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Literary Devices

Literary devices help us understand a writer’s intentions, and allow us to identify genre, form, and specific terms and techniques used in fiction, non-fiction, drama and poetry. We use literary terms to describe and explain the techniques writers use.

Literary terms are the words used to describe the various types and tools of Literature.

Fiction is any work of prose that is created from the author’s imagination. While it may be inspired by real events and experiences, it will also be filtered through the author’s creativity into a work of fiction, such as a novel or short story.

What is a literary device?

A literary device is a tool authors use to help structure a story, whether fiction or non-fiction, to engage the reader’s interest, and add layers to a narrative or story. They usually hint at something outside of the story.

Literary Devices include:

We shall be looking at what these are with some examples.

Fictional devices

Fictional devices can include genre and technique. Genres categorise literary fiction, while the technique is the method used for telling the story.

Typical literary formats are:

  • Novel
  • Short story
  • Poetry
  • Stage plays/drama

A novel is a work of fiction (it is imaginary, although it can be based on true events) and is longer than a short story. According to today’s publishing standards a novel is typically 80,000 words or more. (Less than 80,000 words makes it a 'novella'). Usually, a novel is made up of chapters. There will be a main plot or storyline, and often one or more subplots.

Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone (1868), where a detective is called to investigate the theft of a priceless diamond. There are eleven different narrators, and at least two (romantic) subplots.

A short story will usually be around 15,000 words or less, and usually with one plot and fewer characters than in a novel.

The Open Window’ (1911) by Saki (H.H.Munro) takes place at a country house during one misty afternoon. Saki makes deft use of the weather to suggest the ethereal afterlife in his story about an ingenuous house guest and his rather unorthodox young hostess.

Poetry can be of various lengths and may tell a story or express an emotion or thought. A narrative or epic poem can be book-sized!

Thomas Gray’s 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard', (1750) meditates on loss and the transience of life:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,

The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea,

The plowman homeward plods his weary way,

And leaves the world to darkness and to me.’

Drama or Stage plays are stories played out for an audience on a stage. Their plots and characters may be as complex as those of a novel.

Hamlet (1599-1601) by Shakespeare

Amadeus (1979) by Peter Shaffer

The fictional device as a technique

Let’s say an author is a third of the way through his latest novel and suddenly hits a brick wall. His leading character needs some information – but has no means of getting it. The author, eager to meet his publisher’s deadline, hits on an idea – he decides to introduce another character who tells a story that provides the missing information. This will allow the first character to resolve his problem in a (fairly) natural manner. The author finishes his novel and meets his deadline.

The author has told a story within a story, or framed narrative, which is a fictional device.

Fictional devices are handy tools for the author and can:

  • help introduce background information.
  • bring in new characters and situations that help propel the story forward.

In Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847), for example, the first narrator, Mr Lockwood, is haunted by a phantom while visiting his landlord at Wuthering Heights. Confined to bed after catching a cold on the Yorkshire moors, Lockwood asks his housekeeper to tell him about the morose family resident at Wuthering Heights. The housekeeper, Nelly Dean, then becomes the main narrator and continues the story until the last couple of chapters when Lockwood, returning to the area a year later, takes over the conclusion of the novel.

Literary Devices Multiple narrators StudySmarter1st narrator (Lockwood)- 2nd narrator (Nelly Dean)- 1st narrator (Lockwood)StudySmarter original created on Canva.com

Non-fiction devices

Non-fiction writers often use fictional devices to help tell the story of real events, rather than imaginary ones. For example, they may use metaphors.

Metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things. The most common metaphors use the structure “X is Y,” i.e. "The mind is an ocean" and "the city is a jungle" are both metaphors.

Literary Devices Metaphor StudySmarterThe mind is an ocean. StudySmarter Original created on Canva.com

Non-fiction formats

Non-fiction includes:

  • Travelogues
  • Biography
  • Autobiography

A travelogue is a (usually personal) account of a journey.

Robert Louis Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey (1879) is a humorous account of Stevenson’s outdoor adventures in France with a slow-moving donkey called Modestine.

A biography is the chronologically narrated life story of a person in an entertaining and meaningful way. A classic prototype is James Boswell’s biography of Dr. Samuel Johnson (The Life of Samuel Johnson, 1791), the man responsible for the earliest dictionaries in the English Language. In this biography, anecdotes are combined with recorded conversation.

Peter Ackroyd's Dickens (1990) is a detailed account of Charles Dickens’ life, including family origins, his traumatic childhood, his successful career, anxieties, train accident and sleeping disorder.

