Anaphora in Literature: Definition, Effect & Examples

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  • 0:01 Definition of Anaphora
  • 1:30 Effect of Anaphora
  • 3:51 Example of Anaphora
  • 5:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Timothy Inman

Tim has taught college English and has a Master of Fine Arts degree in writing and poetics.

Learn what anaphora means in literature and in the greater world. Look at real examples from poetry and politics, then take a quiz to test your comprehension.

Definition of Anaphora

Anaphora is the repetition of a certain word or phrase at the beginning of successive lines of writing or speech. It can be used in novels and short stories, but it's most commonly seen in poetry, essays, and formal speeches.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s speeches and sermons are full of instances of anaphora. In the following example from his famous 'I Have a Dream' address at the March on Washington, the underlined words indicate the repeated element:

'Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.'

As a rhetorical device, or a technique that an author uses to persuade, anaphora is used for the purpose of generating a particular effect in your audience. As you can see in the example, the phrase 'now is the time to' is repeated for a particular effect. Keep in mind that anaphora can be the repetition of a whole phrase, as in Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech, or of just a single word.

The opposite of anaphora, epiphora, in which the repeated word or phrase appears at the end of successive lines, was used by Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address: 'It is … for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us … that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.'

Effect of Anaphora

Anaphora appeals to the feelings, or pathos, of your audience. By repeating a word or phrase, your readers or listeners start to anticipate the next line. They are drawn into your words through a sense of participation. Because they know what's coming next, they are more receptive to the emotional resonance you are trying to get across.

You can evoke any number of feelings when using anaphora, including but not limited to anger, fear, solidarity, or even nostalgia. Martin Luther King Jr. appeals to the growing solidarity among blacks and white allies during the heyday of the American civil rights movement. Those in attendance in front of the Lincoln Memorial on that fateful day in 1963 felt a sense of unity and accord built on the participatory nature of anaphora.

Charles Dickens, in his novel A Tale of Two Cities, made brilliant use of anaphora to convey a feeling of uncertainty about the past in arguably the most famous opening lines in the history of literature:

'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way …'

It's hard not to get drawn into this excerpt, particularly if you were a contemporary reader of Dickens. The repetition of 'it was' draws you in because it makes you a participant in the novel. Dickens knew this well. That's why he followed it with another repetition: 'we had … we were … we were.'

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