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(1) A short poem (usually no more than 50-60 lines, and often only a dozen lines long) written in a repeating stanzaic form, often designed to be set to music. Unlike a ballad, the lyric usually does not have a plot (i.e., it might not tell a complete story), but it rather expresses the feelings, perceptions, and thoughts of a single poetic speaker (not necessarily the poet) in an intensely personal, emotional, or subjective manner. Often, there is no chronology of events in the lyrics, but rather objects, situations, or the subject is written about in a "lyric moment." Sometimes, the reader can infer an implicit narrative element in lyrics, but it is rare for the lyric to proceed in the straightforward, chronological "telling" common in fictional prose. For instance, in William Wordsworth's "The Solitary Reaper," the reader can guess from the speaker's words that the speaker has come unexpectedly upon a girl reaping and singing in the Scottish Highlands, and that he stops, listens, and thinks awhile before continuing on his way. However, this chain of events is not explicitly a center of plot or extended conflict between protagonist and antagonist. Instead it triggers a moment of contemplation and appreciation. Thus it is not a plot in the normal sense of the word.

(2) Any poem having the form and musical quality of a song

(3) As an adjective, lyric can also be applied to any prose or verse characterized by direct, spontaneous outpouring of intense feeling. Often, the lyric is subdivided into various genres, including the aubade, the dramatic monologue, the elegy, the epithalamion, the hymn, the ode, and the sonnet. Contrast with ballad, elegy, and ode.

LYRIC MOMENT (from Greek lyra "song"): A timeless period of introspection or memory in which a poetic speaker describes or recounts his or her feelings, impressions, and thoughts. This moment contrasts with the flow of events in a narrative poem. Some poems, such as Beowulf or the Iliad, are driven by the interactions of characters within a plotline of specific events occuring in a specific order. In contrast with these narrative poems, non-narrative poems, which seem to take place outside of time without a clearly established sequence of events, are said to take place in the "lyric moment." Such poems are often called lyric poems.



LYRIC POETRY: See discussion under lyric and lyric moment.

LYRICS: (1) The words to a song. (2) Samples of lyric poetry; see discussion under lyric.

MABINOGI (Welsh, "Four Branches"): The four branches or four parts of The Mabinogion, a medieval collection of Welsh myths and legends important in Celtic studies generally and in Arthurian legends more specifically.

MACHIAVELLIAN: As an adjective, the word refers generally to sneaky, ruthless, and deceitful behavior, especially in regard to a ruler obsessed with power who puts on a surface veneer of honor and trustworthy behavior in order to achieve evil ends. The term originates in a treatise known as The Prince. This work was written by Niccoló Machiavelli, an early sixteenth-century political advisor who worked for the Borgia family in Italy. In contrast to the medieval ideal of the ruler as God's holy deputy and dispenser of justice, Machiavelli stressed that effective rulers often must engage in evil (or at least immoral) activities to ensure the stability of their rule. He suggests that, based on the evidence of history and his own personal observations, the rulers that have remained in power have not been kindly, benevolent men concerned with justice and fairness, but rather ruthless individuals willing to do anything to ensure the security of their state and their own personal power. Click here for more information.

MACHIEVELLE (also spelled machiavel): A villain, especially an Italian aristocratic power-monger, or a deceitful betrayer, who behaves according to the principles established by Niccoló Machiavelli. (See Machiavellian, above.) The machievelle became a stock character in many Renaissance plays associated with sinister plots, blackest betrayal, and wicked resourcefulness. Examples from Shakespeare include Richard of Gloucester in Richard III and Edmund and Cornwall in King Lear.

MACARONIC TEXT: Any medieval or modern manuscript written in a jumble of several languages--say a mixture of Latin and French or Latin and German--is said to be macaronic. The mixture might involve bilingual vocabulary and grammatical switches within a single sentence, or in alternating lines or paragraphs, or in purely random intervals. Examples from the Restoration period would be the steamier scenes of Samuel Pepys' diary entries for 1666-1668, in which Pepys frequently mingles Spanish and Latin words in the text to hide the exact details of his sexual indiscretions. Cf. code-switching.

