Hyperbole appears in poetry almost as often as metaphor. After all, to quote Wordsworth, poetry is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” and powerful feelings ask for exaggerated language. However, bear in mind that the Romantics were much fonder of hyperbole than modern poets are. In fact, some of the latter argue that it is precisely because of this overuse of hyperbole that numerous 19th-century poems sound a bit melodramatic to today’s ears. See if you agree with this claim by going over our examples below.
10 Famous Poems with Hyperbole
#1: Dante Alighieri, Paradiso XXI.4-12 (1320)
She did not smile. ‘Were I to smile,’ she said,
‘You would be turned to ash, as Semele was
when she saw Jupiter in his full Godhead;
because my beauty, which, as it goes higher
from step to step of the eternal palace,
burns, as you know, with ever brighter fire;
and if it is not tempered in its brightening,
its radiance would consume your mortal powers
as a bough is shattered by a bolt of lightning.’
(tr. John Ciardi)
As he discovers, level by level, the beauties of Paradise, Dante has the privilege of gazing upon ever more radiant and ethereal sights. However, his guide, his beloved Beatrice, is dazzling to start with—even while alive on Earth—and, apparently, her beauty “burns…with ever brighter fire” every step of the way. Naturally, Dante happens upon the same problem horror writers encounter: the inadequacy of language to describe such supernatural sights. So, he opts for the same solution as they do: an over-the-top hyperbole. As she explains to the poet In the XXI canto of Paradiso, Beatrice withholds her celestial beauty from the eyes of Dante—it is apparently “tempered in its brightening”—because, one smile of hers would be enough for Dante to be “shattered” as a bough is by a bolt of lightning; or, for that matter, as any mortal has ever been after even so much laying his eyes upon a deity. (Beatrice uses Semele as an allusion, but compare with the words of Yahweh to Moses in Exodus 33:20: “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live”).
#2: Christopher Marlowe, Tamburlaine (1588)
I hold the Fates bound fast in iron chains,
And with my hand turn Fortune’s wheel about;
And sooner shall the sun fall from his sphere
Than Tamburlaine be slain or overcome.
If Marlowe’s Helen was “the face that launched a thousand ships,” his Tamburlaine was the play which launched a thousand plays. The first popular success on the Elizabethan stage, Tamburlaine also features the first of English drama’s titanic want-it-all heroes, referred to usually as “over-reachers.” And it only fits that an over-reacher should use hyperboles in his speeches. In the four colossal verses above, notes Heinrich F. Plett in Oxford’s Encyclopedia of Rhetoric, “as is proper for a work of literature, the hyperbole appears as a mythological metaphor.” Majestic.
#3: William Shakespeare, King Lear I.1.54-60 (1606)
Sir, I love you more than word can wield the matter;
Dearer than eye-sight, space and liberty;
Beyond what can be valued rich or rare;
No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour;
As much as a child e’er lov’d, or father found;
A love that makes breath poor and speech unable;
Beyond all manner of so much I love you.
At the beginning of William Shakespeare’s King Lear, the eponymous monarch makes one of the most bizarre decisions in the history of hereditary dynasties; namely, to divide his kingdom among his three daughters based on how much each of them loves him. Needless to say, It’s hyperbole-time! First comes Goneril, the “eldest-born,” and she doesn’t hold back on the exaggerations: there are many comparatives, superlatives and improbable claims made in the speech quoted in full above. Even so, Regan, Lear’s second daughter, is not impressed. “She comes too short,” she says, which in Shakespearean terms is the equivalent of “Yours was good, but mine will be better.” And it is: “I profess/ Myself an enemy to all other joys/ Which the most precious square of sense possesses,/ And find I am alone felicitate/ In your dear Highness’ love” (I.1.71-75). Now, how’s that for a hyperbole? (And also, as we learn later in the play, a blatant lie.)
#4: Ben Jonson, “To Celia” (1616)
Drink to me only with thine eyes,
And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kiss within the cup,
And I’ll not ask for wine.
The thirst that from the soul doth rise
Doth ask a drink divine;
But might I of Jove’s nectar sup,
I would not change for thine.
