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Glossary of Literary Terms

Ballad (Fr. 'dancing song')

Originally a song accompanied by a dance, the term was later applied to a narrative poem, usually of simple construction and language. The literary ballad, flourishing particularly in the later 18th century, is a poem written in deliberate imitation of the form and spirit of the popular or "traditional" ballad. Popular ballads, passed down by word of mouth among illiterate or semiliterate people, were direct and dramatic, usually with romantic, historical, or supernatural setting, and contain brief but telling details. The stanzaic form of the popular ballad consists of four lines rhyming abcb or abab.

Cantata (It. 'a song or story set to music')

A vocal composition accompanied by solo instruments, alternating recitative, aria or aria-like, and choral sections. The term is also applied to a longer poem set to chamber music in several movements. The setting of the cantata is often historical, classical, or pastoral in nature, and may be of humorous or elevated style.

Couplet (O. Fr. 'little pair')

A couplet is a unit of two consecutive lines of verse rhyming together, usually in the same metre. The couplet is one of the principal units of versification whether as an independent poem or as a stanzaic form in a longer composition. It can be closed if the sense and syntax are complete within the metrical unit (epigrammatic nature as in the heroic c.), or open (enjambed) when the syntactic and metrical frames do not close together at the end of the couplet.

Elegy (Gk. 'a mournful poem')

Originally, in Greek and Latin, denoting a type of metre - a couplet consisting of a dactylic hexameter followed by a pentameter - the elegiac metre was used in solemn poems, unrestricted as to structure, yet conventionally tied to a limited range of subject-matters and styles. From the Renaissance the term referred to a poem, usually formal or ceremonious in tone and diction, and longer than the epitaph, mourning the death of a particular individual. The language of such funeral elegies provided opportunity for plaintive, melancholy generalizations on death or on the state of the world. Later the term was used for a mood, or a style, as well as a poem of one of the several elegiac species. This second, looser, definition of elegy is used to characterize melancholy or gravely meditative poems in general.

Epigram (Gk. 'inscription')

Originally, an inscription on a monument, the term is now used of tersely expressed witty sayings in general, but particularly of any short poem which has a sharp turn of thought or point, be it witty, amusing, dramatic, or satiric. The eighteenth century was particularly rich in epigrams, which generally take the shape of a couplet or a quatrain.

Epitaph (Gk. 'written upon a tomb')

Strictly, an inscription upon a tomb, though, by a natural extension of usage, the term is applied to anything written ostensibly for that purpose whether actually inscribed upon a tomb or not. Many of the best-known epitaphs, both ancient and modern, are merely literary memorials, and find no place on sepulchral monuments. A shortened form of the elegy, the epitaph may vary in tone, yet generally addresses the reader inviting him to reflect about life and mortality.


An incomplete piece of literature, either one the author never finished (intentionally or not) or one in which part of the piece has been lost due to damage or neglect.

Hymn (Gk. 'song in praise of gods or heroes')

A religious song, poem, or speech, in lyric measures, praising gods or heroes. Many examples, in Latin and from the sixteenth century onwards in English, have been written by poets and ecclesiastics. The eighteenth century was a particularly rich period for the writing and composing of hymns. The literary hymn, as opposed to the liturgical hymn, is generally narrative or descriptive in nature, and has a beginning, middle, and end.

Imitation (Lat. 'copy')

Generally, a work in which a poet provides a loose translation of another work, transposed into his own contemporary and personal situation, an adaptation rather than an accurate translation. More specifically, the belief that poets should in general 'imitate' the classics and other models of excellence in any genre which precede them. 'Imitation' in this sense was a tenet of eighteenth century neoclassicism, and of most views of poetry until the nineteenth century. Something more than merely copying is implied: the poet must catch the form and spirit of his models, but animate them with his own genius.

Ode (Gk. 'to sing')

Originally an ode was a poem meant to be sung, but its meaning has been altered to apply to a lyric poem with a defined theme, written in a formal, elevated style, often to celebrate notable public occasions or lofty universal themes. The ode is characterised by its length, intricate stanza forms, grandeur of style and seriousness of purpose, with a venerable history in classical and post-Renaissance poetry. The Greek poet Pindar established the form (irregular form), Horace was its main Latin exponent (regular form). Pindar's odes were composed to be chanted to music by a dancing chorus and written to glorify the winners of the the Olympic and other games. He modelled his stanzas on dramatic choral lyrics and the demands of music and dance resulted in a highly elaborate stanzaic structure: this type of ode was built on a threefold (dance) pattern of sections called strophe (movement to the left), antistrophe (movement to the right) and epode (standing still), the sections constructed from lines of varying length. The ode attracted an exalted diction and free metrical experimentation as well as highly formalized stanza-types rather removed from the main currents of English versification. The exponents of this genre were usually explicitly conscious of their classical models, hence the strangeness of the verse forms. Its dignity, classical pedigree and technical potentialities endeared the genre to the Augustans.


