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DICTION & TONE- p. 9-18

SYNTAX- p. 19-27


THEME- p. 30


ALLUSIONS- p. 32-33


STYLE- p. 35-36

POINT OF VIEW- p. 37-38

SATIRE- p. 39-40

IRONY- p. 41-44

SYMBOLISM p. 45-48





Perrine in Sound and Sense defines “imagery” as a mental picture, something seen in the mind’s eye and visual imagery is the kind of imagery that occurs frequently in poetry.  But an image may also represent a sound, a smell, a taste, a tactile experience such as hardness, wetness, or cold, an internal sensation such as hunger, thirst, nausea, or movement or tension in the muscles or joints.


We frequently get visceral reactions to strong images that make us squeamish, hungry, queasy, etc.  Consider your reaction to the mere mention of cockroaches crawling up your leg.  Consider your reaction to the mere thought of pizza, warm, crusty, fragrant, tomatoes, cheeses, pepperoni….STOP!!!  Consider your reaction to the thought of the beach: warm, sunny, soft sand, good-looking people in tight-fitting bathing suits. OK, I think you get the point.  Images are those pictures that you have conjured up.  And the more vivid the imagery is in your mind, the better your analysis of it will be.  So, use your imagination!!


If you are asked for figurative language, remember this: figurative language includes any literary devices that help us form pictures in our minds.  Figurative language includes metaphors:  “My room is a nuclear waste dump!” or similes: “My room looks like World War III hit!” Any devices that help to create imagery are included in figurative language, so don’t get thrown by this phrase.


The following material was contributed by Mrs. Becci McDaniel of the John F. Kennedy School in Berlin, Germany.  Many thanks for her generous contributions!


Simile and Metaphor


A friend of mine years ago had a fun phrase he always used on rainy days:  “Lovely weather if you’re a duck!”  Of course, he didn’t really mean it was a beautiful day, and no one in our group of friends ever thought he was saying anything other than “the weather is awful.” 


We all use phrases like my friend’s when we want to express a thought or emotion without saying it in a plain vanilla way.  I remember teaching a class of English-as-a-Second-Language students at a junior college in Texas on a day when the clouds were so black it was dark at noon.  As I was beginning the class period I happened to glance at the window at the back of the classroom and noticed the inky clouds.  I hadn’t been out all morning and I was surprised to see what looked like a serious storm blowing in so I exclaimed, “The sky is about to fall!”  My entire class turned around in their chairs to look out the window, then looked back at me in confusion.  A bit later I again glanced at the window and saw the rain coming down heavily.  This time I said, “Wow!  It’s raining cats and dogs!”  This time my entire class got out of their seats to look out the window and then demanded that I explain why I had just told them small animals were falling out of the sky.  (And, yes, I did explain the idiomatic expressions.)


When we use words in a way that deviates from their standard meaning so as to achieve a specific effect, we are using figurative language.  This special use of words can take a number of forms, including simile or metaphor, symbolism, irony, allegory, personification, and others.  (Laurence Perrine says that some scholars have counted as many as 250 different forms  [571].) While we generally think of figurative language as poetic language, we must keep in mind that we all use these devices in our everyday conversations.



            A simile is “a comparison between two distinctly different things [which] is explicitly indicated by the word ‘like’ or ‘as’” (Abrams 97).  Sven Birkerts says that “we resort to [both simile and metaphor] naturally whenever we wish to give a special emphasis to our expression.  Simply saying ‘He was tall’ might not convey the desired effect.  If we said, ‘He was as tall as a giraffe,’ we would be using simile, which is the direct correlation of two things—in this case, person and animal—by means of like, as, than, or some other word establishing direct relation” (654). Beaty and Hunter call this an “explicit” comparison (937), meaning that the comparison is clearly and specifically stated.  The poem “Spring” by Robert Hass has a double simile:

            A bearded bird-like man

            (He looked like a Russian priest)

            with imperial bearing

            and a black ransacked raincoat)

            turned to us, cleared

            his cultural throat, and

            told us both interminably

            who Ugo Betti was (Birkerts 655).

The man is compared to both a bird and a Russian priest.  The effect of the comparison is to create a visual image for the reader, allowing us to connect the appearance of the man with our own experiences in order to conjure up a mental picture of the character.



            Most of us remember being taught that a metaphor is a comparison of two things that are not similar, without using “like” or “as.”  Return to Birkerts’ comparison of a man and a giraffe.  He says, “If we dropped the connective word and simply stated, ‘He was a giraffe,’ then we would be using a metaphor” (654).  In a metaphor, the comparison between the two things is “implicit”, or implied, rather than being specifically stated.  Beaty and Hunter say the thing is “described as if it were something else” (937). 


            The actual drawing of the comparison is much the same in both simile and metaphor, except that a simile tends to be a quick comparison, limited to a line or a phrase, while a metaphor often elaborates on the comparison.  When the metaphor functions through a long section of a poem or passage (or even the entire poem), we call it an extended metaphor.

            Both similes and metaphors “may imply both meaning and feeling; they may both explain something and invoke feelings about it.  All figurative language involves an attempt to clarify something and to help readers feel a certain way about it” (Beaty and Hunter 943). The result is that similes and metaphors quite often incorporate other literary devices, such as hyperbole (stating more than we mean, as in “He was a giraffe”), understatement (stating less than we mean), imagery, or irony (Birkerts 655).


            A poet will often create a pattern of comparison throughout the poem.  This “[allows] one comparison to suggest others until a network of correspondences is created.  When that network becomes part of the governing idea of the poem..., it is called a conceit.  The reader is called upon to recognize the logic of the comparison and to judge its applicability to the subject.


Simile/Metaphor Exercises  

A.  Read the following poem.  Then answer the questions at the bottom of the page.



2.  What is the primary metaphor expressed in part 2 of the poem?


3.  What is the overall effect of comparing the part 1 metaphor to the part 2 metaphor?


4.  How is the last line ironic in the context of the extended metaphor?


B.  Read the following poem.  Then answer the questions at the bottom of the page.




More on Imagery:


            Imagery is using language that appeals to the senses. 


            Right.  What does that mean?  Well, we could refine it more specifically and say that imagery is using language that makes the reader or audience make a connection with one of the five senses—sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch—but that doesn’t really give us a clearer idea of how this literary device works in literature.


            Douglas Hunt defines “imagery” as

a word or a phrase that brings to the reader’s mind the echo of a sensory experience....For most readers visual effects, reminders of sights we’ve seen, are the most obvious images in most [literature], but any of our senses may be involved....[Authors] might also evoke our sense of smell, taste, texture, or pressure on the skin.  Occasionally they even remind us of our body’s sense of itself: its internal pressures, its weight, the position of our arms and legs (551).


            Let’s look at “Traveling Through the Dark” by William Stafford for some examples of imagery.


            Traveling through the dark I found a deer

dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.

            It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:

            that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.


            By glow of the tail-light, I stumbled back of the car                                     5

            and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;

            she had stiffened already, almost cold.

            I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.


            My fingers touching her side brought me the reason—

            her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,                                             10

            alive, still, never to be born.

            Beside that mountain road I hesitated.

            The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;

            under the hood purred the steady engine.

            I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;                                    15

            around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.


            I thought hard for all of us—my only swerving—

            then pushed her over the edge into the river.


“glow of the tail-light” (line 5) probably makes most of us see in our mind the color red, since we know that tail-lights on cars are always red.


Look for the references to warmth (lines 7 and 10).  These phrases are intended to make us feel the warmth of the doe’s body: cold where the legs have already stiffened, but still warm in the belly where the fawn is.  Compare this with the “glare of the warm exhaust” in line 15, which reminds us of feeling the hot air coming out from the back of a car.


The diction choices in lines 13-14 are a good example of how an author uses diction to communicate images.  The denotative meanings—the lights of the car shining out in front and the engine idling—become imagery by Stafford’s use of the verbs “aimed” and “purred”, so that the connotative meaning of the lines (the imagery, if you will) is a large animal waiting patiently to unleash its power.  The word “aimed” indicates a creature/being who is in control and deliberately directing the light, while “purred” reminds us of the contented sounds a cat makes.  Together, then, the two lines draw on our experiences with large cats which permit us to connect the lines to an occurrence such as a trip to the zoo to watch lions and tigers, thus allowing us to understand Stafford’s meaning in the poem.


            M.H. Abrams, in his A Glossary of Literary Terms, breaks down the concept of imagery into three distinct ways it is used:


(1) “Imagery” (that is, “images” taken collectively) is used to signify all the objects and qualities of sense perception referred to in a poem or other work of literature, whether by literal description, by allusion, or in the vehicles (the secondary references) of its similes and metaphors....The term image should not be taken to imply a visual reproduction of the object referred to; some readers [in certain passages] experience visual images and some do not....Also, “imagery” in this usage includes not only visual sense qualities, but also qualities that are auditory, tactile (touch), thermal (heat and cold), olfactory (smell), gustatory (taste), and kinesthetic (sensations of movement)....

(2) Imagery is used, more narrowly, to signify only specific descriptions of visible objects and scenes, especially if the description is vivid and particularized, as in this passage from Marianne Moore’s “The Steeple-Jack”:

            a sea the purple of the peacock’s neck is

            paled to greenish azure as Dürer changed

            the pine tree of the Tyrol to peacock blue and guinea grey.

(3) Commonly in recent usage, imagery signifies figurative language, especially the vehicles of metaphors and similes (121).


            Sven Birkerts notes the connection between imagery and devices which make comparisons, such as metaphor and simile.  He says, “in a sense, imagery itself, even when no likeness is evoked, is a kind of metaphor.  That is, the poet trusts in the power of the depicted things, that they can stand for, or suggest, moods and inner states” (639).  Thus, the “echo of a sensory experience” that Hunt refers to in his definition of imagery is, in fact, a comparison between the words on the page that express the color of the peacock, the smell of spring in a forest, the taste of chocolate-chip-cookie-dough ice cream, the sound of a baby wailing, or the touch of silk on an arm and the experiences in our lives that come to mind when we read or hear these words.


            Of course, how clearly we make the connection depends a great deal on how specific the author is in choosing words.  This doesn’t mean that something must “be completely described.  One or two especially sharp and representative details will ordinarily serve, allowing the reader’s imagination to fill in the rest” (Perrine 562).  Masterful writers can get a depth of meaning out of only a word or two.

(The following poem and discussion of its imagery are taken from Perrine’s Literature:  Structure, Sound and Sense.)


Meeting at Night

by Robert Browning


The gray sea and the long black land;

And the yellow half-moon large and low;

And the startled little waves that leap

In fiery ringlets from their sleep,

As I gain the cove with pushing prow,

And quench its speed i’ the slushy sand.


Then a mile of warm sea-scented beach;

Three fields to cross till a farm appears;

A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch

And blue spurt of a lighted match,

And a voice less loud, through its joys and fears,

Than the two hearts beating each to each!


“Meeting at Night” is a poem about love.  It makes, one might say, a number of statement about love:  being in love is a sweet and exciting experience; when one is in love everything seems beautiful, and the most trivial things become significant; when one is in love one’s sweetheart seems the most important object in the world.  But the poet actually tells us none of these things directly.  He does not even use the word love in his poem.  His business is to communicate experience, not information.  He does this largely in two ways.  First, he presents us with a specific situation, in which a lover goes to meet his sweetheart.  Second, he describes the lover’s journey so vividly in terms of sense impressions that the reader not only sees and hears what the lover saw and heard but also shares his anticipation and excitement.

