Analyzing Literary and Poetic Devices
Authors and poets use a number of devices to create their works. You can analyze these devices to more fully understand a story or poem.
Analyzing Devices in Literature
Writers use narration, description, action, dialogue, and a host of other devices as they create their stories.
Narration uses the storytelling voice of the writer to set scenes and transition among them.
From an early age, Jack had known his hometown was in the armpit of Chicago. The Region, they called it, a corner of Indiana on reclaimed swamp in the shadow of oil refineries and steel mills. It was the Jersey of the Midwest.
Description uses sensory details (sight, sound, smell, and so on) to let readers vicariously experience the story.
Jack stared at Cady Marsh Ditch, a thirty-foot wide gash dragged diagonally across the Region to drain the swamp. The suburbs that it made possible took their shape from the ditch, with odd triangular plots on both sides, with tract homes whose roofs barely lifted above the grassy dikes, with the constant threat of flood.
Action refers to things characters do as well as other events in a story.
Jack stepped on a dead branch, cracking off a stick-boat. He idly tossed it into the ditch. It splashed among other unidentified flotsam, felt the tug of sluggish water, and floated slowly downstream. Jack paced his little boat, walking on the footpath at the top of the dike. It was a pathetic race. Which one would make it out of the Region first? Did it matter?
Dialogue refers to the words that characters say (external dialogue) and think (internal dialogue).
"Hey, Jack," came a call from across the ditch. It was Michelle from algebra. "What're you doing?" She lived down here, in that second blue house, one of the reasons he would wander this way.
Jack felt himself blush, but pulled himself together before replying, "Racing practice. I'm a stick-boat captain, going way back. Some of my boats have made it to the Mississippi, I'm told. . . ."
Point of view (p.o.v.) refers to the perspective of the narrator. A narrator who is a character in the story uses first-person pronouns ("I," "we"), while a narrator who tells a story about others uses third-person pronouns ("he," "she").
Third-person p.o.v. Jack wore his mask, the carefully non-committal face he'd worn every day he'd watched Michelle at her locker or seen her with her friends. He hoped she couldn't see through the mask, couldn't see him behind it. He simultaneously wished she could. . . .
First-person p.o.v. I wore my mask, the carefully non-committal face I'd worn every day I'd watched her at her locker or seen her with her friends. I hoped she couldn't see through my mask, couldn't see me behind it. I simultaneously wished she could. . . .
Flashbacks occur when the action jumps briefly backward in time to an event that happened previously before jumping forward again in time.
On the first day of school, he'd almost let his mask slip. He'd approached her at her locker, a flier for the fall dance in his pocket. He made small talk about homework, hand sweating on the flier, asked if she had any plans for the weekend, and then chickened out. He'd walked away, the flier still folded and slightly sweaty. He balled it in his fist and flung it into the garbage. The mask had not slipped that day. Would it today?
Tone refers to the writer's opinion about the topic. Mood refers to the overall emotion present within a certain scene.
Michelle marched up through the parchment-colored grass on her side of the ditch and stared down at Jack's stick. "That's one of the finest stick-boats I've ever seen," she said, giving a slight whistle. Lifting a stick of her own, she threw it into the water beside Jack's. "Looks like you've got a race on your hands, Captain Jack."
Metaphor occurs when one thing is equated with another, changing how both are seen. Symbol refers to a physical thing that represents an idea.
The ditch that had drained the swamp and ordered the suburbs built on them was now playing matchmaker for those who lived there. And it was a strict matchmaker. Cady Marsh Ditch stayed between the young man and young woman, requiring them to exchange pleasantries across its uncompromising girth. For an open sewer, the ditch certainly had high standards.
Juxtaposition means purposely placing dissimilar things together.
In Paris, lovers have the Seine. In Vienna, they have the beautiful blue Danube. And in the Region, they have Cady Marsh Ditch. It may have been smaller and less celebrated than those other waterways, but it got the job done.
