Essential Literary Elements, Part 2

Here at eNotes, we’re constantly reading and trying to figure out the myriad meanings found within our favorite texts. One of the ways we try to better understand what’s going on is to refresh ourselves on the many literary elements found in works across literary genres. Let’s look at five essential literary elements in Part 2 of this ongoing series.

What Are Kennings?

Most often associated with Old-English poetry, such as Beowulf, but also used in Old Norse and Icelandic poetry, kennings are figurative expressions that serve as a particular kind of metaphor. To make a kenning, an author uses a pair of words to refer to something, either concrete or abstract, with additional meaning. We actually use kennings fairly frequently in English; for example, you can call someone a “bookworm” or a football a “pig-skin.”

Since first he found him friendless and wretched,

The earl had had terror: comfort he got for it,

Waxed ‘neath the welkin, world-honor gained,

Till all his neighbors o’er sea were compelled to

Bow to his bidding and bring him their tribute:

An excellent atheling!

Beowulf, translated by Lesslie Hall

No thought had the monster of deferring the matter,

But on earliest occasion he quickly laid hold of

A soldier asleep, suddenly tore him,

Bit his bone-prison, the blood drank in currents,

Swallowed in mouthfuls:

Beowulf, translated by Lesslie Hall

What Is a Metaphor?

A metaphor is one of the most common figures of speech that writers have used for generations, possibly since the advent of writing. Metaphors rely on a grammatic structure to compare two things, either explicitly or implicitly. In building a metaphor, the writer does not explain the nature of the comparison; readers interpret it for themselves to develop a deeper understanding of what is being described.

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.

— William Shakespeare’s As You Like It

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;

—T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock

This is the Hour of Lead—

Remembered, if outlived,

As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow—

First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—

—Emily Dickinson’s After Great Pain, a Formal Feeling Comes

What Is Meter?

One of the aspects of prosody, a term that describes the technical aspects of verse, meter refers to the recurring pattern of sounds in poems that give them distinctive rhythm. While once the the definition of poetic form, adhering to a regular meter or consistent rhyme has fallen out of fashion since the 19th century, with poets experimenting more and using meter as it suits their needs. Meter is measured in metrical feet, known as iambs—an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.

At once a voice arose among

The bleak twigs overhead

In a full-hearted evensong

Of joy illimited;

—Thomas Hardy’s The Darkling Thrush

Double, double, toil and trouble;

Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

—William Shakespeare’s Macbeth

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,

And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

—Sara Teasdale’s There Will Come Soft Rains

What Is an Oxymoron?

An oxymoron is a particular kind of figure of speech in which a pair of contradictory terms are put together for emphasis. By contradicting one another, these closely linked elements express something else entirely, creating a rhetorical effect or showing more complicated, figurative meaning. For example, several oxymorons include “deafening silence,” “bittersweet,” and “passive aggressive.”

Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!

—William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way

To the siding-shed,

And lined the train with faces grimly gay.

—Wilfred Owen’s “The Send-Off

A dungeon horrible, on all sides round,

As one great furnace flamed; yet from those flames

No light; but rather darkness visible

Served only to discover sights of woe,

—John Milton’s Paradise Lost

What Is a Paradox?

A paradox is similar to an oxymoron—in fact, an oxymoron can be considered a compressed paradox. In a paradox, a statement that appears to be contradictory or impossible actually expresses a striking truth.

Other women cloy

The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry

Where most she satisfies.

—William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra

The broadest and most prevalent error requires the most disinterested virtue to sustain it.

—Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience

I must be cruel, only to be kind: 

—William Shakespeare’s Hamlet