The Songwriter’s Glossary Of Poetic & Rhetorical Devices

by Bobby Gilles

in Songwriting/Hymn Workshop

Use the “Print Friendly” tab at the bottom if you’d like to turn this short glossary into a PDF for printing. The point is not for you to memorize all these terms. And you certainly couldn’t use all or even a significant minority of these devices in every song. But keep this list on hand and refer to it occasionally to sprinkle a few of these elements into each of your songs.

Alliteration: the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of a word, like the “H” sound in “Hark the herald angels sing” or the “L” in Stephen Foster’s “Open thy lattice, love, listen to me.” Count all the alliteration in this brief part of Bob Dylan’s “Chimes Of Freedom” (look for B, F, D,S and M words):

Far between sundown’s finish and midnight’s broken toll
We ducked inside the doorway, thunder crashin’
As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sun
Seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashing

Anadiplosis: Repeating the last word or phrase of one line at the beginning of the next one:

suffering produces endurance,
and endurance produces character,
and character produces hope,
and hope does not put us to shame,
— Romans 5:3-5

Poor man wanna be rich
Rich man wanna be king
And a king ain’t satisfied
Till he rules everything
— “Badlands,” Bruce Springsteen

Anaphora: Repetition of the same words at the beginning of successive lines. Martin Luther King, Jr. used anaphora repeatedly in his “I Have A Dream” speech. Fanny Crosby begins “Redeemed, How I Love To Proclaim It” with three successive lines starting with the word “Redeemed.” And Charles Wesley uses anaphora well in “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus“: “Born Thy people to deliver/ Born a child and yet a King/ Born to reign in us forever.” Look at the way Bill and Gloria Gaither repeat the title song phrase of “Because He lives” in their chorus:

Because He lives I can face tomorrow
Because He lives, all fear is gone
Because I Know He holds the future
This life is worth the living, just because He lives

Antimetabole: A figure of speech in which the same phrase or idea is repeated in transposed order, giving the second phrase a different or deeper meaning:

  • You can take the girl out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of the girl
  • “He lived to die; let us die to live”

Antistrophe: Similar to antimetabole, but more limited in scope. Antistrophe occurs when words are repeated in reverse order, meaning essentially the same thing each time:

  • One in Three, and Three in One
  • All for one, and one for all

Antithesis: The use of opposites in successive phrases, to highlight the distinction or difference:

  • “Ah, but I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now” — Bob Dylan, “My Back Pages”
  • “Vile and full of sin I am/ Thou art full of truth and grace” — Charles Wesley, “Jesus, Lover of my Soul”

Apostrophe: Addressing inanimate objects or persons not in the vicinity (frequently persons who are deceased). Hymn writers often address the cross upon which Jesus died. Here, Isaac Watts addresses his own soul and his voice in “Arise, My Soul! My Joyful Powers”:

Arise, my soul, my joyful powers,
And triumph in my God;
Awake, my voice, and loud proclaim
His glorious grace abroad.

Assonance: The repetition of vowel sounds within non-rhyming words. Notice Emily Dickenson’s use of the short a while describing a snake in “A Narrow Fellow In The Grass”:

The grass divides as with a comb,
A spotted shaft is seen;
And then it closes at your feet
And opens further on.

Consonance: Repetition of consonant sounds within words (unlike alliteration, where the repeated sounds are at the beginning of words). Note the “d” sound in this verse from John Newton’s “House Sweet The Name Of Jesus Sounds”:

Dear Name, the Rock on which I build,
My Shield and Hiding Place,

Epanadiplosis: Repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning and end of a phrase:

  • “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” – Romans 12:15

Epanalepsis: Repetition at the end of a line with the beginning word of that line:

  • “Shine, Jesus Shine,” by Graham Kendrick, which also includes the phrase “Blaze, Spirit blaze” and “Flow, river flow.”

Epinome: The repetition of a refrain. In my song “All I Have Is Yours” I repeated that title phrase three times in each verse, then used it as a chorus.

Epistrophe: Repetition of a word or phrase at the end of successive verses or clauses. I ended all three verses of the hymn of confession “Lead Us Back” with the phrase “Lead us back to life in You.”

