& ENG/HUM 2433 World Literature I
Excerpted from Dr. L. Kip Wheeler’s Online Literary Glossary
Complete version available at: http://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/lit_terms.html
With additional terms from Kelli McBride
Copyright Kelli McBride 2003-2009
Graphics designed by Kelli McBride and are for her exclusive use.
Handouts for college classes maybe used as per fair use practice. All other documents on this site written by Ms. McBride are copyright protected. Please email her for rights to use.
I have deleted terms that are not relevant for these two courses and/or
the works we will study. However, some definitions refer to other
entries (underlined terms). If you cannot find that underlined term on
this handout, I have deleted it. You can, though, visit Dr. Wheeler’s
web site to read the reference. Please also note that I have added some
terms to this list, and you will not find those on Dr. Wheeler’s site.
1. ACT: A major division in a play. Often, individual acts are divided into smaller units ("scenes") that all take place in a specific location. Originally, Greek plays were not divided into acts. They took place as a single whole interrupted occasionally by the chorus's singing. In Roman times, a five-act structure first appeared based upon Horace's recommendations. This five-act structure became a convention of drama (and especially tragedy) during the Renaissance. (Shakespeare's plays have natural divisions that can be taken as the breaks between acts as well; later editors inserted clear "act" and "scene" markings in these locations.) From about 1650 CE onward, most plays followed the five-act model. In the 1800s, Ibsen and Chekhov favored a four-act play, and in the 1900s, most playwrights preferred a three-act model, though two-act plays are not uncommon.
2. ACTION: A real or fictional event or series of such events comprising the subject of a novel, story, narrative poem, or a play, especially in the sense of what the characters do in such a narrative. Action, along with dialogue and the characters' thoughts, form the skeleton of a narrative's plot.
3. AGONIST: From the Greek agonistes: actor or contender, a character in a play. The protagonist is the first actor, the main character of the play (sometimes but not always a hero). The antagonist is the character most opposite to the protagonist (sometimes but not always a villain) that allows the development of conflict. The deuteragonist is often the second actor in a play and sometimes acts as the protagonist’s foil. See character.
4. AIDOS: The Greek term for the great shame felt by a hero after failure.
ALLEGORY: The word derives from
the Greek allegoria ("speaking otherwise"). The term loosely
describes any writing in verse or prose that has a double meaning. This
narrative acts as an extended metaphor in which persons, abstract ideas,
or events represent not only themselves on the literal level, but they
also stand for something else on the symbolic level. An allegorical
reading usually involves moral or spiritual concepts that may be more
significant than the actual, literal events described in a narrative.
Typically, an allegory involves the interaction of multiple symbols,
which together create a moral, spiritual, or even political meaning. The
act of interpreting a story as if each object in it had an allegorical
meaning is called
To distinguish more clearly we can take the old Arab fable of the frog
and the scorpion, who met one day on the bank of the River Nile, which
they both wanted to cross. The frog offered to ferry the scorpion over
on his back provided the scorpion promised not to sting him. The
scorpion agreed so long as the frog would promise not to drown him. The
mutual promises exchanged, they crossed the river. On the far bank the
scorpion stung the frog mortally.
6. ALLITERATION: Repeating a consonant sound in close proximity to others, or beginning several words with the same vowel sound. For instance, the phrase "buckets of big blue berries" alliterates with the consonant b. Coleridge describes the sacred river Alph in Kubla Khan as "Five miles meandering with a mazy motion," which alliterates with the consonant m. The line "apt alliteration's artful aid" alliterates with the vowel sound a. One of Dryden's couplets in Absalom and Achitophel reads, "In pious times, ere priestcraft did begin, / Before polygamy was made a sin." It alliterates with the letter p. Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" employs the technique: "I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass." Most frequently, the alliteration involves the sounds at the beginning of words in close proximity to each other. Alliteration is an example of a rhetorical scheme. Alliteration in which the first letters of words are the same (as opposed to consonants alliterating in the middles or ends of words) is more specifically called head rhyme, which is a bit of a misnomer since it doesn't actually involve rhyme in a technical sense. If alliteration also involves changes in the intervening vowels between repeated consonants, the technique is called consonance. See alliterative verse, alliterative prose, and consonance. See also alliterative revival.
7. ALLITERATIVE PROSE: Many texts of Old English and Middle English prose use the same techniques as alliterative verse. Aelfric (c. 955-1010 CE) and Wulfstan (d. 1023) wrote many treatises using skillful alliteration. The Herefordshire texts known collectively as the "The Katherine Group" (Hali Meiohad, Sawles Warde, Seinte Katerine, Seinte Marherete, Seinte Iuliene) are some examples in Middle English.
8. ALLITERATIVE VERSE: A traditional form of Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse poetry in which each line has at least four stressed syllables, and those stresses fall on syllables in which three or four words alliterate (repeat the same consonant sound). Alliterative verse largely died out in English within a few centuries of the Norman Conquest. The Normans introduced continental conventions of poetry, including rhyme and octosyllabic couplets. The last surge of alliterative poetry in the native English tradition is known as the alliterative revival during the Middle English period. See alliteration, above.
9. ALLUSION: A casual reference in literature to a person, place, event, or another passage of literature, often without explicit identification. Allusions can originate in mythology, biblical references, historical events, legends, geography, or earlier literary works. Authors often use allusion to establish a tone, create an implied association, contrast two objects or people, make an unusual juxtaposition of references, or bring the reader into a world of experience outside the limitations of the story itself. Authors assume that the readers will recognize the original sources and relate their meaning to the new context. For instance, if a teacher were to refer to his class as a horde of Mongols, the students will have no idea if they are being praised or vilified unless they know what the Mongol horde was and what activities it participated in historically. This historical allusion assumes a certain level of education or awareness in the audience, so it should normally be taken as a compliment rather than an insult or an attempt at obscurity.
10. AMBIGUITY: In common conversation, ambiguity is a negative term applied to a vague or equivocal expression when precision would be more useful. Sometimes, however, intentional ambiguity in literature can be a powerful device, leaving something undetermined in order to open up multiple possible meanings. When we refer to literary ambiguity, we refer to any wording, action, or symbol that can be read in divergent ways. As William Empson put it, ambiguity is "any verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language" (qtd. in Deutsch 11).
11. AMERICAN DREAM: A theme in American literature, film, and art that expresses optimistic desires for self-improvement, freedom, and self-sufficiency. Harry Shaw notes that the term can have no clear and fixed expression because "it means whatever its user has in mind a particular time" (12). In general, it has connotations of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" in Thomas Jefferson's phrasing. One expression of this is the materialistic "rags-to-riches" motif of many nineteenth-century novels. Here, a young pauper through hard work, cleverness, and honesty, rises in socio-economic status until he is a powerful and successful man. An example here would be the stories by Horatio Alger. Other expressions of this theme focus on more more abstract qualities like freedom or self-determination. Many critics have argued that this dream is in many ways a myth in the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries, given America's frequent discriminatory treatment of immigrants and its continuing economic trends in which an ever smaller number of wealthy people acrue an ever larger percentage of material wealth with each generation, i.e., "the rich get richer and the poor get babies." Other events, such as the loss of the American frontier, segregation and exclusion of minorities, McCarthyism in the 1950s, unpopular wars in Vietnam in the 1960s, and gradual ecological devastation over the last hundred years, together have inspired literary works that criticize or question the American Dream--often seeing it as ultimately selfish or destructive on one or more levels. Examples of these writing would be Miller's Death of A Salesman, Ellison's Invisible Man, and Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.
12. AMPHITHEATER: An open-air theater, especially the unroofed public playhouses in the suburbs of London. Shakespeare's Globe and the Rose are two examples.
13. ANAGNORISIS: (Greek for "recognition"): A term used by Aristotle in the Poetics to describe the moment of tragic recognition in which the protagonist realizes some important fact or insight, especially a truth about himself, human nature, or his situation. Aristotle argues that the ideal moment for anagnorisis in a tragedy is the moment of peripeteia, the reversal of fortune. Critics often claim that the moment of tragic recognition is found within a single line of text, in which the tragic hero admits to his lack of insight or asserts the new truth he recognizes. This passage is often called the "line of tragic recognition." See further discussion under tragedy.
14. ANAPEST: A foot or unit of poetry consisting of two light syllables followed by a single stressed syllable. Some words and phrases in English that constitute anapests include the following examples: understand, interrupt, comprehend, anapest, New Rochelle, contradict, "get a life," condescend, Coeur d'Alene, "in the blink of an eye," and so on. Anapestic meter consists of lines of poetry that follow this pattern of "light stress, light stress, heavy stress" pattern. For example: "The Assyrian came dówn like a wólf on the fóld." (Lord Byron, "The Destruction of Sennacherib.") or "Oh he flies through the air with the greatest of ease." See extended discussion under meter. Click here to download a PDF handout that contrasts anapests with other types of metrical feet.
15. ANGLO-SAXON: (1) Historically, the term refers to a group of Teutonic tribes who invaded England in the fifth and sixth centuries following the departure of Roman legions in 410 CE. These tribes, the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes, came from the northern parts of Europe and gave their name (Angle-Land) to England, driving the native Celtic peoples into the farthest western and northern regions of Britain. We can also refer to the time-period of 410 CE up until about 1066 CE as the "Anglo-Saxon" historical period in Britain. In linguistics, the term Anglo-Saxon is also used to refer to Old English, the language spoken by these tribes and the precursor of Middle English and Modern English. See Old English. (2) In colloquial usage, the term Anglo-Saxon is often used to distinguish people of "English" ethnicity in Great Britain, Canada, and the United States--hence acronyms like "WASP" (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant).
16. ANTAGONIST: See discussion under character, below.
17. ANTHOLOGY (from Grk. anther+logos, "flower-words"): Literally implying a collection of flowers, the term anthology refers to a collection of poetry, drama, or verse. English majors may be familiar with the ubiquitous Norton Anthology of British Literature, for instance. The first collection of poetry thus labeled was The Anthology, a collection of some 4,500 Greek poems dating between 490 BCE and 1,000 CE.
18. ANTICLIMAX (also called bathos): a drop, often sudden and unexpected, from a dignified or important idea or situation to one that is trivial or humorous. Also a sudden descent from something sublime to something ridiculous. In fiction and drama, this refers to action that is disappointing in contrast to the previous moment of intense interest. In rhetoric, the effect is frequently intentional and comic. For example: "Usama Bin Laden: Wanted for Crimes of War, Terrorism, Murder, Conspiracy, and Nefarious Parking Practices."
19. ANTIHERO: A protagonist who is a non-hero or the antithesis of a traditional hero. While the traditional hero may be dashing, strong, brave, resourceful, or handsome, the antihero may be incompetent, unlucky, clumsy, dumb, ugly, or clownish. Examples here might include the senile protagonist of Cervantes' Don Quixote or the girlish knight Sir Thopas from Chaucer's "Sir Thopas." In the case of the Byronic and Miltonic antihero, the antihero is a romanticized but wicked character who defies authority, and becomes paradoxically ennobled by his peculiar rejection of virtue. In this sense, Milton presents Satan in Paradise Lost as an antihero in a sympathetic manner. The same is true of Heathcliffe in Emily Bronté's Wuthering Heights. Compare with the picaro.
20. ANTISTROPHE: See discussion under strophe.
21. ANTITHESIS (plural: antitheses): Using opposite phrases in close conjunction. Examples might be, "I burn and I freeze," or "Her character is white as sunlight, black as midnight." The best antitheses express their contrary ideas in a balanced sentence. It can be a contrast of opposites: "Evil men fear authority; good men cherish it." Alternatively, it can be a contrast of degree: "One small step for a man, one giant leap for all mankind." Antithesis is an example of a rhetorical scheme. Contrast with oxymoron.
22. APOSTROPHE: Not to be confused with the punctuation mark, apostrophe is the act of addressing some abstraction or personification that is not physically present: For instance, John Donne commands, "Oh, Death, be not proud." King Lear proclaims, "Ingratitude! thou marble-hearted fiend, / More hideous when thou show'st thee in a child / Than the sea-monster." Death, of course, is a phenomenon rather than a proud person, and ingratitude is an abstraction that hardly cares about Lear's opinion, but the act of addressing the abstract has its own rhetorical power. An apostrophe is an example of a rhetorical trope.
23. ARCHETYPE: An original model or pattern from which other later copies are made, especially a character, an action, or situation that seems to represent common patterns of human life. Often, archetypes include a symbol, a theme, a setting, or a character that some critics think have a common meaning in an entire culture, or even the entire human race. These images have particular emotional resonance and power. Archetypes recur in different times and places in myth, literature, folklore, fairy tales, dreams, artwork, and religious rituals. Using the comparative anthropological work of Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough, the psychologist Carl Jung theorized that the archetype originates in the collective unconscious of mankind, i.e., the shared experiences of a race or culture, such as birth, death, love, family life, and struggles to survive and grow up. These would be expressed in the subconscious of an individual who would recreate them in myths, dreams, and literature. Examples of archetypes found cross-culturally include the following:
(1) Recurring symbolic situations (such as the orphaned prince or the lost chieftain's son raised ignorant of his heritage until he is rediscovered by his parents, or the damsel in distress rescued from a hideous monster by a handsome young man who later marries the girl. Also, the long journey, the difficult quest or search, the catalog of difficult tasks, the pursuit of revenge, the descent into the underworld, redemptive rituals, fertility rites, the great flood, the End of the World),
(2) Recurring themes (such as the Faustian bargain; pride preceding a fall; the inevitable nature of death, fate, or punishment; blindness; madness; taboos such as forbidden love, patricide, or incest),
(3) Recurring characters (such as witches as ugly crones who cannibalize children, lame blacksmiths of preternatural skill, womanizing Don Juans, the hunted man, the femme fatale, the snob, the social climber, the wise old man as mentor or teacher, star-crossed lovers; the caring mother-figure, the helpless little old lady, the stern father-figure, the guilt-ridden figure searching for redemption, the braggart, the young star-crossed lovers, the bully, the villain in black, the oracle or prophet, the mad scientist, the underdog who emerges victorious, the mourning widow or women in lamentation),
(4) Symbolic colors (green as a symbol for life, vegetation, or summer; blue as a symbol for water or tranquility; white or black as a symbol of purity; or red as a symbol of blood, fire, or passion) and so on.
(5) Recurring images (such as blood, water, pregnancy, ashes, cleanness, dirtiness, caverns, phallic symbols, yonic symbols, the ruined tower, the rose, the lion, the snake, the eagle, the hanged man, the dying god that rises again, the feast or banquet, the fall from a great height).
24. ARÊTE: [Excellence and virtue.] The Greek term arête implies a humble and constant striving for perfection and self-improvement combined with a realistic awareness that such perfection cannot be reached. As long as an individual strives to do and be the best, that individual has arête. As soon as the individual believes he has actually achieved arête, however, he or she has lost that exalted state and fallen into hubris, unable to recognize personal limitations or the humble need to improve constantly.
25. ARGUMENT: A statement of a poem's major point--usually appearing in the introduction of the poem. Spenser presents such an argument in the introduction to his eclogues, Coleridge presents such in his marginalia to The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, and Milton most famously presents such in Book One of Paradise Lost, where he proclaims he will "assert eternal providence / And justify the ways of God to man." Cf. thesis.
26. ARTHURIAN: Related to the legends of King Arthur and his knights. A large body of ancient and recent literature is Arthurian in whole or part, including these examples:
• Celtic myths (such as the Welsh "Raid on Annwfn")
• The Mabinogion
• Legends of the Grail King and the Fisher King
• Historical documents about the battle at Mons Badis, General Arturius, and other sixth-century subjects some scholars claim are evidence of a historical basis for later legends
• Welsh/Latin annals attributed to the so-called "Nennius" (i.e., medieval Latin writings mistakenly attributed to this person in outdated scholarship)
• Oral legends transmitted by Breton conteurs in France between 1100-1175
• Pseudo-histories written by Geoffrey of Monmouth (circa 1136)
• French stories of courtly love in medieval romances (such as Tristram and Iseult, or Lancelot and Gwenevere)
• Religious allegories about the quest for the holy grail, such as the Queste du Sainte-Graal (c. 1210)
• Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival (c. 1205)
• Legends of King Mark of Cornwall, Tristan, and Iseult, such as the eleventh-century poems of Eilhart von Oberg and Thomas d'Angleterre, Beroul's The Romance of Tristan, the anonymous La folie Tristan de Berne, and Gottfried Von Strassburg's Tristan (c. 1205)
• Layamon's Brut (c. 1200)
• The anonymous Alliterative Morte Arthur and the Stanzaic Morte Arthur (c. 1360)
• The Pearl Poet's Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (c. 1375)
• Chaucer's "The Wife of Bath's Tale" (c. 1385)
• Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur (1469)
• Spenser's Faerie Queene (1590-96)
• Scott's Bridal of Triermain (1813)
• Peacock's "The Misfortunes of Elphin" (1829)
• Morris's The Defense of Guinevere
• Tennyson's The Lady of Shalott (1832)
• Tennyson's Idylls of the King (1885)
• Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889)
• Wagner's operas
• E. A. Robinson's Merlin, Lancelot, and Tristram (1915-25)
• T. H. White's The Sword in the Stone and The Once and Future King
• Marion Zimmer-Bradley's feminist/revisionist tales such as The Mists of Avalon
• A legion of popular films, cartoons, graphic novels, and works of fantasy literature.
27. ASIDE: In drama, a few words or a short passage spoken by one character to the audience while the other actors on stage pretend their characters cannot hear the speaker's words. It is a theatrical convention that the aside is not audible to other characters on stage. Contrast with soliloquy. The aside is usually indicated by stage directions.
28. ATMOSPHERE (Also called mood): The emotional feelings inspired by a work. The term is borrowed from meteorology to describe the dominant mood of a selection as it is created by diction, dialogue, setting, and description. Often the opening scene in a play or novel establishes an atmosphere appropriate to the theme of the entire work. The opening of Shakespeare's Hamlet creates a brooding atmosphere of unease. Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher establishes an atmosphere of gloom and emotional decay. The opening of Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 establishes a surreal atmosphere of confusion, and so on. Compare with ambiance, above.
29. AUDIENCE: The person(s) reading a text, listening to a speaker, or observing a performance.
AUTHORIAL VOICE: The voices or speakers
used by authors when they seemingly speak for themselves in a book. (In
poetry, this might be called a
poetic speaker). The use of
this term makes it clear in critical discussion that the narration or
presentation of a story is not necessarily to be identified with the
biographical and historical author. Instead, the authorial voice may be
another fiction created by the author. It is often considered poor form
for a modern literary critic to equate the authorial voice with the
historical author, but this practice was common in the nineteenth
century. However, twentieth-century critics have pointed out that often
a writer will assume a false persona of attitudes or beliefs when
she writes, or that the authorial voice will speak of so-called
biographical details that cannot possibly be equated with the author
herself. In the early twentieth-century, New Critics also pointed out
that linking the authorial voice with the biographical author often
unfairly limited the possible interpretations of a poem or narrative.
Finally, many writers have enjoyed writing in the first person and
creating unreliable narrators--speakers who tell the story but who
obviously miss the significance of the tale they tell, or who fail to
connect important events together when the reader does. Because of these
reasons, it is often considered naive to assume that the authorial voice
is a "real" representation of the historical author.
31. BALLAD: In common parlance, song hits, folk music, and folktales or any song that tells a story are loosely called ballads. In more exact literary terminology, a ballad is a narrative poem consisting of quatrains of iambic tetrameter alternating with iambic trimeter. Common traits of the ballad are that (a) the beginning is often abrupt, (b) the story is told through dialogue and action (c) the language is simple or "folksy," (d) the theme is often tragic--though comic ballads do exist, and (e) the ballad contains a refrain repeated several times. One of the most important anthologies of ballads is F. J. Child's The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Famous medieval and Renaissance examples include "Chevy Chase," "The Elfin Knights," "Lord Randal," and "The Demon Lover." A number of Robin Hood ballads also exist. More recent ballads from the 18th century and the Scottish borderlands include "Sir Patrick Spens," "Tam Lin," and "Thomas the Rhymer." See also ballade and common measure.
BALLAD MEASURE: Traditionally, ballad
measure consists of a four-line stanza or a quatrain containing
alternating four-stress and three-stress lines with an ABCB or ABAB
rhyme scheme. Works written in ballad measure often include such
quatrains. As an example, the opening stanza to "Earl Brand" illustrates
the pattern. Note also the bits of Scottish
dialect in phrases such as "hae"
for have and "awa" for away.
33. BARD (Welsh Bardd, Irish Bard): (1) An ancient Celtic poet, singer and harpist who recited heroic poems by memory. These bards were the oral historians, political critics, eulogizers, and entertainers of their ancient societies. They were responsible for celebrating national events such as heroic actions and victories. (2) The word in modern usage has become a synonym for any poet. Shakespeare in particular is often referred to as "the Bard" or "the Bard of Avon" in spite of the fact he wrote in the Renaissance, long after the heyday of Celtic bards. The modern day has seen a sort of revival of bardic performance since 1822, when the ancient bardic performance contests were revived in Wales. These contests are called in Welsh Eisteddfodau (singular Eisteddfod). In modern Welsh, the term bardd refers to any participant who has competed in an Eisteddfod. See also skald and rhapsodoi.
BATTLE OF HASTINGS: This battle in 1066
CE marks the rough boundary between the end of the
English) period from about 450-1066 CE and the beginning of the
period from about 1066-1450. No other historical event except perhaps
Great Vowel Shift
(c. 1400-1450 CE) has had such a potent influence on the development of
35. BEAST FABLE: A short, simple narrative with speaking animals as characters designed to teach a moral or social truth. Examples include the fables of Aesop and Marie de France, Kipling's Jungle Books and Just So Stories, George Orwell's Animal Farm, Richard Adams' Watership Down, and Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, and Chaucer's "Nun's Priest's Tale." Contrast with fable, below.
36. BEAT: A heavy stress or accent in a line of poetry. The number of beats or stresses in a line usually determines the meter of the line. See meter. I have also been informed that in drama, the term beat can be used to refer to a completed transaction in stage dialogue. The following example comes from Edmond Clay: "ACTOR #1: Hello! How are you? ACTOR #2: "Fine, thank you for asking."The second actor's response is an example of "finishing the beat" established by the first actor's line, but the beat can also be finished by any suitable action made in response to the requirements of earlier stage activity.
37. BED-TRICK: The term for a recurring folklore motif in which circumstances cause two characters in a story to end up having sex with each other because of mistaken identity--either confusion in a dark room or deliberate acts of disguise in which one character impersonates another. This folklore motif appears in various jokes, fabliaux, and in various works of literature as well. Examples include the switch played upon Angelo in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure and the sexual confusion at miller Simkin's house in Chaucer's "The Reeve's Tale." See also cradle-trick.
38. BEHEADING GAME: A motif from Celtic literature that appears in diverse works such as the Middle Irish Briciu's Feast and the Middle English Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, this situation is one, according to Marie Boroff, "in which an unknown challenger proposes that one of a group of warriors volunteer to cut off his head, the stroke to be repaid in kind at some future date; the hero accepts this challenge, and at the crucial moment of reprisal is spared and praised for his courage" (See viii, Introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Trans. Marie Boroff, NY: W. W. Norton Company, 1967.)
39. BEOT (Anglo-Saxon: "vow"; becomes Modern English "boast"): A ritualized boast or vow made publicly by Anglo-Saxon warriors known as thegns before the hlaford in a mead-hall the night before a military engagement. A typical warrior's boast might be that he would be the first to strike a blow in the coming battle, that he would kill a particular champion among the enemy, that he would not take a single step backward in retreat during the battle, that he would claim a renowned sword from an enemy warrior as booty, and so on. This vow or boast was often accompanied by stories of his past glorious deeds. While later Christianized medieval culture (and perhaps modern American culture) might disdain boasting as a sign of arrogance or sinful pride, the pagan Anglo-Saxons valued such behavior. The beot was not so much a negative sign of arrogance as a positive sign of determination and character. Examples of the beot can be seen throughout Beowulf such as when Beowulf vows to fight Grendel without using any weapons. See also fame/shame culture, thegn, hlaford, mead-hall, and Anglo-Saxon.
40. BLANK VERSE (also called unrhymed iambic pentameter): Unrhymed lines of ten syllables each with the even-numbered syllables bearing the accents. Blank verse has been called the most "natural" verse form for dramatic works, since it supposedly is the verse form most close to natural rhythms of English speech, and it has been the primary verse form of English drama and narrative poetry since the mid-sixteenth Century. Such verse is blank in rhyme only; it usually has a definite meter. (Variations in this meter may appear occasionally.) The Earl of Surrey first used the term "blank verse" in his 1540 translation of The Aeneid of Virgil. As an example, in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Theseus' speech to Hippolyta appears in blank verse:
The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
41. BLOOD-FEUD (OE fae∂u): The custom among certain Germanic tribes like the Anglo-Saxons or the Vikings of seeking vengeance against another tribe or family if a member of that tribe or family injured or killed an individual belonging to one's own tribe or family. See also wergild and peace-weaver.
42. BODY POLITIC, THE: The monarchial government, including all its citizens, its army, and its king. Political theory in the Elizabethan period thought of each kingdom as a "body," with the king functioning as its head. Events affecting the body politic, such as political turmoil, warfare, and plague, would be mirrored in the macrocosm, the microcosm, and the Chain of Being (see below).
43. BROTHERS-IN-ARMS: Individuals in medieval warfare who have sworn a military partnership with each other, agreeing to ransom each other from imprisonment if one of the two is captured by the enemy, swearing to abide by the rules established in their company, vowing loyalty to one another, and agreeing to share their plunder amongst themselves in a predetermined way. Chaucer's Palamon and Arcite in "The Knight's Tale" appear to swear brothership-in-arms with each other, but that vow of loyalty falls apart when both are lovestruck by the sight of Emilye. For further discussion of this medieval practice, consult Maurice H. Keen's books and articles on chivalry.
44. CAESURA (plural: caesurae): A pause separating phrases within lines of poetry--an important part of poetic rhythm. The term caesura comes from the Latin "a cutting" or "a slicing." Some editors will indicate a caesura by inserting a slash (/) in the middle of a poetic line. Others insert extra space in this location. Others do not indicate the caesura typographically at all.
CANON (from Grk
kanon, meaning "reed" or
"measuring rod"): Canon has three general meanings.
(1) An approved or traditional
collection of works. Originally, the term "canon" applied to the list of
books to be included as authentic biblical doctrine in the Hebrew and
Christian Bible, as opposed to apocryphal works (works of
dubious, mysterious or uncertain origin). Click here for
(2) Today, literature students typically use the word
canon to refer to those works in anthologies that have come to be
considered standard or traditionally included in the classroom and
published textbooks. In this sense, "the canon" denotes the entire body
of literature traditionally thought to be suitable for admiration and
study. (3) In
addition, the word canon refers to the writings of an author that
generally are accepted as genuine, such as the "Chaucer canon" or the
"Shakespeare canon." Chaucer's canon includes The Canterbury Tales,
for instance, but it does not include the apocryphal work, "The
Plowman's Tale," which has been mistakenly attributed to him in the
past. Likewise, the Shakespearean canon has only two apocryphal plays (Pericles
and the Two Noble Kinsmen)
that have gained wide acceptance as authentic Shakespearean works beyond
the thirty-six plays contained in the First Folio. NB: Do not confuse
the spelling of cannon (the big gun) with canon (the
official collection of literary works).
46. CANTO: A sub-division of an epic or narrative poem comparable to a chapter in a novel. Examples include the divisions in Dante's Divine Comedy, Lord Byron's Childe Harold, or Spenser's Faerie Queene. Cf. fit.
47. CARPE DIEM: Literally, the phrase is Latin for "seize the day," from carpere (to pluck, harvest, or grab) and the accusative form of die (day). The term refers to a common moral or theme in classical literature that the reader should make the most out of life and should enjoy it before it ends. Poetry or literature that illustrates this moral is often called poetry or literature of the "carpe diem" tradition. Examples include Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress," and Herrick's "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time." Cf. Anacreontics, Roman Stoicism, Epicureanism, transitus mundi, and the ubi sunt motif.
48. CATALOGING: Creating long lists for poetic or rhetorical effect. The technique is common in epic literature, where conventionally the poet would devise long lists of famous princes, aristocrats, warriors, and mythic heroes to be lined up in battle and slaughtered. The technique is also common in the practice of giving illustrious genealogies ("and so-and-so begat so-and-so," or "x, son of y, son of z" etc.) for famous individuals. An example in American literature is Whitman's multi-page catalog of American types in section 15 of "Song of Myself." An excerpt appears below:
The pure contralto sings in
the organ loft,
One of the more humorous examples of cataloging appears in the Welsh Mabinogion. In one tale, "Culhwch and Olwen," the protagonist invokes in an oath all the names of King Arthur's companion-warriors, giving lists of their unusual attributes or abilities running to six pages.
