Bits of Fun

A World of Figures: The Rhetoric of Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb”

In case you somehow missed it, please watch National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman deliver “The Hill We Climb” as the inaugural poem for Joe Biden.

[ETA March 2021: My page statistics suggest that a lot of readers may be finding this article through searches they’re doing for school. Wonderful! I’m so glad you’re here. If you’re in search of other rhetorical resources, I’ve recommended some of my favorites down in the comments. I do want to caution all students, however, that this blog post is exactly the sort of thing that will turn up on your teacher’s plagiarism checker! I’m happy to be a source, but be sure to use good citation practices.]

First things first: This poem is so good that when I finished the initial rhetorical markup, I felt buzzed. As much as I love rhetoric, that dopamine/endorphin/adrenaline rush doesn’t happen every time. Julius Caesar‘s “Friends, Romans, countrymen”. Richard II‘s deposition. Hamilton’s “Satisfied” and “Burn”. Every once in a while, the language is just so gorgeous that I swoon.

I will not have found every device worth noting in this poem. I imagine that for decades to come, I will be able to return to it and unfold a little more of its intricate beauty. Amanda Gorman has a delightful grasp of rhythm and imagery and the awesome power of our language’s flexibility and potential complexities. And she’s only twenty-two. Mercy sweet heavens, I cannot wait to see what else she gives us.

The dominant devices in “The Hill We Climb” are consonance and paromoiosis, both figures of repetition. Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds; paromoiosis is a little more complex, the repetition of sounds between words of adjacent or parallel clauses or lines. It is partly rhyme, partly slant rhyme, but importantly the combination of rhyme and some level of isocolon, parallel structure. I usually look at isocolon as a grammatical device, but in this sense, we might also consider it a metrical device, where the parallelism lives in cadence in addition to or instead of in grammar alone. Paromoiosis is, broadly, that not-quite-rhyme sense, highlighted by parallel structure. It’s the crash of waves within the larger motion of the tide.

Paromoiosis is what makes the poem feel “lyrical”, but it isn’t only aurally pleasing. Like many devices of parallelism, it will help you hear the equations as Gorman builds them and will call your attention to the ideas she is linking together. I won’t point out every instance of consonance and paromoiosis, because there are so very many of them, but I will draw attention to the uses that have a particular impact.

One more note before I dive in: I’ve seen a few different transcriptions of “The Hill We Climb” out there on the internet, and there are some slight variations between them. I’m using this one, but it may well not be definitive, so forgive me any minor deviations between this and the official, finalized version, which I suspect we will see in Gorman’s upcoming book. (Have you pre-ordered? I have!)

Gorman opens with aporia, a question which asks the audience the best way to go about something. In this, she presents her central concern: how do we move forward now, at this moment in time, from a past that has often been so dark? The antithesis (arrangement of contrast) between light/shade and the metaphor of the day breaking are important to a rhetorical concept known as kairos: the idea of the moment in which a text occurs. Kairos takes into account the occasion, the needs of the moment, and the greater social/cultural/political context. Here, the day/light imagery places “The Hill We Climb” squarely within the canon of the Biden administration: consider Biden’s inauguration morning tweet or some of the music played during the evening’s “Celebrating America” event (Jon Bon Jovi’s rendition of “Here Comes the Sun” and John Legend’s performance of “Feeling Good” were my favorites). Certainly Biden is not the first president to wield this particular metaphor, nor does it guarantee a sunnier period of time to follow — consider Reagan’s “Morning in America” campaign — but it is nonetheless both powerful in its own right and a thread that links much of the art surrounding this political moment.

The next two lines branch into other metaphors: there’s something interesting about “a loss we carry”, something that has weight and proves a burden through absence rather than presence. “A sea we must wade” also has conceptual curiosity inside it. A sea, after all, is not something you wade across. You might wade in the shallows, perhaps, but that’s not quite the force that the verb takes here. “Wade”, then, becomes meiosis, a reference to something with a name disproportionately lesser than its nature. Gorman does not say “a sea we must sail” or “navigate” or even “swim” — but “wade”, suggesting that the problem is perhaps both greater and lesser than we imagine. Wading is something done slowly, your leg muscles pumping against the water and perhaps the undertow — but it is not something you can do if you are, say, drowning.

The next two lines introduce some of the figures of repetition we’ll see throughout the poem, notably the consonance I’ve mentioned already and the devices of anaphora, repetition at the beginning of lines or phrases, and isocolon, parallel structure, typically a device of syntax. Anaphora and isocolon often work together, as they do in “We’ve braved”/”We’ve learned”. The metaphor of “the belly of the beast” following the imagery of the sea made me think of the trial of Jonah and the whale; I’m not sure if Gorman intended that particular connection or not, but if so, it becomes anamnesis, a reference which calls to mind past matters or another author.

The next few lines contain a particularly gorgeous arrangement. “What just is isn’t always justice” has a few different things going on. The repetition of “isn’t always” from the prior line is ploce, unstructured repetition of words. We see conceptual chiasmus, one of my favorite devices, in “what-is-isn’t-justice”. Chiasmus is, as I’ve noted elsewhere, a device which ties a knot, repeating either ideas or grammatical construction in A-B-B-A order. Sometimes that reflects a thorny issue, a character tangled up in a problem; sometimes it ties things off neatly, putting a bow on the issue. Here, I think we see a bit of both. America is a thorny problem, all over, but reducing the arrangement to its key words, “what is isn’t justice”, well, that does sum the problem up succinctly. It’s also very nearly antimetabole, which is a specific form of chiasmus repeating exact words in A-B-B-A order — and that takes us to the other clever wordplay that Gorman works into this arrangement.

