26 Poetic Devices with Examples | Literary Devices in Poetry

Composing poetry is a daunting task that demands not only a poet's emotional prowess but also an aptitude for manipulating the language in which it is written. The English language, along with its literature, has undergone significant transformations over the last century, rendering it an intricate and complex tool for poets to wield. Poets employ a myriad of literary devices, and it would be fair to say that all writers, be they poets, dramatists, or novelists, depend on these tools to some extent to convey their message. Hence, with the evolution of the English language and literature, there have been corresponding developments in literary devices and poetic techniques, which writers have embraced and skillfully integrated into their literary works.

Poetic Devices: Mobile-First Slides

Here, we present a compilation of some frequently used literary and poetic devices that are ubiquitous in the works of all writers:

1. Alliteration

Alliteration is a literary device that involves the repetition of the initial sound of each word. It is often employed by poets to create a specific kind of rhyming scheme in their works, although it can sometimes impede the flow of the poem and make it difficult for readers to read. Here are a couple of additional examples:
  • Sally sold seashells by the seashore.
  • Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.
In both of these examples, the repeated initial sounds (S in the first example, and P in the second) serve to create a playful, sing-song quality that draws the reader in and makes the lines more memorable.

2. Allusion

Allusion is a literary device that poets and writers use to refer to something indirectly, often through a reference to a historical event, person, or work of art. This technique allows the writer to draw on the associations and emotions that the reader may already have with the alluded-to subject, adding depth and richness to the work.

Here are two more examples of allusion in literature:

  • In T.S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land, there is an allusion to the Greek myth of the Fisher King, who is wounded and unable to heal until he is brought the Holy Grail. The poem makes use of this myth to explore themes of spiritual and cultural decay in modern society.
  • In F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby, the character Jay Gatsby is often compared to the mythical figure of Icarus. Icarus was a Greek mythological character who flew too close to the sun on wings made of feathers and wax, causing his wings to melt and sending him plummeting to his death. Similarly, Gatsby's dreams of wealth and social status ultimately lead to his downfall.
  • In J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, the character Albus Dumbledore's name is an allusion to the Latin phrase "albus dubius," which means "white doubt." This name is fitting for Dumbledore, who is a wise and respected mentor figure but whose motives and actions are often shrouded in mystery and ambiguity. The allusion to this Latin phrase adds depth and complexity to Dumbledore's character, as well as creating a sense of intrigue for readers.

    3. Ambiguity

    Ambiguity is a powerful tool for poets and writers, allowing them to create multiple meanings and interpretations in their work. This can be achieved through the use of words with multiple meanings, sentence structures that can be interpreted in different ways, or intentional vagueness in descriptions or characterizations. While ambiguity can be frustrating for readers seeking a clear and definitive meaning, it can also add depth and complexity to a literary work, allowing for multiple layers of interpretation.

    Here are two examples of ambiguity in literature:

  • In Emily Dickinson's poem "Because I could not stop for Death," the speaker describes a carriage ride with Death. The final line of the poem reads: "Since then - 'tis Centuries - and yet / Feels shorter than the Day." This line is ambiguous, as it can be interpreted in multiple ways. Some readers see it as a commentary on the fleeting nature of life and how it can seem to pass by quickly, while others interpret it as a reference to the afterlife, where time may not be experienced in the same way as it is on earth.
  • In William Shakespeare's play Hamlet, the famous line "To be or not to be, that is the question" is an example of intentional ambiguity. The phrase can be interpreted in multiple ways, with some readers seeing it as a contemplation of suicide and others viewing it as a broader meditation on the human condition and the nature of existence. The line's ambiguity allows for a range of interpretations, adding depth and complexity to the play's themes.

    4. Analogy

    Analogy is a powerful poetic device that allows poets to create vivid imagery and comparisons in their work. By drawing connections between familiar and unfamiliar things, analogies can help readers better understand and relate to the themes and ideas presented in a poem. Whether it's a comparison between two objects, events, or emotions, analogies can add depth and complexity to a poem's meaning.

    Here are two more examples of analogies in literature:

  • In Langston Hughes' poem "Harlem," the speaker asks: "What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?" This analogy between a deferred dream and a raisin in the sun creates a vivid image in the reader's mind and helps to convey the frustration and disappointment of unfulfilled dreams.
  • In William Butler Yeats' poem "The Second Coming," the speaker describes a chaotic and apocalyptic vision of the world. One of the most famous lines of the poem reads: "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold." This analogy between the world and a structure on the brink of collapse creates a powerful image and reinforces the sense of impending doom in the poem.