MACROCOSM (Cf. microcosm): The natural universe as a whole, including the biological realms of flora and fauna, weather, and celestial objects such as the sun, moon, and stars. See discussion under chain of being.

MACRON: A diacritical mark in the form of a horizontal line indicating the vowel beneath it is long.

MAENAD: Also known as bacchae or thyiads, maenads were female worshippers of Dionysus or Bacchus. In the mystery cult of Dionysus, worshippers would get drunk on wine and then undergo an all-night process of stylized frenzied dancing in order to achieve the divine state of ekstasos. At the height of the frenzy, they believed that they would become one with Dionysus/Bacchus (thus the common Latin name "bacchae," a feminine plural form of the god Bacchus' name. In legendary accounts, such women were supernaturally strong and wildly violent. They would run through the forest naked after the ceremonies and would catch small animals (or in some myths men and children!), rip them apart bare-handed, and then eat the flesh raw. In literature, Euripides' tragedy The Bacchae is a dramatic retelling of the arrival of the Dionysiac rites in Greece.

MAGIC REALISM: In 1925, Franz Roh first applied the term "magic realism" (magischer Realismus in German) to a group of neue Saqchlichkeit painters in Munich (Cuddon 531). These painters blended realistic, smoothly painted, sharply defined figures and objects--but in a surrealistic setting or backdrop, giving them an outlandish, odd, or even dream-like qualilty. In the 1940s and 1950s, the term migrated to the prose fiction of various writers including Jorge Luis Borges in Argentina, Gabriel Garcia Márquez in Colombia, and Alejo Carpentier in Cuba. The influence also spread later to Günter Grass in Germany and John Fowles in England (Abrams 135). These postmodern writers mingle and juxtapose realistic events with fantastic ones, or they experiment with shifts in time and setting, "labyrinthine narratives and plots" and "arcane erudition" (135), and often they combine myths and fairy stories with gritty Hemingway-esque detail. This mixture create truly dreamlike and bizarre effects in their prose.

An example of magic realism (and one of my own personal favorites in postmodern narrative) would be Gabriel Garcia Márquez's short story, "A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings," a narrative in which a fisherman discovers a filthy, lice-ridden old man trapped face-down in the muddy shore of the beach, weighed down by enormous buzzard wings attached to his back. A neighbor identifies the old man as an angel who had come down to claim the fisherman's sick and feverish child but who had been knocked out the sky by storm winds during the previous night. Not having the heart to club the sickly angel to death, the protagonist decides instead to keep the supernatural being captive in a chicken coop. The very premise of the story reveals much of the flavor of magic realism. Cf. postmodernism.

MAJUSCULE: A large letter or a capital letter as opposed to minuscule.

MALAPROPISM: Misusing words to create a comic effect or characterize the speaker as being too confused, ignorant, or flustered to use correct diction. Typically, the malapropism involves the confusion of two polysyllabic words that sound somewhat similar but have different meanings. For instance, a stereotyped black maid in Edgar Rice Burrough's Tarzan of the Apes series cries out as she falls into the jungle river, "I sho' nuff don't want to be eaten by no river allegories, no sir!" Dogberry the Watchman in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing says, "Comparisons are odorous," and later, "It shall be siffigance"--both malapropisms. In Sheridan, we find pineapple instead of pinnacle, and we read in Twain's Huckleberry Finn how one character declares, "I was most putrified with astonishment" instead of "petrified," and so on. The best malapropisms sound sufficiently similar to the correct word to let the audience recognize the intended meaning and laugh at the incongruous result.

MALAYO-POLYNESIAN: Another term for Austronesian.

MANET / MANENT: Common Latin stage directions found in the margins of Shakespearean plays. Manet is the singular for "He [or she] remains." Manent is the plural form for multiple individuals. Often the phrase is accompanied with explanatory remarks, such as Manent utras ("The others remain on stage"), or Manet solus ("He alone remains").



MANNER OF ARTICULATION: In linguistics, how the speech organs of lips, tongue, and vocal cords must be arranged in order to produce a particular sound such as a nasal, a stop, a fricative, or so on.

