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Literary Terms and Definitions: R

This page is under perpetual construction! It was last updated 3 September 2014.


This list is meant to assist, not intimidate. Use it as a touchstone for important concepts and vocabulary that we will cover during the term. Vocabulary terms are listed alphabetically.

[A] [B] [C] [D] [E] [F] [G] [H] [I] [J] [K] [L] [M]

[N] [O] [P] [Q] [R] [S] [T] [U] [V] [W] [X] [Y] [Z]

RADICAL INNOCENCE: The Romantics valued innocence as something pure, wholesome, fulfilling, natural, and individualistic. They saw it as antithetical to the corrupting influence of civilized conformity and the heartless, mechanized, industrialized, materialistic society of the Enlightenment. As Emerson put it, "the simple genuine self against the whole world" was the movement of the Romanticism, and radical innocence was its essence. The state of innocence was thought to be the ideal one for humanity. Radical innocence was the ability of an adult to maintain a child-like sense of wonder, faith, and goodness in spite of being aware of the cruelties, injustices, and heartaches of the world. The term has become something of a catchphrase in modernist and postmodernist writings. See for instance, Yeats' quotation below:

Considering that, all hatred driven hence,
The soul recovers radical innocence
And learns at last that it is self-delighting,
Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,
And that its own sweet will is Heaven's will.

--William Butler Yeats, "A Prayer for My Daughter" (1920)

RAISONNEUR (French, "Reasoner"): A character in continental literature whose purpose is similar to that of a chorus in Greek drama, i.e., this choric figure remains at a distance from the main action and provides a reasoned commentary about what takes place. However, a raisonneur doesn't necessarily sing like the chorus, and the character appears in other genres of literature (short stories, novels, poems) rather than in dramatic works.

RASH BOON: A motif in folklore and in Celtic and Arthurian literature in which an individual too hastily promises to fulfill another character's request without hearing exactly what that request is. For instance, in the first tale in The Mabinogion, "Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed," Pwyll promises to give Gwawl son of Clud whatever he requests. Gwawl demands that Pwyll give him his wife, Rhiannon, much to Pwyll's dismay! In the French Erec et Enide, we see the knight Erec involved in such a motif. In The Wife of Bath's Tale, the rapist knight makes a rash boon to the aged hag--and the hag later claims that boon before Gwenevere's court, demanding that the knight marry her.

RÄUBERROMAN (German, "Robber-novel"): The German term for a picaresque novel.

REALISM: An elastic and ambiguous term with two meanings. (1) First, it refers generally to any artistic or literary portrayal of life in a faithful, accurate manner, unclouded by false ideals, literary conventions, or misplaced aesthetic glorification and beautification of the world. It is a theory or tendency in writing to depict events in human life in a matter-of-fact, straightforward manner. It is an attempt to reflect life "as it actually is"--a concept in some ways similar to what the Greeks would call mimesis. Typically, "realism" involves careful description of everyday life, "warts and all," often the lives of middle and lower class characters in the case of socialist realism. In general, realism seeks to avoid supernatural, transcendental, or surreal events. It tends to focus as much on the everyday, the mundane, and the normal as events that are extraordinary, exceptional, or extreme. As J. A. Cuddon notes, realism "more crudely [. . .] suggests jackets off, sleeves rolled up, 'no nonsense'" attitudes toward literary art (773).

(2) Secondly and more specifically, realism refers to a literary movement in America, Europe, and England that developed out of naturalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Although realism and the concern for aspects of verisimilitude have been components of literary art to one degree or another in nearly all centuries, the term realism also applies more specifically to the tendency to create detailed, probing analyses of the way "things really are," usually involving an emphasis on nearly photographic details, the author's inclusion of in-depth psychological traits for his or her characters, and an attempt to create a literary facsimile of human existence unclouded by convention, cliché, formulaic traits of genre, sentiment, or the earlier extremes of naturalism. This tendency reveals itself in the growing mania for photography (invented 1839), the tendency toward hyper-realistic paintings and sculpture, the continuing rise of the popular prose novel, the growth of "realism" in philosophical movements, and in the increasingly realistic stage productions during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The movement contrasts with (and is often used as an antonym for) literary forms such as the romance, science-fiction, fantasy, magic realism, mythology, surrealistic art, modernism and postmodernism.

Note that the earlier literary movement known as naturalism is often used as a precursor and antonym for realism, even though both literary movements share many similarities. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between naturalism and realism. Some writers are classified as part of both movements. Personally, I distinguish between them by noting how naturalism goes out of its way to obsessively and grimly point out the limitations of human potential. Realism shares this concern, but seems less obsessed with this point. My distinction, however, is one not generally accepted by literary critics. Often, writers like Thomas Hardy are said to be both naturalistic and realistic, for instance.

Examining the wide variety of writers called "realists" at one time or another shows how flexible the term is. These writers include such diverse artists as Mark Twain, Flaubert, Balzac, Zola, Guy de Maupassant, Tolstoy, Gogol, Gorki, William Howells, William Burroughs, Thomas Hardy, and Norman Mailer. Dramatists normally considered realists include Henrik Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw, and Strindberg.

REARSTAGE: The section of the stage farthest away from the viewing audience, the back of the visible stage as opposed to "backstage" and out of sight.

REBUS: A visual pun in which a written sign stands for a different meaning than its normal one--usually because the two words sound alike. For instance, the letters C and U sound like the words see and you in the instant messenger version of "C U later!" The rebus is a common feature in Egyptian hieroglyphic writings and Babylonian cuneiform.

RECEIVED PRONUNCIATION: The accent used by upper class British citizens--usually considered a prestigious or "classy" pronunciation. Linguists refer to this accent by the abbreviation RP. [One personal aside--for any computer users reading this who are working with speech recognition software, my wife has found that artificially imitating an "RP" accent almost doubles her computer's consistency in speech recognition for voice commands--at least when working with Macintosh software!]

RECOGNITION: See anagnorisis.

