Definition of Epistrophe

Epistrophe is a figure of speech that involves the repetition of a word or phrase at the end of successive clauses or sentences. Epistrophe is also known as epiphora or antistrophe. The word epistrophe comes from the Greek for “return.”

The definition of epistrophe is opposite to that of anaphora, which is the repetition of words at the beginning of successive clauses or sentences. When an author combines epistrophe with anaphora, i.e., repeats words or phrases at both the beginning and end of successive clauses, this is called symploce.

Common Examples of Epistrophe

Epistrophe is a very emphatic literary device, and thus it is found often in the climatic parts of political speeches. Here are some examples of epistrophe from famous speeches:

  • “Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States, and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq.”–Barack Obama, 2004 DNC Keynote Address
  • “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”–Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address
  • “Vanquished today by mechanical force, in the future we will be able to overcome by a superior mechanical force. The fate of the world depends on it.”–Charles de Gaulle, The Appeal of 18 June

Significance of Epistrophe in Literature

Authors use epistrophe examples to draw attention to a particular word or clause. The repetition makes that word or phrase more emphatic. Epistrophe can also have a similar effect to rhyme at the end of lines in that it unites successive lines.

Examples of Epistrophe in Literature

Example #1

Sweet Portia,
If you did know to whom I gave the ring,
If you did know for whom I gave the ring,
And would conceive for what I gave the ring,
And how unwillingly I left the ring
When naught would be accepted but the ring,
You would abate the strength of your displeasure.

If you had known the virtue of the ring,
Or half her worthiness that gave the ring,
Or your own honor to contain the ring,
You would not then have parted with the ring.

(The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare)

In William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Portia has disguised herself as a man and tricked her husband-to-be, Bassanio, into giving up a ring that he promised never to part with. In this example of epistrophe, Portia is fully aware of why Bassanio gave up the ring, even as he argues that she can’t possibly know. The repetition of the word “the ring” emphasizes just how important it was to Portia and how serious a breach of confidence Bassanio has committed by giving it up.

Example #2

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…we had everything before us, we had nothing before us….

(A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens)

The opening line to Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities contains many examples of different types of repetition, both at the beginning and end of successive clauses. In these two portions of the sentence, we see repetition of the phrases “of times” and “before us.” Dickens uses these many different repetition examples to provide the stark juxtaposition of the times in which he sets his novel.

Example #3

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Nameless here for evermore.

(“The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe)

In his poem “The Raven,” Edgar Allen Poem uses many different epistrophe examples. There is a strict rhyme scheme throughout the entire poem, including the repetition of the last word of lines 5 and 6 of each stanza. Here we see the repetition of the narrator’s lost love, Lenore. There is a bit of irony that in this stanza Poe repeats her name twice, then asserts “Nameless here for evermore.” Yet, he repeats her name many more times throughout the rest of the poem. The narrator’s inability to move past Lenore’s name, as demonstrated via epistrophe, shows his deep grief and obsession with her memory.

Example #4

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

(“From Blossoms” by Li-Young Lee)

The final stanza in Li-Young Lee’s poem “From Blossoms” repeats many words, including “joy,” “wing,” “blossom” and then the phrase “impossible blossom.” These epistrophe examples become more and more ecstatic in their usage connecting the concepts and images of joy to birds to blossoms. The final repetition of “from blossom to blossom to / impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom” expands on the simple concept of a blossom to make it more profound with the assertion that it is “impossible.” Of course, the blossom is not only possible but common, yet Lee’s repetition and expansion on this image makes the reader question just what is “impossible” about it.

Test Your Knowledge of Epistrophe

1. Which of the following statements is the best epistrophe definition?
A. A repetition of the same words or phrases at the end of successive clauses or sentences.
B. A repetition of the same words or phrases at the beginning of successive clauses or sentences.
C. A repetition of the same words or phrases at both the beginning and the end of successive clauses or sentences.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]Answer: A is the correct answer. B is the definition of anaphora, and C is the definition of symploce.[/spoiler]

2. Which of the following lines from Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “The Raven” contains an example of epistrophe?

   (1) And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
(2) On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
(3)  And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
(4) And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
(5) And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
(6)  Shall be lifted—nevermore!

A. Lines 3, 4, and 5
B. Lines 4 and 5
C. Lines 2, 4, 5, and 6
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]Answer: B is the correct answer. These two lines repeat the clause “on the floor” at the end. Meanwhile, lines 3, 4, and 5 all begin with the word “and” and thus are also examples of anaphora when considered together.[/spoiler]

3. Consider the following excerpt from William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:

Had you rather Caesar were living and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all free men? As Caesar loved me, I weep for him. As he was fortunate, I rejoice at it. As he was valiant, I honor him. But, as he was ambitious, I slew him. There is tears for his love, joy for his fortune, honor for his valor, and death for his ambition. Who is here so base that would be a bondman? If any, speak—for him have I offended. Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman? If any, speak—for him have I offended. Who is here so vile that will not love his country? If any, speak—for him have I offended. I pause for a reply.

Which of the following phrases constitute an example of epistrophe?
A. As he was…
B. Who is here…
C. For him have I offended.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]Answer: C is the correct answer. Both A and B are examples of anaphora.[/spoiler]