Guide to Literary Terms

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What is a refrain?

A refrain is a passage that is repeated at intervals over the course of a poem or song.


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Last Updated May 26, 2023.

A refrain refers to a repeated line, phrase, or stanza in a poem or song. It serves as a recurring element that emphasizes a particular theme, adds structure, or enhances the rhythmic quality of the work. The repetition of a refrain helps create a sense of cohesion and reinforces key ideas or emotions.

The word refrain comes from the Vulgar Latin refrangere, meaning "to break off," from Latin refringere, meaning "break up, break open, refract."

Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven," demonstrates the use of a refrain:

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamplight o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore!"

In this excerpt, the repeated phrase "And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting" is a refrain that appears multiple times throughout the poem. The repetition reinforces the Raven's presence and its relentless perch upon the bust of Pallas. The refrain creates a rhythmic pattern that adds to the poem's musicality while enhancing the feeling of gloom and the narrator's growing despair. The repetition of the refrain emphasizes the haunting nature of the Raven and contributes to the overall atmosphere of the poem.

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