Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

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Best. Post. Ever.
Hyperbole is the strangest thing. (Not just a strange thing - the strangest.) In most situations, the law of diminishing returns applies: the more exaggerated the claim, the less purchase it will have on reality. Hyperbole is like trying to sew on a button while holding the needle in the jaws of a JCB. It's clumsy at best; at worst, ridiculous.

Sometimes, though, hyperbole really works. I was thinking about this while listening to The Tannahill Weavers' "Capernaum". As a city, Edinburgh's really not that grim (if it had been about Aberdeen I could have understood it), but this song works precisely because its lyrics, which come from a 1920s poem by Lewis Spence, are so emphatically hyperbolic.

"Capernaum"

St Matthew, xi, 23

If aa the bluid shed at thy Tron
Embro', Embro'
If aa the bluid shed at thy Tron
Were sped intae a river
It would ca' the mills o' Bonnington
Embro', Embro'
It would ca' the mills o' Bonnington
For ever and for ever

If aa the tears that thou hast grat
Embro', Embro'
If aa the tears that thou hast grat
Were shed intae the sea
Whaur wad ye find an Ararat
Embro', Embro'
Whaur wad ye find an Ararat
Frae that fell flude tae flee?

If aa the psalms sung in thy kirks
Embro', Embro'
If aa the psalms sung in thy kirks
Were gaithered in a wind
Twad shaw the taps o' Roslin's birks
Embro', Embro'
Twad shaw the taps o' Roslin's birks
Till time was oot o' mind.

If aa the broken herts o' thee
Embro', Embro'
If aa the broken herts o' thee
Were heapit in a howe
There wid be neither land nor sea
Embro', Embro'
There wid be neither land nor sea
But yon reid brae and thou.

Love the poem, love the song. But why does hyperbole intensify here, when it so often dilutes?
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Interesting question. It's like "it's past the size of dreaming" in Antony and Cleopatra: Cleopatra's hyperbole about Antony "Kingdoms were like plate fall'n from his pocket. As for his bounty, there was no winter in't. His delights were dolphin like. Think you there could be such a man as this I dream'd?" "Gentle madam, no." "You lie, up to the hearing of the gods." In fact all of A&C is this kind of amazing, convincing hyperbole. Because (as with this poem, I think) the only stimulus to this kind of inventive, vivid, unprecedented language has to be something pretty hyperbolic to begin with. I guess this is true of Dante's Paradiso, especially, which moves from hyperbole to still greater hyperbole, as though the point is to outgo hyperboles already so extravagant that it's just amazing he can keep on going.

Yes - those are great examples.

I think the reason it intensifies is that we know it is not meant literally.

Hyperbole tends to diminish a description when it is the tool a person has reached for in all sincerity to describe that experience, because the audience knows the experience probably wasn't actually that hyperbolic. I think of this as the 'dude, it was just... the most' syndrome, where hyperbole is the refuge of inarticulacy, but where does the person using it take it after that? Will the same thing still be the most next week? Therefore, if used sincerely, hyperbole has to be used sparingly. There are people I would believe if they said xyz was the most frightening thing in the entire universe, because they do not use hyperbole much. There are people I would not believe.

But both this poem and Antony and Cleopatra do not expect you to take their claims literally or even close to it. The expected mental reaction to the poem is 'Edinburgh's not as grim as all that... but there's definitely a real grievance at the core of this complaint'. Even people who like Edinburgh will smile sort of ruefully and go yeah, what can you do, because the audience has the choice of how much of the hyperbole to take seriously, so the song comes pre-calibrated for a wide range of how much people like Edinburgh. Everyone knows the answer to "Think you there could be such a man as this I dream'd?" in A&C is no, absolutely not, and Cleopatra knows that too, but she's both made it clear that she sees something in the guy and left room for her audience to judge how they feel about him for themselves.

In short, I suspect that well-used hyperbole is always self-aware irony. I could be wrong, but that's certainly how hyperbole works in formal rhetoric.

It's a really tricky trope, though, isn't it? Because if you're exaggerating, and claiming more than you mean, it can only be a whisker away from irony. I suppose much depends on the presumed attitude of your audience, who may or may not know enough about your feelings to be able to orientate your words with reference to a) your beliefs and b) their own understanding of the truth. I can't decide whether Shakspeare's use of a sceptical auditor (the same soldier, I imagine, who later asks in his dour way, "Charmian, is this well done?") increases or diminshes the artistic risk he's taking, either by exposing the hyperbolic nature of C's words to view, or by providing a convenient handhold for the audience's scepticism.

On the other hand, I'm not sure that Cleopatra is claiming more for Antony than she thinks she knows. There are other Cleopatras, earlier in the play - more political, more manipulative, more playful - who would never dream of referring to the living Antony in this way, but perhaps at this point she needs an Antony to match the strength and grandeur of what she feels for him, and so figures forth a suitable correlative. In bigging up Antony, she's describing not him but her love - projected like a bat signal onto the vault of heaven. In other words, I'm not sure just how consciously hyperbolic her speech is. (Although, she clearly becomes aware of it in the silence once it's finished - hence her question to the soldier.)

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