"What is Anaphora?": A Literary Guide for English Students and Teachers

What is Anaphora? (Transcript)

By Raymond Malewitz

Anaphora is the repetition of words or phrases in a group of sentences, clauses, or poetic lines. It is sort of like epistrophe, which I discussed in a previous video, except that the repetition in anaphora occurs at the beginning of these structures while the repetition in epistrophe occurs at the end.

Like epistrophe, anaphora has ancient origins, combining the Greek words ana, meaning repeat or back, and pherein, meaning to carry.  As this origin suggests, when we hear or read anaphoras, the sounds and meanings of certain words are carried back to us again and again until we begin to carry them with us as well.

In other words, like so many other forms of literary repetition--epistrophe, rhyme, meter, and so on—anaphoras are incredibly powerful mnemonic devices. When we remember Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech or Winston Churchill’s “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech, we are remembering the anaphoras.

In a variety of ways, these speeches call to mind earlier moments in human history in which oral forms of communication were much more prominent than written forms. Two of the oldest documents from this history are the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, and both works are chock-full of anaphoras: “thou shalt not,” “blessed are the,” “give unto the lord,” and so on. These repetitive phrases ensured that the lessons they convey were carried on by their listeners millennia after they were created.

Poets often use this device to a similar effect. John Keats uses anaphora throughout his famous poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to convey a sense of the immortality of the visual art it describes, and Langston Hughes uses the device in a similar manner in many of his poems, including “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”  Given our current historical moment, however, I want to dwell for a minute on a very recent poem—Lynn Ungar’s “Pandemic,” which was written just two months ago during the early days of the current COVID-19 lockdown. Here’s how it goes:

What if you thought of it

as the Jews consider the Sabbath —

the most sacred of times?


Cease from travel.


Cease from buying and selling.


Give up, just for now,

on trying to make the world


different than it is.

Sing. Pray. Touch only those


to whom you commit your life.


Center down.

.

And when your body has become still,


reach out with your heart.


Know that we are connected


in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.


(You could hardly deny it now.)


Know that our lives

are in one another’s hands.


(Surely, that has come clear.)


Do not reach out your hands.


Reach out your heart.


Reach out your words.


Reach out all the tendrils


of compassion that move, invisibly,


where we cannot touch.

.

Promise this world your love —


for better or for worse,


in sickness and in health,


so long as we all shall live.

Lynn Ungar is a minister as well as a poet, and this profession certainly colors the themes of the poem.  But it also influences the poem’s anaphoric style, as the speaker moves from instructions on what not to do (“Cease from travel.
/ Cease from buying and selling.”) to instruction to what to do (“Reach out your heart.
/ Reach out your words. / Reach out all the tendrils of compassion…”) The two opposing actions in the poem—contraction and expansion—are emphasized by the contrasting anaphoras, which in the first stanza tell us what we are giving up and in the second show us how we can still give comfort while we continue our social distancing.

I can’t say whether the poem will live on past the current quarantine, but I know that I carry it with me now, in large part because of the anaphoras that structure its message.  Stay healthy, everybody.