More on Bathos by Request

Robert Owen (
Wed, 08 Dec 1999 02:27:23 -0500

At the request today of Carol Tilley <>

"You might do me a favor, and explain 'bathos' on-list."

What I really want to do is quote my favorite example, into which I will segue by means of the following:

In Tom Thumb the Great (1731), Fielding uses bathos for the purposes of satire, as when King Arthur observes the signs of love in his daughter:

"Your eyes spit fire, your cheeks grow red as beef."

Bathos [Greek, bathos, depth]. A ludicrous descent from grandiloquence to the commonplace as used by Horace:

         “And thou, Dalhousie, the great god of war,
         Lieutenant-general to the earl of Mar.”

Bathos refers to the distancing effect that is often achieved in satires and mock epics when the reader sees a character or action ridiculed often through the yoking of epic style and trivial act. Pope's essay, On Bathos (1727), parodies Longinus' ancient Greek essay, On the Sublime, and makes fun of authors who, by similar unintended juxtaposition of high and low, end up sounding ridiculous, for example the modest request of two absent lovers

          "Ye Gods! annihilate but Space and Time,
          And make two lovers happy."

But now for the Piece of Resistance. I refer "The Clouds" of Aristophanes [448-380 BC] in which my sublime Hero Socrates is subject to bathetic descensus:

DISCIPLE Not long ago a lizard caused him the loss of a sublime thought.

STREPSIADES In what way, please?

DISCIPLE One night, when he was studying the course of the moon and its revolutions and was gazing open-mouthed at the heavens, a lizard crapped upon him from the top of the roof.

STREPSIADES Then, woe to you! and who is this man suspended up in a basket?

DISCIPLE Socrates.

STREPSIADES Socrates! Oh! I pray you, call him right loudly for me.

DISCIPLE Call him yourself; I have no time to waste.

He departs. The machine swings in SOCRATES in a basket.

STREPSIADES Socrates! my little Socrates!

SOCRATES LOFTILY Mortal, what do you want with me?

STREPSIADES First, what are you doing up there? Tell me, I beseech you.

SOCRATES POMPOUSLY I am traversing the air and contemplating the sun.


Thus it's not on the solid ground, but from the height of this basket, that you slight the gods, if indeed....


I have to suspend my brain and mingle the subtle essence of my mind with this air, which is of the like nature, in order clearly to penetrate the things of heaven. I should have discovered nothing, had I remained on the ground to consider from below the things that are above; for the earth by its force attracts the sap of the mind to itself. It's just the same with the watercress.


What? Does the mind attract the sap of the watercress? Ah! my dear little Socrates, come down to me! I have come to ask you for lessons.

Robert M. Owen
The Orion Institute
57 W. Morgan Street
Brevard, NC 28712-3659 USA