Analyze literary devices.
Listen to "Excerpt from My Ántonia"
Excerpt from My Ántonia
by Willa Cather
Willa Cather was a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who rose to fame through her depictions of life on the American frontier.
I first heard of Ántonia on what seemed to me an interminable journey across the great midland plain of North America. I was ten years old then; I had lost both my father and mother within a year, and my Virginia relatives were sending me out to my grandparents, who lived in Nebraska. I traveled in the care of a mountain boy, Jake Marpole, one of the "hands" on my father's old farm under the Blue Ridge, who was now going West to work for my grandfather. Jake's experience of the world was not much wider than mine. He had never been in a railway train until the morning when we set out together to try our fortunes in a new world.
We went all the way in day-coaches, becoming more sticky and grimy with each stage of the journey. Jake bought everything the newsboys offered him: candy, oranges, brass collar buttons, a watch-charm, and for me a "Life of Jesse James," which I remember as one of the most satisfactory books I have ever read. Beyond Chicago we were under the protection of a friendly passenger conductor, who knew all about the country to which we were going and gave us a great deal of advice in exchange for our confidence. He seemed to us an experienced and worldly man who had been almost everywhere; in his conversation he threw out lightly the names of distant States and cities. He wore the rings and pins and badges of different fraternal orders to which he belonged. Even his cuff-buttons were engraved with hieroglyphics, and he was more inscribed than an Egyptian obelisk. Once when he sat down to chat, he told us that in the immigrant car ahead there was a family from "across the water" whose destination was the same as ours.
"They can't any of them speak English, except one little girl, and all she can say is 'We go Black Hawk, Nebraska.' She's not much older than you, twelve or thirteen, maybe, and she's as bright as a new dollar. Don't you want to go ahead and see her, Jimmy? She's got the pretty brown eyes, too!"
This last remark made me bashful, and I shook my head and settled down to "Jesse James." Jake nodded at me approvingly and said you were likely to get diseases from foreigners.
I do not remember crossing the Missouri River, or anything about the long day's journey through Nebraska. Probably by that time I had crossed so many rivers that I was dull to them. The only thing very noticeable about Nebraska was that it was still, all day long, Nebraska.
I had been sleeping, curled up in a red plush seat, for a long while when we reached Black Hawk. Jake roused me and took me by the hand. We stumbled down from the train to a wooden siding, where men were running about with lanterns. I couldn't see any town, or even distant lights; we were surrounded by utter darkness. The engine was panting heavily after its long run. In the red glow from the fire-box, a group of people stood huddled together on the platform, encumbered by bundles and boxes. I knew this must be the immigrant family the conductor had told us about. The woman wore a fringed shawl tied over her head, and she carried a little tin trunk in her arms, hugging it as if it were a baby. There was an old man, tall and stooped. Two half-grown boys and a girl stood holding oil-cloth bundles, and a little girl clung to her mother's skirts. Presently a man with a lantern approached them and began to talk, shouting and exclaiming. I pricked up my ears, for it was positively the first time I had ever heard a foreign tongue.
Another lantern came along. A bantering voice called out: "Hello, are you Mr. Burden's folks? If you are, it's me you're looking for. I'm Otto Fuchs. I'm Mr. Burden's hired man, and I'm to drive you out. Hello, Jimmy, ain't you scared to come so far west?"
I looked up with interest at the new face in the lantern light. He might have stepped out of the pages of "Jesse James." He wore a sombrero hat, with a wide leather band and a bright buckle, and the ends of his mustache were twisted up stiffly, like little horns. He looked lively and ferocious, I thought, and as if he had a history. A long scar ran across one cheek and drew the corner of his mouth up in a sinister curl. The top of his left ear was gone, and his skin was brown as an Indian's. Surely this was the face of a desperado. As he walked about the platform in his high-heeled boots, looking for our trunks, I saw that he was a rather slight man, quick and wiry, and light on his feet. He told us we had a long night drive ahead of us, and had better be on the hike. He led us to a hitching-bar where two farm wagons were tied, and I saw the foreign family crowding into one of them. The other was for us. Jake got on the front seat with Otto Fuchs, and I rode on the straw in the bottom of the wagon-box, covered up with a buffalo hide. The immigrants rumbled off into the empty darkness, and we followed them.