“Just is” and “justice” are nearly sound-alikes, and Gorman links them by placing them in parallel position to each other (at the end of the lines and as balancing figures within the chiasmus) as well as through antisthecon, a device which substitutes a sound within a word. The harder “z” in “is” transforms to the softer “s” sound in “justice”. I would also argue that this transformation gives us an aural antanaclasis. Antanaclasis is a device which repeats the same word with a different meaning. A famous example is in Othello: “Put out the light, and then put out the light”, where the first “light” is literal, the candle or lantern he carries, and the second is metaphorical, Desdemona’s life. “Just is” and “justice” are obviously not exactly the same word, but the auditory effect is, I feel, the same. We are meant to hear them as equal, but not.

With “and yet the dawn is ours”, Gorman signals a move into the next phase of the poem, both recalling the imagery from earlier and stepping forward to acknowledge the present and future. “Before we knew it. / Somehow we do it” gives us the first paromoiosis, and I like that this one also shows us a progression from the past tense verb “knew” to the present tense “do”. The anaphora on “Somehow” carries us to the next thought, which similarly acknowledges that past/present/future tension in the comparison between “broken” and “unfinished” (syncrisis rather than antithesis, for the two items are not really in opposition to each other).

You may notice that I mark a lot of small omissions as either ellipsis or zeugma, and often I won’t comment on them. Ellipsis is a simple omission of a word or phrase easily understood in context. Zeugma is a device with multiple and sometimes competing definitions. The one I use is grammatical: one part of speech governs two or more others. From Cicero: “Lust conquered shame; audacity, fear; madness, reason.” The verb “conquered” is omitted from the subsequent occurrences. (This is why I consider it a device of Omission under my ROADS system, though you could certainly make an argument for Direction).

Another definition of zeugma, though, conflates it with syllepsis, which I consider to be a form of zeugma. In syllepsis, the governing word must be understood differently with regard to each thing it governs. From Alanis Morissette: “You held your breath and the door for me.” The verb “held” has a slightly different context as applied to “breath” or “the door”. It’s like antanaclasis, only you don’t actually repeat the word.

Anyway — here, “a nation” is the object attached to both the verbs “weathered” and “witnessed”. That I’ve marked it hypozeugma refers to the position of the governing word (here, at the end). Is it syllepsis? My instinct is yes, though I can’t quite unpack why I feel that we “weather” and “witness” a nation in different senses. Complicating the matter is that “nation” is synecdoche. Typical use of synecdoche is where a part stands in for a whole; here, the whole stands in for its parts. We cannot, really, witness a nation. A nation isn’t really a thing. It is always a sum of parts. What we both weather and witness, then, are the actions of the people who comprise the nation.

We see a form of zeugma again in the next line, “successors of a country and a time”, before Gorman moves into a short self-identification. She does this through enallage, a device which substitutes semantically equivalent but grammatically different constructions. Here, the use of the third person rather than the first. That substitution broadens her message: she is not only telling her own story, but a story in which other skinny Black girls might see themselves, too. The descriptions are short but powerful: “skinny Black” is simple enargia, a generic term for description; “descended from slaves and raised by a single mother” is appositio, the addition of a corollary, explanatory, or descriptive element. What makes it so rhetorically elegant, though, is the antithesis of “descended/raised” within that line, particularly since the contrast rests on secondary meanings of the words rather than only their strict function in the sentence. A small flourish, but the sort that I go absolutely giddy for.

The next stanza (of sorts; no transcription I’ve seen actually breaks the poem into stanzas, but I’m going to apply the term to where there are conceptual and lyrical breaks or shifts) echoes the prior, as the opening “And yes” forms paromoiosis with “and yet”. “Far from polished/far from pristine” has nice isocolon and consonance, but also strikes me as epanorthosis, an addition that amends to correct or make more vehement. “Pristine” is a more intense descriptor than “polished”.

The anamnesis to the Preamble of the Constitution inherent in “form a union that is perfect” is lovely. Gorman invites the listeners to think of the phrase she’s not-quite-quoting, but by leaving out “more”, she leaves herself room to explore the act of that striving — 

–so that we get more nice repetitions echoing in the next line. Again, it’s syncrisis, ideas not precisely in opposition, but compared. We can never form a perfect union, between human foibles and the idea of what’s “perfect” always changing. But we can put in the work (and “forge” is such a great word there, invoking a craft that is so physical a labor) to create a society that has been purposefully constructed.

Gorman really lets the consonance off the leash in the next couple of lines, such that it becomes paroemion, where the consonance involves nearly every word in the sentence. The items in the series are taxis, a device which divides a subject (the country) up into its constituting parts (culture, colors, characters, conditions — all those things implied by the synecdoche of “nation” we saw before). 

“And so” doesn’t quite pick up the “And yet/and yes” aural echo, but it’s still launching us into this next stanza. “What stands between us/what stands before us” is a lovely pairing of antithesis and isocolon, again hitting that idea of the present as compared to the potential of the future — a theme Gorman will open up more in the next few lines.

The conceptual chiasmus of “close the divide (action on a breach) – our future first (communal noun and primacy) – we must first (communal noun and primacy) – put differences aside (action on a breach)” is augmented by the consonance of f-sounds and the unstructured repetition of “first”, as well as the paromoiosis in “close the divide” and “differences aside”.

The next two lines give as fine an example of antanaclasis as you could ask for: “arms” as in “weapons” and “arms” as in brachial limbs. That balance is augmented by the isocolon of the phrases, the antithesis between “lay down” and “reach out”, as well as epistrophe, repetition at the end of the line (which I mis-wrote as epizeuxis in the markup there; ignore that). “Harm to none and harmony to all” has a similar balance to it, and again Gorman is playing with words. Rather than substituting a sound as in “just is/justice”, here she adds to the word to make “harm” into “harmony”; adding that sound is a device known as paragoge.

Notice, too, the anaphora/isocolon in the way each of these sentences begin: “We close”, “We lay”, “We seek”. This “we [verb]” pattern is one that Gorman returns to throughout the poem, stressing both the communal nature of what’s important here and the active quality.

