The twenty-first of April, 2011: how Moses reacted, and sniffy classical scholars

Today, a synthesis of classical literary vocabulary and West Coast punk.

I’ve been wandering around for the last couple of hours with a Bad Religion lyric in my head –

Now I don’t know what stopped Jesus Christ

Turning every hungry stone into bread;

And I don’t remember reading how Moses reacted

When the innocent first-born lay dead.

– and while the sentiment is of course admirable and while the men of Bad Religion obviously know their Exodus, what’s been bothering me is the rhetorical technique of which that second line – every hungry stone – is an excellent instance. I couldn’t remember what it was called.

The internet knew. It’s called hypallage. Classical scholars might get sniffy about whether it’s hypallage in its strictest sense, but I reckon it’s near enough. The OED has “a figure of speech in which there is an interchange of two elements of a proposition, the natural relations of these being reversed”; the Oxford Companion to English Literature (7th ed.) has “a transference of epithet, as ‘Sansfoy’s dead dowry’ for ‘dead Sansfoy’s dowry’ [from Spenser’s The Faerie Queen]”.

Of the examples I can find, Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est‘ seems closest in character to Bad Religion’s ‘every hungry stone’:

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime. . .

‘Clumsy helmets’, of course, constituting hypallage.

I just compared Bad Religion to Wilfred Owen. I feel a bit like Giles Foden ranking Eminem alongside Robert Browning (he had a point, as any close reading of Stan with Porphyria’s Lover will show – but that’s a debate for another day).

Oh, and the lyric’s from ‘Don’t Pray On Me‘ (from Recipe For Hate, 1993), West Coast punk fans.


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