MANUSCRIPT: A text written by hand, as opposed to one printed with a printing press. (Manus is Latin for "hand"; scriptum is a Latin participle for "written.") Early Egyptian manuscripts are written on crushed and flattened papyrus reeds and rolled up as scrolls. Later, parchment and vellum (animal skins) became the primary means of transmitting texts. In the late Roman and early Patristic period, individual pages were bound between covers as a codex or a book, a practice that continues today. Paper as we know it became common in the Middle East in the twelfth century, but it took another three hundred years for the art of paper-making to spread through Europe. By Shakespeare's day, printed paper had largely replaced manuscripts written on vellum, but the mechanics of printing often tried to imitate the familiar features of manuscripts. In medieval scholarship, the abbreviation "MS" stands for manuscript, and British scholars often use the plural form "MSS" for manuscripts. "TS" and "TSS"are the equivalent terms for typeset documents. Some important medieval literary manuscripts include the Ellesmere, the Hengwyrt, and the Nowell Codex. You can click here to see the first page of Beowulf from the Nowell Codex. See also parchment, vellum, quire, hair side, and flesh side.

MAQAMA: Picaresque Arabic stories in rhymed prose. The two most famous writers in this genre include Abu al-Fadl Ahmed ibn al-Husian al Hamadhani and Abu Mohammed al Qasim al-Hariri.

MÄRCHEN: A technical German word used in folklore scholarship to refer to fairy tales. See discussion under fairy tale.

MARGINALIA: Drawings, notation, illumination, and doodles appearing in the margins of a medieval text, rather than the central text itself.

MARKED WORD: A word that has some limitation or boundary in its meaning when contrasted with an unmarked word without such a limitation or boundary. Algeo points to the example of stallion (marked for male gender) and mare (marked for female gender) in contrast with the word horse, which is unmarked for gender (323).

MARRIAGE GROUP: A term coined by George L. Kittredge in 1912 to describe a specific set of stories in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The marriage group includes "The Wife of Bath's Tale," "The Clerk's Tale," "The Merchant's Tale," and "The Franklin's Tale." All four narratives deal with the question of the proper relationship between men and women in marriage. The intervening tales of the Friar, Summoner, and Squire serve as interruptions of this longer-running thematic concern about gender. Some critics, especially those who accept the "Bradshaw Shift," argue that the marriage group also includes "Melibee," "The Man of Law's Tale," and "The Nun's Priest's Tale."

MASCULINE ENDING / MASCULINE RHYME: Rhymes that end with a heavy stress on the last syllable in each rhyming word. See under discussion of meter.

MASHAL (plural meshalim): In the Hebrew tradition, a mashal is a broad, general term including almost any type of figurative language from short riddles to long, extended allegories. It denotes "mysterious speech." Some of the Psalms, for instance, are designated as meshalim. The New Testament Greek often translates the term as parabole or "parable." This translation, however, causes some problem. In Greek, parabole are always allegorical and open to point-by-point interpretation. Parabole were often used as a simple method of teaching by example or analogy. The meshalim in Hebrew, however, was often intentionally confusing or deliberately obfuscating in nature--much more like the Greek enigma (riddle). We can see this confusion in the New Testament, where Mark interprets the purpose of the parables as Hebrew meshalim. In Mark, Jesus tell shis disciples: "The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, 'they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise, they might turn and be forgiven'" (Mark 4:11-12). The common, modern idea that Christ uses parables for simple pedagogic purposes (i.e., "so that even a child could understand the secrets of heaven") is a creation of the medieval period, much later.