    5. Assonance

    Assonance is a versatile poetic device that can be used in many different ways. Poets often use it to create internal rhymes and patterns within a poem, which can help to reinforce the meaning of the text or add a sense of musicality and rhythm to the work. Additionally, assonance can be used to create a particular mood or tone, depending on the sound that is being repeated.
    One of the key differences between assonance and other poetic devices such as alliteration or consonance is that assonance focuses on the repetition of vowel sounds, rather than consonant sounds. This can give it a more subtle and understated effect, as the repeated sounds are not as noticeable as with other devices.

    Here are two more examples of assonance in literature:

  • In Langston Hughes' poem "Harlem," the speaker asks the question, "What happens to a dream deferred?" The repetition of the "e" sound in "deferred" and "dream" creates a sense of melancholy and sadness, underscoring the theme of the poem.
  • In Emily Dickinson's poem "Success is counted sweetest," the speaker muses on the nature of success and how it is often more appreciated by those who have not yet achieved it. The repetition of the long "e" sound in "success" and "sweetest" creates a sense of irony and bitterness, highlighting the poem's message.

    6. Cacophony

    Cacophony is often used to convey a negative or chaotic tone in a poem or literary work. It can also be used to create an atmosphere of discomfort or unease. The use of harsh or discordant sounds can make the reader feel unsettled and contribute to the overall mood of the piece.

    Another example of cacophony can be seen in T.S. Eliot's poem "The Waste Land":
    “Twit twit twit
    Jug jug jug jug jug jug
    So rudely forc'd.”
    Here, the repetition of the words "twit" and "jug" creates a jarring and discordant effect, contributing to the bleak and desolate tone of the poem.

    Similarly, in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Bells," the use of harsh consonant sounds creates a cacophonous effect:
    "Hear the sledges with the bells--
    Silver bells!
    What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
    How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
    In the icy air of night!"
    The repetition of the "k" sound in "tinkle" and the "s" sound in "sledges" and "bells" creates a jarring and discordant effect, contributing to the ominous and foreboding tone of the poem.

    7. Connotation

    Connotation refers to the implied or suggested meaning of a word, beyond its literal definition. It is the emotional or cultural associations that a word carries, which can be either positive or negative.

    Two examples of connotation are:

  • The word "cunning" can have negative connotations of being deceitful, sly, or manipulative. It may evoke feelings of distrust or suspicion.
  • The word "clever" can have positive connotations of being intelligent, resourceful, or inventive. It may evoke feelings of admiration or respect.

    8. Contrast

    Contrast is a literary device that highlights the differences between two or more things. It is often used in poetry to create vivid imagery and emphasize certain qualities. Two examples of contrast are:
    Robert Frost's poem "Fire and Ice":
    "Some say the world will end in fire,
    Some say in ice.
    From what I've tasted of desire
    I hold with those who favor fire."
    In this poem, Frost contrasts fire and ice to represent two opposing forces that could bring about the end of the world. Fire is associated with passion and desire, while ice represents coldness and detachment.

    Emily Dickinson's poem "Success is counted sweetest":
    "Success is counted sweetest
    By those who ne'er succeed.
    To comprehend a nectar
    Requires sorest need."
    In this poem, Dickinson contrasts success and failure to suggest that those who have never experienced success may actually appreciate it more. The contrast between success and failure is used to explore the idea of the value of success.
    Overall, contrast is a powerful literary device that can be used to create vivid imagery and emphasize certain qualities.

    9. Euphony

    Euphony is a literary device used to create pleasing and melodious sounds in language, often achieved through the use of harmonious combinations of words, syllables, and consonants. Here are two additional examples of euphony in literature:

    "Ode to a Nightingale" by John Keats
    "Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
    No hungry generations tread thee down;
    The voice I hear this passing night was heard
    In ancient days by emperor and clown"
    The repeated use of soft consonants like "thou," "wast," and "hear" creates a harmonious and melodious effect in this stanza.

    "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" by W.B. Yeats
    "And live alone in the bee-loud glade."
    The repetition of the "l" and "d" sounds in "bee-loud glade" creates a pleasant and soothing effect, contributing to the overall peaceful mood of the poem.

