a full member of established society. In romantic literature of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the hero is a sensitive person, a man of feeling, perhaps a poet. The idea of a hero thus changes according to the dominating values of the society in which he is created and for which he stands as an example of the right way.

Heroic Couplet

A heroic couplet is composed of two lines of iambic pentameter, both lines being end-stopped. It is called thus because the form was first extensively used in the Restoration period for the composition of heroic plays. However, the most famous English poems written in heroic couplets are satires, especially the mock-heroic poems by Alexander Pope. Here is an example from The Rape of the Lock describing the heroine Belinda:

Favors to none, to all she smiles extends;

Oft she rejects, but never once offends. 11. 12. 13

This couplet shows the balance and antithesis that are characteristic of many heroic couplets. The first line balances the two opposite objects of Belinda's attention: "all" get smiles, but "none" get favors. The same subject and verb--"she extends"--govern both objects. Similarly, in the second line of the couplet, the ideas of rejecting and offending are balanced against each other by the words oft (often) and never. Notice also that the second line tends to restate in different words the idea of the first line so that the whole couplet becomes a separate and closed unit of thought, compressed and complete, even though it exists in the general flow of the narration. While not all heroic couplets are so intricately structured, the most memorable and pointed statements of the work will tend to have this epigrammatical style.


See Hero.


History is the narrative account of events of the past arranged in roughly chronological order and purporting to be true rather than fictional. But this term in a literary context has other implications. In the Renaissance, the history play was based on English national chronicles and tended to glorify England by representing worthy deeds. Such plays included the outstanding events of the reign of the king for whom the play was named; for example, Shakespeare's Henry IV. In the eighteenth century the term history was sometimes made part of the title of a novel, indicating the realism and authenticity of the narrative. Henry Fielding's History of Tom Jones is an example.


Humanism was a broad artistic and philosophical movement that was a major aspect of the Renaissance. Starting in Italy in the fourteenth century and developing in England in the late fifteenth century, humanism was a reaction against the spiritual, ascetic, and other-worldly emphasis of medieval thought. European humanists studied the languages and the literatures of ancient Greece and Rome, wherein they found an emphasis on the earthly life of human beings rather than the medieval assumption that life on earth is merely a trial and preparation for life after death. Humanists celebrated the dignity of the individual and a person's capacity to learn and to enjoy a full moral life governed by reason. They sought to combine the dignity and restraint of classical culture with Christian idealism. In Europe humanism was epitomized by Desiderius Erasmus, a Dutch philosopher who became the friend of the English humanist Sir Thomas More, whose Utopia is humanist vision of an ideal society. The humanists were educators and concerned themselves with developing a new system of study, including the classics, to teach the sons of noble families those values and attitudes necessary to make them wise counselors to the king. Since humanism was an international movement, humanists used the Latin language as a medium of communication, but they also advocated the development of literature in the vernacular languages of each country. Many humanist scholars translated classical and humanist texts to spread the influence of the ideas found therein.


The theory of humors (or humours) was a widely held theory of human personality or temperament based on ancient medical ideas. From the time of Greek physician Galen, human beings were thought to have within their bodies four basic fluids corresponding to the four elements of the universe: air, water, earth, and fire. These fluids were mixed in various proportions in each individual, and the dominant fluid, or humor, in one's body determined the inclination or bias of one's temperament, according to the following scheme:

Dominant Humor


yellow bile


black bile


air--hot and moist

fire--hot and dry

water--cold and moist

earth--cold and dry


sanguine (hopeful)

choleric (angry)

phlegmatic (dull)


This was a medical theory as well as a system to explain differences in personality. A good balance among the humors resulted in good health and an even temperament. Extreme imbalances could cause disease and mental peculiarity, even madness.

References to this theory of humors are common in medieval and Renaissance literature. Hamlet is an obvious sufferer of melancholy, for example. The idea that a character should show one consistent inclination of personality was used by Ben Jonson as the basis for creating a type of character. In his comedies, Jonson created rigid and predictable characters, each of whom is always focused on a single idea or desire. These humor characters appear in Every Man in His Humour and Volpone.

Iambic Pentameter

A poetic line of five iambic feet, this is the most common verse line of English narrative and dramatic poetry. It is used in some lyric poetry as well, such as the Renaissance sonnet. The reason for the popularity of this line is said to be that it most nearly approximates the rhythm of prose speech. See examples under Foot. See also Meter.


Used in Anglo-Saxon poetry, the kenning is a formulaic figure of speech in which a descriptive compound term is substituted for a noun. In Beowulf, for example, the ocean is called the "whale-road," and a battle is called a "sword storm." Each kenning comprises a half-line of verse.


This term, also spelled lai, was applied to certain short narrative poems originating in France in the twelfth century. If they were based on the Celtic lore of France, they were called Breton lais. Poems rewritten in this form appeared in England in the fourteenth century. Chaucer's The Franklin's Tale is a lay, as is the anonymous Sir Orfeo. Later poets use the term to refer to short historical or legendary poems related to the ballad.