            Every line in the poem contains some image, some appeal to the senses: the gray sea, the long black land, the yellow half-moon, the startled little waves with their fiery ringlets, the blue spurt of the lighted match—all appeal to our sense of sight and convey not only shape but also color and motion.  The warm sea-scented beach appeals to the senses of both smell and touch.  The pushing prow of the boat on the slushy sand, the tap at the pane, the quick scratch of the match, the low speech of the lovers, and the sound of their hearts beating—all appeal to the sense of hearing.

Imagery Exercises  

A.        Read the following poem.  Then answer the questions at the bottom of the page.



by Seamus Heaney


Our shells clacked on the plates.

My tongue was a filling estuary,º                   ºocean, inlet

My palate hung was starlight:

As I tasted the salty Pleiadesº                                                            ºstar cluster in the

Orion dipped his foot into the water.                               5                constellation Taurus


Alive and violated

They lay on their beds of ice:

Bivalvesº: the split bulb                                                                      ºa molusk with a

And philandering sigh of ocean.                                                         hinged shell

Millions of them ripped and shucked and scattered.        10

We had driven to that coast

Through flowers and limestone

And there we were, toasting friendship,

Laying down a perfect memory

In the cool of thatch and crockery.                                   15


Over the Alps, packed deep in hay and snow,

The Romans hauled their oysters south to Rome:

I saw damp panniersº disgorge                                                           ºcarrying baskets for

The frond-lipped, brine stung                                                             horses or mules

Glut of privilege                                                                20


And was angry that my trust could not repose

In the clear light, like poetry or freedom

Leaning in from sea.  I ate the day

Deliberately, that its tang

Might quicken me all into verb, pure verb.                       25


1.  Note all the images.  To which sense does each appeal to?

2.  Are the images linked in any way?


3.  How do the images throughout the poem prepare you for the last 3 lines?





Diction or word choice is something to which we have devoted considerable time.  Here are some final thoughts on the subject.  Perrine says that CONNOTATION suggests beyond what it expresses: its overtones or meanings.  The word “home” for instance would be denoted in the dictionary as the place where one resides, but it connotes security, love, comfort, and family. The words childlike and childish both mean “characteristic of a child,” but childlike suggest meekness, innocence and wide-eyed wonder, while childish suggest pettiness, willfulness and temper tantrums. Denotation is the dictionary’s definition of the word.  Connotation expresses the emotional associations that accompany the word. The emotional effect of a word often depends not only on the thing designated by the word but also on what is suggested.  Connotation involves the implications and emotional overtones that words or phrases carry with them.   For example:  collie is denotative, mutt is connotative.  Dog can be denotative or connotative according to the context, the person’s past experiences and the frame of reference.  What is the connotative differences between “female athlete” and “tomboy”; between “assertive” and “aggressive” ; between “naked” and “nude”?


Think of words as the crayons in a box of crayola.  Many crayons can be called blue, but there are so many different shades.  Words have nuances, insinuations, implications; they can be extraordinarily subtle, and you must be perceptive and attuned to the nuances in language.


Here’s a good clue:  ask yourself:  What leaps off the page at me?

                                                             What word has he used that I never would?

                                                             How has he made me see this in a new light?





The quality of the words themselves depends on their meaning and sound.  Tennyson, writing in the Nineteenth Century, employed verbs such as “spake” and “changeth” to create an aura of the medieval period.  A native of Alabama may say “y’all” whereas a person from New York may say “ youse guys.” 


Words may be either concrete or abstract.  Concrete diction describes conditions or qualities that are exact and particular, while abstract diction refers to qualities that are rarefied and theoretical.  Poems or prose works using specific and concrete words tend to be visual, familiar and compelling.  In contrast, works using general and abstract words tend to be detached and cerebral, frequently dealing with universal questions and emotions.  (Some of these notes are from S. Counsil at Spanish River H.S.)


(By B. McDaniel):


Diction is defined as a writer’s choice of words.  The particular words an author uses will affect not only the message the audience (reader) receives, but the way in which we interpret that idea.


            Words have two meanings:

denotation – the dictionary definition; the literal meaning of the word as a representation of a person, place, thing, idea, or action. 

connotation – the implied meaning of a word.  An author’s communication of connotative meaning is usually made clear through context (the surroundings of a given word or image and its relationships to specific elements in its verbal environment) (Sherbert).


Douglas Hunt gives us a clear explanation of the difference between denotation and connotation:

The denotation is the direct, specific meaning of a word or phrase:  the literal meaning.  The connotation is everything else:  the implications, the suggestions, the associations, the overtones.  When [William] Stafford [in his poem “Traveling Through the Dark”] says that his car “aimed its lowered parking lights,” the denotation is merely an image of a car with its parking lights on, but aimed implies (for me, at least) an intention on the car’s part, and lowered suggests the lowering of eyes.  Combine this with the next line—“under the hood purred the steady engine”—and you have language that denotes a car but connotes an animal.


            Diction is classified into four levels:

(the following definitions are taken from “Glossary of Literary Terms: A-E”)

1.      Formal diction – a dignified, impersonal, and elevated use of language.  It is exacting in its adherence to the rules of grammar and uses complex vocabulary.

2.      Middle diction – still follows the rules of correct language usage, but is less “elevated.”  It reflects the way most educated people speak.

3.      Informal diction – the plain language of everyday use.  This often involves idiomatic expressions, slang, contractions, and simple or common words.

4.      Poetic diction – Poets sometimes use an elevated diction that is significantly different from the common speech and writing of their time.  These can be words that are chosen (or sometimes created) by the poet because they have a special “poetic” quality – an ability to communicate a complex thought in a word or phrase.


Note that words have both denotative and connotative meanings at all four levels of diction.  The level used by an author to communicate his/her message will depend a great deal on the message to be communicated, the intended audience, and the form of communication (i.e., formal speech/address, story with characters and dialogue, or poetry).


(The following information is courtesy of Pat Sherbert.)

The connotations of words have great rhetorical value—for example in prompting the emotional appeal of a discourse.  Robert H. Thouless has ably demonstrated the emotional value of connotations in his analysis of the diction in


two verses by John Keats:


In THE EVE OF ST. AGNES, Keats has written:


            Full on this casement shone the wintry moon,

            And threw warm gules on Madeline’s fair breast.


These are beautiful lines.  Let us notice how much of their beauty follows from the proper choice of emotionally colored words and how completely it is lost if these words are replaced by neutral ones.  The words with strikingly emotional meanings are CASEMENT, GULES, MADELINE, FAIR, and BREAST.  CASEMENT means simply a kind of window with emotional and romantic associations.  GULES is the heraldic name for red, with the suggestion of romance, which accompanies all heraldry.  MADELINE is simply a girl’s name, but one calling out favorable emotions absent from a relatively plain and straightforward name.  FAIR simply means, in objective fact, that her skin was white or uncolored—a necessary condition for the colors of the window to show—but also fair implies warm emotional preference for an uncolored skin rather than one which is yellow, purple, black, or any of the other colors which skin might be.  BREAST has also similar emotional meaning, and the aim of scientific description might have been equally well attained if it had been replaced by such a neutral word as CHEST.

            Let us now try the experiment of keeping those two lines in a metrical form, but replacing all the emotionally colored words by neutral ones, while making as few other changes as possible.  We may write:


            Full on this window shone the wintry moon,

            Making red marks on Jane’s uncolored chest.


No one will doubt that all of its poetic value has been knocked out of the passage by these changes.  Yet the lines still mean the same in external fact; they still have the same objective meaning.  It is only the emotional meaning which has been destroyed.


Consider this example, in which H. L. Mencken in prose is seeking to influence our attitude toward a certain kind of teacher:

Such idiots, despite the rise of “scientific” pedagogy, have not died out in the world.  I believe that our schools are full of them, both in pantaloons and in skirts.  There are fanatics who love and venerate spelling as a tom-cat loves and venerates catnip.  There are grammatomaniacs; schoolmarms who would rather parse than eat; specialists in an objective case that doesn’t exist in English; strange beings, otherwise sane and even intelligent and comely, who suffer under a split infinitive as you or I would suffer under gastro-enteritis.  There are geography cranks, able to bound Mesopotamia and Baluchistan.  There are zealots for long division, experts in the multiplication tables, lunatic worshippers of the binomial theorem.  But the system has them in its grip.  It combats their natural enthusiasm diligently and mercilessly.  It tries to convert them into mere technicians, clumsy machines.


We cannot examine all the techniques that Mencken uses in his satirical writings, but we can note here the subtle way in which he influences our reactions simply by his choice of words.  A good deal of the effect of this passage is produced by Mencken’s “namecalling.”  The “names” that Mencken used here are heavily freighted with emotional overtones—IDIOTS, FANATICS, SCHOOLMARMS (one of Mencken’s favorite derogatory epithets), CRANKS, ZEALOTS, LUNATIC WORSHIPPERS.  All of these words carry the discrediting connotation of extreme, irrational commitment to a cause—the taint of “enthusiasm” that many critics ascribed to the evangelical sects in the eighteenth and nineteenth century England.  Where Mencken fails to find an emotional epithet to suit his purpose, he invents one—GRAMMATOMANIACS.  Most readers do not know what GASTRO-ENTERITIS means; but they do not have to know—the word just sounds awful.  Notice how Mencken, in the second sentence of this passage, indicates that he is talking about both men and women teachers—“in pantaloons and in skirts.”  PANTALOONS was an especially clever choice.  PANTS would have been the word that most of us would have chosen as the counterpart of SKIRTS.  But Mencken detected an extra connotative value of the word PANTALOONS, suggesting to a modern audience something archaic, slightly feminine.  Note too how Mencken uses a simile in the third sentence to deprecate the object of his satire, comparing devotees of correct spelling to the lowly, back-alley TOM-CAT.  One of the deadliest words in the English language is the word MERE.  Mencken uses this word with devastating effectiveness at the end of this passage, where he begins to shift his ground attack, warning us that these “enthusiastic” pedagogues are now in danger of being turned into dispassionate machines as a result of their exposure to “teachers’ college” bunkum.  What is more chilling than to be called a “mere technician”?  (Sherbert)


The relationship between diction and tone.

Diction is a tool an author uses to communicate his/her feelings about a subject.  Pat Sherbert defines tone as follows:

            In a literary work, tone is the attitude the author projects.  That attitude is revealed through his choice of details, through his diction, and through his emphasis and comments.

            Although tone and attitude are frequently used in textbooks interchangeably (defined:  tone is attitude), they can differ….Tone only reflects attitude.  The writer, through his choice of devices such as diction and syntax (style), implies a tone; as a result, the reader infers an attitude.

            Tone is a musical metaphor for the writers’ relationships with readers that result from writers making two decisions:  (1) how they will express their feelings about the subject, and (2) how they will place themselves socially, intellectually, or morally with regard to their implied readers—as their superiors, looking down; as their inferiors, looking up; or as their equals, addressing them eye-to-eye.

            Tone as the expression of feeling should not be confused with the description of feeling.  Tone expresses or implies the writer’s emotional state, the feeling about the subject that the writer desires to share; it will often differ markedly from the feelings expressed by characters who appear in the writing.  A writer, for example, can describe the cheerfulness of the airline flight attendants in a sarcastic tone, the self-dramatizing gloom of a spoiled child in a scoffing tone, or the pompous pontifications of a political candidate in a tone of good-natured joshing.