Autobiography is the detailed and (usually) chronologically narrated life of its author up to the time of writing. These are mostly by celebrities (or their ghostwriters) but can be by anyone who wishes to share their life experiences.

Benjamin Franklin's The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1771-1778) is noted for its clarity of prose. Franklin’s autobiography was written in segments, during the periods 1771, 1784, and 1788. This was owing to interruptions from civil war and later, infirmity. It offers a detailed picture of 18th-century American life, and concepts of the 'self-made man'.

Dramatic devices

Drama is a broad term used to include any type of performance by actors on stage, tv, radio, in film or online. Drama can be divided into devices or categories including:

  • Comedy

  • Tragedy

  • Tragicomedy

  • Melodrama

Comedy

Comedy was mostly a combination of classical comedy and farce until the 18th century, when satire and 'comedies of manners' evolved.

The industrial revolution led to big shifts in society, which was reflected in the comedies produced for stage. 19th to 21st-century audiences have been entertained by drawing-room comedies, romantic comedies, comedies involving slapstick, social comment and/or parody.

Literary Devices A table of comedy in literature StudySmarterComedy TimelineJW - StudySmarter Original created on Canva.com

A comedy of manners pokes fun at the conventions and ‘manners’ of contemporary society.

Drawing room comedies, like comedies of manners, are about society (usually ‘high’ society), where the action mostly takes place in a drawing-room.

Shakespeare: Midsummer’s Night Dream, 1595 (farce & classical)

G.B.Shaw: Pygmalion, 1913 (social comment)

Lewis, Sayer, Shields: The Play that Goes Wrong, 2012 (farce & parody)

Tragedy

Tragedy, like comedy, has its origins in Ancient Greece. Analysis of drama also began there. Aristotle defined the concepts of catharsis, discovery and reversal (ie. the hero discovers some shattering information that leads to the downturn (a reversal) of his fortunes)

Catharsis - an emotional release or cleansing.

Seneca of Ancient Rome influenced Renaissance drama, which adopted the 5-act-structure. This consists of:

  • Act 1) Introduction, setting the scene

  • Act 2) Action that sets the story in motion – very often the conflict is introduced here

  • Act 3) Action intensifies into a climax

  • Act 4) The action relaxes – also called a ‘falling action’

  • Act 5) Resolution – where loose ends are tied up and often a message is conveyed.

Literary Devices Visualisation of the 5-act structure StudySmarterThe 5-act structureStudySmarter Original created on Canva.com

Note: Shakespeare’s plays have a 5-act structure.

In the 19th century, the playwright Gustav Freytag devised a scheme that is called Freytag’s Pyramid, which breaks the structure down into 7 steps. This includes an incident after the introduction and a denouement after the resolution.

Dramatic structure

Seneca’s influence on Renaissance theatre has carried on into the present day and is used for films as well as plays.

The five-act structure continues to be used in film, story-telling and advertising. It is a more detailed version of the 3-act structure.

Literary Devices Visualisation of the 3-act structure StudySmarterThe 3-act structureStudySmarter Original created on Canva.com

The neoclassical style of the 17th century drew on Ancient Greek mythology and literature for plots and dramatic voice. This was followed by a trend for historical tragedies in the 18th century. 19th-century theatre used Realism and Naturalism. By the 20th century, however, tragedy as a dramatic form declined and was considered ‘dead’.

Literary Devices A table of tragedy in literature StudySmarterTragedy TimelineStudySmarter Original created on Canva.com

Shakespeare - Hamlet 1609 (5-act structure, fatal flaw, discovery and reversal)

Ibsen - The Master Builder, 1892 (realistic tragedy)

Strindberg - Miss Julie, 1888 (naturalistic tragedy)

Tragicomedy

Comedy began to be mixed with tragedy as early as the Renaissance. Tragicomedy refers to a play that might appear very serious in tone throughout but finish on a happy note. Both Chekhov and Ibsen toyed with the concept, then Chekhov inverted the format by creating comedies with tragic endings and infusing them with psychological insight (Uncle Vanya, 1898). In the 20th century, the blend of comic-tragedy/tragicomedy became a component of Absurdist theatre (Beckett, Waiting for Godot, 1953).

Melodrama

Melodrama (melody + drama) was a popular form of entertainment in the 19th century, filled with action rather than depth, and aimed at providing ‘sensationalist’ entertainment. Stock characters included the gallant hero, the sighing heroine, the gloating arch-villain, the trusty servant, the clownish messenger and their entrances and exits would probably be signalled with snatches of music. A typical example is The Frozen Deep (1856) by Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens.

