This technique is implemented intentionally and done so to create emphasis, rhythm, and emotion. It is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, literary devices. Often it occurs at the beginning of successive sentences. There are examples throughout the history of the written word from the Biblical Psalms up through Elizabethan, Romantic, Modern, and contemporary writing. Poets as different as William Shakespeare, William Blake, and Allen Ginsburg used anaphora. A list of phrases, items, or actions may be created through its implementation. One of the best examples can be found in the works of Charles Dickens. Specifically, in this quote from A Tale of Two Cities. The lines read:
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.
In these lines, the phrase “It was the” is used over and over again. This distinctive use of anaphora makes this quote hard to forget.
Definition of Anaphora
Anaphora occurs when the writer repeats the same word or collection of words at the beginning of multiple lines. It is also one of several literary techniques that appears in everyday speech as well as in writing. It’s possible to hear this literary device when speaking to friends, colleagues, or even giving a professional address, use the technique. For instance, consider the personal collection of sentences: “You are my life. You are my purpose. You are my heart” or “I will work hard. I will work quickly. I will work passionately”. It’s a very simple yet highly effective way to use repetition interestingly. Here is a famous quote from a speech by Winston Churchill when he was addressing the House of Commons during World War II. The lines read:
We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender,
Examples of Anaphora in Literature
This piece, one of Wordsworth’s best known, is titled in full: ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798’. It provides close readers with a great example of anaphora. Consider the first lines of the poem:
Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
In the first lines, the speaker, Wordsworth himself, makes clear that he has returned to a place he has not been for “Five years” or “five summers.” That is the bank of the River Wye in Derbyshire, England. The years that he has been separated from the landscape felt excruciatingly long. So long, it was as if they were made up entirely of “five long winters!” The emphasis that he placed on “Five years” speaks to the nostalgia he’s experiencing and his focus on the progression of time and the influence of change.
Read more William Wordsworth poems.
Nessa by Paul Durcan
‘Nessa’ is a lyrical love poem that compares the speaker’s lover to a powerful whirlpool. In the first and second stanzas of this poem, seven of the twelve lines start with the word “And.” Later on in the poem, there is a second example as well, with “Will you” starting two lines in the final stanza. Take a look at the second stanza of the poem:
Take off your pants, she said to me,
And I very nearly didn’t;
Would you care to swim? she said to me,
And I hopped into the Irish Sea.
And that was a whirlpool, that was a whirlpool,
And I very nearly drowned.
In these lines, he is describing a series of events that are deeply metaphorical in nature. He is diving into the relationship that he cares so much for. This woman, Nessa, is whirlpool-like, and by reusing the word “And,” he lists out his actions, describing step by step what he did.
Explore more Paul Durcan poems.
Within this poem, Atwood’s speaker discusses history, confinement, and perception over centuries and through cultures. The single speaker of this piece is the Egyptian goddess Sekhmet. She is a warrior known for her hunting and healing skills. She is usually depicted as a woman with a lion’s head. Take a look at the final stanza of the poem:
I just sit where I’m put, composed
of stone and wishful thinking:
that the deity who kills for pleasure
will also heal,
that in the midst of your nightmare,
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.
The use of anaphora is very clear in this portion of the text. Like with “Nessa,’ the poet has chosen to repeat the word “And” at the beginning of multiple lines. She presents an idealized image of her herself, one that the visitors to the museum in which she is trapped and her intended listener would prefer. This is not who she is, so by piling up these features (another technique known as accumulation), she is emphasizing how different this way of being would be for her.
Discover more Margaret Atwood poems.
Anaphora is used in order to create repetition and emphasis. Examples occur in all genres of poetry and help an author drive home their point. It’s often used just to enhance the reader’s overall experience of the text.
Repetition is important because it allows writers, no matter if they are writing poetry or prose. Sometimes it’s used on a small scale through the repetition of individual words, but other times it’s used on a grander scale and can be seen in the repetition of images.
Anaphora impacts the reader by ensuring that they remember something the author wanted to share or so they experience a specific kind of rhythm in relation to the rest of the words.
Related Literary Terms
- Chiasmus: a rhetorical device that occurs when the grammatical structure of a previous phrase or clause is reversed or flipped.
- Epistrophe: the repetition of the same word, or a phrase, at the end of multiple clauses or sentences.
- Repetition: an important literary technique that sees a writer reuse words or phrases multiple times.
- Diacope: a literary term that refers to the repetition of a word or phrase.
- Antimetabole: the repetition of words, in reverse order, in successive clauses.