            Clearly, writers need not say what they are feeling; tone emerges as a quality of the whole utterance, whether spoken or written.  An indignant speaker might say with deep sarcasm, “I’m delighted that you show such contempt for my efforts.  Nothing pleases me more than to find honesty where I might least expect it.”  The speaker does not need to say, “I’m indignant.”  When Wordsworth says, “But yet I know, where’er I go,/ That there hath passed away a glory from the earth,” his sense of loss can be heard without his having to say, “I’m sad.”  It is reported that Mark Twain would never smile as he delivered popular speeches that kept his audiences in stitches.

            Tone, then, is the quality of voice that conveys feelings, whether they are stated directly or indirectly.  With variations of tone, we can express love or hate, happiness or grief, comradeship or contempt, compassion or loathing, humor or seriousness, anger, indignation, outrage, or forgiveness.  And these tones are only a beginning.  Writers usually present not only tone, but also a mixture of tones:  anger and pity, sorrow and hope, and so on….

            An analysis of tone will depend on a precise and accurate understanding of the author’s attitude toward

(1)  the subject

(2)  the audience

(3)  himself




In order to investigate tone and attitude, we use the acronym DIDS:

Diction:  The purposeful selection of words for their denotative or connotative value.

Images:  The words and phrases that appeal to one or more of the five senses.

Details:  Concrete words used to call up an image, sometimes called concrete imagery and not to be confused with a sensory image; a referent.

Syntax:  The author’s arrangement of sounds, phrases, and clauses that becomes a rhetorical effect.


Tim Averill says, “tone is an end of rhetoric, whereas diction, imagery, selected details and manipulated syntax are tangible means that can reveal an author’s tone.”  Averill breaks tone/attitude into the following categories, which he identifies as language we can use to describe tone:


lighthearted, hopeful, exuberant, enthusiastic, complimentary, confident, cheery, optimistic, loving, passionate, amused, elated, sympathetic, compassionate, proud


Anger—angry, disgusted, outraged, accusing, condemnatory, furious, wrathful, bitter, inflammatory, irritated, indignant, threatening.

Humor/Irony/Sarcasm—scornful, disdainful, contemptuous, sarcastic, cynical, critical, facetious, patronizing, satiric, condescending, sardonic, mock-heroic, bantering, irreverent, mock-serious, taunting, insolent, pompous, ironic, flippant, grotesque

Sorrow/Fear/Worry—somber, elegiac, melancholic, sad, disturbed, mournful, solemn, serious, apprehensive, concerned, hopeless, staid, resigned


formal, objective, incredulous, nostalgic, ceremonial, candid, shocked, reminiscent, restrained, clinical, baffled, sentimental, detached, disbelieving, questioning, urgent, instructive, matter-of-fact, admonitory, learned, factual, didactic, informative, authoritative


Averill’s three simple categories can provide a starting point for analyzing tone in many works of literature, but author’s often use a combination of attitudes.  You may need a more comprehensive list of categories in order to adequately describe an author’s attitude in a specific manner.  Sherbert’s list is as follows:

Attitudes of logic

explanatory, didactic, admonitory, condemnatory, indignant, puzzled, curious, guileless, thoughtless, innocent, frank, sincere, questioning, uncertain, doubting, incredulous, critical, cynical, insinuating, persuading, coaxing, pleading, persuasive, argumentative, oracular

Attitudes of pleasure

peaceful, satisfied, contented, happy, cheerful, pleasant, bright, joyful, playful, jubilant, elated, enraptured

Attitudes of pain

worried, uneasy, troubled, disappointed, regretful, vexed, annoyed, bored, disgusted, miserable, cheerless, mournful, sorrowful, sad, dismal, melancholy, plaintive, fretful, querulous, irritable, sore, sour, sulky, dismal, sullen, bitter, crushed, pathetic, tragic

Attitudes of passion

nervous, hysterical, impulsive, impetuous, reckless, desperate, frantic, wild, fierce, serious, savage, enraged, angry, hungry, greedy, jealous, insane, wistful

Attitudes of friendliness

cordial, sociable, gracious, kindly, sympathetic, compassionate, forgiving, pitying, indulgent, tolerant, comforting, soothing, tender, loving, caressing, solicitous, accommodating, approving, helpful, obliging, courteous, polite, confiding, trusting

Attitudes of comedy

facetious, comic, ironic, satiric, amused, mocking, playful, humorous, uproarious

Attitudes of animation

lively, eager, excited, earnest, energetic, vigorous, hearty, ardent, passionate, rapturous, ecstatic, feverish, exalted, breathless, hasty, brisk, crisp, hopeful

Attitudes of apathy

inert, sluggish, languid, dispassionate, dull, colorless, indifferent, stoical, resigned, defeated, helpless, hopeless, dry, monotonous, vacant, feeble, dreaming, bored, blasé, sophisticated

Attitudes of self-importance

impressive, profound, proud, dignified, lofty, imperious, confident, egotistical, peremptory, bombastic, sententious, arrogant, pompous, stiff, boastful, exultant, insolent, domineering, flippant, saucy, positive, resolute, haughty, condescending, challenging, bold, defiant, contemptuous

Attitudes of submission and timidity

meek, shy, humble, docile, ashamed, modest, timid, unpretentious, respectful, apologetic, devout, reverent, servile, obsequious, groveling, contrite, obedient, willing, sycophantic, fawning, ingratiating, deprecatory, alarmed, fearful, terrified, trembling, wondering, awed, astounded, shocked, uncomprehending      


Diction/Tone Exercises   (taken from handout by Pat Sherbert)

A.  Read the following poem.  Then answer the questions at the bottom of the page.

The Naked and the Nude

For me, the naked and the nude

(By lexicographers construed

As synonyms that should express

The same deficiency of dress

Or shelter) stand as wide apart

As love from lies, or truth from art.


Lovers without reproach will gaze

On bodies naked and ablaze;

The hippocratic eye will see

In nakedness, anatomy;

And naked shines the Goddess when

She mounts her lion among men.


The nude are bold, the nude are sly

To hold each treasonable eye.

While draping by a showman’s trick

Their dishabille in rhetoric,

They grin a mock-religious grin

Of scorn at those of naked skin.


The naked, therefore, who compete

Against the nude may know defeat;

Yet when they both together tread

The briary pastures of the dead,

By Gorgons with long whips pursued,

How naked go the sometimes nude!


1.      Circle the words:  lexicographers, construed, hippocratic, dishabille, Gorgons.  What is the effect (connotative) of using this diction?

2.      What kind of language is used in lines 2-5?  For example, why is “deficiency” used instead of “lack”?

3.      Explain the metaphor in line 15.  (rhetoric = clothing)  Why the fancy word “dishabille” ? (French = undressed)

4.      Explain the effect of Grave’s choice of deviant alternatives:  brave for bold, clever for sly, clothing for draping, and smile for grin?

5.      What is the connotative difference between “naked” and “nude”?  What is the effect of the last line?


PURPOSE:  Grave’s distinction between “naked” and “nude” does not account for other uses of these words.  How appropriate, for example, would be Grave’s version of nude for the following:  a pamphlet written for nudists, an advertisement for a strip show, an article in ART NEWS on painting the human figure?  Writer’s purpose becomes a strong thesis for a paper, if you validate his purpose with the study of his word choice.






B.  Read the following poem.  Then answer the questions.


My Papa’s Waltz

by Theodore Roethke


The whiskey on your breath

Could make a small boy dizzy;

But I hung on like death

Such waltzing was not easy.


We romped until the pans

Slid from the kitchen shelf;

My mother’s countenance

Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist

Was battered on one knuckle;

At every step you missed

My right ear scraped a buckle.


You beat time on my head

With a palm caked hard by dirt,

Then waltzed me off to bed

Still clinging to your shirt.


1.      What are the “diction” words in the poem?  (List them in the left column on the analysis form.)

2.      Look up the denotative meanings of the “diction” words in the dictionary and write them in the left column on the analysis form.

3.      Write the connotative meanings of the “diction” words in the right column of the analysis form.

4.      Use one of the lists of tone/attitude words to help you decide Roethke’s attitude and write 2-3 sentences in the space on the form which explain the speaker’s attitude.

5.      Identify the speaker’s purpose and write it in the space on the form.  Note that the purpose will often reflect the theme or message of the poem, and is often a comment on some aspect of the human condition.  State this purpose as a clear thesis for an essay which would analyze the use of diction in the poem.


More on Tone:


Tone is a term designating the attitudes toward a subject and toward the audience implied in the literary work.  In such a usage, a work may have a tone that is formal, informal, intimate, solemn, somber, playful, serious, ironic, condescending, or any of many possible attitudes.  Almost all of the elements of poetry go into indicating its tone: connotation, imagery, and metaphor; irony and understatement; rhythm, sentence construction, etc.


Attitude is the speaker’s relationship to and his feelings about his subject.  It might be objective, subjective, derogatory, humble, satirical, ironic, optimistic or pessimistic.  Many critics do not distinguish a difference between tone and mood, but there is a subtle difference. A teacher who has a student notorious for not doing his homework may finally get angry (mood) and ask:

                        “You want to explain what happened this time?” inquisitive, impatient



“Don’t tell me- you lost your homework again!”  sarcastic, angry


I have noted over the years that one of the most common questions on the essays on the AP exam will ask you to examine what the speaker’s attitude is to a particular thing, usually another person or an event.  Knowing attitude and correctly defining it is crucial.  Consider Johnson’s attitude toward Soame Jenyns: belittling, derisive.  He couldn’t care less if Jenyns is humiliated.  In fact, he revels in it.  He “cannot resist the temptation.”  He goes on to paint Jenyns as the worst kind of fool.  On the other hand, Stevenson also thinks the Cat Bill is absurd, but because he is Governor of the Illinois, he cannot afford to run the risk of alienating the very people he will have to work with later.  His tone is gentle, Horatian, “Come on fellas; you can’t be serious.”


Tone contributes to mood, which is the overall general atmosphere created by the setting, characters, and events and is an important aspect of its style and might be described as:


Here’s a basic list of tone words courtesy of Mrs. Johnson:


1.      accusatory- charging of wrong doing

2.      apathetic- indifferent due to lack of energy or concern

3.      awe- solemn wonder

4.      bitter- exhibiting strong animosity as a result of pain or grief

5.      cynical- questions the basic sincerity and goodness of people

6.      condescending- a feeling of superiority

7.      callous- unfeeling, insensitive to feelings of others

8.      contemplative- studying, thinking, reflecting on an issue

9.      critical- finding fault

10.  choleric- hot-tempered, easily angered

11.  contemptuous- showing or feeling that something is worthless or lacks respect

12.  caustic- trenchant, mordant, intense use of sarcasm, stinging, biting

13.  conventional- lacking spontaneity, originality and individuality

14.  disdainful- scornful

15.  didactic- author attempts to educate or instruct the reader, often with a touch of sanctimony

16.  derisive- ridiculing, mocking

17.  earnest- intense, a sincere state of mind

18.  gloomy- darkness, sadness, rejection

19.  haughty- proud and vain to the point of arrogance

20.  indignant- marked by anger aroused by injustice

21.  intimate- very familiar

22.  judgmental- authoritative and often having critical opinions

23.  jovial- happy, sanguine

24.  lyrical- expressing a poet’s inner feelings; emotional; full of images; song-like

25.  matter-of-fact- accepting of conditions; not fanciful or emotional

26.  mocking- treating with contempt or ridicule

27.  morose- gloomy, sullen, surly, despondent

28.  malicious- purposely hurtful

29.  objective- an unbiased view-able to leave personal judgments aside

30.  optimistic- hopeful, cheerful

31.  obsequious- polite and obedient in order to gain something

32.  patronizing- air of condescension

33.  pejorative- belittling, denigrating

34.  pessimistic- seeing the worst side of things; no hope

35.  quizzical- odd, eccentric, amusing

36.  ribald- offensive in speech or gesture (usually “R” rated)

37.  ridiculing- slightly contemptuous banter; making fun of

38.  erudite- learned, polished, scholarly

39.  fanciful- using the imagination

40.  forthright- directly frank without hesitation

41.  reflective- illustrating innermost thoughts and emotions

42.  sarcastic- sneering, caustic

43.  sardonic-scornfully and bitterly sarcastic-humor that arises from rage

44.  satiric- ridiculing to show weakness in order to make a point, reform

45.  sincere- without deceit or pretense; genuine

46.  solemn- deeply earnest, tending toward sad reflection

47.  sanguine- optimistic, cheerful

48.  whimsical- odd, strange, fantastic; fun






“Explain how the author uses narrative voice and characterization to provide social commentary.”


