It’s important to be able to recognise and analyse poetic devices when studying literature at any level. Dylan Thomas is my favourite poet, and he uses so many that I decided to take most of my examples from his writings.
- A simile is just a comparison using the word ‘like’ or ‘as’, such as ‘I sang in my chains like the sea’ or ‘happy as the grass was green’.
- A metaphor treats an object or person as if it is something else to make the comparison more vivid, as in ‘the force that through the green fuse drives the flower’. If you prefer Churchill to Thomas, Russia is ‘a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma’.
- Personification goes one step further and treats an inanimate object as if it were a person with human habits, as in ‘It is night, moving in the streets’.
- An analogy is sometimes just a simple comparison, such as ‘the heart is like a pump’, but it is more often more complicated than that, for instance when it describes a relationship between two things, eg ‘As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool returns to his folly’.
- Hyperbole is another word for extreme exaggeration. As Dylan Thomas once said, “Our discreditable secret is that we don’t know anything at all.”
- Tone just means ‘tone of voice’, or the way in which you would read a passage. It could be anything from matter-of-fact to lyrical, but one of the most common moods is irony.
- Irony takes many forms, but a typical example comes from the famous opening line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’ The joy of this quotation (and irony in general) is that it can mean whatever you want it to mean! To Mrs Bennett (and any other mother who values marrying off her daughters more than anything else in the world), this is a simple statement of fact. To Mr Bennett (and anyone else who believes there are far more important things in life), it is funny because it is such a ridiculous exaggeration.
- Dramatic irony is a kind of foreshadowing, when the audience or reader knows more than the characters, usually when we are told something in advance. The classic example of this is in a horror film, when we see the axe murderer in the loft, but the blonde cheerleader still climbs the rickety staircase to see what’s wrong. Shouting at the TV won’t do any good – she’s just a victim of dramatic irony.
- We also use irony to describe a situation that’s the last thing we would expect, such as ‘Water, water, everywhere, | Nor any drop to drink’. Alanis Morissette even wrote a song about it, although her examples are incongruous rather than ironic. Now that’s irony!
- Rhyme is fairly easy to spot when the ending of one word matches that of another, eg ‘night’ and ‘light’, but it is useful to be able to map out the rhyme scheme of a poem by giving each different sound at the end of a line a different letter, eg the rhyme scheme of a limerick is aabba. There are also a couple of variations that often introduce a discordant note into a lot of 20th century poetry: an eye-rhyme is a pair of words whose endings look the same but sound different, eg ‘wove’ and ‘love’, and a ‘half-rhyme’ involves two words that don’t quite match, eg ‘frowned’ and ‘friend’.
- The rhythm of a poem is often not obvious, but it’s worth becoming familiar with the two main types of meter, or rhythmical pattern. The first is based on the number of beats to a line. A beat is simply a syllable that is given extra stress, and the obvious example is again the limerick. It doesn’t matter how many syllables the lines have as long as the number of beats is 3, 3, 2, 2 and 3. The second is more common and is based on the number of syllables. Each line is divided into a number of metrical ‘feet’, each of which has one stressed syllable and one or more unstressed syllables in a particular order. Shakespeare wrote almost all his plays and poetry in iambic pentameter, as he thought that best matched the natural rhythm of English. All it means is that there are five feet in each line, each containing an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one, eg ‘From fairest creatures we desire increase’. You can also have dactylic, trochaic or anapaestic feet if you so desire! A pause in the middle of a line of poetry is called a caesura. Anglo-Saxon poetry was full of them, and even Shakespeare used one in his most famous line: “To be, or not to be, that is the question”. The second syllable of ‘question’ is also an example of what’s called a feminine ending, which just means it’s unnecessary. (No jokes, please!)
- An allegory is a story that works on two levels. In the days of William Langland’s Piers Plowman, religion was a far greater part of people’s lives, and priests and their congregations would be more familiar with interpreting texts on many different levels: the literal, the metaphorical, the spiritual, the tropological, the anagogical and the allegorical! Just be thankful times have changed…
- Alliteration is often the simplest technique to identify but the most difficult to talk about. It is simply the repetition of the first letter in two or more words, usually but not always right next to one another, eg ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’ Yes, we know it’s there, but what can we say about it? I’ll leave that for you to decide…
- Assonance is similar to alliteration, but it’s the vowel sounds that are repeated. The classic examples are from 19th century elocution lessons, such as ‘The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain’.
- Onomatopoeia is the choice of words that sound like the actual sounds they represent, such as ‘crash, bang, wallop’.
