Epithet is a descriptive literary device that describes a place, a thing or a person in such a way that it helps in making the characteristics of a person, thing or place more prominent than they actually are. Also, it is known as a by-name or descriptive title.
One can find many examples of epithet in Shakespeare’s works. Many of which were his own coinages. Like, “Thou mad mustachio purple-hued maltworms! (Henry IV) and “Death lies on her like an untimely frost. Upon the sweetest flower of all the field…” (Romeo and Juliet).
Types of Epithet
The Fixed Epithet
Fixed epithets are found in epic poetry that involves the repetitive use of a phrase or word for the same object. Such as in Homer’s Odyssey, the wife is “prudent”, Odysseus himself as “many–minded” and their son Telemachus as “sound-minded”.
Expert orators use argumentative epithets. Short arguments use this type of epithet to give hints.
Epithet used as Smear Word
An epithet used as a smear word means a derogatory word or name for someone or something.
Misuse of Epithets
Contemporary writers and speakers take extra care when they use epithets. They do not want to misuse this device and be accused of using racial or abusive epithets.
Epithet Examples from Literature
“Here of a Sunday morning
My love and I would lie,
And see the coloured counties,
And hear the larks so high
About us in the sky.”
(Brendon Hills by A.E Housman)
Here, “coloured” is an epithet used to describe the pleasant and beautiful spring season in those countries where the poet wishes to enjoy his beloved’s company.
“The earth is crying-sweet,
And scattering-bright the air,
Eddying, dizzying, closing round,
With soft and drunken laughter…”
(Beauty and Beauty by Rupert Brooke)
In this excerpt, the description of the air and earth is enhanced by the usage of epithets: crying-sweet, scattering-bright, and soft and drunken laughter. These epithets help in developing imagery in the minds of readers.
“God! he said quietly. Isn’t the sea what Algy calls it: a great sweet mother? The snot-green sea. The scrotum-tightening sea! I must teach you. You must read them in the original. Thalatta! Thalatta! She is our great sweet mother.….”
(Ulysses by James Joyce)
In this passage, Joyce uses several epithets to describe the sea. These epithets include a great sweet mother, snot-green sea and scrotum-tightening sea.
“My restless blood now lies a-quiver,
Knowing that always, exquisitely,
This April twilight on the river
Stirs anguish in the heart of me….”
(In Blue Evening by Rupert Brooke)
Brooke makes use of epithets (a-quiver and April twilight on the river) to describe the anguish and agitation he feels deep inside him.
As you surmise, with comrades on a ship,
Sailing across the wine-dark sea to men
Whose style of speech is very different…”
(The Odyssey by Homer)
In these lines, the phrase wine-dark is used as an epithet in order to explain the color of the sea. This epithet enhances the description of the color of the sea.
“What time the gray-fly winds her sultry horn,
Blind mouths! that scarce themselves know how to hold
A sheep-hook, or have learn’d aught else the least
That to the faithful herdman’s art belongs!”
(In Lycidas by John Milton)
Milton employs epithets (“gray-fly and “blind mouths”) in the extract which describe the insects and later refer to the desire of feeding the mouths.
Function of Epithet
With the use of epithets, writers are able to describe the characters and settings more vividly in order to give richer meanings to the text. Since they are used as a literary tool, they help in making the description of someone or something broader and hence easier to understand. With the help of epithets, the writers and poets develop suitable images in fewer words. Besides, the metaphorical use of epithets helps in making the poetry and prose vibrant and strong.