Friday, April 15, 2011

Chiasmus: Word Order Energy


Sir, I admit your general rule,
That every poet is a fool,
But you yourself may serve to show it,
That every fool is not a poet.

--Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Coleridge crafted a clever retort, didn’t he? Its power and pleasure exist in Coleridge’s use of chiasmus, a rhetorical structure named after the Greek letter chi (x), indicating a "criss-cross" arrangement of terms. Chiasmus is a figure of speech for which a writer carefully orders words in two parallel passages.

In the quatrain quoted above, Coleridge has simply used the same words and “crossed them” (placed them) in different positions in two clauses. In the first (line 2 above), Coleridge reports that someone said “every poet is a fool;” in the parallel clause (line 4), “fool” instead of “poet” is the subject of the clause, and thus, the speaker declares that “every fool is not a poet.”

The poet Byron also used chiasmus when he wrote, "Pleasure's a sin, and sometimes sin's a pleasure" (from the poem Don Juan). And so did Bill Bryson, while reflecting upon the dread associated with Y2K, when he wrote, “…a computer is a stupid machine with the ability to do incredibly smart things, while computer programmers are smart people with the ability to do incredibly stupid things” (from “Lost in Cyberland” in I’m A Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America after Twenty Years Away).

Another type of chiasmus does not employ the same words. Instead writers create a reversal between two corresponding pairs of ideas as Sir Walter Raleigh does in his poem, “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd.” Lines 11 and 12 of this poem read:

A honey tongue, a heart of gall,
Is fancy's spring, but sorrow's fall

Sweet words or a honeyed tongue, so common as relationships spring to life, are indeed words that later gall us as relationships fade and die. Raleigh juxtaposes “honey” and “gall;” “spring” and “fall;” and “fancy” and “sorrow” to suggest, chiastically, that a “honey tongue” leads directly to a “fall” and that a “heart” full of “gall” is but a fantasy in the “spring.”

Examples of chiasmus are abundant online. It is a rhetorical structure that brings ideas to life more sharply and memorably. Again, parallelism and repetition used effectively and purposefully are the reasons.

Reading Challenge:

Pick up a copy of Never Let a Fool Kiss You or a Kiss Fool You: Chiasmus and a World of Quotations That Say What They Mean and Mean What They Say by Mardy Groethe and enjoy.

Writing Challenge:

Write a chiastic pattern, using the words student/teach and teacher/study. If these fail to inspire you, choose words of your own and imitate the patterns of Coleridge, Byron, or Bryson.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

Comment upon the difference that a tiny piece of punctuation makes, first noted by
Richard Lederer in his syndicated column “On Language.”

A clever dog knows its master.

A clever dog knows it’s master.

What a huge difference an apostrophe makes! For the first review of “its” and “it’s,”
see the blog post for March 21, 2010

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach