Common Literary Devices

There are numerous literary devices that you, as a reader of poetry, might come across.

They range in the effect they have on the writing and how they might make you feel. Below, explore 10 of the most common in poetry.

Alliteration

Alliteration is a technique that makes use of a repeated consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. These words appear next to or near one another. It is used in both poetry and prose, but is far more effective in the former.

Writers turn to this technique when they want to emphasize or draw attention to one part of a written work, create or maintain a rhythm, or create a sound.

Consider these lines from ‘Jabberwocky’ by Lewis Carroll as an example:

Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

      The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

      The frumious Bandersnatch!

Here, you can find several examples of alliteration. For instance, “claws” and “catch” and “Beware,” “bird,” and “Bandersnatch.”

Simile

A simile is a comparison between two, unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as.” Similes are usually used to create an interesting example of imagery and/or help you understand the poet’s intentions more clearly. A character might compare an experience they’re having to something more relatable.

Consider these lines from ‘A Lady’ by Amy Lowell as an example:

You are beautiful and faded

Like an old opera tune

Played upon a harpsichord;

In these lines, the speaker is comparing a woman to an “opera tune” that’s played on a “harpsichord.” She reminds him of the romance associated with his instrument. As well as with tradition, elevated beauty and the pleasures of music in general.

Metaphor

A metaphor is used to describe an object, person, situation, or action in a way that helps you understand it without using “like” or “as.” These comparisons are usually not literal and are sometimes more figurative than similes. They’re easily used to evoke a particular set of emotions.

Consider these lines from ‘An Apple Gathering’ by Christina Rossetti as an example:

I plucked pink blossoms from mine apple-tree

And wore them all that evening in my hair:

Then in due season when I went to see

I found no apples there.

Here, the speaker is literally talking about apples but is figuratively using a metaphor to take about losing her virginity/purity. She picked her apples early and ruined her prospects. The metaphor runs throughout the poem, making it an extended metaphor.

Symbolism

Symbolism is the use of symbols to represent ideas or meanings. They are imbued with certain qualities, often only interpretable through context.

Symbolism helps to get a writer’s point across. In most cases, an object, color, or event is used to represent something else, something entirely different but in some crucial way connected. Other symbols might be words, people, animals, dates, places, or even emotions. One of the most important things to remember about symbols is that their meaning usually hinges on the context.

Consider these lines from ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ by William Wordsworth as an example:

I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Here, the speaker uses the daffodils as a symbol of freedom, peace, and happiness.


Allusion

An allusion is an indirect reference to an idea, event, person, or other detail. Poets use passing comments to other pieces of information that could take the form of an obscure quote, political reference, name, date, or location. If you dig deep enough into the text, it’s sometimes possible to decipher what the writer is alluding to. Other times, with more complicated works, it requires additional research in order to fully understand what the writer is alluding to.

Consider these lines from ‘Writing in the Afterlife’ by Billy Collins as an example:

I had heard about the journey to the other side

and the clink of the final coin

in the leather purse of the man holding the oar,

but how could anyone have guessed

In these lines, the poet alludes to Charon, the ferryman from Greek mythology. He is tasked with ferrying the dead from one side of the River Styx to the other.

Anaphora

Anaphora is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. When used, this technique helps to create a feeling of rhythm and unity. It can also be used to emphasize a part of the poem.

There are examples throughout the history of the written word from the Biblical Psalms up through Elizabethan, Romantic, Modern, and contemporary writing. A list of phrases, items, or actions may be created through its implementation.

Consider these lines from ‘Sekhmet, the Lion-headed Goddess of War’ by Margaret Atwood as an example:

the final one, a kind lion

will come with bandages in her mouth

and the soft body of a woman,

and lick you clean of fever,

and pick your soul up gently by the nape of the neck

and caress you into darkness and paradise.

In this section of the text, the poet uses “and” at the start of four lines in a row. This helps build up details and ensure the reader is paying attention to them.

Refrain

Refrains are used in poems and songs. They are repeated sections of text that usually appear at the end of a stanza or verse.

They might consist of a few words or several sentences, depending on the writer’s intentions. The repetition might occur once or several times. It’s important to note that refrains must consist of the same words/phrases with as few changes as possible. Sometimes there are examples where a few words shift, but for an example of repetition to truly be a refrain, the words must remain mostly the same.

Consider these lines from ‘The Brook’by Alfred Lord Tennyson as an example:

Till last by Philip’s farm I flow

To join the brimming river,

For men may come and men may go,

But I go on for ever.

In this particular stanza, Tennyson provides the reader with their first look at the refrain, “For men may come and men may go, / But I go on for ever.” Here is another example of the refrain from stanza six:

I chatter, chatter, as I flow

To join the brimming river,

For men may come and men may go,

But I go on for ever.


Hyperbole

Hyperbole is defined as an intentionally exaggerated description, comparison, or exclamation meant to make a specific impact on a reader. Hyperboles are statements that are not meant to be taken literally and are used for emphasis only.

They help to further the writer’s important themes or make a specific impact on a reader. They are used as figures of speech in literature and can transform the way a reader takes in and processes a word, phrase, or an entire passage of writing. It’s easy to use the device humorously, in order to make the reader laugh or to use it seriously in order to stress something dramatic.

Consider these lines from ‘Television’ by Roald Dahl as an example:

HIS BRAIN BECOMES AS SOFT AS CHEESE!

HIS POWERS OF THINKING RUST AND FREEZE!

HE CANNOT THINK — HE ONLY SEES!

Dahl’s speaker uses hyperbolic statements to reflect on the dangers of watching too much TV. They range from a child’s brain-melting to losing the desire to understand the world.

Personification

Personification is a literary device that refers to the projection of human characteristics onto inanimate objects in order to create imagery. It’s used to describe everything from animals to feelings, actions, and objects.

Personification can be found in all forms of writing. It appears in poetry, prose poetry, and fiction. Sometimes it is more obvious, usually in the poetic examples, while other times, it is integrated into the text in a way that feels obvious and natural. Due to the length of poems compared to prose works, examples of personification will be easier to spot within poetry.

Consider these lines from ‘Magdalen Walks’ by Oscar Wilde as an example:

And the plane to the pine-tree is whispering some tale of love

Till it rustles with laughter and tosses its mantle of green,

In these lines, Wilde takes the time to note the lively presence of the trees and flowers around him. He uses personification as well as alliteration to convey the feeling of the moment.

Oxymoron

An oxymoron is a kind of figurative language in which two contrasting things are connected together. These ideas contradict one another but are combined in order to make a larger point.

Oxymorons are used for any number of reasons but usually add drama and interest to the language or a description of a particular place or experience. They can often tap into an emotional quality that a reader might not have otherwise assigned to the subject. An oxymoron can speak to two different but equally important qualities of one thing at the same time.

Consider these lines from ‘Funeral Blues’ by W.H. Auden as an example:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,

Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,

Silence the pianos and with muffled drum

Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

In these lines, he uses the phrase “juicy bone,” an oxymoronic description of what a bone is.