A stock character of the comedy of manners, the libertine is a young man who lives for pleasure, who is guided not by a moral code but by his appetites or desires. The libertine tends to have a cynical attitude toward human nature; he sees conventional moral restraints as hypocritical, as disguises that others adopt to conceal their natures. A manipulator of others, he will sometimes temporarily adopt a moralistic disguise in order to accomplish some deception, especially to promote his own interests. In Restoration comedies of manners, the libertine is frequently presented as an attractive and witty young man who has a series of affairs with aristocratic ladies but who is now attempting to negotiate the seduction of one particular lady who has a more demanding sense of her own honor. If the libertine is the hero of the comedy, he will eventually abandon his loose ways to win the love of this lady. But not all libertine characters are reformed. In William Wycherley's play The Country Wife, for example, the libertine Horner sacrifices his own honor so that he can seduce the wives of his friends. At the end of the play, his friend Harcourt marries the heroine, but Horner is left single and condemned to an empty life of mere fornication without love. His libertine philosophy isolates him from all normal ties of affection and loyalty.

There are a few female libertine characters in Restoration comedy. These women tend to be punished for their loose behavior by loss of reputation. Sometimes they are married off to some foolish or cowardly suitor who is obviously not a reward.


A characteristic of Anglo-Saxon poetry, litotes is a form of understatement cast in negative terms for an ironic effect. In Beowulf, instead of saying that the men were afraid to sleep in the mead hall, the poet says that it was "not hard to find one who slept elsewhere." The listener is assumed to pick up the implication of fear. More simply, if a speaker were to say of an overweight person that he had "not missed many meals lately," he would be using litotes implying gluttony.


One of the major forms of poetry, the lyric is a poem of emotion, expressing directly the feelings of the speaker. The term lyric comes from the ancient custom of accompanying a song with the music of a lyre. A lyric poem may contain some narrative elements, some brief story or incident related to the feeling, but the primary emphasis is on conveying that feeling by image, metaphors, and modulations of tone. Lyric poems are written in a wide variety of verse forms. Some of the major kinds of lyrics are sonnets, songs, odes, and elegies.


This term is used to refer loosely to supernatural beings, such as fairies and angels, gods and goddesses, who are added to a drama or a poem for ornament and to add spectacle or elaborate effects. The term derives from the fact that supernatural beings were introduced onto the stage seated on thrones or artificial clouds that were lowered onto the stage by means of ropes and pulleys. That is, they entered by machine. The term for the means of entry was transferred to the beings who entered. In his Rape of the Lock, Pope refers to the airy spirits as machinery even though this is not a play and no stage is in stage is in question. The term machinery also implies that these creatures are added to, not essential to, the main action of the poem.


One character in The Rivals, a play by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, is Mrs. Malaprop, a woman who consistently misuses vocabulary. She mixes up words to humorous and surprising effect. For example, she says of a courteous young man, "He is the very pine-apple of politeness." She means the pinnacle, of course, but the image of a pineapple makes a surprisingly fitting comment on the appearance of the young fellow. Malaprop comes from the French expression mal a-propos, which means "inappropriate."


A courtly form of drama, the masque developed during the late medieval period out of dances, processions, and games in which the participants disguised themselves. English masques flourished in the Elizabethan era and later at the courts of King James I and King Charles I. A fully developed masque used music, song, and dance to present an allegory. The characters represented pagan gods and goddesses, stock figures such as shepherds or fairies or abstractions such as time or fortune. Elaborate costumes and scenery were part of the masque, making it more a visual than a literary presentation. In court masques, members of the aristocracy might play some of the roles, and at the climax the gentlemen and ladies of the audience were invited to join in the dance. Some masques also included an anti-masque, a song and dance by ugly or grotesque figures expressing ludicrous or vulgar ideas in contrast to the masque itself. Masques were often written and performed for special occasions such as a coronation, a wedding or the anniversary of some great event.


This is a general term for figures of speech that compare two essentially unlike things. One or more qualities of the thing described (called the tenor) are said to be like qualities of the thing that makes the metaphor (the vehicle). For example, when Shakespeare in Sonnet 73 compares his age to the season when few leaves are left on the trees, he says that old age, like autumn, is cold and spare, close to the end of life. The qualities of autumn are transferred metaphorically to the last stage of human life. If the comparison is made explicit by the use of a term such as like or as, the metaphor is called a simile. When a lover says that his mistress is like a flower (a common simile), he suggests that the qualities of beauty, freshness, and fragility that are found in a flower are also traits of the lady he loves. Metaphors are used intensively in poetry because of their emotional suggestiveness.

For special kinds of extended metaphor, see Allegory, Conceit, and Epic Simile.


This term names a group of poets of the early seventeenth century, but these poets did not use the term to describe themselves. It was applied to them in the next century by the poet and critic Samuel Johnson. In philosophy, metaphysics deals with what is beyond (meta) the physical, that is, with the incorporeal, supernatural or transcendental. In a general sense, many philosophical poems can be called metaphysical, but in literary discussions, the term usually indicates those poets of the seventeenth century, John Donne and his followers, who challenged the conventions of the Renaissance lyric and wrote poems that questioned and probed the meaning of human existence and the individual's place in the universe and his or her relationship to God. Metaphysical poetry is intellectually challenging and often difficult and starling in its ideas. The metaphysical conceit, an extended metaphor, uses unconventional comparisons to provoke thought. The metaphysical poets were not much read in the two centuries following their flourishing, but they were rediscovered in the early twentieth century.


