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What Is Poetic License: Definition and Examples

HBO's The Tudors is one example of poetic license in television.
HBO's The Tudors is one example of poetic license in television. | Source

Artistic or Literary License Definition

The literary term, poetic license, is a thing of many names that comes in many forms. Also known as artistic license, literary license, dramatic license, historical license, narrative licence, licentia poetica, or just simply license, poetic license is a conversational term or sometimes a euphemism.

The term itself comes from Latin. Poetic derives from the Latin poeta, which means "poet" or "maker." License comes from the Latin licentia, which means "to be permitted." Basically, poetic license involves the departure of facts or even rules for language in order to create a different effect, usually dramatic, for a piece of work or speech.

Poetic license is a simple term to understand but can be a cause of controversy for book lovers, grammar lovers, and history buffs out there, amongst many other groups. Television, books, poetry, and film are fill of different forms of poetic license, which are listed below. Whether you love it or hate it, it is a fact of life in the entertainment world that we are often faced with.

Poetic license comes in many forms, especially in writing.
Poetic license comes in many forms, especially in writing. | Source

Examples of Poetic License

You may be surprised by just how many examples of poetic license you are confronted with everyday. One of the more popular examples are film adaptations of novels. As an avid reader, it is common to suddenly find my favorite novel on the big screen. I may enjoy the movie but, like many of my fellow fans, cannot help walking out complaining about some of the changes the writers made to the original story line, including what parts were completely taken out. However, this is more commonly referred to as dramatic license rather than poetic license.

The specific term poetic license is more commonly used in reference to a poet's work when they have ignored some of the rules for grammar for its effect. Shakespeare does this a lot in his works. The infamous line from Julius Caesar: "Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears" is one example as he has omitted the use of the word "and" after "Romans" in order to keep the line in iambic pentameter. Other examples include the contractions "o'er" and "e'er," which are commonly used in poetry.

Lastly, art, such as cartoons, are examples of artistic license. The exaggerations of a person drawn in a cartoon are understood to provide its audience with a clear understanding of just who that person is or what message the artist is trying to convey.

Poetic License and Controversy

For the most part, poetic license is a cause for controversy because of the changes the artist has made to an original story line. This is mostly found when a film or television show takes a historical event or a novel and adapts it to the screen. The most popular examples of this is Showtime's The Tudors and Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings movies. Since they do not follow what actually occurred in the past or what the original story says, these films or shows are oftentimes heavily criticized.

While changes in chronology or character traits are very common and usually ignored, when a story goes too far in the wrong direction, it can cause a lot of uproar with fans. One example is Michael Rymer's film adaptation of Anne Rice's novel, The Queen of the Damned, which went so far away from the original story line that the original work is nearly unrecognizable from it. Rice herself admitted on her Facebook page that she felt that her work was "mutilated" and did not appreciate the adaptation.

One thing to remember, however, is that the media of film and television are completely different from a novel or historical textbook. Most of the changes made to the original facts and story are made in order to fit within the hour or two that the episode or film will be. Within that short amount of time, those taking poetic license must make the story understandable to those unfamiliar with the original and entertaining at the same time. No couple of hours can ever produce a work verbatim with the original, especially if it is based on a 500 page novel.

© 2012 LisaKoski

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Comments 4 comments

billybuc profile image

billybuc 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

Very useful and interesting Lisa! Thanks for the clarification.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM

Yes, Lisa, this is very interesting and informative. You define these terms well and give good examples. Thanks for sharing this with us!


Mhatter99 profile image

Mhatter99 4 years ago from San Francisco

Thank you for this useful informtion


shiningirisheyes profile image

shiningirisheyes 4 years ago from Upstate, New York

Possitively grand. You do a wonderful job explaining the differences while also making the article very interesting.

Although I am a HUGE fan of the Elizabethan Period, which includes watching the Tudors, part of my interest is comparing reality with "Poetic License." As your article states, the movie is never as good as the written word. However, I always give it a chance end, 9 x out of 10 I am left somewhat disappointed.

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