Hyperbaton and Anastrope
Bill Long 11/30/04
Understanding "Overstepping" and "Turning Back"
This and the next mini-essay will embark on a kind of rhetorical journey begun by hysteron proteron. You will recall that the other devices we have seen on this "page" so far have been those that build on previous words in a step-like pattern (anadiplosis) or split words and insert some chewy concept in the middle (tmesis). But hysteron proteron, an example of the preposterous, puts words in an order that is logically or temporally improper ("put on your shoes and socks"; "let us die and rush into battle"). But hysteron proteron is a kind of inversion of words, an inversion caused by our desire to make the temporally later idea an intellectually prior idea (it is important that the shoes are on; soldiers imagine dying in battle).
Building on the concept of inversion, hyperbaton is the general word used to describe transpositions or inversions of language outside of the normal word order. To give you a simple example (and keep your attention!), we could say "echoed the hills" instead of "the hills echoed" or, as Milton actually does, "High on a throne of royal gold...Satan exalted sat," instead of 'Satan sat exalted...." In this essay I will be using anastrophe synonymously with hyperbaton. As usual, let's begin with the way the terms were used in Greek and Latin antiquity.
Defining the Terms
Hyperbaton is composed of two Greek words, meaning "beyond" and "treading" or "stepping." Thus, its literal meaning is "overstepping." In ancient rhetoric, the word meant a "transposition of words or clauses." Words that are out of order "overstep" their correct place in a sentence. Anastrophe, from the verb "anastrepho," means the turning of something upside down, or overthrowing it. In rhetoric it had a two-fold meaning: 1) a "repetition" of words which close one sentence at the beginning of the next; or 2) an "inversion" of the natural order. The first definition of anastrophe (which is also called epanastrope) makes it synonymous with anaphora and epanaphora and will not be treated here. Thus we are prepared to study and understand the way that words can depart from their "proper" order to create a more vivid effect.
Quintilian on Hyperbaton and Anastrophe
The first century C.E. teacher of rhetoric is helpful not only in listing or defining the rhetorical devices but in providing a thoughtful reason for them. Quintilian calls hyperbaton a thing of "positive value." He says,
"Language would very often be rough, harsh, limp, or disjointed if the words were constrained as their natural order demands and each, as it arises, were tied to the next...(8.6.63)."
What a liberating view of language! He then goes on to contrast words with polished stones. We have to take words 'as they are,' that is, without altering them. But when we do this, we recognize that they just don't "fit" with the next word which "naturally" follows. We can cut and shape stones to fit them together with their neighboring stones, but words elude this shaping. Thus, our way of 'polishing' words is to rearrange them. "Indeed the only way of making our prose rhythmical is by an opportune change of order."
Quintilian then tells a story about the first four words of Plato's greatest dialogue, the Republic. As they come down to us, they are "kateben chthes eis Peiraia," translated as "Yesterday he went down to the Piraeus..." Quintilian comments that after Plato's death these four words were found written on his tablets in many different orders: "he wanted to try out which order would make each word most effective (8.6.64)."
Quintilian also lists another use of hyperbaton, where words are "moved to some distance for decorative purposes." He gives the example, "I noted, members of the jury, that the accuser's entire speech is divided into two ("in duas divisam esse partis" rather than the "straightforward order" "in duas partis divisam esse," which he says would be "hard and uncouth")."
Too Much Overstepping
Before turning to his statement on anastrophe and a brief comment on his approach, you should be aware that the more you start letting words "overstep" their natural places, the more opportunity arises for "creative thinkers" to become obscure writers and thinkers. Quintilian is aware of this. In a previous section of his work he speaks of "obscurity" and urges his readers not to postpone the end of a sentence too long by hyperbaton. An example of this "tangle of words" is
"saxa vocant Itali mediis quae in fluctibus aras..."
which may be literally translated "rocks the Italians call in the midst of the waves altars," instead of "They call rocks altars which...." When you strech out hyperbaton too far it becomes synchisis. Literally meaning "mixture" or "confusion," synchisis (or synchysis) is a generic term meaning "confused word order." The Century Dictionary gives the following definition and example. "A hyperbaton so violent as to confuse the meaning of a sentence. An example (from Tennyson) is: 'Worst of the worst were that man he that reigns!" The fourth century rhetorician Donatus defines synchisis similarly: "hyperbaton ex omni parte confusum" ("a hyperbaton that is confused in every part/way").
Thus, we can apply the term hyperbaton to any mixing up of the order of words in a sentence in order to try to make it more arresting or vivid. Quintilian, it seems to me, is absolutely correct, that language must be freed from the wooden necessity of "proper" or "natural" word order. This is where the fun begins. However, I think he is incorrect when he says that words are fixed entities, unlike the stones that can be polished and cut and fit into their "proper" place in a wall or arch. Not only did the ancients have ways of shortening or lengthening words, but we can also imagine ourselves inventing new forms of words (I "invented" the word banalize, for example, in a conversation last week) as we verbalize nouns (e.g., "task" as a verb), shorten words, place something in the middle of words by tmesis or lengthen them. Yet, rearranging word order is often the way that poets (and those who would like to explore eloquence) can speak.
The next essay continues these themes, dealing briefly with anastrophe and then providing examples of hyperbaton/anastrophe.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long