In addition to teaching key terms, the Dictionary identifies the thinking and unresolved controversies surrounding them, and offers fresh insights and directions for future reading. It seeks to challenge as well as complement the reader's own ideas about literature. It is a Dictionary for the twenty-first century, both in its broad view of literature in English and its emphasis on readers enjoying poetry, prose and drama.
About the Author
Peter Auger previously studied at the University of Cambridge, and is pursuing government-funded research at the University of Oxford.
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The Anthem Dictionary of Literary Terms and Theory
By Peter Auger
Wimbledon Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2010 Peter Auger
All rights reserved.
abbreviation A shortened form of a word or phrase. There are numerous abbreviations commonly used in written English, many of which are formed from Latin phrases and can be confusing for the Latin-less reader. As with all literary terms, abbreviations are only helpful if the audience is familiar with them. This book uses a few abbreviations that direct the reader quickly to further information: 'e.g.' (exempla gratis, 'for example'), 'i.e.' (id est, 'that is'), CF. (confer, compare), C. (circa, around), p./pp. (page/s) and 1./11. (line/s). There are short entries on several others (see p. 349 for a list). In general, using other abbreviations is frowned upon in formal writing, particularly if they involve SLANG or COLLOQUIALISMS. An exception is the use of ACRONYMS (a word formed from the initial letters of several others).
abjection An act of expulsion that occurs when something is considered repellent or unworthy. In CULTURAL STUDIES, the term is associated with Julia Kristeva and fits into PSYCHOANALYTIC thinking: the thing 'abjected' exists on the boundaries of our notion of EGO (i.e. what we consider part of ourselves). We assert our self-identity by establishing a distance between ourselves and the thing that horrifies us. This describes the process by which minority groups are marginalised, and so is potentially relevant to such diverse fields as FEMINIST CRITICISM, QUEER THEORY and DISABILITY STUDIES. These ideas have been applied to specific literary texts and GENRES, such as the GOTHIC NOVEL and HORROR STORY.
abridgement The shortening of a work, often without the AUTHOR'S consent. The two main reasons this is done are to remove CONTENT considered inappropriate (i.e. BOWDLERIZE it), and to make the work suitable for another MEDIUM, such as a film ADAPTATION or modernized EDITION. Abridgements are useful if they make a text more accessible; however, the process risks distorting the original, and so are to be treated with caution. Full-length versions are usually preferable when available. For an example of a comic abridgement, see the entry for HAIKU.
absence/presence In DECONSTRUCTION it refers to the crucial difference between something that is there, and so possesses meaning and authority, and something that has no fixed existence or significance. Speech is often assumed to be based on a speaker who is present, and guarantees meaning (i.e. you said it, therefore it has a single meaning). However, DECONSTRUCTION argues that this doesn't count as 'presence', since different interpretations are still available. The reason given is that Western language, both in spoken and written forms, is LOGOCENTRIC: it is based upon the MYTH of a ever-present LOGOS (the Word) that gives everything meaning.
abstract language A form of expression suggesting a quality, action or state of being, such as 'delicious', 'delivery' and 'deceit'. Abstract language describes general concepts that have no physical existence; by contrast, CONCRETE LANGUAGE describes particular objects that can be sensed. 'Wet paint' is concrete, but 'wet' by itself is abstract. This distinction isn't relevant to ABSTRACT and CONCRETE POEMS. By itself, 'abstract' also means a summary of a long written argument (in a book, article or ESSAY).
