Anastrophe, also known as inversion, is a literary technique in which a writer changes the normal order of words.
This can be done to influence the meter or rhythm, but can also be done to place emphasis on a specific word or collection of words. The syntax of these lines is changed so that while still decipherable, they more difficult to interpret. This imbues them with a poetic feeling and emphasizes the displaced word/s.
If a writer wants to invert a sentence they will either place an adjective after the noun it is describing, put a verb before the subject, or move a preposition behind its noun. Instances of all of these can be seen in the examples below.
The word comes from the Greek meaning “a turning back or about”. There are examples reaching all the way back to Ancient Greek and Latin poetry. For example, in the Aeneid. The first lines of Virgil’s epic poem read, in English: “I sing of arms and the man, who first from the shores of Troy”.
In more modern times, some of the best know poets who use this technique are Gerard Manley Hopkins and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Purpose of Anastrophe
Anastrophe is used in prose and poetry in order to achieve a specific style or pattern of syllables. Sometimes, a writer needs to conform to a metrical pattern and therefore need the stresses, or emphasized beats to occur in unnatural places. Other times the same thing is done to create rhyme.
Examples of Anastrophe in Poetry
Example #1 Ireland With Emily by John Betjeman
One of the most popular modern English poets, John Betjeman makes use of this technique in his poem ‘Ireland with Emily’. This piece is a complicated description of Ireland, its people, and its history from the perspective of an outsider. The natural images and moving emotional depictions of space are the most important parts of this poem. This is demonstrated through the emphasis placed on those moments of text. Take a look at these lines from the first stanza and see if you can spot the anastrophic phrase within it:
Bells are booming down the bohreens,
White the mist along the grass,
Now the Julias, Maeves and Maureens
Move between the fields to Mass.
Twisted trees of small green apple
Guard the decent whitewashed chapel,
The fifth line in this section provides the reader with a great example of how anastrophe can be used to maintain rhythm while also completing a rhyme. The word “apple” has been moved to the end of the line in order to rhyme with “chapel” in the line below. This line is one that also feels quite poetic. It reads as though it belongs in a poem. The same can be said about these liens from the third stanza:
In yews and woodbine, walls and guelder,
Nettle-deep the faithful rest,
Winding leagues of flowering elder,
Sycamore with ivy dressed
Here, the poet rearranges the grammatical structure of several lines such as “Nettle-deep the faithful rest” in order to complete rhymes and elevate the language.
Example #2 To a Captious Critic by Paul Lawrence Dunbar
This short poem was used by Dunbar to express his ever-present dislike for critics, literary criticism and for any who think they know more about writing than those who engage with it directly. The language in these short lines is elevated as if mocking and at the same time mimicking, that of the critic who might speak poorly about a writer’s works. Here are the four lines that make up the poem in its entirety:
Dear critic, who my lightness so deplores,
Would I might study to be prince of bores,
Right wisely would I rule that dull estate—
But, sir, I may not, till you abdicate.
It is not easy to read through these lines quickly. It takes a few moments to move through each and understand them fully. Dunbar moves words around. For example, he says “would I might study to be prince of bores” so that “bores” might rhyme with “deplores” in the first line. The same can be said for the third and fourth lines. In order for “estate” and “abdicate” to end the lines he uses anastrophe to say “Right wisely would I rule” rather than “I would rule right wisely”.