Again we see synecdoche of a whole standing in for its parts: now the “globe” rather than only the “nation”. Then Gorman launches into a beautiful auxesis, a series which builds to a climax, augmented by isocolon, anaphora (“That even as”), and consonance throughout (grieved/grew, hurt/hoped, tired/tried). The last of those pairs is also another sound-shifting device, this time metathesis, transposition of letters within a word.

After three lines of parallel structure, the fourth is unlike the others, but connected through the “That” anaphora — and this is the line that gives us the climactic point, bringing us from the past to the future. We get a little bit of hyperbaton, syntactical disorder, a device common in Shakespeare but less so in modern English, as the usual phrase would be “we’ll be tied together forever”, but Gorman moves “forever” up, which better balances the aural quality of the line, I think. “Tied” transmutes the “tired/tried” pairing yet again, this time through syncope, the omission of a sound. “Victorious” is a small appositio, describing the condition of being tied together, and then Gorman follows up that addition with another, longer qualification.

Those next two lines are aetiologia, a figure of reasoning that explicates a cause for a given effect. If the effect is that “we’ll forever be tied together, victorious”, the cause is in the difference between defeat and division. Again, Gorman stresses that difference between a perfect union and a purposeful one. The lines are balanced through isocolon and antithesis, as well as mesodiplosis, the repetition of the same words in the middle of a line (“we will never again”). 

The next section begins a new thought, but it’s tied to what came before through homoioteleuton, a device I am guaranteed to never spell correctly on the first try. Homoioteleuton is much simpler than it sounds: the similarity of endings in adjacent or parallel words: here, “division/envision”.

The “vine and fig tree” allusion is anamnesis on multiple levels. Gorman has acknowledged it as an easter egg for “One Last Time” from Hamilton; through that, it is also an allusion to George Washington, who used the phrase in his letters often, and to Washington’s original source, the Bible. Gorman thus positions herself in this literary heritage and positions this poem’s kairos as part of the ongoing American and human experiences.

“Own time” forms paromoiosis with “own vine”, which is a marvelously subtle way of transitioning to her next thought: “victory” picks up from “victorious” several lines earlier, through polyptoton, the repetition of a word in a different grammatical form. 

Gorman echoes her “arms” dichotomy with the antithesis of “blade/bridges”. I absolutely love the phrase “promise to glade”. She elides a bit: “the promise we make to the glade” would likely be the full expression, but in condensing it, she’s given us something delicate and beautiful, like a seed to nourish. Too, she has personified the glade, that idea of the place of the vine and fig tree, as something you can make a promise to. Personification is known as prosopopoeia; Gorman endows the dual idea of the land itself and the vision of the future with human qualities.

Then, the poem’s title, “the hill we climb”, comes in through exergasia, the repetition of the same idea in new words. Much of this poem, really, is exergasia in a broader sense, but here Gorman immediately augments the “glade” with the “hill”. 

The past/present/future progression continues in the next stanza, as Gorman imagines us not only receiving the past (“a pride we inherit”) but also participating in it (“the past we step into”). “Repair it/inherit” gives us another nice paromoioisis, underscoring that weaving together of history and modernity, which then brings Gorman to the immediate past.

Again, kairos is important. Though Gorman never names the insurrection or those who participated in it or prompted it, everyone watching knew exactly what she meant by “a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it”. That awareness was heightened by her physical location at the time she delivered this poem: on the very west front of the Capitol, which two weeks earlier had been stormed by terrorists. Both verbally and visually, Gorman participated in a reclamation of that space for the America she describes as being possible, the forged union of purpose.

Zeugma carries the “force” down from the antithesis of shatter/share into the next line, “would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy”. The following line, “and this effort very nearly succeeded”, is almost jarring in its simplicity, lack of rhetoricity, and lack of lyrical connection to what precedes. That feels deliberate. It is a line meant to shock recognition into us, to remind us that the reclamation was by no means certain.

But, Gorman reminds us, “while democracy can be periodically delayed / it can never be permanently defeated”. Apart from the ploce of certain words, the consonance of th e”d” sound, and the paromoiosis, I feel like there might be a bit of anamnesis in here, too. The “delayed/defeated” phrasing and the general cadence reminded me of the legal maxim “Justice delayed is justice denied”.

I ought to have marked “in this faith” as exergasia on “in this truth”; together, they are part of a hyperbaton as well as a hypozeugma. There may be anamnesis there, too, as the form “in [blank] we trust” recalls the nation’s motto “in God we trust”.

(As a sidebar, could we as a nation please ditch the Red Scare era religiosity and go back to e pluribus unum? Such a better aspiration — and something which speaks to communal effort, not fatalism)

Another Hamilton easter egg follows in the anamnesis of “history has its eyes on us” (“on you” in the musical). This line personifies history (prosopopoeia again) and also gives us another chiasmus: “eyes – future (temporal state) – history (temporal state) – eyes”.

Gorman now start threading together many of her themes: the idea of what is just or justice returns through ploce; the common responsibility rises in “on us”, “we feared”, “we did not”; the past-future connection shows in “heirs”. We get homoioteleuton in “redemption/inception”, polyptoton of “inherit” from several lines back into “heirs”, and meiosis of “hour” to describe not only the very long day of the insurrection but this whole era of American history we must confront.

I really love the line “we did not feel prepared to be the heirs of such a terrifying hour”. That fear, I think, is a feeling many of us have had, whatever our age, when we have to confront the idea that this nation is not guaranteed. Democracy is not safe if left unattended. It is a fragile and delicate thing which requires so much hard work — but Gorman is optimistic about our ability to keep it going. Paromoiosis links “power” to “hour”, and she does one of my favorite things for a writer to do when she makes a metaphor about writing in “author a new chapter”. 

These lines form a nice little capsule all on their own. We get antithesis of “once we asked” and “now we assert”, contrasting not only the past with the present, but question with declaration, and thus uncertainty with certainty. Then, antimetabole: “prevail-catastrophe-catastrophe-prevail”. 