The idea of abstract language has attracted plenty of philosophical speculation. Some philosophers would dispute that 'wet', for example, exists as an abstract concept, on the grounds that a conception of 'wet' requires us to imagine a wet object. This contradicts PLATONIC philosophy, which describes a 'theory of forms' in which abstract concepts (i.e. forms) have a separate existence to the shadowy, concrete realm that we experience. This theory led Plato to dismiss poetry on the grounds that it is an IMITATION of sensory experiences in our lower world, which makes it twice removed from actual truth. And it's true that poetry is generally more CONCRETE than abstract in its DICTION: i.e. FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE and IMAGERY hint at abstract concepts through CONCRETE language. Literary writers have been responding to this objection ever since. Philip Sidney, with Plato's objection in mind, argued that poetry combines the best elements of philosophy and history: it describes abstract philosophical truth using examples taken from history. ALLEGORY is a fine example of this. The take-home message from this discussion is that poetic 'truth' involves a combination of abstract and CONCRETE ideas: it appeals to both thought and feeling.
abstract poem A term devised by Edith Sitwell to describe poetry in which words are chosen primarily for their sound rather than their meaning. These 'patterns of sounds' evoke strong emotions, even though in some cases they sound similar to NONSENSE VERSE.
academic drama (school drama) Plays performed at British schools and universities in the sixteenth century. They were based on Roman DRAMA (the comedies of Plautus and Terence, and Senecan tragedy), and were mostly performed in Latin, though sometimes in the VERNACULAR. The earliest surviving COMEDY in English was written by a schoolmaster called Nicholas Udall, and was probably performed by pupils of Westminster school. It's called Ralph Roister Doister (1552), and is written in DOGGEREL VERSE.
acatalectic (eh-cat-a-lek-tik; Greek 'not coming to a sudden end') A line of VERSE that has the expected number of SYLLABLES. It neither lacks the final syllable (is CATALECTIC), nor has an extra syllable (HYPERMETRICAL).
accent The EMPHASIS placed on a spoken SYLLABLE. It is similar in meaning to STRESS ('Oh yes'), though accent can also refer to EMPHASIS created by changes in pitch (' "oh yes!", he squealed') or lengthening ('oh yesssss!'). It is the basis of ACCENTUAL VERSE. More generally, accent refers to a variation in how a language is spoken (e.g. American accent), where the changes don't create a DIALECT.
There are broadly three kinds of syllable accent. A word accent is the natural EMPHASIS placed on a word when spoken; e.g. 'silent' or 'remember'. A sense accent draws attention to one part of a phrase, and can change a sentence's meaning: if I say 'Remember me, when I am gone away', then I am asking you to remember me, rather than my friends, family or anyone else, whereas if I say 'Remember me, when I am gone away', then I am asking not to be chased, forgotten or mourned, but remembered. Finally, a metrical accent (the term 'STRESS' is sometimes used for this type) is a stressed BEAT created by the metrical pattern. The first two lines of Christina Rossetti's sonnet 'Remember' have an IAMBIC pattern: Remember me, when I am gone away | Gone far away into the silent land.' As this example shows, poetry subtly combines different types of accent, and often creates effects that influence meaning: e.g. the stresses on 'mem', 'me' and 'I' are metrical stresses that match the word accents. This draws attention to the repeated 'me' and emphasises the speaker's presence ('me'). Accents sometimes clash as well; in particular, a WRENCHED ACCENT occurs when the metrical accent does not match the word accent.
accentual verse Metrical writing in which only the number of STRESSES per line is fixed. There is therefore no limit on the number of unstressed SYLLABLES per line or the total LINE length. Most English VERSE is ACCENTUAL-SYLLABIC; i.e. it has a set number of stressed and unstressed SYLLABLES. Nonetheless, accentual verse has a secure place in English literary history: most OLD ENGLISH verse is accentual, as is MEDIEVAL poetry in ALLITERATIVE METRE. Gerald Manley Hopkins revived the tradition when developing what he called SPRUNG RHYTHM. Here is an example from Gawain and the Green Knight (ll.1952–53). The first LINE contains four stressed SYLLABLES (in italics) and nine unstressed, and the second LINE four STRESSED and seven unstressed:
With merþe and mynstralsye, wyth metez
at hir wylle,
[??]ay maden as mery as any men mo]??]ten
[With amusements and minstrelsy, with dishes to their pleasing,
They enjoyed themselves, as any man might]
accentual-syllabic verse Metrical writing which contains a fixed number of STRESSED and unstressed SYLLABLES per line. The VERSE falls into a regular pattern that can be classified according to the repeated units of stressed and unstressed syllables (called FEET), and the number of syllables per line (i.e. how many FEET it contains). The majority of English VERSE uses this system. For example: a LINE contains eighteen syllables, six of them stressed. The repeated unit has one stressed syllable and two unstressed, so can be identified as DACTYL (– o o). It takes six dactyls to fill the line, and therefore can be called a DACTYLIC HEXAMETER. Variations from the basic METRE create poetic effects, and so does the combination of different ACCENTS and stresses. It is important to know how accentual-syllabic verse works in order to hear and describe AURAL and RHYTHMIC poetic effects.