RECONSTRUCTION: A hypothetical earlier form of a word that probably existed, but for which no direct evidence is available. Linguists normally mark reconstructions by placing an asterisk in front of them. This marks them as a hypothetical word. For instance, the Indo-European word *ekwos--which developed into equus in Latin, ech in Old Irish, and eoh in Old English, is a reconstruction.

RECTO: See discussion under quarto or examine this chart.

REFLEXIVE CONSTRUCTION: A verb combined with a reflexive pronoun functioning as the direct object. For instance, in Spanish, Yo me llavo ("I wash myself"). In English, this often creates a redundant phrase, such as "I repent me of my promise."

REFRAIN: A line or set of lines at the end of a stanza or section of a longer poem or song--these lines repeat at regular intervals in other stanzas or sections of the same work. Sometimes the repetition involves minor changes in wording. A refrain might consist of a nonsense word (such as Shakespeare's "With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino" in the song from As You Like It), a single word (such as "Nevermore" in Poe's "The Raven"), or even an entire separate stanza that is repeated alternating with each stanza in the poem. If the refrain is meant to be sung by all the auditors listening, such as in Burns' "Auld Lang Syne," the refrain is often called a chorus. The device is ancient. Examples are found in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Bible, Greek, Latin, and Provençal verse, and in many, many ballads.

REGIONAL DIALECT: Another term for geographic dialect.

REGIONAL LITERATURE: Literature that accurately seeks to portray or is associated with a particular geographic region or people. Often regional literature is set within a particular area, and the writer or poet tries to capture the customs, dialect, behavior, and historical background of that region. Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and Thomas Hardy's Return of the Native are two examples of regional novels. Eudora Welty and William Faulkner are often held up as examples of Southern regional writers generally. More specifically, Appalachian poets include Ron Rash, Danny Marion, Lynn Powell, and Rita Sims Quillen.

REGISTER DIALECT: A dialectal variation used only for a particular circumstance or for a specific purpose. For instance, the ceremonial language of sermons, weddings, and funerals often uses words like brethren or beloved. These words are rarely used outside of that specialized register.

RELATIVE CLAUSE: TBA under "Clause" link.

RELIC: The physical remains of a saint or biblical figure, or an object closely associated with a saint, biblical figure, or a miracle. Sample relics might be Saint Veronica's veil, a sandal of the Virgin Mary, the skull of John the Baptist, a hair or fingernail of the disciple Mark, a bone from Saint John the Divine, a splinter or fragment from Christ's cross, or the lance that was embedded in Christ's side. In medieval Christianity, such relics were thought to be powerful, holy items imbued with divine potency. In Christian belief, the spirits of the saints continued to exist after their deaths, and these spirits would eventually return to their bodies after God resurrects their physical forms on the judgment day. Since the spirits still existed, however, they could theoretically interact with the physical world. It was thought that the spirits of these saints continued to be connected to their physical remains. Thus, possessing a part of Saint Julian's body would ensure that the spirit of Saint Julian would linger near that body-part, and be close at hand to aid the possessor. When a medieval Christian wanted divine intervention, he might pray near the relic and ask that saint to intercede on his behalf. [An important note for confused modern Protestants--in medieval Catholic doctrine, "intercession" does not mean worshipping the saints per se, but rather asking the deceased saint to pray to God on the living individual's behalf, much like a modern Protestant might ask his or her neighbor to pray for him. Many non-Catholics do not understand the distinction, and they accordingly accuse medieval Christians of idolatry.]

Medieval churches usually included one or more relics under, on, or within the altar, and shrines might be built around immobile relics. These relics were considered especially valuable, and they were often sealed in gold or silver containers, encrusted with gems, or placed inside silken reliquary purses. Often special objects such as a bishop's staff or a king's crown might be constructed with a minor relic inside it. For instance, King Charlemagne's sword (c. 800 CE) was supposedly designed so that its hilt contained two splinters of the true cross.

With poor communication between regions, certain confusions were bound to occur. Three different medieval churches were built to house three different "true skulls of John the Baptist." In the fourteenth century, it became increasingly common for con-artists to sell fake relics to unsuspecting victims. Chaucer writes of this practice in his depiction of the Pardoner in his Canterbury Tales. There, the Pardoner merrily sells pig-bones, which he claims are the bones of saints, to other travelers. Probably the most famous relic in Arthurian legends is the Holy Grail, variously described in Christian iconography as being (1) the cup from which Christ drank at the Last Supper, (2) the cup used to catch the blood that spurted from Christ's side after the Centurion Longus stabbed him, (3) the actual spear Longus used to stab Christ, or alternatively in German legends (4), a mystical stone providing endless food.

RENAISSANCE: There are two common uses of the word.

(1) The term originally described a period of cultural, technological, and artistic vitality during the economic expansion in Britain in the late 1500s and early 1600s. Thinkers at this time and later saw themselves as rediscovering and redistributing the legacy of classical Greco-Roman culture by renewing forgotten studies and artistic practices, hence the name "renaissance" or "rebirth." They believed they were breaking with the days of "ignorance" and "superstition" represented by recent medieval thinking, and returning to a golden age akin to that of the ancient Greeks and Romans from centuries earlier--a cultural idea that will eventually culminate in the Enlightenment of the late 1600s up until about 1799 or so. The Renaissance saw the rise of new poetic forms in the sonnet and a flowering of drama in the plays of Shakespeare, Jonson, and Marlowe. The English Renaissance is often divided into the Elizabethan period--the years that "Good Queen Bess" (Queen Elizabeth I) ruled--and the Jacobean period, in which King James I ruled. (The Latin form of James is Jacobus, hence the name Jacobean). Typically, we refer to this period as the Renaissance, often with a definite article and a capital R. You can click here to download a PDF handout placing this period in chronological order with other periods of literary history.

