Repetition is an important literary technique that sees a writer reuse words or phrases multiple times. This might also include a certain kind of word, image, or any other kind of pattern. For example, the use of a specific ending, rhyme scheme, action, and so on. It is related in literature, to the order of words or the type of words used, but it has an incredibly broad application, stretching into the realm of the visual arts as well.
Explore the term 'Repetition'
Definition and Explanation of Repetition
Repetition is not defined as one single “thing” in a work of literature. Depending on the writer, what they’re writing about, and the format the way in which repetition is used, it can differ greatly. One writer might use the technique in order to reuse a word, sporadically throughout the text. This will be less obvious than another writer who uses repetition to repeat an entire stanza, line, or a long-phrase. Alternatively, repetition is also related to other literary devices.
For example, epistrophe is concerned with the repetition of words at the end of multiple lines. Or, its opposite, anaphora, which refers to words repeated at the start of multiple lines of poetry. Alliteration is another example. It refers to repeated consonant sounds.
Types of Repetition
Many literary devices that are commonly used in poetry and prose fall into the category of repetition. They include some of the following.
- Anaphora: A common literary technique that poets use in order to create rhythm in the progression of their lines. It is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines of verse. It might also be used to create emphasis.
- Epimone: This is the general repetition of a phrase, often a question. The writer employee this technique in order to make a point. There is a reason for the repetition if the reader digs deep enough.
- Epistrophe: This is a technique in which the same words or phrases are used at the ends of multiple lines of a poem. An example would include if multiple lines ended with “and so it goes” or “so they said”.
- Gradatio: This is a type of poetic form in which the last word of one clause is used again at the beginning of the next. This is repeated over and over until the repetition is itself an example of repetition.
- Polyptoton: A slightly harder type of repetition to spot, this occurs when a writer repeats words that have the same root but different endings.
- Symploce: This is a technique that uses both anaphora and epistrophe. This means that the same word or phrase begins multiple lines and the same word or phrase ends multiple lines.
Repetition in Art
For those who are familiar with the world of visual arts, repetition is a fundamental part of creating a successful composition. The word refers to the repetition of elements, such as color, pattern, or form, that help to make a single work of art feel unified. The greatest works of art employ this technique in one way or another, despite its basic-seeming application. Color is often cited as one of the most important elements to consider repeating in a work of art. An entire painting, drawing, etc., can change when a color is used more than once. One element on the right side of the paper immediately connects to another on the left.
Why Do Writers Use Repetition?
As a writer, repetition is one of the most fundamental tools you have in your toolkit. It is incredibly important when creating motifs or using any kind of repeating symbol that defines something in your story. Writers use repetition in order to emphasize something they find important. This could be a theme, a character’s characteristics, or the terrible, or wonderful, state of the world. For example, in The Road by Cormac McCarthy, he repetitively emphasizes the darkness of their world, the dirty, the drear, and the danger. It creates a poignant atmosphere that is incredibly easy to imagine and sticks with you after you finish the novel.
Examples of Repetition in Poetry
Example #1 Dog by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
A complex and philosophically poignant poem, ‘Dog’ uses a dog’s perspective to speak on a very human one. The reader initially sees the world through the dog’s eyes until his sights and ideas suddenly become much more poignant and applicable to our inner dialogues as well. There is a great example of repetition in the first sections of ‘Dog’. Ferlinghetti chose to reuse a short refrain. Here are the first lines of the poem and the first time the refrain is used:
The dog trots freely in the street
and sees reality
and the things he sees
The poem progresses, and the refrain changes slightly, but it appears again five lines later.
The dog trots freely thru the street
and the things he sees
are smaller than himself
A close reader on the lookout for examples of repetition will notice the other similarities between these two experts from the poem. The acting of “seeing” is emphasized as is knowing. Another example occurs later on in the poem The lines read:
The dog trots freely in the street
and has his own dog’s life to live
It is at this point that the poem starts to become more complicated. The dog has a “tale to tell” and a “real tail to tell it with” shortly after this excerpt.
Example #2 Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost
By far Frost’s most popular and taught poem, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ is known by schoolchildren around the world. The last lines are some of the most poignant of the poem. They allude to the speaker’s current and future trials:
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep
He has miles to walk before he can go to sleep but also days and years to live before he dies. There is a great deal to do before his life is over. Depending on how the reader takes these lines that can be both negative and positive.
Examples of Repetition in Literature
Example #1 Macbeth by William Shakespeare
These lines are perhaps the most famous from Shakespeare’s Scottish play.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.
The word “tomorrow” is repeated three times in a row. Macbeth is mourning his wife’s death and through this repetition emphasizes the fact that he has seemingly endless tomorrows and she has none. This technique helps to draw attention to the way that Macbeth sees the world, and with the right delivery from an actor on stage, is one of the best parts of the play.
Example #2 A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
A Tale of Two Cities has one of the most famous opening passages of any novel in the English language. It also employs a great deal of repetition.
It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief,
it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light,
it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope,
it was the winter of despair
Here, the use of repetition makes each line Dickens creates all the more impactful. They build up upon one another (a technique known as accumulation) and help the reader imagine the place and time that Dickens is going to explore in the novel.
Synonyms of Repetition
Some of the most commonly used synonyms for repetition are reiteration, reprise, iteration, retelling, restatement, and recap.
Antonyms of Repetition
Finding antonyms for “repetition” is a more difficult task than finding synonyms. Some words that mean the opposite include original, rare, uncommon, unusual, one of a kind, irregular, and different.
Related Literary Terms
- Assonance – occurs when two or more words that are close to one another use the same vowel sound.
- Consonance – the repetition of a consonant sound in words, phrases, sentences, or passages in prose and verse writing.
- Alliteration – a technique that makes use of repeated sound at the beginning of multiple words, grouped together. It is used in poetry and prose.
- Anaphora – the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession.
- Epistrophe – the repetition of the same word, or a phrase, at the end of multiple clauses or sentences.
- Learn more about repetition in visual arts
- Watch: Why we love repetition in music
- Read: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
- Read: Macbeth by William Shakespeare