“Explain how formal elements such as syntax, diction, and imagery reveal the speaker’s response to the death of the toad.”


“Explain how the poet conveys not just a literal description of picking blackberries, but a deeper understanding of the whole experience.”


“Summarize the King’s thoughts and analyze how the diction, imagery, and syntax help to convey his state of mind.”


“Analyze the narrative techniques and other resources of language Olsen uses to characterize the mother and the mother’s attitudes towards her daughter.”





Syntax includes many things such as literary devices, word order in a sentence, rhetorical questions, and how punctuation marks are used. Normal English word order is firmly fixed in a subject-verb-object sequence.  That order is so central to our communication that any change significantly alters meaning.  “A dog bites a man” is not the same as “A man bites a dog.”  Most poets follow normal word order, and many modern poets go out of their way to create ordinary, everyday syntax.


Yet, some poets explore the many possibilities of syntax.   In line 7 of Donne’s “Batter My Heart,” he says,” Reason, Your viceroy in me, me should defend.”  In prose, the sentence would read, “Reason, who is Your viceroy in me, should defend me.”  But note that John Donne drops the “who is” thus making an appositive instead of a relative clause.  The resulting emphasis on the pronoun “me” is appropriate to the personal-divine relationship that is the topic of the sonnet.  The alteration also meets the demand of the poem’s rhyme scheme.


When we speak of “word order,” we must ask ourselves questions such as: are the sentences long and drawn out or short and choppy?  If they are long and drawn out, what is the purpose?  If they are short and choppy, what is the purpose?


A writer’s style is indicated by his choice of word and by the way he puts those words together.  There are four forms:


            DECLARATIVE: I need the sugar.


            INTERROGATIVE: Could you please pass the sugar?


            EXCLAMATORY: I told you to pass the sugar!!


            IMPERATIVE:  Pass the sugar.


We recently read a soliloquy from Henry IV, Part II, where he continually uses rhetorical questions asking why sleep has been denied him.  He also uses apostrophe to speak directly to sleep, and he allegorizes sleep as a cruel being that bestows itself on the lowly and denies itself to a king.


What inferences might a reader draw about a speaker who asks so many rhetorical questions?  When we discuss rhetorical questions, we refer to those questions, usually philosophical, which do not require an answer.  We may be speaking to God or just asking ourselves one of those imponderables that is speculative and not really meant to be answered.  “Why was I put on earth?”  “What is the meaning of life?”  “How could God look on misery and do nothing?”


Sometimes syntax can be used to imitate sound or action; short choppy sentences have been used on past AP exams to imitate horse hooves on a cobbled street.  In Blake’s “Tyger,” the constant questions and staccato rhythm of one of the stanzas is intended to resemble a hammer hitting a blacksmith’s anvil.

Short sentences can also be used to indicate a frantic, jerky struggle such as the instance in Faulkner’s “The Bear.”  Long sentences that go on for several lines can also indicate oppression, a heaviness in the atmosphere.  A good example of this occurs in the opening paragraph of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.


     “A THRONG OF BEARDED MEN, in sad-colored garments and gray, steeple crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods, and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak and studded with iron spikes.”


The use of parallel structure in this one sentence lends an air of authority, oppression, and weight to the opening.  We are right there with Hester coming out of the jail.  The austere nature of life in Boston at that time, the sad-colors, gray steeples, hooded women, iron spikes, etc add to the heaviness of the scene.  One sentence and the entire weight of Pilgrim authority comes down on not only Hester, but on us too.


The simplest form of parallelism is the repetition of the same words and phrases, seen in William Blake’s “The Lamb.”  A major quality of parallelism is the packing of words (the economy and compression of poetry), for by using a parallel structure, the poet makes a single word or phrase function a number of times with no need for repetition.


Look at the last two lines of Donne’s “Batter My Heart:”


                                                                                    For I

            Except You enthrall me, never shall be free,

            Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me


This is called a chiasmus- a rhetorical inversion of the second of two parallel structures.  “enthrall” (verb) “free” (adjective) 

                    “chaste” (adjective) “ravish” (verb)

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms by Chris Baldick provides a more extensive description:

chiasmus [ky-AZ-mus] (plural -mi), a figure of speech by which the order of the terms in the first of two parallel clauses is reversed in the second.  This may involve a repetition of the same words ("Pleasure's a sin, and sometimes sin's a pleasure" --Byron) or just a reversed parallel between two corresponding pairs of ideas . . . . The figure is especially common in 18th century English poetry, but is also found in prose of all periods.  It is named after the Greek letter chi (x), indicating a "criss-cross" arrangement of terms.  Adjective: chiastic.

It is a quite common means of creating emphasis.  You might also remember the way that Richard Eberhart used chiasmus in “The Groundhog.”   “I saw a groundhog lying dead/ Dead lay he…” What is accomplished by the juxtaposition of the two words “dead?”  It must be to draw our attention to how shocked the speaker was at stumbling upon this thing.  It’s done for the effect.  Here’s another example:  “I had the chianti; then the chianti had me.”

Here are more examples of chiasmus:


“The great secret of a successful marriage
is to treat all disasters as incidents
and none of the incidents as disasters.”

-- Sir Harold Nicolson, English historian & diplomat,


“Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt,
and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.”
(An example of double chiasmus)

-- Leonardo da Vinci, Italian artist & Renaissance Man,


“The sinews of war are not gold, but good soldiers;
for gold alone will not procure good soldiers,
but good soldiers will always procure gold.”

-- Niccolò Machiavelli, Florentine statesman & political theorist,


“Try to learn something about everything
and everything about something.”

-- T. H. Huxley, English biologist,.

          Aldous Huxley’s father



“We must begin to love in order
that we may not fall ill,
and we must fall ill if,
in consequence of frustration,
we cannot love.”

-- Sigmund Freud, Austrian physician & founder of psychoanalysis,

Not all readers become leaders.
But all leaders must be readers.”

-- Harry Truman, 33rd U. S. President,


Finally, the punctuation of the sentence may be significant in terms of style.  To slow the reading of a work in which the topic is sad or contemplative, an author might employ numerous dashes or commas.  Or commas might be employed to string together ideas in order to convey a sense of rapidity.  In a work of literature in which the author wishes to convey the idea of happiness or quickness, he might omit punctuation and choose words which trip lightly and quickly over the tongue.


William Davenant wrote a version of Macbeth’s famous “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” speech.  I should say he had the temerity to rewrite Shakespeare.  Of course, Shakespeare was not the revered figure that he is today.  In any case, Shakespeare’s Macbeth says:


                        Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

                        Creeps in this petty pace from day to day




Davenant rewrote it to read this way:


                        Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow

                        Creeps in this stealing pace from day to day



Shakespeare wanted to convey the hopelessness, bitterness, and despair Macbeth felt at the end of his life.  His life was creeping along in a petty or miserable pace, dragging slowly to his end.  The commas emphasize this; they slow the reader down, so that his reading drags as much as Macbeth feels his life does.  On the other hand, Davenant wanted to quicken the “stealing pace” so he eliminated the commas.  Of course, Davenant’s version is not nearly as adept as Shakespeare’s at conveying the utter futility of Macbeth’s struggles.


Antithesis is a balancing or contrasting of one term against another.  For example: “Fair is foul and foul is fair” from Macbeth or “Man proposes, God disposes” from Alexander Pope.


Litotes is an understatement and is achieved by saying the opposite of what one means or by making an affirmation by stating the fact in the negative.  It is the opposite of hyperbole.  An example is Little John in Robin Hood being a large man or passing a fabulously expensive house and calling it a cottage or shack.  The multi-millionaires in Newport, Rhode Island always called their fabulous summer homes their “cottages.” Some cottage with a 100 rooms!




Rage fuels short sentences.  So do fear, tension, excitement, eagerness, mystery, etc. Short sentences can also be used for emphasis.

Love fuels longer, more languid sentences.  So do contemplation, rational thought, big plans, flattery, persuasion, ennui, etc.


Long Sentences that include many parallel constructions can also be used to create chaos, confusion, fear, etc.  The details can rise to a crescendo that can deafen the reader.  Consider the syntax we discussed in the market of “Araby” or the chaos in the child’s mind in “The Rocking-Horse Winner.”


In Ellison’s Invisible Man, Tim’s language is common and easily accessible; however, the sentence structures are determined by what has happened to him at the time.  Ellison knows that we all think in a mixture of short and long sentences.  Life is messy, complicated.  So is language.


What kind of sentences would you use if you were to describe the following:


1. a brawl

2. the scene in the cafeteria

3. a day at PVHS

4. a visit to the mall on Christmas Eve

5. waiting to speak to the principal

6. deciding where to go to college

7. writing a secret admirer love note

8. explaining to your parents why you broke curfew

9. talking a police officer out of giving you a ticket

         10. convincing your friends to go where you want to go


 More on Syntax (from B. McDaniel)


Syntax is the arrangement of words in meaningful patterns.  The arrangements normally follow the accepted rules of grammar usage (the patterns of grammar).  We generally don’t need to pay much attention to syntax in conversations and writing because following the rules is so basic to the use of language that we have a breakdown in communication if the patterns of grammar are not observed correctly, thus resulting in a “what did you say?” response.  However, knowledge of how syntax works can help us understand how it affects communication. We need to examine the concept of syntax in two ways:

1)   Analyzing our own use of syntax to correct or improve our writing.

2)      Analyzing an author’s use of syntax to achieve a particular effect.


Words are symbols of ideas, but they do not begin to “say” anything until we put  them together.  Sentences, which are syntactical units composed by words, “say” something, partly because of the lexical content (the meaning) of the words and partly because of the grammatical forms that govern words pu together in patterns.  If a basic grammatical competence has been established, you are ready to develop the rhetorical competence to compose effective sentences.  Rhetorical competence plays its part in the writing process when there are choices to be made from among two or more grammatical possibilities.  Stylistic variations in the syntax of the sentence cannot ignore the grammar of the language.  Any changes you make must be grammatical (Cohen).