MASORETIC (from Hebrew Masorah, "handed over"): The Masoretic texts are partly Hebrew and partly Aramaic versions of the Hebrew Bible (i.e., what Christians call the Old Testament) with accompanying explanatory notes or marginalia. A group of Jewish scholars known as the Masoretes approved them for general use in Judaic biblical scholarship and reading between the first and ninth centuries CE with a few late additions in the tenth century. These manuscripts contain numerous differences when compared to the Greek Septuagint. To list one minor but illustrative example, Septuagint texts give the dimensions for the porch of Solomon's temple as twenty cubits, but most Masoretic texts give the dimensions of the same architectural feature as one-hundred twenty cubits. Other differences range from the trivial to the striking. For linguists and biblical scholars, Masoretic texts are especially important because the Masoretes who wrote them introduced the Hebrew convention of using dots and symbols under, above, and inside consonant letters to represent vowel sounds. Previous Hebrew texts only marked consonant sounds, which left the meaning of many words ambiguous and rendered it difficult to verify comparative studies showing how similar or different Hebrew was from closely related languages such as Akkhadian, Amorite, Arabic, Ugaritic, Proto-Canaanite (which developed into both Phoenician and Classical Hebrew), Eblaite and Elamite.

MASQUE: Not to be confused with a masquerade, a masque is a type of elaborate court entertainment popular in the times of Queen Elizabeth I, King James I, and Charles I. The masque combined poetic drama, singing, dancing, music, and splendid costumes and settings.

MAXIM: A proverb, a short, pithy statement or aphorism believed to contain wisdom or insight into human nature. In much of the dialogue in Viking sagas, for instance, the characters will quote short maxims to each other to make a point.

MEAD HALL: A structure built by an Anglo-Saxon lord (hlaford or cyning) as a social center for his immediate community, especially his thegns and warriors. Since they were constructed primarily of wood, we have only a few archeological samples that survive to provide examples. We know from descriptions in Anglo-Saxon texts that they were filled with mead-benches, which were elaborately carved and decorated with gold. Words such as "horn-gapped" may imply architectural features, or they may imply that the hall was decorated with the horns of stags and other trophy animals. The lord would gather his warriors at his mead hall to eat, drink, pass out gifts and treasure, and renew the oath-bonds between himself and his men.

MEDIEVAL (from Latin medium aevum, "the Middle Age" or "the in-between age"): The period of time roughly a thousand years long between the fall of the Roman Empire and the emergence of the Renaissance. Actual starting and ending points are somewhat arbitrary when describing the era, and scholars vary wildly in the dates they assign. For instance, M. H. Abrams' Norton Anthology of English Literature, 7th edition, assigns to the medieval period the years 450-1485, but in his Glossary of Literary Terms, the same scholar points to the years 410-1500 as the appropriate years. J. A. Cuddon's Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory prefers the dates c. 800-c. 1450, and Harry Shaw's Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms prefers c. 476-c. 1350, but notes that it "may extend to about 1500" (p. 170). While there are no universally accepted demarcations, it is common in older European histories to divide the medieval period into an early period of "the Dark Ages" and a later period of "the High Middle Ages." On the other hand, linguists divide the medieval period in England into the Anglo-Saxon period (about 450-1066) and the Middle English period (about 1066-1450). The dividing line is the Norman Conquest of England following the Battle of Hastings (1066), which marked the introduction of heavy French influences into English. Some scholars prefer to mark the years 1100-1350 as the "Anglo-Norman" period, since most courtly literature in England was written in Norman-French rather than English. Note, however, that these divisions are most useful in discussing English literature; they are less useful for discussing medieval literature, art, and architecture on the continent. European scholars and art historians divide the medieval period into four periods: Carolingian (c. 750-900), Ottonian (c. 900-1056), Romanesque (c. 1057-1150), and Gothic (1150-1475).

For our literary purposes, however, the Anglo-Saxon and Middle English periods serve as a useful division. The early medieval centuries (often misleadingly called "the Dark Ages") are marked by the disintegration of classical Greco-Roman culture and the volkerwanderung of Germanic tribes into western Europe, followed by gradual conversions to Christianity. Its later stages (often called "the High Middle Ages") are marked by innovative technology, economic growth, and original theology and philosophy. The term medievalism in western Europe is linked with feudalism in government, guildhouses in economics, monasticism and Catholicism in religion, and castles and knights in chivalrous military custom. Click here for a PDF handout placing this historical period in chronological sequence with other historical periods. Click below for a chronological list of historical events in various centuries:


