Tropes in Ancient Grammarians III
Bill Long 4/3/08
Hyperbole ad Hyperbaton
As you recall from the previous essay, Quintilian tells us that periphrasis (circumlocutio), when used properly and for the sake of ornament, can be a powerful rhetorical device. He adds, however, that when it has the "contrary" effect, it is called perissologia or redundance of words. We discovered this latter term in our consideration of Donatus' "other stylistic vices."
But now we move ahead to these two terms. Let's begin with the easier--hyperbole. Quintilian talks of hyperbole as a "bolder sort of ornament," 8.6.67, which he reserved until the end of his treatment of tropes. Derived from Greek words meaning "to cast beyond," hyperbole is "an elegant surpassing of the truth and is used either for exaggerating or extenuating," Ibid. Puttenham, in his Arte of English Poesie (p. 159), defined it similarly:
"When we speak in the superlative and beyond the limites of credit, that is by the figure which the Greeks call Hiperbole."
We don't have to go far to find obvious exaggerations in speech. As usual, Isidore has armed himself with examples from the Aeneid (3.423):
"She strikes the stars with a wave,"
"It lays open the sea bottom between the waves."
The point should not be lost that hyperbole, though exaggerated, really does express a truth. Something "harder than a rock," is a hyperbole (as is something "softer than a feather"), but if it serves to help clarify the truth of something, it is a helpful trope to use.
Quintilian spends a lot of time on the device even though it is so clear. I think he concludes his treatment of tropes with such an extensive consideration of hyperbole because it is among the most beautiful and effective rhetorical devices when used well. It can be used to grab and focus attention:
"Vomiting, he filled his lap and the whole tribunal with fragments of undigested food," 8.6.68.
He was especially aware of how Cicero, who lived about 120 years before him, skillfully used hyperbole in his oratory. In speaking against Antony Cicero said:
"What Charybdis was ever so voracious? what Charybdis, do I say? If such a monster ever existed, it was but one animal, but the whole ocean, by Hercules, would scarcely have been able, as it seems to me, to have swallowed up so many things, so widely dispersed, and lying in places so distant, in so short a space of time!", quoted in Inst. Orat. 8.6.70.
Here we have a number of rhetorical devices, including antonomasia (referring to Antony as "Charybdis," the voracious watery whirlpool) and hyperbole. Actually, it was a speech like this that cost Cicero his head, a fact that Quintilian doesn't point out...
So he moves to consider the prince of lyric poets, Pindar. He says:
"that the impetuosity of Hercules in attacking the Meropes, who are said to have dwelt in the island of Cos, was comparable neither to fire, nor wind, nor the sea, but to lightning, as if other objects were insufficient, and lightning only suitable to give a notion of his rapidity," Ibid., 8.6.71.
He makes one more reference to Cicero, who seemed to like the sound of the "Charybdis-metaphor," when he said, this time referring to the rapacious Verres:
"There arose in Sicily, after a long interval of time, not a Dionysius, nor a Phalaris (for that island, in days of old, produced many cruel tyrants), but a monster of a new kind, though endued with that ferocity which is said to have prevailed in those parts, since I believe that no Charybdis or Scylla was ever so destructive to ships in those seas as he was," Ibid., 8.6.72.
Quintilian warns us that some moderation ought to be used in the employment of hyperbole, lest one fall into kakozelia or "exorbitant affectation." The reason we should carefully cultivate the use of hyperbole is "there is in all men a natural propensity to magnify or extenuate what comes before them, and no one is contented with the exact truth." But a hyperbole is tolerated or pardoned because "we do not affirm what is false." Thus, it can be a thing of beauty when the thing of which we speak is extraordinary. In a stunningly thoughtful observation, he says:
"For we are then allowed to say a little more than the truth, because the exact truth cannot be said, and language is more efficient when it goes beyond reality than when it stops short of it," 8.6.76.
Hyperbaton (lit. "stepping over") is basically a transposition, where a word or sentence is changed in its order. It is a departure from customary word order, and can be of a "bold and violent sort," as the Century informs us. Isidore and Donatus break it down into five categories: (1) anastrophe; (2) hysteron proteron or hysterologia; (3) parenthesis; (4) tmesis; and (5) synthesis/synchisis. Since we are just about out of space here, I will only speak of the first: anastrophe is a reversed order of words. Some sources I read speak about it referring to a reversal only of two words, which others just define it as an "inversion, or unusual arrangement, of the words or clauses of a sentence," (OED). But in order to differentiate it from hysteron proteron (see next essay), we need to confined it to an inversion of the usual order of a few words. So, "echoed the hills," rather than "the hills echoed" is an example of anastrope. The Latin example given in Isidore is litora circum, rather than the usual order circum litora. This is actually a very frequent device, used especially in epic poetry, to vary the presentation of elevated thoughts. Examples are Legion.
Let me close with an example of anastrophe from Paradise Lost, which I am now memorizing. The opening words of the epic are:
"Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat:
Sing, heavenly Muse! that on the secret top....
If "normal" word order were followed, we would begin with "Sing, heavenly Muse...." But, through anastrophe, that words are inverted.
Let's continue with the other four species of hyperbaton...
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long