In literature, apostrophe is a figure of speech sometimes represented by exclamation “O”. A writer or a speaker, using an apostrophe, detaches himself from the reality and addresses an imaginary character in his speech.
It is important not to confuse the apostrophe which is a figure of speech and the apostrophe which is a punctuation mark (‘). It shows possession or a mark to indicate omission of one or more letters (contractions) while apostrophe used in literature is an arrangement of words addressing a non-existent person or an abstract idea in such a way as if it were present and capable of understanding feelings.
Apostrophe Examples from Literature
English literature is replete with instances of apostrophe. Let us have a look at a few examples.
“Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand?
Come, let me clutch thee!
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.”
In his mental conflict before murdering King Duncan, Macbeth has a strange vision of a dagger and talks to it as if it were another person.
Jane Taylor uses apostrophe in the well-known nursery rhyme “The Star”:
“Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are.
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.”
In the above nursery rhyme, a child addresses a star (an imaginary idea). Hence, this is a classic example of apostrophe.
“Oh! Stars and clouds and winds, ye are all about to mock me; if ye really pity me, crush sensation and memory; let me become as nought; but if not, depart, depart, and leave me in darkness.”
Talking to stars, clouds and winds is an apostrophe.
John Donne comes up with the use of an apostrophe in his poem “Death Be Not Proud”:
“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.”
The poet talks to death, an abstract idea, as if it were a person capable of comprehending his feelings.
Similarly, John Donne once more uses apostrophe in his poem “The Sun Rising”:
“Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
Saucy pedantic wretch,”
The poet addresses the sun in an informal and colloquial way as if it were a real human being. He asks the Sun in a rude way why the Sun appeared and spoiled the good time he was having with his beloved.
James Joyce uses apostrophe in his novel “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”:
“Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”
Being able to talk to something abstract like life is possible only in literature.
Billy Collins, in his poem “To a Stranger Born in Some Distant Country Hundreds of Years from Now”, uses a conventional apostrophe starting with “O”:
“O stranger of the future!
O inconceivable being!
Whatever the shape of your house,
However you scoot from place to place,
No matter how strange and colorless the clothes you may wear,
I bet nobody likes a wet dog either.
I bet everyone in your pub,
Even the children, pushes her away.”
The speaker is talking to an imaginary character, the “stranger born in some distant country hundreds of years from now”.
Another apostrophe example is from the poem “Sire” written by W.S Merwin:
“Forerunner, I would like to say, silent pilot,
Little dry death, future,
Your indirections are as strange to me
As my own. I know so little that anything
You might tell me would be a revelation.”
Function of Apostrophe
By employing apostrophe in their literary works, writers try to bring abstract ideas or non-existent persons to life so that the nature of emotions they want to communicate gets across in a better way – because it is more convenient for the readers to relate themselves to the abstract emotions when they observe them in their natural surroundings. In addition, the use of apostrophe motivates the readers to develop a perspective that is fresh as well as creative.