They are usually attempting to talk around something or use a literary device known as circumlocution. The writer or character takes their time trying to describe something because it is, for one reason or another, hard to talk about. Perhaps they’re embarrassed, afraid of being judged, or unsure whether or not they’re right.
It can be used intentionally when crafting a character’s dialogue and unintentionally when someone naturally turns to it when unsure of what to say. It is one type of circumlocution. The other is ambage or the ambiguous expression of ideas.
Definition of Periphrasis
The word “periphrasis” comes from the Greek “periphrazein,” meaning “talking around.” It is a complicated-sounding word that defines something quite common— talking around a subject. It’s used when a writer, character, or even someone in everyday life, draws out their sentences in order to avoid getting to the point. This could occur when someone doesn’t want to admit a mistake they’ve made, are worried about an outcome, or many other possibilities. It’s very common and therefore makes a creative addition to dialogue within literary works. It can be found most commonly in novels, short stories, and plays, but there are also examples in verse and other literary works.
Examples of Periphrasis in Literature
Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
‘Kubla Khan’ is undoubtedly one of Coleridge’s most famous poems. Its full title is ‘Kubla Khan: or, A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment,’ and supposedly came to Coleridge in an opium-fueled dream. It is notably different from Coleridge’s other works and was initially scorned and questioned by critics. Today, it is among his top three most famous poetic works. Here are a few lines that demonstrate his use of periphrasis:
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
In this passage and the lines which follow, the speaker is describing the differences between the world inside Kubla Khan’s “pleasure-dome” and the world outside it. Rather than simply stating that the world outside was wild and the world inside was calm and beautiful, Coleridge uses beautiful flowery language in order to make the reader feel the difference. This is a great example of how periphrasis can be used in a positive way, providing the reader with more information than is necessary. But, in this case, all these details benefit the experience of reading the poem.
Explore Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poems.
Like the previous example, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,’ commonly known as ‘Prufrock,’ contains examples of periphrasis. Without these examples, Eliot’s poem would not be what it is. Poets choose to use this kind of language in order to create a specific experience for their readers. It is necessary to talk about things and ideas in order to create a certain atmosphere. Consider these lines from the third stanza:
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.
In this passage, Eliot describes the street, fog, smoke, and soot of the evening. He uses techniques like imagery and personification to appeal to the reader’s senses and make them feel as though they’re there. If he had used simpler language and said, “The evening was dark, and there was smog on the street,” it would be a very different poem. He needs lines like “Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening” and “And seeing that it was a soft October night, / Curled once about the house, and fell asleep” to create the haunting and disturbing atmosphere ‘Prufrock’ is known for.
Read more T.S. Eliot poems.
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
In this famous Charles Dickens book, the writer uses periphrasis on several occasions. In contrast to the above examples, he also uses them to create humor. Consider these lines in which Wilkins Micawber, a clerk from the novel, is speaking:
‘Under the impression,’ said Mr. Micawber, ‘that your peregrinations in this metropolis have not as yet been extensive, and that you might have some difficulty in penetrating the arcana of the Modern Babylon in the direction of the City Road,—in short,’ said Mr. Micawber, in another burst of confidence, ‘that you might lose yourself—I shall be happy to call this evening, and install you in the knowledge of the nearest way.’
This humorous passage uses words like “peregrinations” and “metropolis” that are clearly unneeded. Rather than simply telling the narrator that he’d be happy to help him find his way, he uses unnecessary words and refers to the city as “the Modern Babylon.” He says, “install you in the knowledge of the nearest way” instead of “I’ll give you directions.”
Related Literary Terms
- Abstract Diction: occurs when the poet wants to express something ephemeral or ungraspable.
- Allegory: a narrative found in verse and prose in which a character or event is used to speak about a broader theme.
- Ambiguity: a word or statement that has more than one meaning. If a phrase is ambiguous, it means multiple things.
- Coherence: refers to the properties of well-organized writing. This includes grammar, sentence structure, and plot elements.
- Read: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot
- Listen: Quick Language Learning Tip—Circumlocution
- Watch: How to Improve Your Writing