Poetic devices

Poets don’t only rely on rhyming when writing poetry, they also rely on poetic devices such as structure and metre.

Terms used to talk about poetry include:

  • Poetic form
  • Poetic genre
  • Metre
  • Rhyme

Poetic form is about the structure of the poem and its content. For example, a sonnet is usually a love poem (content) made up of 3 stanzas and a rhyming couplet (form).

Poetic genre refers to the type of poetry, including:

  • Epic - an extended poem usually in praise of heroic endeavour, such as ‘The Illiad’.
  • Lyric - short poems that have the structure and musical quality of a song.
  • Satirical - a poem that makes fun of social conventions, or human weaknesses.
  • Ode - a lengthy lyric poem that contemplates grand themes of life and mortality.
  • Sonnet - a poem, often narrative or amatory, of 14 lines, with specific rhyme patterns.

Metre is about the pattern or rhythm in a poem, based on the number of syllables in each line and the emphasis given to those syllables. Rhyme is when two words share the same (vowel) sound. Even though these words open with different consonants, the final vowel syllables rhyme.

The rhyming words in the verse may sound similar but have different meanings and spellings.

There are several types of rhyme, including perfect, imperfect, end rhyme, feminine, masculine, eye rhyme, and monorhyme.

The three most common are:

  • Perfect rhyme
  • Imperfect rhyme
  • End rhyme

Perfect or full rhyme

The perfect rhyme is when:

  • two words share the same vowel sound in the final syllable
  • the final consonants of the two words are identical.

'Fleet' and 'treat' rhyme perfectly, because a) the vowel sound is identical and b) the final consonant is identical.

Imperfect or half-rhyme

In this kind of rhyme, the rhyming words do not sound identical. Instead, they only sound ‘half’ similar (hence half-rhyme).

For example, in the first verse of Emily Dickinson’s ‘Hope is the thing with Feathers' (1861) the words ‘soul’ and ‘all’ are not an exact match, and are only vaguely similar in sound:

'Hope' is the thing with feathers -

That perches in the soul -

And sings the tune without the words -

And never stops - at all -”

End rhyme

End rhymes can be found when the phrases end in rhyming syllables. These are the most frequently used rhymes in poetry and plays.

Rhyming verse is still a popular form of poetry. However there are poets who prefer not to use rhyme in their works, and this type of poetry is called 'free verse'.

Free Verse (also known as vers libre) is used to describe various types of poetry that have no unifying rhyme scheme. It became popular in the 20th century with the Imagist and Modernist movements, and literary figures such as Ezra Pound, Rainer Maria Rilke, T.S.Eliot, D.H.Lawrence and Walt Whitman.

Imagism is a poetic movement from the early 20th century that focused on brevity, the economy of language, and precise descriptions of an object rather than symbolic interpretation. The movement wanted to challenge traditional poetic conventions from the Romantic and Victorian periods.

Modernism is a literary movement that occurred between 1910 to 1945. Novelists and poets broke the formal conventions of literature through the use of stream-of-consciousness narratives, abstract or ambiguous narratives and plots, and unreliable narrators. Following disillusionment after the First World War, authors wanted to reassess realism in literature and the impact of modern technology.

Literary devices can be used in fiction, non-fiction and poetry. They form an integral part of language, adding depth, meaning and variety.

Literary Devices/Structures - Key takeaways

  • A literary device is a tool authors use to help structure a story
  • A literary device helps engage the reader’s interest and add layers

  • A narrative can be a novel, poem, short story, or play

  • Poetic devices include

  • Literary devices include:

    • Frame narrative

    • Metaphor

    • Short story

    • End rhyme

  • Literary devices can be used in fiction, non-fiction, drama and poetry

Frequently Asked Questions about Literary Devices

A literary device is an instrument that authors use to help structure a story.

Genres such as short stories and dramas, or techniques like framed narrative or metaphor.

Novel, Short story, Poetry, Stage plays/drama etc.

Literary devices can be used in fiction, non-fiction, drama and poetry.

Final Literary Devices Quiz

Question

True or false: the word 'sibilance' derives from the word 'sibilant'. 

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True. 

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True or false: 'leisure' and 'pleasure' are examples of sibilant words.

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True. 

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How does Mew use sibilance in her poem 'A Quoi Bon Dire?' and how does it reflect the meaning of the text?