- Enjambment describes a line of poetry that doesn’t end with any punctuation, such as a comma or full-stop, eg ‘Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs | About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green’. It encourages the smooth flow of the words and is the opposite of the usual end-stopped line, which adds an extra beat to the natural pause at the end of the line (and/or stanza). This emphasises whatever happens to be the last word, particularly if that word is part of a rhyming couplet.
- Rhetoric used to be taught in school way back in ancient Greece, but most people would only recognise a few examples these days. An oxymoron is a paradox, or something that appears to be a contradiction, such as ‘military intelligence’! It is usually meant as a joke or a surprising truth, but one or two have now become clichés, such as ‘deafening silence’. The tricolon or rule of three appeals to a uniquely human habit of listing things in threes. If you want someone to blame for starting it all off, look no further than Julius Caesar, when he arrived in Britain and said ‘veni, vidi, vici’. Rhetorical questions are questions that don’t have to be answered – even in class! In one of Shakespeare’s most famous scenes, Romeo answers his own question: “But, soft! what light from yonder window breaks? | It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.” Juliet tragically receives no reply to hers: ” O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?” Finally, metonymy or synecdoche is when a part stands for the whole. There are many variations, but an obvious example is ‘the crown’. It is only something the king or queen wears, but it has come to stand for the monarchy or government in general.
- Repetition is again something that’s easy to spot but difficult to talk about. It is simply the repeated use of a word or phrase to add emphasis, eg
‘Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death,
Rode the six hundred.’
- Diction is the choice of words that a writer makes. Are they long or short? Where do they come from – Latin, French, Anglo-Saxon or elsewhere? What connotations or associations do they have – pleasant or unpleasant, dreamy and romantic or painful and humiliating? In Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, the words are remarkably straightforward and monosyllabic. ‘Gentle’, ‘against’ and ‘dying’ are the only polysyllabic words in the opening stanza, and the simplicity and spare, conversational style of the language is appropriate to the subject of loss and bereavement. Thomas Hardy adopts a similar approach in The Voice, which at one point has 41 monosyllables in a row!
- Imagery is the use of pictures or other visual comparisons to make a piece of writing more vivid and appeal to our imagination. Thomas’s Fern Hill seems to have more pictures in it than the National Gallery! In the first stanza alone, we are invited to imagine the poet ‘young and easy under the apple boughs | About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green, | The night above the dingle starry’, and later he recalls having ‘the trees and leaves | Trail with daisies and barley | Down the rivers of the windfall light’. The frequent references to things that are ‘green’ and vibrant and the flood of images conjured up by powerful childhood memories make us long for the innocence of youth and the joy of being at one with Nature.
- A transposed epithet sounds complicated, but it’s just an adjective that’s used to describe the ‘wrong’ noun. ‘Transposed’ means swapped, and ‘epithet’ means a word or phrase used to describe something (like an adjective). Hence, Dylan Thomas writes about ‘the dogs in the wet-nosed yards’ in Under Milk Wood. Obviously, it’s not the ‘yards’ that have the wet noses, but the ‘dogs’!
- The pathetic fallacy means using the weather or landscape to create an upbeat or downbeat mood. ‘Pathetic’ means to do with emotions while a ‘fallacy’ is something that people believe even though it’s not true, such as the idea that the Earth is flat. We all know that it’s possible to be happy on a rainy day or unhappy on a sunny day, but that’s not how we feel sometimes, and that’s why the pathetic fallacy can be so powerful. Thomas uses it a lot in Fern Hill, telling us, for example, that ‘All the sun long it was running, it was lovely’ when he was young, but the mood changes in the final verse when he starts talking about death, and that’s emphasised by words such as ‘shadow’ and ‘moon’.
- Sentence structure is the pattern or frequency of long and short sentences and the use of different types of sentence, either simple, compound or complex. Whereas something like a simile or alliteration is easy enough to spot, this is the kind of device that’s not generally obvious on a first or even a second reading, so it’s worth counting the words in each sentence to see what you find. It might just give you a clue to understanding the rhythmic effects that the writer is aiming for. There are only seven sentences in the 54 lines of Fern Hill, and the first has 76 words in it!
These are just a sample of the most important poetic devices. If you still want more, try reading a little Dylan Thomas. If ‘the dogs in the wet-nosed yards’ catch your eye, you can congratulate yourself on spotting a rare example of the transposed epithet!
Can you spot the poetic devices used in the following examples?
- bothersome badgers
- as flat as a pancake
- faster than a speeding bullet
- death stalked the land
- it’s an oven in here
- the trees danced in the wind
- how now, brown cow?
- the cat in the hat
- “Why, why, why must you do that?”
- “What is the most important question facing our country today?”
- He had 12 pens in his pencil case, but not one pencil.
- the long arm of the law