acephalous (adj.; eh-sef-a-lus; Greek, 'headless') A verse line that lacks the first SYLLABLE expected by the METRE. The most common acephalous lines are IAMBS that have lost their first unstressed syllable. An acephalous line is HYPOMETRICAL. It is generally found less frequently than its opposite, CATALECTIC lines (missing syllables at the end). It can be contrasted with ANACRUSIS, which is the addition of an extra syllable(s) at the beginning of a line.
acronym A word formed from the initial letters of several others, as in U.S.A. (United States of America) and A.I.D.S. (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). It is a form of ABBREVIATION used in both formal and informal DISCOURSES. When writing LITERARY ESSAYS, however, acronyms of literary works (KL for King Lear) are often considered inelegant: e.g. Two Gentlemen is preferable to TGV for The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
acrostic poem (Greek, 'top of the line') A poem in which the initial letters of each line spell out a word. The term also applies when words are spelt from the middle or final letters of each line, or in a diagonal pattern. Acrostic poems have been used for intimate or secret communication: e.g. in early Christian worship, and lovers writing to their beloved. They are occasionally found in LITERATURE, such as in the introductory 'Argument' to Ben Jonson's The Alchemist (1612). As this book's author knows from experience, some school-children's first verse composition is an acrostic poem based on their name.
act A section within a PLAY, usually beginning and ending with all the ACTORS off-stage. Acts are normally composed of individual SCENES, each involving different characters onstage. There is no agreed number of acts in plays: three and five are common, but many plays are simply divided into scenes. When quoting from plays, using act, scene and LINE numbers is preferable because this allows people with different EDITIONS to use the same references.
In modern THEATRE, drawing theatre curtains or using music normally makes the cues in the script obvious. In Greek DRAMA CHORAL speeches marked a change in scene, and the five-act division was initiated in Roman theatre (i.e. in SENECAN TRAGEDY). This was picked up by ELIZABETHAN and JACOBEAN dramatists, but was not established until the seventeenth century. Many EARLY MODERN plays have act-divisions that were added by later editors, William Shakespeare among them. Amidst this potential confusion, the safest CRITERION for an act-division is that everyone leaves the stage, because a dramatist always does this deliberately to create a lull in the action.
actor (actress) An individual who performs a ROLE in a play. Careful critics are always precise about the difference between the individual performer and the CHARACTER being brought to life. All Hamlets will speak the words 'To be or not to be' (unless using the first QUARTO text, which doesn't have this speech), but it is up to each actor to breathe emotion into the CHARACTER'S words during a performance.
adage (add-idge) A SAYING or PROVERB that has been around for centuries. Desiderius Erasmus published numerous volumes containing thousands of adages in the early sixteenth century, beginning with Adagiorum collectanea (1500). These were crucial publications for the development of HUMANISM, because they exemplified the process of mining CLASSICAL texts for quotations that could be reused.
