This could be a person they know or don’t know someone who is alive or dead, or someone who never existed at all. It might also be a non-human animal, an abstracted, but personified force, or even an object. Often, this technique is used when a speaker addresses a god or group of gods.
These disparate recipients of a speaker’s words are unified by the belief, on the part of the speaker, real or not, that whoever or whatever they are speaking to can hear and understand them. When writers make use of this technique it is often accompanied by escalations like “Oh!” or “Alas”.
The word “apostrophe” comes from the Greek meaning “turning back”. It was a technique used in works like Homer’s Odyssey. In these examples the narrator reasserts himself into the story, adding commentary or addressing a character, or even a god.
Purpose of Apostrophe
When a writer uses this technique they are able to give life to creatures, people, and objects that might otherwise seem flat and relatively unimportant. As with techniques such as personification and anthropomorphism, it helps the reader empathize with the recipient of the speaker’s words and understand it/them better.
Examples of Apostrophe in Literature
Example #1 Death Be Not Proud by John Donne
This poem is one of nineteen sonnets included in Holy Sonnets or Divine Meditations, published after the poet’s death in 1633. Within this piece, Donne addresses “Death”. It is as a force personified. It can hear and understand the speaker. The force also has agency. Take a look at these lines and how Donne uses apostrophe to present the reader with an unusual image of death:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
In these lines, Donne says very clearly that death is “not proud” even though some think that it is. There are many, throughout time and history, who have thought death to be “Mighty and dreadful”. It is through this work, as he continues to talk to death, that Donne explains that this is not the case.
Example #2 Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats
This is perhaps Keats’s best-known poem. It focuses on a nightingale the speaker sees, regards, and expresses his jealousy about. The creature lives a carefree life and he is inspired to do the same. With the text, he talks to the bird, around the bird, and simply to himself. Take a look at these lines from the middle of the poem:
Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
He speakers reverentially to the creature, expressing his belief that it is, or should be, immortal. It has a kind of beauty and a presence that lives forever. The passage of time and the upcoming generations will not destroy “thee”. He knows, or claims to know, that the sound of the nightingale’s voice was the same voice heard “by emperor and clown” in the “ancient days”. By addressing the bird he is able to show his dedication to it and love for it. It also increases the importance of the nightingale in the reader’s mind.
Example #3 Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
In this, Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy, there is a powerful and important use of apostrophe. It occurs towards the end of the play at the climax after Juliet has woken up from her deep sleep and found Romeo dead. Rather than go on living she decides to kill herself. Take a look at this line from the play where Juliet is speaking:
Yea, noise? Then I’ll be brief. O happy dagger! This is thy sheath; there rust, and let me die.
She speaks directly the dagger she is about to kill herself with. It is “happy,” she says. This is in reference to the ironic joy it will take in her death. Juliet feels completely alone in the world and by talking to the dagger she is able to explain her intentions and direct some of her sorrow outward. She also talks to it about its parts, its “sheath” and its “rust”. These simple features become important in the face of death.