I sent thee late a rosy wreath,
Not so much honoring thee
As giving it a hope, that there
It could not withered be.
But thou thereon didst only breathe,
And sent’st it back to me;
Since when it grows, and smells, I swear,
Not of itself, but thee.
Ben Jonson’s most famous short poem, “To Celia,” is basically a string of hyperboles. Already the first—often misunderstood—verse is a beautiful metaphoric exaggeration: you can, say, drink to someone’s health with a cup of wine, but you can’t do it with your eyes; however, when you’re in love with someone, it certainly seems that you can. It also seems that you’d gladly trade a cup of wine for a kiss, even if the latter is not on your lips, but merely left on the empty glass; that’s the meaning of the third and fourth line of Jonson’s poem. He explains why in the four verses which follow. Namely, the thirst of his soul is greater than the thirst of his body, so he’d rather have an empty cup stained with a kiss of his beloved, than one full of nectar, the drink of the gods. This same hyperbolic tone permeates the second stanza as well, in which the poet swears that merely a breath of his beloved upon a rosy wreath he had sent her made the flowers smell of her. To put this elaborate hyperbole in a simpler and more conventional one: his loved one smells even more beautiful than the roses.
#5: Alexander Pope, Peri Bathous, or the Art of Sinking in Poetry (1728)
The silver whiteness that adorns thy neck,
Sullies the plate, and makes the napkin black.
Nothing new: in his hilarious 1728 essay Peri Bathous, Pope ridicules the poetical and imaginative deficiencies of his contemporaries. Possibly the best part: chapters X and XI, in which he illustrates the ridiculous way in which the bad poets of his time use some literary devices. The couplet above, in Pope’s words, should serve as a courteously romantic description of a lady at dinner. However, it is so extravagantly hyperbolic (she is so white that the napkin seems black) that, instead of being romantic, it is actually comical. Pope lists quite a few similar examples, one of which (a description of misery) is almost as funny: “Behold a scene of misery and woe;/ Here Argus soon might weep himself quite blind,/ Ev’n though he had Briareus’ hundred hands/ To wipe those hundred eyes.” So impossibly over the top!
#6: Robert Service, “The Cremation of Sam McGee” (1907)
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.
Sensational by definition, horror writers turn to hyperbole for effect remarkably often. Robert Service’s most famous poem, “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” is a great example of this. The above is the opening—and closing—stanza of it, and it already sets the tone for the rest. This is not merely a “queer” sight Service is about to recount, but “the queerest,” one “that would make your blood run cold;” note how the hyperbole is even more exaggerated by the personification of the Northern Lights. However, the narrator doesn’t stop here. Already in the second stanza, he says that “God only knows” why Sam McGee left Tennessee, and that, even though “the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell,” he hated the cold so much that he was often heard saying that “he’d sooner live in hell.” And, indeed, we are informed in the third stanza, in arguably even more hyperbolic manner, that the cold “stabbed like a driven nail” through the parkas of the gold diggers. Well, no wonder Sam was “ghastly pale” and “chilled clean through the bone”! There are a few more hyperboles in “The Cremation of Sam McGee;” read the poem and try to identify the rest.
#7: Edward Lear, A Book of Nonsense (1846)
There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, ‘It is just as I feared!
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!’
Edward Lear, “that crazy old Englishman,” is now primarily known for popularizing the form of the limerick and the genre of literary nonsense. The nonsensical effect in Lear’s limericks is often the result of a hyperbolic description; this can be easily evidenced already in the first poem of his first nonsense book, copied in full above. Just like Cyrano de Bergerac’s nose (see below), the beard of Lear’s Old Man is so, khm, distinguished, that no less than eight birds could fit a nest within it.
#8: Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac I.4 (1896)
Oh, no, young sir.
You are too simple. Why, you might have said—
Oh, a great many things! Mon Dieu, why waste
Your opportunity? For example, thus:—
AGGRESSIVE: I, sir, if that nose were mine,
I’d have it amputated—on the spot.