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The sibilance mimics a hissing sound which could be interpreted as the speaker's former lover, a sound that is audible only to the speaker. The sibilance is almost like a secret code representing that the narrator can feel her late lover's presence. 

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How can you spot sibilance? 


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Sibilance can be spotted when the soft sound 's' is used frequently in a short space of time.

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 What effect does sibilance have on literature?


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Sibilance has multiple effects. It can help reinforce the meaning of a text, hint at hidden meaning in a poem, establish rhythm, and draw attention to specific parts of a poem. 

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How does Sexton use sibilance and what effect does it have on her poem 'Lullaby' (1960)? 


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The drowsiness associated with sleeping is emulated in the sibilance. The repetition of 's' sounds gives the poem the quality of a lullaby.


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Which of the following are examples of sibilant words? 


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All of them.

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Question

Which part of the sentence is sibilance?

The slimy, scaly, snake slithered through the door and into the kitchen.


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'slimy, scaly, snake slithered'.


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What does sibilant mean?

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A sharp sound with a higher pitch.

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How does MacNeice use sibilance in 'Meeting Point' (1940)? 


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In 'Meeting Point' the sibilance hints at an underlying message in the poem. The succession of 's' sounds could be liked to sand slipping through an hourglass timer, reminding readers that time is continuing and nothing can stop it, even love. The subtle use of sibilance representing time slipping away, reflects the way time moving on has been marginalized in the lover's lives, as it is in the poem.



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True of false: sibilance doesn't add musicality to poetry.


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False.

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True or false: sibilance can draw attention to specific parts of a poem.


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True.

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True or false: all words containing the sound 's' make them sound similar and smooths transitions between words


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True. 

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True or false: sibilance can't hint at underlying messages in poetry.


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False.

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How does Keats use sibilance in 'An Ode to Autumn' (1820)?


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The poem begins with a sibilance. The soft 's' sound in 'sun' and 'mist' shows the way in which Keats viewed autumn as a beautiful season.


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True or false: Blank verse is always written in iambic pentameter.

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False. Most of the time blank verse is written in iambic pentameter, but not always. Poetry must be unrhymed and metered to qualify as blank verse. 



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 True or false: Penta means ten in Latin.

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False. Penta means five in Latin.

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 How many feet are there in line of iambic pentameter?


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There are five feet in a line of iambic pentameter.


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What constitutes an iambic foot? 


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A foot, in poetic terms, is a repeated sequence of meters. Therefore, an iambic foot is made up of two syllables: unstressed followed by stressed.

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 What rhythm has been used to describe iambic pentameter?


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Iambic pentamter is described as having a heartbeat rhythm: de / DUM de / DUM de / DUM de / DUM de / DUM. 

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Which poet believed rhyme does not show literary talent? 

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Scholars believe Milton thought it does not take much literary talent to think of words that rhyme, it is such more of a skill to write in meter. He declares writing in rhyme is restrictive and limits the ideas you can explore as a writer.



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Why does Shakespeare use caesura in his blank verse writing?


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Shakespeare employs caesura and enjambment to make the text seem more realistic and conversational, as we naturally pause when we speak. 

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How does blank verse reinforce the meaning of Wordsworth's 'The Prelude'?


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The blank verse form supports Wordsworth in his journey between his childhood and adult self, as he ponders his past in relation to his future. We see him switching between his present and previous consciousness. The blank verse makes it easier to dip in and out of memories as there are few rules to follow, yet it remains impressive that he is able to write such an intricate narrative in regular meter. 



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Why does Shakespeare use enjambment in his blank verse?


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Shakespeare uses enjambment to ensure the lines have the correct number of syllables long to fit iambic pentameter. For example, if the lines 'Our fears in Banquo stick deep, // And in his royalty of nature reigns that' was one long line, it would be longer than ten syllables and no longer classes as iambic pentameter.

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How does iambic pentameter make 'My Last Duchess' by Rober Browning seem more sinister? 

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The upbeat rhythm of the poem (written in iambic pentameter) makes it slightly more sinister as it gives it a musical poetic feeling, which feels out of place given he is talking about how he killed his wife. 

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True or false: Blank verse is popular among poets as it enables them to have the freedom of expression whilst maintaining a poetic rhythm following iambic pentameter or a similar metrical pattern.


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True. Blank verse is popular among poets as it enables them to have the freedom of expression whilst maintaining a poetic rhythm following iambic pentameter or a similar metrical pattern.

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Question

How does blank verse enhance Frost's poem 'The Death of the Hired Man'?


