Rhetorical and Poetic Devices

How poetry creates vivid imagery and symbolism using rhetorical devices


Poetic Voice

The “poetic voice” or speaker refers to the voice or persona that communicates the message of the poem – equivalent to the “narrator” of a novel.

It could be, for instance, a “third person” voice, not identified with the poet or the reader, but is instead a separate entity that observes and narrates the events and images in the poem from an outsider’s perspective. Alternatively, a poem can have a “first person” speaker – i.e. written from the perspective of “I”.

For example, in John Donne’s poem “The Canonization,” the first line begins with a first-person confrontation that appears to directly address the reader:

*For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love.*


This captures attention while setting the stage for Donne’s metaphysical musings on romantic devotion transcending societal norms.



A simile is a comparison between two different things using “like” or “as” to highlight a shared quality or characteristic.

This can be an intuitive comparison, drawing on conventional symbols like the following example from the poem “A Red, Red Rose” by Robert Burns:

*O my Luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;*

Alternatively, similes can be used to surprise or shock, with an unexpected or unusual comparison – such as the following example from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:

*Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table*

This simile underpins an ordinary scene – a night sky – with an unsettling image (a person in hospital awaiting surgery), evoking feelings of unease and vulnerability.


A metaphor is similar to a simile but doesn’t use “like” or “as” for comparison. Instead, a metaphor directly equates one thing to another to create a vivid image.

This form of comparison can be identified in Emily Dickinson’s poem “Hope is the Thing with Feathers”:

*Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all -*


By equating hope with a bird, Dickinson creates a strong visual image that vividly draws attention to a certain quality of “hope” – its fragility but also its living, breathing presence in the poet’s mind, as though it were a singing bird.

Note how this comparison does not rely on “like” or “as”: hope is a bird.

Extended Conceits

An extended conceit in a poem is an elaborate and sustained metaphor that spans throughout the poem – playing with different aspects of the two things’ likeness.

18th century critic Samuel Johnson defines a conceit as the perception of “an occult resemblance in things apparently unlike”.


For example, in John Donne’s “The Flea”, Donne uses the conceit of a flea biting both him and his lover to explore the idea of physical intimacy and the mingling of blood between two people.

Similarly, Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” uses the conceit of a compass to explore the nature of love between two people who are physically separated; one leg of the compass remains fixed at the center, while the other roams around, in a circle around the center, representing the mutual dependency between one lover who remains at home as an anchor and support, and the other who ventures into the world.


Personification is a literary device that involves giving human characteristics, qualities, or actions to non-human entities such as animals, objects, or natural phenomena.

This can be a fleeting comparison, as in William Wordsworth’s poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”, in which daffodils are described as “tossing their heads in sprightly dance.”

It can also be a more sustained device used across a whole poem, as in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” in which the west wind is imagined as though it were the “breath” of Autumn, in possession of human-like agency:

*O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,*



Hyperbole is a figure of speech in which exaggeration is used for emphasis or effect, often to convey strong emotions or create a vivid impression. In contrast, litotes is a figure of speech that employs understatement by using a negative statement to affirm a positive meaning or vice versa.


In W.H. Auden’s poem “Funeral Blues,” hyperbole is used effectively to express the depth of the speaker’s grief and despair over the death of a loved one, as though it had shaken the foundations of the universe:

*He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.*

*The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;*

Antiphrasis and Oxymoron

Antiphrasis is a rhetorical device in which a word or phrase is used in a way that is opposite to or markedly different from its original meaning, often for the sake of humor or irony.

Related to antiphrasis, though without a necessarily ironic effect, is the device of “oxymoron”- a figure of speech that combines two seemingly contradictory or incongruous terms to create a new, paradoxical meaning. For example, John Milton’s *Paradise Lost* describes Hell as “darkness visible” to exaggerate the depth of its horror:


*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.*


Zeugma, also known as syllepsis, is a figure of speech in which a single word, usually a verb, is used to refer to two or more words within the same sentence, but its meaning or application differs for each of the words it governs. Often it entails one verb being used figuratively and literally in the same sentence.

