Just as it does in punctuation, an apostrophe in literature often marks something that is left out. In the case of apostrophe as a literary device, the thing that’s left out is a character, place, object, or something else that is not part of the action of the story or the statement being made. It often involves a change in audience as the speaker stops talking to one person and instead addresses another, who is often absent from the story. The best way to understand apostrophe as a literary term is through examples.
It’s natural when you read poetry or prose to assume the writer is talking directly to you as the audience, but this isn't always the case. Sometimes, a speaker may need to shift to talking to an absent person, someone who has died, or an inanimate object. This shift provides a break for the reader or audience and gives a new perspective on the character or speaker.
Apostrophe also offers a way for the writer to personify a concept or object. This draws greater attention to it.
Identifying apostrophe is relatively easy, especially if you watch for these signs:
- Look for “Oh” or “O,” which often signal the speaker is talking to someone or something out of sight.
- Notice when the speaker addresses someone or something by name that has not been the audience in the rest of the work.
- If the speaker is addressing a concept or object, that thing is capitalized as a proper noun.
Apostrophe is commonly used in plays, but you’ll also see it in many types of poetry and even in novels. The following examples can help you understand the concept and identify it when you see it.O Captain! My Captain! by Walt Whitman
In this famous poem, Walt Whitman uses apostrophe to great effect. The speaker is talking to a captain who has died. This is a metaphor for the death of Abraham Lincoln, and it’s a poem about loss and the absence of a great leader. The use of apostrophe makes that absence palpable for the reader.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! Heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley uses apostrophe to add poetic beauty and make the setting appear more powerful. Here, her speaker talks directly to the clouds and stars, drawing the reader’s attention to those things.
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Shakespeare uses apostrophe in many of his plays, but one of the most notable is Romeo and Juliet. In this passage, Juliet speaks to the dagger, making it a highly noticeable and important part of the scene.
Peace by Gerald Manley Hopkins
JULIET: Yea, noise? Then I’ll be brief. O happy dagger! This is thy sheath; there rust, and let me die.
Notice how Gerald Manley Hopkins uses apostrophe to draw attention to an abstract concept in his poem, Peace. By addressing Peace by name, Hopkins makes it feel real and important.
Holy Sonnet 10 by John Donne
When will you ever, Peace, wild wooddove, shy wings shut,
Your round me roaming end, and under be my boughs?
When, when, Peace, will you, Peace? I'll not play hypocrite
To own my heart: I yield you do come sometimes; but
That piecemeal peace is poor peace. What pure peace allows
Alarms of wars, the daunting wars, the death of it?
O surely, reaving Peace, my Lord should leave in lieu
Some good! And so he does leave Patience exquisite,
That plumes to Peace thereafter. And when Peace here does house
He comes with work to do, he does not come to coo,
He comes to brood and sit.
Also known as “Death Be Not Proud,” Holy Sonnet 10 by John Donne offers a great example of apostrophe in literature. Here, Donne directly addresses the concept of death.
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.