49. CATASTROPHE: The "turning downward" of the plot in a classical tragedy. By tradition, the catastrophe occurs in the fourth act of the play after the climax. (See tragedy.) Freytag's pyramid illustrates visually the normal charting of the catastrophe in a plotline.
50. CATHARSIS: An emotional discharge that brings about a moral or spiritual renewal or welcome relief from tension and anxiety. According to Aristotle, catharsis is the marking feature and ultimate end of any tragic artistic work. He writes in his Poetics (c. 350 BCE): "Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; . . . through pity [eleos] and fear [phobos] effecting the proper purgation [catharsis] of these emotions" (Book 6.2). (See tragedy.) Click here to download a pdf handout concerning this material.
51. CAVALIER: A follower of Charles I of England (ruled c. 1625-49) in his struggles with the Puritan-dominated parliament. The term is used in contrast with Roundheads, his Puritan opponents. Cavaliers were primarily wealthy aristocrats and courtiers. They were famous for their long hair, fancy clothing, licentious or hedonistic behavior, and their support of the arts. See Cavalier drama and Cavalier poets, below. Ultimately, Cromwell led the Roundheads in a coup d'état and established a Puritan dictatorship in England, leading to the end of the English Renaissance and its artistic, scientific, and cultural achievements. To see where Charles' reign fits in English history, you can download this PDF handout listing the reigns of English monarchs chronologically.
52. CAVALIER POETS: A group of Cavalier English lyric poets who supported King Charles I and wrote during his reign. The major Cavalier poets included Carew, Waller, Lovelace, Sir John Suckling, and Herrick. They largely abandoned the sonnet form favored for a century earlier, but they still focused on the themes of love and sensuality and their work illustrates "technical virtuosity" as J. A. Cuddon put it (125). They show strong signs of Ben Jonson's influence.
53. CHAIN OF BEING: An elaborate cosmological model of the universe common in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The Great Chain of Being was a permanently fixed hierarchy with the Judeo-Christian God at the top of the chain and inanimate objects like stones and mud at the bottom. Intermediate beings and objects, such as angels, humans, animals, and plants, were arrayed in descending order of intelligence, authority, and capability between these two extremes. The Chain of Being was seen as designed by God. The idea of the Chain of Being resonates in art, politics, literature, cosmology, theology, and philosophy throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. It takes on particular complexity because different parts of the Chain were thought to correspond to each other. (See correspondences.) Click here for more information.
54. CHARACTER: Any representation of an individual being presented in a dramatic or narrative work through extended dramatic or verbal representation. The reader can interpret characters as endowed with moral and dispositional qualities expressed in what they say (dialogue) and what they do (action). E. M. Forster describes characters as "flat" (i.e., built around a single idea or quality and unchanging over the course of the narrative) or "round" (complex in temperament and motivation; drawn with subtlety; capable of growth and change during the course of the narrative). The main character of a work of a fiction is typically called the protagonist; the character against whom the protagonist struggles or contends (if there is one), is the antagonist. If a single secondary character aids the protagonist throughout the narrative, that character is the deuteragonist (the hero's "side-kick"). A character of tertiary importance is a tritagonist. These terms originate in classical Greek drama, in which a tenor would be assigned the role of protagonist, a baritone the role of deuteragonist, and a bass would play the tritagonist. Compare flat characters with stock characters, below.
55. CHARACTERIZATION: An author or poet's use of description, dialogue, dialect, and action to create in the reader an emotional or intellectual reaction to a character or to make the character more vivid and realistic. Careful readers note each character's attitude and thoughts, actions and reaction, as well as any language that reveals geographic, social, or cultural background.
CHIVALRY: An idealized code of military
and social behavior for the aristocracy in the late medieval period. The
word "chivalry" comes from Old French cheval (horse), and
chivalry literally means "horsemanship." Normally, only rich
nobility could afford the expensive armor, weaponry, and warhorses
necessary for mounted combat, so the act of becoming a knight was
symbolically indicated by giving the knight silver spurs. The right to
knighthood in the late medieval period was inherited through the father,
but it could also be granted by the king or a lord as a reward for
I made them lay their hands in mine and swear
For the best modern scholarly discussion of chivalry as a historic reality in the Middle Ages, read Maurice H. Keen's Chivalry (Yale University Press, 1984).
58. CHOREGOS (often Latinized as choregus): A sponsor or patron of a play in classical Greece. Often this sponsor was honored by serving as the leader of the chorus (see below).
59. CHORUS: (1) A group of singers who stand alongside or off stage from the principal performers in a dramatic or musical performance. (2) The song or refrain that this group of singers sings. In ancient Greece, the chorus was originally a group of male singers and dancers (choreuti) who participated in religious festivals and dramatic performances by singing commenting on the deeds of the characters and interpreting the significance of the events within the play. This group contrasts with the actors (Greek hypocrites). Shakespeare alters the traditional chorus by replacing the singers with a single figure--often allegorical in nature. For instance, "Time" comes on stage in The Winter's Tale to explain the passing years. Likewise, "Rumor" appears in Henry IV, Part Two to summarize the gossip about Prince Hal. See also choragos.
60. CHRONOLOGY (Greek: "logic of time"): The order in which events happen, especially when emphasizing a cause-effect relationship in history or in a narrative.
61. CITY DIONYSIA: See discussion under dionysia.
62. CLASSICAL: The term in Western culture is usually used in reference to the art, architecture, drama, philosophy, literature, and history surrounding the Greeks and Romans between 1000 BCE and 410 BCE. Works created during the Greco-Roman period are often called classics. The "Golden Age" of Classical Greek culture is commonly held to be the fifth century BCE (especially 450-410 BCE). The term can be applied more generally to any ancient and revered writing or artwork from a specific culture; thus we refer to "Classical Chinese," "Classical Hebrew," and "Classical Arabic" works. For extended discussion, click here. To download a PDF handout placing the periods of literary history in order, click here.
63. CLASSICAL HAIKU: Another term for the hokku, the predecessor of the modern haiku.
64. CLIMAX, LITERARY (From Greek word for "ladder"): The moment in a play, novel, short story, or narrative poem at which the crisis reaches its point of greatest intensity and is thereafter resolved. It is also the peak of emotional response from a reader or spectator and usually the turning point in the action. The climax usually follows or overlaps with the crisis of a story, though some critics use the two terms synonymously. (Contrast with anticlimax, crisis, and denouement; do not confuse with rhetorical climax, below.)
65. CLOSE READING: Reading a piece of literature carefully, bit by bit, in order to analyze the significance of every individual word, image, and artistic ornament. Click here for more information. The term is sometimes used synonymously with critical reading, though I arbitrarily prefer to reserve close reading as a reference for analyzing literature and critical reading as a reference for breaking down an essay's argument logically. Cf. critical reading.
66. CLOSED POETIC FORM: Poetry written in a a specific or traditional pattern according to the required rhyme, meter, line length, line groupings, and number of lines within a genre of poetry. Examples of a closed-form poetry include haiku, limericks, and sonnets, which have set numbers of syllables, lines, and traditional subject-matter. Contrast with open poetic form.
67. CLOSURE (Latin clausura, "a closing"): Closure has two common meanings. First, it means a sense of completion or finality at the conclusion of play or narrative work--especially a feeling in the audience that all the problems have been resolved satisfactorily. Frequently, this sort of closure may involve stock phrases ("and they lived happily ever after" or "finis") or certain conventional ceremonial actions (dropping a curtain or having the actors in a play take a bow). The narrative may reveal the solution of the primary problem(s) driving the plot, the death of a major character (especially the antagonist, the protagonist's romantic interest or even the protagonist herself), or careful denouement. An example of extended denouement as closure occurs in George Eliot's Middlemarch, in which the author carefully explains what happened in later years to each character in the novel. Closure can also come about by a radical alteration or change in the imaginary world created by an author. For instance, in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, much of the closure to the saga comes from the departure of the elves and wizards, who sail across the sea, leaving the world of human men and women forever, an act which apparently causes magic to fade. Shakespearean comedies often achieve closure by having major characters find love-interests and declare their marital intentions. Other more experimental forms of literature and poetry may achieve closure by "circular structure," in which the poem or story ends by coming back to the narrative's original starting spot, or by returning a similar situation to what was found at the beginning of the tale. See discussion under denouement. Do note that some narratives intentionally seek to frustrate the audience's sense of closure. Examples of literature that reject conventions of closure include cliffhanger serials (see above), which reject normal closure in an attempt to gain returning audiences. Many postmodern narratives influenced by existential philosophy, on the other hand, reject closure as too "simplistic" and "artificial" in comparison with the complexities of human living.
Secondly, some critics use the term "closure" as a derogatory term to imply the reduction of a work's meanings to a single and complete sense that excludes the claims of other interpretations. For extended discussion of closure, see Frank Kermode's The Sense of An Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction, as reprinted in 2001.
68. COMEDY (from Greek: komos, "songs of merrimakers"): In the original meaning of the word, comedy referred to a genre of drama during the Dionysia festivals of ancient Athens. The first comedies were loud and boisterous drunken affairs, as the word's etymology suggests. Later, in medieval and Renaissance use, the word comedy came to mean any play or narrative poem in which the main characters manage to avert an impending disaster and have a happy ending. The comedy did not necessarily have to be funny, and indeed, many comedies are serious in tone. It is only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that comedy's exclusive connotations of humor arose.
69. COMEDY OF MANNERS: A form of comedy consisting of five or three acts in which the attitudes and customs of a society are critiqued and satirized according to high standards of intellect and morality. The dialogue is usually clever and sophisticated, but often risqué. Characters are valued according to their linguistic and intellectual prowess. It is the opposite of the slapstick humor found in a farce or in a fabliau.
70. COMIC RELIEF: A humorous scene, incident, character, or bit of dialogue occurring after some serious or tragic moment. Comic relief is deliberately designed to relieve emotional intensity and simultaneously heighten and highlight the seriousness or tragedy of the action. Macbeth contains Shakespeare's most famous example of comic relief in the form of a drunken porter.
71. COMITATUS: (Latin: "companionship" or "band"): The term describes the tribal structure of the Anglo-Saxons and other Germanic tribes in which groups of men would swear fealty to a hlaford (lord) in exchange for food, mead, and heriot, the loan of fine armor and weaponry. The men who swore such an oath were called thegns (roughly akin to modern Scottish "thane"), and they vowed to fight for their lord in battle. It was considered a shameful disaster to outlive one's own lord. The comitatus was the functional military and government unit of early Anglo-Saxon society. The term was first coined by the classical historian Tacitus when he described the Germanic tribes north of Rome.
72. COMPLETENESS: The second aspect of Aristotle's requirements for a tragedy. By completeness, Aristotle emphasizes the logic, wholeness, and closure necessary to satisfy the audience.
73. CONCEIT (also called a metaphysical conceit): An elaborate or unusual comparison--especially one using unlikely metaphors, simile, hyperbole, and contradiction. Before the beginning of the seventeenth century, the term conceit was a synonym for "thought" and roughly equivalent to "idea" or "concept." It gradually came to denote a fanciful idea or a particularly clever remark. In literary terms, the word denotes a fairly elaborate figure of speech, especially an extended comparison involving unlikely metaphors, similes, imagery, hyperbole, and oxymora. One of the most famous conceits is John Donne's "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning," a poem in which Donne compares two souls in love to the points on a geometer's compass. Shakespeare also uses conceits regularly in his poetry. In Richard II, Shakespeare compares two kings competing for power to two buckets in a well, for instance. A conceit is usually classified as a subtype of metaphor. Contrast with epic simile.
74. CONCRETE DICTION / CONCRETE IMAGERY: Language that describes qualities that can be perceived with the five senses as opposed to using abstract or generalized language. For instance, calling a fruit "pleasant" or "good" is abstract, while calling a fruit "cool" or "sweet" is concrete. The preference for abstract or concrete imagery varies from century to century. Philip Sidney praised concrete imagery in poetry in his 1595 treatise, Apologie for Poetrie. A century later, Neoclassical thought tended to value the generality of abstract thought. In the early 1800s, the Romantic poets like Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley once again preferred concreteness. In the 20th century, the distinction between concrete and abstract has been a subject of some debate. Ezra Pound and T. E. Hulme attempted to create a theory of concrete poetry. T. S. Eliot added to this school of thought with his theory of the "objective correlative." Contrast with abstract diction / abstract imagery.
75. CONFLICT: The opposition between two characters (such as a protagonist and an antagonist), between two large groups of people, or between the protagonist and a larger problem such as forces of nature, ideas, public mores, and so on. Conflict may also be completely internal, such as the protagonist struggling with his psychological tendencies (drug addiction, self-destructive behavior, and so on); William Faulkner famously claimed that the most important literature deals with the subject of "the human heart in conflict with itself." Conflict is the engine that drives a plot. Examples of narratives driven mainly by conflicts between the protagonist and nature include Jack London's "To Build a Fire" (in which the Californian struggles to save himself from freezing to death in Alaska) and Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat" (in which shipwrecked men in a lifeboat struggle to stay alive and get to shore). Examples of narratives driven by conflicts between a protagonist and an antagonist include Mallory's Le Morte D'arthur, in which King Arthur faces off against his evil son Mordred, each representing civilization and barbarism respectively. Examples of narratives driven by internal struggles include Daniel Scott Keyes' "Flowers for Algernon," in which the hero struggles with the loss of his own intelligence to congenital mental retardation, and Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," in which the protagonist ends up struggling with his own guilt after committing a murder. In complex works of literature, multiple conflicts may occur at once. For instance, in Shakespeare's Othello, one level of conflict is the unseen struggle between Othello and the machinations of Iago, who seeks to destroy him. Another level of conflict is Othello's struggle with his own jealous insecurities and his suspicions that Desdemona is cheating on him.
76. CONNOTATION: The extra tinge or taint of meaning each word carries beyond the minimal, strict definition found in a dictionary. For instance, the terms civil war, revolution and rebellion have the same denotation; they all refer to an attempt at social or political change. However, civil war carries historical connotations for Americans beyond that of revolution or rebellion. Likewise, revolution is often applied more generally to scientific or theoretical changes, and it does not necessarily connote violence. Rebellion, for many English speakers connotes an improper uprising against a legitimate authority (thus we speak about "rebellious teenagers" rather than "revolutionary teenagers"). In the same way, the words house and home both refer to a domicile, but home connotes certain singular emotional qualities and personal possession in a way that house doesn't. I might own four houses I rent to others, but I might call none of these my home, for example. Much of poetry involves the poet using connotative diction that suggests meanings beyond "what the words simply say." Contrast with denotation.
77. CONSONANCE: A special type of alliteration in which the repeated pattern of consonants is marked by changes in the intervening vowels. As M. H. Abrams illustrates in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, examples include linger, longer, and languor or rider, reader, raider, and ruder. Do not confuse consonance with a consonant.
78. CONVENTION: A common feature that has become traditional or expected within a specific genre (category) of literature or film. In Harlequin romances, it is conventional to focus on a male and female character who struggle through misunderstandings and difficulties until they fall in love. In western films of the early twentieth-century, for instance, it has been conventional for protagonists to wear white hats and antagonists to wear black hats. The wandering knight-errant who travels from place to place, seeking adventure while suffering from the effects of hunger and the elements, is a convention in medieval romances. It is a convention for an English sonnet to have fourteen lines with a specific rhyme scheme, abab, cdcd, efef, gg, and so on. The use of a chorus and the unities are dramatic conventions of Greek tragedy, while, the aside, and the soliloquy are conventions in Elizabethan tragedy. Conventions are often referred to as poetic, literary, or dramatic, depending upon whether the convention appears in a poem, short story or novel, or a play.
79. CORRESPONDENCES: An integral part of the medieval and Renaissance model of the universe known as the "Chain of Being." The idea was that different links on the Chain of Being were interconnected and had a sort of sympathetic correspondence to each other. Each type of being or object (men, beasts, celestial objects, fish, plants, and rocks) had a place within a hierarchy designed by God. Each type of object had a primate, which was by nature the most noble, rare, valuable, and superb example of its type. For instance, the king was primate among men, the lion among beasts, the sun among celestial objects, the whale among fish, the oak among trees, and the diamond among rocks. Often, there was a symbolic link between primates of different orders--such as the lion being a symbol of royalty, or the king sleeping in a bed of oak. This symbolic link was a "correspondence." However, correspondences were thought to exist in the material world as well as in the world of ideas. Disturbances in nature would correspond to disturbances in the political realm (the body politic), in the human body (the microcosm), and in the natural world as a whole (the macrocosm). For instance, if the king were to become ill, Elizabethans might expect lions and beasts to fall sick, rebellions to break out in the kingdom, individuals to develop headaches or fevers, and stars to fall from the sky. All of these events could correspond to each other on the chain of being, and each would coincide with the others. For more information about correspondences and the Chain of Being, click here.
80. COUPLET: Two lines--the second line immediately following the first--of the same metrical length that end in a rhyme to form a complete unit. Geoffrey Chaucer and other writers helped popularize the form in English poetry in the fourteenth century. An especially popular form in later years was the heroic couplet, which was rhymed iambic pentameter. It was popular from the 1600s through the late 1700s. Much Romantic poetry in the early 1800s used the couplet as well. A couplet that occurs after the volta in an English sonnet is called a gemel.
81. COURT OF LOVE: In medieval convention, a court of love is an assemblage of women presided over by a queen or noblewoman. At this mock-court, various young knights or courtiers are summoned to court and put on "trial" by the ladies for their crimes against love. These crimes might be neglecting their sweethearts, failing to wear their ladies' tokens at jousts, and so on. Chaucer himself may have been summoned to a court of love for his "libelous" depiction of Criseyde in Troilus and Criseyde, and Queen Anne may have required him to write The Legend of Good Women as a penance for his literary "crimes." In "The Wife of Bath's Tale," we find an inversion of the normal play-acting in which King Arthur gives Gwenevere and her ladies the right to try a rapist-knight for his crimes. Here, the women literally have power of life or death over the subject. Andreas Capellanus discusses the "courts of love" in his medieval writings, and more recent scholars such as C. S. Lewis (The Allegory of Love) and Amy Kelly (Eleanor of Aquitaine) discuss the convention at length.
82. COURTLY LOVE (Medieval French: fin amour or amour courtois): Possibly a cultural trope in the late twelfth-century, or possibly a literary convention that captured popular imagination, courtly love refers to a code of behavior that gave rise to modern ideas of chivalrous romance. The term itself was popularized by C. S. Lewis' and Gaston Paris' scholarly studies, but its historical existence remains contested in critical circles. The conventions of courtly love are that a knight of noble blood would adore and worship a young noble-woman from afar, seeking to protect her honor and win her favor by valorous deeds. He typically falls ill with love-sickness, while the woman chastely or scornfully rejects or refuses his advances in public but privately encourages him. Courtly love was associated with (A) nobility, since no peasants can engage in "fine love"; (B) secrecy; (C) adultery, since often the one or both participants were married to another noble who was unloved; and (D) paradoxically with chastity, since the passion should never be consummated due to social circumstances, thus it was a "higher love" unsullied by selfish carnal desires or political concerns of arranged marriages. In spite of this ideal of chastity, the knightly characters in literature usually end up giving in to their passions with tragic results--such as Lancelot and Guenevere's fate, or that of Tristan and Iseult.
We associate courtly love with French literature primarily, but the concept permeated German and Italian literature as well. The German equivalent of fin amour is Minne (hence Minnesänger), and the Italian poets of the dolce stil nuovo cultivated similar subect matter.
The convention of courtly love eventually becomes a source of parody. Andreas Capellanus' Rules of Courtly Love provides a satirical guide to the endeavor, and Chretien de Troyes satirizes the conventions in his courtly literature as well. Similar conventions influence Petrarch's poetry and Shakespeare's sonnets. These sonnets often emphasize in particular the idea of "love from afar" and "unrequited love," and make use of imagery and wording common to the earlier French tradition.
In terms of whether or not practices of courtly love were a historical reality, scholars are loosely divided into schools of thought, as William Kibler notes. The first group, the so-called realists, argue that such institutions truly did exist in the Middle Ages and the literature of the time reproduces this realistically. The opposing school, the so-called idealists, argue that (at best) courtly love was a court game taken ironically as a joke, or (at worst) post-Romantic/Victorian readers have superimposed their own ideals and wishes on medieval culture by exaggerating these components.
83. CRADLE TRICK: A sub-category of the "bed-trick," this is a folk motif in which the position of a cradle in a dark room leads one character to climb into bed with the wrong sexual partner. It appears prominently in Chaucer's "The Reeve's Tale." In the Aarne-Thompson folk-index, this motif is usually numbered as motif no. 1363.
84. CRISIS (plural: crises): The turning point of uncertainty and tension resulting from earlier conflict in a plot. At the moment of crisis in a story, it is unclear if the protagonist will succeed or fail in his struggle. The crisis usually leads to or overlaps with the climax of a story, though some critics use the two terms synonymously. See climax, literary, above.
85. CRITICAL READING: Careful analysis of an essay's structure and logic in order to determine the validity of an argument. Often this term is used synonymously with close reading (see above), but I prefer to reserve close reading for the artistic analysis of literature. Click here for more information about critical reading. Cf. close reading.
86. CTHONIC: Related to the dead, the grave, the underworld, or the fertility of the earth. In Greek mythology, the Greeks venerated three categories of spirits: (1) the Olympian gods, who were worshipped in public ceremonies--often outdoors on the east side of large columned temples in the agora, (2) ancestral heroes like Theseus and Hercules, who were often worshipped only in local shrines or at specific burial mounds, (3) cthonic spirits, which included (a) earth-gods and death-gods like Hades, Hecate, and Persephone; (b) lesser-known (and often nameless) spirits of the departed; (c) dark and bloody spirits of vengeance like the Furies and Nemesis, and (d) (especially in Minoan tradition) serpents, which were revered as intermediaries between the surface world of the living and the subterranean realm of the dead. This is why snakes were so prominent in the healing cults of Aesclepius. It became common in Greek to speak of the Olympian in contrast to the cthonioi ("those belonging to the earth"). See Burkert 199-203 for detailed discussion.
87. CULTURAL SYMBOL: A symbol widely or generally accepted as meaning something specific within an entire culture or social group, as opposed to a contextual symbol created by a single author that has meaning only within a single work or group of works. Examples of cultural symbols in Western culture include the cross as a symbol of Christianity, the American flag as a symbol of America's colonial history of thirteen colonies growing into fifty states, the gold ring as a symbol of marital commitment, the Caduceus as a symbol of medicine, and the color black as a symbol of mourning. Examples of cultural symbols in other cultures include white as a symbol of mourning in Japan, the Yin-Yang sphere as an oriental symbol of oppositional forces in balance, the white crane as a symbol of longevity in Mandarin China, and so forth. Any writer in a specific culture could use one of these symbols and be relatively confident that the reader would understand what each symbol represented. Thus, if a writer depicted a pedophilic priest as trampling a crucifix into the mud, it is likely the reader would understand this action represents the way the priest tramples Christian ideals, and so forth. Contrast with contextual symbol and archetype.
88. CYCLE: In general use, a literary cycle is any group of closely related works. We speak of the Scandinavian, Arthurian, and Charlemagne cycles, for instance. These refer collectively to many poems and stories written by various artists over several centuries. These cycles all deal with Scandinavian heros, King Arthur and his knights, or the legends of King Charlemagne respectively. More specifically, a mystery cycle refers to the complete set of mystery plays performed during the Corpus Christi festival in medieval religious drama (typically 45 or so plays, each of which depicted a specific event in biblical history from the creation of the world to the last judgment). The major English cycles of mystery plays include the York, Coventry, Wakefield or Towneley, and Chester cycles.
89. CYNING: A king, another term for an Anglo-Saxon hlaford.
90. DACTYL: A three-syllable foot consisting of a heavy stress and two light stresses. Examples of words in English that naturally constitute dactyls include strawberry, carefully, changeable, merrily, mannequin, tenderly, prominent, buffalo, glycerin, notable, scorpion, tedious, horrible, and parable. Verses written in feet that follow this pattern are said to be in dactylic meter. For further discussion, see meter, or click here for a PDF handout contrasting dactyls and other types of feet.
91. DANEGELD: The practice of paying extortion money to Vikings to make them go away, often associated in particular with the Anglo-Saxon king "Aethelred Unraed." His nickname means "Aethelred the Unready," or more accurately translated, "Aethelred the Uncounciled." At various points in history, British kings paid as much as 20,000 pounds in silver to appease the Vikings and prevent invasion--a disastrous policy that bankrupted the island and encouraged the return of extortionate Vikings every few years. This failed policy of Danegeld ultimately led to large portions of northern England being settled by the Vikings in the area known as the Danelaw, which in turn played a key part in the evolution of the English language through the incorporation of Scandinavian loan-words. Words like skiff, ship, and shirt, for instance, are all loan-words borrowed from the Vikings. NB: Danegeld should not be confused with wergild.
92. DANELAW (Anglo-Saxon, Dena lagu): The region of northeast England up to the southern part of Scotland that was conquered and inhabited by Viking invaders. In 871 CE, a Wessex army under King Aethelred (the West Saxon king) and his brother Alfred confronted the Danish Vikings at the Battle of Ashdown (in modern Berkshire). Unfortunately, after a series of losses, Wessex began paying annual Danegeld (tribute) to the Vikings. Aethelred died soon after, and Viking settlers swarmed into the northern parts of England while their raiders occupied London.
The Vikings continued their expansion until 878 CE. That year, King Alfred the Great rallied men from Somerset and Wiltshire and decisively defeated the Danish Vikings. The Danes were too numerous to dislodge from their holdings, but it was clear that they would not be able to expand their territory while Alfred lived. King Alfred freed London from Danish occupation in 886. At this point, Alfred made a treaty with the Danes so that England was divided. The northeastern section between the Rivers Thames and Tees was officially declared to be Danish territory and later become known as the Danelaw (where the inhabitants followed Danish law from 890 onward). The influence of this period of Viking settlement is still visible in the North of England and the East Midlands, especially in toponyms or place-names. Towns with name-endings such as -by or -thorp are all places named by the Viking settlers.
93. DECORUM: The requirement that individual characters, the characters' actions, and the style of speech should be matched to each other and to the genre in which they appear. This idea was of central importance to writers and literary critics from the time of the Renaissance up through the eighteenth century. Lowly characters, low actions, and low style, for instance, were thought necessary for satire. Epic literature, on the other hand, called for characters of high estate, engaging in great actions, and speaking using elevated, poetic diction.
94. DENOTATION: The minimal, strict definition of a word as found in a dictionary, disregarding any historical or emotional connotation. Contrast with connotation.
95. DENOUEMENT: A French word meaning "unknotting" or "unwinding," denouement refers to the outcome or result of a complex situation or sequence of events, an aftermath or resolution that usually occurs near the final stages of the plot. It is the unraveling of the main dramatic complications in a play, novel or other work of literature. In drama, the term is usually applied to tragedies or to comedies with catastrophes in their plot. This resolution usually takes place in the final chapter or scene, after the climax is over. Usually the denouement ends as quickly as the writer can arrange it--for it occurs only after all the conflicts have been resolved.
96. DESCENT INTO THE UNDERWORLD: An archetype or motif in folklore, religion, mythology, or literature in which the protagonist must descend into the realm of the dead (usually located beneath the earth in hell, Elysium, or Tartarus) and then return to the realm of the living at the earth's surface, often after rescuing a trapped soul or seeking the advice of the dead. Sometimes, a psychopompos will serve as a guide on this journey.
This idea appears in many different cultures. In Mesopotamian legend, the goddess Inanna must enter Queen Erishikegal's realm of the dead unclothed, and she can only return if another soul is chosen to take her place. In Egyptian mythology, the souls descending into the next life must appear before a judge who takes his scales and weighs their hearts against a single feather. Greek examples include Orpheus's expedition to rescue Eurydice from Hades, or Hades' abduction of Persephone to make her the queen of his realm, or Odysseus's necromantic conversation with the shades of his old comrades who regain their power of speech after drinking sacrificial blood from a lamb. In Roman literature such as the Aeneid, Virgil describes how the Sibyl instructs Aeneas to use a golden bough as a bribe so Charon will ferry Aeneas across the river Styx.
In one of the most spectacular medieval treatments of the motif, Dante has a persona of himself undertake such a trip through a multi-layered hell in The Inferno. Other medieval examples include Saint Patrick's Purgatory and Sir Orfeo. Medieval writers such as the "Vatican mythographers" often treat all sorts of mythological narratives as symbolic of the descent into the underworld. One example is Theseus's battle with the minotaur, in which medieval readers equated Theseus with Christ, the bull with Satan, and the labyrinth with the underworld. In the early apocryphal books of the Bible, such as the Gospel of Nicodimas, Christ descends into hell during the three days after his crucifixion and frees the souls there in the harrowing of hell, an apocryphal belief that still appears in the Apostle's Creed today even though most Protestant groups reject apocryphal texts in favor of those books of the bible considered canonical today.