Originally used to indicate the extent of the literary production, and in contradistinction to book, it was not till the 18th century that pamphlet begin to assume its modern meaning of a small argument or essay, in prose or verse, almost always devoted to topical issues, such as religious or political controversies.

Parody (Gk. 'mock poem')

A parody is an imitation of a specific work of literature or style devised so as to ridicule its characteristic features. It is one of the most calculated and analytic literary techniques: it searches out, by means of comic or subversive mimicry, any weakness, pretension or lack of self-awareness in its original. Impersonation of the alien style, satiric exaggeration, or the application of a serious tone to an absurd or vulgar subject, are typical methods. The parodist addresses a highly 'knowing' and literate audience.

Satire (Lat. 'medley')

Satire is a mode of discourse or genre defined by its use of irony, sarcasm, or ridicule for mocking, exposing or denouncing the frailties and faults of mankind. As a literary manner, quality or function of an author's writing, it blends humour and wit with a critical attitude toward human activities and institutions. As a general term it is usually considered to involve both moral judgement and an implicit desire to help improve a custom, belief, or tradition. Though the distinction is not always clear, satire differs from the comic in its lack of tolerance for folly or human imperfection. It uses laughter to attack its object, rather than for mere evocation of mirth or pleasure, and its attempt to juxtapose the actual with the ideal lifts it above mere invective. Satire demands at least a token fantasy, a content which the reader recognizes as fantastic or absurd, and at least an implicit moral standard.

Sketch (Lat., Gr. 'sudden, off-hand, something hastily made')

Originally a rough or hasty preliminary outline or draft serving as a note or material for a finished work. Used of literary composition, as for a short slightly constructed piece, an impression of something, or of a rapid yet telling delineation in words of an event or character.


In literature usually a short lyric poem intended to be set to music or expressive in ways that might be construed as musical. Rhythm and sounds of the poem usually reflect or even coincide (word-painting) with the actual or implied form of delivery.

Sonnet (It. 'little sound or song')

A lyric poem of fixed form: fourteen lines rhymed and organised according to several intricate schemes. The fourteen lines can be divided variously into a bipartite division of the octave (eight lines) and the sestet (six lines), the Italian (Petrarchan) sonnet, or three quatrains (four lines each) and a couplet, the English (Shakespearean) sonnet, both following one or another of several set rhyme-schemes. In general, the sonnet expresses a single, complete thought, idea, or sentiment that accords loosely with these divisions, which are marked by rhyme.


In the 18th century translation is often used for paraphrase, as used by Dryden, which advocates reasonable freedom, but demanding that the translator should first 'know what is peculiar to the author's style', and then 'tis time to look into ourselves, to conform our genius to his, to give his thoughts either the same turn, if our tongue will bear it, or, if not, to vary but the dress, not alter or destroy the substance.' This kind of translation is, however, distinguished from impermissibly free imitations, focusing on spirit and style rather than ideas and information.

Verse drama

Narrower than 'dramatic poetry', the term denotes a drama whose dialogue is rhythmed and presented as discreet lines of verse. Its origin are the Greek comedies and tragedies, in which spoken dialogue alternates with choral song. Verse dramas, generally conceived for performance, were only gradually displaced by prose on the 18th-century stage.

Verse epistle (Gk. 'message')

A neo-classical form of poetry, addressed to a friend, lover, or patron, in the manner of an informal, well-argued letter. Moral, semi-philosophical, or literary themes have been modelled on Horace's Epistles, while romantic and sentimental subjects stem from Ovid's Heroides.

Verse essay (Lat. 'to weigh, to balance')

The verse essay is a short expository composition in verse, usually aimed at a general audience, which tries to persuade the reader to adopt a particular way of looking at a topic. The verse essay is a classical poetic mode for the discussion of any subject.

Works cited

  • Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed. in 29 vol. Cambridge, England; New York, NY: [Cambridge] University Press, 1910-1911.
  • Fowler, Roger: A Dictionary of Modern Critical Terms. Revised and enlarged edition. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987 [1st ed. 1973].
  • Gray, Martin: A Dictionary of Literary Terms. Harlow; Beirut: Longman; York Press, 1984.
  • The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Ed. by Alex Preminger and T. V. F. Brogan. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Other lists of literary terms