  • 500-600 CE

  • 600-700 CE

  • 700-800 CE

  • 800-900 CE

  • 900-1000 CE

  • 1000-1099 CE

  • 1100-1199 CE

  • 1200-1299 CE

  • 1300-1399 CE

MEDIEVAL ESTATES SATIRE: A medieval genre common among French poets in which the speaker lists various occupations among the three estates of feudalism (nobles, peasants, and clergy) and depicts them in a manner that shows how short they fall from the ideal of that occupation. In the late medieval period, the genre expanded to discuss the failings of bourgeois individuals as well. The genre was not unknown in England. John Gower's Vox Clamantis and Confessio Amantis have passages similar to those in continental estates satire. Jill Mann suggests in her famous book, Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire, that the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales is itself an example of this genre. See also satire, anti-fraternal satire, and three estates.

MEDIEVAL ROMANCE: See discussion under romance, medieval.

MEDITATION: A thoughtful or contemplative essay, sermon, discussion, or treatise.

MEIOSIS: Understatement, the opposite of exaggeration: "I was somewhat worried when the psychopath ran toward me with a chainsaw." (i.e., I was terrified). Litotes (especially popular in Old English poetry) is a type of meiosis in which the writer uses a statement in the negative to create the effect: "You know, Einstein is not a bad mathematician." (i.e., Einstein is a good mathematician.)

MELODRAMA: A dramatic form characterized by excessive sentiment, exaggerated emotion, sensational and thrilling action, and an artificially happy ending. Melodramas originally referred to romantic plays featuring music, singing, and dancing, but by the eighteenth century they connoted simplified and coincidental plots, bathos, and happy endings. These melodramatic traits are present in Gothic novels, western stories, popular films, and television crime shows, to name but a few more recent examples.

MEME: An idea or pattern of thought that "replicates" like a virus by being passed along from one thinker to another. A meme might be a song or advertising jingle that gets stuck in one's head, a particularly amusing joke or entertaining story one feels compelled to pass on, a memorable phrase that gets quoted repeatedly in public speeches or in published books, a political ideology, an invention, a teacher's lesson plan, or even a religious belief.

MEMOIR (usually appearing in plural form as memoirs, from Latin, memoria "memory" via French mémoire): An autobiographical sketch--especially one that focuses less on the author's personal life or psychological development and more on the notable people and events the author has encountered or witnessed. Examples include memoirs published by Winston Churchill and Dwight D. Eisenhower. The memoir contrasts with a diary or journal, i.e., the memoir is not an informal daily record of events in a person's life, it is not necessarily written for personal pleasure, and the author of such memoir has in mind the ultimate goal of publication. Contrast with biography and memoir-novel.

MEMOIR-NOVEL: A novel purporting to be a factual or autobiographical account but which is completely or partially imaginary. The authorial voice or speaker is typically a made-up character who never actually lived. This creation is not so much a hoax as a literary convention or an artistic device. An early example would be Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders. Later eighteenth-century examples include Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield and Mackenzie's The Man of Feeling. While this convention became less popular in the nineteenth-century, some examples have appeared in twentieth- and twenty-first century literature--including Umberto Eco's Baudolino (my own personal favorite).

MEMORIAL RECONSTRUCTION: Renaissance actors reconstructing the text of a play from their own (sometimes faulty) memory. Acting companies often lost or gained members rapidly. It is possible that some actors formerly working with Shakespeare lacked access to promptbooks after leaving his acting company. These players may have attempted to reconstruct the plays by memory. Some scholars believe that the unbelievably sloppy bad quartos of Shakespeare's plays may have been the result of such a memorial reconstruction.

MEMORY PLAY: The term coined by Tennessee Williams to describe non-realistic dramas, such as The Glass Menagerie, in which the audience experiences the past as remembered by a narrator, complete with music from the period remembered, and images representing the characters' thoughts, fears, emotions, and recollections projected on a scrim in the background. See drama, scrim.