I tried to go to sleep, but the jolting made me bite my tongue, and I soon began to ache all over. When the straw settled down I had a hard bed. Cautiously I slipped from under the buffalo hide, got up on my knees and peered over the side of the wagon. There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. No, there was nothing but land—slightly undulating, I knew, because often our wheels ground against the brake as we went down into a hollow and lurched up again on the other side. I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man's jurisdiction. I had never before looked up at the sky when there was not a familiar mountain ridge against it. But this was the complete dome of heaven, all there was of it. I did not believe that my dead father and mother were watching me from up there; they would still be looking for me at the sheep-fold down by the creek, or along the white road that led to the mountain pastures. I had left even their spirits behind me. The wagon jolted on, carrying me I knew not whither. I don't think I was homesick. If we never arrived anywhere, it did not matter. Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be.
- How does the first-person narrator affect the passage?
(Answers will vary.) She is described as a ten-year-old girl who has lost both of her parents and is being sent by relatives out to live with grandparents in Nebraska. Since the story is told in past tense, the narrator is presumably older and more experienced than the ten year old, but still filters the sensations and perceptions through that young mind. For example, the ten-year-old felt the life of "Jesse James" was one of the most "satisfactory books I have ever read," something the older narrator finds amusing. The story has many such first impressions of the wide world by an inexperienced child, gathered later and presented by her more-experienced older self.
- The "friendly passenger conductor" described in the second paragraph speaks in the third paragraph. Use clues in his dialogue to infer what he is like.
(Answers will vary.) Just before he mimic's the girl's English by leaving out the preposition to—"We go Black Hawk Nebraska," the conductor uses his own rough English: "They can't any of them speak English." His colloquialism "bright as a new dollar," adds to his folksy quality and reminds the reader that dollars were silver instead of paper. It also shows that though he disparages the girl's English, he thinks she is intelligent and attractive. He even encourages young Jimmy to have a look at her. As described, the conductor is friendly and acts as if he is worldly, though he himself is also fairly naive.
- The narrator describes Otto Fuchs as a lively character that "might have stepped out of the pages of 'Jesse James.' " Select a few of the details she describes and indicate what they tell you about Fuchs.
(Answers will vary.) His wide sombrero and handlebar mustache make him look almost like a cartoon character. The scar that crosses his face and distorts his smile and the missing half of his ear suggest a "history" of fights for this apparent desperado. The high-heeled boots complete his cartoonish look, though his body is slight, quick, and wiry, suggesting that he is physically capable beneath the showy outer appearance. These descriptions make Fuchs simultaneously buffoonish and dangerous.
- In the final paragraph, the narrator melds descriptions of the wide-open nighttime plains with reflections on being "outside of man's jurisdiction." Describe the mood created by this paragraph. How does the mood shape the narrator's journey?
(Answers will vary.) The narrator says that the nighttime journey was without tree or hill or other feature, only the land and the sky. She reflects that she is truly beyond civilization now, where even the spirits of her dead parents won't know to look for her. The mood is one of isolation and desolation, feeling "erased" and "blotted out." But the narrator isn't frightened or homesick. She doesn't even care whether they arrive at any given destination, thinking, "what will be will be." The mood is like meditation, a place of empty calm and peace, without concern of what came before or what will come after. The narrator is like a creature in a chrysalis, no longer one thing but not yet another, just patiently waiting for what, if anything, comes next.