The basic sound pattern in English poetry is created by repetition and alternation of stress and unstressed syllables (or accented and unaccented syllables). The overall pattern of a poem is called its meter (measure). In a poetic line, the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables is divided into units of nearly the same length and arrangement of stresses; each such unit is called a foot or, in Anglo-Saxon poetry, a half-line. For example, in the line from Spenser's The Fairie Queene,

A gentle Knight was pricking on the plaine,

stresses fall on the second, fourth, sixth, eighth, and tenth syllables, so the meter is very regular and the line has five feet, each foot containing one unstressed followed by one stressed syllable. (The eighth syllable, "on," is perhaps not much stressed, but it is more so than the syllables just before and just after.) The meter of a line is named according to the number of feet. These are the usual names:



(seldom used)







Number of Feet

one foot

two feet

three feet

four feet

five feet

six feet

seven feet

Various kinds of feet can be used to make up the poetic line, but one kind tends to predominate. (See Foot. for a list of the different kinds of poetic feet.)

In English poetry, the shorter lines, trimeter and tetrameter, are found mostly in lyrics, while the longer lines, pentameter and hexameter, are used in dramatic, narrative and philosophical poetry. (See Blank Verse.) Anglo-Saxon poetry did not have such regular meter. Each half-line of the poem contained two stressed syllables and a variable number and arrangement of unstressed syllables.


A microcosm is literally a little world. In Renaissance thought, individuals were sometimes referred to as microcosms because they were believed to contain within themselves the four elements of nature--air, earth, fire, and water--as well as a spirit. Thus the human being epitomized the created world. In this respect, the individual was contrasted to the macrocosm, or great world, which consists of all of nature, including the heavenly bodies. This concept of the human being stresses that he or she is the ultimate creation, the best and most complex work of God. John Donne aludes to the microcosm in his Holy Sonnet, which begins

I am a little world made cunningly

Of elements, and an angelic sprite.

Here, sprite means spirit, or soul.

Middle English

Middle English was the language spoken in England from the early twelfth through the late fifteenth century. The language replaced Anglo-Saxon by the development of a combined Germanic and French Vocabulary and the simplification of the Anglo-Saxon system of inflections. Middle English was the language of Chaucer, but it existed in several different regional dialects, most of which are more difficult for the modern reader than Chaucer's London dialect. After Caxton introduced printing in England in 1485, the London dialect began to dominate throughout England, and Modern English, the language of Shakespeare, began to take root.

Miracle Play

See Mystery Play.


A mock-epic is a satirical poem that uses the structure and style of an epic poem but deals with nonheroic or antiheroic materials. The term mock-heroic refers to the style or to the whole poem. In a mock-epic, the hero may be a low character, representing what is base, foolish or trivial, perhaps to show how far from ideal the culture has become. The conventions of the epic are parodied so that, for example, one reads a catalog of knaves instead of a catalog of heroes, as in The Dunciad of Alexander Pope. The epic similes make comparisons with things that are silly or vulgar rather than lofty. The purpose of a mock-epic is usually to make fun of the nonheroic subjects of the poem, to show by contrast to heroic norms how dull, superficial or degenerate these characters are. The mock-epic style was used by Chaucer in The Nun's Priest's Tale in which he made a hero of the barnyard fowl Chauntecleer. The most famous mock-epic is Pope's The Rape of the Lock, which uses a pretty but not too intelligent young woman as its hero and satirizes the manners and values of upper-class society of the early eighteenth century.

Morality Play

In about the fourteenth century, a kind of allegorical drama in verse developed to explore the means by which the soul might be saved. In a morality play, the central character represents the ordinary person or humankind in general. The other characters are personifications of the central character's qualities, the forces of goodness prompting salvation, and the forces of evil tending to lead individuals to damnation. The conflict takes place among these allegorical characters; the central figure is eventually saved, but the action is a protracted struggle representing the Christian concept of the trials and temptations of earthly existence that must precede salvation. Morality plays were written anonymously. Many of them contained scenes of comedy or farce. The stock character representing the Vice was a source of rough humor. The best example of the morality play in England was Everyman, written about 1500.

Mystery Play

Plays based on characters and incidents from the Christian Bible were performed during the late medieval period. Written in verse, these plays were performed for the public during religious holidays. Mystery plays originated within the church as simple representations of moments in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Eventually, more plays were added, depicting major events of the Old Testament, from scenes of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden through the life of Abraham, Noah and the flood, and the prophets. As the plays became popular and began to include more secular elements, even some farce, they were expelled from the church and were performed by members of the various town guilds, which were associations of merchants and craftsmen. Fully developed cycles of mystery plays included the history of Christianity from the Creation to the death and Resurrection of Christ. They were performed on platforms mounted on wagons, called pageants, which could be moved to various locations within the town. Mystery plays, also called miracle plays, continued to be performed in prosperous towns until the early sixteenth century. The major cycles that remain are from the towns of Chester, Coventry, Wakefield, and York. The plays of Wakefield, also called the Townley plays, are very fully developed. The famous The Second Shepherd's Play is from this cycle.


