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Apostrophe: A Literary Device

Updated on March 8, 2016
Apostrophe in Literature
Apostrophe in Literature | Source

Definition of Apostrophe

The word apostrophe derives from the Greek word apostrophos, which means turning away. In literature, apostrophe is a figure of speech which is used to address an absent or imaginary person, a real or imagined object or an abstract quality as if it were a living thing and present before the speaker. Usually, the apostrophe starts with the letter ‘O’ or with the name of the person the poet is addressing. It should be noted that it is different from the grammatical term, apostrophe, which means a punctuation mark.

Example # 1

John Milton’s sonnet, To Mr. Lawrence begins with an apostrophe. In this poem, John Milton addresses his friend, Mr. Edward Lawrence as if he were present before him. He desires to have a conversation with him. Look at the following lines taken from To Mr. Lawrence:

Lawrence, of virtuous father virtuous son,
Now that the fields are dank, and ways are mire,
Where shall we sometimes meet, and by the fire
Help waste a sullen day……

Apostrophe: A Literary Device

Example # 2

John Keats’ poem Ode to a Nightingale also offers an example of an apostrophe. Look at the following lines, wherein the poet addresses the nightingale:

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn……..

Apostrophe in Literature
Apostrophe in Literature | Source

Example # 3

John Donne, in his poem, The Sun Rising, uses an apostrophe to chide the sun as it disturbs them while they are making love. He calls it a busy old fool, saucy pedantic wretch and unruly sun. The whole poem is addressed to the sun. Look at the following lines taken from The Sun Rising:

Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows and through curtains call on us ?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run ?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school-boys, and sour ’prentices,
Go tell court-huntsmen that the King will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices ;
Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

Example # 4

In Shakespeare's play, Macbeth, an apostrophe has been used to show the emotional intensity of Macbeth, who is struggling to murder the King Duncan. Look at the following lines taken from Macbeth:

Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee!
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feelings as to sight? Or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation
Proceeding from the heat oppresséd brain?
I see thee yet, in form as palpable
As this which I now draw.


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    • Rafiq23 profile image

      Muhammad Rafiq 2 years ago from Pakistan

      Thanks Bill for your comments. Have a nice day!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Good information. I read a lot, and I'm always surprised by the number of writers who do not understand basic punctuation.