Literary Devices Study Guide (page 2)
Practice exercises for this study guide can be found at:
Writers can use a variety of literary devices to tell a story. This lesson will show you how to recognize these devices and understand how they affect meaning.
What do a plumber, an architect, and a writer have in common? Each uses a special set of tools to do a job. A plumber's toolbox might contain wrenches and pipes, but what does a writer's toolbox contain?
Writers have many storytelling tools to help communicate their ideas. These tools, called literary devices, enhance the writing to make it more powerful, creative, or interesting. This lesson explains four literary devices that authors commonly use:
- figurative language
One important literary device is figurative language. Figurative language includes similes and metaphors. A simile compares two things using the words like or as. A metaphor is stronger than a simile because it makes the comparison without the words like or as.
Here's an example.
- No figurative language He is tall.
- Simile He is as tall as a skyscraper.
- Metaphor He is a skyscraper.
Figurative language is so effective because it helps readers picture what the writer is describing in an imaginative way. The writer could have said, "He is seven feet, two inches tall," and that would have been very specific—one way to give us a clear picture of how tall he is. By using a simile or metaphor, though, the writer creates a different picture. It may be less exact, but it certainly is more powerful.
For similes and metaphors to work, the two things being compared must be sufficiently different. For example, it doesn't work to compare a moth to a butterfly. However, it does work to compare the way a butterfly's wings move and the way curtains flutter in the wind.
Finding an Implied Metaphor
Writers often suggest a metaphor rather than making an outright comparison. The implied metaphor might be a key to the whole meaning of the story, poem, or article, so you don't want to miss it. For example, notice the implied dog metaphor in this short paragraph.
Ezra tried to leave the classroom as quickly as possible, but there was no escaping Trey. The sixth grader was right on Ezra's heels as they waded into the crowded hall, practically wagging his tail in excitement.
The second sentence uses key phrases, "right on Ezra's heels" and "wagging his tail," to make the reader picture the puppylike actions of the character. If you didn't notice these phrases, you might misinterpret the relationship between Ezra and Trey.
To demonstrate how this works in literature, let's look at a poem: "A Poison Tree," from William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience. It has four stanzas. A stanza is a group of lines in a poem, much as a paragraph is a group of lines in an essay or story.
Read the poem carefully and read it out loud, too, because poetry is meant to be heard as well as read. Read it actively—underline, circle, and write in the margins. Several words have been defined for you to the right of the poem.
A Poison Tree
1 I was angry with my friend: 2 I told my wrath, my wrath did end. wrath = anger 3 I was angry with my foe: foe = enemy 4 I told it not, my wrath did grow. 5 And I water'd it in fears, 6 Night and morning with my tears; 7 And I sunned it with smiles, 8 And with soft deceitful wiles. deceitful = making others believe what isn't true wiles = trickery, deceit 9 And it grew both by day and night, 10 Till it bore an apple bright; 11 And my foe beheld it shine, beheld = saw 12 And he knew that it was mine, 13 And into my garden stole 14 When the night had veil'd the pole; veil'd = hidden 15 My foe outstretch'd beneath the tree.
The entire poem builds on an implied metaphor, so we need to recognize it to understand the author's ideas. First, you need to look carefully at what happened and then look at why it happened. The poem is organized both chronologically and by cause and effect, so let's break down the action in the first stanza. Let's use the word speaker to refer to the narrator of the poem.
In the first four lines, Blake sets up two situations. First, the speaker is angry with his friend (line 1) and he tells his friend about it (line 2). As a result, the anger goes away (line 2—"my wrath did end"). But he acts differently with his enemy. He doesn't tell his foe about his anger (line 4), and as a result, the anger grows (line 4).
Now look at the second stanza. It's important to know what "it" refers to in line 5. What is "it"? Tears? Smiles? Wrath? Reread the first stanza carefully and then read the second stanza.
Poems are broken up into lines, which is one of the things that can make poetry seem tough. Sometimes ideas are carried from one line to another, so that the end of a line doesn't mean the end of a thought. A line is not always a sentence. Likewise, ideas can be carried from one stanza to the next. Here, "it" connects the first and second stanzas. "It" is the speaker's wrath. How can you tell? "Wrath" is the last thing mentioned in the first stanza.
In the second stanza, the speaker "water'd" his wrath in fears and "sunned" his wrath with smiles and wiles. How can this be? Can you water and sun your anger?
No, not literally. The difficulty and beauty of poetry lies in this kind of language. Blake isn't being literal here; rather he's drawing a comparison between the speaker's anger to something that grows with water and sun. It's like some kind of plant. How do you know exactly what it is? Blake tells you in two key places: in the title, and in the last line. The poem is called "A Poison Tree." "Tree" is mentioned again in the last line of the poem.
Pay close attention to similes and metaphors, because they are important clues to meaning. Blake, for example, could have compared the speaker's anger to anything, but he chose to compare it to a tree. Why? Trees have deep, strong roots and often flower or bear fruit. (This tree bears an apple.) They need sun and water to grow. Keep these traits in mind as you work through the rest of the poem.
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