Other writers adapt the motif for purely symbolic effects. The cyberpunk novel Snow Crash includes Juanita Marquez as a typological figure of the goddess Inanna; Juanita descends into a figurative land-of-the-dead by infecting herself with a language-virus on a raft of refugees, and her rescuer ("Hiro Protagonist") must guide her back to the land-of-the living.
Freudian and Jungian critics might read these descent motifs psychologically as a symbol of entering the dark realms of the subconscious mind, and point out the images of rebirth that usually accompany the hero's return.
97. DEUS EX MACHINA (from Greek theos apo mechanes): An unrealistic or unexpected intervention to rescue the protagonists or resolve the story's conflict. The term means "The god out of the machine," and it refers to stage machinery. A classical Greek actor, portraying one of the Greek gods in a play, might be lowered out of the sky onto the stage and then use his divine powers to solve all the mortals' problems. The term is a negative one, and it often implies a lack of skill on the part of the writer. In a modern example of deus ex machina, a writer might reach a climactic moment in which a band of pioneers were attacked by bandits. A cavalry brigade's unexpected arrival to drive away the marauding bandits at the conclusion, with no previous hint of the cavalry's existence, would be a deus ex machina conclusion. Such endings mean that heroes are unable to solve their own problems in a pleasing manner, and they must be "rescued" by the writer himself through improbable means. In some genres, the deus ex machina ending is actually a positive and expected trait. In various vitae, or Saint's Lives, divine intervention is one of the normal climactic moments of the narrative to bring about the rescue of a saint or to cause a mass conversion among conventional pagan characters.
98. DEUTERAGONIST: A sidekick who accompanies the main protagonist, the main character or hero, in a narrative. In The Advenures of Huckleberry Finn, for instance, the slave Jim is a deuteragonist and Huck Finn is the protagonist. The deuteragonist may be either round or flat as a character, and he often serves as a foil to the protagonist as well. Note that classical scholars often use the word deuteragonist in a more restricted sense. In the oldest form of classical Greek drama, plays originally consisted of a single character standing on stage speaking with the chorus. Later dramatists introduced the innovation of a second actor (the deuteragonist) who stood on stage and donned a variety of masks to represent the other various characters besides the hero. A still later innovation was the tritagonist, a third character on stage which allowed more complex interactions of dialogue. (See further discussion under character)
99. DIALOGUE: The lines spoken by a character or characters in a play, essay, story, or novel, especially a conversation between two characters, or a literary work that takes the form of such a discussion (e.g., Plato's Republic). Bad dialogue is pointless. Good dialogue either provides characterization or advances the plot. In plays, dialogue often includes within it hints akin to stage directions. For instance, if one character asks, "Why are you hitting me?" the reader can assume that on stage another character is striking the speaker. Noticing such details is particularly important in classical drama and in Shakespeare's plays since explicit stage directions are often missing.
100. DICTION: The choice of a particular word as opposed to others. A writer could call a rock formation by many words--a stone, a boulder, an outcropping, a pile of rocks, a cairn, a mound, or even an "anomalous geological feature." The analytical reader then faces tough questions. Why that particular choice of words? What is the effect of that diction? The word choice a writer makes determines the reader's reaction to the object of description, and contributes to the author's style and tone. Compare with concrete diction and abstract diction, above. It is also possible to separate diction into high or formal diction, which involves elaborate, technical, or polysyllabic vocabulary and careful attention to the proprieties of grammar, and low or informal diction, which involves conversational or familiar language, contractions, slang, elision, and grammatical errors designed to convey a relaxed tone.
102. DIONYSIA: The Athenian religious festivals celebrating Dionysus in March-April. Dionysus (Roman Bacchus) was the god of intoxication, celebration, powerful emotion, and loss of self-control. At his festival, priests would sacrifice goats on the theater stage, and then actors would perform tragic plays in honor of the god, interspersed with brief comedies. (The word tragedy itself may originate in the Greek tragos--a goat song, or possibly in a pun on "billygoat singers.") See tragedy.
103. DIRGE: See discussion of elegy, below.
105. DOUBLE ENTENDRE (French, "double meaning"): The deliberate use of ambiguity in a phrase or image--especially involving sexual or humorous meanings.
106. DRAMA: A composition in prose or verse presenting, in pantomime and dialogue, a narrative involving conflict between a character or characters and some external or internal force (see conflict). Playwrights usually design dramas for presentation on a stage in front of an audience. Aristotle called drama "imitated human action." Drama may have originated in religious ceremonies. Thespis of Attica (sixth century BCE) was the first recorded composer of a tragedy. Tragedies in their earliest stage were performed by a single actor who interacted with the chorus. The playwright Aeschylus added a second actor on the stage (deuteragonist) to allow additional conflict and dialogue. Sophocles and Euripides added a third (tritagonist). Medieval drama may have evolved independently from rites commemorating the birth and death of Christ. During the late medieval period and the early Renaissance, drama gradually altered to the form we know today. The mid-sixteenth century in England in particular was one of the greatest periods of world drama. In traditional Greek drama, as defined by Aristotle, a play was to consist of five acts and follow the three dramatic unities. In more recent drama (i.e., during the last two centuries), plays have frequently consisted of three acts, and playwrights have felt more comfortable disregarding the confines of Aristotelian rules involving verisimilitude. See also unities, comedy and tragedy. An individual work of drama is called a play.
107. DRAMATIC IRONY: See irony.
108. DRAMATIC MONOLOGUE: A poem in which a poetic speaker addresses either the reader or an internal listener at length. It is similar to the soliloquy in theater, in that both a dramatic monologue and a soliloquy often involve the revelation of the innermost thoughts and feelings of the speaker. Two famous examples are Browning's "My Last Duchess" and "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister." Cf. interior monologue and monologue.
109. DRAMATIS PERSONAE (Latin: "people of the play"): A list of the complete cast, i.e., the various characters that will appear in the play. This list usually appears before the text of the main play begins in printed copies of the text. In late periods of drama, the dramatis personae often included a brief description of the character's personality or appearance. In the First Folio, such lists appeared at the end of some Shakespearean plays, but not at the end of all of them.
110. DYNAMIC CHARACTER: Also called a round character, a dynamic character is one whose personality changes or evolves over the course of a narrative or appears to have the capacity for such change. The round character contrasts with the flat character, a character who serves a specific or minor literary function in a text, and who may be a stock character or simplified stereotype. Typically, a short story has one round character and several flat ones. However, in longer novels and plays, there may be many round characters. The terms flat and round were first coined by the novelist E. M. Forster in his study, Aspects of the Novel. See flat character, character, characterization, round character, and stock character.
111. EARLY MODERN ENGLISH: Modern English covers the time-frame from about 1450 or so up to the present day. However, linguists sometimes subdivide Modern English into "Early Modern" (c. 1450-1800) and "Late Modern" (c. 1800 to the present).
112. EISODOS: (plural: eisodoi) In Ancient Greek theater, these were the entrance ramps that lead to the orchestra of the amphitheater. Also called paradoi.
113. EKKYKLEMA: Ancient Greek theater machine on wheels that actors could roll out of the skene door. Little is known of this machine, but it may have been one way to show interior scenes of death to the audience. Basically, a character “died” offstage, and the body was wheeled out later for the audience to see.
114. ELEGY: In classical Greco-Roman literature, "elegy" refers to any poem written in elegiac meter (alternating hexameter and pentameter lines). More broadly, elegy came to mean any poem dealing with the subject-matter common to the early Greco-Roman elegies--complaints about love, sustained formal lamentation, or somber meditations. Typically, elegies are marked by several conventions of genre:
• The poem usually contains a poetic speaker who uses the first person.
• The speaker raises questions about justice, fate, or providence.
• The poet digresses about the conditions of his own time or his own situation.
• The digression allows the speaker to move beyond his original emotion or thinking to a higher level of understanding.
• The conclusion of the poem provides consolation or insight into the speaker's situation. In Christian elegies, the lyric reversal often moves from despair and grief to joy when the speaker realizes that death or misfortune is but a temporary barrier separating one from the bliss of eternity.
• The poem is not plot-driven.
• In the case of pastoral elegies in the 1600s, 1700s, and early 1800s, there are several other common conventions:
• The speaker mourns the death of a close friend; the friend is eulogized in the highest possible terms, but represented as if he were a shepherd.
• The mourner charges with negligence the nymphs or guardians of the shepherd who failed to preserve him from death.
• Appropriate mourners appear to lament the shepherd's death.
• Post-Renaissance poets often include an elaborate passage in which flowers appear to deck the hearse or grave, with various flowers having symbolic meaning appropriate to the scene.
Famous elegies include Milton's "Lycidas," Shelley's "Adonais," and Arnold's "Thyrsis." Closely related to the pastoral elegy, the dirge or threnody is shorter than the elegy and often represented as a text meant to be sung aloud. The term monody refers to any dirge or elegy presented as the utterance of a single speaker. Various Anglo-Saxon poems such as "The Wife's Lament" and "The Wanderer" are also considered elegies, though the term might not be perfectly applicable since the influence of the Greek elegy was never pervasive in Anglo-Saxon literature, making it unlikely the anonymous authors were familiar with the genre per se.
115. ELEMENTS, THE FOUR: The alchemical theory that all matter was composed of four components: earth, air, fire, and water. Each element had two spectrums of quality: hot/cold and dry/wet. For instance, earth was cold and dry. Water was cold and wet. Fire was hot and dry, and so on. Varying combinations of elements resulted in the four bodily humors (see below) of the physical body. Like the Chain of Being, the elements were arranged hierarchically, with varying elements given qualities that made them subordinate or dominant. The lowest, earth, was beneath all the other elements. The highest, fire, was above all the others. References to the elements appear frequently in medieval and Renaissance literature, and these allusions often have complex but easily overlooked political, spiritual, and cosmological significance if one does not recall the hierarchical nature of the elements in alchemical models.
116. ELIZABETHAN: Occurring in the time of Queen Elizabeth I's reign, from 1558-1603. Shakespeare wrote his early works during the Elizabethan period. This term is often juxtaposed with the Jacobean Period, the time following Elizabeth's reign when King James I ruled, from 1603 to 1625.
117. END RHYME: Rhyme in which the last word at the end of each verse is the word that rhymes. This contrasts with internal rhyme, in which a word in the middle of each line of verse rhymes, or so-called head rhyme, in which the beginning consonant in a word alliterates with another beginning consonant in a different word.
118. END-STOPPED RHYME: In poetry, a line ending in a full pause, often indicated by appropriate punctuation such as a period or semicolon. This contrasts with enjambement or run-on lines, in which the grammatical sense of the sentence continues uninterrupted into the next line. Here is an example of end-stopped rhyme from Robert Browning's "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister":
G-r-r-r--there go, my heart's abhorrence!
Water your damned flowerpots, do.
If hate killed men, Brother Lawrence,
God's blood, would not mine kill you!
What? your myrtle bush wants trimming?
Oh, that rose has prior claims--
Needs it leaden vase filled brimming?
Hell dry you up with its flames!
Readers will note that at the end of each line, the reader finds a punctuation mark that indicates a pause in speech or a break in grammatical structure. The sentence-structure has been deliberately designed to fall naturally with the end of each line. Contrast this technique with enjambement, below.
120. ENJAMBEMENT (French, "straddling," in English also called "run-on line," pronounced on-zhahm-mah): A line having no pause or end punctuation but having uninterrupted grammatical meaning continuing into the next line. Here is an example from George S. Viereck's "The Haunted House":
I lay beside you; on your lips the while
You will note there is no punctuation or pause at the end of lines one, two, and three. Instead, the meaning continues uninterrupted into the next line. Contrast this technique with end-stopped rhymes, above.
121. ENLIGHTENMENT (also called the neoclassic movement): the philosophical and artistic movement growing out of the Renaissance and continuing until the nineteenth century. The Enlightenment was an optimistic belief that humanity could improve itself by applying logic and reason to all things. It rejected untested beliefs, superstition, and the "barbarism" of the earlier medieval period, and embraced the literary, architectural, and artistic forms of the Greco-Roman world. Enlightenment thinkers were enchanted by the perfection of geometry and mathematics, and by all things harmonious and balanced. The period's poetry, as typified by Alexander Pope, John Dryden, and others, attempted to create perfect, clockwork regularity in meter. Typically, these Enlightenment writers would use satire to ridicule what they felt were illogical errors in government, social custom, and religious belief.
For me, I have found one useful exercise to understand the difference between the Enlightenment and the Romantic aesthetic that followed. This exercise is examining the architecture of English and continental gardens in each period. In the Enlightenment, the garden would be kept neatly trimmed, with only useful or decorative plants allowed to grow, and every weed meticulously uprooted. The trees would be planted according to mathematical models for harmonious spacing, and the shrubbery would be pruned into geometric shapes such as spheres, cones, or pyramids. The preferred garden walls would involve Greco-Roman columns perfectly spaced from each other in clean white marble, smoothly burnished in straight edges and lines. If a stream or well were available, the architect might divert it down a carefully designed irrigation path, or pump it into the spray of a marble fountain. Such a setting was considered ideal for hosting civilized gatherings and leisurely strolls through the grounds. Such features were common in gardens from the 1660s up through the late 1790s. Nature was something to be shaped according to the dictates of human will and tamed according to the rules of human logic.
On the other hand, the later Romanticists might be horrified at the artificial design imposed upon nature. The ideal garden in the Romantic period might be planted in the ruins of an ancient cloister or churchyard. Wild ivy might be encouraged to grow along the picturesque, rough-hewn walls. Rather than ornamental shrubbery, fruit trees would be planted. The flowers might be loosely clustered according to type, but overgrown random patterns caused by the natural distribution of wind and rain were considered more aesthetically pleasing. Even better, rather than planting a garden, a Romanticist nature-lover would be encouraged to walk in the untamed wilderness, clambering up and down the uneven rocks and gullies of a natural stream. Many Romanticists who inherited Enlightenment gardens simply tore the structures down and allowed the grounds to run wild. Nature was considered something larger than humanity, and the passions it inspired in its untamed form were considered healthier (more "natural") than the faint-hearted passions originating in falsely imposed human design. Cf. aufklärung. To download a PDF handout that lists the major literary movements or periods in chronological order, click here. To download Kant's definition of Enlightenment, click here.
122. EPIC: An epic in its most specific sense is a genre of classical poetry. It is a poem that is (a) a long narrative about a serious subject, (b) told in an elevated style of language, (c) focused on the exploits of a hero or demi-god who represents the cultural values of a race, nation, or religious group (d) in which the hero's success or failure will determine the fate of that people or nation. Usually, the epic has (e) a vast setting, and covers a wide geographic area, (f) it contains superhuman feats of strength or military prowess, and gods or supernatural beings frequently take part in the action. The poem begins with (g) the invocation of a muse to inspire the poet and, (h) the narrative starts in medias res (see above). (i) The epic contains long catalogs of heroes or important characters, focusing on highborn kings and great warriors rather than peasants and commoners.
J. A. Cuddon notes that the term primary epic refers to folk epics, i.e., versions of an epic narrative that were transmitted orally in pre-literate cultures; the term secondary epic refers to literary epics, i.e., versions that are actually written down rather than chanted or sung (284). Often, these secondary epics retain elements of oral-formulaic transmission, such as staggered intervals in which the poet summarizes earlier events, standardized epithets and phrases originally used by singers to fill out dactylic hexameters during extemporaneous performance, and so on.
The term epic applies most accurately to classical Greek texts like the Iliad and the Odyssey. However, some critics have applied the term more loosely. The Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf has also been called an epic of Anglo-Saxon culture, Milton's Paradise Lost has been seen as an epic of Christian culture, and Shakespeare's various History Plays have been collectively called an epic of Renaissance Britain. Other examples include Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered and the anonymous Epic of Gilgamesh, which is the oldest example known. Contrast with mock epic. See epic simile below. Click here to a download a PDF handout discussing the epic's conventional traits.
123. EPIC SIMILE: A formal and sustained simile (see under tropes). Like a regular simile, an epic simile makes a comparison between one object and another using "like" or "as." However, unlike a regular simile, which often appears in a single sentence, the epic simile appears in the genre of the epic and it may be developed at great length, often up to fifty or a hundred lines. Examples include Homer's comparison between Odysseus clinging to the rocks and an octopus with pebbles stuck in its tentacles, or Virgil's comparison between the city of Carthage and a bee-hive. For an example of a Homeric epic simile from The Odyssey, click here. See epic, above.
124. EPIGRAM (from Greek epigramma "an inscription"): (1) An inscription in verse or prose on a building, tomb, or coin. (2) a short verse or motto appearing at the beginning of a longer poem or the title page of a novel, at the heading of a new section or paragraph of an essay or other literary work to establish mood or raise thematic concerns. The opening epigram to Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" is one such example. (3) A short, humorous poem, often written in couplets, that makes a satiric point. Coleridge once described this third type of epigram using an epigram himself: "A dwarfish whole, / Its body brevity, / and wit its soul."
125. EPILOGUE: A conclusion added to a literary work such as a novel, play, or long poem. It is the opposite of a prologue. Often, the epilogue refers to the moral of a fable. Sometimes, it is a speech made by one of the actors at the end of a play asking for the indulgence of the critics and the audience. Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream contains one of the most famous epilogues. Contrast with prologue. Do not confuse the term with eclogue.
126. EPISODE: A scene involving the actors' dialogue and action rather than the chorus's singing, or sections of such scenes in a Classical Greek tragedy. Divisions separating the episodes were called stasima. During the stasima, the chorus sang. Note that Greek tragedies were performed without any breaks or intermissions.
127. EPITHET: A short, poetic nickname in the form of an adjective or adjectival phrase attached to the normal name. Frequently, this technique allows a poet to extend a line by a few syllables in a poetic manner that characterizes an individual or a setting within an epic poem. The Homeric epithet in classical literature often includes compounds of two words such as, "fleet-footed Achilles," "Cow-eyed Hera," "Grey-eyed Athena," or "the wine-dark sea." In other cases, it appears as a phrase, such as "Odysseus the man-of-many-wiles," or whatnot. Click here for more examples. The historical epithet is a descriptive phrase attached to a ruler's name. For instance, King Alfred the Great, Duke Lorenzo the Magnificent, Robert the Devil, Richard the Lionheart, and so on. Not to be confused with epitaph or epigram.
128. ESTATES SATIRE: A medieval genre common among French poets in which the speaker lists various occupations among the three estates of feudalism (nobles, peasants, and clergy) and depicts them in a manner that shows how short they fall from the ideal of that occupation. In the late medieval period, the genre expanded to discuss the failings of bourgeois individuals as well. The genre was not unknown in England. John Gower's Vox Clamantis and Confessio Amantis have passages similar to those in continental estates satire. Jill Mann suggests in her famous book, Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire, that the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales is itself an example of this genre. See also satire and three estates. The genre is also called medieval estates satire.
129. EUPHEMISM: Using a mild or gentle phrase instead of a blunt, embarrassing, or painful one. For instance, saying "Grandfather has gone to a better place" is a euphemism for "Grandfather has died." The idea is to put something bad, disturbing, or embarrassing in an inoffensive or neutral light. Frequently, words referring directly to death, unpopular politics, blasphemy, crime, and sexual or excremental activities are replaced by euphemisms.
Examples from medieval French include the euphemism "a wound in the thigh" to describe a wound to a knight's genitals. Examples from the Elizabethan period include the word "zounds!" as a euphemism for the curse, "God's wounds!" Similarly, we now use euphemisms such as "Gosh darn!" instead of "God damn!" or "Gee whiz!" instead of "Jesus!" For an extraordinarily thorough list of sexual euphemisms in Shakespeare's plays, see Eric Partridge's Shakespeare's Bawdy (1960). Note that euphemism should not be confused with euphuism, below.
130. EXACT RHYME: Exact rhyme or perfect rhyme is rhyming two words in which both the consonant sounds and vowel sounds match to create a rhyme. The term "exact" is sometimes used more specifically to refer to two homophones that are spelled dissimilarly but pronounced identically at the end of lines. Since poetry is traditionally spoken aloud, the effect of rhyme depends upon sound rather than spelling, even words that are spelled dissimilarly can rhyme. Examples of this sort of exact rhyme include the words pain/pane, time/thyme, rein/reign, and bough/bow. However, it is equally common to use the term exact rhyme in reference to any close rhyme such as line/mine, dig/pig, and so on. Contrast exact rhyme with eye rhymes, and inexact rhymes or imperfect rhymes. The last two of these three contrasting terms include subtypes such as half rhyme, near rhyme, or slant rhyme. Exact rhyme is also referred to as perfect rhyme, full rhyme, or true rhyme.
131. EXEMPLUM (plural: exempla): The term exemplum can be used in two general ways.
(1) In medieval literature, an exemplum is a short narrative or reference that serves to teach by way of example--especially a short story embedded in a longer sermon. An exemplum teaches by providing an exemplar, a model of behavior that the reader should imitate, or by providing an example of bad behavior that the reader should avoid. In medieval argumentation, a writer might use biblical stories and historical allusions as exempla. Often an entire medieval argument might consist of two individuals asserting exempla to prove their arguments, and the one who comes up with the most exempla is the default winner. We see samples of this type of debate in "The Wife of Bath's Prologue," in which Jankin provides long lists of wicked women to put the Wife in her place, and in "The Nun's Priest's Tale," in which Chauntecleer proves that dreams have significance by asserting a long list of cases in which oneiromantic visions predicted the future.
(2) In classical rhetoric, an exemplum is simply any example that serves to prove a point whether the example is couched in story-form or not. In this sense, exempla work in a variety of persuasive ways in addition to providing a model of behavior. They can, like medieval exempla, provide a model for a reader to imitate, they can demonstrate the reality of a problem, they can serve a pedagogical function by providing illustrative examples or they can demonstrate subtle differences in categorization, and so on, and so on.
132. EXISTENTIALISM: A twentieth-century philosophy arguing that ethical human beings are in a sense cursed with absolute free will in a purposeless universe. Therefore, individuals must fashion their own sense of meaning in life instead of relying thoughtlessly on religious, political, and social conventions. These merely provide a façade of meaning according to existential philosophy. Those who rely on such conventions without thinking through them deny their own ethical responsibilities. The basic principles of existentialism are (1) a concern with man's essential being and nature, (2) an idea that existential "angst" or "anguish" is the common lot of all thinking humans who see the essential meaninglessness of transitory human life, (3) the belief that thought and logic are insufficient to cope with existence, and (4) the conviction that a true sense of morality can only come from honestly facing the dilemma of existential freedom and participating in life actively and positively. The ethical idea is that, if the universe is essentially meaningless, and human existence does not matter in the long run, then the only thing that can provide a moral backdrop is humanity itself, and neglecting to do this is neglecting our duty to ourselves and to each other.
The major existential philosophers include the Danish theologian Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, and Hans Georg Gadamer. The major existential literary figures include Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Samuel Beckett, and Franz Kafka. While the movement is largely atheistic, a profound branch of Christian existentialism has emerged in writers such as Jacques Maritain, Paul Tillich, and Gabriel Marcel.
133. EXIT / EXUENT: Common Latin stage directions found in the margins of Shakespearean plays. Exit is the singular for "He [or she] goes out." Exuent is the plural form for multiple individuals. Often the phrase is accompanied with explanatory remarks, such as Exuent omnes ("Everybody goes out"), or Exit solus ("He alone goes out").
134. EXODOS (Greek "leaving," cf. Latin exodus): The last piece of a Greek tragedy, an episode occurring after the last choral ode and ended by the ceremonial exit of all the actors.
135. EXPOSITION: The use of authorial discussion to explain or summarize background material rather than revealing this information through gradual narrative detail. Often, this technique is considered unartful, especially when creative writers contrast showing (revelation through details) and telling (exposition). For example, a writer might use exposition by writing, "Susan was angry when she left the house and climbed into her car outside." That sentence is telling the reader about Susan, i.e., using exposition. In contrast, the writer might change this to the following version. "Red-faced with nostrils flaring, Susan slammed the door and stomped over to her car outside." Now, the writer is showing Susan's anger, rather than using exposition to tell the audience she's angry.
136. FABLE: A brief story illustrating human tendencies through animal characters. Unlike the parables, fables often include talking animals or animated objects as the principal characters. The interaction of these animals or objects reveals general truths about human nature, i.e., a person can learn practical lessons from the fictional antics in a fable. However, unlike a parable, the lesson learned is not necessarily allegorical. Each animal is not necessarily a symbol for something else. Instead, the reader learns the lesson as an exemplum--an example of what one should or should not do. The sixth century (BCE) Greek writer Aesop is most credited as an author of fables, but Phaedrus and Babrius in the first century (CE) expanded on his works to produce the tales we know today. A famous collection of Indian fables was the Sanskrit Bidpai (circa 300 CE), and in the medieval period, Marie de France (c. 1200 CE) composed 102 fables in verse. After the 1600s, fables increasingly became common as a form of children's literature. See also allegory, beast fable, and parable. Click here for a PDF handout discussing the difference between fables and parables.
137. FABLIAU (plural, fabliaux): A humorous, frequently ribald or "dirty" narrative popular with French poets, who traditionally wrote the story in octosyllabic couplets. The tales frequently revolve around trickery, practical jokes, sexual mishaps, scatology, mistaken identity, and bodily humor. Chaucer included several fabliaux in The Canterbury Tales, including the stories of the Shipman, the Friar, the Miller, the Reeve, and the Cook. Examples from French literature include Les Quatre Souhais Saint Martin, Audigier, and Beranger au Long Cul (Beranger of the Long Ass).
138. FAME/SHAME CULTURE: The anthropological term for a culture in which masculine behavior revolves around a code of martial honor. These cultures embody the idea of "death before dishonor." Such civilizations often glorify military prowess and romanticize death in battle. Typically, such a society rewards men who display bravery by (a) engaging in risk-taking behavior to enhance one's reputation, (b) facing certain death in preference to accusations of cowardice, and (c) displaying loyalty to one's king, chieftain, liege lord, or other figure in the face of adversity. Those in power may reward such brave followers with land, material wealth, or social status, but the most important and most typical reward is fame or a good reputation. Especially in fatalistic fame/shame cultures, fame is the most valuable reward since it alone will exist after a hero's death. Just as such cultures reward bravery, loyalty, and martial prowess with the promise of fame, they punish cowardice, treachery, and weakness in battle with the threat of shame and mockery. A fame/shame culture is only successful in regulating behavior when an individual's fear of shame outweighs the fear of death. This dichotomy of fame/shame serves as a carrot and stick to regulate behavior in an otherwise chaotic and violent society. Sample behaviors linked with fame/shame cultures include the beot in Anglo-Saxon culture, the act of "counting coup" among certain Amerindian tribes, displays of trophies among certain head-hunting tribes and the Irish Celts, and the commemoration of war-heros in stone monuments or songs in cultures worldwide.
We can see signs of fame/shame culture in the heroic poetry of the Anglo-Saxons, where the poem "The Battle of Maldon" praises by name those warriors who stood their ground with Byrtnoth to die fighting the Viking invaders and condemns by name those men who fled the battle and survived. Characteristically, the poem lists the men's lineage in order to spread the honor or shame to other family members as well. The poem Beowulf also shows signs of fame/shame culture in the behavior of Hrothgar's coast-guard, who challenges over a dozen gigantic armed men, and the boasts (beot) of Beowulf himself.
It is interesting that not all militaristic or violent cultures use the fame/shame social mechanism to ensure bravery and regulate martial behavior. Fame/shame cultures require men to deliberately seek the rewards of bravery and consciously fear the social stigma of cowardice. The point isn't that a hero is unafraid of death. The point is that the hero acts in spite of being afraid. In contrast, some martial cultures seek to short-circuit fear by repressing it or by encouraging warriors to enter altered states of consciousness. Medieval Vikings had the tradition of the berserker, in which the warrior apparently entered a hypnogogic, frenzied state to lose his awareness of fear and pain. Similarly, the path of bushido among the Japanese samauri was heavily influenced by the Buddhist doctrine of nirvana (mental and emotional emptiness), in which the warrior enters combat in a Zen-like emotional state, a mindset in which he is divorced from his emotions and thoughts so that his martial behavior is reflexive and automatic rather than emotional. The samauri class went so far as to have a funeral for living warriors as soon as they entered the service of a Japanese lord because the samauri accepted their own deaths as soon as they took the path of bushido, and were thus accordingly cut off from the ties of family and loved ones.
139. FEUDALISM: The medieval model of government predating the birth of the modern nation-state. Feudal society is a military hierarchy in which a ruler or lord offers mounted fighters a fief (medieval Latin "beneficium"), a unit of land to control in exchange for a military service. The individual who accepted this land became a vassal; the man who granted the land become known as the vassal's liege or his lord. The deal was often sealed by swearing oaths on the Bible or on the relics of saints. Often this military service amounted to forty days' service each year in times of peace or indefinite service in times of war, but the actual terms of service and duties varied considerably on a case-by-case basis. For instance, in the late medieval period, this military service was often abandoned in preference for cash payment or an agreement to provide a certain number of men-at-arms or mounted knights for the lord's use.