Improving writing


Analyzing our own use of syntax is probably the more difficult of these tasks.  As we learn language when we are very small, we internalize the rules of grammar.  For example, we learn that saying “Me up, Mama” is more likely to get us held by mother than “Up, Mama, me.”   By the time a student is in high school, s/he has been speaking English for quite a number of years, and is quite effective at basic communication tasks.


The problems surface when we begin formal writing tasks and a teacher tells us we have “misplaced modifiers” or “dangling modifiers” or that our sentence structure isn’t “parallel.”   Many students have no idea what these terms mean, and therefore have difficulty identifying these problems in their own writing.  These messages generally mean that the student needs to look closely at the way s/he has put together the words in a sentence to evaluate how clearly the meaning is being communicated.


A major cause of scrambled syntax is a bad connection between the beginning and ending of a sentence—an ending that seems to have forgot how it began.  For instance, in the sentence, “Depending on how the vote goes will determine if our side wins,” if we respect the beginning, our result will go along these lines:  “Depending on how the vote goes, our side may win.” If we respect the ending, the result will probably be:  “The vote will determine whether our side wins.”  Consider this sentence:  “To a conscientious student is a desire to get the assignment done,” which we might revise as “To a conscientious student, getting the assignment done is very important” or “A conscientious student always wants to get the assignment done.” (Sherbert)


Consider the following sentence:  The dog bit the man.  The meaning is clear; the dog performed the action of biting and the man received that action.  Now add in these words:  Ferocious, uniformed, baring its teeth, delivering the daily mail.  The first two words are easily incorporated into the sentence:  The ferocious dog bit the uniformed man.  But the two phrases can be easily inserted in places that confuse the meaning of the sentence:

Delivering the daily mail, the dog bit the man.


The dog bit the man baring its teeth.

Both of these are examples of misplaced modifiers.  The first example says that the dog was the one who was delivering the daily mail.  The second example says that the man was baring his teeth.  These errors are easily corrected, as long as the student is thinking as s/he reads what s/he has written and paying attention to the structure and meaning of his/her sentences.


Analyzing syntax in literature

When we examine an author’s use of syntax in order to achieve a particular effect in his/her writing, we are evaluating tangible devices which the author may have manipulated to create an emotional or intellectual effect.  How the author organizes the words creates meaning and effect.  Analyzing the way in which the meaning has been communicated to us and the effect it has on us allows us to more fully appreciate the author’s work in crafting that piece of literature.  Examining the author’s choices in his/her arrangement of words allows us to better understand the author’s message. Sentence length and patterns—rhythm, parallelism, word order--all contribute to the emotional effects of a literary passage.  They create connections between the words, which creates meaning.

What do you look for?  The following are common techniques for manipulating syntax:

6.      unusual (inverted) or unexpected word order. Poets in particular are fond of inverting word order to make it sound “poetic”, rather than just ordinary speech.  Look at the opening line of Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”:  “Whose woods these are I think I know.”  Frost has avoided conventional word order by reversing the two units of four words (I think I know whose woods these are).

7.      sentence length (especially variations in the length of sentences)

8.      punctuation. Where do commas, semi-colons, and periods fall within the sentence?  What is the relationship between punctuation and stanzas in a poem?

9.      perspective (point of view)

10.  interruptions

11.  parallel structure (creates balance and emphasis—“I came, I saw, I conquered.”)

12.  use of similar words (for example, a series of sentences or lines of poetry beginning with participles—running, jumping, sliding—give a sense of continuous motion)

13.  a shift in word order (generally signals an important idea)





14.  word order that imitates the action the words describe (mimetic syntax).  Notice how E.E. Cummings uses mimetic syntax in this poem:


Me Up At Does

Me up at does


out of the floor


quietly Stare

a poisoned mouse


still who alive


is asking What

have I done that


You wouldn’t have


In order to make sense of this poem, we must first rearrange it in conventional syntax.  We can begin with the subject of the sentence in something like the following manner:  “A poisoned mouse, who, still alive, is asking what have I done that you wouldn’t have, does quietly stare out of the floor up at me.”  By inverting and fracturing syntax the way he does, Cummings surprises us into looking more closely not only at his language, but also at the experience it conveys.  The emotional and intellectual experience in reading Cummings’ original poem and our revision differ significantly.  Cummings’ redistribution of words on the page and his unusual syntactic arrangement compel us to look more deliberately at his subject.  We are made to see much more clearly the mouse’s point of view.  Instead of a speaker looking down at a mouse, Cummings creates a perspective in which the dying mouse is looking up at his executioner.  The reversal of perspective is accentuated by the reversal of grammatical subject and predicate, the dispersal of phrases in short poetic lines, each of which focuses on one small aspect of the experience. (Sherbert)


Bernard Cohen breaks down evaluation of writing style into two main sections:  choice of diction and arrangements of words in sentences.  He gives the following list of items for examining diction and syntax:


A.     Kinds of diction

         1.  General or specific

         2.  Abstract or concrete

         3.  Formal or informal

         4. Latinate (usually polysyllabic) or Anglo-Saxon (usually monosyllabic)

         5.  Common words or jargon

         6.  Referential (denotative) or emotive (connotative)


B.     Length of sentences (measured in number of words)


C.     Kinds of sentences

         1.  Grammatical:  simple, compound, complex, compound-complex

         2.  Rhetorical:  loose, periodic, balanced, antithetical

         3.  Functional:  statement, question, command, exclamation


D.     Variety of sentence patterns

         1.  Inversions

         2.  Sentence openers

         3.  Method and location of expansion


E.      Means of articulating sentences (coherence devices)


F.      Use of figures of speech


G.     Paraphrasing

         1.  Length (measured in number of words and number of sentences)

         2.  Kind of movement or development in paragraphs

         3.  Use of transitional devices


            Syntactical patterns such as words organized around the mental associations of the poem’s speaker, rhetorical persuasiveness which suggest a carefully worded argument to persuade the audience, syntax designed for poetic smoothness or abruptness—all are intended to be expressive.  “They intensify our experience in reading poetry and prose; they alert us to meanings that go beyond individual words and sentences to include the intellectual and emotional implications of unusual verbal arrangements”  (Sherbert).


Syntax Exercises (taken from handout by Pat Sherbert)

A.  Read the following poem, then answer the questions at the bottom of the page.


The Man He Killed

by Thomas Hardy


Had he and I but met

By some old ancient inn,

We should have sat us down to wet

Right many a napperkin!


But ranged as infantry,

And staring face to face,

I shot him as he at me,

And killed him in his place.


I shot him dead because—

Because he was my foe,

Just so: my foe of course he was;

That’s clear enough; although


He thought he’d ‘list, perhaps,

Off-hand-like—just as I—

Was out of work—had sold his traps—

No other reason why.


Yes; quaint and curious war is!

You shoot a fellow down

You’d treat if met where any bar is,

Or help to half-a-crown.



1.      The first two stanzas are each a single sentence.  Explain their logical and syntactical relationship.

2.      Unlike the smooth unbroken sentences in the first two stanzas, we find breaks in the syntax (indicated by dashes) in the next two stanzas.  After reading the stanzas aloud, explain what the breaks suggest about the speaker’s  state of mind.

3.      Does the speaker’s fluent syntax in the last stanza suggest that he has worked through the state of mind you found evident in stanzas three and four?  Explain.


B.  Read the following poem and answer the questions at the bottom of the page.


The Silken Tent

by Robert Frost


She is as in a field a silken tent

At midday when a sunny summer breeze

Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,

So that on guys it gently sways at ease,

And its supporting central cedar pole,

That is its pinnacle to heavenward

And signifies the sureness of the soul,

Seems to owe naught to any single cord,

But strictly held by none, is loosely bound

By countless silken ties of love and thought

To everything on earth the compass round,

And only by one’s going slightly taut

In the capriciousness of summer air

Is the slightest bondage made aware.



1)      Perhaps the most astonishing thing about this sonnet is that it is only a single sentence.  Go through the poem again, attending to the way the sentence develops.  Account for all the conjunctions:  SO (line 4), AND (line 5), BUT (line 9), AND (line 12).

2)      How do these conjunctions help us follow the sentence?

How do the conjunctions help us to understand the speaker’s attitude?





Poets attempt to inject language with music so that the sound will reinforce the meaning.  The poet achieves musical quality in two ways: by choice and arrangement of accents. The first essential element is repetition.  The poet repeats certain sounds in certain combinations and arrangements.  Poets may repeat any unit of sound from the smallest to the largest.  They may repeat individual vowel and consonant sounds, whole syllables, words, phrases, lines or groups of lines to serve several purposes:

1.      please the ear

2.      emphasize the words in which repetition occurs

3.      give structure to the poem

4.      imitate an action


Sound devices include: alliteration, assonance, or consonance (the repetition of final consonant sounds: first and last, odds and ends, short and sweet are examples) Remember: alliteration can be euphonic or cacophonous.  If it is euphonious, the vowel sounds dominate to create a pleasing, soothing effect.  If it is cacophonous alliteration, the consonant sounds dominate creating tension, drama, suspense, mystery, fear.  Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds but the dissimilarity of the succeeding consonant sounds: slim, slip, thing, silvamoonlake.


Rhyme is also a device of sound: this includes end rhyme (rhyming words at the end of lines) and internal rhyme (rhyming words are within the line.)  Sound devices also include refrains (repeating whole words, phrases, lines or groups of lines).  Masculine rhyme (occurs when one syllable of a word rhymes with another word- bend and send, bright and light) and Feminine rhyme (occurs when the last two syllables of a word rhyme with another word- lawful and awful, lighting and fighting) are also devices of sound.  A refrain is the repetition of one or more phrases or lines at intervals in a poem usually at the end of a stanza.  The refrain often takes the form of a chorus.


Devices of sound also include rhythm and meter.  A brief review of metrics will help:

iamb- today                             1 foot-monometer


trochee- enter              2 feet- dimeter


anapest- intervene                   3 feet- trimeter


dactyl- enterprise                    4 feet- tetrameter


spondee- true-blue                  5 feet- pentameter


monosyllabic foot- truth         6 feet- hexameter


amphibrach- Sophia                7 feet- heptameter


                                                8 feet- octameter


A caesura is a pause or interruption of a line of poetry.  For example:


                        “Ah, what avails the sceptred race”


The “Ah,” is a caesura; you are intended to pause (possibly to reflect).  Caesura can also occur in the middle of a line; it’s not just at the beginning.  You mark it with 2 parallel lines right above it, and it does not affect the scansion.


The poet can reinforce the meaning by controlling the speed and the movement of lines by the choice and use of meter.  The witches speak in trochaic in Macbeth when everyone else uses primarily iambic.  This creates fear and discomfort in the viewer of the play because the rhythm feels off, different from the rest.  It acts on our subliminal minds.


Rhythm and sound cooperate to produce the music of poetry.  Sounds reinforce the meaning of the poem and intensify the communication.  The poet can choose words whose sound in some degree suggests their meaning: ONOMATOPOEIA.

(sounds like what it means: hiss, snap, bang)  The usefulness of this device is limited because it can only be used where the poet is describing a sound.


Sibilance is another device of sound. It is the repetition of the letter ”s.”  Sibilance can either be euphonious or cacophonous.  It depends on the context.  The softness of the repetition of an “s” sound is likely to be used to sweeten, to make the tone gentler.  But this is not a hard and fast rule.  Consider the poem by Wilfred Owen, “Dulce et Decorum Est.”  The “shells dropping softly behind….” Or “Gas. GAS!”  turns this rule on its head.  How ominous is the sound of poison gas as it is released quite softly from its canister.  So judge this particular device by what you perceive to be the writer’s purpose.






