I don't know who compiled the following material, which I have taken from mimeographed sheets — anyone remember mimeographs? — that I acquired while in graduate school at Princeton in the early 1960s. Professor Louis Landa, who specialized in eighteenth-century literature, may have created them for his graduate seminar, but I think it more likely that a student produced this material and shared it with others as collaborative preparation for the preliminary examination for PhD candidates.

Most of the examples come from the poetry of Alexander Pope, but since I am putting these definitions in the Victorian Web, I'd like to include examples from Victorian and later works, too. If you have some favorites you'd like included, please send them to me at

Metaphor

An implied comparison between two things of unlike nature that yet have something in common:

On life's vast ocean diversely we sail,
Reason the card, but Passion is the gale.

With varying vanities, from every part,
They shift the moving Toyshop of their heart.

Simile

an explicit comparison between two things of unlike nature that yet have something in common:

Some neither can for Wits nor Criticks pass,
As heavy Mules are neither Horse nor Ass.

And 'midst the Desart fruitful Fields arise,
That crown'd with tufted Trees and springing Corn,
Like verdant Isles the sable Waste adorn.

Here's a twentieth-century example from Raymond Chandler, the master of hard-boiled detective fiction [Quoted by Michael Dirda in the October 26, 2012 Times Literary Supplement]:

We looked at each other with the clear innocent eyes of a couple of used car salesmen.

Is this an indirect or implied simile (since neither of the people described are in fact used car salesmen)?

Synecdoche

a figure of speech in which a part stands for the whole:

1. genus substituted for species: weapon for sword, arms for rifles

2. species substituted for the genus: Is the reward of Virtue bread? (bread stands for not only the genus "food," but also for all necessities and even luxuries of life.)

3. part substituted for the whole: sail for ship, hands for helpers.

4. matter for what is made from it: steel for sword, gold for money, as in "Judges and Senates have been bought for gold."

Metonymy

the substitution of some attributive or suggestive word for what is actually meant (very closely related to synecdoche):

crown for royalty, mitre for bishop, bottle for wine.

The Fair sate panting at a Courtier's Play,
And not a Mask went un-improved away.

(Here "mask" stands for the woman behind the mask.)

shou'd vanquished France appear (where "France" stands for the French king.)

Fancy and art in gay Petronious please,
The scholar's learning, with the courtier's ease.

(Here the name of the author is used to represent his works, playing into what Foucault calls the "author function")

Puns

generic term for those figures which make a play on words:

1. Antanclasis: repetition of a word in two different senses:

Learn a CRAFT so that when you grow older you will not have to earn your living by CRAFT.

Come, Madam, come, all rest my powers defie, Until I labour, I in labour lie. (Donne)

2. Paronomasia: use of words alike in sound but different in meaning:

It was a foul act to steal my fowl.

3. syllepsis: use of a word understood differently in relation to two or more other words, which it modifies or governs:

Here thou, great Anna! whom three realms obey
Dost sometimes counsel take and sometimes tea.

Or stain her honour, or her new brocade.

Or lose her heart, or necklace, at a ball.

[This is the only form of pun which Pope uses frequently.]

Anthimera

the substitution of one part of speech for another:

all that roam the wood,/or wing the sky

Periphrasis, or Antonomasia

substitution of a descriptive word or phrase for a proper name, or of a proper name for a quality associated with the name:

And let your Comment be the Mantuan Muse [i.e., Vergil, who came from Mantua].

She was a very Penelope for virtue.

Personification

investing abstractions or inanimate objects with human qualities or abilities:

Fair Liberty, Britannia's Goddess, rears
Her cheerful Head, and leads the golden Years.

There Faction roar, Rebellion bite her chain.

(Similar to Personification is Apostrophe, addressing an absent figure or a personified abstraction).

Hyperbole

the use of exaggerated terms for the purpose of emphasis or heightened effect:

And open those eyes that must eclipse the day.

Litotes

deliberate use of understatement, not to deceive someone but to enhance the impressiveness of what is said:

Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her appearance for the worse. (Swift)

Rhetorical Question (Erotea)

asking a question, not for the purpose of eliciting an answer but for the purpose of asserting or denying something obliquely:

All this dread ORDER break — for whom? for thee?

When Nature deviates, and can Man do less?

Shall he alone, whom rational we call;
Be pleas'd with nothing, if not bless'd with all?

Irony

This trope is often defined as the use of a word in such a way as to convey a meaning different from its literal one, but that definition makes irony equivalent to allegory and indistinguishable from it. I would define irony, therefore, as the effect produced by using a word in such a way as to convey a meaning different, and often opposite, its literal meaning:

For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men. [Shakespeare, Julius Caesar]

Onomatopoeia

use of words whose sound echoes the sense:

Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;
But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,
The hoarse, rough verse shou'd like the torrent roar:
When AJax strives some rock's vast weight to throw,
The line too labors, and the words move slow;
Not so when Camilla scours the plain,
Fiies o'er the unbending corn, and skims along the main.

In Keats and Tennyson, onomatopoeia, one of their characteristic techniques, often employs sibillants — lots of "s" sounds — and assonance — repetition and variation of vowel sounds.

Oxymoron

the yoking of two terms which are ordinarily contradictory:

With some unmeaning thing they call a thought.

While thus each hand promotes the pleasing pain.


Victorian Web Overview Literary Technique

7 July 2014