Poetic Devices

What is the difference between literary and poetic devices? Well, all poetic devices are literary devices but not all literary devices are poetic devices. Poetic devices are used in poetry to convey meaning or rhythm by using words, sounds, meter, rhyme, and even structural or visual elements. They heighten the literal meaning of words, adding layers of form, sound, and function.

Poetic Devices Poetic Devices

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Table of contents

    Poetic devices: definition

    Poetic devices are a subcategory of literary devices. This is why all poetic devices are also literary devices. In poetry, a poet will deliberately make use of devices to amplify or change literal meanings, as well as to create rhythm or tone. Poetic devices can be used in many different combinations to create various effects.

    Poetic devices: a list of poetic examples

    There are too many poetic devices to create a comprehensive list in this article. Instead, we will look at a few commonly used examples of poetic devices within some broad categories and also highlight their use in well-known poems.

    Poetic device examplesDefinitionExample poems
    AlliterationRepetition of initial consonant sounds.'The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew, / And the lone sea-birds wheeled and cried' - Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' (1798).
    AssonanceRepetition of vowel sounds.'Hear the mellow wedding bells' - Edgar Allan Poe, 'The Bells' (1849).
    ConsonanceRepetition of consonant sounds.'And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil' - Gerard Manley Hopkins, 'God's Grandeur' (1918).
    EnjambmentContinuation of a sentence or phrase over a line break.'I celebrate myself, and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume' - Walt Whitman, 'Song of Myself' (1855).
    MetaphorComparison between two unlike things.'She's all states, and all princes, I,/Nothing else is.' - John Donne, 'The Sun Rising' (1633).
    PersonificationAttribution of human qualities to non-human entities.'The wind stood up and gave a shout' - Emily Dickinson, 'The Wind' (1896).
    RhymeRepetition of similar sounds at the end of words.'So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,/ So long live this, and this gives life to thee.' - William Shakespeare, 'Sonnet 18' (1609).
    SimileComparison between two unlike things using 'like' or 'as'.'I wandered lonely as a cloud / That floats on high o'er vales and hills' - William Wordsworth, 'I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud' (1807).

    Poetic devices: sound and repetition

    A unique sound is one of the most important elements that a poet will create with words and sound-related poetic devices.

    Assonance

    Assonance is the repeated use of vowel or diphthong sounds to create rhythm and tempo.

    William Blake made extensive use of assonance in his poem, 'The Tyger' (1794). The repetition of the long /i/ sound combined with the similar /y/ sound creates a unique tempo and sound.

    Tyger Tyger, burning bright,

    In the forests of the night;

    What immortal hand or eye,

    Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

    In what distant deeps or skies.

    Burnt the fire of thine eyes?

    On what wings dare he aspire?

    What the hand, dare seize the fire?

    Diphthong sounds are formed by combining two vowels in a single syllable. A common one is /oi/ or /oy/ like in 'boy' or 'hoist'.

    Alliteration

    Alliteration is often the repeated use of the initial sound of a word or phrase to create auditory and rhythmic effects. Usually defined as the repeated use of the first letter, this is not always the case.

    The key to alliteration is to look for the repeated sound, not necessarily the letter. ‘Gym junkie’ is an alliteration. ‘Gas giant’ is not.

    Samuel Taylor Coleridge uses alliteration in 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' (1798) to create a musical tempo with the repeated use of /f/ as the first stressed syllable.

    The fair breeze blow, the white foam flew,

    The furrow followed free;

    We were the first that ever burst

    Into that silent sea.

    Sibilance

    Sibilance is a type of alliteration that features the repetition of the /s/ or a hissing type sound in the stressed syllables of /s/, /ci/ and even some /z/ words.

    William Carlos Williams makes use of sibilance in his poem 'This Is Just To Say' (1934). This creates a sense of mood and tone based on the sound created by the repeated /s/.

    Forgive me

    they were delicious

    so sweet

    and so cold.

    Poetic devices: rhythm

    The flow of words in a stanza creates a certain rhythm that adds to the mood and tempo of a poem, also enhancing its meaning.

    Rhyme

    Rhyme uses repeated patterns, using words that have the same sounds. These words can be placed in different places depending on the rhyme scheme used. They might be at the end of each sentence in the case of Monorhyme poems.

    • Couplets contain two line stanzas with the scheme AA BB CC and DD.
    • Triplets include variations on the ABBA scheme.

    There are many more types and some poems don’t use rhyme at all.

    Emily Dickinson makes use of the rhyme scheme ABCB to create rhythm in her poem 'I'm nobody! Who are you?' (1891).

    I'm nobody!

    Who are you?

    Are you nobody, too?

    Then there's a pair of us -- don't tell!

    They'd advertise -- you know!

    How dreary to be somebody!

    How public like a frog

    To tell one's name the livelong day

    To an admiring bog!