The “we [verb]” structure continues, as it has throughout the poem, in “we will not march”, and we have more antithesis between “march back/move to” and “what was/what shall be”. Gorman then describes for us what, exactly, shall be, in an act of chorographia, the description of a nation. (The whole poem, in a sense, is that, too, but here we have it in miniature). “Bruised but whole” and “benevolent but bold” I ought to have marked as syncrisis, since they are comparative but not necessarily contrasting terms. I love that she puts two “but”s in a row and then caps it off with an “and”; it makes a nice progression within the description.

The next few lines have neat little anaphora, this time not of a full word or phrase, but of the prefix “in-”. Gorman returns to the idea of “inheritance” again, this time thinking not about what we have been heir to but what we will leave for others. “Blunders/burdens” is another syncrisis, and once with a sense of escalation in it. A blunder is a mistake, a slip, an error, something that arises not through ill intent but through incaution; but it can create misery down the line, growing exponentially as it gets passed down if it isn’t (as Gorman noted earlier) repaired. 

Her cadence is really starting to gallop here. It starts in the chorographia, and as we charge into the four lines beginning “If we merge”, the pace becomes relentless, and Gorman drives that home through the rest of the work. We have lots of little devices of repetition throughout these lines, as you can see: we also get a neat new one, anadiplosis, the repetition of the same word at the end of one line and the beginning of the next. Anadiplosis has a laddering effect, an apt device for a poem with much imagery of building and climbing. I think all the intertwined consonance augments that effect, too, one idea building upon the previous and laying the ground for the next.

“Legacy/birthright” hearkens to the past/future dichotomy again, as does the chiasmus of “leave behind-country-one-left with”. I know I go on about this a lot, but chiastic structure is so beautiful. I love what it does to cadence; I love how it ties ideas together. Chiasmus is satisfying; that bobbing in-and-out sensation feels secure, somehow. It lands in a way that echoes the confident optimism that courses through this whole poem. Because so many of these things aren’t certain or secure, of course — but if we “author the next chapter”, if we write them into the future, then they can become so. 

“Bronze-pounded chest” is just a hell of a phrase. Turning the noun-verb pair of “bronze-pounded” into an adjective is anthimeria, another favorite device of mine, which transmutes a word from one part of speech to another. It recalls, too, the language of the “forge” from earlier in the poem — something that is a labor, that takes time and effort to construct. It calls up imagery of armor, a bronze cuirass protecting the heart. It calls up imagery of statues. And yet it has breath; it’s not something metal, it’s something that lives.

And then she kicks off an absolutely astonishing sequence that’s doing so many things at once. This is one of the places where I just about swooned. So many of the devices Gorman has shown us so far, she showcases simultaneously in this sequence.

So. She returns to chorographia, this time describing the nation in more detail, region by region. 

There is syncope and paraomoiosis when “we will raise” turns into “we will rise”; there is anaphora in the repetition of “we will rise” at the beginning of successive lines, driving the point home.

There is auxesis, in that it will build to the climactic idea of “every known nook of our nation and every corner called country”; there is taxis in that it considers each region as a component of the whole.

There is prosopopoeia in “gold-limbed hills”, giving the west a body; there is enargia in the descriptions of the northeast as “windswept” and the south as “sunbaked”; there is appositio in further describing the northeast as “where our forefathers first realized revolution”; there is epitheton (a pithy descriptor, as in “rosy-fingered dawn”) in “lake-rimmed cities”.

Those descriptors then form a grammatical synchysis stretching across the lines, which is A-B-A-B structure (as opposed to the A-B-B-A of chiasmus). Gorman alternates the hyphenated descriptors with the single-word ones: “gold-limbed – windswept – lake-rimmed – sunbaked”. (Note that this is one definition of synchysis; another is less organized, taking hyperbaton to extreme disorder. In this use, however, the device is purposeful).

And then, not quite content with that big auxesis of the regions, Gorman embeds another one in “rebuild-reconcile-recover”, with the series augmented by anaphora/consonance.

She gives us no time to breathe, charging onward: the consonance in “known nook of our nation” and “corner called our country” recall phrases from earlier in the poem. Hyperbaton places “people” ahead of its descriptors “diverse and beautiful”, and then she adds through appositio/epanorthosis: “battered and beautiful”. One does not negate the other. 

In the last part of the poem, Gorman returns to her opening metaphor and opening day/shade antithesis. It is not a question now, but an assertion, just as in the “once we asked/now we assert” lines. We will step out of the shade. In appositio, Gorman tells us that it is not just light but “aflame”, drawing even stronger contrast between the light and the dark. That also indicates that we are the source of the light — which I feel is a pretty big message! And she’s gonna hammer that home in her final lines.

The idea that the “dawn blooms” is catachresis, a misapplication of words that nonetheless makes a certain degree of sense. Dawn breaks; flowers bloom; yet somehow the words feel right together. It’s the sun, after all, that encourages the flowers to bloom. Notice that we are active here, too! Day comes “as we free it” — and that “free it” sets up the paromoioisis that makes her final couplet so strong and memorable.

The last three lines are epitasis, her summary of the message of the whole poem, neatly encapsulated. The last two lines rely on repetition, with only one word different. That difference feels like epanorthosis: a correction that makes the message more vehement and reminds us of our duty. It’s not enough to see the light; we must be it.

So! That is my initial analysis of this truly dazzling poem. As I said at the top, I imagine I will look on this again and see different bits of excellent wordcraft as I return to it with fresh eyes in the future. “The Hill We Climb” is a magnificent work, and I very much hope teachers are already making adjustments to place it in their curricula.

If you’ve enjoyed this rhetorical analysis, it’s the sort of thing I do every week over on Patreon! Pledging at $1/month gets you immediate access to the full Hamilblog, a breakdown of every song in Hamilton, as well as the ongoing Shakesblog, where I’m working my way through Romeo and Juliet, and any other works that I do in-between the primary projects.