(2) In a looser sense, a renaissance (usually with an uncapitalized r) is any period in which a people or nation experiences a period of vitality and explosive growth in its art, poetry, education, economy, linguistic development, or scientific knowledge. The term is positive in connotation. Historians refer to a Carolingian renaissance after Charlemagne was crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 800 AD. Medievalists refer to an "Ottonian renaissance" to describe the growth of learning under the descendents of Emperor Otto I. Haskins speaks of a "little renaissance" or a "Twelfth-Century renaissance" to describe the architecture, art, and philosophy emerging in France and Italy in the late 1100s. Even in the twentieth century, American scholars often refer to a "Harlem Renaissance" among African-American jazz musicians and literary artists of the 1930s and an "Irish Literary Renaissance" among Irish writers, to name but a few examples. The capitalization in these specific cases varies from writer to writer.

RENGA: Japanese linked verse--a poetic dialogue formed by a succession of waka in which poets take turns composing the poem as a party-game. The rules for the games were supposedly laid down in 1186 CE by Fujiwara Sadaie (1162-1241) and Fujiwara Sadatake (c. 1139-1202). The first three lines have a set pattern of 5/7/5 syllables. One poet writes these three lines, then passes his poem to another person. That person then writes two lines of 7/7 syllables. The next three lines of 5/7/5 are written by a third person, and so on, until a lengthy poem of a hundred lines or so results. Of these long composite poems, the first three--called the hokku, are always the most important. The renga eventually develops into the renku (see below), and the hokku of these two poetic forms ultimately evolves into the haiku in the19th century. See hokku, haiku, waka, and renku.

RENKU (also called haikai renga): An earthier, humorous variant on the courtly renga introduced by Iio Sogi, Yamazzaki Sokan, and Nishiyama Soin. While the form of the renku are identical to the renga, the subject-matter, tone, and vocabulary are quite different. Ultimately, the hokku section of the renku or haikai renga develop into the modern haiku after Matsuo Bashó took the poetic form and elevated it to a meaningful zen reaction to nature. See hokku, haiku, and renga.

REPERTORY: A number of plays an acting company had prepared for performance at any given time. Unlike modern drama, in which a particular popular performance may continue for weeks on end such as Les Miserables or Cats, Renaissance acting companies usually performed a different play each day, perhaps performing a dozen plays in a month and more than thirty in the course of the season, as Greenblatt notes (1140).

REPETITION: TBA

REPHAIM: The Oxford Companion to the Bible goes into some detail on this term, and I summarize the material from Ackerman's article in this vocabulary entry. Several biblical texts, including Isaiah 26:14 and Proverbs 2:18, refer to rephaim--dead "shades" (NRSV) or "ghosts." These passages suggest the rephaim inhabit the underworld. In other biblical texts like Deuteronomy 2:20, Deuteronomy 3:11-13, and Joshua 12:4 and Joshua 13:12, these beings are described as a race of terrible giants who once lived in parts of Palestine and the Transjordan region and were somehow related to the Nephilim. In outdated scholarship from the 19th century, Hebrew linguists thought that these two meanings--ghost and giant--were distinct from each other. However, the discovery of Ugaritic texts in 1928 strongly suggests the two terms are at the very least closely related and probably synonymous. At Ugarit (modern Syria), the word Rephaim signified members of the once-living aristocracy who attained some sort of semi-divine or superhuman powers after death in Ugaritic belief. In the underworld, these beings were thought to have the power to harm or aid the living. Accordingly, most Biblical scholars think the term Rephaim probably referred to those among the deceased, especially the spirits of the deceased giant Nephilim, who continued to exercise their powers after death in most Semitic beliefs of the region. The conjunction can best be seen in Isaiah 14:9, where the Rephaim of the underworld are explicitly described as those "who were leaders of the earth" and those "who were kings of the nations." See Ackerman's entry in Metzger and Coogan, page 647, for more information.

REPRESENTATION: See mimesis.

REPRESENTATIVE CHARACTER: A flat character who embodies all of the other members of a group (such as teachers, students, cowboys, detectives, and so on). Representative characters are often stereotypes. They need not be derogatory, but they are almost always simplified.

RESOLUTION: See dénouement.

RESTORATION: The restoration, also called the Restoration Period, is the time from 1660, when the Stuart monarch Charles II was re-established as ruler of England, to about 1700. Earlier, between 1649-1658, the Stuart line had lost its control over the nation after the Roundhead general Oliver Cromwell had created a Puritan dictatorship under "parliament's" control. During this earlier Puritan Interregnum, literature was heavily censored and drama was outlawed as immoral. After Cromwell's death in 1658 and Charles II's restoration to power, restoration drama (particularly comedies) and poetry flowered anew. The restoration is the early stage of the Enlightenment philosophy in England, signaling a movement rejecting dogmatic Puritanism and embracing logic and rational skepticism.

RESULT CLAUSE: TBA under "Clause" link.

RETARDED PRONUNCIATION: An old-fashioned way of pronunciation that lingers in one dialect even after a newer pronunciation has been accepted by other dialects in the same language. Contrast with advanced pronunciation.

RETRACTION (From Latin re- + tractare, "to pull back"): A writing in prose or verse in which the author "takes back" an earlier statement or piece of writing, often with an accompanying apology or explanation concerning her earlier errors. When this retraction appears in a conventionalized form of verse, it is often called a palinode. One of the most famous retractions is Chaucer's conclusion of the Canterbury Tales, in which the author (or perhaps only Chaucer's persona) renounces most of his earlier writings. See also palinode.

RETROFLEX: In linguistics, any sound produced with the tongue-tip bent or curled backward--such as the sound of the liquid <r>. Retroflex <r>s over time often change into the liquid <l> and vice-versa. For instance, Algeo points to the the <r> in Sarah, Katherine, and steorra (Old English "star") is respectively a cognate with the <l> in Sally, Kathleeen, and stella (Latin "star"). See page twenty-six of The Origins and Development of the English Language for further information.

REVENGE PLAY (also called a revenge tragedy): A Renaissance genre of drama in which the plot revolves around the hero's attempt to avenge a previous wrong by killing the perpetrator of the deed, commonly with a great deal of bloodshed and incidental violence. A famous example is Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy. Conventional features involve a reluctant protagonist who is called upon to avenge the murder of a loved one. Shakespeare's Hamlet has also been called a revenge play by some scholars.

