Guide to Literary Terms

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What is a litany?

A litany is a prayer with a repetitive, call-and-response structure.

Litany

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Last Updated May 26, 2023.

Traditionally, a litany is a prayer involving a series of invocations by a leader that prompt identical responses from a congregation. In literary contexts, a litany is a poem that involves repeated phrases and sections and may also replicate call-and-response in a written form.

Litany comes from the Greek word litaneia, meaning "prayer, entreating," from lite, a word of unknown origin meaning "prayer, supplication."

In this quote from Auden's poem "Funeral Blues," the repetition of phrases such as "put out," "pack up," and "pour away" creates a litany-like effect:

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

The rhythmic repetition emphasizes the speaker's despair and desire for the world to reflect their deep sense of loss. The use of a litany enhances the poem's emotional impact, reinforcing the speaker's grief and adding a solemn and contemplative tone to the lines.

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