Saturday, May 16, 2015

To the Lighthouse: A Rhetorical Device, Inversion

Inversion, in literary style and rhetoric, refers to the practice of  changing the normal order of the words and phrases in a sentence. Inversion is most commonly used in poetry in which it is mainly employed to satisfy the demands of the meter or achieve emphasis that creates an effect on the reader. For example, John Milton is well known for his effective use of inversion. From beginning to end of "Paradise Lost," inversions are numerous, the beginning being a noted example:

Of Man's First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav'nly Muse ...

Comment: Here the poet's suspended and inverted syntax -- the separation of the genitive objects ("Of Man's First Disobedience, and the Fruit") at the beginning from the predicate by crucial subordinate clauses and other qualifying details elaborating the poem's major themes of disobedience, loss, woe, and restoration -- contributes to the rhetorically elevated style of Miltonic epic. By delaying the main verb, sing, until the beginning of line six, Milton creates a sense of suspension: the suspended syntax enables him to amplify the magnitude of his poem's sacred subject and the ambitious scope of his "advent'rous Song." (David Loewenstein, Milton: Paradise Lost, p. 47).

Selected Haiku/Tanka:

araumi | ya | Sado | ni | yokotau | amanogawa
wild-sea | - | Sado | to | lay | River-of-Heaven (the Milky Way)

a wild sea --
stretching to Sado Isle
the Milky Way


Comment: This haiku is framed by the natural landscape, a "wild sea" (L1) and the "Milky Way" (L3) through Basho's effective use of inversion (in both the Japanese original and the English translation). Sado Isle, known for its long history of political exiles, surrounded by a wild sea and lying under the Milky Way, comes to "embody the feeling of loneliness, both of the exiles at Sado and of the poet himself. The poem has a majestic, slow-moving rhythm, especially the drawn-out "o" sounds in the middle line (Sado ni yokotau), which suggests the vastness and scale of the landscape" (Haruo Shirane, Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Basho, pp. 242-3)

akibare no
hikari to narite
tanoshiku mo
minori ni iramu
kuri mo kurumi mo

the light is imbued
with autumn's brilliance;
how joyfully
they greet  their ripening!
the chestnuts and the walnuts

Saito Mokichi

Comment: The subject of Ls 3&4 who performs the action of greeting is unstated until L5 reveals its identity. The established image of the brilliant autumn light (Ls 1&2) is intensified by the contrast with the small dark-brown nuts (L5) gleaming in it, and the conjectured emotion (L3) is explained (L5) but not altered. Mokichi's  skillful use of  inversion provides retrospective significance to the images of the poem as well as  the visual contrast (Amy Vladeck Heinrich, Fragments of Rainbows: The Life and Poetry of Saito Mokichi, 1882-1953, p. 83).


white dawn
a seagull and I
at the ocean's edge
looking, waiting
for something to take form


white dawn...
at the ocean's edge
looking, waiting
for something to take form
a seagull and I

Rebecca Drouilhet

Comment: The big difference between the revision and the original is that Rebecca effectively uses grammatical inversion to add a sense of suspense and of oneness with nature. In the revision, line 5, "a seagull and I" --  at the ocean's edge/ looking, waiting/ for something to take form -- carries the most weight for the poem.

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