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Poetic License

The term “poetic license” is used to describe an intentional departure from the facts or traditional structures of language when writing. It is utilized most commonly in poetry but can also be used, in order to create a particular effect, in a short story, novel, play, etc.

The words come from the Latin, “poetic” from “poeta,” meaning “maker,” and “license” from “licentia” meaning “to be permitted.” The phrase is not restricted to literature alone. In contemporary English, people in everyday conversations might utilize the phrase in order to describe the liberties someone took with a particular task or job. 

Variations of the phrase include: 

  • Artistic license 
  • Dramatic license 
  • Literary License 
  • License
  • Narrative License 
  • Historical License
Poetic License definition and examples

Poetic License Definition

The phrase “poetic license” applies when someone stretches the facts or truth, changes language in order to make a sentence or line sound more aesthetic or interesting, or does anything else to change normal speech/writing to increase its effect. 

While the term does use the word “poetic,” it does not apply solely to verse or even dramatic verse. Specific sections of novels, short stories, or even entire long works themselves could be described as an act of poetic license. For example, consider a writer who utilizes numerous neologisms throughout the novel, crafting a new and strikingly original language. Such as is seen in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange.

Examples of Poetic License 

History by Carol Ann Duffy 

This incredibly Duffy poem utilizes poetic license in the writer’s use of personification and her depiction of history from a solely female perspective. As is common within Duffy’s literary works, the poet utilizes traditional narratives in untraditional ways. Rather than focusing on the best-known male figure of a particular story, historical period, etc., she changes the narrative to focus on the life and experiences of their female counterpart or a woman in their life. Here are a few lines from ‘History:’ 

  She was History.

She’d seen them ease him down

from the Cross, his mother gasping

for breath, as though his death

was a difficult birth, the soldiers spitting,

spears in the earth;

Within these lines, readers are introduced to the main character of this poem, a personified female version of “History.” By taking poetic license with the traditional depictions of history, particularly poems about history,  Duffy aims to remind the reader of the female experience, often lost within a history that focuses on the lives of men.

Read more Carol Ann Duffy poems

The Flea by John Donne 

‘The Flea’ is the best-known poem by metaphysical poet John Donne. It is a prime example of a conceit, especially within Donne’s work. A conceit is a complicated, interesting, and original metaphor that challenges readers to think about the two things being compared in a new way. Donne took poetic license throughout his work in how he crafted these unique metaphors. Consider these lines: 

Cruel and sudden, hast thou since

Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence?

Wherein could this flea guilty be,

Except in that drop which it sucked from thee?

Yet thou triumph’st, and say’st that thou

Find’st not thy self, nor me the weaker now;

Donne’s speaker uses the image of a flea, and the blood mingling inside it, to convince his lover to sleep with him. There is no reason for her to hold back as their bodies are already united (represented by the blood inside the flea). 

Explore John Donne’s poetry.

Poetic License in Film and Television 

Poetic license is also used in film and television. Producers, writers, and directors intentionally utilize elements that increase viewers’ interest in movies and TV shows. If they did not change the facts of life and introduce original, unbelievable, and surprising new elements to their creations, audiences would easily and quickly grow bored. This is seen quite often in film adaptions of novels. Consider the differences between books like The Lord of the Rings series and the adaptations that Peter Jackson is now famous for.


What is poetic license also called?

Poetic license is also known as literary license, dramatic license, historical license, narrative license, artistic license, and sometimes just license.

What is the Shakespearean poetic license?

In Shakespeare’s poetic and dramatic works, he utilizes numerous examples of poetic license. This is seen through his intentional alteration of historical facts to fit a dramatic narrative and how he changed the language to conform to specific metrical patterns. For example, the commonly used iambic pentameter of his sonnets.

What is the difference between poetic justice and poetic license?

Poetic license refers to the changes a writer makes in a literary work to make the language and information more impactful. For example, if a writer was depicting events from history, they might take some poetic license by changing elements of their story to make it more effective. Poetic justice refers to real-life and fictional situations in which someone gets what they deserve, whether that be something good or something bad.

What is poetic diction in literature?

Poetic diction refers to the ways in which poets sometimes change the structure of everyday, conversational language in order to elevate it and make it sound more aesthetic and interesting. When speaking about important, universal topics, poets often make their language sound more elevated.

What is a literary license?

The phrase “literary license” is the same as poetic license. But, the use of the word “literary” rather than the word “poetic” makes it easier to apply to a variety of literary works. But, the term “poetic license” can be applied to novels, short stories, essays, plays, and any other literary work that can be said to utilize it.

Related Literary Terms 

  • Imagery: the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. These are the important sights, sounds, feelings, and smells.
  • Simile: a comparison between two unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as”.
  • Figurative Language: refers to figures of speech that are used in order to improve a piece of writing.
  • Synesthesia: refers to a technique authors use to blur human senses in their imagery.
  • Impressionism: refers to stories dependent on a character’s subjective point of view. These stories are based on the character’s impressions of their experiences.
  • Jargon: the use of phrases and words that are specific to a situation, trade, a selective group, or a profession.

Other Resources 

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