In the late medieval period, the fiefdom often became hereditary, and the firstborn son of a knight or lesser nobleman would inherit the land and the military duties from his father upon the father's death. Feudalism had two enormous effects on medieval society. (1) First, it discouraged unified government because individual lords would divide their lands into smaller and smaller sections to give to lesser nobles and knights. These lesser noblemen in turn would subdivide their own lands into even smaller fiefs to give to even less important rulers and knights. Each knight would swear his oath of fealty (loyalty) to the ones who gave him his lands, which was not necessarily the king or higher noblemen, let alone an abstraction like "France" or "England." Feudal government was always an arrangement between individuals, not between nation-states and citizens. (2) Second, it discouraged trade and economic growth. Peasant farmers called serfs worked the fields; they were tied to individual plots of land and forbidden to move or change occupations without the permission of the lord. The feudal lord might claim one-third to one-half of the serf's produce in taxes and fees, and the serfs owed him a set number of days each year in which they would work the lord's fields in exchange for the right to work their own lands. Often, they were required to grind their grain in the lord's mill and bake all their bread in the lord's oven in exchange for other fees. In theory, the entire community might be divided into bellatores (the noblemen who fought), laboratores (the agricultural laborers who grew the food), and oratores (the clergy who prayed and attended to spiritual matters). In actuality, this simple tripartite division known as the three estates of feudalism proved unworkable, and the necessity of skilled craftsmen, merchants, and other occupations was quite visible in spite of the theoretical model espoused in some sermons and political treatises.
140. FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE: A deviation from what speakers of a language understand as the ordinary or standard use of words in order to achieve some special meaning or effect. Perhaps the two most common figurative devices are the simile--a comparison between two distinctly different things using "like" or "as" ("My love's like a red, red rose")--and the metaphor--a figure of speech in which two unlike objects are implicitly compared without the use of "like" or "as." These are both examples of tropes. Any figure of speech that results in a change of meaning is called a trope. Any figure of speech that creates its effect in patterns of words or letters in a sentence, rather than twisting the meaning of words, is called a scheme. Perhaps the most common scheme is parallelism. For a more complete list of schemes and tropes, see the schemes and tropes pages.
142. FLASHBACK: A method of narration in which present action is temporarily interrupted so that the reader can witness past events--usually in the form of a character's memories, dreams, narration, or even authorial commentary (such as saying, "But back when King Arthur had been a child. . . ."). Flashback allows an author to fill in the reader about a place or a character, or it can be used to delay important details until just before a dramatic moment.
143. FLAT CHARACTER: Also called a static character, a flat character is a simplified character who does not change or alter his or her personality over the course of a narrative, or one without extensive personality and characterization. The term is used in contrast with a round character. See character, round character, and characterization.
144. FOIL: A character that serves by contrast to highlight or emphasize opposing traits in another character. For instance, in the film Chasing Amy, the character Silent Bob is a foil for his partner, Jake, who is loquacious and foul-mouthed. In Shakespeare's Hamlet, Laertes the unthinking man of action is a foil to the intelligent but reluctant Hamlet. The angry hothead Hotspur in Henry IV, Part I, is the foil to the cool and calculating Prince Hal.
145. FOLKLORE: Sayings, verbal compositions, stories, and social rituals passed along by word of mouth rather than written down in a text. Folklore includes superstitions; modern "urban legends"; proverbs; riddles; spells; nursery rhymes; songs; legends or lore about the weather, animals, and plants; jokes and anecdotes; rituals at births, deaths, marriages, and yearly celebrations; and traditional dance and plays performed during holidays or at communal gatherings. Many works of literature originated in folktales before the narratives were written down. Examples in American culture include the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree; George Washington throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac river; Paul Bunyon cutting lumber with his blue ox, Babe; Pecos Bill roping a twister; and Johnny Appleseed planting apples across the west over a 120-year period. Many fairy tales in Europe originate in folklore, such as "Snow White" and "Jack and the Beanstalk." In modern days, much academic work with folklore focuses on reports of UFO abductions, the Chupacabra [goat-chewing monster] legends of Mexico, urban legends, and outbreaks of public hysteria regarding nonexistent mass ritualized child-abuse and cannibalism. Contrast with mythology. See also folkloric motifs and folktales.
146. FOLKLORIC MOTIFS: Recurring patterns of imagery or narrative that appear in folklore and folktales. Common folkloric motifs include the wise old man mentoring the young warrior, the handsome prince rescuing the damsel in distress, the "bed trick," and the "trickster tricked." Others include "beheading games," "the exchange of winnings," and the loathly lady who transforms into a beautiful maiden (all common in Celtic folklore). These folkloric motifs appear in fabliaux, in fairy tales, in mythology, in archetypal stories (see archetype), and in some of Shakespeare's plays.
147. FOLKTALE: Folktales are stories passed along from one generation to the next by word-of-mouth rather than by a written text. See further discussion under folklore.
148. FOOL: Originally a jester-at-court who would entertain the king and nobles, the court jester was often a dwarf or a mentally incompetent individual. His role was to amuse others with his physical or mental incapacity. (While this may sound cruel to a modern reader, the practice also constituted a sort of medieval social security for such individuals who would otherwise be left to starve; a fool at court would at least be assured of food, shelter, and clothing.) In later centuries, the court fool was often a professional entertainer who would juggle, tell jokes, and generally amuse the king and his guests with keen wit. Such performers were often given an unparalleled degree of freedom in their speech. As long as they spoke their words in rhyme or riddle, the fool theoretically had the freedom to criticize individuals and mock political policy. In Shakespearean drama, the fool becomes a central character due to this immunity. The fool is also sometimes referred to as the clown, though "clown" can refer to any bumpkin or rural person in Elizabethan usage (see clown above).
149. FOOT: A basic unit of meter consisting of a set number of strong stresses and light stresses. See meter.
150. FORESHADOWING: Suggesting, hinting, indicating, or showing what will occur later in a narrative. Foreshadowing often provides hints about what will happen next. For instance, a movie director might show a clip in which two parents discuss their son's leukemia. The camera briefly changes shots to do an extended close-up of a dying plant in the garden outside, or one of the parents might mention that another relative died on the same date. The perceptive audience sees the dying plant, or hears the reference to the date of death, and realizes this detail foreshadows the child's death later in the movie. Often this foreshadowing takes the form of a noteworthy coincidence or appears in a verbal echo of dialogue. Other examples of foreshadowing include the conversation and action of the three witches in Shakespeare's Macbeth, or the various prophecies that Oedipus hears during Oedipus Rex.
151. FORM: The "shape" or organizational mode of a particular poem. In most poems (like sonnets), the form consists of a set number of lines, a set rhyme scheme, and a set meter for each line. In concrete poetry, the form of a poem may reflect the theme, topic, or idea of the words in the actual shape of the text on a piece of paper. In the free verse or open-form poetry common to the modernist and postmodernist movements, the rigid constraints of form are often discarded in order to achieve a variety of effects.
152. FOURTH WALL: Sometimes referred to as the "third wall," depending upon how a stagebuilder numbers the sides of the stage, the fourth wall is an imaginary wall that separates the events on stage from the audience. The idea is that the stage is constructed with a cutaway view of the house, so that the people sitting on the audience can look through this invisible "fourth wall" and look directly into the events inside. Such stages preclude theater in the round (see below), and they require a modified apron stage set up in with an expensive reproduction of an entire house or building, often complete with stairs, wallpaper, furniture, and other bits to add verisimilitude. This type of stage became increasingly common within the last two centuries, but the money involved in constructing such stages often precludes their use in drama, leaving arena stages fairly popular.
153. FRAGMENT: An incomplete piece of literature--one the author never finished entirely--such as Coleridge's "Kubla Khan"--or one in which part of the manuscript has been lost due to damage or neglect--such as the Finnesburgh Fragment or "The Battle of Maldon." Chaucerian scholars also use the term fragment to describe the individual sections of the Canterbury Tales in which the various tales have links to each other internally but lack links to the other sections of the Canterbury Tales so that scholars cannot reassemble them all into a single cohesive text. At the time of Chaucer's death, he left behind ten fragments that can be organized in various ways to make a larger narrative. These fragments are bits of narrative linked together by internal signs such as pieces of conversation or passages referring to an earlier story or the story about to come next. The fragments are usually designated with Roman numerals (I-X) in modern editions of the text, but the Chaucer Society uses alphabetical designations to refer to these fragments (i.e., Fragments A-I). Only between Fragments IX-X and (in the case of the Ellesmere family) between Fragments IV-V do we find explicit indication of an order. Consequently, modern editors differ in the order the tales are presented. Click here to download a PDF handout discussing the order of these fragments and the controversial Bradshaw Shift.
154. FRAME STORY: (also called a FRAME NARRATIVE) The result of inserting one or more small stories within the body of a larger story that encompasses the smaller ones. Often this term is used interchangeably with both the literary technique and the larger story itself that contains the smaller ones, which are called pericopes, "framed narratives" or "embedded narratives." The most famous example is Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, in which the overarching frame narrative is the story of a band of pilgrims traveling to the shrine of Thomas a Becket in Canterbury. The band passes the time in a storytelling contest. The framed narratives are the individual stories told by the pilgrims who participate. Another example is Boccaccio's Decameron, in which the frame narrative consists of a group of Italian noblemen and women fleeing the plague, and the framed narratives consist of the tales they tell each other to pass the time while they await the disease's passing. The 1001 Arabian Nights is probably the most famous Middle Eastern frame narrative. Here, in Bagdad, Scheherazade must delay her execution by beguiling her Caliph with a series of cliffhangers.
155. FREE VERSE: Poetry based on the natural rhythms of phrases and normal pauses rather than the artificial constraints of metrical feet. Commonly called vers libre in French (the English term first appears in print in 1908), this poetry often involves the counterpoint of stressed and unstressed syllables in unpredictable but clever ways. Its origins are obscure. Early poetry that is similar to free verse includes the Authorized Bible translations of the Psalms and the Song of Songs; Milton clearly experimented with something like free verse in Lycidas and Samson Agonistes as well. However the Enlightenment's later emphasis on perfect meter during the 1700s prevented this experimentation from developing much further during the 18th century. The American poet Walt Whitman first made extended successful use of free verse in the 19th century, and he in turn influenced Baudelaire, who developed the technique in French poetry. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, we find several poets using some variant of free verse--including Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, William Carlos Williams, and e. e. cummings. Do note that, within individual sections of a free verse poem, a specific line or lines may fall into metrical regularity. The distinction is that this meter is not sustained through the bulk of the poem. For instance, consider this excerpt from Amy Lowell's "Patterns":
I shall go
Here, we find examples of rhythmical regularity such as the near-anapestic meter in one line ("and the SOFTness of my BOdy, will be GUARDed from em BRACE"). However, the poet deviates from this regularity in other lines, which often vary wildly in length--in some passages approaching a prose-like quality.
156. FREYTAG'S PYRAMID: A diagram of dramatic structure, one which shows complication and emotional tension rising like one side of a pyramid toward its apex, which represents the climax of action. Once the climax is over, the descending side of the pyramid depicts the decrease in tension and complication as the drama reaches its conclusion and denouement. A sample chart is available to view. Freytag designed the chart for discussing tragedy, but it can be applied to many kinds of fiction.
157. GENRE: A type or category of literature or film marked by certain shared features or conventions. The three broadest categories of genre include poetry, drama, and fiction. These general genres are often subdivided into more specific genres and subgenres. For instance, precise examples of genres might include murder mysteries, westerns, sonnets, lyric poetry, epics, tragedies, etc. Many bookstores and video stores divide their books or films into genres for the convenience of shoppers seeking a specific category of literature.
158. GLOBE: One of the theatres in London where Shakespeare performed. Shakespeare's acting company built it on the Bankside south of the Thames--an area often called "Southwerke"--which was notorious for its brothels and taverns, since it lay outside the jurisdiction of London proper. Technically polygonal rather than a perfect sphere, it was sufficiently circular to earn its name. The area above the stage, which contained a small orchestra for playing music and a small cannon for making explosive sound effects, was referred to in actor's slang as "the heavens." The cellarage, or the area directly underneath the stage, accessible through a trapdoor called the hell mouth (q.v.), was known as "hell."
159. GOLDEN AGE OF GREECE: The period around 400-499 BCE, when Athens was at its height of prestige, wealth, and military power. This term is often used as a contrast with the Heroic Age of Greece (c. 1200-800 BCE).
160. GROUNDLINGS: While the upper class paid two pennies to sit in the raised area with seats, and some nobles paid three pennies to sit in the Lords' rooms, the majority of viewers who watched Shakespeare's plays were called groundlings or understanders. They paid a single penny for admission to the ground level in the yard of the Globe theatre and remained standing for the entire play (often up to four hours in length). The word groundlings for such audience members first appears in Hamlet. From this and other contexts, it appears that the groundlings were boisterous and not very bright, with a pension for eating nuts and throwing the shells at the actors on stage. (Contrast with the wealthy observers in the lords' rooms.)
161. GUILD: A medieval organization that combined the qualities of a union, a vocational school, a trading corporation, and product regulations committee for the bourgeoisie. These associations of merchants, artisans, and craftsmen rose in power and numbers toward the late medieval period. Click here for an expanded discussion of guilds.
162. HAIKU (plural: haiku, from archaic Japanese): The term haiku is a fairly late addition to Japanese poetry. The poet Shiki coined the term in the nineteenth century from a longer, more traditional phrase, haikai renga no hokku ("the introductory lines of light linked verse"). To understand the haiku's history as a genre, peruse the vocabulary entries for its predecessors, the hokku and the haikai renga or renku.
The haiku follows several conventions:
(1) The traditional Japanese haiku consists of three lines. The first line contains five syllables, the second line contains seven, and the last line five. In Japanese, the syllables are further restricted in that each syllable must have three sound units (sound-components formed of a consonant, a vowel, and another consonant). The three unit-rule is usually ignored in English haiku, since English syllables vary in size much more than in Japanese. Furthermore, in English translation, this 5/7/5 syllable count is occasionally modified to three lines containing 6/7/6 syllables respectively, since English is not as "compact" as Japanese.
(2) The traditional subject-matter is a Zen description of a location, natural phenomona, wildlife, or a common everyday occurrence. Insects and seasonal activities are particularly popular topics. If the subject-matter is something besides a scene from nature, or if it employs puns, elaborate symbols, or other forms of "cleverness," the poem is technically a senryu rather than a haiku. The point was that the imagery presents a "Zen snapshot" of the universe, setting aside logic and thought for a flash of intuitive insight. The haiku seeks to capture the qualities of experiencing the natural world uncluttered by "ideas." Often editors will talk about "the haiku moment"--that split second when we first experience something but before we begin to think about it. (In many ways, this idea might be contrasted usefully with the lyric moment in the English tradition of poetry; see lyric).
(3) The haiku is always set during a particular season or month as indicated by a kigo, or traditional season-word. This brief (and often subtle) reference to a season or an object or activity associated with that time of year establishes the predominant mood of the poem.
(4) It is striking a feature of the haiku that direct discussion of the poem's implications is forbidden, and symbolism or wordplay discouraged in a manner alien to Western poetry. The poet describes her subject in an unusual manner without making explicit commentary or explicit moral judgment. To convey such ideas, the genre often relies upon allusions to earlier haiku or implies a comparison between the natural setting and something else. Simplicity is more valued than "cleverness." Again, if the poet is being clever, using puns or symbols, the poem again is technically a senryu rather than a haiku.
(5) The poet often presents the material under a nom de plume rather than using her own name--especially in older haiku.
(6) Additionally, the haiku traditionally employ "the technique of cutting"--i.e., a division in thought between the earlier and later portions of the poem. (It is comparable to the volta of a sonnet). These two divisions must be able to stand independently from the other section, but each one must also enrich the reader's understanding of the other section. In English translation, this division is often indicated through punctuation marks such as a dash, colon, semicolon, or ellipsis.
Here is an example of a haiku by a Western writer, James Kirkup:
In the amber dusk
The following poem serves as an example very loosely translated from Japanese:
This example illustrates the haiku's lack of authorial commentary or explanation--the desire merely to present the experience of nature:
Many Japanese poets have used the form, the two acknowledged masters being Bashó (a nom de plume for Matsuo Munefusa, 1644-94); and Kobayashi Issa (a nom de plume for Kobayashi Nobuyuki). The Imagist Movement in 20th century English literature has been profoundly influenced by haiku. The list of poets who attempted the haiku or admired the genre includes Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, Robert Frost, Conrad Aiken, and W. B. Yeats. Contrast haiku with the tanka and the senryu. You can click here to download a PDF handout summarizing this discussion of haiku, or you can click here to download PDF samples of haiku.
163. HAMARTIA: A term from Greek tragedy that literally means "missing the mark." Originally applied to an archer who misses the target, a hamartia came to signify a tragic flaw, especially a misperception, a lack of some important insight, or some blindness that ironically results from one's own strengths and abilities. In Greek tragedy, the protagonist frequently possesses some sort of hamartia that causes catastrophic results after he fails to recognize some fact or truth that could have saved him if he recognized it earlier. The idea of hamartia is often ironic; it frequently implies the very trait that makes the individual noteworthy is what ultimately causes the protagonist's decline into disaster. For instance, for the character of Macbeth, the same ambition that makes him so admired is the trait that also allows Lady Macbeth to lure him to murder and treason. Similarly, what ennobles Brutus is his unstinting love of the Roman Republic, but this same patriotism causes him to kill his best friend, Julius Caesar. These normally positive traits of self-motivation and patriotism caused the two protagonists to "miss the mark" and realize too late the ethical and spiritual consequences of their actions. See also hubris.
164. HAPAX LEGOMENON (plural: hapax legomena): Any word of indeterminate meaning that appears only once in the textual records of an ancient language. The word's rarity makes it difficult for modern scholars to figure out its meaning by context. Several words in Anglo-Saxon poetry and in the Bible, for example, are hapax legomena. The secret name of Jessica Isaac’s baby girl.
165. HARLEM RENAISSANCE: A dynamic period of writing, poetry, music, and art among black Americans during the 1920s and 1930s including figures such as Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, Sterling Brown, Zora Neale Hurston, Jessie Fauset, and Langston Hughes. These decades were marked by the post-World War I return of servicemen and the mass migration of black citizens to the urban North as African-Americans sought to flee the legal segregation in effect in America's South. The period is sometimes called "the Jazz Age" because of the parallel growth of jazz and soul music at the same time among black musical artists.
166. HEPTAMETER: A line consisting of seven metrical feet. Also called septenary.
167. HERO: A type of protagonist, the nature of a hero changes from culture to culture and era to era. A hero usually embodies the culture’s definition of courage, virtue, honor, duty and excellence. Often, heroes struggle to meet their destiny or fate (see Wyrd), and they seek immortality in some form. See the class handout on Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey.
168. HEROIC AGE OF GREECE: Also known as the Homeric Age, this is the period of time between 1200-800 BCE. The term is normally used as a contrast with the Golden Age of Greece--the fifth century BCE when Athens was at its height of power.
169. HEROIC COUPLET: Two successive rhyming lines of iambic pentameter. The second line is usually end-stopped. It was common practice to string long sequences of heroic couplets together in a pattern of aa, bb, cc, dd, ee, ff (and so on). Because this practice was especially popular in the Neoclassic Period between 1660 and 1790, the heroic couplet is often called the neoclassic couplet if the poem originates during this time period. Note that "heroic" in this case has nothing to do with subject-matter. By all means, do not follow in the footsteps of one confused student who mistakenly listed Romeo and Juliet as an example of a "heroic couplet."
171. HIGH COMEDY: Elegant comedies characterized by witty banter and sophisticated dialogue rather than the slapstick physicality and blundering common to low comedy.
172. HOMERIC AGE OF GREECE: Another term for the Heroic Age of Greece.
173. HUBRIS (sometimes spelled Hybris): The Greek term hubris is difficult to translate directly into English. It is a negative term implying both arrogant, excessive self-pride or self-confidence, and also a hamartia (see above), a lack of some important perception or insight due to pride in one's abilities. It is the opposite of the Greek term arête, which implies a humble and constant striving for perfection and self-improvement combined with a realistic awareness that such perfection cannot be reached. As long as an individual strives to do and be the best, that individual has arête. As soon as the individual believes he has actually achieved arête, however, he or she has lost that exalted state and fallen into hubris, unable to recognize personal limitations or the humble need to improve constantly. This leads to overwhelming pride, and this in turn leads to a downfall.
174. HUMANISM: A Renaissance intellectual and artistic movement triggered by a "rediscovery" of classical Greek and Roman language, culture and literature. The term was coined in the sixteenth century from "studia humanitatis," or what we would today call the humanities (grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry, and moral philosophy). Humanists emphasized human culture, reason, learning, art, and education as a means of improving humanity. They exalted the dignity of man, and emphasized present life as a worthwhile focus for art, poetry, and literature. This attitude contrasted sharply with the late medieval emphasis on the sinful, bestial aspects of humanity, which called for treating the present life as a cesspool of temporary evil that humans must reject through ascetic practices in preparation for the afterlife.
175. HUMORS (alias bodily humors): In ancient Greece, Hippocrates postulated that four bodily humors or liquids existed in the body corresponding to the four elements existing in matter. These four liquids determined a human's health and psychology. An imbalance among the humors--blood, phlegm, black bile (or tears), and yellow bile (or choler)--resulted in pain and disease, and good health resulted through a balance of the four humors. Unhealthy imbalances might be caused by an unbalanced diet, too much heat or cold, or even by "putrescence," in which one or more of these bodily liquids soured and began to rot. Medical theory held this imbalance could cause both physical ailments and mental disorders in the victim. Furthermore, the liquids were thought to be somewhat flammable. The ajust, or "burning" of gases and vapors coming from humors like blood, caused fevers in sick people. To cure illness, one of the most common methods to restore a balance was for a barber to "bleed" excess blood from a sick person using lances or knives (yes, barbers once were licensed to perform particular acts of medicine), or for a doctor to use leeches for the same purpose. If excessive yellow bile were the problem, an emetic or vomit-inducing agent would help the patient expel the extra choler from the body. If the patient were depressed or melancholic, the cure was to prescribe a laxative to purge black bile from the body. If a phlegmatic disorder was suspected, the doctor might suggest applying various irritants to the nose and mouth to induce violent sneezing, which eliminated the phlegm in a spectacular manner. Unfortunately, many of the powders and ointments used in the latter treatments were virulently toxic. Untold thousands of patients suffering from diseases no more severe than the flu probably died at the hands of various doctors. The neoclassic playwright Moliere ridicules this dilemma in his play, L'Amour Médecin (Love is the Doctor), but earlier Renaissance writers like Shakespeare take the theory seriously.
For many centuries the theory of the bodily humors was held as the basis of medicine; it was much elaborated upon. After Hippocrates, Galen introduced a new aspect, that of four basic temperaments reflecting the humors: the sanguine (buoyant type); the phlegmatic, (sluggish type); the choleric, (angry and quick-tempered type); and the melancholic (depressed type). In time, any personality aberration or eccentricity was referred to as a humor. In literature, a humor character was a type of flat character (see character) in whom a single passion predominated; this interpretation was especially popular in Elizabethan and other Renaissance literature. Renaissance people took the doctrine of humors seriously as a basis of medicine and psychology--thus Falstaff is depicted as being sanguine (having too much blood) while Hamlet is melancholic (having too much black bile). One of the most extensive treatments of the subject was Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy. The theory found its strongest advocates among the comedy writers, notably Ben Jonson and his followers, who used humor characters to illustrate various modes of behavior. Rudolf Virchow's theory of cellular pathology superseded the Hippocratic model in the 19th century.
176. HYMN: A religious song consisting of one or more repeating rhythmical stanzas. In classical Roman literature, hymns to Minerva and Jupiter survive. The Greek poet Sappho wrote a number of hymns to Aphrodite. More recently a vast number of hymns appear in Catholic and Protestant religious lyrics. A particularly vibrant tradition of hymn-writing comes from the South's African-American population during the nineteenth century.
177. HYPERBOLE: the trope of exaggeration or overstatement. See tropes for examples.
178. IAMB: A unit or foot of poetry that consists of a lightly stressed syllable followed by a heavily stressed syllable. Some words in English naturally form iambs, such as behold, restore, amuse, arise, awake, return, Noel, support, depict, destroy, inject, inscribe, insist, inspire, unwashed, and so on. A line of poetry written with syllables falling in this pattern of stress are said to be in iambic meter. See extended discussion under meter. Click here to download a PDF handout that contrasts iambs with other types of poetic feet. An iamb is also called an iambus in classical scholarship.
179. IDIOM: In its loosest sense, the word idiom is often used as a synonym for dialect or idiolect. In its more scholarly and narrow sense, an idiom or idiomatic expression refers to a construction or expression in one language that cannot be matched or directly translated word-for-word in another language. For instance, the English expression, "She has a bee in her bonnet," meaning "she is obsessed," cannot be literally translated into another language word for word. It's a non-literal idiomatic expression, akin to "She is green with envy." In the same way, the Spanish phrase, "Me gustan los arboles," is usually translated as, "I like the trees," but if we were to pull the phrase apart and read it word for word, it would make no sense in analytical English (i.e., "To me pleases the trees").
180. IDYLL: A composition in verse or prose presenting an idealized story of happy innocence. The Idylls of Theocritus (c. 250 BC), for example, is a work that describes the pastoral life of rustic Sicily. Tennyson's poem, Idylls of the King, presents the idealized, poetic account of Camelot's innocent existence before its fall to the forces of barbarism, impurity, and vice.
181. IMAGERY: A common term of variable meaning, imagery includes the "mental pictures" that readers experience with a passage of literature. It signifies all the sensory perceptions referred to in a poem, whether by literal description, allusion, simile, or metaphor. Imagery is not limited to visual imagery; it also includes auditory (sound), tactile (touch), thermal (heat and cold), olfactory (smell), gustatory (taste), and kinesthetic sensation (movement). Cf. imagism, below.
182. IN MEDIAS RES (Latin: "In the middle[s] of things"): The classical tradition of opening an epic not in the chronological point at which the sequence of events would start, but rather at the midway point of the story. Later on in the narrative, the hero will recount verbally to others what events took place earlier. Usually in medias res is a technique used to heighten dramatic tension or to create a sense of mystery. This term is the opposite of the phrase ab ovo, when a story begins in the beginning and then proceeds in a strictly chronological manner without using the characters' dialogue, flashbacks, or memories. (Contrast with flashback, in which the past events are experienced as a memory, and anastrophe, in which the entire story is cut into chronological pieces and experienced in a seemingly random or inverted pattern.)
183. INDO-EUROPEAN: The hypothetically reconstructed language that was the ancient ancestor of most European, Middle-Eastern, and Indian languages, including English. Some scholars prefer to use the noun-term proto-Indo-European to refer to this hypothetical language and use the adjective Indo-European in reference to those languages that descend from proto-Indo-European.
184. INTONATION: Patterns of pitch in sentences.
185. INVOCATION TO THE MUSE: A prayer or address made to the one of the nine muses of Greco-Roman mythology, in which the poet asks for the inspiration, skill, knowledge, or appropriate mood to create a poem worthy of his subject-matter. The invocation of the muse traditionally begins Greco-Roman epics and elegies. See also muses.
186. IRONY: Cicero referred to irony as "saying one thing and meaning another." Irony comes in many forms. Verbal irony (also called sarcasm) is a trope in which a speaker makes a statement in which its actual meaning differs sharply from the meaning that the words ostensibly express. Often this sort of irony is plainly sarcastic in the eyes of the reader, but the characters listening in the story may not realize the speaker's sarcasm as quickly as the readers do. Dramatic irony (the most important type for literature) involves a situation in a narrative in which the reader knows something about present or future circumstances that the character does not know. In that situation, the character acts in a way we recognize to be grossly inappropriate to the actual circumstances, or the character expects the opposite of what the reader knows that fate holds in store, or the character anticipates a particular outcome that unfolds itself in an unintentional way. Probably the most famous example of dramatic irony is the situation facing Oedipus in the play Oedipus Rex. Situational irony (also called cosmic irony) is a trope in which accidental events occur that seem oddly appropriate, such as the poetic justice of a pickpocket getting his own pocket picked. However, both the victim and the audience are simultaneously aware of the situation in situational irony. Probably the most famous example of situational irony is Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal, in which Swift "recommends" that English landlords take up the habit of eating Irish babies as a food staple.
187. ITALIAN SONNET: Another term for a Petrarchan sonnet. See discussion under sonnet.
188. JUNGIAN PSYCHOLOGY: The term refers to the theories of the Swiss psychologist, Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961). Jung was a student of Freud, but he rejected Freud's ideas of infantile sexuality (i.e., the Oedipal Complex, wish fulfillment, thanatos, etc.) and he held that Freud's psychoanalytic process was too simple, too concrete, and too focused on the individual child's development rather than the collective development of cultures as a whole. Working with the insights from anthropological studies like J. G. Frazer's The Golden Bough (1890-1915), Jung developed an alternative concept called the collective unconscious, a shared collection of transcultural images and symbols known as archetypes that would resonate powerfully within the human psyche. The study of how Jungian psychology relates to literature is called archetypal criticism. Note that the <J> is pronounced like a /y/ in Jung's name. For more information, see archetype.
