Epizeuxis for Emphasis

On effective word repetition in the first stanzas of Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” Other examples included.

Photo by Katherine McCormack


Epizeuxis is the emphatic repetition of a word or phrase without interruption. It’s pronounced /ɛpɪˈzjuːksɪs/ and comes from Greek, meaning  fastening together.

It’s in the first line in William Blake’s Tyger:

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;

Three is the most common number or repetitions, and we’ll see an instance thereof in the Quote.

More than three sounds weird in most places, unless it’s poetry. Here’s Edgar Allan Poe in The Bells with two instances of epizeuxis:

   Keeping time, time, time,
   In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
   From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
         Bells, bells, bells—
 From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

That’s seven bells!

Actually, it is possible to get away with extreme epizeuxis in prose, and in a short story at that. Here’s Hemingway in Hills Like White Elephants.

‘I’d do anything for you.’
‘Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?’

If you ever encounter a sensible take on a more numerous epizeuxis, do let me know! (I note that Wikipedia cites Monty Python’s Flying Circus: I’ll have your Spam. I love it. I’m having Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, baked beans, Spam, Spam, Spam and Spam. But I reckon the baked beans spoils the deal, and it’s still only a seven-fold repetition.)

Here is today’s Quote, the first stanza of Walt Whitman‘s poem O Captain! My Captain!.


O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
                         But O heart! heart! heart!
                            O the bleeding drops of red,
                               Where on the deck my Captain lies,
                                  Fallen cold and dead.
What makes the Quote quiver?

Funky formatting with heart repeated at the heart of the stanza. Rhymed storytelling.

Photo by Joseph Barrientos

Some poems are pretty pompous profligate poetic pabulum, some are elegant, some are knotted nettles of meaning, some make you cry, and some tell stories. O Captain! tells a story. And it’s short, only three stanzas, so you can read it and enjoy it, without worrying that you’ll be interrupted after four or five hours because it’s time for dinner (e.g. Ovid’s Metamorphosis for which you may need a motivational push to get started.)

What is at the core of the Quote?

Epizeuxis, syncope, anastrophe (or another name for hyperbaton).

You might be tempted to label the opening four words O Captain! my Captain! an epizeuxis as well, and maybe you’d be right in an extended sense.

Syncope is a type of orthographic scheme, or metaplasm, which is the general name for figures of speech that manipulate words, by adding, subtracting, or transposing syllables and letters within words. In particular, weather’d is made to lose a syllable for the metre to work. Syncope occurs in the other two stanzas as well, in the third line of both: in ribbon’d and in anchor’d. (Although in today’s “standard” pronunciation the omitted syllables would not be pronounced anyway.)

Anastrophe, or more generally, hyperbaton is an inversion of the natural order of words or clauses. For example, in English you expect the usual word order Subject-Verb-Object. So you would expect While eyes follow the steady keel, but instead you get While follow eyes the steady keel.

Listen to a fellow blogger, Jordan Harling, read the whole poem.


Reading Recommendations

  1. T. S. Eliot and the Extended Chiasmusa post in which I discuss Eliot’s poem Eyes That Last I Saw in Tears.
  2. Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman.

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of https://quiverquotes.com

10 thoughts on “Epizeuxis for Emphasis”

    1. You are too kind!

      I humbly learn from, and make my best effort to follow, the advice of the literary greats: any faults are my own, any virtues mostly likely theirs. I’ll earn a poetic licence one day, like you 🙂 — and wow, your paintings, can’t decide which one’s my favourite Soft Light or Approaching Storm—but until then I listen to E. B. White and try to master the rough country. Here is quote from a much thumbed page of my copy of Strunk and White (I really should include it in a post sometime soon):

      “But,” you may ask, “what if it comes natural to me to experiment rather than conform? What if I am a pioneer, or even a genius?” Answer: then be one. But do not forget that what may seem like pioneering may be merely evasion, or laziness—the disinclination to submit to discipline. Writing good standard English is no cinch, and before you have managed it you will have encountered enough rough country to satisfy even the most adventurous spirit.

      And keep the comments coming—I look forward to all opinions and ideas and discussions regarding figures of speech (and pretty much anything linguistic-artistic). 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  1. It’s interesting about the use of three repetitions. The use of three in speeches has long been recognised as a powerful way of emphasising your point, eg

    Julius Caesar
    “Veni, vidi, vici” (I came, I saw, I conquered)
    Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar
    “Friends, Romans, Countrymen. Lend me your ears.“
    Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address
    “We can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground.“
    “Government of the people, by the people, for the people“ General MacArthur, West Point Address, 1962
    “Duty, Honor, Country” [repeated several times in the speech]
    Barack Obama, Inaugural Speech
    “we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America“

    Fascinating post again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Right you are! The parallel structure provided by an isocolon is helpful all round, and whilst the bicolon makes for good paradoxes and antitheses, the tricolon is a definite favourite for the magical feeling of finality or completeness. The number of elements in a list/structure determines the overall effect of the writing; the neatest summary I’ve seen recently is in Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools:

      • Use one for power.
      • Use two for comparison, contrast.
      • Use three for completeness, wholeness, roundness.
      • Use four or more to list, inventory, compile, and expand.

      Have you come across a good exposition about why three works so well? Would be curious to hear!

      My posts are here to start up a dialogue about why certain structures and techniques make for good writing and reading, so thanks for taking the time to comment and to add the lovely examples. Much appreciated 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Mmm, lots of good examples of where it worked. It’s the why … Three symbolises completeness and unity, and the smallest number of items that creates a pattern. That might be all there is to it, although I wonder whether it’s also related to, for example, the number of concepts/ideas we can comfortably hold in short-term memory at the same time (i.e. going from three to four may be substantially harder or different in quality of mental effort required). It’d be fun to look for some research on this.

        Thanks for the input! Off to listen to some magic number three music now … 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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