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Kara Wilson is a 6th-12th grade English and Drama teacher. She has a B.A. in Literature and an M.Ed, both of which she earned from the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Poetry can follow a strict structure, or none at all, but many different types of poems use poetic devices. Poetic devices are tools that a poet can use to create rhythm, enhance a poem's meaning, or intensify a mood or feeling. These devices help piece the poem together, much like a hammer and nails join planks of wood together. Some of these devices are used in literature as well, but for the sake of clarity, we will look at all of these devices through the lens of poetry.
Let's start with some of the devices that can be used to create rhythm, including repetition, syllable variation, and rhyming.
In poetry, repetition is repeating words, phrases, or lines. For example, Edgar Allen Poe's poem 'The Bells' repeats the word 'bells.' By doing so, Poe creates a sing-song rhythm similar to that of bells ringing.
To the swinging and the ringing
of the bells, bells, bells--
A unit of poetic meter, also known as a foot, consists of various combinations of stressed and unstressed syllables. There are several types of feet in poetry, and they can all be used to create rhythm. One example is an anapest. An anapest consists of two unaccented syllables with an accented one right after it, such as com-pre-HEND or in-ter-VENE.
An anapestic meter creates rhythm in Byron's poem 'The Destruction of Sennacherib.' Read the lines and count out the syllables, noting how every third syllable is the accented one. Anapestic meter is challenging to craft, but it creates a powerful rhythmic flow as seen below.
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.
The reverse of an anapest is a dactyl. It is a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed ones, such as FLUT-ter-ing or BLACK-ber-ry. Tennyson's poem 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' uses dactyl meter. As you read the lines, you'll notice that the poet consistently follows the pattern of one stressed syllable then two unstressed syllables.
Forward, the Light Brigade!
Half a league, half a league
Rhyming is another common poetic device used to create rhythm. There are several types of rhyming devices.
One example is a couplet, or two rhymed lines that are together and may or may not stand alone within a poem. Shakespeare's sonnets end in couplets, as in his Sonnet 29. Shakespeare's couplet below consists of two lines that have end rhyme because of the words 'brings' and 'kings.'
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
Another example of rhyming in poetry is internal rhyme, which is a rhyme that typically occurs within the same line of poetry. Edgar Allen Poe's 'The Raven' uses internal rhyme with the words 'dreary' and 'weary':
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary
Unlike an internal rhyme, an end rhyme occurs when two words at the end of lines rhyme. Emily Dickinson's poem 'A Word' uses end rhyme by rhyming the words 'dead' and 'said' at the end of the lines.
A word is dead
When it is said
There are many devices that can enhance the meaning of a poem. A simile is a comparison between two unlike things. Similes use the words 'like' or 'as.' A simile can get the reader to look at something in a different way. In 'Harlem,' Langston Hughes compares a dream deferred to a raisin using the word 'like.' His comparison encourages the reader to look at raisins and dreams postponed in a new way.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun
In contrast to a simile, a metaphor is a comparison between two unlike things without using the words like or as. A metaphor uses the senses and compares two things in a meaningful way. John Donne's poem 'The Sun Rising' uses a powerful metaphor:
She is all states, and all princes, I.
Through this comparison, Donne is saying that his beloved is richer than all states, while he is richer than the princes because of their love, and he does not use 'like' or 'as' in his comparison.
Many poets also use a symbol, or an object that means more than itself and represents something else. In Robert Frost's poem 'The Road Not Taken,' he talks about deciding which path to take when coming to a fork in the road. The fork and the two routes that result symbolize choices in life, a specific decision that must be made, etc. So, the actual road that he describes represents something much greater that what it is.
Poets may also use imagery, or words to create an image in the reader's mind. Imagery is based on our five senses, though visual imagery is used the most. The images contribute to a poem's meaning. In William Wordsworth's poem 'I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,' his emotions build with the images he creates. Notice how Wordsworth's lines create images in your head because of the specific details that he uses, thereby creating imagery.
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils;
Some devices are used solely to intensify the mood of the poem. An example is a hyperbole, an exaggeration that is used for dramatic effect. John Donne uses hyperbole in his poem 'Song: Go and Catch a Falling Star.'
Ride ten thousand days and nights,
'Til age snow white hairs on thee,
Obviously, ten thousand days and nights might be a bit of an exaggeration (as is claiming that we'll be white-haired by the time the journey is over), but the point gets across: a long, long time will pass.
Onomatopoeia is another good example. This device uses words that resemble or imitate sounds. Words like 'bang' and 'boom' could add to the intensity of a poem as those sounds could be reminiscent of war or violence, whereas words/sounds like 'tweet' or 'purr' could add to a tranquil feeling within a poem about the calming effects of nature.
Personification, or giving a non-living thing qualities of something that is alive, can also magnify mood. If a poet describes the sun as 'angrily beating down on the people below,' negative feelings are heightened. But, if the poet says the 'sun smiled down on the people, gently warming them,' then positive feelings of contentment are conveyed through the use of personification. Of course, the sun can't actually beat down on people, but personifying it means the poet makes it behave like it's a living thing with a personality.
Alliteration, or repeating consonant sounds at the beginning of words, shapes how the poem sounds when read aloud, and can add to the poem's feeling because some consonants have harsher sounds, while others are more pleasing or calming to hear. For example, the 's' or the 'sh' sounds are more pleasing while the sounds of 'b' or 'g' are often more sharp sounding.
Tongue twisters use alliteration: Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. Notice how the 'p' sound is repeated at the beginning of multiple words in that line.
Like alliteration, assonance, or repeating vowel sounds in a line of poetry, contributes to mood by enhancing how the poem sounds when read aloud. Walt Whitman's poem 'When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer' contains assonance with the repetition of 'i' sound:
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself.
Not only is the word 'I' repeated in those two lines, but the 'i' sound is used in 'tired,' 'rising,' and 'gliding.'
Consonance, which is repeating consonant sounds in a group of words, is similar to alliteration, but it is not limited to the beginning of words. Like alliteration and assonance, consonance adds to the sound of the poem, which in turn adds to the poem's overall mood. Walter de la Mare's poem 'Silver' uses alliteration in the first line, but then continues to use the 's' sound in words like walks, this, peers, and sees:
Slowly, silently, now the moon
Walks the night in her silver shoon;
This way, and that, she peers, and sees
Silver fruit upon silver trees;
Another device, caesura, can add to the drama or intensity of a poem. Caesura is a clearly defined pause within a line. Thomas Hardy's poem 'The Man He Killed' contains caesuras in the second and third line, which creates a dramatic pause that the reader must take.
He thought he'd 'list, perhaps,
Off-hand-like--just as I--
Was out of work-had sold his traps--
No other reason why.
Poetic devices are tools that a poet can use to create rhythm, enhance a poem's meaning, or intensify a mood or feeling. To create rhythm, poets may incorporate:
To magnify a poem's meaning or influence how the reader thinks, poets use devices like:
A poem's mood can be also dramatically heightened by using devices that mimic sound, such as onomatopoeia, or create a pause, such as caesura.
The way a poem sounds when read aloud can also influence its overall mood, so a poet can use devices like:
Poets may also use other devices like exaggeration, hyperbole, or object personification to heighten expression and shape the reader's thoughts.
Of course, one could argue that all poetic devices add to a poem's meaning, expression, and overall mood in some way. But the devices discussed and categorized in this lesson are often used for those specific reasons. And, just like a hammer that can both pound and pry out nails, so too can poetic devices be used in different ways to effectively help build a powerful poem.
Now that you are finished with this lesson you should be able to:
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Back To CourseSupplemental Humanities: Study Aid
1 chapters | 20 lessons