FRIENDLY: How do you drink with such a nose?
You ought to have a cup made specially.
DESCRIPTIVE: ‘Tis a rock, a crag, a cape!
A cape? Say rather, a peninsula!
INQUISITIVE: What is that receptacle?
A razor-case or a portfolio?
KINDLY: Ah, do you love the little birds
So much that when they come to see you,
You give them this to perch on. INSOLENT:
Sir, when you smoke, the neighbors must suppose
Your chimney is on fire. CAUTIOUS: Take care—
A weight like that might make you top-heavy.
THOUGHTFUL: Somebody fetch my parasol—
Those delicate colors fade in the sun!
PEDANTIC: Does not Aristophanes
Mention a mythological monster called
Surely we have here the original!
FAMILIAR: Well, old torchlight! Hang your hat
Over that chandelier—it hurts my eyes.
ELOQUENT: When it blows, the typhoon howls,
And the clouds darken! DRAMATIC: When it bleeds—
The Red Sea!
In Cyrano de Bergerac, Edmond Rostand’s marvelous play, the title character is an impetuous, iron-willed French soldier of many talents. However, he is also awfully self-conscious on the part of his “rather large nose.” And that’s exactly how his enemy, Viscount Valvert, describes it in the fourth scene of the first act of the play. Cyrano replies with the unforgettable speech above, basically forcing Valvert to insult him in a more proper manner. As you can observe even at first glance, the speech is an almost textbook example of the various ways one can hyperbolize a description. And note that the above is merely an abridged version: we haven’t included the simple or the military account, the respectful or the literary version. The bottom line: when you want to insult someone, don’t hesitate to use hyperboles, because mere description just won’t do; it lacks the most important aspect: the emotional excess.
#9: Hilaire Belloc, “Matilda” (1907)
Matilda told such Dreadful Lies,
It made one Gasp and Stretch one’s Eyes;
Her Aunt, who, from her Earliest Youth,
Had kept a Strict Regard for Truth,
Attempted to believe Matilda:
The effort very nearly killed her,
And would have done so, had not she
Discovered this Infirmity.
Children respond to hyperboles much more emphatically than they do to realistic, descriptive language. That is why most cartoons are littered with images of excessive violence; ironically, it is the exaggeration which makes the violence more palatable, and the message more graspable. Even though this practice goes way back to the cautionary tales present in the folklore of most nations, it was first popularized by a German psychiatrist named Heinrich Hoffmann, whose 1845 children’s book, Struwwelpeter (or, Shock-headed Peter) is a series of rhyming tales with a moral which the author regularly demonstrates by exaggerating the consequences of misbehavior. Hilaire Belloc parodied the genre in his Cautionary Tales for Children, as evidenced by the full title of the poem excerpted above: “Matilda, Who Told Lies, and Was Burned to Death.” In the opening stanza we are informed that Matilda’s lies are not only “gaspingly” and “eye-stretchingly” dreadful, but that they would have also killed her aunt if she only believed them!
#10: Dorothy Parker, “Comment” (August 16, 1925)
Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of contemporanea:
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Roumania.
Two-time Academy Award-nominee Dorothy Parker was an American poet, critic and satirist who justly enjoys the reputation as one of the greatest wits and wisecrackers of the 20th century. For example, upon being told that Calvin Coolidge, the 30th US President, had passed away, commenting on his stiffness and taciturnity, Parker immediately replied: “How can they tell?” That’s a great hyperbolic remark in itself, but the one-stanza poem quoted here is, arguably, even better. After paraphrasing two conventional exaggerations (“life is a glorious cycle of song” and “love is a thing that can never go wrong”), Parker adds another one “I am Marie of Roumania.” However, since this last line is obviously ironic—i.e., she is most certainly not Marie of Romania—the reader is invited to revisit the previous two hyperboles and realize that Parker is, in fact, cynical. Thanks to this poem, the phrase “And I am Maria of Romania” is now regularly used when someone wishes to express disbelief (it is similar to another ironic hyperbole of the type: “Yeah, and I’m the Queen of England!”)