For example, consider the sentence: “She caught the train and a cold.” In this case, the word “caught” is used with both “the train” and “a cold,” but it has a different meaning in each context: “catching” a train refers to getting on it in time, while “catching” a cold refers to becoming infected with it.


One example can be found in Alexander Pope’s poem “The Rape of the Lock.”:

*Here thou, great Anna! whom three realms obey,
Dost sometimes counsel take – and sometimes tea.*

In this line, the verb “take” is used to refer to both “counsel” and “tea.”


A poetic allusion is a reference to another work of literature, art, or culture within a poem. By drawing on a rich store of literary history and tradition, poets can connect their own work to the works that have come before them, creating layers of depth and complexity.

For example, the first line of T.S. Eliot’s poem *The Waste Land* (1922) is an allusion to Chaucer’s *Canterbury Tales*. Eliot’s poem begins:

*April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.*

The phrase “April is the cruellest month” alludes to the opening line of Chaucer’s General Prologue to *The Canterbury Tales*, which reads:

*Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote.*

Eliot’s reference to Chaucer’s work creates a connection between his modernist poem and the literary traditions that came before it, while also suggesting that the modern world has lost its connection to the natural cycles of life and death.



Onomatopoeia is a literary device in which words imitate or evoke the sounds they describe. In other words, an onomatopoeic word is one that sounds like the thing it is describing. For example, words such as “buzz,” “hiss,” and “sizzle” are all examples of onomatopoeia, which create a sensory and vivid experience.

Onomatopoeia is commonly used in children’s literature, where it can help to teach young readers about the sounds associated with different objects and actions.

Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Bells” masterfully employs onomatopoeia to mimic the various tones of bells, creating an immersive experience for readers:

*How they clang, and clash, and roar!
What a horror they outpour
On the bosom of the palpitating air!
Yet the ear it fully knows,
By the twanging,
And the clanging,
How the danger ebbs and flows;*



Alliteration is a literary device in which a series of words in a sentence or phrase share the same beginning sound or consonant sound. This repetition of sounds creates a rhythmic effect and emphasizes the words being used. For example, the phrase “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers” is an example of alliteration because it features several words beginning with the same sound (in this case, the “p” sound).

Thomas Hardy’s “The Voice,” makes use of a repetitive ‘f’ sound, to mimic the staggering steps forward being described, as well as a repetitive “th” to mimic the sound of whistling wind:

*Thus I; faltering forward,
Leaves around me falling,
Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,
And the woman calling.*



Assonance is a literary device in which the vowel sounds in a series of words are repeated, creating a rhythmic effect. Unlike alliteration, which involves the repetition of consonant sounds, assonance involves the repetition of vowel sounds.

For example, the phrase “The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain” is an example of assonance, as the long “a” sound is repeated in several words.

We can also observe assonance in William Blake’s poem, “The Tyger”, which repeats a long /i/ sound throughout, adding to its chanting, relentless quality:

*T**y**ger T**y**ger, burning br**igh**t,
In the forests of the n**igh**t;
What immortal hand or **eye**,
Could frame **thy** fearful symme**try**?*



Multiple forms of repetition, in which words, phrases, lines, or even entire stanzas are intentionally repeated, can be used to create emphasis, rhythm, or a sense of unity within a poem.

A useful example is Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” – a poem that describes the valiant charge of British cavalry during the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War.


Tennyson uses several forms of repetition, most prominently anaphora: the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive lines or clauses, which creates a sense of rhythm, momentum, and intensity that mirrors the experience of the soldiers charging into battle. For example, note the repetition of “cannon” and “into the” in this stanza:

*Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred.*

In addition, Tennyson ends each stanza with the phrase “six hundred”, emphasizing the anonymity of the soldiers.

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