Traditionally, a litany was a prayer used in a formal religious procession or service. But, the form has been adopted by poets in order to describe a particular type of poetry. The word comes from the Latin “litania” and from the ancient Greek, “λιτανεία.”
One of the best traditional examples is often cited as Psalm 136. It reads:
Praise the Lord, for he is good: for his mercy endures for ever. Praise ye the God of gods . . . the Lord of lords . . . Who alone doth great wonders . . . Who made the heavens”, etc., with the concluding words in each verse, “for his mercy endures for ever.
To this day, in the Catholic Church, there are six specific litanies that are approved for recitation. These include “The Litany of the Holy Name of Jesus” and “The Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary.”
In Jewish worship, there are also examples. For example, “Avinu Malkeinu” is a supplicatory prayer that is used during the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgies.
Litany pronunciation: lit-ahn-ee
A litany is a poetic prayer that is written in order to ask for something. This might be a blessing, God’s goodwill, or even the means to survive something difficult.
Contemporary litanies are often less religious in nature and may be dedicated to more worldly issues. This includes Audre Lorde’s ‘A Litany for Survival,’ which can be explored, among other examples, below.
Examples of Litanies
This four-stanza poem is a modern example of a litany. Throughout, Lorde uses repetition. For example, the phrase “for those of us who…” is used a number of times within the first three stanzas. This is one of the primary features of a litany. She devotes this poem to the lives of Black Americans who have been marginalized and have suffered in their effort to find a place in the world. Here are a few lines from the poem:
For those of us who live at the shoreline
standing upon the constant edges of decision
crucial and alone
for those of us who cannot indulge
the passing dreams of choice
who love in doorways coming and going
in the hours between dawns
These lines come from the beginning of the poem. At this point, the poet is making a number of statements about a group of people. She includes herself in this group. They are those who are always on the “constant edges of decision.” Each decision is critical, and these people’s lives are always in flux. She also emphasizes how “alone” this group is.
As the poem concludes, the poet notes that these marginalized men and women need to remember that they were “never meant to survive” and use this as a reason to maintain their determination and perseverance.
Explore more Audre Lorde poems.
‘Litany’ it’s another contemporary example of a litany. In this poem, Carol Ann Duffy explores themes of childhood, social standards, and how these relate to women’s lives. She spends the poem taking readers through various images associated with her speaker’s youth. Overall, readers should walk away from this poem considering how detrimental society’s troubling standards are for women. Here are a few lines:
The then was a – candlewick
bedspread three piece suite display cabinet –
and stiff-haired wives balanced their red smiles,
passing the catalogue. Pyrex.
A tiny ladder ran up Mrs Barr’s American Tan leg, sly
like a rumour. Language embarrassed them.
Duffy’s ‘Litany’ is written in free verse, another non-traditional element of this new form of litany. In these first lines, seen above, the speaker begins by saying that a specific soundtrack, outlined in the next lines, was a “litany” in her life.
Explore more Carol Ann Duffy poems.
Equestrian Monuments (A Litany) by Luis Chaves
‘Equestrian Monuments (A Litany)’ is a Spanish-language poem translated to English by Julia Guez and Samantha Zighelboim. The poem is noted in its title as a litany and maintains many aspects of what one can expect from the form. Here are a few lines from the beginning of the poem:
in front of equestrian monuments.
The fog of the drug,
and scenes from badly dubbed films.
Religious litanies are sung or recited to implore God for help or to appease him. Contemporary litanies are written for a variety of reasons. For example, to wish good fortune on someone (or a group) who needs it or express one’s desire for something, whether this is strength, love, the ability to persevere, or more.
Litanies do not have a set structure that poets have to follow. But, most have an introduction, middle, and an ending. They also commonly utilize repetition. For example, asking God through the same statement for help or peace.
A famous example of a litany is ‘The Litany of the Holy Name of Jesus.’ This is one of six approved litanies that are part of the Catholic Church. It uses lines like “Lord, have mercy on us” and “Christ, hear us.”
Related Literary Terms
- Carol: a song sung during a festive period, such as Christmas, although not exclusively. They are usually religious in nature.
- Homily: a speech delivered by a religious person, usually a priest, in front of a group of people.
- Parable: a short fictional story that speaks on a religious attitude or moral belief.
- Audience: the group for which an artist or writer makes a piece of art or writes.
- Elegy: a poem or song that is written in dedication to someone who has died.
- Listen: The Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary
- Listen: The Litany for the Poor Souls in Purgatory
- Read: The Litany – A History and Practical Guide