Accumulation is a literary device that relates to a list of words or phrases that have similar, if not the same, meanings.
In a poem, story, or novel, these words are grouped together or appear scattered throughout a work. They collect or pile up, and a theme, image, sensation, or deeper meaning is revealed.
When grouped together the emphasis is much more obvious, and for some readers, more impactful than if the words are separated. But, in other cases, writers choose to scatter words or phrases related to a similar theme throughout a piece of literature. A close reader is rewarded by discovering the deepest meaning of a text that others might miss.
The word “accumulation” comes from the Latin meaning “pile-up”. The sheer number of themes, image-related words and the impact that creates is the purpose of utilizing this technique. Like many literary devices found in our glossary, accumulation commonly occurs in everyday speech without being acknowledged or standing out.
In addition to adding emphasis to a particular piece of writing, accumulation is also used to make writing more interesting and engaging. The meaning of one word or phrase is increased by its position near other similar or related words or phrases. The technique can also help explain a situation, describe an object, emotional experience, as well as many other examples, that might otherwise be vague.
History of Accumulation
Accumulation is a technique that is found most commonly within older pieces of literature, and at times in which the beauty, complexity, and depth of language were more valued than it is today. With the Modernist movement, the economic use of words became more popular, as seen through writers such as Ezra Pound. It is no longer quite as common to see writers purposely create lists of words or phrases for the pleasure of the language or in order to more fulsomely describe something that might instead be described simply.
James Joyce is a writer whose style is commonly connected with accumulation. This is especially true within his masterpiece, Ulysses. In this novel, he uses similar words to shape and makes clear important ideas in the text.
Examples of Accumulation in Literature
Example #1: El ángel de la guarda by Juan Felipe Herrera
In this lesser-known, but impactful and moving poem, Herrera makes use of accumulation to describe the actions or inactions of his speaker. The poem takes the reader through eleven statements from the perspective of a father who only now realizes the toll his absence has taken on his children. They grew up with him as a distant figure, more of a guardian angel who didn’t intervene, rather than a hands-on parent. As the poem concludes the speaker realizes that more than anything he should’ve held his children and shown them that he loved them. Take a look at the first three lines from the poem:
I should have visited more often.
I should have taken the sour pudding they offered.
I should have danced that lousy beggar shuffle.
These lines all begin with the phrase “I should have…” as do all eleven lines of the poem. Herrera uses amplification to create a list of the reasons the speaker feels guilty. They pile up, one on top of the other until they lead him to the conclusion at the end of the poem: “I should have touched them”.
Example #2: Happiness by Jane Kenyon
This poem, which speaks on the nature of happiness and uses metaphors to compare happiness mysterious travelling figures and lost relatives uses accumulation throughout. As the poem progresses the speaker makes a series of comparisons between the emotion of happiness and various events and experiences. Take a look at these lines from the fourth stanza:
It comes to the monk in his cell.
It comes to the woman sweeping the street
It comes to the lover, to the dog chewing
a sock […]
Happiness can enter one’s life in innumerable ways. In this poem Kenyon brings together a few of the more disparate ways, juxtaposing them against one another.
Example #3: On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year by Lord Byron
In this third example on our list, Lord Byron states his opinion of the youthful, passionate life he has lived and what it is like to age. Throughout, he speaks powerfully about how he’s lived and how his life is at this point purposeless. He’s come to a time in his life, his thirty-sixth birthday when he no longer inspires love in others. This failing makes him feel as though he is unworthy of experiencing love himself. This does not stop him from wanting true love though. Take a look at these lines from the second stanza of the poem. They read:
My days are in the yellow leaf;
The flowers and fruits of Love are gone;
The worm, the canker, and the grief
Are mine alone!
Here, he accumulates words that relate to how he perceives his vibrancy as failing. The seasons of youth are ending and the progression of age is represented through the loss of “flowers and fruits,” as if he were a tree that no longer produces.
Later on in the poem, Byron uses an asyndetic list, a very common way of using accumulation, to speak about the complexities of love. He writes:
The hope, the fear, the jealous care,
The exalted portion of the pain
And power of love, I cannot share,
But wear the chain.
There are equal parts pain and pleasure. Love brings with it jealousy, hope and fear. These were things he relished, but now “cannot share.” They hang around his neck like a chain, weighing him down. His passion has become more of a burden than a joy.