What is repetition? At its simplest, repetition is a word or phrase used multiple times in a text, for the purpose of emphasizing an emotion or idea. It might seem counterintuitive to repeat, repeat, repeat, but when wielded correctly, the repetition of words and phrases has powerful effects in literature.
You’re most likely to find examples of repetition in poetry, but both poetry and prose utilize the same devices, like epizeuxis, anadiplosis, and chiasmus. We’ll dive into those strange Greek words in a minute, but before dissecting the types of repetition, let’s properly define repetition in literature. What is repetition?
When a writer utilizes repetition, they’re putting multiple iterations of a word or phrase in close proximity to each other. In other words, a word or phrase is repeated to provide clarity and emphasis, highlighting deeper meanings in the text.
Repetition definition: an instance where a word or phrase is repeated to provide clarity and emphasis, highlighting deeper meanings in the text.
Now, repetition in literature can be both subtle and obvious, and writers can get very creative about what those repeating words signify. For example, take this excerpt from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”:
Alone on a wide, wide sea.
In 11 words, “alone” is repeated 4 times, while “all” and “wide” are repeated twice each. Each word contributes its own importance to the poem. “All” emphasizes the intensity of the speaker’s aloneness, and while the word “alone” highlights the speaker’s solitude, “wide” highlights the vast amount of space between the speaker and anything else. The repetition here evokes the image of an insignificant dot floating in an endless nothingness—a loneliness without end.
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What is Repetition in Poetry?
It’s easy to find examples of repetition in poetry and in prose, but it’s much easier to execute repetition in poetry. Why do poets use repetition? Poetry has greater freedom in syntax and structure, so poets have more tools at their disposal to repeat themselves stylishly and effectively.
Indeed, because of poetry’s brevity and concision, repetition is almost necessary to write a good poem. You’ll find in many great poems that a certain idea or image is repeated, with some modification, throughout the work.
Certain poetry forms also require repetition, typically in the form of a refrain. A refrain is a phrase or line that gets repeated in an intentional, specific way, with little modification. The villanelle, for example, has two refrains woven throughout the poem. Other forms, like the duplex or the sestina, don’t have refrains, but they do require words or lines to be repeated in a highly structured format.
Repetition in poetry: A refrain is a phrase or line that gets repeated in an intentional, specific way, with little modification.
Why is repetition in poetry so important? A great poem will look at a single idea from many different angles. Through that idea’s juxtaposition with different thoughts and images, the idea becomes multifaceted, in a way that a poem’s repetition and concision make possible. Additionally, the poem is often a site of obsession, and repetition in poetry enables the poet to explore that obsession in an intentional, artful way.
Now, let’s take a look at the types of repetition in literature—both prose and poetry—before looking at more repetition examples in each genre.
11 Types of Repetition in Literature
Repetition is as old as literature, though these devices were especially prominent in both Ancient Greece and Rome. These devices exist partially because of their emphatic value, and partially because literature was often retold orally, so repetition helped storytellers remember “what comes next” as they recited their work.
As such, the following repetition devices all have Greek names. For the modern English speaker, this makes remembering each device a bit confusing—how am I supposed to know my antistrophe from my antanaclasis?
As such, we’ve defined each device next to the word itself, making these types of repetition easier to navigate. In addition to using these devices in your writing, you can also impress your friends by telling them what they just said is an antimetabole.
We’ve provided some repetition examples in literature alongside each device below. Here are 11 types of repetition in poetry and prose.
1. Anadiplosis—Repetition in Successive Clauses
Anadiplosis is when a word or phrase is repeated in successive clauses. Usually, the phrase shows up at the end of one clause and the beginning of the next.
You’ll find anadiplosis often in classic literature, and this device is especially prevalent in the Bible. Take this excerpt from the Book of Genesis (1:1-2):
In this passage, “the earth” ends the first sentence and starts the second. This puts the earth at the center of the text, emphasizing its importance and outsized presence in Genesis.