The narrator is the person who seems to be telling a story. This person can stand in various relationships to the author and to the characters of the story. In the simplest arrangement, the narrator may be identified with the author; such a narrator is not a character in the story but knows all about the characters and can describe their actions and even their thoughts. This narrator is omniscient (all-knowing). On the other hand, a narrator who is presented as one of the characters in the story can plausibly know only what is observable from his or her own point of view. This type of narrator has limited perceptions, but he or she may be very acute or somewhat biased and limited. If such a narrator is naive or mistaken, telling of situations that he or she seems not fully to understand, the narrator is said to be unreliable, and the reader may draw meanings from the story that the narrator appears to have missed or avoided.

In first-person narration, the narrator refers to her-or himself as "I" and recounts the story from a limited point of view. In third-person narration, there is no "I"; the telling is done impersonally, and all characters are "he" or "she," distinct from the narrator.


This broad term is difficult to define because its meaning changes as the concept of art and its purpose change. Nature always has positive connotations; it is the thing that art, including literature, is about, the basic subject that all literary works are supposed to explore, albeit in a limited way. In classical literary theory, literature imitates nature. In this conception, nature is the universal and unchanging way that things are in the world. Human nature especially is the subject, and since basic truths about human life and characters are assumed to be the same for all times and all places, a play or poem of ancient Greece or Rome will have relevance for modern life as well. Readers can judge the quality or value of a literary work by holding it up to the standard of nature, that is, to what they know about life from their own learning and experience. Nature is contrasted to art.

However, nature has other meanings as well. Sometimes it refers to the material world. In such cases what is human is contrasted to the realm of nature, the physical world. In such cases what is human is contrasted to the realm of nature, the physical world. Nature is also contrasted to the spiritual realm, the supernatural. The laws of nature are orderly restrictions, but the supernatural can break those laws, creating visions, ghosts, and miracles.

In the late eighteenth century, a concept of nature arose that tended to fuse the physical and the spiritual definitions of nature. To the poets of that era nature embodied the uncultivated or rural world, the mountains, rocks, trees, flowers, and birds. But to these poets nature also contained spiritual force, so that the individual in a natural setting received impulses toward goodness by sympathetic association with nature.

Generally, then, nature is a value term, used to name whatever the writer values most highly and tries to present in the works she creates. The adjective "natural" is a general term of praise suggesting simplicity, sincerity, and truth.


The novel is a long prose narrative that traces the development of a main character or a group of characters through a series of events, situations or actions that may or may not be told in chronological order. Unlike a romance, a novel tries to give the impression of recreating real life, the ordinary day-to-day existence of believable people. Thus the novelist tends not to use highly improbable events or idealized characters. The novel emerged in the early eighteenth century and is not essentially a development of earlier romances or Renaissance narratives. The novel's roots lie in subliterary forms such as diaries, spiritual autobiographies, confessions, letters, and journalistic accounts of actual events. In the 1740s the novel became popular among the middle class as both a guide and an entertainment. It was particularly read and written by women, because reading a novel did not require a university education (women did not attend universities). However, the novel's appeal was very broad, and in the nineteenth century novels became the predominant form of literature in England. See Epistolary Novel, Gothic Novel.


This obsolete term means, narrowly, meter in poetry or, more generally, poetry itself conceived of as meterical language. The study of meterical patterns was also called numbers from the late Renaissance until the mid-eighteenth century.

Occasional Poetry

The term occasional refers to poems written to celebrate or commemorate a special occasion such as a coronation, a birthday, a marriage, a great victory or the anniversary of some significant historical moment. The Epithalamion, Edmund Spenser's poem celebrating his own marriage, is an occasional poem. The poet laureate was expected to provide occasional poems for his king.


The ode is an extended and lofty lyric poem expressing emotions about a significant occasion or a person to whom the ode is dedicated. As a dignified and inspiring work, the ode contains images of grandeur, creating a feeling of awe in the audience. The ode is derived from a Greek form of lyric that was part of the Greek play, a lyric passage separating the episodes of the drama and expressing the feelings of the chorus. Thus, unlike most lyric forms, the ode tends to be public and general, expressing the feelings of all rather than private or personal emotions.

Greek odes were separated into stanzas marked as the strophe, the antistrophe, and the epode, indicating different movements of emotions. These stanza terms are less common in English odes. The major types of odes written in English are: the Pindaric ode (named for the Greek poet Pindar), the Horatian ode (after the Latin poet Horace), and the irregular ode developed by the English poet Abraham Cowley. Briefly, the Pindaric ode uses varied stanza forms, while the Horatian ode keeps the same stanza form throughout. The irregular ode varies even more than the Pindaric; every stanza may use a unique form. John Dryden wrote many odes, among them the Song for Saint Cecilia's Day celebrating music; it is an irregular ode.

Old English

This is another name for the Anglo-Saxon language. It is the Germanic language spoken in England before the Norman Conquest (1066).

Omniscient Narrator

A story told by a narrator who knows all about everything, including the inner thoughts of the characters, has an omniscient narrator. Use of such a narrative point of view gives great flexibility; the narrator can shift easily in time and place and can arrange the events of the story to fit any strategy of revelation. The epic poem usually has an omniscient narrator.


This poetic style results from the transmission of folk poetic materials from speaker to listener without the aid of written records. Such poetry tends to contain standard descriptive phrases and conventional images that are remembered from frequent repetition. The "formulas" are the phrases that are readily available to the oral poet from among a large stock of set phrases; they may be varied slightly to suit the particular context, but their use makes spontaneous composition easier and also helps the audience by presenting them with already familiar expressions that need no effort to comprehend. For example, in the folk ballad, a character who says "make my bed soon" (the formula) indicates that he or she feels the approach of death. Because the same formula occurs in various poems, the listener who is familiar with the folk tradition readily recognizes the meaning of the formulaic phrase.

