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Glossary of Terms

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Ballad: A short poem that tells a simple story and has a repeated refrain. Ballads were originally intended to be sung. Early ballads, known as folk ballads, were passed down through generations, so their authors are often unknown. Later ballads composed by known authors are called literary ballads.
An example of an anonymous folk ballad is "Edward," which dates from the Middle Ages. Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and John Keats's "La Belle Dame sans Merci" are examples of literary ballads. (Compare with Corrido and Oral Transmission.)

Baroque: A term used in literary criticism to describe literature that is complex or ornate in style or diction. Baroque works typically express tension, anxiety, and violent emotion. The term "Baroque Age" designates a period in Western European literature beginning in the late sixteenth century and ending about one hundred years later. Works of this period often mirror the qualities of works more generally associated with the label "baroque" and sometimes feature elaborate conceits.

Examples of Baroque works include John Lyly's Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit, Luis de Gongora's Soledads, and William Shakespeare's As You Like It.

Baroque Age: See Baroque

Baroque Period: See Baroque

Beat Generation: See Beat Movement

Beat Movement: A period featuring a group of American poets and novelists of the 1950s and 1960s — including Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, William S. Burroughs, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti — who rejected established social and literary values. Using such techniques as stream of consciousness writing and jazz-influenced free Verse and focusing on unusual or abnormal states of mind — generated by religious ecstasy or the use of drugs — the Beat writers aimed to create works that were unconventional in both form and subject matter.

Kerouac's On the Roadis perhaps the best-known example of a Beat Generation novel, and Ginsberg's Howlis a famous collection of Beat Poetry.

Beat Poets: See Beat Movement

Beats, The: See Beat Movement

Belles-lettres: A French term meaning "fine letters" or "beautiful writing." It is often used as a synonym for literature, typically referring to imaginative and artistic rather than scientific or expository writing. Current usage sometimes restricts the meaning to light or humorous writing and appreciative essays about literature.

Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland epitomizes the realm of belles-lettres.

Bildungsroman: (Also known as Apprenticeship Novel, Coming of Age Novel, Erziehungsroman, or Kunstlerroman.) A German word meaning "novel of development." The bildungsromanis a study of the maturation of a youthful character, typically brought about through a series of social or sexual encounters that lead to self-awareness. Bildungsroman is used interchangeably with erziehungsroman,a novel of initiation and education. When a bildungsroman is concerned with the development of an artist (as in James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), it is often termed a kunstlerroman.

Well-known bildungsromane include J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, Robert Newton Peck's A Day No Pigs Would Die, and S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders.

Biography: A connected narrative that tells a person's life story. Biographies typically aim to be objective and closely detailed. James Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson,LL.D is a famous example of the form. (Compare with Autobiography and Memoirs.

Black Aesthetic Movement: (Also known as Black Arts Movement.) A period of artistic and literary development among African Americans in the 1960s and early 1970s. This was the first major African-American artistic movement since the Harlem Renaissance and was closely paralleled by the civil rights and black power movements. The black aesthetic writers attempted to produce works of art that would be meaningful to the black masses. Key figures in black aesthetics included one of its founders, poet and playwright Amiri Baraka, formerly known as LeRoi Jones; poet and essayist Haki R. Madhubuti, formerly Don L. Lee; poet and playwright Sonia Sanchez; and dramatist Ed Bullins.
Works representative of the Black Aesthetic Movement include Amiri Baraka's play Dutchman, a 1964 Obie award-winner; Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing,edited by Baraka and playwright Larry Neal and published in 1968; and Sonia Sanchez's poetry collection We a BaddDDD People, published in 1970.

Black Arts Movement: See Black Aesthetic Movement

Black Comedy: See Black Humor

Black Humor: (Also known as Black Comedy.) Writing that places grotesque elements side by side with humorous ones in an attempt to shock the reader, forcing him or her to laugh at the horrifying reality of a disordered world.
Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22 is considered a superb example of the use of black humor. Other well-known authors who use black humor include Kurt Vonnegut, Edward Albee, Eugene Ionesco, and Harold Pinter.

Black Mountain School: Black Mountain College and three of its instructors — Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, and Charles Olson — were all influential in projective verse, so poets working in projective verse are now referred as members of the Black Mountain school.
The Black Mountain Review published much of the work of Black Mountain school poets.

Blank Verse: Loosely, any unrhymed poetry, but more generally, unrhymed iambic pentameter verse(composed of lines of five two-syllable feet with the first syllable accented, the second unaccented). Blank verse has been used by poets since the Renaissance for its flexibility and its graceful, dignified tone.
John Milton's Paradise Lostis in blank verse, as are most of William Shakespeare's plays.
(See also Accent, Foot, Measure, and Meter.)

