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LITERARY DEVICES: DEFINITIONS AND EXAMPLES
by Michael R. Burch

Literary Device Definitions
Literary Device Examples

The best way to learn about literary devices is to follow definitions with examples. “Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats employs a wide variety of poetic devices, so I will use the poem for my examples. That way we need only one reference. The entire poem appears at the bottom of this page.

• Poetic Form Definition: A poetic form is the physical structure or "shape" of the poem on the page. Common English poetic forms include the sonnet, the villanelle, the limerick, free verse and prose poetry. Many poems are separated into stanzas, as "Ode to a Nightingale" is. A nonce form is a form created by a poet that had not been employed before. If a nonce form catches on and is used more than once, it is no longer nonce.

I believe Keats created the form used for “Ode to a Nightingale.” Elements of form employed by Keats include stanzas, indentations and a rhyme scheme. The poem appears at the bottom of this page if you want to examine its form.

• Meter Definition: English poetic meter is based on patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables. For example, the iamb is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable: da DUM. Most traditional English poetry is iambic. In fact, Robert Frost said that all English poetry is either iambic or loose iambic, although other experts would no doubt disagree with him. The smallest unit of meter is called a "foot." Iambic trimeter consists of three iambs per line, while iambic pentameter consists of five iambs per line, and so on.

“Ode to a Nightingale” is written in iambic pentameter with trimeter in the eighth line of each stanza.

• End Rhyme Definition: The most common form of rhyme in English poetry is end rhyme, in which the rhyming words appear at the ends of lines. When there is a pattern to the rhymes, the pattern is called a "rhyme scheme." In a rhyme scheme the first-occurring rhyme is designated by the letter A, the second by the letter B, and so on.

The rhyme scheme of “Ode to a Nightingale” is ABABCDECDE.

Rhymes can be exact or "perfect rhymes" such as: light, sight, bright, right, might, fight, smite, white.
Rhymes can be inexact, "imperfect" or "near rhymes" such as: orange, porridge, partridge, carriage, barrage.
Rhymes can be "eye rhymes" which look as if they should rhyme, but don't, such as: love, move, grove.

Most of the rhymes in “Ode to a Nightingale” are perfect rhymes: pains/drains, drunk/sunk, etc. However Keats does employ near rhymes: happiness/numberless, die/ecstasy. Keats also employs an eye rhyme: been/green.

• Internal Rhyme Definition: When rhyming words do not fall at the ends of lines they are called "internal rhymes."

“To toll me back from thee to my sole self.”

• Repetition Definition: In English poetry repetition can take various forms. Meter and rhyme are forms of repetition, as are alliteration, assonance and consonance. Refrains and choruses are blocks of words that are repeated whole. Poets sometimes repeat individual words for emphasis.

"Away! Away!"

Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
         As she is fam'd to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades

• Alliteration Definition and Consonance Definition: The formal definition of "alliteration" is the repetition of initial stressed, consonant sounds in a series of words. However, in my experience the term "alliteration" is often applied to any repeated consonant sounds (as in the "bb" in "bubbles" below). Formally, the more correct term would be "consonance" when the consonant sounds are not initial and/or are unstressed. However, I use the term "alliteration" for all matching consonant sounds myself. Words do change in meaning over time, and I think that is the case here.

“With beaded bubbles winking at the brim.”

• Assonance Definition: The repetition of the same or similar vowel sounds. As with "alliteration" there are more technical definitions, but increasingly I think we can simply say that alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds and assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds.

“In some melodious plot.”

• Imagery: Descriptive language, usually visual, but also describing things that can be heard, smelled, tasted or touched.

“Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves.”

• Simile: A figure of speech in which two dissimilar things are compared, usually via "like" or "as."

“Forlorn! the very word is like a bell.”

• Metaphor: Figurative language in which one thing is said to be or is used to represent something else: That car is a lemon (a sour deal). He's the black sheep of the family (the odd one out). All the world's a stage (we are all acting out roles in life).

In the ode “fast fading violets” are a metaphor for the briefness of human life.

• Allusive Metaphor: A metaphor that involves an allusion, often to a work of art, literature, mythology, etc.

“Bacchus and his pards” is a metaphor that alludes to excessive drinking. Bacchus was the Greek god of wine and drunkenness. He was worshiped by frenzied priestesses known as the Bacchae. A bacchanalia is a drunken orgy. By declining to travel with Bacchus, Keats is saying that he will not fly to the nightingale by getting drunk.

• Extended Metaphor: A longer, often more complex metaphor.

The ode may be considered an extended metaphor in which the nightingale’s immortal song represents Keats’s poetry. When Keats enters the night of death, his song will still be heard and he will have joined the immortal nightingales.

• Symbology: A symbol is typically something physical that suggests something abstract. For instance, the rose symbolizes love and affection, a four-leaf clover symbolizes good luck, etc.

In the ode, the nightingale’s song symbolizes the poet’s verse.

• Allusion: An indirect or passing reference that calls something else to mind.

