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Refrain

Refrains are used in poems and songs. They are repeated sections of text that usually appear at the end of a stanza or verse.

Refrains might consist of a few words or several sentences, depending on the writer’s intentions. The repetition might occur once or several times. It’s important to note that refrains must consist of the same words/phrases with as few changes as possible. Sometimes there are examples where a few words shift, but for an example of repetition to truly be a refrain, the words must remain mostly the same. 

Refrain pronunciation: re-frayn

Refrain definition and poetic examples

 

Definition of a Refrain 

In literature, refrains are repeated sections of text in poetry. A writer will select a section of text that is of extra importance and use it more than once in a poem. For example, the same line might end every stanza, or the writer might circle back around to a phrase multiple times. This is done to remind the reader of its importance and create a musical feeling in the poem. It is reminiscent of song and lyrics and how these compositions use verses and choruses. 

 

Poetic Forms with Refrains 

There are a few poetic forms that always use refrains. These include the sestina and villanelle. 

  • Villanelle: a poem that is made up of five tercets, or sets of three lines, and a final quatrain. The tercet’s first and third lines are used as refrains. For example, ‘The Home on the Hill’ by Edward Arlington Robinson.
  • Sestina: a thirty-nine-line poem that uses words as refrains. They use the last word from the first stanza’s final line and repeat it throughout the poem. For example: Sestinaby Elizabeth Bishop.

 

Examples of Refrains in Poetry 

The Brook by Alfred Lord Tennyson 

‘The Brook’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson is a thirteen-stanza ballad poem that is separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. The poet uses a refrain throughout the text that is central to the meaning. The line “For men may come, and men may go /, But I go on forever” is repeated four times in the thirteen stanzas. Here is an example from stanza three, the first time the refrain is used: 

Till last by Philip’s farm I flow

To join the brimming river,

For men may come and men may go,

But I go on for ever.

In this particular stanza, Tennyson provides the reader with their first look at the refrain. The stanza describes how the brook moves past a farm owned by someone named “Philip” to “join the brimming river.”  What the river does know about its life is that it’s going to live much longer than any mortal man. These “men” come and go, and the brook is always there. The line solidifies the fact that time passes differently for humankind and for natural features like the river. Using personification in these lines, Tennyson makes the brook feel alive and immortal. Here is another example of the refrain from stanza six: 

I chatter, chatter, as I flow

To join the brimming river,

For men may come and men may go,

But I go on for ever.

Here, he also uses more examples of personification. He traces the brook along its path to the “brimming river.” It’ll run this course forever.

Explore more Alfred Lord Tennyson poems.

 

Recuerdo by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Recuerdo’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay relays the memories of a speaker recalling a night she spent sailing back and forth on a ferry, eating fruit, and watching the sky. The first two lines of every stanza act as a refrain. They restate the emotions and setting associated with the speaker’s memories. The repetitive nature of the phrases mirrors their consistent structure. Here is the first stanza of the poem as an example of how the refrain is used: 

We were very tired, we were very merry—

We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.

It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable—

But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,

We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon;

And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.

The refrain mimics the “back and forth” movement of the ferry. It returns and disappears over and over. The first two lines of this stanza appear perfectly repeated at the beginning of stanzas two and three. 

Read more Edna St. Vincent Millay poems.

 

The Bells by Edgar Allan Poe

‘The Bells’ was written sometime in early 1848 and is a wonderful example of Poe’s most musical-sounding verse. Some scholars have suggested that Poe may have been inspired to write this piece by Marie Louise Shew, who helped care for Poe’s wife while she was dying. Some have also suggested that the bells Poe references in this poem were those of Fordham University’s bell tower. Here are the last lines of stanza one: 

On the Future! how it tells

Of the rapture that impels

To the swinging and the ringing

Of the bells, bells, bells,

Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,

Bells, bells, bells—

To the rhyming and the chiming of the bells!

Through the use of repetition, Poe is able to create the musical melody/rhythm that unites the four parts of the poem and mimics the sounds of the bells. For example, “Keeping time, time, time” and “As he knells, knells, knells.” Plus, there is the refrain, the repetition of “bells” that appears at the end of every stanza. The use of the word “bells” so many times is an obvious way of suggesting their constant ringing. This is seen again at the end of the next stanza: 

How the danger sinks and swells,

By the sinking or the swelling in the anger of the bells—

Of the bells—

Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,

Bells, bells, bells—

In the clamor and the clangor of the bells!

In this stanza, something terrible has happened, and the bells are reacting to it, ringing out of control pouring out “horror” into the air. Poe repeats the same word, but each time it has a different tone to it. It is celebratory and then horror or grief-filled.

Discover Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry.

 

Related Literary Terms 

  • Chiasmus: a rhetorical device that occurs when the grammatical structure of a previous phrase or clause is reversed or flipped.
  • Anaphora: the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession.
  • 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.

 

Other Resources 

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