Guide to Literary Terms

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Refrain

Refrain - a phrase or verse recurring at intervals in a poem or song, usually at the end of a stanza, which may help to establish the meter of a poem, indicate its tone, or reestablish its atmosphere. It may also be a nonsense line such as that in Shakespeare’s As You Like It: “With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,” or a word or phrase that takes on added significance each time it appears.

The term is from the Old French refraindre, meaning “to restrain,” “check,” or to “repeat.” This word was derived from the Low Latin refringere, meaning “to break back”.

The refrain is very old, appearing in The Egyptian Book of the Dead and the Bible.