Bloomsbury Group: A group of English writers, artists, and intellectuals who held informal artistic and philosophical discussions in Bloomsbury, a district of London, from around 1907 to the early 1930s. The Bloomsbury Group held no uniform philosophical beliefs but did commonly express an aversion to moral prudery and a desire for greater social tolerance.
At various times the circle included Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, Clive Bell, Lytton Strachey, and John Maynard Keynes.

Bon Mot: A French term meaning "good word." A bon mot is a witty remark or clever observation.
Charles Lamb and Oscar Wilde are celebrated for their witty bon mots. Two examples by Oscar Wilde stand out: (1) "All women become their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his." (2) "A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies."

Breath Verse: See Projective Verse

Burlesque: Any literary work that uses exaggeration to make its subject appear ridiculous, either by treating a trivial subject with profound seriousness or by treating a dignified subject frivolously. The word "burlesque" may also be used as an adjective, as in "burlesque show," to mean "striptease act."
Examples of literary burlesque include the comedies of Aristophanes, Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote,, Samuel Butler's poem "Hudibras," and John Gay's play The Beggar's Opera.(Compare with Parody.)


Cadence: The natural rhythm of language caused by the alternation of accented and unaccented syllables. Much modern Poetry— notably free Verse — deliberately manipulates cadence to create complex rhythmic effects.
James Macpherson's "Ossian poems" are richly cadenced, as is the poetry of the Symbolists, Walt Whitman, and Amy Lowell. (Compare with Meter.)

Caesura: A pause in a line of Poetry, usually occurring near the middle. It typically corresponds to a break in the natural rhythm or sense of the line but is sometimes shifted to create special meanings or rhythmic effects.
The opening line of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" contains a caesura following "dreary": "Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary...."
(Compare with Cadence.)

Canzone: A short Italian or Provencal lyric poem, commonly about love and often set to music. The canzonehas no set form but typically contains five or six stanzas made up of seven to twenty lines of eleven syllables each. A shorter, five- to ten-line "envoy," or concluding stanza, completes the poem.
Masters of the canzone form include Petrarch, Dante Alighieri, Torquato Tasso, and Guido Cavalcanti.

Carpe Diem: A Latin term meaning "seize the day." This is a traditional theme of Poetry, especially lyrics. A carpe diem poem advises the reader or the person it addresses to live for today and enjoy the pleasures of the moment.
Two celebrated carpe diem poems are Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" and Robert Herrick's poem beginning "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may...."

Catharsis: The release or purging of unwanted emotions — specifically fear and pity — brought about by exposure to art. The term was first used by the Greek philosopher Aristotle in his Poeticsto refer to the desired effect of tragedy on spectators.
A famous example of catharsis is realized in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex,when Oedipus discovers that his wife, Jacosta, is his own mother and that the stranger he killed on the road was his own father. (See also Aristotelian Criticism.)

Celtic Renaissance: (Also known as Celtic Twilight.) A period of Irish literary and cultural history at the end of the nineteenth century. Followers of the movement aimed to create a romantic vision of Celtic myth and legend. The most significant works of the Celtic Renaissance typically present a dreamy, unreal world, usually in reaction against the reality of contemporary problems.
William Butler Yeats's The Wanderings of Oisinis among the most significant works of the Celtic Renaissance. (Compare with Irish Literary Renaissanceand romanticism.)

Celtic Twilight: See Celtic Renaissance

Character: Broadly speaking, a person in a literary work. The actions of characters are what constitute the plot of a story, novel, or poem. There are numerous types of characters, ranging from simple, stereotypical figures to intricate, multifaceted ones. In the techniques of Anthropomorphismand personification, animals — and even places or things — can assume aspects of character. "Characterization" is the process by which an author creates vivid, believable characters in a work of art. This may be done in a variety of ways, including (1) direct description of the character by the narrator; (2) the direct presentation of the speech, thoughts, or actions of the character; and (3) the responses of other characters to the character. The term "character" also refers to a form originated by the ancient Greek writer Theophrastus that later became popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is a short essay or sketch of a person who prominently displays a specific attribute or quality, such as miserliness or ambition.
Notable characters in literature include Oedipus Rex, Don Quixote de la Mancha, Macbeth, Candide, Hester Prynne, Ebenezer Scrooge, Huckleberry Finn, Jay Gatsby, Scarlett O'Hara, James Bond, and Kunta Kinte.

Characterization: See Character

Chorus: In ancient Greek drama, a group of actors who commented on and interpreted the unfolding action on the stage. Initially the chorus was a major component of the presentation, but over time it became less significant, with its numbers reduced and its role eventually limited to commentary between Acts. By the sixteenth century the chorus — if employed at all — was typically a single person who provided a prologue and an epilogue and occasionally appeared between acts to introduce or underscore an important event.
The chorus in William Shakespeare's Henry Vfunctions in this way. Modern dramas rarely feature a chorus, but T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral and Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge are notable exceptions. The Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder's Our Town performs a role similar to that of the chorus.