    10. Hyperbole

    Hyperbole is a figure of speech that involves the use of exaggeration to emphasize a point or make an idea more dramatic. It is often used in literature and poetry to create a powerful or humorous effect.

    Here are examples of hyperbole:
  • "I've been waiting for this day for a million years." This statement exaggerates the length of time the speaker has been waiting, emphasizing their eagerness and excitement.
  • "I'm so hungry I could eat a horse." This statement exaggerates the speaker's hunger to a ridiculous degree, emphasizing their need for food in a humorous way.

    From "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Eliot:
  • "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons." This line exaggerates the idea that the speaker's life is so mundane and uneventful that it can be measured out in something as small and insignificant as coffee spoons.

    11. Imagery

    Imagery is a literary device that uses sensory details to create mental images or sensory experiences for the reader. It is used to make the language of a literary work more vivid, descriptive, and memorable. (Read: Five Types of Imagery) Two examples of imagery are:
    "The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
    But I have promises to keep,
    And miles to go before I sleep,
    And miles to go before I sleep."
    (Robert Frost, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening")

    In this poem, the words "lovely", "dark", and "deep" paint a mental picture of the woods, while the mention of "snowy evening" appeals to the reader's sense of touch and sight.
    "She walks in beauty, like the night
    Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
    And all that's best of dark and bright
    Meet in her aspect and her eyes"
    (Lord Byron, "She Walks in Beauty")

    In this poem, the words "night", "climes", "starry skies", and "dark and bright" evoke a sense of beauty, while the use of "aspect" and "eyes" appeal to the reader's sense of sight.

    12. irony

    irony can be defined as the use of words or situations to convey a meaning that is opposite to its literal or expected meaning. It is a rhetorical device used to create humor, emphasize a point, or to criticize something indirectly.

    Two more examples of irony are:
  • In “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin, the protagonist, Mrs. Mallard, is initially devastated by the news of her husband’s death but eventually feels a sense of liberation and freedom. However, her husband surprisingly returns alive, and Mrs. Mallard dies of shock, illustrating the irony of the situation.
  • In the famous play by William Shakespeare, “Julius Caesar,” the character of Brutus says “Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more” as a justification for his betrayal and involvement in the assassination of Caesar. However, his act of patriotism leads to chaos and destruction in Rome, emphasizing the dramatic irony in the play.

    13. Onomatopoeia

    Onomatopoeia is a poetic device where words are used to imitate natural sounds or sounds of things that they describe. It is a technique that appeals to the sense of hearing and creates an auditory image in the mind of the reader.

    Example 1:
  • The bees were buzzing around the honeycomb.
    In this sentence, the word "buzzing" imitates the sound that bees make. It creates a sensory experience for the reader, making them feel like they are surrounded by buzzing bees. Example 2:
  • The leaves rustled in the gentle breeze.
    In this sentence, the word "rustled" imitates the sound of leaves moving in the wind. It helps the reader to imagine the scene more vividly and feel the atmosphere of the gentle breeze.

    15. Oxymoron

    Oxymoron is a literary device in which contradictory words are combined in a single phrase or expression, to create a paradoxical effect or emphasize a point. It is a figure of speech that often creates a dramatic or humorous impact. In addition to Milton's famous use of "darkness visible," here are two other examples of oxymoron:
  • "Jumbo shrimp" - The word "jumbo" suggests something large, while "shrimp" is a small sea creature. The use of these two words together creates an oxymoron that is often used in everyday language.
  • "Silent scream" - The word "silent" suggests something that is quiet and peaceful, while "scream" is loud and chaotic. The use of these two words together creates an oxymoron that emphasizes the intensity of a situation, such as a nightmare or emotional pain.

    16. Paradox

    Paradox is a literary device that employs contradictory statements or concepts to reveal a deeper truth. It is often used by poets to create an intellectual puzzle that challenges the reader's expectations. For example:
  • "I can resist anything except temptation." (Oscar Wilde)
  • "Less is more." (Ludwig Mies van der Rohe)
  • "This statement is false." (Self-referential paradox)
  • "The sound of silence." (Simon & Garfunkel song) In these examples, the paradoxical nature of the statements creates a tension that invites the reader to explore the deeper meaning behind them.

    17. Personification

    Personification is a literary device in which human qualities or characteristics are attributed to non-human entities or objects. This technique is often used by poets to create a deeper connection between the reader and the subject of the poem.