189. KENNING: A form of compounding in Old English poetry. In this poetic device, the poet creates a new compound word or phrase to describe an object or activity. Specifically, this compound uses mixed imagery (catachresis) to describe the properties of the object in indirect, imaginative, or enigmatic ways. The resulting word is somewhat like a riddle since the reader must stop and think for a minute to determine what the object is. Kennings may involve conjoining two types of dissimilar imagery, extended metaphor, or mixed metaphor. Kennings were particularly common in Old English literature and Viking poetry. The most famous example is hron-rade ("whale-road") as a poetic reference to the sea. Other examples include "Thor-Weapon" as a reference to a smith's hammer, "battle-flame" as a reference to the way light shines on swords, "gore-bed" for a battlefield filled with motionless bodies, and "word-hoard" for a man's eloquence. In Beowulf, we also find banhus ("bone-house") for body, goldwine gumena ("gold-friend of men") for generous prince, beadoleoma ("flashing light") for sword, and beaga brytta ("ring-giver") for a lord.
Kennings are less common in Modern English than in earlier centuries, but some common modern examples include "beer-goggles" (to describe the way one's judgment of appearances becomes hazy while intoxicated) and "surfing the web" (which mixes the imagery of skillful motion through large amounts of liquid, amorphous material with the imagery of an interconnected net linked by strands or cables).
190. KIGO: A traditional "season-word" in Japanese haiku. The kigo must appear within a haiku's text or be strongly implied by imagery. These words place the haiku within a specific month or season, establishing an atmosphere for the poem while maintaining brevity. Japanese books of poetry are usually divided according to season, with the five Japanese seasons being Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, and New Year's added as the fifth season to Europe's traditional four. The kigo can be an actual reference to the name of the season or a month, or it can be a traditional connotative word: cicadas, fireflies, flies, frogs, and mosquitoes are common kigo for summer haiku, as are billowing clouds, summer storms, burning sunshine, fans, midday naps, parasols, and planters' songs. Fall kigo include references to the moon, falling leaves, scarecrows, the call of crickets, chrysanthemums, and allusions to the cold weather, lengthening nights, graveside visits, charcoal kilns, medicinal roots, gourds, persimmons, apples, and vines. Winter kigo include imagery of snow, bowl-beating rituals or begging, allusions to failing strength, charcoal fires, banked fires, socks drying, the old calendar, mochi (festive rice-cakes) and mochi sellers. Spring kigo include cherry blossoms, and so on. The following haiku by Bashó illustrates the kigo:
Kare eda ni
See haiku for further discussion.
191. KLEOS: (Greek: κλέος) is the Greek word often translated to "renown", or "honor". It is related to the word "to hear" and carries the implied meaning of "what others hear about you". A Greek hero earns kleos through accomplishing great deeds, often through battle. Kleos is invariably transferred from father to son; the son is responsible for carrying on and building upon the "glory" of the father. This is a reason Penelope put off her suitors for so long, and one justification for Medea's murder of her own children was to cut short Jason's kleos. Kleos is a common theme in Homer's epics: The Iliad and The Odyssey. (from Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kleos).
192. KNIGHT: A military aristocrat in medieval Europe and England who swore service as a vassal to a liege lord in exchange for control over land. The term comes from the Old English word cniht, meaning young man or servant-boy. The process of becoming a knight was a long one, and small boys would begin their training as a page at court, serving food or drink to their elders, running messages and errands. They would be expected during this period to learn the niceties of polite society and respect for their elders. The next phase of training was serving as squire to another knight. The squire would be expected to polish and clean his knight's armor and weapons, care for and feed the horses, and wait upon his master during jousts or military service. He would also learn the finer points of fighting and riding. The final stage of knighthood was a semi-religious ceremony that varied in its details from one geographic area to another. In the late medieval period, the position of knight often became hereditary, and the title Sir, Ser, or Don was indicative of this rank. Associated with knighthood in the later Middle Ages were cultural phenomena such as feudalism, the cult of chivalry and courtly love.
193. LATE MODERN ENGLISH: English as spoken from about the year 1800 to the present.
194. LAWS OF HOSPITALITY: Called xenia in Greek, the term refers to the custom in classical Greece and other ancient cultures that, if a traveler comes to a town, he can ask any person there for food, shelter, and gifts to help him on his journey. In Greek tradition, the host was considered responsible for his guest's comfort and safety, and a breach of those laws of hospitality was thought to anger Zeus (Roman Jupiter), the king of the gods.
195. LITERAL: A literal passage, story, or text is one intended only (or primarily) as a factual account of a real historical event rather than a metaphorical expression, an allegorical expression of a larger symbolic truth, or a hypothetical example. The most common mistake students make is confusing the terms true, factual, and literal. Some things are true but not factual. Some things are meant literally but they are not factual. And some things are presented factually that aren't true. For instance, in Anne Rice's Interview with a Vampire, Rice presents her narrative as an actual biography of a vampire. The material is presented using various trappings of factuality, and the writing style encourages readers to suspend their disbelief and imagine that the vampire Louis Dulac literally exists as he dictates his story, rather than encouraging the reader to think of Louis Dulac as an unreal symbol or some abstraction like "sexualized death" or "commercial consumption." It's only late in the tale that Louis turns into a symbol for modernity. Earlier in the tale, the presentation of details such as the tape recorder running out of tape, and other interruptions by the reporter, and the historical reality of New Orleans and Paris help encourage a literal mindset. However, the story is not true in the sense we normally mean the word, even though it is meant to be read in a literal manner.
On the other hand, contrast this untrue-but-factually-presented story with Aesop's fable of the tortoise and the hare. In this account, we have talking rabbits and loquacious terapins. They engage in a race, and the lazy rabbit ends up losing to the slower tortoise because that turtle keeps up his pace while the rabbit naps. This story is not meant to be read literally. Turtles and rabbits cannot talk, nor do they engage in marathons with each other. Aesop is not presenting the material to us in a factual manner akin to that of biology textbook or a newspaper clipping. However, the point to the story is indeed true. The story's symbolic or allegorical point is a larger truth that supersedes factuality. It's indeed true that talent is irrelevant if not put to use, that the underdog can win if the better runner doesn't try, and that slow-and-steady can win the race when the competition doesn't focus on extended effort. If the reader responded to the fable with scorn because it "wasn't factual" or "wasn't literally real," the reader would miss the lesson and the larger point. Being so literally minded can cripple one's enjoyment of literature. See extended discussion under allegory.
196. LITOTES: A form of meiosis using a negative statement. (See more under discussion of meiosis.)
197. LOATHLY LADY: The motif of a ugly hag who will under set conditions transform into a beautiful maiden, or more rarely a beautiful maiden cursed to revert to a hideous or inhuman shape under different conditions. This motif is found in fairy tales, folklore, mythology, and Celtic legend. Examples include Princess Melusine in French dynastic mythology, Dame Ragnelle, and the old woman in the Wife of Bath's Tale from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The frog-prince and the story of "Beauty and the Beast" are two examples in which the older and more common gender roles are reversed. The idea perhaps originates in the common psychological longing for transformative wish fulfillment. It might be akin to the emotional engine driving the European legend of Cinderella, the Ovidian myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, or the more recent play My Fair Lady. All three involve a metamorphosis into a better state of feminine existence--at least in the eyes of a masculine audience. We also see a vague remnant of this ancient wish fulfillment in American pop culture--especially films such as Pretty Woman and She's All That, in which respectively an uncouth prostitute transforms into a refined society lady worthy of a millionaire husband and in which a nerdy high school misfit transforms into an acceptable candidate for prom queen.
198. LU SHIH (Chinese, "regulated song"): A verse form popular in China in the T'ang and Sung dynasties. It was also referred to as the chin-t'i shih to keep the term distinct from the ku-shih or "old songs." The verse was characterized by extensive parallelism and an elaborate tonal pattern. This formal structure also influenced the fu or "prose poem" of later centuries.
199. LYRIC (from Greek lyra "song"): The lyric form is as old as Egypt (surviving examples date back to 2600 BCE), and examples exist in early Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and other sources. If literature from every culture through the ages were lumped into a single stack, it is likely that the largest number of writings would be these short verse poems. There are three general meanings for lyric:
• A short poem (usually no more than 50-60 lines, and often only a dozen lines long) written in a repeating stanzaic form, often designed to be set to music. Unlike a ballad, the lyric usually does not have a plot (i.e., it might not tell a complete story), but it rather expresses the feelings, perceptions, and thoughts of a single poetic speaker (not necessarily the poet) in an intensely personal, emotional, or subjective manner. Often, there is no chronology of events in the lyrics, but rather objects, situations, or the subject is written about in a "lyric moment." Sometimes, the reader can infer an implicit narrative element in lyrics, but it is rare for the lyric to proceed in the straightforward, chronological "telling" common in fictional prose. For instance, in William Wordsworth's "The Solitary Reaper," the reader can guess from the speaker's words that the speaker has come unexpectedly upon a girl reaping and singing in the Scottish Highlands, and that he stops, listens, and thinks awhile before continuing on his way. However, this chain of events is not explicitly a center of plot or extended conflict between protagonist and antagonist. Instead it triggers a moment of contemplation and appreciation. Thus it is not a plot in the normal sense of the word.
• Any poem having the form and musical quality of a song
• As an adjective, lyric can also be applied to any prose or verse characterized by direct, spontaneous outpouring of intense feeling. Often, the lyric is subdivided into various genres, including the aubade, the dramatic monologue, the elegy, the epithalamion, the hymn, the ode, and the sonnet. Contrast with ballad, elegy, and ode.
200. MACHIAVELLIAN: As an adjective, the word refers generally to sneaky, ruthless, and deceitful behavior, especially in regard to a ruler obsessed with power who puts on a surface veneer of honor and trustworthy behavior in order to achieve evil ends. The term originates in a treatise known as The Prince. This work was written by Niccoló Machiavelli, an early sixteenth-century political advisor who worked for the Borgia family in Italy. In contrast to the medieval ideal of the ruler as God's holy deputy and dispenser of justice, Machiavelli stressed that effective rulers often must engage in evil (or at least immoral) activities to ensure the stability of their rule. He suggests that, based on the evidence of history and his own personal observations, the rulers that have remained in power have not been kindly, benevolent men concerned with justice and fairness, but rather ruthless individuals willing to do anything to ensure the security of their state and their own personal power. Click here for more information.
201. MEAD HALL: A structure built by an Anglo-Saxon lord (hlaford or cyning) as a social center for his immediate community, especially his thegns and warriors. Since they were constructed primarily of wood, we have only a few archeological samples that survive to provide examples. We know from descriptions in Anglo-Saxon texts that they were filled with mead-benches, which were elaborately carved and decorated with gold. Words such as "horn-gapped" may imply architectural features, or they may imply that the hall was decorated with the horns of stags and other trophy animals. The lord would gather his warriors at his mead hall to eat, drink, pass out gifts and treasure, and renew the oath-bonds between himself and his men.
202. MECHANE: In Greek stagecraft, this is a crane that lifts actors in the air, allowing them the illusion of flight. This was mostly used for gods or heroes, and we believe it commonly lifted actors to the roof of the skene, a place reserved almost solely for gods.
203. MEDIEVAL (from Latin medium aevum, "the Middle Age" or "the in-between age"): The period of time roughly a thousand years long between the fall of the Roman Empire and the emergence of the Renaissance. Actual starting and ending points are somewhat arbitrary when describing the era, and scholars vary wildly in the dates they assign. For instance, M. H. Abrams' Norton Anthology of English Literature, 7th edition, assigns to the medieval period the years 450-1485, but in his Glossary of Literary Terms, the same scholar points to the years 410-1500 as the appropriate years. J. A. Cuddon's Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory prefers the dates c. 800-c. 1450, and Harry Shaw's Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms prefers c. 476-c. 1350, but notes that it "may extend to about 1500" (p. 170). While there are no universally accepted demarcations, it is common in older European histories to divide the medieval period into an early period of "the Dark Ages" and a later period of "the High Middle Ages." On the other hand, linguists divide the medieval period in England into the Anglo-Saxon period (about 450-1066) and the Middle English period (about 1066-1450). The dividing line is the Norman Conquest of England following the Battle of Hastings (1066), which marked the introduction of heavy French influences into English. Some scholars prefer to mark the years 1100-1350 as the "Anglo-Norman" period, since most courtly literature in England was written in Norman-French rather than English. Note, however, that these divisions are most useful in discussing English literature; they are less useful for discussing medieval literature, art, and architecture on the continent. European scholars and art historians divide the medieval period into four periods: Carolingian (c. 750-900), Ottonian (c. 900-1056), Romanesque (c. 1057-1150), and Gothic (1150-1475).
204. For our literary purposes, however, the Anglo-Saxon and Middle English periods serve as a useful division. The early medieval centuries (often misleadingly called "the Dark Ages") are marked by the disintegration of classical Greco-Roman culture and the volkerwanderung of Germanic tribes into western Europe, followed by gradual conversions to Christianity. Its later stages (often called "the High Middle Ages") are marked by innovative technology, economic growth, and original theology and philosophy. The term medievalism in western Europe is linked with feudalism in government, guildhouses in economics, monasticism and Catholicism in religion, and castles and knights in chivalrous military custom.
205. MEDIEVAL ESTATES SATIRE: A medieval genre common among French poets in which the speaker lists various occupations among the three estates of feudalism (nobles, peasants, and clergy) and depicts them in a manner that shows how short they fall from the ideal of that occupation. In the late medieval period, the genre expanded to discuss the failings of bourgeois individuals as well. The genre was not unknown in England. John Gower's Vox Clamantis and Confessio Amantis have passages similar to those in continental estates satire. Jill Mann suggests in her famous book, Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire, that the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales is itself an example of this genre. See also satire and three estates.
206. MEDIEVAL ROMANCE: See discussion under romance, medieval.
207. MEIOSIS: Understatement, the opposite of exaggeration: "I was somewhat worried when the psychopath ran toward me with a chainsaw." (i.e., I was terrified). Litotes (especially popular in Old English poetry) is a type of meiosis in which the writer uses a statement in the negative to create the effect: "You know, Einstein is not a bad mathematician." (i.e., Einstein is a good mathematician.)
208. METAPHOR: A comparison or analogy stated in such a way as to imply that one object is another one, figuratively speaking. When we speak of "the ladder of success," we imply that being successful is much like climbing a ladder to a higher and better position. Another example comes from an old television add from the 1980s urging teenagers not to try drugs. The camera would focus on a close-up of a pair of eggs and a voice would state "This is your brain." In the next sequence, the eggs would be cracked and thrown onto a hot skillet, where the eggs would bubble, burn, and seeth. The voice would state, "This is your brain on drugs." The point of the comparison is fairly clear. A metaphor is an example of a rhetorical trope. Another example is how Martin Luther wrote, "A mighty fortress is our God, / A bulwark never failing." (Mighty fortress and bulwark are the two metaphors for God in these lines.) Often, a metaphor suggests something symbolic in its imagery. For instance, Wordsworth uses a metaphor when he states of England, "she is a fen of stagnant waters," which implies something about the state of political affairs in England as well as the island's biomes. Sometimes, the metaphor can be emotionally powerful, such as John Donne's use of metaphor in "Twickenham Garden," where he writes, "And take my tears, which are love's wine" (line 20). A particularly unusual metaphor that requires some explanation on the writer's part is often called a metaphysical conceit. The subject (first item) in a metaphoric statement is known as the tenor. The combination of two different metaphors into a single, awkward image is called a "mixed metaphor" or abusio. Contrast with simile.
209. METAPHYSICAL POETS: In his 1693 work, Discourse of Satire, John Dryden used the term metaphysical to describe the style of certain poets earlier in the 17th century. Later, Samual Johnson popularized the term in 1779. The term metaphysical implies the poetry is abstract and highly complex. The chief metaphysical poets include John Donne, Richard Crashaw, Andrew Marvell, George Herbert, and Henry Vaughan. The group shares certain traits, but their themes, structures, and assorted tones in their poetry vary widely. (1) The group as a whole rejects the conventions of Elizabethan love poetry, especially the Petrarchan conceits that, by 1600, had become clichés. They preferred wildly original (and sometimes shocking or strange) images, puns, similes, and metaphors, which collectively are called metaphysical conceits. (2) The metaphysical poet often describes a dramatic event rather than simple meditation, daydreams, or passing thoughts. (3) The metaphysical poets employed inconsistant or striking verse--often imitating the rhythmic patterns of everyday speech, rather than attempting to create perfect meter in the manner later favored by neoclassical poets. Basically, the metaphysical poets would not let metrical form interfere with the development of a line of thought. (4) The poem often expresses an argument--often using wild flights of logic and unusual comparisons. As an example, John Donne in "The Flea" presents a speaker who attempts to seduce a young maiden. The basis of his argument is the comparison between sex and a flea-bite. In "Holy Sonnet 14," Donne fashions a prayer in which he compares God to a rapist and himself to a besieged city.
210. METER: A recognizable though varying pattern of stressed syllables alternating with syllables of less stress. Compositions written in meter are said to be in verse. There are many possible patterns of verse. Each unit of stress and unstressed syllables is called a "foot." The following examples are culled from M. H. Abrams' Glossary of Literary Terms, seventh edition, which has more information. You can also click here to download a PDF handout giving examples of particular types of feet, or click here for a longer PDF handout discussing meter and scansion.
• Iambic (the noun is "iamb" or "iambus"): a lightly stressed syllable followed by a heavily stressed syllable. Example: "The cúrfew tólls the knéll of párting dáy." (Thomas Gray, "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.")
• Anapestic (the noun is "anapest") two light syllables followed by a stressed syllable: "The Assyrian came dówn like a wólf on the fóld." (Lord Byron, "The Destruction of Sennacherib.")
• Trochaic (the noun is "trochee") a stressed followed by a light syllable: "Thére they áre, my fífty men and wómen."
• Dactylic (the noun is "dactyl"): a stressed syllable followed by two light syllables: "Éve, with her básket, was / Déep in the bélls and grass."
Iambs and anapests, since the strong stress is at the end, are called "rising meter"; trochees and dactyls, with the strong stress at the beginning with lower stress at the end, are called "falling meter." Additionally, if a line ends in a standard iamb, with a final stressed syllable, it is said to have a masculine ending. If a line ends in a lightly stressed syllable, it is said to be feminine. To hear the difference, read the following examples aloud and listen to the final stress:
Masculine Ending: "'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the
Feminine Ending: "'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the
We name a metric line according to the number of "feet" in it. If a line has four feet, it is tetrameter. If a line has five feet, it is pentameter. Six feet, hexameter, and so on. English verse tends to be pentameter, French verse tetrameter, and Greek verse, hexameter. When scanning a line, we might, for instance, describe the line as "iambic pentameter" (having five feet, with each foot tending to be a light syllable followed by heavy syllable), or "trochaic tetrameter" (having four feet, with each foot tending to be a long syllable followed by a short syllable). Here is a complete list of the various verse structures:
211. METONYMY: Using a vaguely suggestive, physical object to embody a more general idea. The term metonym also applies to the object itself used to suggest that more general idea. Some examples of metonymy are using the metonym crown in reference to royalty or the entire royal family, or stating "the pen is mightier than the sword" to suggest that the power of education and writing is more potent for changing the world than military force. One of my former students wrote in an argumentative essay, "If we cannot strike offenders in the heart, let us strike them in the wallet," implying by her metonym that if we cannot make criminals regret their actions out of their guilty consciences, we can make them regret their actions through financial punishment. We use metonymy in everyday speech when we refer to the entire movie-making industry as the L. A. suburb "Hollywood" or the advertising industry as the street "Madison Avenue" (and when we refer to businessmen working there as "suits.") Journalists use metonymy to refer to the collective decisions of the United States government as "Washington" or when they use the term "the White House" as a shorthand reference for the executive bureaucracy in American government. Popular writer Thomas Friedman coined a recent metonym, "the Arab Street," as a shorthand reference for the entire population of Muslim individuals in Saudi Arabia, Yeman, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the surrounding areas. When students talk about studying "Shakespeare," they mean metonymically all his collected works of drama and poetry, rather than the historical writer's life alone, and so on.
212. METRICAL: Written in meter.
213. MICROCOSM (cf. macrocosm): The human body. Renaissance thinkers believed that the human body was a "little universe" that reflected changes in the macrocosm, or greater universe.
214. MIDDLE ENGLISH: The version of English spoken after the Norman Conquest from 1066 but before 1450 or so. Before the Norman Conquest, the common version of English was Old English or Anglo-Saxon, a Germanic language that is difficult to read without specialized training. An influx of Norman French and Latin vocabulary after the Normans conquered England resulted in rapid changes in spoken English. Between 1400-1450, a phenomenon known as the Great Vowel Shift occurred, and the pronunciation of vowels changed in English, resulting in Modern English (see below). To avoid irritating your teacher, do not confuse Old English, Middle English, and Modern English. This diagram will help you contrast them.
215. MLA: The acronym for the Modern Language Association. English students primarily know the MLA as the publisher of the MLA guidelines for research papers, the standard format used in American college English classes. Founded in 1883, this organization is a professional guild of sorts for professors and instructors of a variety of subjects: foreign languages, linguistics, composition, technical writing, philology, rhetoric, and literature. Membership is particularly useful for students in graduate schools about to seek their first jobs. (Membership allows them access to the JIL, the Job Information Listings.) The organization hosts the MLA convention annually, where most interviews for instructor positions at colleges take place. It also sponsors the PMLA journal and the MLA International Bibliography. You can learn more at the MLA website.
216. MODERN ENGLISH: The English language as spoken between about 1450 and the modern day. The language you are speaking now and the language Shakespeare spoke are both considered examples of Modern English. Modern English is distinct from Middle English (spoken c. 1100 to 1400) in that vowels are pronounced differently after the Great Vowel Shift (1400-1450). Both Middle English and Modern English are distinct from Old English in that Old English and Middle English had numerous letters (such as the letters ash, thorn, and eth) and some sounds (such as yogh) that were used much more commonly. Old English also used elaborate declensions that have mostly fallen out of use in Modern English. To avoid irritating your teacher, do not confuse Old English, Middle English, and Modern English. This diagram will help you contrast them. A good rule of thumb is that, (a) if you can read it easily, it's probably modern English, (b) if you can read it with some difficulty, but there are many words "misspelled" and an occasional strange letter, it's probably Middle English, and (c) if you can't read it all, and it looks like a foreign language with letters you don't recognize, you are probably looking at Old English. See Middle English and Old English.
217. MODERNISM: A vague, amorphous term referring to the art, poetry, literature, architecture, and philosophy of Europe and America in the early twentieth-century. Scholars do not agree exactly when Modernism began--most suggest after World War I, but some suggest it started as early as the late nineteenth century in France. Likewise, some assert Modernism ended with World War II or the bombing of Nagasaki, to be replaced with Postmodernism, or that modernism lasted until the 1960s, when post-structural linguistics dethroned it. Others suggest that the division between modernism and postmodernism is false, and that postmodernism is merely the continuing process of Modernism. Under the general umbrella of Modernism, we find several art movements such as surrealism, formalism, and various avante-garde French movements. Professor Frank Kermode further divides modernism into paleo-modernism (1914-1920) and neo-modernism (1920-1942). However, these divisions are hardly agreed upon by historians and critics. In general, modernism is an early twentieth-century artistic marked by the following characteristics: (1) the desire to break away from established traditions, (2) a quest to find fresh ways to view man's position or function in the universe, (3) experiments in form and style, particularly with fragmentation--as opposed to the "organic" theories of literary unity appearing in the Romantic and Victorian periods, and (4) a lingering concern with metaliterature. Cf. postmodernism. To see where modernism fits into a chronological listing of the major literary periods, click here for a pdf handout.
218. MOIRA: Fate or the three fates in Greek mythology. Contrast with wyrd.
219. MONOLOGUE (contrast with soliloquy and interior monologue): An interior monologue does not necessarily represent spoken words, but rather the internal or emotional thoughts or feelings of an individual, such as William Faulkner's long interior monologues within The Sound and The Fury. Monologue can also be used to refer to a character speaking aloud to himself, or narrating an account to an audience with no other character on stage. Cf. dramatic monologue.
220. MOOD (from Anglo-Saxon, mod "heart" or "spirit"): (1) In literature, a feeling, emotional state, or disposition of mind--especially the predominating atmosphere or tone of a literary work. Most pieces of literature have a prevailing mood, but shifts in this prevailing mood may function as a counterpoint, provide comic relief, or echo the changing events in the plot. The term mood is often used synonymously with atmosphere and ambiance. Students and critics who wish to discuss mood in their essays should be able to point to specific diction, description, setting, and characterization to illustrate what sets the mood. (2) In grammar, an aspect of verbs. Click here for more information on grammatical mood.
221. MOTIF: A conspicuous recurring element, such as a type of incident, a device, a reference, or verbal formula, which appears frequently in works of literature. For instance, the "loathly lady" who turns out to be a beautiful princess is a common motif in folklore, and the man fatally bewitched by a fairy lady is a common folkloric motif appearing in Keat's "La Belle Dame sans Merci." In medieval Latin lyrics, the "Ubi sunt?" [where are . . .?] motif is common, in which a speaker mourns the lost past by repeatedly asking, what happened to the good-old days? ("Where are the snows of yesteryear?" asks Francois Villon.) The motif of the "beheading game" is common in Celtic myth, and so on. Frequently, critics use the word motif interchangeably with theme and leit-motif. See also folkloric motif.
222. MUSES, THE NINE: The nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne who had the power to inspire artists, poets, singers, and writers. They are listed below along with their spheres of influence:
Calliope (epic poetry); Clio (history); Euterpe (lyric poetry); Melpomene (tragedy); Terpsichore (choral dance); Erato (love poetry); Polyhymnia (hymns and sacred poems); Urania (astronomy); Thalia (comedy)
223. MYTHOLOGY: A system of stories about the gods, often explicitly religious in nature, that were once believed to be true by a specific cultural group, but may no longer be believed as literally true by their descendents. Like religions everywhere, mythology often provided etiological and eschatological narratives to help explain why the world works the way it does, to provide a rationale for customs and observances, to establish set rituals for sacred ceremonies, and to predict what happens to individuals after death. If the protagonist is a normal human rather than a supernatural being, the traditional story is usually called a legend rather than a myth. If the story concerns supernatural beings who are not deities, but rather spirits, ghosts, fairies, and other creatures, it is usually called a folktale or fairy tale rather than a myth (see folklore, below). Samples of myths appear in the writings of Homer, Virgil, and Ovid.
224. NARRATION, NARRATIVE: Narration is the act of telling a sequence of events, often in chronological order. Alternatively, the term refers to any story, whether in prose or verse, involving events, characters, and what the characters say and do. A narrative is likewise the story or account itself. Some narrations are reportorial and historical, such as biographies, autobiographies, news stories, and historical accounts. In narrative fiction common to literature, the narrative is usually creative and imaginative rather than strictly factual, as evidenced in fairy tales, legends, novels, novelettes, short stories, and so on. However, the fact that a fictional narrative is an imaginary construct does not necessarily mean it isn't concerned with imparting some sort of truth to the reader, as evidenced in exempla, fables, anecdotes, and other sorts of narrative. The narrative can begin ab ovo (from the start and work its way to the conclusion), or it can begin in medias res (in the middle of the action, then recount earlier events by the character's dialogue, memories, or flashbacks). See exemplum and fable.
225. NARRATOR: The "voice" that speaks or tells a story. Some stories are written in a first-person point of view, in which the narrator's voice is that of the point-of-view character. For instance, in The Adventures of Huck Finn, the narrator's voice is the voice of the main character, Huck Finn. It is clear that the historical author, Mark Twain, is creating a fictional voice to be the narrator and tell the story--complete with incorrect grammar, colloquialisms, and youthful perspective. In other stories, such as those told in the third-person point of view, scholars use the term narrator to describe the authorial voice set forth, the voice "telling the story to us." For instance, Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist presents a narrative in which the storyteller stands outside the action described. He is not a character who interacts with other characters in terms of plot. However, this fictionalized storyteller occasionally intrudes upon the story to offer commentary to the reader, make suggestions, or render a judgment about what takes place in the tale. It is tempting to equate the words and sentiments of such a narrator with the opinions of the historical author himself. However, it is often more useful to separate this authorial voice from the voice of the historical author. For further discussion, see authorial voice, unreliable narrator, and point of view.
226. NARRATOR, UNRELIABLE: An unreliable narrator is a storyteller who "misses the point" of the events or things he describes in a story, who plainly misinterprets the motives or actions of characters, or who fails to see the connections between events in the story. The author herself, of course, must plainly understand the connections, because she presents the material to the readers in such a way that readers can see what the narrator overlooks. This device is sometimes used for purposes of irony or humor. See discussion under authorial voice.