Ottava Rima

This stanza form consists of eight lines of iambic pentameter with a rhyme pattern of a b a b a b c c. This is an Italian form, as its name indicates. It was used by various English Renaissance poets who experimented with stanza forms.


A paradox is a statement that seems to contain its own contradiction. It seems that a paradox cannot logically be true, yet the poet asserts the paradox as an essentially true statement. John Donne, for example, asserts in several poems that he and his lady, two people, are also simultaneously one person. The metaphysical poets as a group were unafraid of paradox, using it to state mysterious truths.


Parody is a technique used in satire. In it, the writer closely imitates some of the conventional elements and the actual wording of a known and familiar literary work in order to mock that work or to make a ludicrous application of the style of the work to other, less dignified subject matter. The humor of the parody lies in the disparity between the serious style of the original and its application to trivial or low material. One of the most parodied speeches from Shakespeare's plays, for example, is the famous soliloquy from Hamlet that begins, "To be or not to be, that is the question." One such silly parody begins: "Toupee or not toupee, that is the question." Another: "To sneeze, or not to sneeze, that is congestion." Shakespeare himself writes parody when in King Henry IV, Part I he has Falstaff speak in the moralistic phrases of the Puritans, imitating their style. Christopher Marlowe's popular lyric poem The Passionate Shepherd to His Love is parodied by the poem of Sir Walter Raleigh called The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd. Raleigh uses the same stanza form and parallels the images used by Marlowe in each stanza, but Raleigh's parody takes a more realistic or cynical view of love.


Pastor in Latin means a shepherd. Therefore, any literary work that has shepherds as its main characters can be called pastoral. In this broad sense, pastoral is an adjective modifying another literary form, as a pastoral drama, a pastoral elegy or a pastoral romance. The main characters in a pastoral are conventional rather than realistic shepherds. They speak in cultivated diction and sing elegant, even courtly, songs. The effect is highly artificial.

In a more specific sense, a pastoral is a kind of poem written in ancient Greece and Rome in which a shepherd speaks or, frequently, two shepherds engage in a dialogue. The customary subjects of pastorals were love complaints and elegies for the dead. The form of the pastoral was imitated in England during the Renaissance, especially by Edmund Spenser in The Shepheardes Calender. Also, John Milton employs the pastoral elegy in his poem Lycidas.

One idea common to all types of pastorals is the goodness of a simple and rustic life, in contrast to the evils of the sophisticated life of the court or the great city. The pastoral idealizes rural life as simple and pure, free of ambition and corruption. It is antiheroic, celebrating humble life.


Before the full development of the printing and book-selling industry in the eighteenth century, writers who were not financially independent needed the gifts or support of wealthy patrons. These were men, and occasionally women, who were interested enough in literature to help support promising or established writers. Some patrons took the writer into their households as tutors or secretaries, allowing the writers to pursue their creative work with the security of a permanent post. In return, the writer often dedicated many of his works to his patron, writing prefaces of dedication in praise of the patron's good taste and generosity. Only playwrights could earn substantial amounts of money independent of patronage, since plays were immediate sources of income for the acting companies who paid the playwright or gave him a percentage of the proceeds. The patronage system died out when a large reading public and a well-organized printing industry made the sale of printed books lucrative enough to support writers by buying their manuscripts, hiring them as hack writers, and paying them royalties. Royal patronage lasted long after other forms of patronage had declined. Samuel Johnson received a royal pension for his Dictionary after it was completed. The poet laureateship is the current remainder of the patronage system.


A five-foot line. See Meter.

Periodical Essay

In the eighteenth century, before the development of the modern magazine or journal, individual prose essays were published in series under a unifying title. Two of the best-known early series were by Richard Steele and Joseph Addison: The Tatler (1709-1711) and The Spectator (1711-1712 and 1714). These men and a few of their friends wrote essays on topics of current interest: matters of taste, fashion, manners, the arts, and public life. Their general purpose was to instruct readers who were largely middle class, and to improve their manners while at the same time amuse them with mild satire. The essays were printed several times a week: each essay was a separate publication. As the century progressed, the easy prose style of the periodical essay became a model for general prose writing. Collections of periodical essays were reprinted as books and became a staple of private libraries.


The speaker of a literary work has a more or less well-developed personality or style. If the speaker's personality becomes a character clearly unlike the author's personality, this character is called the persona. The term literally means a mask. The author is conceived of as putting on the mask of another self for the purpose of the story he or she is telling. The concept of the persona is vital to discussions of the work of Jonathan Swift, who uses this technique in almost all his major works. In his famous A Modest Proposal, he pretends to be a dull and morally insensitive person who does not realize that the project he is proposing, to eat poor Irish children, is outrageous and totally repugnant. The real author Swift, of course, was not such a moral monster; he is adopting the persona as a means of making his point about the extreme poverty of the Irish peasants. Any narrator who projects another self into the story can be said to create a persona.


