A hyperbole is primarily a usage that dwells on exaggeration. A poetic exaggeration, so to say. The very first line that comes to mind, every time I think of a hyperbole (or infact every time I think of a literary device) is – Ten thousand saw I at a glance..from the ever green poem Daffodils of Wordsworth. On a side note, the way he puts it later in the poem –
‘For oft, when on my couch I lie,
In vacant or in pensive mood’
is so haunting. Maybe, I shall write about the poem later sometime! Such detours might prove to be a common feature in these posts, I apologise! 🙂
So, coming back to a hyperbole, the word has a seemingly etymological origin in the Greek language from a word that means ‘to throw over or beyond.’ It is supposedly a cognate (cognates are words that have similar etymological origins) of the mathematical ‘hyperbola’ (presumably because the arms of the hyperbola often appear to overshoot!?:)).
The occurrence of hyperboles is remarkably numerous in works of literature, be it poetry, drama or prosody. Am not resorting to any explanation, but merely giving a few illustrations of hyperboles from well known poems..
Alack, it was I who leaped at the sun
To give it my loving friends to keep!
– from The Patriot, Robert Browning
Rose a nurse of ninety years,
Set his child upon her knee–
Like summer tempest came her tears–
‘Sweet my child, I live for thee.’
– from ‘Home they brought her warrior dead’ – Tennyson
स्वर्ग के सम्राट को जाकर खबर कर दे-
रोज ही आकाश चढ़ते जा रहे हैं वे,
– from Chand Aur Kavi by Ramdhari Sinh Dinakar
Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.
– from Jerusalem by William Blake
Shakespearan dramas abound in hyperboles.
His legs bestrid the ocean: his reared arm
Crested the world.
– from Antony and Cleopatra, Cleopatra praising the dead Antony.
Several illustrations may be provided. Infact, hyperboles are abundant in literature of almost all languages.
Ever since childhood, we are exposed to them, courtesy stories narrated to us. They teem with hyperboles. Perhaps, they are incorporated and woven into the stories so as to enable a child, that evidently has limited capabilities of perception with regard to sense of proportion, to get a better feel of the story. For instance, as an adult with an appreciable degree of maturity, we would comprehend if someone said ‘Macbeth was immensely brave’, but a child perhaps no reference to quantify bravery. And so some qualification like ‘he was so brave as to be able to defeat an entire army on his own’ would convey the message. And this is clearly a hyper-hyperbole, if one may call it so 🙂
With regard to the use of hyperbole, it helps lend a powerful effect to the flow of the poem/prose and makes a striking impression on the reader. However, in my opinion, the effect is beautiful only if there is a gradual building-up thats carefully done and then having it culminate in a subtle hyperbole. Am reminded of a comment by a reputed Hindusthani Music Vidwan that I happened to read in a music forum a few days back – The Vidwan, as is usual in the Hindusthani tradition, built up a Ragam phrase by phrase and finally erected a beautiful edifice and as the crowning glory, just started playing a particularly beautiful phrase and there was resounding applause in the hall. The Vidwan remarked with a tinge of sadness ‘I built up the Ragam for the whole hour painstakingly, just for this moment of crowning glory, and none of you people heard it in the midst of all the applause!’
Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.
– from The Donkey by Chesterton
Here, Chesterton sedulously builds up the repulsive image of a donkey which we are all anyway, used to (incidentally the poem is a narration from the perspective of a donkey, an autobiography, so to speak!) and then suddenly in the final stanza has the donkey address the humans as fools! This may not be a strict hyperbole as such (:-)), but the effect is definitely one! By the way, the reference above – ‘I also had my hour’ is to the incident of the donkey carrying Baby Jesus. I still recall having read this poem in school in my tenth class or so, and being impressed with the power behind this stanza!
On the flip side, when too many hyperboles are encountered, one after the other, it appears to suffocate me. To me, it paints a picture lacking too much in reality (though art is meant to depict reality and beyond) and creates a challenging situation for me, and I end up dismissing it, as I find it hard to believe. In my opinion, such excessive hyperboles tend to result in an ‘effect’ rather than an ‘appeal’ and those are very different. Art is more powerful when it appeals to me, rather than strike me in the face. In addition, it seems like too-powerful a treatment being meted out to a delicate art – writing.
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze;
– from To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell
Here, Marvell praises his protagonist a bit excessively. Infact, the entire poem is filled with such hyperboles and it doesn’t quite convey the message in an appealing manner to me.
Too many hyperboles may also not enhance reader interest in the sense that they may create an unjustified expectation of the character/situation that is being elucidated by the hyperbole and may eventually result in a let-down if that expectation is not fully met (and it is not likely that the expectation would be met in full measure, as the excessive hyperboles had overshot reality by a great deal) and may actually result in an anti-climax or a let-down eventually for the reader.
I don’t intend to make the post too long. So, I shall stop here.
I understand that one can go on about these topics. But these posts are of course, not meant to be exhuastive, by any sense of the word. Just a place to put down my impressions. Hope it was atleast mildly informative. Hope to be regular with the posts..
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