English Literature Vocabulary

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Last updated: April 28, 2019
allegory
a work that functions on a symbolic level

alliteration
Repetition of initial consonant sounds

allusion
a reference contained in a work

anapest
a metrical pattern of two unaccented syllables followed by an accented syllable

apostrophe
direct address in poetry

aside
words spoken by an actor intended to be heard by the audience but not by other characters on stage

aubade
a love poem set at dawn which bids farewell to the beloved

ballad
a simple narrative poem, often incorporating dialogue that is written in quatrains, generally with a rhyme scheme of abcd

blank verse
unrhymed iambic pentameter.

Most of Shakespeare’s plays are in this form

cacophony
harsh and discordant sounds in a line or passage of a literary work

caesura
a break or pause within a line of poetry indicated by pronunciation and used to emphasize meaning

catharsis
According to Aristotle, the release of emotion that the audience of a tragedy experiences

character
one who carries out the action of the plot in literature. Major, minor, static, and dynamic are types of character

climax
the turning point of action or character in a literary work, usually the highest moment of tension.

comic relief
the inclusion of a humorous character or scene to contrast with the tragic elements of a work, thereby intensifying the next tragic event.

conflict
a clash between opposing forces in a literary work, such as man vs man, man vs nature, man vs God, man vs self

connotation
interpretive level of a word based on its associated images rather than its literal meaning

convention
a traditional aspect of a literary work, such as soliloquy in a Shakespearean play or a tragic hero in a Greek tragedy

couplet
two lines of rhyming poetry; often used by Shakespeare to conclude a scene or an important passage

dactyl
a foot of poetry consisting of a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables

denotation
the literal or dictionary meaning of a word

denouement
the conclusion or tying up of loose ends in a literary work; the resolution of the conflict and plot

deus ex machina
a Greek inventio, literally “the god from the machine” who appears at the last moment and resolves the loose ends of a play. Today, refers to anyone, usually of some stature, who untangles, resolves, or revelas the key to the plot of a work.

diction
the author’s choice of words

dramatic monologue
a type of poem that presents a conversation between a speaker and an implied listener

elegy
a poem that laments the dead or a loss

enjambment
a technique in poetry that involves the running on of a line or stanza

epic
a lengthy, elevated poem that celebrates the exploits of a hero

epigram
a brief witty poem

euphony
the pleasant, mellifluous presentation of sounds in a literary work

exposition
background information presented in a literary work

fable
a simple, symbolic story usually employing animals as characters

figurative language
the body of devices that enables the writer to operate on levels other than the literal one. Includes metaphor, simile, symbol, motif, hyperbole.

flashback
a device that enables a writer to refer to past thoughts, events, episodes

foot
a metrical unit in poetry; a syllabic measure of a line; iamb, trochee, anapest, dactyl, and spondee

foreshadowing
hints of future events in a literary work

form
the shape or structure of a literary work

free verse
poetry without a defined form, meter, or rhyme scheme

hyperbole
extreme exaggeration

iamb
a metrical foot consisting of an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one

idyll
a type of lyric poem which extols the virtues of an ideal place or time

image
a verbal approximation of related sensory images in a work of literature

impressionism
writing that reflects a personal image of a character, event, or concept

irony
an unexpected twist or contrast between what happens and what was intended or expected to happen.

lyric poetry
a type of poetry characterized by emotion, personal feelings, and brevity

magical realism
a type of literature that explores narratives by and about characters who inhabit and experience their reality differently from what we term the objective world

metaphor
a direct comparison between dissimilar things

metaphysical poetry
refers to the works of poets like John Donne who explore highly complex, philosophical ideas through extended metaphors and paradox

meter
a pattern of beats in poetry

metonymy
a figure of speech in which a representative term is used for a larger idea

monologue
a speech given by one character

motif
the repetition or variations of an image or idea in a work which is used to develop theme or characters

narrative poem
a poem that tells a story

narrator
the speaker of a literary work

octave
an eight-line stanza, usually combined with a sestet in a Petrarchan sonnet

ode
a formal, lengthy poem that celebrates a particular subject

onomatopoeia
words that sound like the sound they represent (hiss, gurgle, bang)

oxymoron
an image of contradictory terms

parable
a story that operates on more than one level and usually teaches a moral lesson

parallel plot
a secondary story line that mimics and reinforces the main plot

parody
a comic imitation of a work that ridicules the original

pathos
the aspects of a literary work that elicit pity from the audience

personification
the assigning of human qualities to inanimate objects or concepts

plot
a sequence of events in a literary work

point of view
the method of narration in a work

protagonist
the hero or main character of a literary work the character the audience sympathizes with

quatrain
a four line stanza

resolution
the denouement of a literary work

rhetorical question
a question that does not expect an explicit answer

rhyme/rime
the duplication of final syllable sounds in two or more lines

rhyme scheme
the annotation of the pattern of the rhyme

rhythm
the repetitive pattern of beats in poetry

romanticism
a style or movement of literature that has its foundation an interest in freedom, adventure, idealism, and escape

satire
a mode of writing based on ridicule, which criticizes the foibles and follies of society without necessarily offering a solution

scansion
analysis of a poem’s rhyme and meter

sestet
a six-line stanza, usually paired with an octave to form a Petrarchan sonnet

sestina
a highly structured poetic line of 39 lines, written in iambic pentameter

setting
the time and place of a literary work

simile
an indirect comparison that uses the word, “like or “as” to link the differing items in comparison

soliloquy
a speech in a play which is used to reveal the character’s inner thoughts to the audience

sonnet
a 14 line poem with a prescribed rhyme scheme in iambic pentameter

spondee
a poetic foot consisting of two accented syllables

stage directions
the specific instructions of a playwright

stanza
a unit of poem

structure
the organization and form of a work

style
the unique way an author presents his ideas

subplot
a secondary plot that explores ideas different from the main storyline

subtext
implied meaning of a work or section of a work

symbol
something in a literary work that stands for something else

synecdoche
a figure of speech that utilizes a part as representative of the whole

syntax
the grammatical structure of prose and poetry

tercet
a three-line stanza

theme
the underlying ideas that the author illustrates

tone
the author’s attitude toward his subject

tragic hero
a basically good person of noble birth or exalted position who has a fatal flaw

trochee
a single meterical foot consisting of one accented syllable followed by one unaccented

understatement
the opposite of exaggeration

villanelle
a highly structured poetic form that comprises six stanzas: five tercets and a quatrain. The poem repeats the first and third lines throughout

paradox
a set of seemingly contradictory elements which nevertheless reflects an underlying truth

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