Chronicle: A record of events presented in chronological order. Although the scope and level of detail provided varies greatly among the chronicles surviving from ancient times, some, such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,feature vivid descriptions and a lively recounting of events. During the Elizabethan Age, many dramas — appropriately called "chronicle plays" — were based on material from chronicles.
Many of William Shakespeare's dramas of English history as well as Christopher Marlowe's Edward II are based in part on Raphael Holinshead's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland.

Classical: In its strictest definition in literary criticism, classicism refers to works of ancient Greek or Roman literature. The term may also be used to describe a literary work of recognized importance (a "classic") from any time period or literature that exhibits the traits of classicism.
Classical authors from ancient Greek and Roman times include Juvenal and Homer. Examples of later works and authors now described as classical include French literature of the seventeenth century, Western novels of the nineteenth century, and American fiction of the mid-nineteenth century such as that written by James Fenimore Cooper and Mark Twain.

Classicism: A term used in literary criticism to describe critical doctrines that have their roots in ancient Greek and Roman literature, philosophy, and art. Works associated with classicism typically exhibit restraint on the part of the author, unity of design and purpose, clarity, simplicity, logical organization, and respect for tradition.
Examples of literary classicism include Cicero's prose, the dramas of Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine, the Poetry of John Dryden and Alexander Pope, and the writings of J. W. von Goethe, G. E. Lessing, and T. S. Eliot.

Climax: The turning point in a narrative, the moment when the conflict is at its most intense. Typically, the structure of stories, novels, and plays is one of rising action, in which tension builds to the climax, followed by falling action, in which tension lessens as the story moves to its conclusion.
The climax in James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicansoccurs when Magua and his captive Cora are pursued to the edge of a cliff by Uncas. Magua kills Uncas but is subsequently killed by Hawkeye. (See also Denouement, plot, and Rising Action.)

Colloquialism: A word, phrase, or form of pronunciation that is acceptable in casual conversation but not in formal, written communication. It is considered more acceptable than slang.
An example of colloquialism can be found in Rudyard Kipling's Barrack-room Ballads:
When 'Omer smote 'is bloomin' lyre
He'd 'eard men sing by land and sea;
An' what he thought 'e might require
'E went an' took — the same as me!

Comedy: One of two major types of drama, the other being tragedy. Its aim is to amuse, and it typically ends happily. Comedy assumes many forms, such as farce and burlesque, and uses a variety of techniques, from parody to satire. In a restricted sense the term comedy refers only to dramatic presentations, but in general usage it is commonly applied to nondramatic works as well.
Examples of comedies range from the plays of Aristophanes, Terrence, and Plautus, Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy, Francois Rabelais's Pantagruel and Gargantua, and some of Geoffrey Chaucer's tales and William Shakespeare's plays to Noel Coward's play Private Lives and James Thurber's short story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." (Compare with Melodrama.) (See also Black Humor, Commedia dell'arte, Comedy of Manners, Farce, Parody.)

Comedy of Manners: A play about the manners and conventions of an aristocratic, highly sophisticated society. The characters are usually types rather than individualized personalities, and plot is less important than atmosphere. Such plays were an important aspect of late seventeenth-century English Comedy. The comedy of manners was revived in the eighteenth century by Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, enjoyed a second revival in the late nineteenth century, and has endured into the twentieth century.
Examples of comedies of manners include William Congreve's The Way of the World in the late seventeenth century, Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer and Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The School for Scandal in the eighteenth century, Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest in the nineteenth century, and W. Somerset Maugham's The Circle in the twentieth century.

Comic Relief: The use of humor to lighten the mood of a serious or tragic story, especially in plays. The technique is very common in Elizabethan works, and can be an integral part of the plot or simply a brief event designed to break the tension of the scene.
The Gravediggers' scene in William Shakespeare's Hamlet is a frequently cited example of comic relief.

Coming of Age Novel: See Bildungsroman

Commedia dell'arte: An Italian term meaning "the Comedy of guilds" or "the comedy of professional actors." This form of dramatic comedy was popular in Italy during the sixteenth century. Actors were assigned stock roles (such as Pulcinella, the stupid servant, or Pantalone, the old merchant) and given a basic plot to follow, but all dialogue was improvised. The roles were rigidly typed and the plots were formulaic, usually revolving around young lovers who thwarted their elders and attained wealth and happiness. A rigid convention of the commedia dell'arte is the periodic intrusion of Harlequin, who interrupts the play with low buffoonery.
Peppino de Filippo's Metamorphoses of a Wandering Minstrel gave modern audiences an idea of what commedia dell'arte may have been like. Various scenarios for commedia dell'arte were compiled in Petraccone's La commedia dell'arte, storia, technica, scenari, published in 1927.