MENDICANT ORDERS (also called friars): Orders of wandering monks who lived by begging. In the Middle Ages, the clergy was divided into secular clergy and regular clergy. The secular (i.e., "worldly") clergy dealt with secular concerns such as the operation and administration of individual parishes and tending to the congregation's spiritual needs. It was composed of the priests, bishops, archbishops, and cardinals. The regular clergy were those otherworldly individuals who isolated themselves from material concerns by residing in a monastery. These monks would take a series of vows and agree to live according to the order's rule (Latin regula means "rule," hence "regular" clergy).

While all the regular orders took a vow of poverty individually, the mendicant orders also took a vow of communal or corporate poverty, vowing to subsist entirely on begging from day-to-day, hence the name "mendicant" or "begging." It was hoped that this sort of vow would prevent abuses that occurred in monasteries, in which individual monks had no personal wealth, but the monastery as a whole was a powerful corporate entity possessing thousands of acres of land and its collective income, allowing the "impoverished" monks to often live a luxurious existence in spite of their individual vows of poverty. Some monasteries became such powerful landowning institutions that, at one point in England, it has been estimated that one-quarter to one-third of all available land was in the possession or control of various abbots. This situtation granted the monastic clergy political and financial power comparable to that of the secular branch of church; it was a far cry from the original intention of these monks to remove themselves from petty worldly matters in order to focus on spiritual contemplation.

In reaction to this situation, a series of reformers such as Saint Dominic and Saint Francis of Assissi espoused the idea of a new type of religious order--the mendicants. Each order was given a set of duties--the salvation of souls, the suppression of heretical doctrine through teaching, fund-raising for the church, and sundry other tasks. There remain from the Middle Ages four great mendicant orders recognized by the Second Council of Lyons in 1274 CE:


  • The Dominicans (alias the Order of Preachers, or the Black Friars)

  • The Franciscans (alias the Friars Minor, or the Gray Friars)

  • The Carmelites (alias the White Friars)

  • The Hermits of Saint Augustine (alias Austin Friars or Augustinian Friars)

In more recent centuries, the council of Trent granted all the mendicant orders except the Friars Minor and the Capuchins the right to have corporate property like other monasteries.

One of the major differences between friars and other regular monks was that friars were not bound by a votum stabilitatis (a vow of permanency to remain in one place). Instead, they were at liberty to wander from place to place teaching if given the permission of the "general" of their order. Indeed, such mobility was necessary, since the friars' primary task was, as it states in their mission statement, "to save souls." Thus, while other monks sought to follow an eremitical tradition that would remove them from worldly concerns, and isolate themselves from the general public beyond the monastery's walls, the mendicant orders deliberately reinserted themselves into the world so they could preach, teach, and beg.

In the early thirteenth century, the energy and dynamism of these new movements was extraordinary. Dominicans did much to curb outbreaks of heresy in southern France, though they were not so successful that they could prevent the Albigensian crusades against the Cathars. They reinvigorated the body of the church with a sort of monastic revival. By a century later, however, new problems and abuses began to arise.

Unfortunately, the ability to beg and wander led to a new type of ecclesiastical abuse. Part of the spiritual "glue" holding a monastery together is the supervision of an abbot, who would oversee the monks and make sure they are not straying into sin. Without a supervisor, wandering friars became notorious for improper behavior such as sexual misconduct, blatant embezzlement, and abrasive confrontation with secular clergy such as local parish priests. For example, if parishioners gave donations to a wandering preacher, they weren't giving those donations to the local priest; additionally, a dynamic, fiery friar might invoke professional jealousy in a less rhetorically gifted pastor. Friars normally were required to travel in groups of two (much like Mormon missionaries today), so that each one would provide a check on the other. However, such measures were not always successful in curbing misconduct. This abuse became a source of much popular resentment and frustration. In literature, this manifested itself in anti-fraternal satire. Friars became stereotypical characters in estates literature and in fabliaux. Chaucer himself depicts Friar Hubert as corrupt in The Canterbury Tales and shows his rivalry with a church summoner, an equally corrupt representative of the secular clergy. They insult each other's professions in their tales.

MERCIAN: The dialect of Old English spoken in the region of Mercia.

MERGING: In linguistics, another term for leveling.

MESOZEUGMA: See discussion under zeugma.