REVENGE TRAGEDY: Another term for a revenge play.

REVERDIE (French, "re-greening): A Old French genre of poetry popular in the 1300s, in which the poetic speaker meets a conventional woman of great beauty--and often with supernatural power--who personifies the spring season, sexual fecundity, and verdant nature. In later troubadour ballads, a conventional encounter with the god of Love became another component of the genre. The lyrics of the reverdie were often set to music, and they may have functioned as dance-songs (Shipley 478). Typically, the poem or song would consist of five or six stanzas without a refrain, with a structure similar to a chanson (Cuddon 792).

REVERSAL: See peripeteia.

RHAPSODOI: Wandering poet-singers in the Homeric age of Greece--the equivalent of a bard in the Celtic tradition. These rhapsodoi usually sang or chanted while accompanying themselves on the lyre. Homer is traditionally said to be such a figure. The rhapsodoi probably engaged in oral-formulaic poetry rather than writing their works down.

RHETORIC: The art of persuasive argument through writing or speech--the art of eloquence and charismatic language. A lengthier discussion can be found under the rhetoric link.

RHETORICAL FIGURES: Figures of speech such as schemes and tropes.

RHETORICAL QUESTION: See discussion under erotema.

RHOTACISM (from Greek, rho or "r"): A shift linguistically from [z] to an [r].

RHYME (from Old French, rime meaning "series," in turn adopted from Latin rithmus and Greek rhythmos): Also spelled rime, rhyme is a matching similarity of sounds in two or more words, especially when their accented vowels and all succeeding consonants are identical. For instance, the word-pairs listed here are all rhymes: skating/dating, emotion/demotion, fascinate/deracinate, and plain/stain. Rhyming is frequently more than mere decoration in poetry. It helps to establish stanzaic form by marking the ends of lines, it is an aid in memorization when performing oral formulaic literature, and it contributes to the sense of unity in a poem. The best rhymes delight because of the human fascination with varying patterned repetition, but a successful and unexpected rhyme can also surprise the reader (which is especially important in comic verse). They may also serve as a rhythmical device for intensifying meaning. Several different types of rhyme and rhyme schemes exist: see also cliché rhymes, crossed rhyme, double rhyme, end rhyme, exact rhyme, eye rhyme, feminine ending, half rhyme, head rhyme, imperfect rhyme, inexact rhyme, interlaced rhyme, internal rhyme, leonine verse, masculine ending, perfect rhyme, rhyme royal, slant rhyme, tail-rhyme, and triple rhyme.

RHYME ROYAL (Often spelled as "rime royal"): A seven-line stanzaic form invented by Chaucer in the fourteenth century and later modified by Spenser and other Renaissance poets. In rhyme royal, the stanzas are writen in iambic pentameter in a fixed rhyme scheme (ABABBCC). An example follows below from Wordsworth's Resolution and Independence:

There was roaring in the wind all night;
The rain came heavily and down in floods;
But now the sun is rising calm and bright.
The birds are singing in the distant woods;
Over his own sweet voice the stockdove broods;
The jay makes answer as the magpie chatters;
And the air is filled with pleasant noise of waters.

RHYME SCHEME: The pattern of rhyme. The traditional way to mark these patterns of rhyme is to assign a letter of the alphabet to each rhyming sound at the end of each line. For instance, here is the first stanza of James Shirley's poem "Of Death," from 1659. I have marked each line from the first stanza with an alphabetical letter at the end of each line to indicate rhyme:

The glories of our blood and state --------------A
Are shadows, not substantial things; -----------B
There is no armor against fate; ------------------A
Death lays his icy hand on kings: ---------------B
Scepter and crown -------------------------------C
Must tumble down, --------------------------------C
And in the dust be equal made ------------------D
With the poor crooked scythe and spade. -----D

Thus, the rhyme scheme for each stanza in the poem above is ABABCCDD. It is conventional in most poetic genres that every stanza follow the same rhyme scheme, though it is possible to have interlocking rhyme scheme such as terza rima. It is also common for poets to deliberately vary their rhyme scheme for artistic purposes--such as Philip Larkin's "Toads," in which the poetic speaker complains about his desire to stop working so hard, and his rhymes degenerate into half-rhymes or slant rhymes as an indication that he doesn't want to go to the effort of perfection. Among the most common rhyme schemes in English, we find heroic couplets (AA, BB, CC, DD, EE, FF, etc.) and quatrains (ABAB, CDCD, etc.), but the possible permutations are theoretically infinite.

RHYTHM (from Greek, "flowing"): The varying speed, loudness, pitch, elevation, intensity, and expressiveness of speech, especially poetry. In verse the rhythm is normally regular; in prose it may or may not be regular. See sprung rhythm for an exception to this general rule. Also see meter, dipody, and syzygy.

RIDDLE (from Old English roedel, from roedan meaning "to give council" or "to read"): A universal form of literature in which a puzzling question or a conundrum is presented to the reader. The reader is often challenged to solve this enigma, which requires ingenuity in discovering the hidden meaning. A riddle may involve puns, symbolism, synecdoche, personification (especially prosopopoeia), or unusual imagery.

For instance, a Norse riddle asks, "Tell me what I am. Thirty white horses round a red hill. First they champ. Then they stamp. Now they stand still." The answer is the speaker's teeth; these thirty white horses circle the "red hill" of the tongue; they champ and stamp while the riddler speaks, but stand still at the end of his riddle. Another famous example is the riddle of the sphinx from Sophocles' Oedipus Trilogy. The sphinx asks Oedipus, "What goes on four feet, on two feet, and then three. But the more feet it goes on, the weaker is he?" The answer is a human being, which crawls as an infant, walks erect on two feet as an adult, and totters on a staff (the third leg) in old age.