- Cather creates a series of interesting juxtapositions, comparing the narrator to Jimmy, comparing the conductor to Fuchs, comparing the known world behind to the unknown and formless world that the narrator is entering. Which juxtaposition most interests you and why?
(Answers will vary.)
You can extend this activity by providing a different piece of literature and having students analyze these literary devices in it.
Analyzing Devices in Poetry
Poets use rhythm, rhyme, figures of speech, and a host of other devices as they create their poems.
Rhythm refers to the pattern of accented and unaccented syllables in words and lines.
Tell me not, in mournful numbers”
"Psalm of Life," by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Rhyme refers to identical vowel and consonant sounds at the end of words. Near rhyme refers to similar sounds.
Had I but lived a hundred years ago
"At Lulworth Cove a Century Back," by Thomas Hardy
Assonance means repeated vowel sounds in words.
Tyger, Tyger burning bright in the forest of the night.
"Tyger" by William Blake
Consonance occurs with repeated consonant sounds in words.
‘T was later when the summer went
"'T was later when the summer went" by Emily Dickinson
Alliteration refers to repeated consonant sounds at the beginning of words.
The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,
"Rime of the Ancient Mariner" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Onomatopoeia refers to words that sound like their meaning, such as whack, thud, or dripping.
The Tempest by William Shakespeare
Figures of speech include simile, metaphor, personification, symbolism, exaggeration, and understatement.
. '. . . and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
"i carry your heart with me" by e. e. cummings
Analyze poetic devices.
Listen to "From One Who Stays"
From One Who Stays
by Amy Lowell
Amy Lowell was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist who lead the shift from traditional to free-verse poetry.
How empty seems the town now you are gone!
A wilderness of sad streets, where gaunt walls
Hide nothing to desire; sunshine falls
Eery, distorted, as it long had shone
On white, dead faces tombed in halls of stone.
The whir of motors, stricken through with calls
Of playing boys, floats up at intervals;
But all these noises blur to one long moan.
What quest is worth pursuing? And how strange
That other men still go accustomed ways!
I hate their interest in the things they do.
A spectre-horde repeating without change
An old routine. Alone I know the days
Are still-born, and the world stopped, lacking you.
- Analyze the rhythm (stresses per line) and rhyme scheme (pattern of end rhyme) in this poem.
(Answers will vary.) The lines in the poem contain five stressed syllables, following the basic pattern used by Shakespeare (pentameter). The poem follows a strict scheme of end rhymes, though many read over into the next, softening the impact. The first eight lines follow a very traditional rhyme scheme (ABBA ABBA). It is as if the poet's thoughts at first keep returning to the A rhyme of "gone," "shone," "stone," and "moan," all of which sound mournful. The last six lines introduce new rhymes with less repetition (CDE CDE) punctuated by "do" and "you." As the final word in the poem, "you" has great importance.
- Analyze the use of assonance, consonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia, and other sounds in this poem.
(Answers will vary.) Assonance such as "town" and "now" and "hide" and "desire" focus on long vowels, creating a resonance in the poem. The one example of alliteration near the beginning features the s sound of "sad streets," while later many words start with the open a sound of "And," "A," "An," and "Are." The two onomatopoeic words "whir" and "blur" create internal rhymes in their lines. Again, the long o sounds throughout create a mood of sorrow.
- Analyze the figures of speech in this poem, including metaphors, personification, and symbolism.
(Answers will vary.) The poet uses the metaphor "a wilderness of streets" to equate her city to a lonely place away from human contact. She uses the personification of "gaunt walls" to suggest that the buildings themselves are starved. The phrase "white, dead faces entombed in halls of stone" refers to the dead, who no longer are in reach of the sunlight, as her beloved is. The sounds of life—whirring traffic and the calls of playing—blur into a moan of sorrow for the poet. She uses the metaphor "spectre-hordes" to refer to the living people around her, placing herself alone in a "still-born" world that "stopped, lacking you."
You can extend this activity by providing a different poem and having students analyze these devices in it.