    Here are two more examples of personification:
    The wind whispered secrets through the trees.
    The sun smiled down on the field of flowers.
    In these examples, the wind and the sun are given human qualities of whispering and smiling, respectively.

    18. Pun

    A pun is a form of wordplay in which a poet uses a word or phrase that has multiple meanings or sounds similar to another word but has a different meaning. It is often used to create a humorous or ironic effect. For example:
  • Why was the math book sad? Because it had too many problems.
  • Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana. In the first example, the word "problems" has two meanings: mathematical problems and difficulties. In the second example, the phrase "time flies" is a common idiom that means time passes quickly, but the pun changes the meaning by using it to describe how a fruit fly moves.

    19. Rhyme

    Rhyme is a popular poetic device that involves the repetition of similar sounding words, usually at the end of each line. Poets use rhyme to create a musical and rhythmic effect in their work. For example, consider the following lines from William Shakespeare's Sonnet 18:
    Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
    Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
    Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
    And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
    In this excerpt, the words "day" and "temperate" and "May" and "date" are examples of end rhyme.

    Another type of rhyme is internal rhyme, which occurs within a single line of poetry. For instance, in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven," he writes:
    And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
    Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
    In this example, "uncertain" and "curtain" are examples of internal rhyme, as they share the same vowel sound in the same line of poetry.

    Finally, there is also slant rhyme, which involves words that have similar but not identical sounds. For example, in Emily Dickinson's poem "Because I could not stop for Death," she writes:
    We slowly drove – He knew no haste
    And I had put away
    My labor, and my leisure too,
    For His Civility
    In this example, "haste" and "civility" are examples of slant rhyme, as they share similar sounds but not identical ones.

    20. Simile

    Simile is a literary device in which the poet compares two unlike things by using the words "like" or "as" to create a vivid image in the reader's mind. The purpose of simile is to create a stronger connection between the reader and the object being described by drawing a parallel to something that is familiar or easily understood.

    Examples of simile are:
  • "She was as graceful as a swan gliding across the water." Here, the poet is comparing a woman's gracefulness to the smooth and elegant movements of a swan.
  • "The sun was like a ball of fire in the sky." In this example, the poet is comparing the brightness and intensity of the sun to a ball of fire to convey its power and strength.

    21. Metaphor

    Metaphor is a figurative language device that compares two different things, but without using "like" or "as" as in a simile. Instead, a metaphor directly states that one thing is another, suggesting a non-literal similarity between them. This device is commonly used in poetry to convey abstract ideas or emotions through concrete imagery.

    Two examples of metaphor are:
  • Life is a journey: In this metaphor, life is compared to a journey, suggesting that life has its own ups and downs, its own twists and turns, just like a journey.
  • My brother is a shining star: This metaphor compares the speaker's brother to a shining star, suggesting that he is bright, talented, and stands out from the crowd.

    22. Symbolism

    Symbolism is a literary device that uses symbols, which are objects, people, or actions that represent something beyond their literal meaning, to convey abstract ideas and emotions in a deeper and more profound way. The use of symbolism allows writers to express complex concepts, themes, and messages without directly stating them.

    Examples of Symbolism in Literature:
  • "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald: In this novel, the green light at the end of Daisy's dock symbolizes Gatsby's unattainable dream and his longing for Daisy. The green light represents the hope and promise of Gatsby's future, but it is always just out of reach, like his relationship with Daisy.
  • "The Scarlet Letter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne: The scarlet letter "A" that Hester Prynne is forced to wear on her chest is a symbol of her sin and shame. The letter "A" stands for "adultery" and serves as a constant reminder of Hester's past and her transgressions. However, as the novel progresses, the letter "A" takes on new meanings and becomes a symbol of Hester's strength and defiance against the oppressive Puritan society.

    Overall, symbolism is an important literary technique that can add depth and meaning to a work of literature.

    23. Rhetorical Question

    A rhetorical question is a figure of speech that is often used in speeches, poetry, and literature to make a point or emphasize a statement. It is a question that is posed to an audience, but the speaker or writer does not expect an actual response. Instead, the question is asked to make the audience think or to convey a specific message.

    Here are two additional examples of rhetorical questions:
  • In Mark Antony's speech from Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," he asks the following question to the crowd: "Did this in Caesar seem ambitious? When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept: Ambition should be made of sterner stuff."