The earliest known English riddles are recorded in the Exeter Book, and they probably date back to the 8th century. Examples, however, can be found in Greek, Sanskrit, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, and Chinese, and many other languages. Authors of Anglo-Latin riddles include Aldhelm of Sherborne, Archbishop Tatwine of Canterbury, and Abbot Eusebius of Wearmouth. A large Renaissance collection can also be found in Nicolas Reusner's Aenigmatographia (1602).

RIDICULE: Words designed to arouse laughter and contempt for a person, idea, or institution. The rhetorical goal is to condemn or criticize the object by ridicule by making it seem suitable only for mockery (i.e., "ridiculous"). Satirists and some rhetoricians use ridicule as the basis of criticism or argument because they know jokes cannot be satisfactorily addressed in a logical argument. As Robert Harris suggests in his literary terms at virtualsalt.com, "who can refute a sneer?"

RIME COUÉE: The French term for tail-rhyme. See discussion under tail-rhyme.

RIME RICHE: The French term for identical rhyme. See identical rhyme.

RIME ROYAL: An alternative spelling for rhyme royal.

RISING ACTION: The action in a play before the climax in Freytag's pyramid.

RISING RHYME: Another term for masculine rhyme in which the final foot ends in a stressed syllable. See meter.

R-LESS SPEECH: Any dialect in which [r] is pronounced only before a vowel. Examples include Bostonian accents in America and "RP" (Received Pronunciation) among upper class British speakers.

ROBERTSONIAN: Following or adhering to the exegeticial readings of medieval literature espoused by American scholar D. W. Robertson. See discussion under fourfold interpretation.

ROLE: Another term for an actor's part in a play.

ROMAN À CLEF (French, "novel with a key"; also called livre à clef, "book with a key," pronounced roh MAHN ah CLAY): A narrative that represents actual historical characters and events in the form of fiction. Usually in this fictional setting, the author presents descriptions of real contemporary figures but uses fictitious names for them. However, the character's common traits and mannerisms would be so well-known that readers "in the know" would recognize them. Typically the "keys" would be published later if readers had trouble figuring out who was who.

Most literary historians think of the genre as a type of novel originating in seventeenth-century France in works like Madame de Scudéry's Le Grand Cyrus (1649-53) and Clélie (1656-60). However, examples actually exist from much earlier medieval poetry. For instance, in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the character Harry Bailly appears to have been an actual innkeeper who lived in Southwark. Many of the other pilgrims also appear to have real-life correspondences; J. M. Manly long ago summarized the evidence in Some New Light on Chaucer (NY, Henry Holt and Company, 1926).

More recent examples of this genre include The New Atlantis (1709), published with a key to its characters; Peacock's Nightmare Abbey (1818), which contained hidden versions of Coleridge, Byron, and Shelley; Aldous Huxley's Point Counter Point (1928); Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises; Somerset Maugham's Cakes and Ale; Aphra Behn's Love Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister; and Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men. In English, a roman à clef is often called a key-novel. In German, it is a Schlüsselroman.

ROMAN IMPERIAL PERIOD: After long centuries of representative democracy, within only a few generations, power in Roman government first collapsed into unofficial triumvirates and ultimately into dictatorships. Although Julius Caesar was a monarch in all but name, historians consider his nephew Octavian (alias Caesar Augustus) the first official Emperor, and his rise to power in 27 CE marks the end of the Roman Republican Period and the beginning of the Roman Imperial Period. Writers living during this enormous power shift include Cicero, Julius Caesar, Lucretius, Catullus, Livy, and Tibullus. Imperial writers who wrote primarily after the Republic collapsed include Horace, Ovid, Seneca, Longinus, Pliny the Elder, Jospehus, Lucan, Martial, Plutarch, Statius, Tacitus, Juvenal, Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, Marcus Aurelius, and Apuleius. The Roman Empire itself collapsed in the fifth century CE. Vandals sacked the city of Rome in 455 CE, and in 476, another wave of barbarians dethroned the last Western Emperor, Romulus Augustulus.

ROMAN REPUBLICAN PERIOD: The period of Roman history between 514 BCE up until 27 CE, when Rome was primarily and (at least officially) a Republic with elected senators. After Rome's traditional founding in 753 BCE, it fell under the power of Etruscan rulers who were viewed as tyrants. The Romans rebelled, and rose from a primitive monarchy to a complex system of indirect representation under Patrician families, where the richest individuals in select families were eligible for public office; they would represent either particular districts or a number of "clients" (the forerunners of modern special interest groups). By the first century BCE, Julius Caesar, Sulla, the Gracchi brothers, and other men increasingly upset this system--sometimes as part of oligarchic coalitions, sometimes as dictators (Latin imperatores). Although Julius Caesar was a monarch in all but name, historians consider his nephew Octavian (alias Caesar Augustus) the first official Emperor, and his rise to power in 27 CE marks the end of the Republican Period and the beginning of the Imperial Period. Examples of early Roman and Republican literature include Plautus, Ennius, and Terence. Writers that bridge the gap between the two periods include Cicero, Julius Caesar, Lucretius, Catullus, Livy, and Tibullus.

ROMAN STOICISM: The philosophy espoused by Marcus Aurelius's Meditations, "Roman Stoicism" actually originates with a band of earlier Greek thinkers, a specific school of philosophers that met at the stoa in Athens. Stoicism asserts that the natural world consists of suffering, and that the appropriate response of a human being is to face this suffering with dignity and a lack of tears while doing one's duty, acknowledging that life and pleasure are transitory. The philosophy is often contrasted with Epicurean philosophy, which asserted that wisdom lay in a "carpe diem" existence in which humanity, faced with the transience of life, should strive to enjoy itself as much as possible by using reason and moderation to find pleasure. Both Epicureanism and Stoicism dealt with the same problem: the brevity of life. However, they reached opposite conclusions concerning the appropriate response to that problem. Roman characters like Aeneas in Virgil's Aeneid are often analyzed in terms of how they embody (or fail to embody) the virtues of Stoicism.