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If Frost was to explain the events in prose it would sound mundane, but the iambic pentameter gives it a poetic rhythm which makes it more interesting to read as he is able to embody the characters' emotions in the form. Their anticipation around discovering Silas is back is reflected in the frequent switch between lines broken up by caesura, and others left free-flowing with enjambment. 

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How can blank verse represent character status?


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Blank verse can also represent high social status as it indicates certain characters are educated enough to speak following a certain rhythm without using rhyme.

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What is the difference between blank verse and free verse?


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Whilst blank verse and free verse are not restricted by rhyme, they are different in the fact that blank verse follows a metrical pattern, whereas free verse does not.

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Why does blank verse often contain caesura and enjambment?


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Blank verse often contains enjambment and caesura to stop it from sounding monotonous.

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What are end-stop lines?

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Lines without enjambment are end-stopped because the sentence finishes at the end of the line. When a line is not end-stopped, it is likely to be an example of enjambment.

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True or false: The word enjambment comes from the French word 'enjamber'

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True. The word enjambment comes from the French word 'enjamber' which means 'to stride over' or 'encroach', explaining how it links to the English definition of enjambment of words overrunning onto other lines of poetry.  



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How does enjambment quicken the pace of poetry?


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The enjambment quickens the pace of the poem by reducing breaks between sentences. We read sentences quicker when there is no punctuation to break them up, explaining how enjambment can increase the speed at which poems are read.

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True or false: Enjambment only occurs when a sentence runs onto another line of poetry with no punctuated break.


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False. Enjambment can also occur when a sentence runs from one stanza or one couplet to another.

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Why do authors use enjambment?


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Authors use enjambment to control the pace of their poems. Whilst it can allow the poetry to flow freely and fast-paced, it can also be used to create a metrical rhyme scheme by controlling where words are placed to enable particular rhymes.



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How can enjambment alter the rhyme scheme of a poem? 


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Enjambment can alter the rhyme scheme of a poem when it is used to prematurely break a sentence off, changing the placement on particular words. It could stretch two rhyming words in one sentence over two lines, creating an AA rhyme scheme. 

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Why is enjambment an important poetic device?


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Enjambment is an important poetic device as it allows the author to have control over the flow of their poem, enabling them to replicate the meaning of the poem in the rhythm of the text.

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What is the difference between enjambment and caesura?


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Caesura is a pause within a line using a full stop, comma, colon, or another type of punctuation. Enjambment is when a sentence spans over more than one line of poetry, stanza, or couplet. 

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How can enjambment and caesura be used together to disrupt the flow of sentences?


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Both enjambment and caesura are able to disrupt the flow of sentences when used together. For example, in 'Me, Covered in Ash' Brown offsets traditional sentence structure by including full stops in the middle of lines ('for no apparent reason. Maybe to prove we all') and continuing sentences across multiple lines of poetry. It feels more natural for a sentence to end at the end of the poetic line rather than in the middle.

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Question

What is an example of how enjambment has been used to emphasize free-flowing verse? 


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Rosetti exclaims her happiness through the free-flowing verse made up of enjambment, quickening the pace, emulating the liberated nature of a singing bird. Readers read quickly through the poem learning of her happiness before they are ground to a halt with the full stop at the end of the stanza. 

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Question

What is an example of how enjambment has been used to regulate the rhythm of a poem?


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The lack of punctuation in Poem "À la recherche d 'Gertrude Stein" by Frank O' Hara in combination with enjambment helps create a consistently fast pace, as though the speaker is racing through time in order to spend time with his lover. 

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Question

How is villanelle pronounced?

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villanelle is pronounced: vil-uh-nell.

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What is the etymology of villanelle?

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It derives from the Italian word villanella, meaning a rustic or rural song.



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How does a villanelle make use of repetition?


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It contains two refrains that appear in every stanza. 

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How does the form of a villanelle determine its length? 


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They typically have 19 lines which are separated into five tercets, with a quatrain (four lines) as the sixth stanza.

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What is the standard rhyme scheme of a villanelle?


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The tercets follow an ABA rhyme scheme and the final stanza has an ABAA rhyme scheme.

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How many refrains does a villanelle have?


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2

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True or false: all villanelles must follow the established form.


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False. Many poets often choose to make minor changes to villanelles, usually to the refrains.

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True or false: villanelles were originally simple ballad-like songs with no strict form.


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True. Before the modern-day form, they didn’t actually have an established structure.

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Question

From what poem did the modern form of the villanelle originate?


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Answer

Jean Passerat's poem titled 'Villanelle' (1606).

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