Anadiplosis can also be used to offer a sense of placement. Take this example of repetition, from the poem “The Isles of Greece” by Lord Byron:
In this excerpt, the reader can view the arrangement of the landscape. We see Marathon literally situated between the mountains and the sea, because it’s situated that same way in the text, which also emphasizes Marathon’s importance to the poem itself.
2. Anaphora—Repetition at the Beginning of Lines or Clauses
For the most part, anaphora is an example of repetition in poetry. This device involves the repeated use of a word or phrase at the beginning of each line in a poem, or each sentence in prose.
Let’s look at repetition examples for each. In poetry, anaphora is present in the piece “The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee” by N. Scott Momaday. Read this poem at our article Literary Devices in Poetry.
In prose, consider this sentence from the novel Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler:
The repeating phrase “I needed” highlights the narrator’s desperation, especially since each need is a luxury only afforded to the wealthy and comfortable. The following sentence, which describes the narrator’s belongings, offers insight into the narrator’s psyche and behavior—we know his needs and what he has to obtain those needs.
3. Antanaclasis—Successive Repetition of a Word, In Which Each Use Has a Different Meaning
One word can have many different meanings, especially in the English language. Did you know that the word “set” has 430 different usages described in the Oxford English Dictionary?
Antanaclasis harnesses this facet of language so that each repetition of words has a different meaning.
Take this example of repetition, from Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on Snowy Evening.”
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
The repetition of the last line, and particularly the phrase “I sleep,” clues the reader towards two different meanings. The first “I sleep” is clearly referring to rest, while the second “I sleep” probably refers to the speaker’s death. This double meaning of “sleep” suggests the speaker has much more work to do before he can comfortably rest, both at night and at the end of his life.
4. Antimetabole—Phrases or Sentences Repeated in Reverse Grammatical Order
Antimetabole is when phrases or sentences are repeated in reverse order, with the intent of juxtaposing different meanings. In both clauses, the grammatical structure is exactly the same. This device is closely related to chiasmus, but with a slight difference that we explain later below.
This device is much easier to demonstrate than to define. See the below repetition examples, each of which uses inverted word order to emphasize a certain point:
This quote, spoken by Festes in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, repeats “wit” and “fool” in inverse order. The effect is that Festes underlines the importance of wit, and that foolishness and wit are not mutually exclusive: a “fool” or clown can be witty, which is far better than actually being a foolish person.
Here’s another example of antimetabole, from Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God:
Hurston’s novel frequently dwells on the themes of gender and society, and this quote sums up the novel’s attitude nicely. At a time when women were viewed as subservient to their husbands, Hurston is saying that women are fully in control of their fate, feelings, and thoughts, defying the typical gender roles of that era. The antimetabole of “forget” and “remember” reinforces that sense of control.
5. Antistrophe—Successive Repetition at the Ends of Lines or Clauses
Antistrophe—also known as epistrophe or epiphora—is the successive repetition of a word or phrase at the end of lines or clauses. Like anaphora, the effect of antistrophe is the emphasis of a recurring idea.
You’ll find an example of antistrophe in the short poem “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks:
Seven at the Golden Shovel.
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
The word “We” starts each sentence, but ends each line—except the last line. This repetition emphasizes two things. First, it shows the reader the speaker’s lack of identity: he can only identify as a weak “we,” and that “we” centers itself around youthful rebellion.
Second, it highlights the poet’s attitude towards the boys. There is no “we” after the phrase “die soon,” which underscores the poem’s finality and the poet’s belief that the boys will ruin their own lives.
6. Chiasmus—Phrases or Sentences Repeated in Reverse Order
Chiasmus, like antimetabole, is the repetition of a phrase in reverse order. By inverting a phrase, the writer juxtaposes different or opposite meanings.
Unlike antimetabole, a chiasmus does not have to invert a phrase grammatically. The two clauses can have different lengths and structures. As such, antimetabole is often viewed as a stricter form of chiasmus.
