Bathos: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Despite its name, 'bathos' has nothing to do with washing up. You can brush up on your vocabulary, though, in this lesson where we'll sink into the literary depths in search of bathos and some examples of this phenomenon.

Plumbing the Depths: Bathos Defined

Have you ever been the victim of that terrible prank where you're given a large 'present,' only to find that it contains some insignificant trinket? If you've experienced this heart-crushing disappointment, then you've witnessed a real-life version of bathos: a term describing the anticipation of significance in literature that is resolved in an insignificant way.

This Greek word originally indicated physical 'depths' (i.e. the ocean), but its use by Alexander Pope in 1728 brought the term a whole new application. That year he published a mock literary essay entitled Peri Bathous - a Greek phrase that Pope translated as On the Art of Sinking in Poetry for the subtitle. Throughout the work, he sarcastically discusses the tendency of his literary colleagues to strive for hypsos (Greek 'sublime,' 'height'), only to come crashing down into the depths (bathos). What Pope was observing in this phenomenon was a literary work's build-up to something of considerable artistic value that resolves in a typically absurd or otherwise disappointing fashion.

The Greek bathos is also part of the term bathysphere (above), which is a submersible used to plumb the depths of the ocean.
Photo of deep-sea bathysphere

Pope knew that poets especially sought sophistication in their work; however, he also pointed out that they often fall short of this goal in often inadvertently hilarious ways. Bathos can be used deliberately, though, when authors wish to add an element of humorous dissatisfaction - especially when they want to parody those who have employed bathos unintentionally. Take a look at the examples below to see an intentional usage of bathos, as well as one that was supposed to be anything but!

Examples of Bathos

To Some Ladies

The Romantic Period, which saw its peak in the early 19th century, was a time of passionate artistic expression. In his To Some Ladies, John Keats displays the tendency of poets from this period to romanticize even the most mundane moments and things. However, this piece also displays how easy it was for these poets to get swept up in their own emotions, while leaving their audiences puzzled as to why.

Keats fills this poem with elevated language, and even invokes ancient and contemporary poetic influences. When we discover in the last two stanzas that the 'treasure' these ladies have brought him is a seashell (and some time lounging on the beach), though, we might strongly question 'Why all the hype?'

It had not created a warmer emotion

Than the present, fair nymphs, I was blest with from you,

Than the shell, from the bright golden sands of the ocean

Which the emerald waves at your feet gladly threw.

For, indeed, 'tis a sweet and peculiar pleasure,

(And blissful is he who such happiness finds,)

To possess but a span of the hour of leisure,

In elegant, pure, and aerial minds.

To Some Ladies and many other bathetic works are collected in this book - The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse.
Cover of __The Stuffed Owl__

Northanger Abbey

At the same time that Keats was crafting his impassioned verses, another genre of literature was incorporating these same emotionally charged techniques into chilling tales. This 'Gothic' literature (i.e. Frankenstein, Dracula) frequently combined elements of horror with characteristically Romantic use of emotionally evocative language.

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