 A theme is a lesson we are supposed to learn from reading a work of literature.  Certainly, there will always be several themes in any work of prose or poetry. What is the writer trying to tell us?  What does he want us to know?  What does he want us to feel? What moral imperative are we to learn and profit from as a reward for reading the work?  Themes should not be stated as “You should do this or that,” or “Man should not do this or that”.  We should infer that we “should” conduct ourselves a certain way.  For example: In Oedipus Rex, one of the themes is that it is not the province of man to decide his own fate.  We infer that we should accept our fates philosophically and resign ourselves to the inevitable.  That may not be a modern concept; people today might like to think that they control their own destinies; however, this is one of Sophocles’ intended themes in ancient Greece. LEARN TO THINK LIKE THEY DID!





                        What goes around comes around


                        Man has to roll with the punches


                        He took the road less traveled



In Death of a Salesman, Miller rails against the industrialization of America, a system that grinds up men like Willy and spits them out, usually a few weeks before their pensions kick in.  Of course, he is also talking about how parents often don’t see their children realistically and always harbor hopes even in the face of utter futility.  Another theme explored here is that it is important to adapt to change.  Willy’s anachronistic views aid in his downfall.  There are several themes at work here.  A great work of literature always has more than one.  Your job is to list them and then find the workable one for the question when it asks you how literary devices, diction, syntax, etc. contribute to the theme.


Motifs in literature are one word ideas that run throughout:  revenge, jealousy, lust, power, etc. are MOTIFS NOT THEMES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!   In Hamlet, the unweeded garden that grows rank and foul is a motif.  A theme might be that often we are placed in untenable positions and expected to act as pawns in a game greater than we could know.  In Oedipus Rex, blindness and purblindness are motifs. But Sophocles is also saying that great men are made to suffer greatly and through their suffering achieve salvation.  That’s one of the themes.










You have studied literary devices from the beginning of the year.  The most important thing to remember is that each is chosen for a specific purpose.  Your job is not only to identify the device but also to uncover the reason for the employment of the device.  Identification without analysis really serves no purpose.  So ask  yourself:  why did Andrew Marvell use aedenic imagery in “To His Coy Mistress?”  How did the Duke convey his tone of voice in “My Last Duchess?”  How did Tennyson use synecdoche in “Ulysses?”


Literary devices contribute significantly to the establishment of tone, mood, and themes.  You will be frequently asked to consider how they contribute to the theme of a work.


Some review:  Do you remember these?


1.      metaphor                                                         17.  allusion

2.      simile                                                               18  dramatic monologue

3.      apostrophe                                                       19. elegy-elegiac

4.      metonymy                                                       20. hubris, hamartia, catharsis

5.      synecdoche                                                     21. parody

6.      zeugma                                                            22. litotes

7.      stream of consciousness                                  23. satire- Juvenalian, Horatian          

8. fabliau                                                               24. gothic

9. staccato                                                 25. verisimilitude

   10. rhythm                                                                26. rhetorical question            

   11. personification                                                   27. irony                                             

   12. hyperbole                                                           28. allegory                                        

   13. onomatopoeia                                        

   14. alliteration                                                         

   15. euphony and cacophony                                                           

   16. paradox                                                 


With some effort you can remember these and more.  You then can call on them to ace your essay.







As you recall, allusions are references to the Bible, mythology or historical events.  A writer can also allude to another work (a line in a poem, a character from another novel, etc).  Familiarize yourself with your Biblical glossary and your mythological glossary.  Know the names of the gods in Greek mythology, the Norns of Norse mythology (for Macbeth’s witches) and some basic Old and New Testament names such as:



1.      Judas                           14. Ark of the Covenant         27. Exodus

2.      Abraham                     15. Tower of Babel                 28. Four Horsemen

3.      Lot                              16. Crown of Thorns         of the Apocalypse

4.      Pontius Pilate  17. David and Goliath            29. Holy Grail

5.      Cain and Abel 18. Day of Judgment  30. Jehovah

6.      Job                               19. Prodigal Son

7.      John the Baptist          20. Ruth

8.      Jonah-Whale   21. Sermon on the Mount

9.      Lazarus                        22. Seven Deadly Sins

10.  Lucifer                        23. Sodom and Gomorrah

11.  Mary Magdalene         24. Talmud

12.  Mount of Olives          25. Thirty Pieces of Silver

13.  Noah-Flood                 26. Wailing Wall


For mythology, make sure you are familiar with at least these names:


1.      Zeus (Jupiter)                                     

2.      Hera (Juno)

3.      Apollo

4.      Aphrodite (Venus)

5.      Hermes (Mercury)

6.      Artemis (Diana)

7.      Athena (Minerva)

8.      Poseidon (Neptune)

9.      Ares (Mars)

10.  Hades (Vulcan)

11.  Delphic oracle

12.  Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Orestes, Electra

13.  Odysseus, (Ulysses) Penelope, Telemachus, Circe

14.  Medea, Jason and the Golden Fleece, the Argonauts

15.  Medusa, Gorgon

16.  Hyperion (mentioned frequently in Hamlet)

17.  Mount Olympus

18.  Sisyphus and Tantalus

19.  Daedalus and Icarus

20.  Narcissus

For history, it might help to know:


The origin and causes of World War I, terms like “shell shock”  “ gas masks” Remember “Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen?  The vivid description of someone dying of poison gas?  Know how the signing of the Treaty of Versailles really set up the rise of Hitler.  Do you know about the League of Nations?


In World War II,  know such terms as “blitzkrieg,”  “bomb shelter,” “Holocaust,” “genocide,” “Iron Curtain.”  Also know the terms “gulag,” “de-Stalinization,”

“Battle of the Bulge,” “D-Day,”  “kamikaze.”


Do you know why the Irish Catholics and Protestants have been fighting in Northern Ireland for centuries?  Do you know what the Potato Famine was?  Do you know when the French Revolution occurred?  Do you know when the Magna Carta was signed and by whom?  Do you know who Martin Luther was and what he did?  Do you know what conditions existed on slave ships?  Do you know when the Russian October revolution occurred? Do you know what happened to the czar and his family?  Do you know when the Cultural Revolution in China took place?  Do you know when Mao took his long walk?  Do you know what the de-militarized zone in Korea is all about?  Do you know what apartheid was and when it ended and in what country?  Do you know who Pinochet and Juan Peron were?  Do you know who Hirohito was?  Do you know about food rationing in England after WWII?


These are basic facts that seniors in high school should have at their fingertips and knowing this information gives you such an advantage going into the AP test and going on to college.  So if you don’t know the answers to these questions, do something about it!  GET MOVING!





The readers want to know how a poem looks.  What was the purpose of ending the lines in “Ogun” in mid-word?  Are the sentences long and then short?  Are they imitating an action the imitation of the hammer hitting the anvil in “Tyger” or the pounding of Indian drums in Longfellow’s “Hiawatha?”  Are they indicating an object by the shape of the poem?  Do the sentences run over the ends of lines (enjambment)?  If they do, is the enjambment natural or does the line break come at an awkward place?  If the poet chooses a line length that clashes with his sentence length, he has decided to draw attention to one or the other; why?


Does each line sound like a whole, or does the line naturally divide into halves?  (hemistichs)


Perrine has this to say:  “A poem may be cast in one of three broad forms: continuous form, stanzaic form, and fixed form.  The continuous form has lines that follow each other without formal grouping, the only breaks being dictated by units of meaning, as paragraphs are in prose.   (Examples include “My Last Duchess” or “Ulysses.”) The stanzaic form is written in a series of stanzas having the same number of lines, usually the same metrical pattern and often an identical rhyme scheme.  In the fixed form, a traditional pattern applies to the whole poem.”  Examples of this include English and Italian sonnets, a villanelle like “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” where there is a refrain and a fixed pattern.


Movement can also be found in the rhythm and meter of a poem.  Review this section in under devices of sound.  Also, usually when the AP examiners ask for movement, it is fairly obvious what the poet was going for.  Short staccato lines build tension, mystery, suspense, fear.  Long flowing lines are more seductive; they build in tranquility, peace, love, nostalgia. Allow yourself to be caught up in the rhythm and movement of a poem.  Let it wash over you.  Use your imaginations.




The author’s style is that which is unique and particular to him.  Everything contributes to it: the way Marvell uses literary devices, the bitterness of Plath’s tone in “Lady Lazarus,” Shakepeare’s wit and use of irony and parody in “My Mistress’s Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun,”  Housman’s gentle mockery in “Terence, This is Stupid Stuff,” Arthur Miller’s anger at the effects of industrialization in Death of A Salesman,  Camus’ use of existential principles in The Stranger, Sartre’s unique concept of hell in No Exit. All of the life experiences that the writers bring, their blend of humor, use of techniques such as reductio ad absurdum, their use of invective, their indignation at an unjust world, all of these things and a great deal more factor into a person’s style.  Also consider how diction is used, how the types of sentences are constructed.  Does the writer employ terse language; is he known for his economy of words?  How does he employ language to suggest the true nature of his characters?  What does he say that you wouldn’t say ordinarily?  How does he suggest through language what kind of interior life the character has?  How do you know what the character is thinking even when he doesn’t say things straight out?  For example, Shakespeare chose, through diction, to suggest Lady Macbeth thought of herself as queen already when she called on the devil to “unsex” her and fill her from “crown to toe top full of direst cruelty.”  Now you and I would say “head to toe,” but not Lady Macbeth.  Of course, the crown of your body is the head anyway, but Shakespeare is suggesting that this woman is so ambitious and ruthless that she sees herself on the throne long before the murder of Duncan, in fact from the moment she hears of the witches’ prophecies.


The style of a writer is a combination of everything in this guide: his diction, tone, point of view, his use of literary devices, his use of satire, the movement of his prose or poetry, his devices of sound, etc.  ALL OF IT COMBINED MAKE UP STYLE.  So if you are asked to consider a person’s style, you are asked to consider what makes this writing unique.  The techniques the writer uses are always most particular to him.


Style  refers not only to the vocabulary a writer uses (simple or multisyllabic) but also to the general length of sentences.  Are they short and terse?  Or complex, containing many clauses and subordinate ideas?


At the beginning of the twentieth century, realistic novelists made a concerted effort to move away from complex, complicated sentences toward a more colloquial, casual style, closer to what “real, plain people” would use in everyday conversation.  This shift away from formal language reflected a change in ideas of “good style.”


You can identify whether the writer is using formal or informal language (diction) by using a few simple, mechanical devices.  In Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, Edward Corbett suggests the following:


1.      Choose one long paragraph and count the words in each sentence.  What is the shortest sentence?  The longest?  What’s the average number of words in a sentence?

2.      In the same paragraph, count the number of nouns and verbs which have three or more syllables.

3.      How many nouns in the paragraph refer to concrete things (people, landscape, animals, clothing, food, etc) and how many refer to abstract ideas?

4.      How many verbs in the passage describe the physical activity (run, jump, climb, blush) and how many describe the mental activity (worry, anticipate, rejoice?)


These mechanical exercises can help you begin to evaluate whether the author’s style is “plain” (short, common words, simple sentences) or more complex and ornamental.