Bits of Fun, General

A World of Figures Series: The Rhetoric of Memes

So y’all know how much I love rhetoric. I’ve decided to come back to the World of Figures series, which I’d sort of abandoned in favor of the Hamilblog on Patreon, so that I can explore some rhetorical concepts in more depth.

All memes work because of repetition. That’s their very nature. Memes can also be seen as a type of metonymy, a type of metaphor in which a symbolic token stands in for a person, place, or idea. Think of a crown representing the power of monarchy, or the ways that emoji represent your mood or your response to something.

A simple example of metonymy in memeage would be the use of popular reaction gifs in many situations. It’s a repeated image that takes on cultural context of its own over time. If it achieves great enough saturation, you don’t even need to include the image itself to reap its benefits. Say there’s some drama going down on twitter. I could insert an image as a reply — or, I could type “[MichaelJacksonpopcorn.gif]” — and a meme-literate audience will know exactly what I mean. It works because of repetition — an image that has been seen enough times by enough people to be recognized even without the image itself — and it works because the image stands in for the idea “I am vicariously enjoying this while staying out of the mess”. That’s the metonymy.

Other popcorn gifs carry slightly different connotations — different exercises of metonymy. [DuleHillpopcorn.gif] is a little more active, implying a more engaged spectator, its connotation less petty but perhaps more visceral; [gazellepopcorn.gif] is by contrast a bit more passive, implying a spectator at a greater state of remove from the drama. [popcorn.gif] on its own might invoke any of these, inviting the reader to draw their own particular out of the abstract.

(Okay, if you aren’t familiar with those gifs, I bestow them upon you now.)




Many memes, however, flourish not through repetition alone, but through the transmutation of the original material. This phenomenon often occurs in what Know Your Meme calls “Object Labeling” memes, where words are imposed on an image to make a point.

I would argue that these memes become a form of antanaclasis. In verbal rhetoric, antanaclasis is the repetition of a word with a different meaning in the second usage. An example from 2 Henry IV‘s Falstaff: “O, give me the spare men and spare me the great ones.” In the first case, “spare” means “extra”; in the second, “save me from” or “let me do without”. Our brains appreciate that the shape and sound of the word is the same, but its underlying meaning has changed. Similarly, in the visual rhetoric of memes, there are instances where the shape of the meme is the same — the basic format, the image, and so forth — but the details create a different meaning grounded in the same context.

Some memes also function, in and of themselves, on a rhetorical basis. That is, they work on our brains in the same way that a particular rhetorical figure does. Take “Distracted Boyfriend“:


The meme usually works by imposing something you should be giving your time/attention onto Blue Shirt and the distraction/temptation onto Red Shirt, like so:


This meme works on the basis of hysteron proteron: the disorder of time, when what should be first comes last. In this meme, it works like this: For those of us in cultures which traditionally read left-to-right, we tend to first register the words imposed on Red Shirt first, then on Boyfriend, then on Blue Shirt. (Font choices and positioning can alter this somewhat; sometimes it’s easier to notice Boyfriend first, but if our brains are used to reading left-to-right, they’re still going to try to go to Red Shirt). This is something of a temporal inversion. Logically, the first thing of relevance is Blue Shirt. That is the status quo, the origin point, the reference. Neither Boyfriend nor Red Shirt have any relevance without it. And yet it’s the last thing we see! Our brains work in reverse — and that’s part of why it’s funny. It also enhances the visuals: in finding out Blue Shirt’s importance last, we also get to share/appreciate the expression on the model’s face.

Consider this reversal, which (I suspect unawares) calls out the nature of the rhetorical form — and isn’t as funny!


There’s no surprise there! It makes logical sense and progresses, but our brains don’t get to enjoy the inversion of expectations. The meme relies (at least in part) upon the Incongruity Theory of humor: something that rubs contrary to our expectations and established mental patterns is more likely to be funny. Cicero talks about this in On the Orator: “The most common kind of joke is that in which we expect one thing and another is said; here our own disappointed expectation makes us laugh.” (For more on that topic and humor in general, I’m going to shout out my W&M professor John Morreall, whose scholarship I still think about all the time in so many contexts).

Now, this meme also allows me to offer an example of another type of visual rhetoric: when the composition of the meme is re-created but with different figures.


Appreciating this one takes a little Star Wars context: “Red Shirt” becomes Princess Leia, “Boyfriend” is Han Solo, and “Blue Shirt” is Qi’Ra, whom we learn in Solo was his first love. The cosplayers have taken the meme in a different direction, altering the image rather than imposing new text. It feels, to me, like a visual kind of isocolon, parallel structure. In written language, that’s the repetition of syntax. Take Brutus in 3.2 of Julius Caesar: “As Caesar loved me, I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was valiant, I honour him: but, as he was ambitious, I slew him.” But in memeage, the pattern is visual rather than verbal.

I feel like this topic, the visual rhetoric of memes, could be a whole interdisciplinary dissertation. I’ve found myself thinking about it more and more, and since memes don’t appear to be going anywhere, it’s likely well-worth the study on the similarities and differences of their effect on our brains as visual language.

Or, I’m just This Much of a dork. 😉

Want more rhetorical goodness? Or want to be the first to see these posts before they hit the blog? Join my Patreon at the Patricians+ level to make sure you don’t miss out on anything!