227. NEOCLASSIC: An adjective referring to the Enlightenment. See Enlightenment for further discussion, or click here for a PDF handout that places the Neoclassic period in chronological order with other intellectual movements.
228. NEOCLASSICISM: The movement toward classical architecture, literature, drama, and design that took place during the Restoration and Enlightenment. See Enlightenment for further discussion about its influence in literature.
229. NORMAN: An inhabitant of Normandy, a region along the northern coast of France. The word Norman comes from a cognate for "northmen," for the Norman aristocracy of the region originally descended from Danish (i.e. Viking) settlers who took over the region in the ninth and tenth centuries. Charles the Simple, the somewhat incompetent king of France, was unable to eject these invaders from the region, so in 912 CE he signed a treaty with Rollo, the leader of the Danes in Normandy. This treaty made Rollo a vassal Duke. After a few centuries, these Viking Normans lost their Norse language and "went native" by adapting the French tongue, French dress, French custom, and French law. However, on the continent, Norman French was considered "bad French" in contrast with the sophisticated Parisian French. This factor might have been key in the way the Normans gradually abandoned French after they conquered the British isles. In terms of English's linguistic development, Norman French profoundly influenced our language after the Norman Invasion of 1066.
230. NORMAN INVASION: Not to be confused with D-Day during World War II, medieval historians use this title for a much earlier invasion in 1066. Duke William of Normandy's conquest of England from 1066-1087 had profound impact on English by importing Norman-French vocabulary into Anglo-Saxon, bringing about the formation of Middle English. See also Battle of Hastings and Norman.
231. NOVEL: In its broadest sense, a novel is any extended fictional prose narrative focusing on a few primary characters but often involving scores of secondary characters. The fact that it is in prose helps distinguish it from other lengthy works like epics. We might arbitrarily set the length at 50,000 words or more as a dividing point with the novella and the short story. The English novel is primarily thought of as a product of the eighteenth-century, though many earlier narratives in classical Greek such as Heliodorus's Aethiopica and Daphnis and Chloë (attributed to Longus) easily fulfill the normal requirements of the genre, as the scholar Edmund Gosse has pointed out. Likewise, the Japanese Tale of the Genji and collected writings of Murasaki Shikibu from 1004 CE would clearly qualify as well by our definition--though most Western scholars treat these works as separate from the novel genre because historically they do not play a direct part or direct influence in the evolution of the popular English novel genre today.
232. NOVELLA: An extended fictional prose narrative that is longer than a short story, but not quite as long as a novel. We might arbitrarily assign an approximate length of 20,000-50,000 words. Early prototypes include the Decameron of Boccaccio, the Cento Novelle Antiche, and the Heptameron of Marguerite of Valois. English examples include Henry James's Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Note that some scholars in previous generations made a distinction between what they called the novella (short stories in Italian, French, and German that served as later influences on English prose) and the novelette (English extended prose narratives shorter than a short story but not quite as long as a novel.) Today, most American critics use the two terms interchangeably.
233. OCCASIONAL POEM: A poem written or recited to commemorate a specific event such as a wedding, an anniversary, a military victory or failure, a funeral, a holiday, or other notable date. It may be light or serious. Notable examples are Milton's "On the Late Massacre in Piedmont," Marvell's "Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland," Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade" and Yeats's "Easter 1916." Some of Chaucer's poetry was occasional verse. He probably wrote "The Book of the Duchess" either within a few months of the death of John of Gaunt's wife (traditionally dated as 12 September 1369), or he may possibly have written it for one of the later annual commemorative services Gaunt held to honor the anniversary of her death. Chaucer may have written "The Parliament of Fowls" for Valentine's Day in 1380 as a light-hearted recital to mark the negotiations concerning the marriage of Richard II to Princess Anne of Bohemia.
234. OCTAVE: An octave is the first part of an Italian or Petrarchan sonnet; an octave is a set of eight lines that rhyme according to the pattern ABBAABBA. See sonnet, below.
235. ODE: A long, often elaborate stanzaic poem of varying line lengths and sometimes intricate rhyme schemes dealing with a serious subject matter and treating it reverently. The ode is usually much longer than the song or lyric, but usually not as long as the epic poem. Conventionally, many odes are written or dedicated to a specific subject. For instance, "Ode to the West Wind" is about the winds that bring change of season in England. Keats has a clever inversion of this convention in "Ode on a Grecian Urn," in which his choice of the preposition on implies the poem actually exists in the artwork on the urn itself, rather than as a separate piece of literary art in his poetry. Classical odes are often divided by tone, with Pindaric odes being heroic and ecstatic and Horatian odes being cool, detached, and balanced with criticism. Andrew Marvell's "Upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland" is an example of a Horatian ode.
236. OEDIPAL COMPLEX: The late Victorian and early twentieth-century psychologist Freud argued that male children, jealous of sharing their mother's attention with a father-figure, would come to possess a subconscious incestuous desire to kill their fathers and have sex with their mothers. They would in a sense desire to usurp the father's place in the household. In most healthy adults, this urge would be repressed and channeled into other pursuits, but echoes of the hidden desire would linger in the psyche. Freud coined the phrase from the myth of Oedipus, the doomed Greek hero. In Oedipus's infancy, prophets predicted that he would kill his own father and marry his mother. Every effort made to thwart the prophecy, however, ended up bringing it about. The events are recounted most masterfully in Sophocles's play, Oedipus Rex. Oedipus's crimes--though he was unknowing--brought about a dreadful a curse on his family, and violence lingered to haunt the family in future generations, as recounted in plays like Antigonê. Several famous characters in myth and literature seem to haunted by a similar jealousy comparable to the phenomenon Freud describes. For instance, Greek mythology is littered with younger deities that usurp their father's position and castrate the elder god after assuming power, such as the way Zeus overthrows Chronos. Concerning the play Hamlet, diverse psychoanalytical critics have commented on Hamlet's rage at his Gertrude's sexual romps and Hamlet's tormented desire to murder his uncle/father-figure Claudius. See Freudian criticism and wish fulfillment.
237. OIKOS: (Greek, “Household”) relating to the house as opposed to the polis (“city”), oikos, expecially in relation to Greek tragedy, is a dichotomy between duty to state and duty to family, reverance for the Olympian gods vs. reverence to the older chthonic gods (see Moira), as well as male and female. As the city-state system strengthened, so did the male’s duty to that city-state. This often put him at odds with his duty as father and head of household. In more ancient times, a Greek man would fight to win kleos for himself or his family; now, a man fought to win kleos for his city-state. Since the woman’s role was to work in and protect the home, this often resulted in conflict between the male and female, as shown in many Greek tragedies such as Aeschylus’ Oresteia and Euripides’ Medea. We can still see bits of this dichotomy in more ancient works such as the Iliad when Andromache begs Hector to not fight, trying to use her love and their son to keep him from battling the Greeks, but Hector’s duty to Troy is greater than his duty to his family.
238. OLD ENGLISH: Also known as Anglo-Saxon, Old English is the ancestor of Middle English and Modern English. It is a Germanic language that was introduced to the British Isles by tribes such as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes in a series of invasions in the fifth century. Poems such as Beowulf are samples of Old English. Old English was common in England from about 449 AD up to about 1100 AD. The Norman Conquest in 1066 introduced a new ruling class of Normans who spoke French, and the influx of French vocabulary altered Old English, eventually resulting in Middle English. See Middle English and Modern English. To see computerized lettering and words transcribed from an Old English document, click here. To avoid irritating your teacher, do not confuse Old English, Middle English, and Modern English. This diagram will help you contrast them.
239. OMEN: A miraculous sign, a natural disaster, or a disturbance in nature that reveals the will of the gods in the arena of politics or social behavior or predicts a coming change in human history. Greek culture held that if the gods were upset, they might visit the lands with monsters, ghosts, floods, storms, and grotesque miracles to reveal their displeasure. Comets might appear in the heavens--or phantom armies might fight in the clouds. For instance, in the Odyssey, Book 12, lines 55-60, Odysseus's starving sailors slaughter and eat the holy cattle on the Isle of Hélios. They then see a dire portent, when the dead cows animate like zombies while in the midst of being cooked:
And soon the gods sent portents:
After the heroic age of Homer, earth tremors and similar disruptions also could lead governmental debate to a standstill in Athens--a fact causing some discomfort since Greece has always been a tectonically active area.
The Romans likewise shared this belief that strange meteorological and biological behavior indicated the displeasure of the heavens. During the days of the Roman Republic, in the year 60 BCE, a great storm uprooted trees, destroyed houses, and sank ships in the Tiber. Cicero argued these disasters showed the gods were upset with Julius Caesar's proposed legislative changes. Likewise, if a vote passed in the Roman senate, and lightning was seen to flash in the sky, the Senate would often repeal whatever legislaton they just passed. (The Roman politician Bibulus was notorious for trying to overturn legislation this way; each time a law passed he did not favor, he would claim to see a flash of lightning on the horizon--even if the sky was blue and cloudless.) Likewise, one of the more important government officials in Rome was the pullarius, the guardian of the sacred roosters that would pluck out messages in grain for priests to interpret.
This superstition about omens did not die out with the end of pagan belief. Medieval Christians could point to the ten plagues of Egypt as a biblical incident in which natural disturbances were linked to divine activity and historic change, so they readily incorporated these Greco-Roman ideas in the doctrine of the Chain of Being. The idea was still prevalent in Shakespeare's day, so Shakespeare accompanies the murder of King Duncan in Macbeth with an eclipse, fierce storms, and a bizarre outbreak of cannibalism in which the horses in the royal stables eat each other alive. In the same way, in the play Hamlet, the appearance of the ghost at Elsinore and the comet in the sky convinces the scholarly Horatio that some great disturbance of the state is at hand.
240. ONOMATOPOEIA: The use of sounds that are similar to the noise they represent for a rhetorical or artistic effect. For instance, buzz, click, rattle, and grunt make sounds akin to the noise they represent. A higher level of onomatopoeia is the use of imitative sounds throughout a sentence to create an auditory effect. For instance, Tennyson writes in The Princess about "The moan of doves in immemorial elms, / And murmuring of innumerable bees." All the /m/ and /z/ sounds ultimately create that whispering, murmuring effect Tennyson describes. In similar ways, poets delight in choosing sounds that match their subject-matter, such as using many clicking k's and c's when describing a rapier duel (to imitate the clack of metal on metal), or using many /s/ sounds when describing a serpent, and so on. Robert Browning liked squishy sounds when describing squishy phenomena, and scratchy sounds when describing the auditory effect of lighting a match, such as in his poem "Meeting at Night": "As I gain the cove with pushing prow, / And quench its speed i' the slushy sand. / a tap at the pane, the quick sharp, scratch / and blue spurt of a lighted match." The technique is ancient, and we can find a particularly cunning example in Virgil's Latin, in which he combines /d/ and /t/ sounds along with galloping rhythm to mimic in words the sound of horses he describes: "Quadrupedante putrem sonitu quatit ungula campum. . . ." Onomatopoeia appears in all languages, and it is a common optional effect in various genres such as the Japanese haiku.
241. OPEN POETIC FORM: A poem of variable length, one which can consist of as many lines as the poet wishes to write. Every poem written in open poetic form, therefore, is unique. Open poetic form contrasts with closed poetic form, in which the specific subgenre of poetry requires a predetermined number of stanzas, lines, feet, or other components. For instance, a sonnet is a closed poetic form, in which the poem can be no more or no less than fourteen lines long, with ten syllables in each line. Open poetic form is not to be confused with free verse poetry. Free verse poetry is a subtype of open poetry, but it is not constrained by any conventions at all regarding meter or rhyme. For example, Alfred Noyes, "The Highwayman" is in open poetic form. Although "The Highwayman" has a set structure for rhyme and meter, the number of stanzas necessary to tell the poem is not predetermined by a required length, as is the case in a limerick or a sonnet. However, Walt Whitman's poem "Song of Myself" is written in open poetic form and it is also written in free verse form. Whitman's lines vary in length, and the meter varies from passage to passage, and any rhymes appear haphazardly rather than as part of a predetermined pattern required by a genre's constraints.
242. ORAL FORMULAIC: Having traits associated with works intended to be spoken aloud before an audience of listeners. Examples of oral formulaic traits are (1) repetition of words or passages, (2) use of epithets after or before a character's name, (3) mnemonic devices to help the speaker with recitation, (4) subdivision into sections suitable for recital during a single evening, (5) summaries of previous material in each section to help a listening audience keep track of complicated plot, and (6) episodic structure that allows the speaker to "ad lib" sections if he or she forgets a passage. Critics have argued that literature such as Beowulf, the Tain, and Homer's Odyssey show signs of oral formulaic structure, which suggests the poems may have existed for centuries as recited materials (oral transmission) before being written down as a text.
243. ORAL TRANSMISSION: The spreading or passing on of material by word of mouth. Before the development of writing and the rise of literacy, oral transmission and memorization was the most common means by which narrative and poetic art could spread through a culture. See ballad, bard, epic, folklore, oral-formulaic, etc.
244. ORCHESTRA (Greek "dancing place"): (1) In modern theaters, the ground-floor area on the first floor where the audience sits to watch the play; (2) in classical Greek theaters, a central circle where the chorus performed
245. OUTLAW: An individual determined by a council vote to be an outlaw at a thing or an althing was considered outside the normal bounds of kinship relations in Iceland. He was considered outside the law (hence the term), and anyone who met him would be allowed to kill him or rob him without repercussions from the rest of the Viking community. Since the medieval government of Iceland did not have an official bureaucracy of police, sherrifs, or gendarmerie, much less a national army to enforce its law, the declaration of outlaw status was a common punishment. It allowed an entire community to take the law in its own hands, in its own time. Many of the major heroes in Icelandic sagas are outlaws or become outlaws over the course of the saga.
246. OXYMORON (plural oxymora, also called paradox): Using contradiction in a manner that oddly makes sense on a deeper level. Simple or joking examples include such oxymora as jumbo shrimp, sophisticated rednecks, and military intelligence. The richest literary oxymora seem to reveal a deeper truth through their contradictions. These oxymora are sometimes called paradoxes. For instance, "without laws, we can have no freedom." Shakespeare's Julius Caesar also makes use of a famous oxymoron: "Cowards die many times before their deaths" (2.2.32). Richard Rolle uses an almost continuous string of oxymora in his Middle English work, "Love is Love That Lasts For Aye." Click here for more examples of oxymora.
247. PARADOX (also called oxymoron): Using contradiction in a manner that oddly makes sense on a deeper level. Common paradoxes seem to reveal a deeper truth through their contradictions, such as noting that "without laws, we can have no freedom." Shakespeare's Julius Caesar also makes use of a famous paradox: "Cowards die many times before their deaths" (2.2.32). Richard Rolle uses an almost continuous string of paradoxes in his Middle English work, "Love is Love That Lasts For Aye." Oscar Wilde's "Ballad of Reading Gaol" notes "And all men kill the thing they love." The taoist master Lao-Tzu makes extraordinary use of paradox in the Tao-te Ching in his discussion of "the Way."
248. PARALLELISM: When the writer establishes similar patterns of grammatical structure and length. For instance, "King Alfred tried to make the law clear, precise, and equitable." The previous sentence has parallel structure in use of adjectives. However, the following sentence does not use parallelism: "King Alfred tried to make clear laws that had precision and were equitable."
If the writer uses two parallel structures, the result is isocolon parallelism: "The bigger they are, the harder they fall."
If there are three structures, it is tricolon parallelism: "That government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth." Or, as one student wrote, "Her purpose was to impress the ignorant, to perplex the dubious, and to startle the complacent." Shakespeare used this device to good effect in Richard II when King Richard laments his unfortunate position:
I'll give my jewels for a set of beads,
My gorgeous palace for a hermitage,
My gay apparel for an almsman's gown,
My figured goblets for a dish of wood . . . . (3.3.170-73)
249. PARDONER: An individual licensed by the medieval church to sell papal indulgences (i.e., "pardons"), official documents excusing the recipient from certain acts of penitence and alleviating the sinner's punishment while in purgatory. The Catholic Encyclopedia defines an indulgence as "the extra-sacramental remission of the temporal punishment due" to a sinner. Protestant students might wish to peruse the Catholic Encyclopedia's discussion of indulgences to avoid common misconceptions and distortions. The practice of selling these pardons as a means of fund-raising for the church or as a means of rewarding those who offered the church some service rose in prominence after the council of Clermont in 1095. There, Pope Urban II announced sweeping indulgences would be given to any individuals willing to go on Crusade. By the fourteenth century, the practice had developed extensively, and pardoners were lay officials authorized by the pope to sell indulgences in exchange for financial donations. Ecclesiastical abuses become commonplace problems. These abuses included unauthorized sales, the sale of forged pardons, extortion, and deliberate misrepresentation of the scope of an indulgence (i.e., treating the indulgence as a "get-out-of-hell-free" card). Chaucer's Pardoner in The Canterbury Tales represents the worst excesses of pardoners during this period.
250. PARODOS: In Greek tragedy, the ceremonial entrance of the chorus. Usually the chorus at this time chants a lyric relating to the main theme of the play.
251. PARODY (Greek: "beside, subsidiary, or mock song"): A parody imitates the serious manner and characteristic features of a particular literary work in order to make fun of those same features. The humorist achieves parody by exaggerating certain traits common to the work, much as a caricaturist creates a humorous depiction of a person by magnifying and calling attention to the person's most noticeable features. The term parody is often used synonymously with the more general term spoof, which makes fun of the general traits of a genre rather than one particular work or author. Often the subject-matter of a parody is comically inappropriate, such as using the elaborate, formal diction of an epic to describe something trivial like washing socks or cleaning a dusty attic.
Aristotle attributes the first Greek parody to Hegemon of Thasos in The Poetics, though other writings credit the playwright Hipponax with the first creation of theatrical parody. Aristophanes makes use of parody in The Frogs (in which he mocks the style of Euripides and Aeschylus). Plato also caricatures the style of various writers in the Symposium. In the Middle Ages, the first well-known English parody is Chaucer's "Sir Thopas," and Chaucer is himself the basis of parodies written by Alexander Pope and W. W. Skeat. Cervantes creates a parody of medieval romance in Don Quixote. Rabelais creates parodies of similar material in Gargantua and Pantagruel. Erasmus parodies medieval scholastic writings in Moriae Encomium. In Shamela (1741), Henry Fielding makes a parody of Samuel Richardson's novel Pamela by turning the virtuous serving girl into a spirited and sexually ambitious character who merely uses coyness and false chasteness as a tool for snagging a husband. In Joseph Andews (1742), Henry Fielding again parodies Samuel Richardson's novel Pamela, this time by replacing Richardson's sexually beleaguered heroine, Pamela, with a hearty male hero who must defend his virtue from the sexually voracious Lady Booby. In the Romantic period, Southey, Wordsworth, Browning, and Swinburne were the victims of far too many parodies in far too many works to list here. See also mock epic, satire, and spoof.
252. PASTORAL (Latin pastor, "shepherd"): An artistic composition dealing with the life of shepherds or with a simple, rural existence. It usually idealized shepherds' lives in order to create an image of peaceful and uncorrupted existence. More generally, pastoral describes the simplicity, charm, and serenity attributed to country life, or any literary convention that places kindly, rural people in nature-centered activities. The Greek Theocritus (316-260 BCE) first used the convention in his Idylls, though pastoral compositions also appear in Roman literature, in Shakespeare's plays, and in the writings of the Romantic poets. Typically, pastoral liturgy depicts beautiful scenery, carefree shepherds, seductive nymphs, and rural songs and dances. Conventional names for the shepherds and nymphs come from bastardized Latin nicknames such as Mopsy, Flopsy, and Dorcas (from Mopsius, Doricas, etc.). See also pastoral elegy under elegy.
253. PATHOS (Greek, "emotion"): In its rhetorical sense, pathos is a writer or speaker's attempt to inspire an emotional reaction in an audience--usually a deep feeling of suffering, but sometimes joy, pride, anger, humor, patriotism, or any of a dozen other emotions. You can read more about rhetorical uses for pathos here. In its critical sense, pathos signifies a scene or passage designed to evoke the feeling of pity or sympathetic sorrow in a reader or viewer.
254. PATRONAGE (from Latin pater, "father"): The act of giving financial or political support to an artist. A person who provides financial support for an artist is known as a patron regardless of his or her gender. Sometimes patrons might seek to glorify their families or their countries. For instance, the Emperor Augustus was a patron for Virgil. Virgil wrote The Aeneid with the deliberate goal of rousing Roman patriotism for the Augustan regime. Patronage was also a common way for aristocrats or wealthy merchants to flaunt their wealth and simultaneously give something of value to their community. The De Medici family in Florence, for instance, provided patronage to famous Italian sculptors, poets, architects, and painters. In England, John of Gaunt and Richard II both served as patrons for Chaucer at various points in his career. Many literary works are dedicated to a patron. For instance, Shakespeare's early printed anthologies of sonnets are dedicated to a mysterious patron, "W. H." In Renaissance drama, acting companies were required to have an important noble or royal family member as a patron, for actors not in the service of such illustrious individuals were punishable as vagabonds and tramps. Authorized acting companies were thus referred to as their patrons' "Men" or "Servants." For most of Shakespeare's dramatic career, his acting company was first known as the Lord Chamberlain's Men. After Queen Elizabeth died, the name was changed to the King's Men in 1603, when King James I ascended the throne and took up patronage of the company.
255. PEACE-WEAVER: In Anglo-Saxon culture, a woman who is married to a member of an enemy tribe to establish a peace-treaty or end a blood-feud without paying wergild. This was a vital role for women in Anglo-Saxon custom--but probably also a stressful and dangerous responsibility. Hildeburh and Freawaru in Beowulf and the speaker of "The Wife's Lament" are probably examples of characters in Old English literature who are peace-weavers.
256. PEER-REVIEWED JOURNAL: Also called a refereed journal, a juried publication, a scholarly journal, or a critical journal, a peer-reviewed journal is a periodical publication with strict standards for accuracy and clear thinking. Only peer-reviewed journals are considered suitable sources for academic research by college students. Most are published two to four times a year. These publications are held in such high esteem because, when an article is submitted for publication, it is passed on to two or three other experts in the field; they in turn critique the author's thinking and check the article's claims and facts to make sure it is as accurate as possible and (theoretically) free from distorting political, religious, ideological bias; citation errors; logical fallacies; and misattributions. This contrasts with a book, in which only a copy-editor or two will check for typos, but nobody challenges the author's ideas, and it contrasts even more starkly with a web page like this one, in which no official structure is consistently available to ensure scholarly accuracy let alone find all the typos. Good college students learn to use peer-reviewed journals; they do not rely on Google and web-browsing for their primary information. Some of the most important peer-reviewed journals for medieval literature students in English include The Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Medievalia et Humanistica, Medium Aevum, Arthuriana, Medieval Studies, Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, the PMLA, Philological Quarterly, Reading Medieval Studies, Speculum, Chaucer Review, and Studies in the Age of Chaucer. The tell-tale signs of a scholarly journal are its typically copious footnotes, the absence of advertisements or glossy photographs, often its plain, unadorned cover, its guidelines in the back or front for scholarly submissions, and its pages, which are typically on expensive acid-free paper to ensure archival survival. Often libraries do have these journals available in electronic databases (such as JSTOR) that can be searched as easily and as efficiently as webpages, so students have no excuse for not using them. If you need help, contact your teacher or a reference librarian. Bribe this helper with chocolate.
257. PENTAMETER: When poetry consists of five feet in each line, it is written in pentameter. Each foot has a set number of syllables. Iambs, spondees, and trochees are feet consisting of two syllables. Thus, iambic pentameter, spondaic pentameter, and trochaic pentameter lines would have a total of ten syllables. Anapests and dactyls are feet consisting of three syllables. Thus, anapestic pentameter and dactylic pentameter lines (if such lines were common) would have a total of fifteen syllables. See foot and meter. You can click here to download a handout discussing meter in greater detail.
258. PERFECT RHYME: Another term for exact rhyme or true rhyme. See exact rhyme.
259. PERIPETEIA (Also spelled peripetea, Greek for "sudden change"): The sudden reversal of fortune in a story, play, or any narrative in which there is an observable change in direction. In tragedy, this is often a change from stability and happiness toward the destruction or downfall of the protagonist.
260. PERSONA (Plural, personae or personas; Latin,"mask"): An external representation of oneself which might or might not accurately reflect one's inner self, or an external representation of oneself that might be largely accurate, but involves exaggerating certain characteristics and minimizing others. One of the most famous personae is that of the speaker in Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal." Here, the Irish author Swift, outraged over Britain's economic exploitation of Ireland, creates a speaker who is a well-to-do English intellectual, getting on in years, who advocates raising and eating Irish children as a means of economic advancement. Another famous persona is Geoffrey Chaucer's narrator in The Canterbury Tales, who presents himself as poetically inept and somewhat dull. Contrast with alter ego and poetic speaker.
261. PERSONIFICATION: A trope in which abstractions, animals, ideas, and inanimate objects are given human character, traits, abilities, or reactions. Personification is particularly common in poetry, but it appears in nearly all types of artful writing. Examples include Keat's treatment of the vase in "Ode on a Grecian Urn," in which the urn is treated as a "sylvan historian, who canst thus express / A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme," or Sylvia Plath's "The Moon and the Yew Tree," in which the moon "is a face in its own right, / White as a knuckle and terribly upset. / It drags the sea after it like a dark crime." When discussing the ways that animistic religions personify natural forces with human qualities, scientists refer to this process as "anthropomorphizing," sometimes with derogatory overtones. A special sub-type of personification is prosopopoeia, in which an inanimate object is given the ability of human speech. Apostrophe (not to be confused with the punctuation mark) is a special type of personification in which a speaker in a poem or rhetorical work pauses to address some abstraction that is not physically present in the room. See prosopopoeia below and apostrophe above.
262. PETRARCHAN CONCEIT: A conceit used by the Italian poet Petrarch or similar to those he used. In the Renaissance, English poets were quite taken with Petrarch's conceits and recycled them in their own poetry. Examples include comparing eyes to the stars or sun, hair to golden wires, lips to cherries, women to goddesses, and so on. His oxymora, such as freezing fire or burning ice, were also common.
263. PETRARCHAN SONNET: See discussion under sonnet.
264. PHALLIC (from Greek phallos, "penis"): A phallic symbol is a sexualized representation of male potency, power, or domination--particularly through some object vaguely reminiscent of the penis. Common phallic symbols include sticks, staves, swords, clubs, towers, trees, missiles, and rockets. Contrast with a yonic symbol.
265. PHILOSOPHY (Greek, "Love of wisdom"): The methodical and systematic exploration of what we know, how we know it, and why it is important that we know it. Too frequently, students use the term somewhat nebulously. They often mistakenly state, "My philosophy about X is . . ." when they really mean, "My opinion about X is . . ." or "My attitude toward X is . . ." Traditional areas of Western philosophic inquiry include the following areas.
• logic: the use of critical thinking, particularly binary yes/no thinking and inductive/deductive reasoning, as a means of testing ideas and debate--logos.
• epistemology: the study of how we know things with any certainty and what limitations there may be to our ability to think, perceive, and understand
• ontology: the study of being and what constitutes objective and subjective existence, and what it means to exist
• ethical forensics: the study of what is right and wrong, and why it is right or wrong, and whether a common basis for of absolute morality can be found outside the individual mind in the laws of nature or the community
• aesthetic theory: the study of what makes some things seem beautiful that have no practical benefit and whether these things are necessary in some way
• empirical thought: the practice of controlling observable phenomena to test hypotheses with repeatable experiments (an idea that has become profoundly important for scientific proof, though it is not, as many people mistakenly argue, the only basis for scientific proof)
• metaphysics: speculative thought about matters outside the perceivable physical world
266. PILGRIMAGE: An act of spiritual devotion or penance in which an individual travels without material comforts to a distant holy place. The journey often has spiritual overtones--it may symbolize a journey to the celestial city of heaven or repeat the journey of a saint or biblical hero. Pilgrimage has become a prominent symbol in both Western Christian writings and Middle-Eastern Islamic writings. John Bunyon's Pilgrim's Progress and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales are two literary examples using the pilgrimage motif.
267. PLAGIARISM: Accidental or intentional intellectual theft in which a writer, poet, artist, scholar, or student steals an original idea, phrase, or section of writing from someone else and presents this material as his or her own work without indicating the source via appropriate explanation or citation. Click here for more information.
