Bill Long 12/20/04
Exploring the Ecphonesis of Grief
So far I have provided some biblical instantiation of the Century Dictionary's definition of ecphonesis as the expression of "some sudden emotion" such as wonder (Rom 11), joy (Rom 7), anger (Matt 11) or (self-) impatience (Rom 7). I will conclude my tour of biblical ecphonesis by providing an example of what I call the ecphonesis of grief.
Two biblical characters who suffered most profoundly were King David and Job. In my book on the Book of Job (A Hard-Fought Hope: Journeying with Job Through Mystery; Upper Room Books, 2004), I devote an entire chapter to Job's grief. He does not use ecphonesis to express his loss. Rather, the reader gets the impression that Job deals with grief through a sad wistfulness, a disoriented observation that the strings of his life have been "snapped," a realization that his life is simply over.
David deals with grief differently. When his unnamed son, the product of his illicit sexual union with Bathsheba, was suffering David wept and fasted, hoping for the son to be restored. But he died, and David ceased his weeping, washed and put on his garments. A quiet faith pervaded his loss (II Sam. 12).
The Loss of Absalom
But David could not bear the loss of his son Absalom with such equanimity. Though Absalom led a rebellion against him, David could never give up his fatherly love for his fair-haired son. In the course of the rebellion Absalom was killed by troops loyal to the king. Messengers came to David to tell him the news of the battle. The first didn't want to be known as the one who revealed the death of his son, and so in response to King David's question, "Is with well with the young man Absalom?" all he could say is "I saw a great tumult, but I do not know what it was (II Sam. 17:29)."
A second messenger showed no such reluctance. David asked again. "Is it well with the young man Absalom (why doesn't David call him "my son" in this question?)?" And the messenger answered, "May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up to do you harm, be like that young man (II Sam. 17:32)." David knew that his beloved son was now dead.
David's Ecphonesis of Grief
So powerful is David's outburst of grief that his brief sentence makes use of three rhetorical devices: ecphonesis, epizeuxis and symploce (which is itself a combination of anaphora and epistrophe). David rushes off toward his chamber over the gate, in order to weep, but as he went he said:
"Oh my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son! (II Sam. 18:33--II Sam. 19:1 in Hebrew)."
I can barely read this line without my own deep feelings. The sudden outburst of emotion here is not a resigned grief or a quiet acceptance like in II Sam 12. It is not the utter desolation, weariness and enervation Job experienced when he said: "My days are past, my plans are broken off, the desires of my heart (Job 17:11)." No, here is emotion bursting out of a broken heart, and it becomes like a cascading fountain of blood erupting from a freshly-opened wound. It is a cry of such grief and despair that it wishes death on the self. It is billowing grief, as deadly as the noxious gases that pillowed into great mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of WWII.
The ecphonesis is twice evident, in the English translation, and it leaves David devastated even as his troops successfully put down the rebellion of Absalom and confirm David's kingship. Earthly triumphs mean little, however, to one whose prized son has been butchered.
The Other Rhetorical Devices
Adding to the tsunamic power of the ecphonesis is the repetition, sometimes using the identical words and sometimes using slightly different words. "My son Absalom" appears twice, but in between there is a "my son." Then, it is reversed at the end of the verse, where "Absalom" is followed by "my son, my son." This is epizeuxis. Epizeuxis is a simple rhetorical device, meaning "repetition," and the repetition here adds to the grief and becomes like the insistent pounding of a jackhammer driving David's despair deeper and deeper into his heart.
The nicely varied form of the expression of grief, however, is something that Shakespeare has perfected. Note, for example, the ecphonetic outbursts of Emilia in 5.2 of Othello, after she has discovered that Othello has actually murdered Desdemona. She expresses her mingled anger, utter desolation and horror with slightly varied repetitions. Space only permits one refernce:
"Villainy, villainy, villainy!/ I think upon't, I think. I smell't. O villainy!/ I thought so then. I'll kill myself for grief./ O villainy, villainy!" Othello 5.2.197-200.
Finally, there is the device of symploce, defined by the OED as "a figure consisting in the repetition of one word or phrase at the beginning, and of another at the end, or successive clauses or sentences." We have that here. "My son" both begins and ends the lament. It is here that we have an answer to the question posed earlier in the text, as to why David refers to Absalom as the "young man" when seeking his fate from the messengers. Absalom is referred to as "young man" there in order to highlight the rhetorical power of the use of symploce here--shown in the repeated use of "my son."
Just as the loss of his son Absalom overloaded David's emotional and mental circuitry, so the author's simple but highly-charged sentence in II Sam. 17:33 almost overloads itself with rhetorical devices to communicate meaning. So compressed is it with these devices that it explodes into our own hearts and enables us still to hear the anguished cry of a father who has lost his son.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long