This is a figure of speech in which something that is not a person--for example, the sea, a sheep or a season--is presented as having human emotions or human responses to situations. The thing personified may be an object, an animal or a concept. Poets who use personification are suggesting that nature is in harmony with or participates in people's mental lives. Trees that weep, windows that yawn or rocks that stand guard are obvious personifications. In pastoral poetry, the whole landscape is full of sympathetic, personified objects and forces. In allegorical forms such as the morality play and the masque, the characters are personifications of concepts or ideas.

Poetic Justice

The dramatist who arranges matters so that at the end of a play the good characters, those whom we admire and sympathize with, are rewarded and made happy, while the bad characters, the villains, are punished, has created poetic justice. In dramatic criticism of the Restoration and eighteenth century, some conservative critics insisted that poetic justice was necessary to a moral play. Thomas Rymer took this position in opposition to the more liberal dramatic theory of John Dryden. In the best poetic justice, characters come to suffer punishments that are not only fitting and appropriate in proportion to their crimes but that also come about logically and inevitably as the indirect or long-range results of the character's own actions. Thus, Polonius in Shakespeare's Hamlet is appropriately stabbed while hiding behind a curtain to spy on Hamlet. Polonius's habit of spying catches up with him. Good poetic justice is neither far-fetched nor the result of mere coincidence.


Despite the sound of its name, prosody has nothing to do with prose. It is the study of versification, a general term for all principles of meter, rhyme, and stanza form. All the various patterns of sound in a poem constitute its prosody. The term also names the rules and models that provide guidance and set up standards of making poetry.


A female stock character, the prude is found in satires and comedies of manners. She pretends to be very virtuous, chaste, and pious. She acts as if she were shocked by any gossip about the loose or immoral behavior of others, especially other women. But underneath, the prude is just as eager to enjoy illicit love as the women she criticizes. She is a hypocrite who faults others for doing what she does secretly, or what she would do if she could. Some prudes are portrayed as having become prudish in middle age after a more licentious youth. Clarissa is the prude in Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock. She makes a long speech about despising beauty and preferring good nature, but none of the other characters pays any attention to it.


A quatrain is a stanza consisting of four lines. The most common rhyme pattern for a quatrain is a b a b. This is found, for example, in Thomas Gray's famous Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. Poets of course use other rhyme patterns as well. The English sonnet is composed of four quatrains and a couplet.


A stock character in comedies of the Restoration and eighteenth century, the rake is a young male (occasionally a female) character who displays a libertine or self-indulgent attitude toward life. His main purpose is immediate pleasure; he does not feel moral restraints on his actions. The rake is frequently a seducer of women, a gambler, and a heavy drinker. The rake schemes to get what he wants and enjoys deceiving naive people. In Restoration satiric comedy, the ultimate rake is Horner in William Wycherley's The Country Wife. Horner pretends to be sexually impotent in order to have easier access to the wives of jealous husbands. In the early novel Clarissa by Samuel Richardson, the heroine is abducted by the clever rake Lovelace. The rake is typically both attractive and evil; he has wit and charm, but he uses these qualities to trap others.


A romance is a kind of long fictional narrative that is more imaginative than realistic. The term derives from the fact that early narratives of this sort were composed in French, a language derived from the Latin language spoken by the inhabitants of the ancient Roman Empire. Medieval romances were mostly written in verse, although some late romances used prose. They were fantastic stories about the adventures of princes, knights, and their ladies. Lighter and more fanciful than the epic, the romance shows characters who are motivated by love and lofty notions of honor and who move in a landscape of castles and towers, caves and dungeons. Their adventures are shaped by chance; a loosely organized series of episodes brings the hero to his goal, the completion of his task or the fulfillment of his vow. The ultimate medieval romance in English is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

The term romance was also used in the eighteenth century to distinguish between two types of long prose narrative. In contrast to the novel, which proposed to describe real people in authentic or realistic settings and plots, the prose romance was less bound by the constraints of realism and could include ghosts, magical events, and remote, exotic settings. Emphasis in such a romance was on ingenuity of plot and on suspense rather than on character development or examination of manners. The Gothic novel was one kind of romance.

Other forms of literature that use the same imaginative approach and show similar characters motivated by love are often called romantic; for example, romantic comedy or romantic epic. Romantic poetry, however, derives from a different set of ideas and practices that developed from new poetic theories in the early nineteenth century.


A satire is a literary work that criticizes or attacks the values or behavior of its characters. Satires can be written in a wide range of genres. Satires work by showing in clear or exaggerated detail the foolish or wicked ways in which society or one social group conducts its affairs. In so doing, satire often causes laughter. It is witty or humorous because it shows the disparity between the characters' pretensions and their real attitudes or actions.

In direct satire, the speaker is the satirist, describing with scorn and sarcasm the debased world in which he or she lives. Formal verse satire, a genre developed in Rome by Juvenal and Horace, places the satirist in a position aloof from the society described, commenting on it with the hope of awakening the people to their wrong-headed ways. The Juvenalian satires were rough and bitter, containing obscene and disgusting detail. The satires of Horace were milder and more humane. He mocks the excesses of society, but he can also mock himself because he realizes that human nature is inclined to be weak and easily corrupted. The terms Juvenalian and Horatian are used to classify more modern satires according to the violence or mildness of their style.