ROMANCE, GOTHIC: See gothic novel

ROMANCE, HISTORICAL A narrative that takes a small episode or group of episodes from some ancient or famous chronicle and then independently develops those events in much greater detail. Greek writers, for instance, often took small segments from Homeric epics and developed their own independent stories focusing on side-events or sub-plots that take place "in the background"--mostly concerning minor background characters with only occasional cameos by the major Homeric characters like Odysseus, Penelope, Agamemnon, or Ajax. Many medieval romances--such as Benoit de Sainte-Maure's Roman de Troie, Boccaccio's Il Filostrato, Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, and John Lydgate's Fall of the Princes of Troy--similarly take material from Homeric legend and turn them into chivalric versions of the historical romance--complete with anachronistic knights and courtly love affairs.

In the words of Stephen Barney's introduction to Troilus and Criseyde in the third edition of the Riverside Chaucer, "We now name this genre historical romance, a genre frequently and skillfully used by Shakespeare, Stendhal, Dickens, Tolstoy, and Faulkner" (471). While not necessarily always writing medieval romances in poetic form, these later artists certainly have created works in the spirit of the historical romance. Constrast with the historical novel.

ROMANCE, MEDIEVAL (also called a chivalric romance): In medieval use, romance referred to episodic French and German poetry dealing with chivalry and the adventures of knights in warfare as they rescue fair maidens and confront supernatural challenges. The medieval metrical romances resembled the earlier chansons de gestes and epics. However, unlike the Greek and Roman epics, medieval romances represent not a heroic age of tribal wars, but a courtly or chivalric period of history involving highly developed manners and civility, as M. H. Abrams notes. Their standard plot involves a single knight seeking to win a scornful lady's favor by undertaking a dangerous quest. Along the way, this knight encounters mysterious hermits, confronts evil blackguards and brigands, slays monsters and dragons, competes anonymously in tournaments, and suffers from wounds, starvation, deprivation, and exposure in the wilderness. He may incidentally save a few extra villages and pretty maidens along the way before finishing his primary task. (This is why scholars say romances are episodic--the plot can be stretched or contracted so the author can insert or remove any number of small, short adventures along the hero's way to the larger quest.)

Medieval romances often focus on the supernatural. In the classical epic, supernatural events originate in the will and actions of the gods. However, in secular medieval romance, the supernatural originates in magic, spells, enchantments, and fairy trickery. Divine miracles are less frequent, but are always Christian in origin when they do occur, involving relics and angelic visitations. A secondary concern is courtly love and the proprieties of aristocratic courtship--especially the consequences of arranged marriage and adultery.

Scholars usually divide medieval romances into four loose categories based on subject-matter:

(1) "The Matter of Rome": stories based on the history and legends of Greco-Roman origin such as the Trojan war, Thebes, mythological figures, and the exploits of Alexander the Great. The medieval poet usually creates an anachronistic work by turning these figures into knights as he knew them.

(2) "The Matter of Britain": stories based on Celtic subject-matter, especially Camelot, King Arthur, and his knights of the round table, including material derived from the Celto-French Bretons and Breton lais.

(3) "The Matter of England": stories based on heroes like King Horn and Guy of Warwick.

(4) "The Matter of France": stories based on Charlemagne, Roland, and his knights.

A large number of such romances survive due to their enormous popularity, including the works of Chrétien de Troyes (c. 1190), Hartmann von Aue (c. 1203), Gottfried von Strassburg (c. 1210), and Wolfram von Eschenbach (c. 1210). England produced its own romances in the fourteenth century, including the Lay of Havelok the Dane and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In 1485, Caxton printed the lengthy romance Le Morte D'Arthur, a prose work that constituted a grand synthesis of Arthurian legends. Gradually, the poetic genre of medieval romance was superseded by prose works of Renaissance romance. See romance, renaissance.

ROMANCE, METRICAL: Any medieval romance written in verse or meter.

ROMANCE, MODERN: In contrast with medieval and Renaissance romance, the meaning of a modern romance has become more restricted in the 20th century. Modern nonscholarly speakers refer to romances when they mean formulaic stories recounting the growth of a passionate sexual relationship. The conventional plotline involves a third-person narrative or a first-person narrative told from the viewpoint of a young woman between the ages of eighteen and her late twenties. She encounters a potential paramour in the form of a slightly older man. The two are prevented from forming a relationship due to social, psychological, economic, or interpersonal constraints. The primary plot involves the two overcoming these constraints through melodramatic efforts. The story conventionally ends happily with the two characters professing their love for each other and building a life together. See melodrama, romance, medieval, and romance, renaissance.

ROMANCE, RENAISSANCE: The original medieval genre of metrical romances gradually were replaced by prose works in the 1500s. At that point, the meaning of a "romance" expanded to include any lengthy French or Spanish story written in the 1500s and 1600s involving episodic encounters with supernatural or exciting events. The connotations were of wild adventures rather than romantic longing as in the modern meaning of romance. See romance, medieval and romance, modern.

ROMANTIC COMEDY: Sympathetic comedy that presents the adventures of young lovers trying to overcome social, psychological, or interpersonal constraints to achieve a successful union. Commedia dell'arte is a general type of drama that falls into this category. Several Shakespearean plays such as The Taming of the Shrew and A Midsummer Night's Dream also fall into this category.

ROMANTIC POETS: See discussion under Romanticism.

ROMANTICISM: The term refers to the artistic philosophy prevalent during the first third of the nineteenth century (about 1800-1830). Romanticism rejected the earlier philosophy of the Enlightenment, which stressed that logic and reason were the best response humans had in the face of cruelty, stupidity, superstition, and barbarism. Instead, the Romantics asserted that reliance upon emotion and natural passions provided a valid and powerful means of knowing and a reliable guide to ethics and living. The Romantic movement typically asserts the unique nature of the individual, the privileged status of imagination and fancy, the value of spontaneity over "artifice" and "convention," the human need for emotional outlets, the rejection of civilized corruption, and a desire to return to natural primitivism and escape the spiritual destruction of urban life. Their writings often are set in rural, pastoral or Gothic settings and they show an obsessive concern with "innocent" characters--children, young lovers, and animals. The major Romantic poets included William Blake, William Wordsworth, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Gordon Byron. Contrast with Enlightenment. You can click here to download a PDF handout placing these periods of literary history in chronological order.

