What Is Polysyndeton?
Polysyndeton is a literary device that consists of the use of several conjunctions between words, phrases, or clauses, usually, the repetition of the same conjunction. As a term, polysyndeton is derived from the Greek polus (“much,” “many”) and syndé(ein) (“to link”), thus meaning “many connections.” It is the opposite of the literary device asyndeton, which involves a lack of conjunctions.
Polysyndeton has the effect of slowing the reader down and adding emphasis to each connected element. Depending on the author’s intent, it may add solemnity to the text, produce an incantatory effect or rhythm, regulate the pace of an utterance, create an impression of spontaneity, or give a sense of flow and continuity.
Polysyndeton in a Sentence
- “I’ll let you have the house and the car and the furniture and anything else you want. I’ll just take my dog and leave!” – In this sentence, polysyndeton is used to emphasize each single item in a list.
- “And, all of a sudden, he jumped and barked and licked my hand.” – Polysyndeton is used to give an impression of spontaneity, especially through the beginning conjunction.
- “They had neither running water, nor electricity, nor cable television, nor Wi-Fi back in those days, but they were happier than we will ever be.” – Here, the coordinating conjunction “nor” is used repetitively to emphasize each connected element.
- “They read and studied and worked and learned. I played and laughed and talked and failed.” – Polysyndeton is used in this sentence to produce an incantatory effect, providing a musical sense to an otherwise common statement.
- “And he was the only one who could do it. He was the master of all things and the caretaker of the critters and the magician of the world.” – Polysyndeton gives a feeling of solemnity to the statement.
Polysyndeton in Poetry
“Why make so much of fragmentary blue
In here and there a bird, or butterfly,
Or flower, or wearing-stone, or open eye,
When heaven presents in sheets the solid hue?”
In the short poem “Fragmentary Blue,” Robert Frost employs polysyndeton by repeating the coordinating conjunction “or.” The poet means to say that one does not have to settle for only one of the enumerated elements, emphasizing the act of choosing between them through the repetitive use of the conjunction.
“After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor.”
Polysyndeton commonly involves the repetition of coordinating conjunctions, but it also exists in the case of subordinating conjunctions and even connecting adverbs, such as in the above lines from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
“Poor Cornus sees his frantic wife elope,
And curses wit, and poetry, and Pope.”
Alexander Pope, in “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot,” makes use of polysyndeton to add weight and importance to each element.
“Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man.”
In “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey,” William Wordsworth uses the technique with the same purpose, to distinguish the elements in the mind of the reader and add significance to each of them.
“He has outsoar’d the shadow of our night;
Envy and calumny and hate and pain,
And that unrest which men miscall delight.”
Lamenting the passing away of John Keats in the elegy “Adonais,” Percy Shelley identifies and delineates each aspect of the bleak world that the great poet had left behind, by repeating the coordinating conjunction “and.”
Polysyndeton in Literature
- When asked what time it is, Prince Henry of Shakespeare’s Henry IV answers, “Unless hours were cups of sack, and minutes capons, and clocks the tongues of bawds, and dials the signs of leaping-houses, and the blessed sun himself a fair hot wench in flame-colored taffeta, I see no reason why thou shouldst be so superfluous to demand the time of the day.” To show just how superfluous Falstaff’s question is, Prince Henry makes superfluous use of the conjunction “and,” constructing a long list of reasons why he considers the question useless, a list which seems to drag even longer through the use of polysyndeton.
- “When men drink, then they are rich and successful and win lawsuits and are happy and help their friends. Quickly, bring me a beaker of wine,” said ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes, using polysyndeton to connect elements that are related temporally, that is, the things that seem to happen at the time when men drink alcohol.
- “And to set forth the right standard, and to train according to it, and to help forward all students towards it according to their various capacities, this I conceive to be the business of a University,” believed John Henry Newman. One frequent use of polysyndeton is beginning a sentence with an apparently unnecessary conjunction, such as in the example above. This can confer a dignified rhythm to the sentence.
- “There was much game hanging outside the shops, and the snow powdered in the fur of the foxes and the wind blew their tails. The deer hung stiff and heavy and empty, and small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers.”
Ernest Hemingway was a big fan of the conjunction “and,” utilizing polysyndeton often throughout his writings, as he did in this passage from the short story “In Another Country.”