In England, satires of various kinds have been written since the medieval period. Much of Chaucer's work is satiric. Satire is also found in the comedies of the Renaissance, especially in Ben Jonson's plays. But the satire flourished especially during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, when satiric prose, poetry, plays, and novels as well as mock-heroic literature dominated the literary scene. The great English satirists were John Dryden, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, and Samuel Johnson.


During the first half of the eighteenth century, even while the great satirists of England were at their height, a countermovement began to develop that stressed the human quality that came to be called sensibility. Instead of wit and restraint, literature of sensibility promoted the values of the human heart. Based on the idea that human nature is essentially good, this literature was aimed at promoting and refining right ways of behavior by arousing feelings of sympathy and benevolence. Humankind was seen as basically unselfish; if one acted selfishly, it was because of faulty education or the pressures of a corrupt society. The writers of the school of sensibility--poets, prose writers, and dramatists--preferred the country to the city, the simple life to glamour of high life. Morality was seen as related to good taste. If the individual's tastes were properly cultivated by exposure to nature and to those works of art that promoted wholesome emotional responses, then that individual would spontaneously act for the good of others and feel great emotional pleasure in good actions. The chief spokesman of the school of sensibility in England was Anthony Ashley Cooper, the third earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713), whose philosophical essays were published in 1711 under the title Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times. These essays strongly influenced the development of middle-class literature for the rest of the century.

Sentimental Comedy

In the early decades of the eighteenth century, the theater audiences became less elite and more middle class. In response to the changing tastes of the audience, dramatists began to write comedies that exploited emotion rather than wit as their central appeal. Characters were caught in situations that required them to be generous, self-sacrificing, and sensitive to the feelings of others. Heroes were marked by their exquisite feelings rather than by their courage or cleverness. The play's villains were redeemed by having final-act changes of heart, by being reformed through feeling. They even cried. The most famous sentimental comedy in England was Richard Steele's The Conscious Lovers. Written in 1722, this play is in the mainstream of development of the school of sensibility.


A simile is a kind of metaphor that compares two things that are basically unlike but that have one or more traits in common. In this figure of speech, the word like or as makes the comparison explicit. When the poet Robert Burns says, "My love is like a red, red rose," he suggests the freshness, beauty, and delicacy of his beloved. A lady and a flower can have these traits in common, even though they are really very different from each other. See Metaphor.


A convention of the English Renaissance drama, the soliloquy is a speech made by a character who is on stage alone. The character is not talking to someone else; he or she is expressing private thoughts. This convention allows the playwright to let the audience know what is in the mind of the character, such as conflicts and fears or schemes that could not plausibly be told by the character in dialogue. Sometimes the character is not really alone but merely believes that he or she is. The audience accustomed to the soliloquy convention will understand that no other character is supposed to hear the soliloquy. In Shakespeare's Hamlet, for example, the famous "to be or not to be" soliloquy is spoken by Hamlet when Ophelia is also on stage. She remains in the background until he notices her; then the soliloquy ends. Whatever the character says in soliloquy is the truth. That is, the character speaks sincerely, without deception or evasion. This convention allows for complex and subtle character development by contrasting what the character says in soliloquy with what he or she says to other characters.

An isolated soliloquy, that is, one that is not part of a play but written as a separate poem, is called a dramatic monologue. However, a dramatic monologue may be addressed to some other person.


A fixed form of lyric poem, the sonnet has fourteen lines of iambic pentameter. Several kinds of sonnet are distinguished by different rhyme patterns. The Italian sonnet has two parts: an octave (eight lines) rhyming a b b a a b b a, and a sestet (six lines) rhyming c d e c d e or c d c d c d. The English sonnet is arranged differently. The Spenserian sonnet has three quatrains (four lines) rhyming a b a b b c b c c d c d and a final couplet rhyming e e. The Shakespearian sonnet also uses three quatrains, but the rhyme sounds are different in each one: a b a b c d c d e f e f. The couplet follows, g g. Both Spenser's and Shakespeare's sonnets are called English sonnets to distinguish them from Italian sonnets. The English sonnet tends to emphasize the climactic ending of the couplet while the Italian sonnet, with its two-part structure, emphasizes the contrast or contradiction from the octave to the sestet.

The sonnet was originally a vehicle for love poetry. Renaissance poets wrote long series or cycles of love sonnets tracing the development of their love relationships with a single idealized woman. In the seventeenth century, however, sonnet form began to be used for a wider range of subjects, including religious and political statements. See Development of the Sonnet.


Although words are symbols in that they stand for the things, concepts, or relationships they name, in a work of literature a symbol is something that not only exists as itself but also suggests other ideas or refers to other situations. For example, in Book I of Spenser's The Faerie Queene, the red cross on the knight's shield is understood not only to be a decoration or pattern painted on the shield but also to represent the idea of holiness, of Christian virtue and faith. A symbol such as the cross is widely understood and carries a similar significance in many different contexts. Other symbols are more specific to a single literary work. In Pope's The Rape of the Lock, the lock of hair represents the heroine's chastity and reputation for innocence. Locks of hair may have other meanings in other contexts, or they may have only literal meaning and not be symbolic at all.

Topographical Poem

A topographical poem is one written to describe, and usually to praise, a particular place. The poet views a landscape and creates images of its visual features and also suggests the feeling of the place, its quality of dignity or restfulness. Thus while the topographical poem is lyrical, it also has a philosophical aspect. Ben Jonson's poem To Penshurst describes the estate of the Sidney family as an ideal of English country life. Other important topographical poems include Cooper's Hill by John Denham and Windsor Forest by Alexander Pope.