RONDEAU (French, "little circle"): A short poem consisting of ten, thirteen, or fifteen lines using only two rhymes which concludes each section with an abbreviated line that serves as a refrain. We can see an example of the rondeau in the following poem from Austin Dobson's With Pipe and Flute:

With pipe and flute the rustic Pan
Of old made music sweet for man;
And wonder hushed the warbling bird,
And closer drew the calm-eyed herd,
The rolling river slowlier ran.
Ah! would,--ah! would, a little span,
Some air of Arcady could fan
This age of ours, too seldom stirred
With pipe and flute!
But now for gold we plot and plan;
And from Beersheba unto Dan
Apollo's self might pass unheard,
Or find the night-jar's note preferred--
Not so it fared when time began
With pipe and flute!

The rondeau is an uncommon genre in English because of the need to repeat two rhymes so many times. Languages with matching masculine and feminine endings for nouns--such as French, Spanish, and Italian--serve as a much better medium for the genre. Cf. rondel, roundel, roundelay, villanelle.

RONDEL: A short poem resembling the rondeau. It usually totals fourteen lines containing only two rhyming sounds. The first two lines are repeated at the middle of the poem and again at the end. The rondel differs from the rondeau only in the number of lines and the use of complete (not partial) lines for the refrain. Cf. rondeau, roundel, roundelay, villanelle.

ROOT: (1) a base morpheme without affixes attached to it. (2) A word in an older language that became the source for future words in later languages. For instance, the Latin word unus ("one") is the root for Spanish uno and French une, which also mean "one." The Latin root word caballus (horse) gives us words such as words as the Spanish caballo, Old French caval, Modern English cavalry, and modern French cheval (all meaning "horse" or associated with horses). Words in different languages that ultimately descend from the same root--cousins and siblings on the linguistic family tree--are said to be cognates to each other if they are similar in sound and meaning. Etymology is the study of how words can be traced back to an older root.

ROOT CREATION: Creating a new word by inventing its form from scratch--without reference to any pre-existing word or morpheme.

ROUND CHARACTER: A round character is depicted with such psychological depth and detail that he or she seems like a "real" person. The round character contrasts with the flat character, a character who serves a specific or minor literary function in a text, and who may be a stock character or simplified stereotype. If the round character changes or evolves over the course of a narrative or appears to have the capacity for such change, the character is also dynamic. Typically, a short story has one round character and several flat ones. However, in longer novels and plays, there may be many round characters. The terms flat and round were first coined by the novelist E. M. Forster in his study, Aspects of the Novel. See also dynamic character, flat character, character, characterization, and stock character.

ROUNDED VOWEL: A vowel made with the lips sticking out--i.e., all of the back vowels except [a].

ROUNDEL: A poem in the pattern of the rondeau, but only having eleven lines. Like the rondeau and the rondel, the roundel uses only two rhymes and a twice-repeated refrain. Cf. rondeau, rondel, roundelay, villanelle.

ROUNDELAY: A term used as a generic label for fixed forms of poetry using limited rhymes--such as the rondeau, rondel, and roundel. The word roundelay can be used in reference to the musical background (setting) for a poem in a fixed form and also for a round dance that is to be performed while the music plays and the poem is recited or sung. Cf. rondeau, rondel, roundel, villanelle.

ROUNDHEAD: Not to be confused with round character, (see above), a Roundhead is a member or supporter of the parliamentarian or Puritan party during the English Civil War, one of those who opposed King Charles I (c. 1625-49) and his Cavalier followers. The designation comes from the way the Puritans tended to cut their hair ascetically short, which contrasted with the long luxurious locks of the Cavaliers. Ultimately, Cromwell led the Roundheads in a coup d'état and established a Puritan dictatorship in England, leading to the end of the English Renaissance. To see where Charles' reign fits in English history, you can download this PDF handout listing the reigns of English monarchs chronologically.

RP: The linguist's abbreviation for received pronunciation, a prestigious British dialect used by the upper social classes and in British public schooling.

RUBAIYAT: An Arabic term meaning a quatrain, or four-line stanza. The term is nearly always included in the title of any Arabic poem that is built upon such quatrains. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (Edward Fitzgerald's loose translation of the eleventh-century Persian poet and astronomer Omar Khayyam's work) is probably the best known example for English-speakers. Two of its most famous quatrains appear below:

A book of verses underneath the bough,
A jug of wine, a loaf of bread--and thou
Beside me singing in the wilderness--
Oh, wilderness were Paradise enow!
The Moving Finger writes, and having writ,
Moves on; nor all your piety nor wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all your tears wash out a word of it.

RUN-ON LINE: See discussion under enjambement. Not to be confused with a run-on sentence, a grammatical error.

RUNE: In a writing system designed to be scratched or carved on a flat surface such as wood or stone, the individual letters are known as runes. Typically, these markings have few or no curves, circles, or dots, but instead, each mark consists of a number of straight cuts or strokes. (The strokes may, however, involve complex combinations of vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines.) Runic writing systems tend to appear in areas where paper or parchment are scarce or unknown or where ink is commonly unavailable. Typical runic marks might indicate ownership of a house or object, they may be magic spells designed to be cut or scratched on a shield as a pagan protective charm, and they may mark boundary stones. It is accordinly rare to find lengthy literary writings done in runes--which naturally tend to force brevity upon the communicant given the effort involved in cutting or carving them. Runes were common among ancient and medieval inhabitants of Scandinavia, the continental Germanic tribes, and among the Anglo-Saxons who invaded Britain. By the High Middle Ages, parchment, pen, and ink had largely displaced the runic writing systems. Contrast with ogam markings among the Celts.

