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.”