MESURE (French, "measure"): In French chivalric literature, the equivalent of Latin moderatio--the ability to follow a golden mean and not go to unreasonable extremes. This trait contrasts with the demesure (excessive actions or unconrolled passions) of figures like the knight Roland in the Chanson de Roland. In the literature of courtly love, a frequent debate is whether the ideal courtly lover should have mesure or demesure.

METADRAMA: Drama in which the subject of the play is dramatic art itself, especially when such material breaks up the illusion of watching reality. When Macbeth cries out, "Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player / who struts and frets his hour upon the stage, / and then is heard no more," his references to "shadows" and "players" (Renaissance slang for actors) and his discussion of the stage serve to remind the audience forcefully that they are watching a dramatic artifice, not a real historical event. The references break down verisimilitude to call attention to the fact that viewers are watching a staged performance. Likewise, the opening to Taming of the Shrew forcefully emphasizes that the events we see are a fiction, as does Hamlet's plan to use The Mouse-Trap as an ethical litmus test for Claudius: "The play's the thing / wherin I'll catch the conscience of the king."

METAFICTION: Fiction in which the subject of the story is the act or art of storytelling of itself, especially when such material breaks up the illusion of "reality" in a work. An example is John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman, in which the author interrupts his own narative to insert himself as a character in the work. Claiming not to like the ending to the tale, the author sets his watch back ten minutes, and the storyline backs up ten minutes so an alternative ending can unfold. The act reminds us that the passionate love affair we are so involved in as readers is a fictional creation of an author at that point when we are most likely to have forgotten that artificiality because of our involvement. Other examples include Chaucer's narrator in the Canterbury Tales, in which the pilgrim on the journey to Canterbury tells the reader to "turn the leaf [page] and choose another tale" if the audience doesn't like naughty stories like the Miller's tale. This command breaks the illusion that Geoffrey is a real person on pilgrimage, calling attention to the fictional qualities of The Canterbury Tales as a physical artifact--a book held in the readers' hands. Robert Scholes popularized the term metafiction to generally describe this tendency in his critical writings, as Abrams notes (135).

METALITERATURE: Literary art focused on the subject of literary art itself. Often this term is further divided into metapoetry, metafiction, and metadrama.

METAPHOR: A comparison or analogy stated in such a way as to imply that one object is another one, figuratively speaking. When we speak of "the ladder of success," we imply that being successful is much like climbing a ladder to a higher and better position. Another example comes from an old television add from the 1980s urging teenagers not to try drugs. The camera would focus on a close-up of a pair of eggs and a voice would state "This is your brain." In the next sequence, the eggs would be cracked and thrown onto a hot skillet, where the eggs would bubble, burn, and seeth. The voice would state, "This is your brain on drugs." The point of the comparison is fairly clear. A metaphor is an example of a rhetorical trope. Another example is how Martin Luther wrote, "A mighty fortress is our God, / A bulwark never failing." (Mighty fortress and bulwark are the two metaphors for God in these lines.) Often, a metaphor suggests something symbolic in its imagery. For instance, Wordsworth uses a metaphor when he states of England, "she is a fen of stagnant waters," which implies something about the state of political affairs in England as well as the island's biomes. Sometimes, the metaphor can be emotionally powerful, such as John Donne's use of metaphor in "Twickenham Garden," where he writes, "And take my tears, which are love's wine" (line 20). A particularly unusual metaphor that requires some explanation on the writer's part is often called a metaphysical conceit. The subject (first item) in a metaphoric statement is known as the tenor. The combination of two different metaphors into a single, awkward image is called a "mixed metaphor" or abusio. See also tenor and contrast with simile.

METAPHYSICAL CONCEIT: See conceit.

METAPHYSICAL POETRY: See discussion under metaphysical poets, below.