    This question is used to make the audience question their own judgment of Caesar's character and to persuade them to take Antony's side.

    In Langston Hughes' poem "Harlem," he asks a series of rhetorical questions to convey the idea of deferred dreams:
    "What happens to a dream deferred?
    Does it dry up
    like a raisin in the sun?
    Or fester like a sore--
    And then run?
    Does it stink like rotten meat?
    Or crust and sugar over--
    like a syrupy sweet?
    These questions are asked to make the reader contemplate the consequences of unfulfilled dreams and the impact it can have on an individual or society.

    24. Conceit

    A conceit is a literary device that creates an imaginative connection between two very unlike things through an elaborate and often improbable comparison. It is commonly used in poetry and is often associated with similes, extended metaphors, and allegories.

    The term "conceit" is connected to the word "concept." During the Renaissance, it referred to an imaginative and whimsical expression because of its poetic use. Alternatively, the term conceit also refers to an unlikely situation or premise that propels the narrative in a text.

    Types of Conceits

    There are two main types of conceit: Petrarchan and metaphysical.

    Petrarchan Conceit

    The Petrarchan conceit, popularized by Italian classic poet Francesco Petrarch, uses hyperbole, simile, and metaphor to discuss an object of affection, often using extended metaphors to center the poem around this conceit.

    One example of Petrarchan conceit is found in William Shakespeare's "Sonnet 18" in which he compares his lover's beauty to a summer's day:
    "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
    Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
    Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
    And summer's lease hath all too short a date."

    Metaphysical Conceit

    The metaphysical conceit takes the Petrarchan conceit further, deliberately selecting unexpected comparisons. These comparisons challenge the reader to determine the expression's meaning and understand the intellectual argument the poet is making. This type of conceit also uses hyperbole, simile, and metaphor.

    One example of metaphysical conceit can be found in John Donne's "The Flea," where he uses the image of a flea to argue for the consummation of love:
    "Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
    How little that which thou deniest me is;
    It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
    And in this flea our two bloods mingled be."
    Another example of metaphysical conceit is found in Donne's "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning," in which he compares two lovers' souls to twin compasses:
    "If they be two, they are two so
    As stiff twin compasses are two,
    Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
    To move, but doth if the other do."
    Examples of Conceit in Literature

    John Donne, "The Sun Rising"
  • In "The Sun Rising," Donne uses the conceit of the sun as a personified figure who intrudes upon the lover's intimacy with his mistress:
    "Busy old fool, unruly sun,
    Why dost thou thus,
    Through windows, and through curtains, call on us?"
    George Herbert, "Love"
  • In "Love," Herbert uses the metaphor of a flea to describe the fleeting nature of earthly love:
    "Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
    Guilty of dust and sin.
    But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
    From my first entrance in,
    Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
    If I lack'd anything."

    25. Caesura

    Caesura is a literary device used in poetry to create a pause or a break in the verse. It can be used to add emphasis, to create tension, or to give the reader a moment to reflect on what has been said. Here are two more examples of Caesura:

  • In William Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, the titular character delivers a soliloquy that contains several caesuras:
    To be, or not to be, || that is the question:
    Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
    The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
    Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
    And by opposing, end them? || To die: to sleep;
  • In John Keats' poem, "Ode to a Nightingale", he uses caesuras to create a pause that adds weight to the poem:
    Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
    What thou among the leaves hast never known,
    The weariness, the fever, and the fret
    Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
    Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
    Where youth grows pale, and specter-thin, and dies;
    Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
    And leaden-eyed despairs;
    Where beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
    Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

    26. Enjambment

    Enjambment is a poetic device in which a phrase, clause, or sentence flows over from one line of verse to the next without a pause or a break. This technique is used to create a sense of continuity, to connect ideas across multiple lines, and to create a sense of anticipation in the reader by withholding a full stop or a clear resolution. Enjambment can also be used to create tension and ambiguity by allowing multiple meanings or interpretations of a phrase.

    Example 1:
  • In T.S. Eliot's poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," the speaker uses enjambment to convey a sense of hesitation and uncertainty:
    Do I dare
    Disturb the universe?
    In a minute there is time
    For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
    Example 2:
  • In Langston Hughes' poem "Mother to Son," enjambment is used to convey the hardships and struggles faced by the speaker:
    Well, son, I'll tell you:
    Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
    It's had tacks in it,
    And splinters,
    And boards torn up,
    And places with no carpet on the floor—
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