One of the major forms of drama, a tragedy is a serious play that shows the central character, the hero or heroine, striving against overwhelming forces to carry out a significant action. The efforts of the hero ultimately destroy him; however, the action he has undertaken will make the moral status of his state or community better in some way or rid it of an evil. The essence of a tragedy is not that it is sad; passive victims are sad. Tragedy has more inspiring elements; it shows the dignity of human nature in making moral decisions and bearing the consequences.

The form and purpose of tragedy were first explained by the Greek philosopher Aristotle in his Poetics. His discussion of tragedy has influenced all later discussions. He defined tragedy as the representation of an action, thus emphasizing the plot. He said that the plot must show a hero, a person of more than common status and abilities, who is brought down from his high status to one of misery. The hero has a flaw in his character, so that he contributes to his own defeat. The purpose of the tragedy is to arouse two emotions--pity and fear--and to cleanse the audience of these emotions, a process known as catharsis. Aristotle's definition of a tragedy was based on the study of plays written in ancient Greece. Later writers have generally followed his main ideas but have introduced many variations in the tragic formula. The great age of English tragedy, the Elizabethan period, produced tragedies of more complex plots with kings, princes, and military leaders as tragic heroes. In Jacobean tragedy of the early seventeenth century, tragedies were more concerned with domestic situations such as jealousy and rivalries in love that lead to tricks, disguises, and intrigue. In the Restoration, Dryden reflected the complicated plotting of earlier English tragedies; he tried to write a tragic play according to the rules derived from Aristotle. However, he did not succeed in reviving the English taste for tragedy. Heroic and sentimental dramas almost completely replaced tragedy.


A tragicomedy is a serious play that is tragic in tone but in which the hero is not destroyed by the action. The plot is arranged so that a tragic outcome is possible; the characters are threatened with disaster, but something happens to avert the worst. The play ends, if not joyfully, at least with the accomplishment of the hero's central purpose. Tragicomedies were developed in the early seventeenth century principally by a team of playwrights, Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. They emphasized spectacle and artificial situations, making a type of play that was highly unrealistic and full of unlikely tricks and that exploited the heightened emotions of the characters for theatrical effects. Tragicomedy was attacked as an illegitimate form by critics later in the same century; they pointed out that it violated basic rules of drama.

Unities, Dramatic

Certain rules of dramatic structure were developed by Italian and French Renaissance critics. They used Aristotle's Poetics as their fundamental source but elaborated on and refined Aristotle's theories about how a play should be organized. These critics evolved a consensus of rules. The most important rules required that a playwright maintain unity of time, unity of place, and unity of action.

Unity of time means that the entire action of a play should take place within a single day. The audience should not be expected to believe that the actors can represent the same characters at periods of time separated by months or years. The play should open close to the moment of crisis; facts about earlier events should be told in the dialogue.

Unity of place follows logically from unity of time. If the action takes place in a single day, the characters cannot plausibly travel to distant places during that day. A single city was the limit. Ideally, the entire action will occur in the same location, for example, in front of the Royal Palace.

Unity of action means that a single main plot is developed, with no subplots or digressions into nonessential situations. There should be no moments of comedy to violate the dominant tragic tone of the play. Concentration and intensity of effect were the purposes of observing the unities. These rules were not strictly observed by English playwrights; by contrast, they were carefully followed by the major French dramatists of the seventeenth century, Corneille and Racine.


A utopia is a good place. In literature, it is a fictional narrative or description of an ideal society supposed to exist in some remote location. The term was used by Thomas More as the title of his philosophical story (1516) about a communal society established for the fulfillment of ideals of human justice, sharing of goods in common, and cultivation of harmony. Since then, the term utopia has been applied to any such fictional society that sets up an ideal set of social arrangements; it applies as well to the fiction in which the ideal is described. A negative utopia, one describing a bad or corrupt place, is called a dystopia.


Weird is the Anglo-Saxon concept of fate or destiny. In Anglo-Saxon poetry, the poet or the character may attribute the outcome of events to this unexplainable force that rules the lives of individuals. The hero may try to determine his own destiny, but ultimately Weird governs all; eventually his fate catches up with him. The connotation is usually negative, that is, Weird is a disastrous outcome.


In Anglo-Saxon society, if a man was killed, his family or kinsmen were obligated to take revenge against the killer. However, in some circumstances, the killer or his family could avoid the revenge by paying a price, called the wergild (man-price) to the victim's family. The price was adjusted according to the rank of the victim. The money was not so much payment for the dead man's life as it was a tribute to the surviving relatives to show that they had not neglected their duty and merely allowed the death to go unnoticed.


The term wit can refer either to the intellectual quality of the author or to the witty quality found in the literary work. Derived from the Anglo-Saxon word for knowledge, wit is always associated with mental quickness and acute perception. The wit of the metaphysical poets, for example, was shown in their clever and ingenious conceits and extended metaphors. The association of wit with laughter came later. Wit is sharper, quicker, and more biting than humor and lacks its good-natured, clowning quality.
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Author:McCoy, Kathleen; Harlan, Judith A.V.
Publication:English Literature to 1785
Article Type:Reference Source
Date:Jan 1, 1992
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