Skip to Content
Filter glossary terms by first letter
Showing 1 to 20 of 29 Terms


A word, phrase, or sentence that reads the same backward and forward. The words “civic” and “level” are palindromes, as is the phrase “A man, a plan, a canal—Panama.” The reversal can be word by word as well, as in “fall leaves when leaves fall.”


An ode or song that retracts or recants what the poet wrote in a previous poem. For instance, Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales ends with a retraction, in which he apologizes for the work’s “worldly vanitees” and sinful contents.


A poem of effusive praise. Its origins are Greek, and it is closely related to the eulogy and the ode. See Ben Jonson’s “To the Memory of My Beloved the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare” or Anne Bradstreet’s “In Honor of That High and Mighty Princess, Queen Elizabeth.”


A Malaysian verse form adapted by French poets and occasionally imitated in English. It comprises a series of quatrains, with the second and fourth lines of each quatrain repeated as the first and third lines of the next. The second and fourth lines of the final stanza repeat the first and third lines of the first stanza. See A.E. Stallings’s “Another Lullaby for Insomniacs.” Browse more pantoums.


As a figure of speech, it is a seemingly self-contradictory phrase or concept that illuminates a truth. For instance, Wallace Stevens, in “The Snow Man,” describes the “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” Alexander Pope, in “An Essay on Man: Epistle II,” describes Man as “Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all.” Paradox is related to oxymoron, which creates a new phrase or concept out of a contradiction.

The metaphysical poets often fixated on the paradoxical nature of the Christian God’s triune nature (Father, Son, Holy Ghost). In his “Holy Sonnet: Batter my heart, three-person’d God,” John Donne considers God’s power to restore the spirit to life by first dismantling it:

            Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
            As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
            That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
            Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.


A comic imitation of another author’s work or characteristic style. See Joan Murray’s “We Old Dudes,” a parody of Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool.”


A patchwork of lines or passages from another writer (or writers), intended as a kind of imitation. The term also refers to an original composition that deliberately mimics the style of another author, usually in a spirit of respect rather than mockery or satire.


Verse in the tradition of Theocritus (3 BCE), who wrote idealized accounts of shepherds and their loves living simple, virtuous lives in Arcadia, a mountainous region of Greece. Poets writing in English drew on the pastoral tradition by retreating from the trappings of modernity to the imagined virtues and romance of rural life, as in Edmund Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calendar, Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” and Sir Walter Ralegh’s response, “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd.” The pastoral poem faded after the European Industrial Revolution of the 18th century, but its themes persist in poems that romanticize rural life or reappraise the natural world; see Leonie Adams’s “Country Summer,” Dylan Thomas’s Fern Hill,” or Allen Ginsberg’s Wales Visitation.” Browse more pastoral poems.

Pathetic fallacy

The assignment of human feelings to inanimate objects, as coined by the Victorian literary critic John Ruskin. For him, a poet’s tendency to project his or her emotions outward onto the workings of the natural world was a kind of false vision. Today the term is used more neutrally, and the phenomenon is usually accepted as an integral part of the poet’s craft. It is related to personification and anthropomorphism, but emphasizes the relationship between the poet’s emotional state and what he or she sees in the object or objects. For instance, in William Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” the speaker sees a field of daffodils “tossing their heads in a sprightly dance,” outdoing the nearby lake’s sparkling waves with their “glee.” The speaker, in times of solitude and introspection, is heartened by memories of the flowers’ joy.

Pattern poetry

See Concrete poetry.


A line made up of five feet. It is the most common metrical line in English. Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking” is written in iambic pentameter. Hart Crane maintains pentameter lines made up of variable feet in The Bridge: To Brooklyn Bridge.” See also blank verse and iamb.


A dramatic character, distinguished from the poet, who is the speaker of a poem. The persona who describes the process of composing and playing music in Robert Browning’s “Abt Vogler” is a German organist by the same name. Similarly, three historical figures (Erasmus Darwin, James Whitfield, and Josiah Wedgewood) narrate Linda Bierds’s three-part poem “The Ghost Trio.” The identity of the speaker is not always so clear; John Berryman’s sequence of Dream Songs is narrated primarily by a persona named Henry, who refers to himself in the third person.


A figure of speech in which the poet describes an abstraction, a thing, or a nonhuman form as if it were a person. William Blake’s “O Rose, thou art sick!” is one example; Donne’s “Death, be not proud” is another. Gregory Corso quarrels with a series of personified abstractions in his poem “The Whole Mess . . . Almost.” Personification is often used in symbolic or allegorical poetry; for instance, the virtue of Justice takes the form of the knight Artegal in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene.

Pindaric ode

See Ode.

Poet laureate

According to Virgil, the Greek god Apollo decreed that poets should receive laurels as a prize. The British crown created the post of poet laureate in 1688 and awarded it to poets for life. In the United States, the Library of Congress appoints the position, with the official title of Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Recipients of the honor usually serve for one year and promote poetry to the public through readings, lectures, or educational projects.

Poet's Corner

An area in the south transept of Westminster Abbey in London that holds both monuments and graves of famous poets, playwrights, and writers. Among the poets buried there are Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, Ben Jonson, John Dryden, Samuel Johnson, Robert Browning, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Rudyard Kipling, and Thomas Hardy.


A derogatory term for an inferior poet. See also Doggerel.

Poetic diction

The vocabulary, phrasing, and grammatical usage deemed appropriate to verse as well as the deviations allowable for effect within it. Aristotle discussed the proper diction for writers in his Poetics, and English poets have long struggled with which kind of language to employ and when. Wordsworth argued against the ornate language of his predecessors in the preface to Lyrical Ballads. Poetic diction is distinguished from common speech by effects such as circumlocution, elision, personification and Latinate terminology such as “azure skies.”

Poetic license

A poet’s departure from the rules of grammar, syntax, and vocabulary in order to maintain a metrical or rhyme scheme; can also mean the manipulation of facts to suit the needs of a poem.

Postcolonial theory

A theoretical approach to analyzing the literature produced in countries that were once colonies, especially of European powers such as Britain, France, and Spain. Postcolonial theory also looks at the broader interactions between European nations and the societies they colonized by dealing with issues such as identity (including gender, race, and class), language, representation, and history. Because native languages and culture were replaced or superseded by European traditions in colonial societies, part of the postcolonialist project is reclamation. Acknowledging the effect of colonialism’s aftermath—its language, discourse, and cultural institutions—has led to an emphasis on hybridity, or the mingling of cultural signs and practices between colonizer and colonized. The Palestinian American cultural critic Edward Said was a major figure of postcolonial thought, and his book Orientalism is often credited as its founding text. Other important postcolonial critics include Homi K. Bhabha, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and Frantz Fanon.

Looking to learn about poetry?
  • Check out our Learn area, where we have separate offerings for children, teens, adults, and educators.