Bits of Fun

January Patreon Review

PatreonSupporterBadge (2)In the interests of enticement, I’ve decided to start keeping a monthly log about what goes up on my Patreon each month! So here’s what I shared, at the various pledge levels, in January:

  • Behind the Page: Adventures in Copy Editing
  • Sneak Peek: From Unseen Fire Dramatis Personae
  • Hamilblogs #29-30: “That Would Be Enough” and “Guns and Ships”
  • Aven Cycle Aesthetic Post: Corvinus
  • Figures in History: Sharp-Tongued Fulvia, Pt 2
  • Advanced notice of the Goodreads giveaway starting
  • Sneak Peek: From Unseen Fire proof pages (title page and header material)
  • Behind the Page: Airtable charts on Aventan magic
  • Poll: What makes you pick up a book?
  • Vlog #5: A talent I wish I had
  • Poem #4: Lycanthropic Kyrielle

Pledge now and you get immediate access to as many as 130 posts! More and more of it is starting to focus on From Unseen Fire, and once the book is out and I can worry less about spoilers (or, y’know, sharing things that will make no sense until folk have read it), there will be all kinds of Aven Cycle bonus material. In February, I’m also intending to get through “History Has Its Eyes on You”, “The Battle of Yorktown”, and maybe “What Comes Next?” on the Hamilblog. I expect to hit “Non-Stop” in March, which will be… a special event. I’m thinking of videoing the process, or at least part of it, because analyzing that song is going to be utter nonsense, and I can’t wait.

I’m currently $172 from my next goal. If I make it there before From Unseen Fire releases in April, I will do a random drawing and giveaway a signed Advanced Reading Copy to one of my wonderful supporters!

General, Uncategorized

A World of Figures Series: Ellipsis, Paralipsis, and Ennoia

I’ve decided to start a new series of blog posts talking about my favorite thing: rhetoric!

Why do I love rhetoric? In short, because an awareness of rhetorical figures makes you a better speaker, a better writer, a better reader, and a better listener. It engages critical thinking skills that are supremely important in modern society. For a writer, it helps you to craft characters’ individual voices — different people are prone to different rhetorical tics and tactics. There are many fascinating things about language, but for me, rhetoric is the be-all and the end-all of them. Rhetoric is about structuring your words to achieve a desired effect — and what could be more important for a writer?

I was initially going to start this series with one of my favorite rhetorical figures, like chiasmus or anthimeria. I’m putting those on the backburner, though, to address something that’s become politically significant: figures of omission.

Take this example from Othello:

Ha? I like not that.

What dost thou say?

Nothing, my lord, or if – I know not what.

Was not that Cassio that parted from my wife?

Cassio, my lord? No, sure, I cannot think it,
That he would steal away so guilty-like,
Seeing you coming.

Iago’s doing a couple of really rhetorically clever things here. First off, ellipsis — simple omission of words or phrases. Generally, ellipsis ought to be easily understood in context. Our brains are really good at filling those in. Another example from Shakespeare is in Love’s Labour’s Lost: “You this way; we that way.” I bet your brain had no trouble supplying the missing verb. If someone spoke those words to you, you probably wouldn’t even consciously realize that it was missing. Iago puts a twist on this form of omission, though, by creating gaps that can’t be filled in so quickly and easily. By saying “I like not that”, Iago makes the listener wonder what the antecedent of “that” is. By leaving out his explanation in the next line, he makes the listener try to come up with one.

We’ve also got something called paralipsis, the act of calling attention to something by pretending you’re not going to call attention to it. “I cannot think it, that he would steal away so guilty-like” is a denial that that’s what Cassio was doing — but it’s meant to plant exactly that idea in Othello’s brain.

And then there’s the ennoia, which Silva Rhetoricae (one of my favorite rhetorical references) defines as:”a kind of purposeful holding back of information that nevertheless hints at what is meant; a kind of circuitous speaking.” I see this in “Nothing, my lord, or if — I know not what.” That “or if –” is a sentence with no end. Iago intends no ending to it. But he does intend that Othello’s brain try to come up with an ending, and the rest of what he says clarifies what he intends that ending to be.

Now take this example from a couple of days ago:

“If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do folks. Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.”

If you don’t know where that’s from, I envy you the rock you’ve been living under.

Donald Trump is employing ennoia in the same way that Iago did. He left a deliberate gap. His delivery showed that he trailed off intentionally, and then, like Iago, shrugs off the omission. He leaves it to the listener to find the end of that sentence, and both delivery and context indicated what he intended his listeners to fill in the missing information with. “Maybe there is, I don’t know” is a near-perfect analog for “Or if — I know not what.” And just as Iago meant it to be the dog-whistle of infidelity for Othello’s ears, Trump meant it to be the dog-whistle of violence to an audience that he knew would be receptive to such.

Ennoia is not a rhetorical device that one deploys accidentally. It has a purpose. Its entire function is to hint, to wink, to nudge, to draw the listener along to the conclusion that, for whatever reason, the speaker does not want to say outright.

Trump is also fond, as many politicians are, of paralipsis. It’s a convenient way to make an ad hominenm attack but wiggle out of getting criticized for doing so. This blog post chronicles some great examples across history, from Cicero straight up to the present day, and both The Washington Post and Huffington Post have commented on Trump’s use of the device.

Here’s the other thing about these devices of omission, particularly when used in a political context: they’re cowardly. They are the resort of someone who wants to mislead and misguide. They allow a speaker to claim, “I never said that.” “What I meant was…” “If people interpreted it that way…” They’re a way of avoiding agency and responsibility. They may be effective, but they are not devices that inspire confidence in a leader.

Words matter. So does the structure that those words come in — that’s what rhetoric is. Not just your choice of words, but the way you choose to present them. So does your delivery — that trailing off for ennoia points an audience towards how the speaker wants their brains to fill in the missing information.

Words having meaning. And so, it turns out, does the absence of words.


Addendum, May 2020: If you’re here because a teacher gave you an assignment on paralipsis, hi! Glad I can be of help. A gentle warning: Don’t plagiarize this post, because based on my blog traffic, all of your classmates have also found it, and your teacher will definitely notice. 😉 But if you have any questions about rhetoric, I’m happy to answer them! Comment here or find me on Twitter @cassrmorris.

Bits of Fun

Set My Heart Aflame: A moment of love for language

So, I’ve recently become high-school-levels of obsessed with the musical Hamilton. At this point I’d pretty much sell a kidney to get to see it, and with the ticket prices and availability being what they are, it may well take that in order to do so. Fortunately, many of my friends share in this fixation, so my constant reblogging isn’t as obnoxious as it might otherwise be.