METAPHYSICAL POETS: In his 1693 work, Discourse of Satire, John Dryden used the term metaphysical to describe the style of certain poets earlier in the 17th century. Later, Samual Johnson popularized the term in 1779. The term metaphysical implies the poetry is abstract and highly complex. The chief metaphysical poets include John Donne, Richard Crashaw, Andrew Marvell, George Herbert, and Henry Vaughan. The group shares certain traits, but their themes, structures, and assorted tones in their poetry vary widely. (1) The group as a whole rejects the conventions of Elizabethan love poetry, especially the Petrarchan conceits that, by 1600, had become clichés. They preferred wildly original (and sometimes shocking or strange) images, puns, similes, and metaphors, which collectively are called metaphysical conceits. (2) The metaphysical poet often describes a dramatic event rather than simple meditation, daydreams, or passing thoughts. (3) The metaphysical poets employed inconsistant or striking verse--often imitating the rhythmic patterns of everyday speech, rather than attempting to create perfect meter in the manner later favored by neoclassical poets. Basically, the metaphysical poets would not let metrical form interfere with the development of a line of thought. (4) The poem often expresses an argument--often using wild flights of logic and unusual comparisons. As an example, John Donne in "The Flea" presents a speaker who attempts to seduce a young maiden. The basis of his argument is the comparison between sex and a flea-bite. In "Holy Sonnet 14," Donne fashions a prayer in which he compares God to a rapist and himself to a besieged city.

METAPLASMUS: A type of neologism in which misspelling a word creates a rhetorical effect. To emphasize dialect, one might spell dog as "dawg." To emphasize that something is unimportant, we might add -let or -ling at the end of the word, referring to a deity as a "godlet" or a prince as a "princeling." To emphasize the feminine nature of something normally considered masculine, try adding the suffix -ette to the end of the word, creating a smurfette or a corvette. To modernize something old, the writer might turn the Greek god Hermes into the Hermenator. Likewise, Austin Powers renders all things shagedelic. For more information, see the subdivisions of metaplasmus under schemes.

METAPOETRY: Poetry about poetry, especially self-conscious poems that pun on objects or items associated with writing or creating poetry. Among the Romantic and Enlightenment poets, we find puns on leaves (referring on one hand to the leaves of plants, and on another to the leaves or pages of a book of poetry), feet (referring on one level to the body part, and on another to the metrical feet of a poem), and so on. Other types of metapoetry involve self-conscious commentary on the poem's own genre or on the process of creating the poem. A fine example of this type of metapoetry is Billy Collins' "Sonnet":

All we need is fourteen lines, well, thirteen now,


And after this next one just a dozen
To launch a little ship on love's storm-tossed seas,
then only ten more left like rows of beans.
How easily it goes unless you get Elizabethan
and insist the iambic bongos must be played
and rhymes positioned at the ends of lines,
one for every station of the cross.
But hang on here while we make the turn
into the final six where all will be resolved,
where longing and heartache will find an end,
where Laura will tell Petrarch to put down his pen,
take off those crazy medieval tights,
blow out the lights, and come at last to bed.

Here, we can clearly see the self-reflective tendencies, in which the poet discusses how many more lines he needs to finish a traditional sonnet (lines 1-4), he directly comments on the traditional subject-matter of the sonnet, the rejected love of the speaker (alluded to in line 3), he adds an amusing allusion to the normal requirements of rhyme, meter and iambic pentameter, which the poet rejects (lines 5-8), and he adds a direct reference to the turn or volta, in the exact moment when the volta is required in an Italian sonnet. Finally the poet alludes to Laura (the woman to whom Petrarch dedicated his sonnets) and to Petrarch, the inventor of the sonnnet-structure that Collins mimics and alters simultaneously. The subject-matter of this sonnet is the conventional sonnet itself; thus, it is metapoetry. See metaliterature.

METATHESIS: The transposition of two sounds in speech or spelling. This tendency often catches students of Middle English off guard, since they might encounter the spelling brid for bird or hwale for whale.

METER: A recognizable though varying pattern of stressed syllables alternating with syllables of less stress. Compositions written in meter are said to be in verse. There are many possible patterns of verse. Each unit of stress and unstressed syllables is called a "foot." The following examples are culled from M. H. Abrams' Glossary of Literary Terms, seventh edition, which has more information. You can also click here to download a PDF handout giving examples of particular types of feet, or click here for a longer PDF handout discussing meter and scansion.




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