adaptation The reworking of a text into a different MEDIUM; e.g. DRAMATIZED version, TV adaptation, novelization, ABRIDGEMENT or BOWDLERIZED EDITION. In terms of pure literary merit, adaptations will not necessarily contribute much to an understanding of the TEXT, particularly when the new work is 'inspired by', 'based on' or 'a new version of' the original. Yet there's no grounds to be sniffy about adaptations outright, since some are serious engagements with the original, and have the power to bring a work to a new audience. Many adaptations succeed on their own merits, regardless of their fidelity to the original: e.g. the film version of Ian McEwan's Atonement (2007) was warmly received — winning one Academy Award and being nominated for numerous others — but this says nothing about how faithful or otherwise it was to the book. British KITCHEN SINK DRAMAS offer several more examples of successful film adaptations, partly because they are REALIST works that translate well to film.
Adaptation is a form of TRANSLATION. It offers an insight into how different cultures and media understand a work. For example, Nahum Tate rewrote William Shakespeare's King Lear with a happy ending. This may seem a strange thing to do now, but it reflects how people were reacting to the play in the late seventeenth century. A more respected adaptation is Grigori Kozinstev's film Korol Lir (1971), which grapples with Shakespeare's portrayal of human fragility whilst drawing connections with the plight of Russian peasants. Arguments could be had about whether these adaptations are still truly Shakespearean, but then you could ask what being 'faithful' really is, and whether that is even desirable. Adaptations offer the chance to explore how people have reacted to texts over time, and this makes them potentially fascinating.
adjective (comparative; superlative; adverb) A word that describes a NOUN: e.g. 'silver', 'scintillating' and 'sympathetic'. An adverb describes a VERB, and usually ends in '-ly': e.g. 'patiently' and 'stubbornly'. A comparative adjective shows that something possesses a quality in a different degree from something else: e.g. 'smarter' and 'more delicate'. A superlative adjective shows that something possesses a quality in the greatest degree among others: 'the best', 'most marvellous'. If the original adjective has one or two syllables '-er'/ '-est' is added; if three or more then 'more'/'most' is used.
adynaton (Greek, 'feeble') A figure involving exaggeration that exceeds the bounds of possibility. It is a FORM of HYPERBOLE that consciously reaches the limits of what language can express. As such, it is related to APORIA (when the speaker cannot find the right words) and gestures to the SUBLIME. An example from Andrew Marvell's 'To his Coy Mistress' (ll. 13–18):
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze.
Two hundred to adore each breast;
But thirty thousand to the rest.
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
aesthetic (n. and adj.; aesthetics; Greek, 'able to be perceived by the senses') As an adjective, it means concerned with beauty and/or perception of beauty. As a noun, it means the principles or theory upon which an idea or expression of beauty is based. It's possible to speak of a writer's aesthetic (e.g. 'Hemingway's aesthetic involves the use of simple DICTION'). Aesthetics is the branch of philosophy that thinks hard about beauty.
Many thinkers about aesthetics mull over the relation between beauty, goodness and truth: i.e. whether beauty indicates moral virtue, and/or SUBLIME truth. To put it simpy, the debate is whether beauty really is only in the eye of the beholder. Some POST-STRUCTURALIST and MARXIST CRITICS argue that it definitely is, and claim that the idea of higher beauty is an IDEOLOGICAL belief that has no basis in reality.
aesthetic distance The relation between a LITERARY work and its audience. Aesthetic distance provides the necessary detachment that allows an audience to have a shared response to a TEXT, regardless of personal reaction or thoughts. Aesthetic distance means that the audience treats the work as an artistic FICTION (ripe for AESTHETIC experience), and not a version of reality. Aristotle's notion of CATHARSIS results from aesthetic distance. The notion of aesthetic distance has been challenged by MARXIST, FEMINIST, POSTCOLONIAL and NEW HISTORICIST critics amongst others, who argue that aesthetic reaction is not detached from personal experience, but is determined by CONTEXTUAL factors, such as the audience's class or GENDER.
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Table of Contents
Foreword; Author's Preface; A-Z Entries; Thematic Index; Timeline of Works Cited; Bibliography of Print and Electronic Sources