Take yesterday, for example, when a friend decided to rhapsodize on the lovely repetition in the song “Satisfied”, and I just couldn’t resist from jumping in with a full rhetorical analysis:


There are a lot of reasons I’ve fallen so passionately in love with this musical, but this right here is a big one. The language is just goddamn gorgeous.

It makes you realise how flexible our ability to express ourselves is, how many ways a writer can reveal character and intent. The words themselves are just the half of it — rhythm, structure, patterns and the breaking of them — that makes the rest.


The Writer in the Woods

I don’t believe in writer’s block. Writer’s block is just code for laziness. I am an adult, and so when I am lazy and procrastinating, I am at least capable of admitting that that’s what I’m doing. I will also admit that, as a teenager, I went through those melodramatic phases where I blamed everything on “my muse” — or on my characters, as though they were capable of stymieing my progress with their obstinate independence. Also crap. Excusable then, in my youth, as I was learning and growing. Those were also quite popular fads among internet writers at the time (and may be still, in some circles), and I was utterly susceptible to the influence of my peers. But those avoidance techniques are thoroughly unacceptable for any grown human who wants to be a writer. (And therein, I think, lies the real problem — more people are interested in claiming to be writers than in actually doing the work of being writers).

It’s actually rhetorical, and it’s something you see characters in Shakespeare doing a lot. Devices like prosopopoeia and meiosis and synecdoche allow you to assign agency to an inanimate object, to an abstract concept, or to some part of your whole being, thereby excusing you from responsibility. It’s crap when Romeo blames “Love” for making him kill people, it’s crap when Proteus blames his tongue for slandering his girlfriend, and it’s crap when a writer blames a mythical block or muse for a lack of productivity.

What I do believe in, though, is a writer getting lost in the forest.

Into the Woods by Pure_Poison89 on DA
Into the Woods by Pure_Poison89 on DA

It’s possible to be incredibly productive, to be working every day, and yet to not actually get anything done from an end-result point of view. Despite hours of trekking and searching, thinking you’re on to something, you might have no luck at all in finding the right path. Dead ends will plague you, not just in the dramatic way of cliff faces and sudden ravines, but the simpler and altogether more probable way of realising the path loses definition and gets reclaimed by wilderness, leaving you just as much in the middle of nowhere as you were before. You can end up going around in circles, landing on the same point and again and again, despite how little it’s doing for your narrative. You might find lots of things — but none of them get you where you need to go. That shrubbery sure is interesting, but it’s not advancing your plot. There are a lot of trees, but you can’t see the forest for all of their branches smacking you in the face. Maybe you wander across a fairy ring. Do you step inside and find inspiration? Or does it muddle your brains and lure you into a pointless tangent? Maybe you trip up and end up in a swamp, inundated by ideas, but ideas that are rotting, stagnant, thick and heavy and sucking you down into their murky depths.

Yes, it’s easy to see this as another metaphor spiraling out of control; yes, it’s another way for a writer to romanticize her everyday tasks; and yes, writers do seem to experience a nigh-uncontrollable urge to construct narratives out of anything in life.

But the difference here is agency. You’re the one doing the wandering, and it’s up to you to find your way out of the woods. It’s not always easy, and sometimes it can take quite a while even to realise that you’re lost — especially because it can feel so good while you’re experiencing that placebo effect of false productivity.

Hopefully, eventually, you break the cycle and can step out into the clearing again, where you can organise your plot into neat, cogent patterns and solve whatever problems you’ve created for yourself. The only one who can get you and your story out of there is you. And isn’t that better, than blaming it on some block that suddenly falls out of the way, or than giving the credit to an ephemeral muse who deigns to revisit you? Isn’t it better, aren’t you stronger if it’s your own doing, your own triumph?

Now — is the moodling worth it? Are those tangents and sidetracks and wandery mountain paths worth it? The romantic view says yes, of course, it’s all about the process. The pragmatic side of me says — no. Not always. Sometimes spending time in those metaphorical woods is every bit as wasteful and self-indulgent as playing Civ V while streaming 18 straight episodes of Chuck. (Just as a, y’know, hypothetical for instance). If you’re still in the early stages with no pressure on you, then getting lost isn’t so bad and might lead to worthwhile discoveries, but if you’re staring down deadlines with other people counting on you, it’s time to drag yourself out.

Personally, at the moment, I find myself in a bit of a thicket. I’ve tried several approaches and made a series of attempts to get out, and yet I keep finding myself in some of the same snarls. So it’s time to try a different technique — retrace my steps, perhaps, get back to the last point where I thought I was on-track, and find my way out from there. Look at the outline. Look at the character arcs. Look at what the story needs and what a reader will want. Look for the gaps and the weaknesses.

I know the path exists. It’s up to me to find it.

Inspiration, Research

Figures in History: Hortensia the Orator

Coolest new thing I learned today: So in 42 BCE, the Second Triumvirate found itself in need of a lot of cash. They did the usual thing, proscribing their enemies. Proscribing, for those who don’t know, meant murdering them and confiscating their estates as forfeit to the state — or, for the ones they felt more tenderly towards, driving them into exile and then stealing their stuff. But they then also did something entirely unprecedented: they levied an exorbitant tax on all women who controlled their own estates in suo iure, demanding a full year’s income from them.

And this pissed off a lot of ladies.

One of them, Hortensia, was the daughter of a famous orator, and she decided to put her heritage and her education to good use. First she appealed to Mark Antony’s wife Fulvia for help — but Fulvia, who had been exempted from the tax, basically laughed in her face. So, with a tribe of other aggrieved women (possibly including Caesar’s widow Calpurnia), Hortensia stormed the rostra in the Roman Forum — thus occupying a decidedly male space — and proceeded to give a pretty bad-ass speech.

