National Endowment for the Arts - The Big Read
The Poetry of Emily Dickinson

The Poetry of Emily Dickinson

by Emily Dickinson

I find ecstasy in living—the mere sense of living is joy enough.


Emily Dickinson, age 16 (Courtesy of Amherst College Archives and Special Collections)

A glossary of some of the poetic terms used in the lessons is listed below. Most literary definitions, both here and in the lessons, are taken from An Introduction to Poetry (11th edition), edited by X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia, or Handbook of Literary Terms, edited by X. J. Kennedy, Dana Gioia, and Mark Bauerlein (2005).

Allusion: A brief, sometimes indirect reference in a text to a person, place, or thing.

Biographical criticism: The practice of analyzing a literary work by using knowledge of the author's life to gain insight.

Diction: Word choice or vocabulary in a particular work.

Fixed form: Traditional verse forms that require certain predetermined structural elements of meter, rhythm, and rhyme, such as sonnets or ballads.

Foot: The basic unit of measurement in poetry. Different meters are identified by the pattern and order of stressed and unstressed syllables in its metrical feet. A foot is usually two or three syllables, depending on the meter.

Free verse: From the French vers libre, free verse describes poetry that organizes its lines without meter. It is usually not rhymed.

Historical criticism: The practice of analyzing a literary work by investigating the social, cultural, and intellectual context around it.

Meter: A systematic, rhythmic pattern of stresses in verse.

Paradox: A statement that at first seems contradictory, but on reflection reveals some deeper sense.

Persona: The Latin work for "mask." A fictitious speaker created by the poet.

Rhyme scheme: The pattern of rhyme in an individual poem or a fixed form. A rhyme scheme is transcribed with lower-case letters representing each end rhyme—a for the first time, b for the second, and so on.

Rhythm: The pattern of stresses and pauses in a poem.

Scansion: A method of notation that measures rhythms in a poem. Scansion separates the metrical feet, counts the syllables, marks the accented ones, and indicates the pauses. Scansion helps the reader understand a poet's choice of rhythm, verse length, and sound.

Stanza: A unit of two or more lines of verse with space breaks before and after. The stanza is poetry's equivalent to a paragraph in prose.

Stress (or accent): A greater amount of force given to one syllable in speaking than is given to another.

Theme: The central thought or idea of a poem. Short poems might have only a single theme while longer, complex works can contain multiple themes.

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