Foregrounding is a literary technique that’s employed in order to draw attention to a specific part of a poem, novel, short story, or other literary work. 

E.g. I’ll only, and I mean only, forgive her when she apologizes. That’s the only way this will work out, and I mean the only way!

Emphasizing, accentuating, accenting

Foregrounding works in tandem with a variety of other literary devices. Writers use these literary devices (explored below) to make parts of their writing more important or more effective. For example, a poet might choose to use some, or all, of the following (as well as many others not listed) at points within their writing: 

When one of these literary devices is used, the reader is likely to take note of that particular part of the text more than the lines around it. It stands out, or is brought into the foreground, in comparison to other lines or stanzas

Foregrounding Definition and Meaning

Foregrounding Definition

Foregrounding is the act of emphasizing a particular part of a literary work through a writer’s linguistic choices, for example, using a particularly interesting literary device in order to make a line or paragraph stand out. 

One of the best examples uses the literary devices antithesis and parallelism as examples of foregrounding. It is found in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. The novel’s famous opening 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, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

The lines contrast “best” with “worst” and “everything” with “nothing.” By repeating the structure of the first line, he draws attention to all those which follow and force the reader to question what exactly makes this “time” so interesting.

Examples of Foregrounding in Poetry 

love is thicker than forget by E.E. Cummings 

Cummings’ poetry is the source of many foregrounding examples. He is well-known today for his very unusual grammatical choices, lack of punctuation, and habit of capitalizing some words and not capitalizing others (including his own name). This poem provides a good example of foregrounding in the following lines: 

love is more thicker than forget

more thinner than recall

more seldom than a wave is wet

more frequent than to fail

These lines, which also serve as an example of parallelism, use anaphora through the repetition of “more” at the beginning of lines two, three, and four. The repetition of the word “than” partway through the line adds to the foregrounded aspects of this section. There is another section of text in which “less” is used in the same way (starting three lines) which also makes this section stand out. 

Read more E.E. Cummings poems.

Paradise Lost by John Milton

Milton’s famed ‘Paradise Lost’ contains a wide variety of literary devices from metaphors and allusions to similes and examples of hyperbole. It also features numerous examples of foregrounding/ Consider these lines, spoken by Satan, after waking up in Hell. 

Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:

Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce 

To reign is worth ambition though in Hell: 

Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n. 

But wherefore let we then our faithful friends, 

Th’ associates and copartners of our loss

Lye thus astonisht on th’ oblivious Pool, 

And call them not to share with us their part 

In this unhappy Mansion, or once more 

With rallied Arms to try what may be yet 

Regaind in Heav’n, or what more lost in Hell?

The repetitive structure in the famous line “Better to begin in Hell, then serve in Heav’n” makes the line stand out and because of this, it has become one of the best-known lines from this long epic. Additionally, within this passage, Milton uses anaphora (seen through the repetition of “Here”), alliteration (seen in “faithful friends”), and more. 

Read more John Milton poems.


Why do poets use foregrounding? 

Poets use foregrounding in order to make specific lines stand out within their verse. They might use alliteration, figurative language (like metaphors), and more in order to draw readers’ attention to particular lines or images. 

What is an example of foregrounding?

An example is Dickens’ famous opening lines from A Tale of Two Cities. He uses parallelism, or the repetition of the same structure within a line, in order to make the opening memorable. For example, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” 

Is foregrounding a literary device?

Yes, foregrounding is a literary device. It’s used to bring a particular part of a literary work to the “foreground.” This way, it becomes more important and/or more memorable. 

What is the role of foregrounding in the analysis of a literary text?

By using interesting literary devices, authors can make parts of their text stand out. When completing an analysis of a literary text, finding these moments is critical. 

Related Literary Terms 

  • Adage: a short, familiar, and memorable saying that strikes as an irrefutable truth to a wide segment of the population.
  • Onomatopoeia: a word that imitates the natural sound of a thing.
  • Analogy: an extensive comparison between one thing and another that is very different from it.
  • Irony: occurs when an outcome is different than expected. It is very possible for one situation to strike one reader as ironic and another as not.
  • Metalepsis: a figure of speech that occurs when a writer uses a phrase or word in a new context. The chosen phrase or word comes from a different figure of speech.
  • Sensory Language: the words used to create images that trigger the reader’s senses. These include sight, sound, smell, and taste.

Other Resources 

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