Let’s look at an example of each, side-by-side. The following, from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, is an example of both chiasmus and antimetabole, because each inverted clause preserves the same grammatical structure:
Now, this next quote, from Aeschylus, is an example of chiasmus, but not of antimetabole, because each inverted clause has a different grammatical structure:
but the man the oath.
To summarize: a chiasmus is also an antimetabole, but not every antimetabole is a chiasmus.
7. Epanalepsis—Repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning and end of a clause or sentence
Epanalepsis refers to repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning and end of a line, clause, or sentence. This is a feature of some other types of repetition—chiasmus and antimetabole, in particular, will often feature an epanalepsis.
This repetition device is just as useful for poets and storytellers as it is for rhetoricians. Here are a few examples:
“Beloved is mine; she is Beloved.” —Beloved by Toni Morrison
“Possessed by what we now no more possessed.” —”The Gift Outright” by Robert Frost
“Nothing can be created out of nothing.” —Lucretius
“Music I heard with you was more than music.
And bread I broke with you was more than bread.” —“Bread and Music” by Conrad Aiken
“Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind.” —John F. Kennedy
The most obvious reason for using epanalepsis is emphasis on an important concept or keyword. That said, pay attention to how this repetition device adds a sense of rhythm and musicality to language. Something about the echoing of important words adds movement and tension to the sentence, making it moving and evocative.
8. Epimone—Repetition for the Purpose of Dwelling
Epimone, a device most often used in dialogue, occurs when the speaker repeats themselves for the purpose of dwelling on a point. This repetition doesn’t contribute anything new to the speaker’s argument, but it often shows us how the speaker truly feels.
Here’s an example from Romeo & Juliet:
O woe! O woeful, woeful, woeful day.
Most lamentable day, most woeful day
That ever, ever, I did yet behold!
O day, O day, O day, O hateful day.
Never was seen so black a day as this.
O woeful day, O woeful day.
In addition to several epizeuxis examples (defined below), this quote has several examples of epimone. The repeating “woeful,” “O day,” and “O woeful day” phrases don’t contribute anything new to what the nurse is saying, but it does underscore how terrible the day is for her.
Epimone is best used as an element in dialogue to humanize characters. In real life, people repeat themselves for emphasis, and using epimone reflects this human tendency.
9. Epizeuxis—Words Repeated in Quick Succession
Epizeuxis, also known as diacope, is the repetition of words in quick succession.
There are countless examples of epizeuxis in the poem “The Bells” by Edgar Allan Poe. Each stanza ends with some variation of the following:
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells—
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.
Here, the immediate repetition of “bells” is an epizeuxis. Try to read this stanza as though each iteration of “bells” was a bell jingling: the stanza becomes vibrant, exciting, and perhaps even overwhelming, as it is both figuratively and literally consumed by the bells.
10. Polyptoton—The Inclusion of Multiple Words with the Same Root
Polyptoton is the use of two or more words that, though different, share the same root. The words “bare & barely” have the same root; so do the word pairs “battle & embattled” and “lunar & lunatic.”
Polyptoton was a common facet of Latin and Greek poetry, since one word has hundreds of forms in each language. However, modern literature has examples of polyptoton, too. Take this excerpt from T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Dry Salvages”:
No end to the withering of withered flowers,
To the movement of pain that is painless and motionless,
To the drift of the sea and the drifting wreckage,
The bone’s prayer to Death its God. Only the hardly, barely prayable
Prayer of the one Annunciation.
There are four examples of polyptoton here: “wither & withering”, “pain & painless”, “drift & drifting”, and “prayer, prayable, & Prayer.”
What is the effect of repetition with polyptoton? By using different forms of the same word, the writer can suggest an evolving relationship between those words. The flowers, withered, are still withering; the sea, which drifts, brings drifting wreckage. Polyptoton adds dimension to the meanings of words, providing contrast and emphasis to what those words signify.