Complaint: A lyric poem, popular in the Renaissance, in which the speaker expresses sorrow about his or her condition. Typically, the speaker's sadness is caused by an unresponsive lover, but some complaints cite other sources of unhappiness, such as poverty or fate.
A commonly cited example is "A Complaint by Night of the Lover Not Beloved" by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. Thomas Sackville's "Complaint of Henry, Duke of Buckingham" traces the duke's unhappiness to his ruthless ambition. (Compare with Lyric Poetry.)

Conceit: A clever and fanciful metaphor, usually expressed through elaborate and extended comparison, that presents a striking parallel between two seemingly dissimilar things — for example, elaborately comparing a beautiful woman to an object like a garden or the sun. The conceit was a popular device throughout the Elizabethan Age and Baroque Age and was the principal technique of the seventeenth-century English metaphysical poets. This usage of the word conceit is unrelated to the best-known definition of conceit as an arrogant attitude or behavior.
The conceit figures prominently in the works of John Donne, Emily Dickinson, and T. S. Eliot. (Compare with Discordia concours.)

Concrete: Concrete is the opposite of abstract, and refers to a thing that actually exists or a description that allows the reader to experience an object or concept with the senses.
Henry David Thoreau's Walden contains much concrete description of nature and wildlife.

Concrete Poetry: Poetry in which visual elements play a large part in the poetic effect. Punctuation marks, letters, or words are arranged on a page to form a visual design: a cross, for example, or a bumblebee.
Max Bill and Eugene Gomringer were among the early practitioners of concrete poetry; Haroldo de Campos and Augusto de Campos are among contemporary authors of concrete poetry.

Confessional Poetry: A form of Poetry in which the poet reveals very personal, intimate, sometimes shocking information about himself or herself.
Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, and John Berryman wrote poetry in the confessional vein.

Conflict: The conflict in a work of fiction is the issue to be resolved in the story. It usually occurs between two characters, the protagonist and the antagonist, or between the protagonist and society or the protagonist and himself or herself.
Conflict in Theodore Dreiser's novel Sister Carrie comes as a result of urban society, while Jack London's short story "To Build a Fire" concerns the protagonist's battle against the cold and himself.

Connotation: The impression that a word gives beyond its defined meaning. Connotations may be universally understood or may be significant only to a certain group.
Both "horse" and "steed" denote the same animal, but "steed" has a different connotation, deriving from the chivalrous or romantic narratives in which the word was once often used. (Compare with Denotation.)

Consonance: (Also known as Half Rhyme or Slant Rhyme.) Consonance occurs in Poetry when words appearing at the ends of two or more verses have similar final consonant sounds but have final vowel sounds that differ, as with "stuff" and "off."
Consonance is found in "The curfew tolls the knells of parting day" from Thomas Grey's "An Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard." (Compare with Assonance.) (See also rhyme and Verse.)

Convention: Any widely accepted literary device, style, or form.
A soliloquy, in which a character reveals to the audience his or her private thoughts, is an example of a dramatic convention.

Corrido: A Mexican ballad.
Examples of corridos include "Muerte del afamado Bilito," "La voz de mi conciencia," "Lucio Perez," "La juida," and "Los presos."

Couplet: Two lines of Poetry with the same rhyme and Meter, often expressing a complete and self-contained thought.
The following couplet is from Alexander Pope's "Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady":
'Tis Use alone that sanctifies Expense,
And Splendour borrows all her rays from Sense.

Crime Literature: A genre of fiction that focuses on the environment, behavior, and psychology of criminals.
Prominent writers of crime novels include John Wainwright, Colin Watson, Nicolas Freeling, Ruth Rendell, Jessica Mann, Mickey Spillane, and Patricia Highsmith.

Criticism: The systematic study and evaluation of literary works, usually based on a specific method or set of principles. An important part of literary studies since ancient times, the practice of criticism has given rise to numerous theories, methods, and "schools," sometimes producing conflicting, even contradictory, interpretations of literature in general as well as of individual works. Even such basic issues as what constitutes a poem or a novel have been the subject of much criticism over the centuries.
Seminal texts of literary criticism include Plato's Republic, Aristotle's Poetics, Sir Philip Sidney's The Defence of Poesie, John Dryden's Of Dramatic Poesie, and William Wordsworth's "Preface" to the second edition of his Lyrical Ballads. Contemporary schools of criticism include deconstruction, feminist, psychoanalytic, poststructuralist, new historicist, postcolonialist, and reader-response.
(See also Aestheticism, Aristotelian Criticism, classicism, Existentialism, Formalism, Humanism, Modernism, Naturalism, Neoclassicism, New Criticism, Phenomenology, Platonic Criticism, Realism, romanticism, Semiotics, Socialist Realism, Structuralism, Textual Criticism, and Transcendentalism.)

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