Now take three passages of dialogue from three different characters and compare them, using the above exercise.  Do all these characters talk alike?  (This is a very common flaw—even in the work of great writers.)  Or do their patterns of speech reflect the fact that they have different backgrounds, different jobs, different lives?




The point of view is the perspective from which a narrative or a body of information is conveyed.  A writer may desire to create an impersonal or personal relationship with the reader.  To remain impersonal, he generally selects an impersonal pronoun (one, anyone, someone, everyone, many, etc.) thereby establishing his point of view.  First person point of view generally creates a close relationship between the writer and his reader.  Third person point of view offers objectivity since the narrator is an observer and not personally involved in the action.


FIRST PERSON CENTRAL: intimate, narrator is a major participant- this view gives a very immediate perspective.  First person allows you to hear a character’s most private thoughts- but in exchange, you can only see what happens within the character’s line of sight, and you can only know those facts that the character herself is aware of.


            FIRST PERSON PERIPHERAL: intimate, narrator is a minor participant


            FIRST PERSON PLURAL: intimate, narrators are group participants


SECOND PERSON: (“You walk down the street and open the door….”) is uncommon, generally used only in experimental works.  Like first person point of view, second person keeps the reader intimately involved with the story, and brings a sense of immediacy far beyond what first person can produce.  But second person also tends to limit the writer to the present tense, cutting off any reflection on the past.


THIRD PERSON OMNISCIENT: subjective, all knowing, editorializing, impartial. This was the most popular until the nineteenth century—puts the writer in the place of God.  He can see and explain everything.  He can describe both great events in the universe and the thoughts that occupy the most private recesses of a character’s soul.  The omniscient point of view often—although not always—is the author’s point of view as well; it can allow the writer to moralize or record his own personal ideas  about the events of the book.  In Victorian times, the omniscient point of view allowed the writer to address the reader directly: “Gentle reader, what depths of guilt must a woman suffer!”


THIRD PERSON LIMITED OMNISCIENT: subjective, sees into one character only.  This tells the story from the viewpoint of one particular character, delving into the character’s mind, but using third person pronouns (he or she) rather than the first person pronouns.  This perspective allows the writer to gain a little bit of distance from the story, but still limits the writer those events that the viewpoint character can actually see and hear.


THIRD PERSON OBJECTIVE: sees into characters’ minds but does not judge them.  It tells the story from a removed, distant perspective.  The narrator can see everything that is happening as though he were hovering in space above the scene, but he can’t look into the heart or mind of any character.  The writer who uses third person objective gains a sort of scientific, dispassionate perspective but loses the ability to tell us what  the characters are thinking or feeling; we have to deduce this from the character’s actions and expressions.  Third person objective is the filmmaker’s point of view.


THIRD PERSON MULTIPLE: allows the writer to use the viewpoints of several different characters, jumping from “inside” of one character to the “inside” of another to gain multiple perspectives.


STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS: dramatic or interior monologue exists in the present tense and consists of the procession of thoughts passing through the mind.  It is often random and provides an intimate knowledge of the subject.


Additionally, a narrator brings his own experiences to his narrative and might be naïve, innocent, biased, or even unreliable.  The choice of a particular point of view allows an author to present or withhold evidence, provide intimacy or distance, and allow subjectivity or objectivity.




An examination of previous exams reveals a preponderance of satire.  So far we have seen several good examples:


The Canterbury Tales: the Prologue is a masterpiece of satire. The hypocrisies of the Prioress, the Monk, the Friar and so many others are brilliantly portrayed.  But think how Chaucer chose to expose them; he did not use invective and cruelly offer them up for ridicule.  On the contrary, he gently exposed them, appearing to agree with their views and then in one or two lines, he allows us to see the truth.  This is Horatian satire at its best.  His “Wife of Bath’s Tale” offers us an unusual look into Arthurian romances tempered by the fact that the woman who tells this story of what women want most was herself abused. Its poignancy does not negate the satire.


Brave New World :  Huxley offers us a frightening but funny glimpse into a possible dystopic future where drug use is rampant, promiscuity is the accepted norm and mores of our society are scorned.  His characters mouth meaningless hypnopaedic statements and have no original thoughts. They entertain themselves with games that appeal strictly to the senses.  Intellectual life is dead or at least barely surviving on the remote islands.


A Modest Proposal” : Jonathan Swift brilliantly hands us an Ireland where the only hope for salvation is through the ingestion of babies by the affluent English.

It’s funny, but at the same time, he is shaking us out of our complacency, making us take a hard look at our indifference to the suffering of the poor.


Samuel Johnson on Soame Jenyns: If you want to see Juvenalian satire, this is the one to read.  Everything is here: the pompous posturings of a pseudo-intellectual Jenyns whose ludicrous ideas and whose very persona are skewered by Johnson.  This is the classic example of reductio ad absurdum.  He takes immeasurable delight in making Jenyns’ ideas and Jenyns himself look idiotic.


Governor Adlai Stevenson and his “Cat Bill:” This is Horatian satire at its best; it’s gentle, teasing, and yet, it is still eloquent and very effective.  There must have been more than one red face in the Legislature when this veto came back.  It’s a wake-up call; let’s stop wasting our time on frivolous legislation and get back to the real work at hand.




1.      What institution, idea, social injustice, person is being mocked?

2.      What kind of tone does it have?  If it is harsh, sardonic, it is JUVENALIAN.  If it is gentle, teasing, it is HORATIAN.

3.      SHOW ME THE FUNNY!!!!!! DON’T LEAVE YOUR SENSE OF HUMOR AT HOME!!!!  Pick out those parts that make you

chuckle:  Lenina mouthing “A gramme is better than a damn!” or “Orgy porgy!!!”  Stevenson’s “feline delinquents” etc.

4.   Does the writer use reductio ad absurdum?  How is hyperbole


5.  Is this a burlesque? A lampoon?

6.  Does the writer use invective?

                7.  How is the argument presented?  What does the writer do first?












There are several different classifications of irony:


1.      Verbal Irony:  this occurs when the speaker’s meaning is far from the usual meaning of the words or quite the opposite.  When a student says, “Oh, I just love to take Mr. Gleichmann’s make-up exams” chances are that statement is quite the opposite of what he meant!  When an ironic statement is infused with bitterness or mockery, it might be called sarcasm.

2.      Irony of Situation: this occurs when the outcome expected turns out to be the opposite.

3.      Dramatic Irony: this occurs when a character, whose knowledge is limited, says, does, or encounters something of greater significance than he or she knows.  The reader realizes the meaning of the speech or action because the writer has afforded him superior knowledge.

4.      Cosmic Irony: this occurs when fate or the gods (often with a grim sense of humor) step in to lead a human being into an unexpected turn of events.  When Oedipus learns from the oracle that he is doomed to marry his mother and kill his father, he flees Corinth hoping to escape his fate.  In doing so, he ironically fulfills this deadly prophecy.


 More on Irony (B.McDaniel)


            Laurence Perrine defines irony as “a term with a range of meanings, all of them involving some sort of discrepancy or incongruity.”  The Riverside Anthology of Literature gives us a more usual definition of irony:  “A mode of writing in which truth appears in a mask that disguises it” (1574).  M.H. Abrams, in his A Glossary of Literary Terms, gives us the origin of the word “irony” from the Greek:  “In Greek comedy the character called the eiron was a dissembler, who characteristically spoke in understatement and deliberately pretended to be less intelligent than he was, yet triumphed over the alazon—the self-deceiving and stupid braggart” (134-135).


            The problem with all these definitions is that they give us a glimpse of what irony is but they don’t exactly help a reader to identify irony when we encounter it in our reading.  Some people say it is the use of the unexpected in a story or poem, but in a piece of literature not everything that comes along unexpectedly is always ironic.  And defining the term as “saying the opposite of what one means” only addresses one type of irony.  The easiest way to learn to identify irony is to break the concept down into the 3 types of irony because each is achieved in a different way by an author.


Verbal Irony

            Verbal irony is “a figure of speech in which the opposite is said from what is intended” (Perrine 201).  Abrams says this statement “usually involves the explicit expression of one attitude or evaluation, but with indications in the overall speech-situation that the speaker intends a very different, and often opposite attitude or evaluation” (135).  A good example is when we look out the window during a rainstorm and say, “Nice day!” (Birkerts 578).

            Verbal irony can be used simply and can be very easy to identify.  But sometimes it can be quite complex, almost hidden in the text.  Abrams tells us


the meaning and evaluations may be subtly qualified rather than simply reversed, and the clues to the ironic counter-meanings under the literal statement—or even to the fact that the author intends the statement to be understood ironically—may be oblique and unobtrusive.  That is why recourse to irony by an author tends to convey an implicit compliment to the intelligence of readers.... That is also why many literary ironists are misinterpreted and sometimes...get into serious trouble with the obtuse authorities (135).


The difficult thing about verbal irony is that it is often confused with sarcasm.  The aim of sarcasm is to cause pain by using language which causes embarrassment or wounded emotions.  Irony is a much more subtle use of language, and generally is not intended to cause pain.


Dramatic Irony

            Dramatic irony occurs when an author (usually in plays) creates a “contrast between what a character says and what the reader [audience] knows to be true” (Perrine 202).  A classic example of dramatic irony is in Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex.  At the beginning of the play Oedipus is called on to find the murderer of old King Laius in order to end the plague on Thebes.  Oedipus vows to track down and punish the killer, never even considering that he himself might be the guilty party.  He says:


As for the criminal, I pray to God—

            Whether it be a lurking thief, or one of a number—

            I pray that that man’s life be consumed in evil and wretchedness.

            And as for me, this curse applies no less

            If it should turn out that the culprit is my guest here,

            Sharing my hearth.

            You have heard the penalty (Scene 1, lines 29-35).


Sophocles’ audience, knowledgeable in the ancient stories, would have already been aware of the fact that Oedipus had met his father on the road years earlier, had an argument with the man and killed him in a fit of rage.  Further, the audience would have been well aware of the rest of the story:  that Oedipus had come to Thebes, saved the city from the Sphinx and earned the gift of the throne, and then married his own mother without realizing her true identity.  Thus, Oedipus curses himself from the beginning of the story and the audience sees very clearly how the man is unable to see the truth.


            Abrams clarifies the idea of dramatic irony in his definition, as he says it “involves a situation in a play or a narrative in which the audience or reader shares with the author knowledge of present or future circumstances of which a character is ignorant; in that situation, the character unknowingly acts in a way we recognize to be grossly inappropriate to the actual circumstances, or expects the opposite of what we know that fate holds in store, or says something that anticipates the actual outcome, but not at all in the way that the character intends” (136-137).


Situational Irony

            Situational irony occurs when the author is able to hide or disguise the true state of affairs from the reader or audience and then spring it on us as a surprise.          It is a moment in the story when “led to expect or believe one thing, we suddenly confront a different outcome” (Birkerts 577).  Perrine tells us situational irony “is usually the most important kind for the story writer [because] the discrepancy is between appearance and reality, or between expectation and fulfillment, or between what is and what would seem appropriate” (203).


            A famous story which utilizes situational irony is Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour”, in which an invalid woman is gently told of her husband’s supposed death in an accident.  She secretly rejoices in the news because now she will finally have a chance to live her life freely and make her own choices; even though her sister and friends believe the woman has locked herself in her room to grieve, she is actually celebrating when the husband comes in—completely unaware that there has even been an accident, much less that he has been reported dead.  The shock of seeing her husband alive and realizing that she is not free after all is too much for her weak heart:  the woman dies.


