Polysyndeton is a stylistic device in which several coordinating conjunctions are used in succession in order to achieve an artistic effect. Polysyndeton examples are found in literature and in day-to-day conversations.
The term polysyndeton comes from a Greek word meaning “bound together”. It makes use of coordinating conjunctions like “and”, “or”, “but” and “nor” (mostly and and or) which are used to join successive words, phrases or clauses in such a way that these conjunctions are even used where they might have been omitted. For example, in the sentence “We have ships and men and money and stores,” the coordinating conjunction “and” is used in quick succession to join words occurring together. In a normal situation, the coordinating conjunction “and” is used to join the last two words of the list and the rest of the words in the list are separated or joined by a comma.
Polysyndeton vs. Asyndeton
Polysyndeton is opposite to another stylistic device asyndeton. In an asyndeton, the words in a list are separated by commas and no conjunctions are used to join the words in a list. Thomas S. Kane describes the difference between the two devices saying that they are nothing more than the techniques of handling a long series of words or lists. Polysyndeton uses conjunctions after every word or term, while asyndeton uses no conjunctions but commas.
“And Joshua, and all of Israel with him, took Achan the son of Zerah, and the silver, and the garment, and the wedge of gold, and his sons, and his daughters, and his oxen, and his asses, and his sheep, and his tent, and all that he had.” (The Bible)
This is among the best examples of polysyndeton found in classical or religious text. See how the conjunction “and” has been used in quick succession to join all the items given in this text.
“I said, ‘Who killed him?’ and he said ‘I don’t know who killed him, but he’s dead all right,’ and it was dark and there was water standing in the street and no lights or windows broke and boats all up in the town and trees blown down and everything all blown and I got a skiff and went out and found my boat where I had her inside Mango Key and she was right only she was full of water.” (Ernest Hemingway, After the Storm)
Hemingway has used “and” as a polysyndeton in this passage taken from “After the Storm”. Using this literary device, Hemmingway is able to make his readers feel the anxiety that his character is feeling.
Maya Angelou, a living female poet, is well known for her use of polysyndeton which can seem excessive at times. This is what she has written in her story “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”.
“Let the whitefolks have their money and power and segregation and sarcasm and big houses and schools and lawns like carpets, and books, and mostly–mostly–let them have their whiteness.” (Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings)
The continuity in the entire sentence is remarkable and the rhythm is exhilarating.
“There were frowzy fields, and cow-houses, and dunghills, and dustheaps, and ditches, and gardens, and summer-houses, and carpet-beating grounds, at the very door of the Railway. Little tumuli of oyster shells in the oyster season, and of lobster shells in the lobster season, and of broken crockery and faded cabbage leaves in all seasons, encroached upon its high places.” (Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son)
Charles Dickens is also well-known for his use of polysyndeton along with commas or both the devices. You can see the effects of both the devices in this passage taken from Dombey and Son.
Function of Polysyndeton
Polysyndeton performs several functions. Not only does it join words, phrases and clauses and thus brings continuity in a sentence, but it acts also as a stylistic device, brings rhythm to the text with the repetition of conjunctions in quick succession. It is also employed as a tool to lay emphasis to the ideas the conjunctions connect.