The word “epistrophe” is derived from the Greek word meaning “turning upon”. This speaks to the phrase on which the sentence turns at the end, drawing emphasis to what those words actually are.
When a poet uses epistrophe they do so in order to create a specific kind of rhythm in their lines, but also to focus the reader’s attention on one phrase. It acts as a kind of refrain, usually leading or guiding the reader to make an important assumption about that particular scene, a character, or the piece of verse/prose as a whole.
Examples of Epistrophe in Literature
In this poem, the speaker describes a rainstorm and the impact the scene had on one speaker and his perception of the world. Take a look at these lines from the poem that emphasis one particular word at the end of multiple lines:
With thick strokes of ink the sky fills with rain.
Pretending to run for cover but secretly praying for more rain.
Over the echo of the water, I hear a voice saying my name.
No one in the city moves under the quick sightless rain.
“Rain” is very obviously the repeated word. It appears at the ends of seven of the twelve lines. This connects the body of the text to the title and also asserts “rain” as the primary, theme, subject, and event in the poem.
Example #2 London Bridge is Falling Down
‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ is an English nursery rhyme that has been found in various iterations all over the world. The meaning behind ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ is not certain, but there are several theories one can read about here. Take a look at the first stanza of the poem:
London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down.
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair lady.
This nursery rhyme, as many other nursery rhymes are, is a great example of epistrophe, one that encourages a close reader to delve into its influence on rhyme and rhythm. By repeating the words “falling down” at the end of three out of the four lines of the first stanza, a reader is made to contemplate what exactly that means. This plays into the multiple interpretations of the poem. The same can be said for the haunting repetition of phrases like “will wash away”.
Example #3 To a Snail by Marianne Moore
In Marianne Moore’s charming poem, ‘To a Snail,’ the poet abstractly describes a snail while at the same time speaking about the “compression” of poetic works. A reader should look to the ends of lines one and eight with the word “style” and lines two and three with “virtue”. Take a look at these lines from the text:
If ” compression is the first grace of style, “
you have it. Contractility is a virtue
as modesty is a virtue.
Here, the poet uses the word “virtue” at the ends of lines two and three. She emphasizes this character trait in the snail, but more broadly in poetry and literature. She is using the snail which has the ability to contract, as an extended metaphor for what she believed about literature. This means that the snails “virtues” are of the utmost importance. The same can be said for the other example, “style”. It ends lines one and eight, they read:
If ” compression is the first grace of style, ”
that we value in style,
She chose to repeat the word “style” in order to focus a reader’s attention on different styles of writing, particularly that which she valued. The best writers have to, as she does, determine which words are the best at getting their message across. They must do so without unnecessary additions.
Example #4 Preference by Charlotte Brontë
In this poem, Brontë depicts one speaker’s preferred partner by contrasting him with a less savoury, temperamental and deceitful suitor. For examples of epistrophe in this poem a reader should for “thee” and “me”. Both of these are used frequently throughout ‘Preference’. Take a look at these lines from the poem:
Not in scorn do I reprove thee,
Not in pride thy vows I waive,
But, believe, I could not love thee,
These first three lines of ‘Preference’ begin the poem and inform the reader that the speaker is addressing someone specific. The repetition of “thee” is a constant reminder of that fact. The speaker is interested in assuring that this person is listening and understanding that everything she’s saying concerns them.