Essay on Poetic Theory

from “On the Sublime” (100)

by Longinus


Come now, add, if you please, in these cases connecting particles after the fashion of the followers of Isocrates. “Furthermore, this fact too must not be overlooked that the smiter may do many things, first by attitude, then by look, then again by the mere voice.” You will feel, if you transcribe the passage in this orderly fashion, that the rugged impetuosity of passion, once you make it smooth and equable by adding the copulatives, falls pointless and immediately loses all its fire. Just as the binding of the limbs of runners deprives them of their power of rapid motion, so also passion, when shackled by connecting links and other appendages, chafes at the restriction, for it loses the freedom of its advance and its rapid emission as though from an engine of war.


Hyperbata, or inversions, must be placed under the same category. They are departures in the order of expressions or ideas from the natural sequence; and they bear, it may be said, the very stamp and impress of vehement emotion. Just as those who are really moved by anger, or fear, or indignation, or jealousy, or any other emotion (for the passions are many and countless, and none can give their number), at times turn aside, and when they have taken one thing as their subject often leap to another, foisting in the midst some irrelevant matter, and then again wheel round to their original theme, and driven by their vehemence, as by a veering wind, now this way now that with rapid changes, transform their expressions, their thoughts, the order suggested by a natural sequence, into numberless variations of every kind; so also among the best writers it is by means of hyperbaton that imitation approaches the effects of nature. For art is perfect when it seems to be nature, and nature hits the mark when she contains art hidden within her. We may illustrate by the words of Dionysius of Phocaea in Herodotus. “Our fortunes lie on a razor’s edge, men of Ionia; for freedom or for bondage, and that the bondage of runaway slaves. Now, therefore, if you choose to submit to hardships, you will have toil for the moment, but you will be able to overcome your foes” (Histories, 11). Here the natural order would have been: “Men of Ionia, now is the time for you to meet hardships; for our fortunes lie on a razor’s edge.” But the speaker postpones the words “Men of Ionia.” He starts at once with the danger of the situation, as though in such imminent peril he had no time at all to address his hearers. Moreover, he inverts the order of ideas. For instead of saying that they ought to endure hardships, which is the real object of his exhortation, he first assigns the reason because of which they ought to endure hardships, in the words “our fortunes lie on a razor’s edge.” The result is that what he says seems not to be premeditated but to be prompted by the necessities of the moment. In a still higher degree Thucydides is most bold and skilful in disjoining from one another by means of transpositions things that are by nature intimately united and indivisible. Demosthenes is not so masterful as Thucydides, but of all writers he most abounds in this kind of figure, and through his use of hyperbata makes a great impression of vehemence, yes and of unpremeditated speech; and moreover draws his hearers with him into all the perils of his long inversions. For he will often leave in suspense the thought which he has begun to express, and meanwhile he will heap, into a position seemingly alien and unnatural, one thing upon another parenthetically and from any external source whatsoever, throwing his hearer into alarm lest the whole structure of his words should fall to pieces, and compelling him in anxious sympathy to share the peril of the speaker; and then unexpectedly, after a long interval, he adds the long-awaited conclusion at the right place, namely the end, and produces a far greater effect by this very use, so bold and hazardous, of hyperbaton. Examples may be spared because of their abundance.


The figures, which are termed polyptota—accumulations, and variations, and climaxes—are excellent weapons of public oratory, as you are aware, and contribute to elegance and to every form of sublimity and passion. Again, how greatly do changes of cases, tenses, persons, numbers, genders, diversify and enliven exposition. Where the use of numbers is concerned, I would point out that style is not adorned only or chiefly by those words which are, as far as their forms go, in the singular but in meaning are, when examined, found to be plural: as in the lines

A countless crowd forthright
Far-ranged along the beaches were clamoring “Thunny
    [tunny—ed.] in sight!”

The fact is more worthy of observation that in certain cases the use of the plural (for the singular) falls with still more imposing effect and impresses us by the very sense of multitude which the number conveys. Such are the words of Oedipus in Sophocles:

O nuptials, nuptials,
Ye gendered me, and, having gendered, brought
To light the selfsame seed, and so revealed
Sires, brothers, sons, in one—all kindred blood!—
Brides, mothers, wives, in one!—yea, whatso deeds
Most shameful among humankind are done.
               (Oedipus Tyrannus, 1403, trans. A. S. Way)

The whole enumeration can be summed up in a single proper name—on the one side Oedipus, on the other Jocasta. None the less, the expansion of the number into the plural helps to pluralize the misfortunes as well. There is a similar instance of multiplication in the line:—

Forth Hectors and Sarpedons marching came,

and in that passage of Plato concerning the Athenians which we have quoted elsewhere. “For no Pelopes, nor Cadmi, nor Aegypti and Danai, nor the rest of the crowd of born foreigners dwell with us, but ours is the land of pure Greeks, free from foreign admixture,” etc. (Menexenus 245d). For naturally a theme seems more imposing to the ear when proper names are thus added, one upon the other, in troops. But this must only be done in cases in which the subject admits of amplification or redundancy or exaggeration or passion—one or more of these—since we all know that a richly caparisoned style is extremely pretentious.


Further (to take the converse case) particulars which are combined from the plural into the singular are sometimes most elevated in appearance. “Thereafter,” says Demosthenes, “all Peloponnesus was at variance” (“On the Crown,” 18). “And when Phrynichus had brought out a play entitled the Capture of Miletus, the whole theatre burst into tears (Histories, 21). For the compression of the number from multiplicity into unity gives more fully the feeling of a single body. In both cases the explanation of the elegance of expression is, I think, the same. Where the words are singular, to make them plural is the mark of unlooked-for passion; and where they are plural, the rounding of a number of things into a fine-sounding singular is surprising owing to the converse change.


If you introduce things which are past as present and now taking place, you will make your story no longer a narration but an actuality. Xenophon furnishes an illustration. “A man,” says he, “has fallen under Cyrus’ horse, and being trampled strikes the horse with his sword in the belly. He rears and unseats Cyrus, who falls” (Xenophon, Cyropaideia 7.1.37). This construction is specially characteristic of Thucydides.


In like manner the interchange of persons produces a vivid impression, and often makes the hearer feel that he is moving in the midst of perils:—

Thou hadst said that with toil unspent, and all unwasted of limb,
They closed in the grapple of war, so fiercely they rushed to the
               (Iliad 15.697)

and the lines of Aratus:—

Never in that month launch thou forth amid lashing seas.

So also Herodotus: “From the city of Elephantine thou shalt sail upwards, and then shalt come to a level plain; and after crossing this tract, thou shalt embark upon another vessel and sail for two days, and then shalt thou come to a great city whose name is Meroe” (Herodotus, Histories, 2. 29). Do you observe, my friend, how he leads you in imagination through the region and makes you see what you hear? All such cases of direct personal address place the hearer on the very scene of action. So it is when you seem to be speaking, not to all and sundry, but to a single individual:—

But Tydeides—thou wouldst not have known him, for whom that
    hero fought.
               (Iliad 5. 85)

You will make your hearer more excited and more attentive, and full of active participation, if you keep him on the alert by words addressed to himself.

Originally Published: October 13, 2009

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In the estimation of many literary critics and critical historians who have surveyed the rich offerings of classical literary criticism and theory, the treatise On the Sublime, written probably in the first century A.D., often ranks second in importance only to Aristotle’s Poetics (circa 335 B.C.). Aristotle’s analytic work succinctly maps the terrain of literary genre, character, structure, and rhetoric; but the highly compact . . .

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