11. Symploce—Repetition at Both the Beginnings and Ends of Clauses
Symploce occurs when a writer uses both anaphora and antistrophe at the same time. By using symploce, the writer highlights nuances of meaning and the differences between the two repeating phrases.
Because symploce happens at both the beginning and end of a line or sentence, it most often occurs as repetition in poetry. Here’s an example of a love poem, “Sonnet 62” by Bartholomew Griffin, that has symploce in each line:
Most true that I fair Fidessa cannot love.
Most true that I do feel the pains of love.
Most true that I am captive unto love.
Most true that I deluded am with love.
Most true that I do find the sleights of love.
Most true that nothing can procure her love.
Most true that I must perish in my love.
Most true that She contemns the God of love.
Most true that he is snarèd with her love.
Most true that She would have me cease to love.
Most true that She herself alone is Love.
Most true that though She hated, I would love!
Most true that dearest life shall end with love.
“Sonnet 62” uses an anaphora with “most true” and an antistrophe with “love.” Each line slightly alters the relationship between truth and love, presenting a series of juxtapositions and paradoxes that complicates the speaker’s relationship to Fidessa. By writing this sonnet as a perfect symploce, Griffin is able to capture that complexity and his evolving relationship to love itself.
What is the Effect of Repetition?
Repetition in literature offers a variety of powerful rhetorical strategies. In the above repetition examples, we’ve seen this device do the following:
- Emphasize key themes and ideas
- Underscore the relationship between ideas
- Emulate sounds and experiences
- Invert ideas for emphasis
- Juxtapose ideas to challenge the reader
- Reveal or enhance the author’s writing style
- Play with multiple meanings and ambiguities
- Situate an important setting in the text, both figuratively and literally
- Suggest a character’s interiority
Repetition in literature can do all of the above, and much more. What makes repetition in poetry and prose so powerful is that it emphasizes other devices and ideas in the text.
Since the main effect of repetition is emphasis, writers should harness the repetition of words to underscore what their work is trying to accomplish. By skillfully repeating words and phrases, writers can clue the reader towards what they’re trying to say in their work, using the tools of rhetoric in artistic and literary ways.
How Not to Use Repetition in Your Writing
Repetition is a powerful literary device that can highlight important ideas, flesh out those ideas, and make your writing more musical and interesting. When mishandled, it can also lessen the quality of your work.
How is that so? Repetition that isn’t done intentionally and artistically can end up being annoying or redundant. Typically, this happens when the writer is saying the exact same thing over and over. It can also happen when the writer doesn’t trust the reader, so they restate the same idea, trying to hammer in something that the reader already understands.
Much of this comes down to being confident in your work and being objective about your goals with your writing.
Here’s a quote from The Great Gatsby that uses repetition artfully:
He smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced—or seemed to face—the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.
The words “understood,” “understand,” and “understandingly” are repeated just the right number of times. They’re scattered throughout the text in an intentional way, and each time the word is used, it’s used with a slightly different meaning. Each repetition adds to the meaning the paragraph tries to convey, and it does so inside of the voice of Nick Carraway, the narrator. Here, repetition is intentional, thoughtful, and mindful of character.
Here’s an example of repetition gone wrong. I’ve amended the above passage to have needless repetition:
He smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare understanding smiles with a quality of eternal understanding reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced—or seemed to face—the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible understanding prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it understood, that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.
The additional uses of the word “understand” don’t contribute anything unique or essential. Moreover, they dampen the effects of the other words, and you start to get annoyed with the word every time it’s used. Don’t over repeat, and again, trust your audience.
Wield Repetition at Writers.com
Repetition is a powerful literary device, but if you have too many repeating words and phrases, your work can lose its impact. Writers.com can help! Become a part of our community: Take a look at our upcoming courses or join our Facebook group, and receive caring feedback on your work and use of repetition.