    Poetic devices: meaning

    Poetic devices can be used to highlight a point and change or enhance meaning. These can be direct or indirect, depending on the device used and how it is used.

    Allusion

    Allusion is when a poet indirectly refers to something like a mythical, historical, or even a literary person, place, or movement. It is up to the reader to spot the allusion and understand how it infers meaning.

    T.S. Eliot makes use of allusion throughout his poem 'The Waste Land' (1922). He often alludes to William Shakespeare so we will look at one of his references to The Tempest (1611). It is indirectly connected but the implied meaning is one of a creation of falsehoods. This is further supported by allusions to Madame Sosotoris in the same stanza.

    Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!” - The Wasteland: line 48

    This references a song sung by Ariel in The Tempest: Act 1, Scene 2. Ariel is lying to Ferdinand about the death of his father in the shipwreck.

    Full fathom five thy father lies;

    Of his bones are coral made;

    Those are pearls that were his eyes:

    Nothing of him that doth fade

    But doth suffer a sea-change

    Into something rich and strange - The Tempest: Act 1, Scene 2

    Madame Sosotoris was a famous clairvoyant from Aldous Huxley's Chrome Yellow (1921). She is an old woman who cons gullible victims who are interested in the afterlife. She is actually a man, Mr. Scogan, in disguise.

    Poetic devices: punctuation

    Similar to form, punctuation or a lack of punctuation is used to structure a poem and tell a reader how the words should flow. This creates tempo and meaning.

    Enjambment

    Enjambment is when a sentence continues without pause or terminal punctuation from one line to the next within a stanza. The reader’s eye isn’t interrupted by punctuation and can run on without a gap. This creates tempo and allows a poet to determine how their words are read or spoken.

    Considered a master of enjambment, E.E. Cummings uses this device in his poem, 'Spring omnipotent goddess' (1920).

    Spring omnipotent goddess. Thou

    dost stuff parks

    with overgrown pimply

    chevaliers and gumchewing giggly

    damosels Thou dost

    persuade to serenade

    his lady the musical tom-cat

    Thou dost inveigle

    Read this poem aloud to yourself or someone else. Listen to how E.E. Cummings creates the way his poems sounds by his lack of punctuation. Did you run out of breath by the end?

    Identifying poetic devices in poems

    Once you know the various types of poetic devices, it is easier to spot them in poems. Finding them is just the first step, though. Next, you need to assess why the poet used that device and what they are trying to convey.

    You will need to look for the effect on meaning, form, or sound in a poem. The context of the rest of the poem and its external factors will also influence your understanding of the device used and why it was used.

    Can you name the highlighted device used in Carol Ann Duffy’s 'Valentine' (1993)?

    Not a red rose or a satin heart.

    I give you an onion.It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.It promises lightlike the careful undressing of love.

    Here.It will blind you with tearslike a lover.It will make your reflectiona wobbling photo of grief.

    I am trying to be truthful.

    Not a cute card or a kissogram.

    I give you an onion.Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,possessive and faithfulas we are,for as long as we are.

    Take it.Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding ring,if you like.Lethal.Its scent will cling to your fingers,cling to your knife.

    Can you see another poetic device in 'Valentine'? Hint: E.E. Cummings uses this device frequently.

    Poetic Devices - Key takeaways

    • 'All poetic devices are literary devices but not all literary devices are poetic devices' is the easiest way to understand how these two categories work together.

    • Poetic devices can make use of words, sounds, meter, rhyme, and even structural or visual elements.

    • These can convey form, meaning, rhythm, and sound to assist the poet in creating the effect that they want to achieve.

    • Common poetic devices include assonance, alliteration, sibilance, rhyme, enjambment, and allusion.

    • Once you know the devices, you can find them more easily and then consider why they were used and what effects or additional meaning they create.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Poetic Devices

    What are poetic devices?

    All poetic devices are literary devices but not all literary devices are poetic devices. 


    Poetic devices are used specifically in poetry to convey meaning or rhythm. This is achieved  by using sounds, words, rhyme,meter, and even structural or visual elements. 


    They heighten the literal meaning of words.


    What are some poetic device examples?

    Examples of poetic devices include assonance, alliteration, sibilance, rhyme, enjambment, and allusion.

    How to find poetic devices?

    First, learn the different types of poetic devices and then look for their impact on the meaning, form, or sound of a poem.

    What are poetic devices used for?

    Poetic devices are used to convey form, additional meaning, rhythm, and sound in a poem.

    How many poetic devices are there?

    There are almost too many to list in one place but common ones include sibilance, enjambment, assonance, alliteration, rhyme, and allusion.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following are examples of sibilant words? 

    Which part of the sentence is sibilance?The slimy, scaly, snake slithered through the door and into the kitchen.

    What does sibilant mean?

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