Appian renders her speech thusly (translation found here):

‘As was appropriate for women like ourselves when addressing a petition to you, we rushed to your womenfolk. But we did not get the treatment we were entitled to from Fulvia, and have been driven by her into the forum. You have already stolen from us our fathers and sons and husbands and brothers by your proscriptions, on the grounds that they had wronged you. But if you also steal from us our property, you will set us into a state unworthy of our family and manners and our female gender. If you claim that you have in any way been wronged by us, as you were by our husbands, proscribe us as you did them. But if we women have not voted any of you public enemies, if we did not demolish your houses or destroy your army or lead another army against you; if we have not kept you from public office or honour, why should we share the penalties if we have no part in the wrongdoing?

Why should we pay taxes when we have no part in pubic office or honours or commands or government in general, an evil you have fought over with such disastrous results? Because, you say, this is a time of war? And when have there not been wars? and when have women paid taxes? By nature of their sex women are absolved from paying taxes among all mankind. Our mothers on one occasion long ago were superior to their sex and paid taxes, when your whole government was threatened and the city itself, when the Carthaginians were pressuring you. They gave willingly, not from their land or their fields or their dowry or their households, without which life would be unlivable for free women, but only from their own jewellery, and not with a fixed price set on it, nor under threat of informers and accusers or by force, but they gave as much as they themselves chose. Why are you now so anxious about the government or the country? But if there should a war against the Celts or Parthians, we will not be less eager for our country’s welfare than our mothers. But we will never pay taxes for civil wars, and we will not cooperate with you against each another. We did not pay taxes to Caesar or to Pompey, nor did Marius ask us for contributions, nor Cinna nor Sulla, even though he was a tyrant over this country. And you say that you are reestablishing the Republic!’

If that was anything like her actual speech, then yeah, her rhetoric kicked ass, especially by first-century-BCE Roman standards. Romans loved them some tricolon and erotema. And here’s what Valerius Maximus has to say about her:

Hortensia vero Q. Hortensi filia, cum ordo matronarum gravi tributo a triumviris esset oneratus nec quisquam virorum patrocinium eis accommodare auderet, causam feminarum apud triumviros et constanter et feliciter egit: repraesentata enim patris facundia, impetravit ut maior pars imperatae pecuniae his remitteretur. revixit tum muliebri stirpe Q. Hortensius verbisque filiae aspiravit.

Hortensia, the only daughter of Quintus Hortensius, together with a league of matrons, felt the burden of the heavy tribute demanded by the triumvirs, but when she could dare no men to lend protection to them, she pled the case of the women against the triumvirs steadily and successfully: for exhibiting the eloquence of her father, she obtained that the greater part of the money should be remitted; thus were the words of Quintus Hortensius revived in his feminine offspring, breathing in his daughter.

(And, dude, I did that translation myself because there is no translation of Valerius Maximus’s Facta et dicta memorabilia, which is a damn shame if it’s full of gems like this. And I did it with only a little help from a dictionary — so if it’s a little wiggly, blame my out-of-practice skills; it’s been a long time since I had to remember what to do with all those ablatives).

So basically Hortensia was a badass who stood up to three guys who were blatantly murdering a few hundred people at the time and told them to stuff it. No taxation without representation, she said — and while we should not construe this as a demand for female enfranchisement, she did bring up the very good point that the citizenship of Roman women was not subject to either the same burdens or the same privileges as male citizenship. When the triumvirs tried to send in people to remove her and the other women from the forum, they flat-out refused to go. And the triumvirs blinked. They drastically reduced the number of women who were subject to the tax, and then utterly failed to enforce it.

Yeah. Definitely filing her away for future use.


Word Choice and Authorial Patterns

I was super-intrigued by the Slate article that’s getting passed around the internet, comparing the most-often used sentences and descriptive words in The Hunger Games, Twilight, and Harry Potter. Textual analysis is a big part of my day job — as my blog entries for the company will show — so I thoroughly enjoyed the comparative exploration of three authors.

Most people that I’ve seen have been more interested in the “most common sentences” chart, and that one does reveal a lot — I think, more than anything, by way of illustrating the differences in first person present, first person past, and third person past styles. It doesn’t surprise me that all three demonstrate fairly simple sentences. You can tell an amazing story without needing to convolute every sentence, and the ones likely to repeat will undoubtedly be the simple ones. A more complex sentence would lose power in repetition. Rowling and Collins still exhibit far more variety in their simple sentences than Meyer does, however (read into that what you will), which makes the difference between Rowlings and Collins more interesting to me. Collins’s simple sentences are explanatory — the first person narrator has to introduce the reader to a lot of given details. Rowling, on the other hand, describes action, often emotionally inflected, to tell the reader what’s going on.


On the whole, though, I thought that the most distinctive adjectives list was more interesting — at least more telling, for what it says about each author and each story. Setting aside “drunk” (a descriptor for Haymitch used both in the narrative and in a lot of dialogue, from what I remember), the other adjectives in The Hunger Games are very action-oriented in a way that demonstrates Katniss’s blinkered focus on the task at hand. It represents her character well — she is not a big picture person. She is task-oriented. Meyer’s adjectives, on the other hand, illustrate pretty clearly what I find to be the disturbing emotional tenor of those books. And then JK’s are, like her sentence structure, more varied. Some are emotional, some sensory, some descriptive of “what’s going on” in the same way as her common sentences.

As y’all have already seen, I love creating word clouds, so my head naturally gravitates to this sort of analysis. I would love to have a program that would analyze my common sentences, not just individual words — or an automatic rhetoric scanner! That would, I’m sure, point out that I’m overly fond of zeugma and that I really might consider backing up off the tricolon. I wonder what adjectives I’m most prone to, what words I use that aren’t as common to other writers, where my grammatical constructions give me away. (See what I meant about the zeugma and tricolon? It’s a compulsion, really). As the Slate article points out, all writers have “tells” — personal tendencies that might also identify something particular about the story they’re telling. I’d be curious what an external analysis of my own patterns might reveal.