[A] [B] [C] [D] [E] [F] [G] [H] [I] [J] [K] [L] [M]

[N] [O] [P] [Q] [R] [S] [T] [U] [V] [W] [X] [Y] [Z]


I consulted the following works while preparing this list. I have tried to give credit to specific sources when feasible, but in many cases multiple reference works use the same examples or provide the same dates for common information. Students should examine these resources for more information than these humble webpages provide:

Works Cited:

  • Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 6th edition. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Pub., 1993. [Now superseded by later editions.]
  • ---. "Poetic Forms and Literary Terminology." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th edition. Volume 1. New York: Norton, 2000. 2944-61. 2 Vols.
  • Algeo, John and Thomas Pyles. The Origin and Development of the English Language. 5th edition. U.S.A., 2004.
  • Baugh, A. C. and Thomas Cable. A History of the English Language. 5th edition. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 2002.
  • Brown, Michelle P. Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts: A Guide to Technical Terms. London: The British Library and the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1994.
  • Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion. [Originally published 1977 as Griechische Religion der archaischen und klassischen Epoche.] Trans. John Raffan. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1985.
  • Catholic University of America Editorial Staff. The New Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: McGraw-Hill. 1967-79.
  • Corbett, Edward P. J. Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. 3rd edition. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990.
  • Cuddon, J. A. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. London: Penguin Books, 1991.
  • Damrosch, David, gen. ed. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 2nd Compact Edition. Volume A. New York: Pearson, 2004. 3 Vols.
  • Deutsch, Babette. Poetry Handbook: A Dictionary of Terms. Fourth Edition. New York: Harper and Row, 1974. Reprint as Barnes and Noble Edition, 1981.
  • Drout, Michael D. C. J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment. New York: Routledge, 2007.
  • Duffy, Seán. Medieval Ireland: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 2005.
  • Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1983.
  • Elkhadem, Saad. The York Dictionary Literary Terms and Their Origin: English, French, German, Spanish. York P, 1976.
  • Gabel, John B. and Charles B. Wheeler. The Bible as Literature: An Introduction. New York: Oxford U P, 1986.
  • Giroux, Joan. The Haiku Form. New York: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1974. Reprinted New York: Barnes and Noble, 1999.
  • Greenblatt, Stephen. "Glossary." The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies. New York: Norton, 1997. 1139-43.
  • Guerin, Wilfred L., et al. "Glossary." A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. 2nd ed. New York: Harper and Row, 1979. 317-29.
  • Harkins, Williams E. Dictionary of Russian Literature. The New Students Outline Series. Patterson, New Jersey: Littlefield, Adams, and Co., 1959.
  • Harvey, Sir Paul and Dorothy Eagle, eds. The Oxford Companion to English Literature. 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1969.
  • Holman, C. Hugh. A Handbook to Literature. 3rd edition. New York: The Odyssey Press, 1972.
  • Hopper, Vincent Foster. Medieval Number Symbolism: Its Sources, Meaning, and Influence on Thought and Expression. 1938. Republished Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2000.
  • Horobin, Simon. Chaucer's Language. New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2007.
  • Kane, George. The Autobiographical Fallacy in Chaucer and Langland Studies. London: H. K. Lewis, 1965.
  • Lacy, Norris J. The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing, 1996.
  • Lanham, Richard A. A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms. 2nd edition. Berkeley: U of California P, 1991.
  • Marshall, Jeremy and Fred McDonald. Questions of English. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.
  • Mawson, C. O. Sylvester and Charles Berlitz. Dictionary of Foreign Terms. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 2nd ed. 1975.
  • McManus, Damian. Ogam Stones At University College Cork. Cork: Cork U P, 2004.
  • Metzger, Bruce M. and Michael D. Coogan, eds. The Oxford Companion to the Bible. New York: Oxford U P, 1993.
  • O'Donoghue, Heather. Old Norse-Icelandic Literature: A Short Introduction. Malden, MA:Blackwell Publishing, 2004.
  • Page, P.K. "Forward." Hologram. Brick Books, London, Ontario: 1994.
  • Palmer, Donald. Looking At Philosophy: The Unbearable Heaviness of Philosophy Made Lighter. 2nd edition. Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1994.
  • Peck, Harry Thurston. Harper's Dictionary of Clasical Literature and Antiquities. New York: The American Book Company, 1923. 2 vols.
  • Perelman, Ch. and L. Olbrechts-Tyteca. The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation. Notre Dame, U of Notre Dame P, 2000.
  • The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989.
  • Quinn, Arthur. Figures of Speech: 60 Ways to Turn a Phrase. Davis, California: Hermagoras P, 1993.
  • Rae, Gail. Guide to Literary Terms. Staten Island, New York: Research and Educational Association, 1998.
  • Roberts, Edgar V. and Henry E. Jacobs. "Glossary of Literary Terms." Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. 6th edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001. 2028-50.
  • Scott, Kathleen L. Later Gothic Manuscripts, 1390-1490. A Survey of Manuscripts Illuminated in the British Isles 6. London: Harvey Miller Publishers, 1996. 2 Vols.
  • Shaw, Harry. Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976.
  • Shipley, Joseph T. Dictionary of World Literature: Criticism, Forms, Technique. The Philosophical Library. New York: Philosophical Library, 1943.
  • Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary. 1989.
  • Smith, David P. "Glossary of Grammar Terms." [Miscellaneous handouts made available to students in Basic Greek at Carson-Newman College in the Fall Term of 2006.]
  • Swain, Dwight V. Creating Characters. The Elements of Fiction Writing. Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books, 1990.
  • Williams, Jerri. "Schemes and Tropes." [Miscellaneous handouts made available to her graduate students at West Texas A & M University in the Fall Term of 1993.]
  • Yasuda, Kenneth. The Japanese Haiku: Its Essential Nature, History, and Possibilities in English. Rutland, Vermont and Tokyo, Japan: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1957.
  • Zenkovsky, Serge A. Medieval Russia's Epics, Chronicles, and Tales. Rev Ed. New York: Meridian Books, 1974.
  • Zireaux. E-mail Communication. 21 June 2012.

 

 

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