The nightingale is an allusion to Philomela (also Philomel). In Greek mythology Philomela was a princess of Athens who was raped and mutilated by Tereus, her sister's husband. Tereus cut out Philomela’s tongue to prevent her from accusing him. But she was transformed into a nightingale by the gods who made her immortal and gave her the loveliest of voices. I believe Keats is identifying with Philomela because he suffered with tuberculosis that had attacked him and threatened to silence him. He would die tragically young at age 25. But like Philomela he would still be heard thanks to a gift of the gods, the Muses of poetry.

• Personification: The attribution of human characteristics to something nonhuman; treating something nonhuman as if it were a person.

Beauty is personified with “where beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes.” The Moon is personified: “And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne.” The Stars, Love and Death are also personified.

• Apostrophe: To address a person who is not present or a personified object.

The poet speaks to the nightingale: “Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird.”

• Anaphora: The repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses.

Keats opens the ode with an anaphora, stressing the personal nature of the poem by beginning its first two lines with “My.” In the third stanza Keats begins a series of lines with “Where.”

• Anadiplosis: The term means “double back” in Greek. In poetry this is to emphasize a word or phrase through close repetition and especially to repeat the ending word of a line or stanza at the beginning of the next line or stanza.

Keats concludes the seventh stanza with the word “forlorn” and begins the eighth stanza with the same word.

• Wordplay, Puns, Double Entendres: I believe “my sole self” probably means “my individual self” and “my soul-self” or simply “my soul.” The word “darkling” is rare and may have been chosen because it sounds like “darling” and "daring," although that is just a guess on my part. One does wonder if Thomas Hardy got his “Darkling Thrush” from Keat’s darkling nightingale. Ditto for Matthew Arnold's "darkling plain."

• Exclamations: “O” twice, "Adieu!" three times, plus "Forlorn!" and “Away! Away!”

• Poetic Contractions: “’Tis” and “Charm’d” among others.

• Enjambment Definition: One line of a poem carries on smoothly to the next line, without a noticeable pause. When there is a noticeable pause, the lines are said to be "end-stopped."

My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains.”

• Hyperbole or Overstatement: Keats calls the nightingale “immortal” but of course its lifespan was shorter than his. Nightingales have lifespans of one to five years. And ironically the females are mute.

• Paradox: Keats portrays approaching Death in dark terms — “weariness,” “fever,” “fret,” “palsy,” “leaden-eyed despairs,” etc. — but he also calls Death “easeful” and says he has called Death “soft names” in “many a mused rhyme.”

• Antithesis: Keats compares the brevity of a human life to the immortality of the nightingale. But perhaps he means that the nightingale’s song is immortal. If so, Keats may be saying, “I am going to die soon, but this poem will be immortal.” If so, he was unfortunately correct on the first count, and an accurate prophet on the second.



Ode to a Nightingale
by John Keats

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
         My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
         One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
         But being too happy in thine happiness,—
               That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees
                        In some melodious plot
         Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
               Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
         Cool'd a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
         Dance, and Provenšal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
         Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
               With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
                        And purple-stained mouth;
         That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
               And with thee fade away into the forest dim:

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
         What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
         Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
         Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
               Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
                        And leaden-eyed despairs,
         Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
               Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
         Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
         Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! tender is the night,
         And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
               Cluster'd around by all her starry Fays;
                        But here there is no light,
         Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
               Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
         Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
         Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
         White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
               Fast fading violets cover'd up in leaves;
                        And mid-May's eldest child,
         The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
               The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
         I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call'd him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
         To take into the air my quiet breath;
               Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
         To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
               While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
                        In such an ecstasy!
         Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
                  To thy high requiem become a sod.

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
         No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
         In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
         Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
               She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
                        The same that oft-times hath
         Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam
               Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
         To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
         As she is fam'd to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
         Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
               Up the hill-side; and now 'tis buried deep
                        In the next valley-glades:
         Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
               Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?



Bio: Michael R. Burch is an American poet who lives in Nashville, Tennessee with his wife Beth, their son Jeremy, and three outrageously spoiled puppies. His poems, epigrams, translations, essays, articles, reviews, short stories and letters have appeared more than 6,000 times in publications which include TIME, USA Today, The Hindu, BBC Radio 3, CNN.com, Daily Kos, The Washington Post, Light Quarterly, The Lyric, Measure, Writer's Digest—The Year's Best Writing, The Best of the Eclectic Muse, Unlikely Stories and hundreds of other literary journals, websites and blogs. Mike Burch is also the founder and editor-in-chief of The HyperTexts, a former columnist for the Nashville City Paper and, according to Google's rankings, a relevant online publisher of poems about the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the Trail of Tears, Gaza and the Palestinian Nakba. He has two published books, Violets for Beth (White Violet Press, 2012) and O, Terrible Angel (Ancient Cypress Press, 2013). A third book, Auschwitz Rose, is still in the chute but long delayed. Burch's poetry has been translated into fourteen languages and set to music by twelve composers. His poem "First They Came for the Muslims" has been adopted by Amnesty International for its Words That Burn anthology, a free online resource for students and educators. Burch has also served as editor of International Poetry and Translations for the literary journal Better Than Starbucks.

For an expanded bio, circum vitae and career timeline of the poet, please click here: Michael R. Burch Expanded Bio.

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