268. PLATONIC: In common usage, people often use the word "platonic" to mean "intellectual rather than physical." Thus, a Platonic love-affair is one in which the couple is attracted to each other for mental or psychological qualities rather than bodily attributes. More specifically, however, Platonic philosophy is Plato's idea that behind (or above or outside) the imperfect physical world, another intangible world of abstract ideas has its own existence. These abstract-but-perfect ideas (called Platonic forms) appear only as dim outlines (or shadows) in the physical world. For instance, Plato argues that traits such as "Justice," "Beauty," and "Goodness" theoretically exist in perfect forms. Material creatures, who cannot see or enjoy the abstract quality of Beauty itself, can only enjoy specific manifestations of Beauty--such as sunsets or starlight or silvery snow. What the unenlightened do not realize is that it is not these specific objects they should admire, but the quality of beauty behind them--the form of absolute Beauty that is eternal and unchanging even as specific sunsets fade and yearly snowfalls melt away. Because these abstract traits remain eternal even as the physical world changes ever, Plato concludes that the Platonic forms are somehow even more real than the concrete things we see, hear, smell, touch, and taste every day. His breathtaking, nearly mystical conclusion is that the physical world is the illusion or dream, and the world of the mind is closer to the "real" world of the eternal forms.
Platonic thinking profoundly influences Plotinus, Boethius, Saint Augustine, Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier, Spenser's "Hymn in Honor of Beauty," Shelley's "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty," and Wordsworth's Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.
269. PLAY: A specific piece of drama, usually enacted on a stage by diverse actors who often wear makeup or costumes to make them resemble the character they portray. See drama.
270. PLOT: The structure and relationship of actions and events in a work of fiction. In order for a plot to begin, some sort of catalyst is necessary. While the temporal order of events in the work constitutes the "story," we are speaking of plot rather than story as soon as we look at how these events relate to one another and how they are rendered and organized so as to achieve their particular effects. Note that, while it is most common for events to unfold chronologically or ab ovo (in which the first event happens first, the second event happens second, and so on), many stories structure the plot in such a way that the reader encounters happenings out of order. A common technique along this line is to "begin" the story in the middle of the action, a technique called beginning in medias res (Latin for "in the middle[s] of things"). Some narratives involve several short episodic plots occurring one after the other (like chivalric romances), or they may involve multiple subplots taking place simultaneously with the main plot (as in many of Shakespeare's plays).
271. POETIC DICTION: Distinctive language used by poets, i.e., language that would not be common in their everyday speech. The most common signs of poetic diction include involve archaisms, neologisms, rhyme, and unusual figures of speech. Teachers often point to Spenser's use of words like gentil and tobraken, or Shakespeare's use of abysm and climature, or Emily Dickinson's use of thee and thine. When they ask students, "why did this poet write in such a way?" students often mistakenly reply, "Because that's the way people talked back then." On the contrary, in the 1500s, Spenser is resurrecting language that was common in Chaucer's day in the 1300s--not the language of his own time. The words abysm and climature are made-up words Shakespeare invented from abyss/chasm and climate/temperature, not words he would hear in everyday use on the London streets. Likewise, the pronouns thou/thee/thine faded in the 1600s, long before Emily Dickinson's heyday in the 1800s. These poets chose such language precisely because it is unusual for their time--because it is different from humdrum ordinary speech. (That's what makes it striking poetry, after all.)
The concept of literary decorum (and its requirement for certain genres and characters to use lofty, elevated language) also generated thick poetic diction. As M. H. Abrams notes in volume I of The Norton Anthology, the results were phrases such as "the finny tribe" for "fish" and the "the bleating kind" for "sheep" (2958). To modern poets, such phrasing might seem overblown. The point, however, is that poetic diction is vastly different from daily speech.
272. POETIC LICENSE: The freedom of a poet or other literary writer to depart from the norms of common discourse, literal reality, or historical truth in order to create a special effect in or for the reader. When applied to prose writers, the term is often called "artistic license." Contrast with verisimilitude.
273. POETRY: A variable literary genre characterized by rhythmical patterns of language. These patterns typically consist of patterns of meter (regular patterns of high and low stress), syllabification (the number of syllables in each line of text), rhyme, alliteration, or combinations of these elements. The poem typically involves figurative language such as schemes and tropes, and the poem may bend (or outright break) the conventions of normal communicative speech in the attempt to embody an original idea or convey a linguistic experience. Many modern students mistakenly believe that rhyme is the dominant feature separating poetry from prose (non-poetic) writings. However, rhyme is actually a fairly recent addition to poetry. In classical Greece and Rome, meter was the trait that separated poetry from prose.
274. POINT OF VIEW: The way a story gets told and who tells it. It is the method of narration that determines the position, or angle of vision, from which the story unfolds. Point of view governs the reader's access to the story. Many narratives appear in the first person (the narrator speaks as "I" and the narrator is a character in the story who may or may not influence events within it). Another common type of narrative is the third-person narrative (the narrator seems to be someone standing outside the story who refers to all the characters by name or as he, she, they, and so on). When the narrator reports speech and action, but never comments on the thoughts of other characters, it is the dramatic third person point of view or objective point of view. The third-person narrator can be omniscient--a narrator who knows everything that needs to be known about the agents and events in the story, and is free to move at will in time and place, and who has privileged access to a character's thoughts, feelings, and motives. The narrator can also be limited--a narrator who is confined to what is experienced, thought, or felt by a single character, or at most a limited number of characters. Finally, there is the unreliable narrator (a narrator who describes events in the story, but seems to make obvious mistakes or misinterpretations that may be apparent to a careful reader). Unreliable narration often serves to characterize the narrator as someone foolish or unobservant. See also authorial voice.
275. POINT OF VIEW CHARACTER: The central figure in a limited point of view narration, the character through whom the reader experiences the author's representation of the world. See point of view, above.
276. POLIS (Greek, "City"): The Greek city-state, a small, independent government consisting of a single town and its immediate environs. Some of these city-states were democracies in which every male citizen voted on every government action. Others were oligarchies in which a few rich or aristocratic families cooperated and shared powers. Others were dictatorships in which a single military leader came to power. The two most influential city-states were Athens and Sparta. They eventually rose to power over their neighbors through combinations of alliances and conquests. Athens was famous for its culture and art and intellectual life. Sparta was famous for its toughness and its martial lifestyle.
277. POSTMODERNISM: A general (and often hotly debated) label referring to the philosophical, artistic, and literary changes and tendencies after the 1940s and 1950s up to the present day. We can speak of postmodern art, music, architecture, literature, and poetry using the same generic label. The tendencies of postmodernism include (1) a rejection of traditional authority, (2) radical experimentation--in some cases bordering on gimmickry, (3) eclecticism and multiculturalism, (4) parody and pastiche, (5) deliberate anachronism or surrealism, and (6) a cynical or ironic self-awareness (often postmodernism mocks its own characteristic traits). In many ways, these traits are all features that first appeared in modernism, but postmodernism magnifies and intensifies these earlier characteristics. It also seems to me that, while modernism rejected much of tradition, it clung to science as a hopeful and objective cure to the past insanities of history, culture and superstition. Modernism hoped to tear down tradition and longed to build something better in its ruins. Postmodernism, on the other hand, is often suspicious of scientific claims, and often denies the possibility or desirability of establishing any objective truths and shared cultural standards. It usually embraces pluralism and spurns monolithic beliefs, and it often borders on solipsism. While modernism mourned the passing of unified cultural tradition, and wept for its demise in the ruined heap of civilization, so to speak, postmodernism tends to dance in the ruins and play with the fragments.
Some of the new literary movements growing from postmodernism include the darker or horrific tales of science fiction, neo-Gothic literature, late twentieth-century horror stories, concrete poetry, magic realism, Theater of the Absurd, and so on. Finally, postmodernism is often used loosely and interchangeably with the critical movements following post-structuralism--the growing realms of Marxist, materialist, feminist, and psychoanalytical approaches to literature that developed during and after the 1970s. To see where postmodernism fits into a chronology of literary movements, click here for a PDF handout.
278. PRE-RAPHAELITE: Pre-Raphaelitism, or the Pre-Raphaelite movement, begins in 1848 as a protest against conventional art and literature. A band of young London artists, poets, and intellectuals formed a "brotherhood" dedicated to re-creating the type of medieval art existing before the Renaissance. Hence, they took their name from Raphael (1483-1520), the earliest major Renaissance artist in Italy. Like the Romantic poets, Pre-Raphaelites wished to regain the spirit of simple devotion and adherence to nature. Hence, they rejected modernity, mass production, and urbanization. Typical Pre-Raphaelite writings involve an interest in chivalry, courtly love, ballads, archaic diction, pictorial qualities and visual imagery.
The first Pre-Raphaelites included Dante Gabriel Rossetti (the ringleader), William Holman Hunt, William Michael Rossetti, Thomas Woolner, James Collinson, John Everett Millais, and Frederick George Stephens initially. The movement later grew to include or influence Dante Rossetti's sister, the poet Christina Rossetti; William Morris, the craftsman and writer; the author Swinburne, and Burne-Jones the artist. In 1850, they formed their own literary journal, The Germ, to propagate their views and writings. Click here to download a PDF file of Christina Rossetti's poem, "A Birthday," to sample the diction and style of Pre-Raphaelite poetry.
279. PRIMARY SOURCE: Literary scholars distinguish between primary sources, secondary sources, and educational resources. Students should also. To understand the difference, click here.
280. PRIMOGENITURE: The late medieval custom of allowing the first born legitimate male child to inherit all of his father's properties, estates, wealth, and titles upon the father's death. Primogeniture was a key issue in determining succession to the royal throne, and it plays an important part in Edmund's villainy in King Lear, in King Henry V's claim to the French throne in Henry V, and in many other Shakespearean plays. In medieval times, primogeniture lead to huge social problems since Western Europe was producing large numbers of second born militarily trained knights who had no means of making a livelihood. Since the firstborn son inherited everything, the only legitimate option for the other sons was becoming celibate and then joining the church hierarchy as clerics or entering monasteries. Since this was not always a preferable option for hot-blooded young men, many involved themselves in coups to gain the family estate, took up lives of brigandage, or became mercenaries and wandered from one war to another seeking their fortunes. When Pope Urban II called the first crusade to reclaim Jerusalem, the church saw that part of the solution to this problem was to provide a legitimate arena of warfare for these dispossessed knights. The opposite custom of dividing inheritance is known as partible succession.
281. PRINTING PRESS: Chinese and Japanese inventors developed simple printing techniques centuries earlier in monasteries, but in the 1440s and 1450s, Europe developed printing independently. Even though forerunners of the printed book might have existed in Holland, the most important developments were in Mainz, Germany, where "Indulgence" was printed in 1454, and the Gutenberg Bible in 1456. John of Gutenberg is credited with the invention by fifteenth-century writers, and the invention spread rapidly to Italy, France, Holland, and other countries. William Caxton set up a printing press in Europe (Bruges) in 1475, and there printed the first book in English, The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye. Returning to England in 1476, Caxton set up his second printing press in Westminster. He next printed a number of Latin texts before printing in English the Dicts or Sayings of the Philosophers (1477), Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (1483), Malory's Le Morte Darthur (1485), and others for about a hundred titles in total. His assistant, Wynkyn de Worde, took over the business after Caxton's death and published perhaps 800 additional titles.
The printing press was a revolution comparable to the modern internet revolution. It made books for the first time cheap enough for mass production and mass purchasing, ensuring a rise in literacy, blurring dialectal vocabularies, spreading geographic and cultural knowledge, and fueling the flames of religious reformation.
282. PROLOGUE: (1) In original Greek tragedy, the prologue was either the action or a set of introductory speeches before the first entry (parados) of the chorus. Here, a single actor's monologue or a dialogue between two actors would establish the play's background events. (2) In later literature, a prologue is a section of any introductory material before the first chapter or the main material of a prose work, or any such material before the first stanza of a poetic work.
283. PROPAGANDA (Latin, "things that must be sent forth"): In its original use, the term referred to a committee of cardinals the Roman Catholic church founded in 1622 (the Congregatio de propaganda fide). This group established specific educational materials to be sent with priests-in-training for foreign missions . The term is today used to refer to information, rumors, ideas, and artwork spread deliberately to help or harm another specific group, movement, belief, institution, or government. The term's connotations are mostly negative. When literature or journalism is propaganda and when it is not is hotly debated. For instance, the Roman Emperor Augustus commissioned Virgil to write The Aeneid for specific goals. He wanted Virgil to glorify Rome's greatness, instill public pride in Rome's past, and cultivate traditional Roman virtues such as loyalty to the family, the Empire, and the gods. Is this propaganda? Or patriotism?
Typically, readers claim a work is propaganda when it sets forth an argument with which they personally disagree. In other cases, readers will call a work propagandistic if they can perceive that the characters or the author advances particular doctrines or principles. Harry Shaw notes: "Propaganda is attacked by most critics and general readers because it is an attempt to influence opinions and actions deliberately, but by this definition all education and most literature are propagandistic" (220).
284. PROSCENIUM: An arch that frames a box set and holds the curtain, thus creating a sort of invisible boundary through which the audience views the on-stage action of a play.
285. PROSE: Any material that is not written in a regular meter like poetry. Many modern genres such as short stories, novels, letters, essays, and treatises are typically written in prose.
286. PROSKENION: A raised stage constructed before the skene in classical Greek drama. The proskenion sharply divided the actors from the chorus, and the elevated height made the actors more visible to the audience.
287. PROTAGONIST: The main character in a work, on whom the author focuses most of the narrative attention. See character.
288. PSYCHOLOGICAL REALISM: The sense that characters in fictional narratives have realistic "interiority" or complex emotional and intellectual depth, including perhaps subconscious urges and fears they are not aware of. On an outward level, this realism typically involves reacting to external characters and situations in a manner consistent with the expectations of readers (verisimilitude). On an internal level, it may involve the revelation of characters' thoughts and internal meditations about themselves and others. Such internal machinations are a standard part of Elizabethan drama in the form of the soliloquy. However, psychological realism is associated most closely with the movement toward "realism" and "naturalism" in the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries. After psychoanalysis appeared, Freudian ideas influenced many writers who sought to incorporate his theories into their own depictions of characters.
Whether or not we can speak of psychological realism in literary works before the Renaissance is a thorny issue. Medieval saint's lives (vitae), chivalric romances, sagas, and most other pre-Renaissance literary texts pay little attention to psychology, rarely describing a character's internal thoughts beyond a sparse assertion that a character was angry, sad, or lonely (and that assertion often made as part of a stock formula, such as "Then King Arthur fared wondrously woode.") Often ancient works are so focused on allegory to the exclusion of psychology that some critics assert pre-Renaissance writers and readers had very little sense of interiority or any unique "self" apart from tribe, family, religious caste, occupation, or social standing. The difference is so marked that some scholars like Harold Bloom speak of "the invention of the human" in the Renaissance. On the other hand, it is difficult to read something like The Confessions of Saint Augustine without getting a sense of a real human being intensely aware of his own psychology. Possibly, the difference is rooted in conventions of literature rather than any actual historical change in human self-awareness, but the debate continues.
289. PUN (also called paranomasia): A play on two words similar in sound but different in meaning. For example,
290. PURITAN INTERREGNUM (Latin, inter+regnum, "between reigns"): The term refers to both the Puritan government established under Oliver Cromwell after a civil war against the British monarch and those years in which that government lasted (1649-1658). This interregnum marks the end of the English Renaissance. It came into being after a long civil war between two political factions, the Roundheads, non-aristocrats who supported Puritan reforms, and the Cavaliers, the aristocratic courtiers loyal to the monarchy. Ultimately, the Stuart monarch was captured and executed, and his supporters fled to the continent with the heir to the throne, leaving the Puritans in power. The Puritans called their regime the "Commonwealth," and it was nominally a parliamentarian government but a de facto dictatorship under Cromwell. This government fell apart upon Cromwell's death. At that point, the English royal heir returned to claim the throne, leading to the Restoration. See also Puritan, above.
291. PYRRHIC: In classical Greek or Latin poetry, this foot consists of two unaccented syllables--the opposite of a spondee. At best, a pyrrhic foot is an unusual aberration in English verse, and most prosodists (including me!) do not accept it as a foot at all because it contains no accented syllable. Normally, the context or prevailing iambs, trochees, or spondees in surrounding lines overwhelms any potential pyrrhic foot, and a speaker reading the foot aloud will tend artificially to stress either the first or last syllable. See meter for more information.
292. QUATRAIN: Also sometimes used interchangeably with "stave," a quatrain is a stanza of four lines, often rhyming in an ABAB pattern. Three quatrains form the main body of a Shakespearean or English sonnet along with a final couplet. See sonnet and rubaiyat.
293. REALISM: An elastic and ambiguous term with two meanings. (1) First, it refers generally to any artistic or literary portrayal of life in a faithful, accurate manner, unclouded by false ideals, literary conventions, or misplaced aesthetic glorification and beautification of the world. It is a theory or tendency in writing to depict events in human life in a matter-of-fact, straightforward manner. It is an attempt to reflect life "as it actually is"--a concept in some ways similar to what the Greeks would call mimesis. Typically, "realism" involves careful description of everyday life, "warts and all," often the lives of middle and lower class characters in the case of socialist realism. In general, realism seeks to avoid supernatural, transcendental, or surreal events. It tends to focus as much on the everyday, the mundane, and the normal as events that are extraordinary, exceptional, or extreme. As J. A. Cuddon notes, realism "more crudely [. . .] suggests jackets off, sleeves rolled up, 'no nonsense'" attitudes toward literary art (773).
(2) Secondly and more specifically, realism refers to a literary movement in America, Europe, and England that developed out of naturalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Although realism and the concern for aspects of verisimilitude have been components of literary art to one degree or another in nearly all centuries, the term realism also applies more specifically to the tendency to create detailed, probing analyses of the way "things really are," usually involving an emphasis on nearly photographic details, the author's inclusion of in-depth psychological traits for his or her characters, and an attempt to create a literary facsimile of human existence unclouded by convention, cliché, formulaic traits of genre, sentiment, or the earlier extremes of naturalism. This tendency reveals itself in the growing mania for photography (invented 1839), the tendency toward hyper-realistic paintings and sculpture, the continuing rise of the popular prose novel, the growth of "realism" in philosophical movements, and in the increasingly realistic stage productions during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The movement contrasts with (and is often used as an antonym for) literary forms such as the romance, science-fiction, fantasy, magic realism, mythology, surrealistic art, modernism and postmodernism.
Note that the earlier literary movement known as naturalism is often used as a precursor and antonym for realism, even though both literary movements share many similarities. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between naturalism and realism. Some writers are classified as part of both movements. Personally, I distinguish between them by noting how naturalism goes out of its way to obsessively and grimly point out the limitations of human potential. Realism shares this concern, but seems less obsessed with this point. My distinction, however, is one not generally accepted by literary critics. Often, writers like Thomas Hardy are said to be both naturalistic and realistic, for instance.
Examining the wide variety of writers called "realists" at one time or another shows how flexible the term is. These writers include such diverse artists as Mark Twain, Flaubert, Balzac, Zola, Guy de Maupassant, Tolstoy, Gogol, Gorki, William Howells, William Burroughs, Thomas Hardy, and Norman Mailer. Dramatists normally considered realists include Henrik Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw, and Strindberg.
294. REFRAIN: A line or set of lines at the end of a stanza or section of a longer poem or song--these lines repeat at regular intervals in other stanzas or sections of the same work. Sometimes the repetition involves minor changes in wording. A refrain might consist of a nonsense word (such as Shakespeare's "With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino" in the song from As You Like It), a single word (such as "Nevermore" in Poe's "The Raven"), or even an entire separate stanza that is repeated alternating with each stanza in the poem. If the refrain is meant to be sung by all the auditors listening, such as in Burns' "Auld Lang Syne," the refrain is often called a chorus. The device is ancient. Examples are found in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Bible, Greek, Latin, and Provençal verse, and in many, many ballads.
295. RENAISSANCE: There are two common uses of the word.
(1) The term originally described a period of cultural, technological, and artistic vitality during the economic expansion in Britain in the late 1500s and early 1600s. Thinkers at this time and later saw themselves as rediscovering and redistributing the legacy of classical Greco-Roman culture by renewing forgotten studies and artistic practices, hence the name "renaissance" or "rebirth." They believed they were breaking with the days of "ignorance" and "superstition" represented by recent medieval thinking, and returning to a golden age akin to that of the ancient Greeks and Romans from centuries earlier--a cultural idea that will eventually culminate in the Enlightenment of the late 1600s up until about 1799 or so. The Renaissance saw the rise of new poetic forms in the sonnet and a flowering of drama in the plays of Shakespeare, Jonson, and Marlowe. The English Renaissance is often divided into the Elizabethan period--the years that "Good Queen Bess" (Queen Elizabeth I) ruled--and the Jacobean period, in which King James I ruled. (The Latin form of James is Jacobus, hence the name Jacobean). Typically, we refer to this period as the Renaissance, often with a definite article and a capital R. You can click here to download a PDF handout placing this period in chronological order with other periods of literary history.
(2) In a looser sense, a renaissance (usually with an uncapitalized r) is any period in which a people or nation experiences a period of vitality and explosive growth in its art, poetry, education, economy, linguistic development, or scientific knowledge. The term is positive in connotation. Historians refer to a Carolingian renaissance after Charlemagne was crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 800 AD. Medievalists refer to an "Ottonian renaissance" to describe the growth of learning under the descendents of Emperor Otto I. Haskins speaks of a "little renaissance" or a "Twelfth-Century renaissance" to describe the architecture, art, and philosophy emerging in France and Italy in the late 1100s. Even in the twentieth century, American scholars often refer to a "Harlem Renaissance" among African-American jazz musicians and literary artists of the 1930s and an "Irish Literary Renaissance" among Irish writers, to name but a few examples. The capitalization in these specific cases varies from writer to writer.
296. REPRESENTATIVE CHARACTER: A flat character who embodies all of the other members of a group (such as teachers, students, cowboys, detectives, and so on). Representative characters are often stereotypes. They need not be derogatory, but they are almost always simplified.
297. RESTORATION: The restoration, also called the Restoration Period, is the time from 1660, when the Stuart monarch Charles II was re-established as ruler of England, to about 1700. Earlier, between 1649-1658, the Stuart line had lost its control over the nation after the Roundhead general Oliver Cromwell had created a Puritan dictatorship under "parliament's" control. During this earlier Puritan Interregnum, literature was heavily censored and drama was outlawed as immoral. After Cromwell's death in 1658 and Charles II's restoration to power, restoration drama (particularly comedies) and poetry flowered anew. The restoration is the early stage of the Enlightenment philosophy in England, signaling a movement rejecting dogmatic Puritanism and embracing logic and rational skepticism.
298. REVENGE PLAY (also called a revenge tragedy): A Renaissance genre of drama in which the plot revolves around the hero's attempt to avenge a previous wrong by killing the perpetrator of the deed, commonly with a great deal of bloodshed and incidental violence. A famous example is Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy. Conventional features involve a reluctant protagonist who is called upon to avenge the murder of a loved one. Shakespeare's Hamlet has also been called a revenge play by some scholars.
299. RHETORIC: The art of persuasive argument through writing or speech--the art of eloquence and charismatic language. A lengthier discussion can be found under the rhetoric link.
300. RHYME (from Old French, rime meaning "series," in turn adopted from Latin rithmus and Greek rhythmos): Also spelled rime, rhyme is a matching similarity of sounds in two or more words, especially when their accented vowels and all succeeding consonants are identical. For instance, the word-pairs listed here are all rhymes: skating/dating, emotion/demotion, fascinate/deracinate, and plain/stain. Rhyming is frequently more than mere decoration in poetry. It helps to establish stanzaic form by marking the ends of lines, it is an aid in memorization when performing oral formulaic literature, and it contributes to the sense of unity in a poem. The best rhymes delight because of the human fascination with varying patterned repetition, but a successful and unexpected rhyme can also surprise the reader (which is especially important in comic verse). They may also serve as a rhythmical device for intensifying meaning. Several different types of rhyme and rhyme schemes exist.
301. RHYME SCHEME: The pattern of rhyme. The traditional way to mark these patterns of rhyme is to assign a letter of the alphabet to each rhyming sound at the end of each line. For instance, here is the first stanza of James Shirley's poem "Of Death," from 1659. I have marked each line from the first stanza with an alphabetical letter at the end of each line to indicate rhyme:
The glories of our blood and state --------------A
Thus, the rhyme scheme for each stanza in the poem above is ABABCCDD. It is conventional in most poetic genres that every stanza follow the same rhyme scheme, though it is possible to have interlocking rhyme scheme such as terza rima. It is also common for poets to deliberately vary their rhyme scheme for artistic purposes--such as Philip Larkin's "Toads," in which the poetic speaker complains about his desire to stop working so hard, and his rhymes degenerate into half-rhymes or slant rhymes as an indication that he doesn't want to go to the effort of perfection. Among the most common rhyme schemes in English, we find heroic couplets (AA, BB, CC, DD, EE, FF, etc.) and quatrains (ABAB, CDCD, etc.), but the possible permutations are theoretically infinite.
302. RHYTHM (from Greek, "flowing"): The varying speed, loudness, pitch, elevation, intensity, and expressiveness of speech, especially poetry. In verse the rhythm is normally regular; in prose it may or may not be regular. See sprung rhythm for an exception to this general rule.
304. ROMAN À CLEF (French, "novel with a key"; also called livre à clef, "book with a key," pronounced roh MAHN ah CLAY): A narrative that represents actual historical characters and events in the form of fiction. Usually in this fictional setting, the author presents descriptions of real contemporary figures but uses fictitious names for them. However, the character's common traits and mannerisms would be so well-known that readers "in the know" would recognize them. Typically the "keys" would be published later if readers had trouble figuring out who was who.
Most literary historians think of the genre as a type of novel originating in seventeenth-century France in works like Madame de Scudéry's Le Grand Cyrus (1649-53) and Clélie (1656-60). However, examples actually exist from much earlier medieval poetry. For instance, in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the character Harry Bailly appears to have been an actual innkeeper who lived in Southwark. Many of the other pilgrims also appear to have real-life correspondences; J. M. Manly long ago summarized the evidence in Some New Light on Chaucer (NY, Henry Holt and Company, 1926).
More recent examples of this genre include The New Atlantis (1709), published with a key to its characters; Peacock's Nightmare Abbey (1818), which contained hidden versions of Coleridge, Byron, and Shelley; Aldous Huxley's Point Counter Point (1928); Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises; Somerset Maugham's Cakes and Ale; Aphra Behn's Love Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister; and Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men. In English, a roman à clef is often called a key-novel. In German, it is a Schlüsselroman.
305. ROMAN IMPERIAL PERIOD: After long centuries of representative democracy, within only a few generations, power in Roman government first collapsed into unofficial triumvirates and ultimately into dictatorships. Although Julius Caesar was a monarch in all but name, historians consider his nephew Octavian (alias Caesar Augustus) the first official Emperor, and his rise to power in 27 CE marks the end of the Roman Republican Period and the beginning of the Roman Imperial Period. Writers living during this enormous power shift include Cicero, Julius Caesar, Lucretius, Catullus, Livy, and Tibullus. Imperial writers who wrote primarily after the Republic collapsed include Horace, Ovid, Seneca, Longinus, Pliny the Elder, Jospehus, Lucan, Martial, Plutarch, Statius, Tacitus, Juvenal, Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, Marcus Aurelius, and Apuleius. The Roman Empire itself collapsed in the fifth century CE. Vandals sacked the city of Rome in 455 CE, and in 476, another wave of barbarians dethroned the last Western Emperor, Romulus Augustulus.
306. ROMAN REPUBLICAN PERIOD: The period of Roman history between 514 BCE up until 27 CE, when Rome was primarily and (at least officially) a Republic with elected senators. After Rome's traditional founding in 753 BCE, it fell under the power of Etruscan rulers who were viewed as tyrants. The Romans rebelled, and rose from a primitive monarchy to a complex system of indirect representation under Patrician families, where the richest individuals in select families were eligible for public office; they would represent either particular districts or a number of "clients" (the forerunners of modern special interest groups). By the first century BCE, Julius Caesar, Sulla, the Gracchi brothers, and other men increasingly upset this system--sometimes as part of oligarchic coalitions, sometimes as dictators (Latin imperatores). Although Julius Caesar was a monarch in all but name, historians consider his nephew Octavian (alias Caesar Augustus) the first official Emperor, and his rise to power in 27 CE marks the end of the Republican Period and the beginning of the Imperial Period. Examples of early Roman and Republican literature include Plautus, Ennius, and Terence. Writers that bridge the gap between the two periods include Cicero, Julius Caesar, Lucretius, Catullus, Livy, and Tibullus.
307. ROMAN STOICISM: The philosophy espoused by Marcus Aurelius's Meditations, "Roman Stoicism" actually originates with earlier Greek thinkers, a specific school of philosophers that met at the stoa in Athens. Stoicism asserts that the natural world consists of suffering, and that the appropriate response of a human being is to face this suffering with dignity and a lack of tears while doing one's duty, acknowledging that life and pleasure are transitory. The philosophy is often contrasted with Epicurean philosophy, which asserted that wisdom lay in a "carpe diem" existence in which humanity, faced with the transience of life, should strive to enjoy itself as much as possible by using reason and moderation to find pleasure. Both Epicureanism and Stoicism dealt with the same problem: the brevity of life. However, they reached opposite conclusions concerning the appropriate response to that problem. Roman characters like Aeneas in Virgil's Aeneid are often analyzed in terms of how they embody (or fail to embody) the virtues of Stoicism.
