Definition of Chiasmus

Chiasmus employs two or more clauses which are related grammatically and conceptually, but in which the grammar and concepts are reversed. Chiasmus is a figure of speech that displays inverted parallelism.

A simple chiasmus can be broken into parts labeled ABBA. For example, look at the following sentence:

We ran away quickly; speedily, we fled.

The parts in this sentence are (A) a verb meaning “to escape” (B) an adverb that is a synonym of “rapidly.” In the first half of the sentence we see these two elements presented as AB, while in the second half of the sentence the elements are repeated and inverted as BA.

Chiasmus comes from the Greek for “crossing” or “to shape like the letter x.” It had great importance in ancient and religious texts, which we explore further below.

Difference Between Chiasmus and Antimetabole

The classical definition of chiasmus separates it from the literary device of antimetabole. In its classical understanding, chiasmus only referred to structures which were repeated in an inverse form that did not repeat the same words. Antimetabole, on the other hand, involved the repetition and reversal of the exact same words. For example, classical rhetoricians classified the phrase “Work to live, don´t live to work” as antimetabole and not as chiasmus. However, nowadays the term chiasmus is often used to refer to both concepts. For the purposes of this article, we will only explore examples of chiasmus that meet the classical definition. To see examples of the other literary device, click on the article for antimetabole.

Common Examples of Chiasmus

Due to its somewhat stilted and formalized pattern, chiasmus is not very common or easy to spot in everyday speech (there are many examples of antimetabole in everyday speech, however). One might use a chiastic structure to emphasize a point, or if the listener seems not to have heard or understood something the first time around. Imagine the following situations:

  • I went to the doctor five days ago. Yes, last week I went to the hospital.
  • He told me he isn’t coming back. He’s not returning, he said.
  • She disappeared for just a moment. In just a second she’ll reemerge.
  • We ate all the leftovers so quickly. Speedily we polished off all that food.
  • You should get a pet to help you with your anxiety. That worry could be cured by a dog.

Significance of Chiasmus in Literature

Chiasmus was very important in ancient texts, as it was a way to strike balance in a work of literature. Examples of chiasmus can be found in ancient Greek, Hebrew, and Latin texts, as well as many religious scriptures. Chiasmus had a particularly important place in Christianity. The word “chiasmus” starts with the Greek letter “chi,” also the letter that begins Christ’s name. The “X” that makes this sound in Greek also looks like the cross upon which Christ was crucified. Therefore, chiasmus was important for Christian poets to represent both Christ and his crucifixion. When chiasmus is found in a place such as the works of John Milton in Paradise Lost, it is a very intentional way to add more religious significance to that line.

Chiastic Structure

While chiasmus refers to a figure of speech, the concept of chiasmus has been applied to plot analysis as well. A chiastic structure, similar to the criss-crossing nature of chiasmus, displays a symmetrical yet reversed plot. One obvious example of chiastic structure in a work of literature is in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The plot of the epic poem has the following structure: Satan’s sins, entry into Paradise, loss of Paradise, humankind’s sins. Chiastic structure, like chiasmus, was popular in several ancient texts, many of them religious. It has been theorized that the use of a chiastic structure is one of the literary devices that helped poets in the time of oral literature memorize the works.

Examples of Chiasmus in Literature

Example #1

…in his face
Divine compassion visibly appeerd,
Love without end, and without measure Grace…

(Paradise Lost by John Milton)

This is one of the famous chiasmus examples from John Milton’s classic work Paradise Lost. As stated above, when Milton used chiasmus in his poetry, this is a clear signal of added religious meaning. The example of chiasmus in this excerpt is the line “Love without end, and without measure Grace.” Love and grace are related concepts, while “without end” and “without measure” are similar expressions of infinity.

Example #2

Ye nymphs of rosy lips and radiant eyes,
Whom Pleasure keeps too busy to be wise,
Whom Joys with soft varieties invite,
By day the frolic, and the dance by night,
Who frown with vanity, who smile with art,
And ask the latest fashion of the heart,
What care, what rules your heedless charms shall save,
Each nymph your rival, and each youth your slave?

(“The Vanity of Human Wishes” by Samuel Johnson)

In this excerpt from Samuel Johnson’s poem “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” we can find a chiasmus example in the line, “By day the frolic, and the dance by night.” In this case, the related concepts are “by day” and “by night” along with “the frolic” and “the dance.” It is important to note from this example that the related concepts are not necessarily synonymous, such as the opposites of “by day” and “by night.” However, this counts as an example of chiasmus because they both refer to a time of day. Thus, in this line we see (A) a time of day, (B) a synonym for dance, (B) dance, and (A) a time of day.

Example #3

Then say not man’s imperfect, Heaven in fault;
Say rather man’s as perfect as he ought:
His knowledge measured to his state and place;
His time a moment, and a point his space.

(“An Essay on Man” by Alexander Pope)

Alexander Pope was known to use chiasmus examples in his works. In his poem “An Essay on Man” we can see a chiasmus in the line “His time a moment, and a point his space.” In this case, the related concepts are once again not synonymous. However, the inverted units of meaning are very similar, and express the same thing, i.e., the finite nature of humanity.

Example #4

IAGO: O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on; that cuckold lives in bliss
Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger;
But, O, what damned minutes tells he o’er
Who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves!

(Othello by William Shakespeare)

Shakespeare wrote examples of chiasmus in many of his works. In his play Othello, we can find a chiasmus in Iago’s famous warning to Othello about the nature of jealousy in the line “Who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves.” This is an example in which the related, inverted concepts are indeed synonyms. “Dotes” and “strongly loves” are synonymous, while “doubts” and “suspects” are also synonymous. This chiasmus example is especially pleasing as well in its repetition of alliteration. The two halves of the line are united grammatically, conceptually, and aesthetically.

Test Your Knowledge of Chiasmus

1. Which of the following statements is the best chiasmus definition?
A. A literary device which is only used in religious texts.
B. A figure of speech in which concepts and grammatical units are repeated in a reversed order.
C. A sentence with two halves in which words are repeated from the first to the second half.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Is the following sentence an example of chiasmus? Why or why not?

I loved him blindly and adored him unseeingly.

A. Yes. There is a repetition of the concepts of “loved” and “blindly” in the words “adored” and “unseeingly,” respectively.
B. No. The words from the first half of the phrase are not repeated in the second half.
C. No. While there is a repetition of the concepts, they are not inverted in the second half of the phrase.

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Is the following famous quote from John F. Kennedy an example of antimetabole or an example of the classical definition of chiasmus?

Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.

A. Antimetabole
B. Classical chiasmus

Answer to Question #1 Show

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