            All forms of irony depend on the unexpected in some way, and rely on the reader or audience to intelligently perceive the slight smile as the author says one thing and means another, or invites us to delight in the discomfort of a character who discovers that reality is not what she thought it was.


Irony Exercises. 

A.  Read the following poem.  Then answer the questions at the bottom of the page.



by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1817)


I met a traveler from an antique land

Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert.  Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal these words appear:

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Nothing beside remains.  Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.


1.  Shelley has embedded one speaker’s voice (the traveler’s) inside another’s.  And Ozymandias’s words are embedded in the traveler’s.  How do these voices differ?


2.  Characterize Ozymandias.  [Ozymandias was an ancient Egyptian tyrant.]  Can think of any historical or contemporary figures who might see themselves as Ozymandias saw himself?


3.  What is the traveler’s response to the ruins and the words of Ozymandias?

4.  What kind(s) of irony are used in this poem?  What is the theme?  How does the irony communicate this message to the reader?



B.  Read the following poem.  Then answer the questions at the bottom of the page.


Richard Cory

by Edwin Arlington Robinson


Whenever Richard Cory went down town,

We people on the pavement looked at him:

He was a gentleman from sole to crown,

Clearn favored, and imperially slim.


And he was always quietly arrayed,

And he was always human when he talked;

But still he fluttered pulses when he said,

“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.


And he was rich—yes, richer than a king—

And admirably schooled in every grace:

In fine, we thought that he was everything

To make us wish that we were in his place.


So on we worked, and waited for the light,

And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;

And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,

Went home and put a bullet through his head.



1.  In how many senses is Richard Cory a gentleman?


2.  List the words that express or suggest the idea of aristocracy or royalty.


How is this poem a good example of irony?  It makes no direct statement about life; it simply relates an incident.  What larger meanings about life does it suggest?





Several years ago I had a conversation with a student in my senior English class about the relative merits of various universities she was interested in for her college education.  When I asked her which schools were on her list, she replied, “Harvard, Yale, Vassar.  I might think about Brown, but it’s kinda down the list.”  I questioned why she was interested only in those particular schools, and she said she didn’t think any future employer would seriously consider her for a job if she didn’t graduate from a “name” university.


My student had made her list of educational institutions into a set of symbols.  To her, these schools represented places which might lead to a job in the future, and she assumed that any business she might be interested in working for would attach the same symbolic meaning to the same list.  (She also assumed that businesses would attach a negative symbolism to any school not on her list.)  Whether she was correct or not in her assumption doesn’t really matter, although it could easily be argued that many people are employed in enjoyable, productive positions in good careers without having ever set foot in any of the universities mentioned here.  What does matter is that, for this young woman, these names represented success and security.  They meant something more than just names to identify educational institutions.


            The simplistic definition of symbolism is “something that stands for something else” (Beaty and Hunter 951).  That means, literally, that every word on this page is a symbol, because each stands for a thing or concept which has meaning for the reader.  We learn the symbolism of words as we learn language when we are small, and we communicate by means of shared understandings of those symbols.  But understanding symbolism is not as easy as mastering a set of definitions, because the meanings often change with the situation being expressed. 


            So how do authors send their messages through literary symbols?  Sven Birkerts discusses this process in depth:

A certain ambiguity is necessary for the symbol-making process to succeed.  An object or a situation can be charged with significance, but it must also be convincingly itself.  That is, we must believe in the actual reality of the [object] in the story if its symbolism is to affect us.  Otherwise, we are too conscious of the fact that the author has tried to inject meaning deliberately, and our reading response is contaminated.

When it is used effectively in a work of fiction, a symbol deepens the thematic resonance and involves the reader more deeply in the discovering and making of meanings.  While the associations tend to radiate outward and extend the reach of the work, the symbol itself often works like a magnet, pulling the stray bits of metal—the more incidental elements—into a pattern.  When we encounter the symbol and feel its power, we often feel that we have touched an archetypal, or universal, layer of the human soul.  We experience a sense of reconance and uplift that cannot be fully explained or analyzed (127).


Here is a summary of several different kinds of symbolism.


Public (Conventional) Symbolism

            Traditional “emblems”, such as a dove representing peace or a bride wearing a white dress, are what we call public or conventional symbols.  These are objects, actions, people, places, or ideas that are understood by many people within a particular culture.  (Some conventional symbols, in fact, are so universal as to hold their meaning in different cultures.)  Birkert says, “Our participation in society is, to some degree, dependent on our willingness to recognize and use these tokens of shared meaning.  We usually do this so automatically that we are not even aware of participating in acts of symbolic behavior” (125).


Private Symbolism

            Private symbols can be something as simple as a special napkin saved from the prom to remind us of the fun we had that evening.  On that level, private symbols have meaning only for the people who are involved in the situation.  In literature, they “may be ... intrinsic to the work..., revealing their symbolic character only gradually through repetition or strategic placement (Birkerts 125).  It is these private symbols which cause difficulties in interpretation, because even common symbols can be invested with meanings particular to that specific literary passage.  As Birkerts says, “We need some reason for thinking that the author intended A to represent B....[S]ymbols, if they are used effectively, should allow us to feel their power—we shouldn’t have to go hunting for them.  If we find ourselves searching too hard, the odds are that there is no symbol, or that the author’s attempt to introduce one has fizzled” (126).


Name Symbolism

            Generally speaking, a name is just a label which doesn’t tell us anything about the person to whom it is attached.  However, “authors may choose names for their characters that serve not only to label them but also to suggest something about them.  In his fictional trilogy The Forsyte Saga, John Galsworthy chooses Forsyte as the family name of his principal characters to indicate their practical foresightedness” (Perrine 197).


Symbolic Use of Objects and Actions

This usage of symbolism is likely the most important in terms of communicating a story’s message.  Perrine states,

“In some stories these symbols will fit so naturally into the literal context that their symbolic value will not at first be apparent except to the most perceptive reader.  In other stories—usually stories with a less realistic surface—they will be so central and so obvious that they will demand symbolical interpretation if the story is to yield significant meaning.  In the first kind of story the symbols reinforce and add to the meaning.  In the second kind of story they carry the meaning (197).


Perrine discusses at length the importance of understanding and recognizing symbolism:

The ability to interpret symbols is nevertheless essential for a full understanding of literature.  Beginning readers should be alert for symbolical meanings but should observe the following cautions:

1.  The story itself must furnish a clue that a detail is to be taken symbolically....Symbols nearly always signal their existence by emphasis, repetition, or position.  In the absence of such signals, we should be reluctant to identify an idea as symbolical.

2.  The meaning of a literary symbol must be established and supported by the entire context of the story [or poem].  The symbol has its meaning in the story, not outside it....

3.  To be called a symbol, an item must suggest a meaning different in kind from its literal meaning:  a symbol is something more than the representative of a class or type....Every interpretative story suggests a generalization about life, is more than a recounting of the specific fortunes of specific individuals....

4.  A symbol may have more than one meaning.  It may suggest a cluster of meanings.  At its most effective a symbol is like a many-faceted jewel:  it flashes different colors when turned in the light.   This is not to say that it can mean anything we want it to:  the area of possible meanings is always controlled by the context.  Nevertheless, this possibility of complex meaning, plus concreteness and emotional power, gives the symbol its peculiar compressive value....The meaning cannot be confined to any one...[quality]:  it is all of them, and therein lies the symbol’s value (199-201).


Be aware that imagery, metaphor and symbolism can sometimes be difficult to differentiate; sometimes we think a symbol looks like imagery, for example.  It may be helpful to keep in mind Perrine’s easy definition:  “An image means only what it is; the figurative term of a metaphor means something other than what it is; and a symbol means what it is and something more too” (590).  Of course, sometimes imagery can be used to convey a symbol, or a metaphor can be used symbolically.  The imagery or metaphor does not suddenly stop being an image or metaphor just because it has also become a symbol.  If you are confused as to the difference between a symbol and a metaphor, consider that the metaphor must imply a pair of subjects to establish the comparison, while a symbol implies only a single subject since it does not compare anything.  Birkerts tells us that “symbols differ from conventional metaphors...in that what is symbolized is generally a concept or an abstraction, and that the importance is more universalized.  The purpose of a metaphor is to heighten some particular attribute...while the purpose of a symbol is to point the reader toward a larger, and more generalized, order of significance” (665). 



Symbolism Exercises

A.  Read the following poem.  Then answer the questions at the bottom of the page.

A White Rose


One Perfect Rose



After reading and analyzing poetry for diction, imagery, allusions, etc, answer the following questions:


1.      Is there a moment of choice or change in the poem?  Is the poem set in one unchanged world?  Or does a change take place from the poem’s beginning to its end?  Is there a change, does it happen to the poem, or is there a moment of choice for the poet/narrator? 


2.      Is there cause and effect?  Does the writer link her state of mind or experience to any particular event or cause?  If so, does this link resonate for you?  Is there causality at all?  If there is no causality in the poem, do emotions or events arise for no particular reason?


3.      What is the tension between the physical and the psychological, the earthly and the spiritual, the mind and the body?  Do the objects and physical settings in the poem work for or against the emotions expressed?  In the world of the poem, does the physical lead to spiritual enlightenment—or block it?  Are mind and body at war?  Are earthly and spiritual aspects of the poem in tension?  Or is only one of these aspects present?  If so…where is the other?


4.      What is the poem’s subject?  What is the poem about?  Remember, this doesn’t need to be a declarative sentence: you can answer it with a motif: “Grief.” “Friendship.”  “Ireland.”  What word or phrase seems to name the core around which the poem resolves?


5.      Where is the self?  Is the poet’s “self” in the poem?  If so, what is the relationship between that self and the subject of the poem?


6.      Do you feel sympathy?  To ask “Do you feel sympathy with this poem?” is to ask, “Do you agree?”  Does the poem resonate with you—or is it foreign to your experience?  Can you identify which parts of the poem you recognize, and which seem alien?


7.      How does the poet relate to those who came before?  Where does the poet stand in the rhetoric of ideas?  In the past, critics have seen younger poets as rebelling against their elders, developing their own poetic styles in reaction to an older generation; or they have viewed younger poets as taking the techniques, themes, and even the language of older poets and incorporating them into new poetic works.  Do you recognize either of these relationships among the poetic works that you have read?*


*Information comes from The Well-Educated Mind by Susan Bauer.



REMEMBER:  Literature is art, and the writer is an artist.  He crafts the work carefully, placing emphasis on certain things and not on others.  He has a unique vision of the world, and he is willing to share it with you.  You see the world through his eyes.  It is the artist’s job to provoke a response. If you loved a book, the artist has done his job; however, if you hated the book, he probably did his job too.  The artist doesn’t necessarily try to ingratiate himself with you.  He might want to disgust you; he might want to outrage you.  If that was his goal, your loathing might be just what he wants.


Also remember:  As a young person, you may lack the necessary life experiences to truly comprehend what the author is doing.  Your negative response to something now might change dramatically with time and maturity.  Give yourself a break.  Insight, perception, logic, intuitive feelings are honed through the years.  Do the best you can now.  Take chances; stick your neck out.  Be bold.  Avoid hedging your statements.  Don’t use words like “probably,” “maybe,” “possibly,” “almost,” etc. Say: IT IS THIS! And have the courage of your convictions.  Use your imagination and your creativity to guide you.  They won’t let you down.   




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