308. ROMANCE, HISTORICAL: A narrative that takes a small episode or group of episodes from some ancient or famous chronicle and then independently develops those events in much greater detail. Greek writers, for instance, often took small segments from Homeric epics and developed their own independent stories focusing on side-events or sub-plots that take place "in the background"--mostly concerning minor background characters with only occasional cameos by the major Homeric characters like Odysseus, Penelope, Agamemnon, or Ajax. Many medieval romances--such as Benoit de Sainte-Maure's Roman de Troie, Boccaccio's Il Filostrato, Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, and John Lydgate's Fall of the Princes of Troy--similarly take material from Homeric legend and turn them into chivalric versions of the historical romance--complete with anachronistic knights and courtly love affairs.
In the words of Stephen Barney's introduction to Troilus and Criseyde in the third edition of the Riverside Chaucer, "We now name this genre historical romance, a genre frequently and skillfully used by Shakespeare, Stendhal, Dickens, Tolstoy, and Faulkner" (471). While not necessarily always writing medieval romances in poetic form, these later artists certainly have created works in the spirit of the historical romance. Constrast with the historical novel.
309. ROMANCE, MEDIEVAL (also called a chivalric romance): In medieval use, romance referred to episodic French and German poetry dealing with chivalry and the adventures of knights in warfare as they rescue fair maidens and confront supernatural challenges. The medieval metrical romances resembled the earlier chansons de gestes and epics. However, unlike the Greek and Roman epics, medieval romances represent not a heroic age of tribal wars, but a courtly or chivalric period of history involving highly developed manners and civility, as M. H. Abrams notes. Their standard plot involves a single knight seeking to win a scornful lady's favor by undertaking a dangerous quest. Along the way, this knight encounters mysterious hermits, confronts evil blackguards and brigands, slays monsters and dragons, competes anonymously in tournaments, and suffers from wounds, starvation, deprivation, and exposure in the wilderness. He may incidentally save a few extra villages and pretty maidens along the way before finishing his primary task. (This is why scholars say romances are episodic--the plot can be stretched or contracted so the author can insert or remove any number of small, short adventures along the hero's way to the larger quest.)
Medieval romances often focus on the supernatural. In the classical epic, supernatural events originate in the will and actions of the gods. However, in secular medieval romance, the supernatural originates in magic, spells, enchantments, and fairy trickery. Divine miracles are less frequent, but are always Christian in origin when they do occur, involving relics and angelic visitations. A secondary concern is courtly love and the proprieties of aristocratic courtship--especially the consequnces of arranged marriage and adultery.
Scholars usually divide medieval romances into four loose categories based on subject-matter:
• "The Matter of Rome": stories based on the history and legends of Greco-Roman origin such as the Trojan war, Thebes, mythological figures, and the exploits of Alexander the Great. The medieval poet usually creates an anachronistic work by turning these figures into knights as he knew them.
• "The Matter of Britain": stories based on Celtic subject-matter, especially Camelot, King Arthur, and his knights of the round table, including material derived from the Celto-French Bretons and Breton lais.
• "The Matter of England": stories based on heroes like King Horn and Guy of Warwick.
• "The Matter of France": stories based on Charlemagne, Roland, and his knights.
A large number of such romances survive due to their enormous popularity, including the works of Chrétien de Troyes (c. 1190), Hartmann von Aue (c. 1203), Gottfried von Strassburg (c. 1210), and Wolfram von Eschenbach (c. 1210). England produced its own romances in the fourteenth century, including the Lay of Havelok the Dane and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In 1485, Caxton printed the lengthy romance Le Morte D'Arthur, a prose work that constituted a grand synthesis of Arthurian legends. Gradually, the poetic genre of medieval romance was superseded by prose works of Renaissance romance. See romance, renaissance.
311. ROMANCE, MODERN: In contrast with medieval and Renaissance romance, the meaning of a modern romance has become more restricted in the 20th century. Modern nonscholarly speakers refer to romances when they mean formulaic stories recounting the growth of a passionate sexual relationship. The conventional plotline involves a third-person narrative or a first-person narrative told from the viewpoint of a young woman between the ages of eighteen and her late twenties. She encounters a potential paramour in the form of a slightly older man. The two are prevented from forming a relationship due to social, psychological, economic, or interpersonal constraints. The primary plot involves the two overcoming these constraints through melodramatic efforts. The story conventionally ends happily with the two characters professing their love for each other and building a life together. See melodrama, romance, medieval, and romance, renaissance.
312. ROMANTICISM: The term refers to the artistic philosophy prevalent during the first third of the nineteenth century (about 1800-1830). Romanticism rejected the earlier philosophy of the Enlightenment, which stressed that logic and reason were the best response humans had in the face of cruelty, stupidity, superstition, and barbarism. Instead, the Romantics asserted that reliance upon emotion and natural passions provided a valid and powerful means of knowing and a reliable guide to ethics and living. The Romantic movement typically asserts the unique nature of the individual, the privileged status of imagination and fancy, the value of spontaneity over "artifice" and "convention," the human need for emotional outlets, the rejection of civilized corruption, and a desire to return to natural primitivism and escape the spiritual destruction of urban life. Their writings often are set in rural, pastoral or Gothic settings and they show an obsessive concern with "innocent" characters--children, young lovers, and animals. The major Romantic poets included William Blake, William Wordsworth, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Gordon Byron. Contrast with Enlightenment. You can click here to download a PDF handout placing these periods of literary history in chronological order.
313. ROUND CHARACTER: A round character is depicted with such psychological depth and detail that he or she seems like a "real" person. The round character contrasts with the flat character, a character who serves a specific or minor literary function in a text, and who may be a stock character or simplified stereotype. If the round character changes or evolves over the course of a narrative or appears to have the capacity for such change, the character is also dynamic. Typically, a short story has one round character and several flat ones. However, in longer novels and plays, there may be many round characters. The terms flat and round were first coined by the novelist E. M. Forster in his study, Aspects of the Novel. See also dynamic character, flat character, character, characterization, and stock character.
314. SATIRE: An attack on or criticism of any stupidity or vice in the form of scathing humor, or a critique of what the author sees as dangerous religious, political, moral, or social standards. Satire became an especially popular technique used during the Enlightenment, in which it was believed that an artist could correct folly by using art as a mirror to reflect society. When people viewed the satire and saw their faults magnified in a distorted reflection, they could see how ridiculous their behavior was and then correct that tendency in themselves. The tradition of satire continues today. Popular cartoons such as The Simpsons and televised comedies like The Daily Show make use of it in modern media. Conventionally, formal satire involves a direct, first-person-address, either to the audience or to a listener mentioned within the work. An example of formal satire is Alexander Pope's Moral Essays. Indirect satire conventionally employs the form of a fictional narrative--such as Byron's Don Juan or Swift's Gulliver's Travels. Ridicule, irony, exaggeration, and similar tools are almost always used in satire. Horatian satire tends to focus lightly on laughter and ridicule, but it maintain a playful tone. Generally, the tone is sympathetic and good humored, somewhat tolerant of imperfection and folly even while expressing amusement at it. The name comes from the Roman poet Horace (65-8 BCE), who preferred to ridicule human folly in general rather than condemn specific persons. In contrast, Juvenalian satire also uses withering invective, insults, and a slashing attack. The name comes from the Roman poet Juvenal (60-140 CE), who frequently employed the device, but the label is applied to British writers such as Swift and Pope as well. Compare with medieval estates satire and spoof.
315. SCANSION: The act of "scanning" a poem to determine its meter. To perform scansion, the student breaks down each line into individual metrical feet and determines which syllables have heavy stress and which have lighter stress. According to the early conventions of English poetry, each foot should have at least one stressed syllable, though feet with all unstressed syllables are found occasionally in Greek and other poetic traditions.
316. SCENE: A dramatic sequence that takes place within a single locale (or setting) on stage. Often scenes serve as the subdivision of an act within a play. Note that when we use the word scene generically or in the text of a paper (for example, "there are three scenes in the play"), we do not capitalize the word. See The MLA Handbook, 6th edition, section 3.6.5 for further information involving capitalization of scenes.
317. SCOP (also spelled sceop): An Anglo-Saxon singer or musician who would perform in a mead hall. Cf. bard.
318. SCENERY: The visual environment created onstage using a backdrop and props. The purpose of scenery is either to suggest vaguely a specific setting or produce the illusion of actually watching events in that specific setting.
319. SCRIBE: A literate individual who reproduces the works of other authors by copying them from older texts or from a dictating author. In many parts of the ancient world, such as Classical Rome and Classical Greece, a large number of scribes were slaves who belonged to wealthy government officials and to poets or authors. In other cultures such as Egypt or Tibet, scribes have been seen as priestly or semi-magical individuals. In the medieval period, many monks were given the task of copying classics from the earlier period along with Bibles and patristic writings. Their efforts preserved much of Greco-Roman philosophy and history that might otherwise have been lost.
320. SECONDARY SOURCE: Literary scholars distinguish between primary sources, secondary sources, and educational resources. Students should also. To understand the difference, click here.
321. SESTET: (1) The last part of an Italian or Petrarchan sonnet, it consists of six lines that rhyme with a varying pattern. Common rhyme patterns include CDECDE or CDCCDC. See sonnet, below. (2) Any six-line stanza or a six-line unit of poetry.
322. SETTING: The general locale, historical time, and social circumstances in which the action of a fictional or dramatic work occurs; the setting of an episode or scene within a work is the particular physical location in which it takes place. For example, the general setting of Joyce's "The Dead," is a quay named Usher's Island, west of central Dublin in the early 1900s, and the initial setting is the second floor apartment of the Misses Morkan. Setting can be a central or peripheral factor in the meaning of a work. The setting is usually established through description--but sometimes narration or dialogue also reveals the location and time.
323. SHAKESPEAREAN SONNET: See discussion under sonnet.
324. SHORT STORY: "A brief prose tale," as Edgar Allan Poe labeled it. This work of narrative fiction may contain description, dialogue and commentary, but usually plot functions as the engine driving the art. The best short stories, according to Poe, seek to achieve a single, major, unified impact. See single effect theory, below.
325. SIMILE: An analogy or comparison implied by using an adverb such as like or as, in contrast with a metaphor which figuratively makes the comparison by stating outright that one thing is another thing. This figure of speech is of great antiquity. It is common in both prose and verse works.
A poetic example comes from John Milton's Paradise Lost:
Anon out of the earth a Fabrick huge
Even more famously, Robert Burns states:
O, my luve is like a red, red rose
326. "SINGLE EFFECT" THEORY: Edgar Allan Poe's theory about what constituted a good short story. According to Poe, a good short story achieved its unity by achieving a single emotional effect on the reader. He writes of it in his review of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales and describes it as "a certain unique single effect to be wrought out" (Quoted in Thomas Woodson, ed., Twentieth-Century Interpretations of "The Fall of the House of Usher" from Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1969.)
327. SITUATIONAL IRONY: Another term for universal irony. See discussion under irony.
328. SKENE (Greek "tent"): In classical Greek theaters, the skene was a building in the front of the orchestra that contained front and side doors from which actors could quickly enter and exit. The skene probably also served as an area for storing costumes and props.
329. SOLILOQUY: A monologue spoken by an actor at a point in the play when the character believes himself to be alone. The technique frequently reveals a character's innermost thoughts, including his feelings, state of mind, motives or intentions. The soliloquy often provides necessary but otherwise inaccessible information to the audience. The dramatic convention is that whatever a character says in a soliloquy to the audience must be true, or at least true in the eyes of the character speaking (i.e., the character may tell lies to mislead other characters in the play, but whatever he states in a soliloquy is a true reflection of what the speaker believes or feels). The soliloquy was rare in Classical drama, but Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights used it extensively, especially for their villains. Well-known examples include speeches by the title characters of Macbeth, Richard III, and Hamlet and also Iago in Othello. (Contrast with an aside.) Unlike the aside, a soliloquy is not usually indicated by specific stage directions.
330. SONNET: A lyric poem of fourteen lines, usually in iambic pentameter, with rhymes arranged according to certain definite patterns. It usually expresses a single, complete idea or thought with a reversal, twist, or change of direction in the concluding lines. There are three common forms:
• Italian or Petrarchan
• English or Shakespearean
The Petrarchan sonnet has an eight line stanza (called an octave) followed by a six line stanza (called a sestet). The octave has two quatrains rhyming abba, abba, the first of which presents the theme, the second further develops it. In the sestet, the first three lines reflect on or exemplify the theme, while the last three bring the poem to a unified end. The sestet may be arranged cdecde, cdcdcd, or cdedce.
The Shakespearean sonnet uses three quatrains; each rhymed differently, with a final, independently rhymed couplet that makes an effective, unifying climax to the whole. Its rhyme scheme is abab, cdcd, efef, gg. Typically, the final two lines follow a "turn" or a "volta," (sometimes spelled volte, like volte-face) because they reverse, undercut, or turn from the original line of thought to take the idea in a new direction.
The Miltonic sonnet is similar to the Petrarchan sonnet, but it does not divide its thought between the octave and the sestet--the sense or line of thinking runs straight from the eighth to ninth line. Also, Milton expands the sonnet's repertoire to deal not only with love as the earlier sonnets did, but also to include politics, religion, and personal matters.
331. SONNET SEQUENCE: Also called a sonnet cycle, this term refers to a gathering or arrangement of sonnets by a single author so that the sonnets in that group or arrangement deal with a single theme, situation, a particular lady, or alternatively deal with what appears to be a sequential story. Petrarch, Sidney, Spenser, and Shakespeare all engaged in this practice, or at least the early editors of their works did. The first major sonnet cycle in English was Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella (written in the early 1580s, published in 1591). Others include Daniel's Delia, Lodge's Phillis, Drayton's Idea's Mirror, Constable's Diana, and Spenser's Amoretti. Shakespeare's 154 sonnets, however, are best known of any sonnet sequences today.
332. SPENSERIAN STANZA: A nine-line stanza rhyming in an ababbcbcc pattern in which the first eight lines are pentameter and the last line is an alexandrine. The name spenserian comes from the form's most famous user, Spenser, who used it in The Fairie Queene. Other examples include Keat's "Eve of Saint Agnes" and Shelley's "Adonais." The Spenserian stanza is probably the longest and most intricate stanza generally employed in narrative poetry.
333. SPONDEE: In scansion, a spondee is a metrical foot consisting of two successive strong beats. The spondee typically is "slower" and "heavier" to read than an iamb or a dactyl. Some words and phrases in English naturally form spondees when they alone constitute a poetic foot. Examples of such spondees include football, Mayday, shortcake, plop-plop, fizz-fizz, dumbbell, drop-dead, goof-off, race track, bathrobe, breakdown, dead man, black hole, and love song. See meter for extended discussion, or click here to download a PDF handout that contrasts spondees with other types of poetic feet.
334. STAGE: An area set aside or deliberately constructed as a place for actors, dancers, musicians, or singers to perform. Often (but not always) a stage is located in an indoor theater or a large outdoor arena. It often has seating provided for an audience. See arena stage, apron stage, fourth wall, thrust stage, theater in the round, and scrim. Probably the most famous stage in English history is the Globe Theater in Shakespeare's London.
335. STANZA: An arrangement of lines of verse in a pattern usually repeated throughout the poem. Typically, each stanza has a fixed number of verses or lines, a prevailing meter, and a consistent rhyme scheme. A stanza may be a subdivision of a poem, or it may constitute the entire poem. Early English terms for a stanza were "batch," "stave," and "fit." (Contrast with verse paragraph and couplet as alternative units of poetry, and contrast with genres such as ballad, haiku, and ode.)
336. STASIMON (plural stasima): From Greek "stationary song," a stasimon is an ode sung by the chorus in a Greek play after the chorus takes its position in the orchestra. The stasima also serve as dividing segments separating episodia of dialogue spoken by the actors. Structurally, a tragedy involves a balanced alternation between the episodia and the stasimon. See also chorus, episodia, and orchestra.
337. STATIC CHARACTER: A static character is a simplified character who does not change or alter his or her personality over the course of a narrative. Such static characters are also called flat characters if they have little visible personality or if the author provides little characterization for them. The term is used in contrast with a round or dynamic character. See character, flat character, round character, and characterization.
338. STEREOTYPE: A character who is so ordinary or unoriginal that the character seems like an oversimplified representation of a type, gender, class, religious group, or occupation. Cf. stock character, below.
339. STICHOMYTHY: Dialogue consisting of one-line speeches designed for rapid delivery and snappy exchanges. Usually, the verbal parrying is accompanied by the rhetorical device of antithesis (see under schemes) and repetitive patterns. The result is highly effective in creating verbal tension and conflict. The earliest examples come from Greek tragedy, where the technique was quite common. Examples also appear in Hamlet (III, iv), Richard III (IV, iv), and Love's Labour's Lost. Molière was fond of it as well in Les femmes savantes. Stichomythy has become increasingly rare in modern drama, however.
340. STROPHE: In classical Greek literature like the play Antigonê and the Pindaric Odes, the strophe and the antistrophe were alternating stanzas sung aloud. In drama, the chorus would sing the strophe, probably with rhythmic pantomine or dance involved, and then the chorus would switch to the antistrophe. It is possible the dance or pantomine would then change directions or focus, alternating from the left or right side of the stage depending upon the strophe movement or the contrasting antistrophe movement.
341. SYMBOL: A word, place, character, or object that means something beyond what it is on a literal level. For instance, consider the stop sign. It is literally a metal octagon painted red with white streaks. However, everyone on American roads will be safer if we understand that this object also represents the act of coming to a complete stop--an idea hard to encompass briefly without some sort of symbolic substitute. In literature, symbols can be cultural, contextual, or personal. (See cultural symbol, contextual symbol, and personal symbol.) An object, a setting, or even a character can represent another more general idea. Allegories are narratives read in such a way that nearly every element serves as an interrelated symbol, and the narrative's meaning can be read either literally or as a symbolic statement about a political, spiritual, or psychological truth. See also allegory, or click here to download a pdf handout contrasting allegory and symbolism in greater detail.
342. SYMBOLIC CHARACTER: Symbolic characters are characters whose primary literary function is symbolic, even though the character may retain normal or realistic qualities. For instance, in Ellison's Invisible Man, the character Ras is on a literal level an angry young black man who leads rioters in an urban rampage. However, the character Ras is a symbol of "race" (as his name phonetically suggests), and he represents the frustration and violence inherent in people who are denied equality. Cf. allegory.
343. SYMBOLISM: Frequent use of words, places, characters, or objects that mean something beyond what they are on a literal level. Often the symbol may be ambiguous in meaning. When multiple objects or characters each seem to have a restricted symbolic meaning, what often results is an allegory. Contrast with allegory, leit-motif and motif. Click here to download a pdf handout contrasting allegory and symbolism in greater detail.
344. SYNECDOCHE: A rhetorical trope involving a part of an object representing the whole, or the whole of an object representing a part. For instance, a writer might state, "Twenty eyes watched our every move." Rather than implying that twenty disembodied eyes are swiveling to follow him as he walks by, she means that ten people watched the group's every move. When a captain calls out, "All hands on deck," he wants the whole sailors, not just their hands. When a cowboy talks about owning "forty head of cattle," he isn't talking about stuffed cowskulls hanging in his trophy room, but rather forty live cows and their bovine bodies. When La Fontaine states, "A hungry stomach has no ears," he uses synecdoche and metonymy simultaneously to refer to the way that starving people do not want to listen to arguments. In the New Testament, a similar synecdoche about the stomach appears. Here, the stomach represents all the physical appetites, and the heart represents the entire set of personal beliefs. Paul writes:
Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple. (Romans 16:17)
Likewise, when Christians pray, "Give us this day our daily bread," they aren't asking God for bread alone, but rather they use the word as a synecdoche for all the mundane necessities of food and shelter. In the demonic play Faust, Marlowe writes of Helen of Troy, "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships, / And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?" The thousand ships is a synecdoche for the entire Greek army: i.e., men, horses, weapons, and all. Likewise, the towers are a synecdoche; they are one part of the doomed city's architecture that represents the entire city and its way of life. Helen's face is a decorous synecdoche for Helen's entire sexy body, since her suitors were presumably interested in more than her visage alone. Eliot writes in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" that Prufrock "should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floor of silent seas." Here, the synecdoche implies the incompleteness of the poetic speaker. Prufrock is so futile and helpless, he shouldn't even be a complete crab, only the crab's claws scuttling along without a complete body, brain, or sense of direction. Henry IV implies that the city of Paris deserves some honorable ceremony when he claims, "Paris is well worth a mass," and so on.
345. UNITIES, THREE (also known as the "three dramatic unities"): In the 1500s and 1600s, critics of drama expanded Aristotle's ideas in the Poetics to create the rule of the "three unities." A good play, according to this doctrine, must have three traits. The first is unity of action (realistic events following a single plotline and a limited number of characters encompassed by a sense of verisimilitude). The second is unity of time, meaning that the events should be limited to the two or three hours it takes to view the play, or at most to a single day of twelve or twenty-four hours compressed into those two or three hours. Skipping ahead in time over the course of several days or years was considered undesirable, because the audience was thought to be incapable of suspending disbelief regarding the passage of time. The third is unity of space, meaning the play must take place in a single setting or location. It is notable that Shakespeare often broke the three unities in his plays, which may explain why these rules later were never as dominant in England as they were in French and Italian Neoclassical drama. French playwrights like Moliére conformed to the model much more strictly in Love is the Doctor and Tartuffe.
346. UNITY: The sense that all the elements in a piece of writing fit together to create a harmonious effect.
347. UNIVERSALS: Qualities of literature that appeal to readers in a wide variety of cultures and across a wide variety of historical periods--i.e., basic emotions, situations, values, and attitudes that readers can relate to regardless of other cultural or historical differences.
348. UNIVERSAL SYMBOL: Another term for an archetype.
349. UNRELIABLE NARRATOR: An imaginary storyteller or character who describes what he witnesses accurately, but misinterpets those events because of faulty perception, personal bias, or limited understanding. Often the writer or poet creating such an unreliable narrator leaves clues so that readers will perceive the unreliablity and question the interpretations offered. Examples of unreliable narrators arguably include "Geoffrey the pilgrim" in the Canterbury Tales, the character of Forest Gump in the movie of the same name, and possibly Wilson in "The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber."
350. VERSE: There are three general meanings for verse (1) a line of metrical writing, (2) a stanza, or (3) any composition written in meter (i.e., poetry generally). Remember that rhyme is not the identifying mark of poetry, but rather meter.
351. VERSIFICATION: Literally, the making of verse, the term is often used as another name for prosody. This refers to the technical and practical aspect of making poems as opposed to purely theoretical and aesthetic poetic concerns.
352. VICTORIAN PERIOD: The period of British literature in the late nineteenth century. The date of the period is often given as 1837-1901--the years Queen Victoria ruled the expanding British Empire. Alternatively, the date is given as 1832-1901, according to the passage of the first labor reform bill in the 1832 English Parliament. The Victorian Period of literature is characterized by excellent novelists, essayists, poets, and philosophers, but only a few dramatists.
The positive characteristics, attitudes, and qualities of the Victorian Period often suggest a belief in social progress, a conservative attitude about sexual mores and respectability, values of middle-class industriousness and hard work, and a strong sense of gentlemanly honor and feminine virtue. The negative characteristics of the Victorian Period include complacency, hypocrisy, smugness, and simplistic moral earnestness. When applied to literature, the word Victorian often implies humorlessness, unquestioning belief or orthodoxy and authority in matters of politics and religion, prudishness, and condemnation of those who defy social and moral convention. These dual qualities originate in Britain's self-satisfaction and economic growth during the nineteenth century. The country's increased national wealth, its scientific and industrial advances, the growing power of its navy, and its relentless expansion in overseas colonies all contributed to the period's zeitgeist. Some of the prominent British writers include Cardinal Newman, Benjamin Disraeli, Bulwer-Lytton, Charles Darwin, Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Swinburne, Samuel Butler, Charles Dickens, Thackeray, Anthony Trollope, Charlotte Bronte, Anne Bronte, George Eliot, Ruskin, Matthew Arnold, George Meredith, Lewis Caroll, William Morris, Wilkie Collins, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, Lord Acton, Samuel Butler, and Louis Stevenson. Cf. didactic literature. Click here to download a list of the major periods of literary history.
353. WAKA: A Japanese genre of poetry closely related to the tanka, consisting of alternate five- and seven-syllable lines. The primary difference seems to be that the word waka dates back to the sixth century BCE, while the more familiar terms tanka and uta date back to an eighth-century CE poetry anthology, the Manyoshu. See tanka.
354. WERGILD (Anglo-Saxon, lit. "man-gold," also spelled wergeld): The legal system of many Germanic tribes, including the Anglo-Saxons. This tradition allowed an individual and his family to make amends for a crime by paying a fine known as wergild to the family of another man whom he had injured or killed. The price varied depending upon the nature of the injury and the status of the injured man. Surviving laws of Wihtfrid (8th century CE) show how elaborate the wergild system had become by the ninth century. Wihtfrid included a varying price in silver for each tooth knocked out during a fight. If an individual could not or would not pay the wergild, the injured family was considered within its traditional rights to kill a member of the culprit's family of similar rank and status. This process often led to extended blood-feuds lasting several generations. The concerns of wergild appear prominently in Anglo-Saxon poems such as Beowulf, in which the supernatural predations of the monsters are figured in the legalistic language associated with this practice. See also peace-weaver. NB: Wergild should not be confused with Danegeld, the practice of paying extortive Vikings to go away without attacking.
355. WILLING SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF: Temporarily and willingly setting aside our beliefs about reality in order to enjoy the make-believe of a play, a poem, film, or a story. Perfectly intelligent readers can enjoy tall-tales about Pecos Bill roping a whirlwind, or vampires invading a small town in Maine, or frightening alternative histories in which Hitler wins World War II, without being "gullible" or "childish." To do so, however, the audience members must set aside their sense of "what's real" for the duration of the play, or the movie, or the book.
Samuel Coleridge coined the English phrase in Chapter 14 of Biographia Literaria to describe the way a reader is implicitly "asked" to set aside his notions of reality and accept the dramatic conventions of the theater and stage or other fictional work. Coleridge writes:
. . . My endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic; yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith (quoted in Cuddon, page 1044).
Coleridge may have been inspired by the French phrase, "cette belle suspension d'esprit de law sceptique" from François de La Mothe le Vayer, or by Ben Jonson's writing where Jonson notes, "To many things a man should owe but a temporary belief, and suspension of his own judgment." Cf. verisimilitude.
356. WYRD: Often translated as "fate," wyrd is an Anglo-Saxon term that embodies the concept of inevitability in Old English poetry. Unlike destiny, in which one imagines looking forward into the future to see the outcome of one's life, wyrd appears to be linked to the past. As an example illustrating this difference, a male speaker might claim, "It is my destiny to eat too many hamburgers, develop high cholesterol, and die of a heart attack in Pittsburgh at age fifty-three." The speaker is predicting what will inevitably happen to him, what is fated to occur sometime in the future. On the other hand, one might claim, "It is my wyrd to be born as a Caucasian child to impoverished parents who neglected to feed me properly, so that my health is always bad." In the first case, the speaker describing destiny implies that the future is set, and therefore the outcome of his life is beyond his control. In the second case, the speaker describing wyrd implies that the past is unchangeable, and therefore the current circumstances in which he finds himself are beyond his alteration. In Anglo-Saxon narratives, heroic speakers like Beowulf describe themselves as being "fated" (i.e., having a wyrd) that requires them to act in a certain way. It is Beowulf's wyrd to help King Hrothgar, not because some abstract destiny wills it so, but because in the past, Hrothgar helped Beowulf's father, and it is Beowulf's duty to return that favor. The exact circumstances are beyond Beowulf's control, but Beowulf can choose how he reacts to that "fate." This idea contrasts with the Greek idea of moira.
Although wyrd dies out in Middle English and Early Modern usage, some scholarly speculation has posited that the three "weird" sisters in Macbeth may actually be the three "wyrd" sisters, thus the three fates in an archetypal form.
357. XENIA: The Greek term for the Laws of Hospitality. The custom in classical Greece and other ancient cultures that, if a traveler comes to a strange town, he can ask for food, shelter, and gifts to help him on his journey. In Greek tradition, the host was considered responsible for his guest's comfort and safety, and a breach of those laws of hospitality was thought to anger Zeus (Roman Jupiter), the king of the gods.
358. YEOMAN (Middle English yeman, probably a contraction of "young man"): In early Middle English, the term referred to freemen or freeholders, lower-class peasants who had obtained their freedom from serfdom, and as members of the new bourgeoisie were thus free to join guilds, purchase lands, or work as day laborers for hire. The term later came to mean in particular an attendant servant or lesser official who serves in a royal or noble household for paid wages rather than feudal obligations. The yeoman in the General Prologue to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales appears to be such a servant hired to aid the Knight.
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