Hyperbole: A figure using exaggeration, as in Wesley’s “O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise.” In her poem “Sow,” Sylvia Plath uses hyperbole to tell us about a pig with quite an appetite, who:

Proceeded to swill
The seven troughed seas and every earthquaking

Internal Rhyme (Also called Middle Rhyme): Rhyme that occurs within a line or within the body of closely grouped lines, rather than End Rhyme, which occurs at the end of lines. Hip hop songwriters are the best in the world at internal rhyme: see all the internal rhymes of the long “u” sound in this couplet from “Mission Accomplished” by Shai Linne:

The Father chooses them, the Son gets bruised for them
The Spirit renews them and produces fruit in them

Inversion (Also called Anastrophe): The process of inverting the natural grammatical order of a phrase or sentence (subject-verb-object):

All to Jesus I surrender
All to Him I freely give

Metaphor: A comparison between two unlike things, in which one is symbolic or representative of the other. In mine and Kristen’s song “Rising Tide,” we use water tide as a metaphor for the growth of the Church and surety that time is progressing towards the end of all sin and the everlasting kingdom:

No force can stop the spreading Church
No foe can stem the rising tide
Of those alive in Second Birth
Through Him who lives, though crucified

Paradox: A phrase or line containing ideas which seem to be opposite but work together in some way. William Cowper explores paradox in several levels of his “God Moves In A Mysterious Way,” such as his contrast of “mines” (which conjure images of darkness) with God’s “bright designs,” and “Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.” In our song “Bold Before God’s Throne” Kristen and I write about the paradox of being “bold” yet humble, of being unworthy to stand before God yet having Christ’s worthiness accredited to us:

Confident before the throne
Though humbled all the more,
Because the sacrifice of Christ
Became our open door;

Objective Correlative: As T.S. Eliot defined it:

“The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”

Hank Williams’ classic “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” uses a series of objective corrallatives to express loneliness: the night, a whippoorwill, a midnight train, the moon behind clouds, a weeping robin, turning leaves and a falling star.

Parenthesis: Explaining or qualifying a phrase in the middle of the phrase. Lyricists literally use parenthesis’ or dashes to demonstrate this in their lyrics. Kristen and I used this in the third verse of “My Song In The Night”:

Oh why should I wander away from your care?
Or fear for my future?  (You’ve made me an heir,
Adopted by God to the Kingdom of Light)
You conquered the darkness, my song in the night

Personification: When the poet treats an abstraction or inanimate object as if it were concrete or human:

  • “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” by George Harrison
  • “Death Be Not Proud” by John Donne, who borrowed from Paul’s “O death, where is your sting?” – 1 Cor. 15:55
John Mark McMillan personifies creation’s reaction to Calvary in “Death In His Grave”:

Though the earth cried out for blood
Satisfied her hunger was
Billows calmed on raging seas
For the souls of men she craved
Sun and moon from balcony
Turned their head in disbelief

Polyptoton: Repetition of a word root in two different forms (suffix or prefix):

  • Deep in our hearts, let us record / the deeper sorrows of our Lord” — Isaac Watts

Simile: A kind of metaphor in which the comparison or connection is made using the word “like” or “as.” Henry Wadsworth Longellow uses “like” and “as” similes in his “Hymn to the Night”:

  • “The calm, majestic presence of the Night / As of the one I love”
  • “That fill the haunted chambers of the Night / Like some old poet’s rhymes.”

Slant Rhyme (also called Imperfect Rhyme, Half Rhyme, Near Rhyme or Off Rhyme): Rhyme in which either the vowels or consonants of stressed syllables are identical, but not both (as opposed to the more traditional Perfect Rhyme, like “about/ in doubt”). Notice how Jennie Lee Riddle’s “Revelation Song” employs slant rhyme for lines 1/2 and 3/4 in this verse:

Clothed in rainbows, of living color
Flashes of lightning, rolls of thunder
Blessing and honor, strength and glory and power be
to You the only wise King

Synecdoche: When a part of something stands for the whole, as when saying, “Hey, Green Eyes,” to a green-eyed person. In “Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed,” Isaac Watts uses the scars from Christ’s head to stand for all that his person suffered:

Would he devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?

Tautology: Repeating the thought behind a phrase, using different words:

Help us to help each other, Lord,
Each other’s cross to bear:
Let each his friendly aid afford,
And feel his brother’s care
— “Jesus, United By Thy Grace,” by Charles Wesley


Previous post:

Next post: