A hyperbaton is a figure of speech in which the order of words in a sentence or line are rearranged.
A hyperbaton is used in order to emphasize something specific. The writer uses it intentionally by inverting the natural way clauses and entire sentences are constructed. The sentence should still be similar to the original but have a different emphasis due to the rearrangement.
Depending on how a writer uses hyperbaton it can be more or less confusing. It can require a reader to pause and consider a line more deeply before continuing. The poetry of E.E. Cummings contains great examples of how hyperbaton can complicate a poem and make it more interesting at the same time.
Definition and Explanation of Hyperbaton
The word “hyperbaton” comes from the Greek “hyperbatos” meaning “transposed” or “inverted.” It can be used in order to make a phrase feel more poetic, stranger, or more dramatic. Writers carefully rearrange the words in a sentence with the intention of the reader stopping and noticing the change. This then allows them to emphasize something that, if they’d used the normal grammatical construction, wouldn’t have seemed that important. Depending on how a writer wants to use the technique, they can rearrange a sentence completely, moving all or most of the words, or they might just move one word.
Examples of Hyperbaton in Literature
E.E. Cummings is well-known for his complex verse that uses many different literary devices, hyperbaton included. His experimentation with verse and word order are defining features of his poetry. In one of his best-known poems, ‘anyone lived in a pretty how town,’ the poet uses the device numerous times. Take a look at these stanzas as examples:
anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn’t he danced his did.
Women and men (both little and small)
Cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn’t they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain
Throughout these stanzas, Cummings uses hyperbaton in order to make the phrases more complex and add a layer of ambiguity to the poem. It’s not entirely clear, especially on the first reading, what the poet is trying to say. For example, “Cared for anyone not at all / they sowed their isn’t they reaped their same.”
Read more of E.E. Cumming’s poetry.
Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
Julius Caesar is one of Shakespeare’s plays in which readers can find examples of hyperbaton. In the following lines, there are two different examples.
His coward lips did from their color fly
And that same eye whose bend doth awe the world
Did lose his luster. I did hear him groan,
Ay, and that tongue of his that bade the Romans
Mark him and write his speeches in their books.
The phrases “bend doth awe” and “tongue of his that” are both examples of hyperbaton. His use of this technique is one reason why contemporary readers might be challenged by his verse.
“The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe
In Poe’s famed short story “The Tell-Tale Heart,” readers can find a few examples of hyperbaton. The following lines, taken from early on in the story, are a good example:
Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire.
Here, Poe rearranges the traditional, expected structure to make the words feel more dramatic.
Read Edgar Allan Poe’s poems.
The Lake Isle of Innisfree by William Butler Yeats
In the first stanza of ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree,’ the poet uses hyperbaton. Here are the lines:
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
The second line is especially effective and a great example of how a writer might use the technique to make their lines sound more poetic. It is also possible to use it in order to ensure that the meter is going to remain the same in a line of structured poetry.
Read more of William Butler Yeats’ poetry.
From Cocoon forth a Butterfly by Emily Dickinson
In this lesser-known poem, Dickinson provides readers with a good example of hyperbaton in the first stanza. The lines describe a butterfly, which Dickinson compares to a “Lady,” emerging on a summer afternoon and flying around seemingly without purpose. The lines read:
From Cocoon forth a Butterfly
As Lady from her Door
Emerged — a Summer Afternoon —
Repairing Everywhere —
This technique should be familiar to those who have read any of Dickinson’s poetry. She often shifts words around, changing their location in a line in order to enhance the overall sound and effect of the poem. Other interesting examples can be found in poems like ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant’ and ‘I died for beauty but was scarce.’
Read more poems from Emily Dickinson.
Why Do Writers Use Hyperbaton?
Writers use hyperbaton because it allows them to change sentences in order to suit their stylistic needs. The sentences that result are usually intriguing and challenging for the reader. They should be worth reading and satisfying when their meaning is uncovered. This does not mean that all examples of hyperbaton are complex. Some are shorter and more direct than others depending on what the writer wants to accomplish.
Related Literary Terms
- Ambiguity: a word or statement that has more than one meaning. If a phrase is ambiguous, it means multiple things.
- Connotation: the feeling a writer creates through their word choice. It’s the idea a specific word or set of words evokes.
- Denotation: the literal definition of a word. It is the meaning that’s most commonly found in dictionaries and other academic sources.
- Double Entendre: a literary device, phrase, and/or figure of speech that has multiple meanings or interpretations.
- Hyperbole: an intentionally exaggerated description, comparison, or exclamation meant to make a specific impact on a reader.