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What Is the Function of Hyperbole in Poetry?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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The function of hyperbole in poetry is to add an extravagant exaggeration to the poem’s themes and statements. Hyperbole is a standard tactic in rhetoric and discourse and is found prominently in drama. Examples of hyperbole can be found in the speeches of Cicero and the plays of William Shakespeare, such as “Othello” and Henry V’s speech before the Battle of Agincourt. The opposite of hyperbole is understatement and bathos.

Hyperbole in poetry is used to heighten emotions and is meant to be non-literal. This means the statements made are exaggerations, but are not metaphors. For example, a poet might want to declare his undying love for a lady. In the poem, he might want to say he loves her more than anyone else he knows, but will use hyperbole to say, “I love you more than anything else in the world.” The poet has clearly not experienced everything in the world nor has he met every girl in the world, so he cannot be completely sure.

Aristotle believes that poetry is about emotions. Hyperbole in poetry stirs not only love, as seen above, but also hate, heroism and prowess. It is also used to make a point in a satirical or political poem.

The latter idea of using hyperbole in poetry to make a political point comes from rhetoric and discourse. Hyperbole is used in orations to convey a specific point. In speeches and in poetry, hyperbole is combined with onomatopoeia, alliteration, assonance and rhyme. Rhetoric and poetic rhetoric have been well-used by certain politicians whose voices alone are enough to win the confidence of voters. Examples include Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama.

Homer’s epic poems “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” are prime examples of the use of hyperbole in poetry. Set during and after the Trojan War, the poems routinely use hyperbole to exaggerate Achilles’ prowess and the powers of the Gods. For example, Homer has Mars roaring “as loudly as nine or ten thousand men” and exaggerates the elements by saying “two winds rose with a cry that rent the air and swept the clouds before them.”

Many other poets have employed hyperbole. Andrew Marvell, a metaphysical poet, used hyperbole in his most famous poem, “To His Coy Mistress.” In the poem he writes “I would / love you ten years before the flood” and “My vegetable love should grow / vaster than empires.” Quite how the mistress would reply to his “vegetable love” is unknown. T.S. Eliot used hyperbole in his “A Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” In the poem, he asks if a man’s baldness would “disturb the universe.”

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Discussion Comments

By anon987128 — On Jan 30, 2015

Hyperbole is for exaggeration.

By pastanaga — On Nov 06, 2014

@irontoenail - Most examples of hyperbole in poetry these days tend to be done with irony though, to the point where that, in itself, is a cliche. This is one of the reasons that poets need to read poetry in order to see what has already been done and how it was done so they can do something different.

By irontoenail — On Nov 06, 2014

@umbra21 - I don't think there is such a thing as too much for a talented, and skilled poet. Hyperbole poems that are constructed with purpose behind them can be wonderful as long as the poet is aware of the cliched aspects of what they are saying.

They might be written with irony or even with straight intentions, but they can still be fresh and sweet if the poet chooses the right words and puts the right weight behind them.

By umbra21 — On Nov 05, 2014

I think poets need to be careful about using hyperbole too much. It tends to be fairly non-specific, because it needs to encompass a large concept in order to be hyperbole.

But non-specifics will end up being boring if they are used too often. If you use the words forever and always and biggest and most all the time they lose meaning and they are already fairly bland cliches.

Good poetry helps people to see the world in a different light and since big concepts have been covered over and over, I would suggest poems that convey the same sentiment using concrete details rather than hyperbole. You don't have to say something like, I notice every little detail about you, if you actually note in the poem the way the light glints off the folds of skin on her knuckles. That way you're implying the hyperbole without actually saying it.

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