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

What is Epistrophe? (Transcript)

By Ray Malewitz

On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln concluded his Gettysburg Address by resolving that “a government of the people, for the people, [and] by the people, shall not perish from this earth.”

128 years later, the singer Kurt Cobain would use the same rhetorical device in the famous Nirvana song “Lithium.” As he struggles with depression in the wake of his girlfriend’s death, Cobain’s speaker sings “I like it, I'm not gonna crack / I miss you, I'm not gonna crack / I love you, I'm not gonna crack / I killed you, I'm not gonna crack.”

The repetition of words in Lincoln’s address and Cobain’s song are examples of a literary device called “epistrophe.”  Derived from the ancient Greek word meaning “turning back upon,” epistrophe is the repetition of phrases or words in a set of clauses, sentences, or poetic lines.

In contrast to the related term anaphora, epistrophe (or epiphora, as it is sometimes called) occurs at the end (rather than the beginning) of these lines or phrases.  While this distinction may seem minor, the Greek philosopher Plato builds this end positioning into his theory of the self, which he also calls epistrophe.  As you may recall from Plato’s famous allegory of the cave, people seeking enlightenment must turn away from the world outside ourselves.  In leaving that false world behind, we “turn back to” our independent, logical selves to find truth.

Epistrophe is thus as much a philosophy as it is a rhetorical or literary device. Artists probably do not have this origin in mind when they use epistrophe, but—and here’s where things gets strange--the effect of epistrophe in a song or a speech is often surprisingly similar to what Plato has in mind in his philosophy.  In Lincoln’s speech, for example, the President asks Americans to believe that the terrible losses of the American Civil War will give way to a renewed democratic union (of the people, for the people, by the people).  In a similar way, in Cobain’s song, the speaker remembers the loss of his lover when he sings “I love you” but resolves that he will not give way to despair (“I’m not gonna crack”).

Robert Burns’ 1795 poem “A Man’s a Man for A’ That” offers one final example of epistrophe that matches this earlier model.  Within the poem, which is written in Scottish dialect, the poet’s repetitive, epistrophic phrases “an a’ that” and “for a’ that” initially emphasize the false world of wealth and power that must be turned away from in favor of Enlightenment ideals.

This idea is on full display in the third stanza of the poem, in which the speaker observes a wealthy aristocrat (what he calls a birkie or a coof) who fancies himself superior to his fellow Scotsmen.  Burns employs the literary device “epistrophe” here to enact the “turning away” from such sentiments:

Ye see yon birkie, ca'd a lord,

Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that;

Tho' hundreds worship at his word,

He's but a coof for a' that:

For a' that, an' a' that,

His ribband, star, an' a' that:

The man o' independent mind

He looks an' laughs at a' that.

 As Plato predicts, this turning away from the false and empty values of the outer world leads the speaker to turn inward to discover an enlightened self.  In the process, the initial meaning of “a’ that” begins to change to Burns’ vision of a rational, democratic society in the final epistrophic stanza:

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
It's comin' yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that.

Like Lincoln’s celebration of the people and Cobain’s refusal to crack, Burns’ “an’ a’ that” therefore comes to symbolize the value that each speaker invests in themselves and their communities.  Their shared use of epistrophe reinforces this idea, lending rhetorical weight to each speaker’s vision for a future world beyond their troubled present.

So what should you, as a reader, do, when you encounter the literary device epistrophe as you listen to your favorite songs or read a new poem?  While epistrophe will not always match the ideas outlined in this video, it is important to think about is what is being emphasized through epistrophic repetition—what contrasts a repeated phrase establishes in the poem or song, and what themes or ideas are being celebrated.  Doing so will enable you to not only identify this important literary device but also to interpret its meaning in the literature and music you love.

Further Resources for Teachers

Popular music of the present offers countless examples of epistrophe that students might interpret through this Platonic model. In addition, as mentioned in the video, Barack Obama's 2008 "Yes We Can" speech may be suitable for analysis of epistrophe and its effects.