Four Types of Chiasmus

(1) Chiasmus is experienced as a ‘cross shape’ when it is a single coherent statement with no inner contradiction; the cross-chiasmus is associated with such qualities as reciprocation, balance and the orderly relation of things. For example:

If a gift is given it can be received; when it is received it can be given……..

(2) Chiasmus is experienced as a ‘mirroring’ (or reversal) when it combines formal symmetry with paradox or contradiction; mirror-chiasmus is characteristically associated with mental blockage, stasis or paralysis. For example:

Fair is foul and foul is fair.

In this extreme case of the mirror-type, cognitive dissonance is induced; there are various things we can do with the witches’ line, but using it to reason with is not one of them.

(3) Chiasmus is experienced as a ‘circling’ when it invites the mind to follow a line of thought that returns to the starting point, so there is (dizzying) movement, within a self-contianed whole. The circle-chiasmus is often melancholy in character:

I am tired of thinking how thinking of you never tires me.

(4) Chiasmus is experienced as a ‘spiral’ when the formal symmetry sets up a more dynamic process of movement, again, as the circle-chiasmus, returning to the starting point, with the piquant difference that this starting point is no longer exactly what it was at the start- or where it was. The effect of the capacity to open up thought and to transcend the balanced or antithetical terms. The effect is mind-opening, because the element of time-continuation is implicitly added, as in the following example:

The inner world is formed by the outer and the outer the inner.

It will already be clear that these four types of chiasmus are not hermetically sealed off from one another……..


Anthony Paul, From Stasis to Ekstasis: Four Types of Chiasmus

The Natural background

his sword sang in the heads of mothers

The Gododdin  is presented as a work of the sixth century composed by a famous sixth century poet Anerien.

It contains a series of elegies and while it displays little narrative detail, it frames its subjects by presenting them as fighting an epic battle against the Anglo- Saxons, in which the entire war-band of  the Gododdin is slain.

Historians have noted that the battle makes little sense in the context of the 6th century, but seems to reflect later concepts of ethnic identity and linguistic cohesion which stands ill at ease with the much more fluid nature of early medieval identity or the cultural identity and integrity of early medieval kingdoms.

It may make little historical sense but if a central idea of poetry is to ‘make things memorable’ then setting a loose unrelated collection of elegies against a “conspicuous background,” in this case a field (aut natura) of battle, makes perfect sense.

Its also not unhelpful to view the line “his sword sang in the heads of mothers” as ‘aut manu‘  and imagine the artificial background here to be a hall, as it reflects one of the transformations occurring in the line, it reflects the situation it finds itself in as it is recited in the hall and enters the head of the audience.

Its not to suggest that the poem is constructed using hard and fast rhetorical rules from Latin. Simply that it finds itself in the same situation with similar constraints and solutions.

I think the historical argument has to take on-board the idea that the poem does not have to make historical sense.

Wondering if part of the poets “burden” in presenting these images relates to the fact these are events which have not been directly observed.

The poet has not seen the kill move or the grief of the mother of the slain Anglo- Saxon warrior.

The line is a construct of memory, all the objects are drawn into this space. Unity in what on first sight appears to be a dramatic distance and movement being drawn from one object to its opposite.

As it unfolds in performance, all things are engaged in the same act in the same moment.


8. Replying to the next, that a “small-scale” or “curtailed” space is so called by Tullius not literally nor certainly meaning more that the mind should not be spread excessively by traversing through imaginary spaciousness, like a field or a city; but the “place” is “small- scale” when the soul at once flies swiftly around its corners seizing the images hidden away in them.  And through this appears the solution to the following objection because “small- scale” and “complete” are not contradictory, but being “small-scale” more ably restricts the straying of the mind, and “completeness” facilitates the whole matter being remembered.

9. I reply to the next by saying that because a conspicuous background more affects the soul, and although not every memorable thing is formed in a conspicuous place, nonetheless each thing-worth-rembering has to be put away in a likeness having a conspicuous background-place is mentally grasped, as was said

10. To that which was objected next, I say that Tullius by means of his examples does define the difference between natural backgrounds and those which are artificial (1)…..


(1) “natural backgrounds” & “artificial” = aut natura (by nature) aut manu (by hand)

“The artificial memory includes backgrounds and images. By backgrounds I mean such scenes as are naturally or artificially set off on a small scale, complete and conspicuous, so that we can grasp and embrace them easily by the natural memory”

Marcus Tullius Cicero, Rhetorica ad Herennium



Albertus Magnus, De Bono

Mary Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture


Then I Watch T.V. ( In The Absence of History)

B.B.C has a new series on the ‘Dark Ages,’ the sales pitch on the B.B.C. gushes, Dan Snow blows the lid on the traditional Anglocentric view of history and reveals how the Irish saved Britain from cultural oblivion during the Dark Ages.

That’s a thesis I am unfamiliar with. The title ” How the Celts Saved Britain, A New Civilisation”, did not fill me with optimism, this descriptive form was used heavily in the 70 and 80’s, in more conservative forms of Celtic studies and can be associated with contemporary forms of nationalism and within modern political anxiety and tensions.

I was surprised by how bad it was, I had to turn it off after ten minutes.

Not had time to make a proper judgment but the program seemed to entirely ignore modern historical research and choose instead to deploy an argument on the fall of Roman Britain which originates in the 19th century. British historians had a tendency to compare and contrast Rome with the British Empire and found a vision of itself within Rome.

W.F. Skene  one of the most groundbreaking Victorian historians saw Hadrian’s wall as a barrier between the civilized world of the Rome and the barbaric world of the Pict’s, he went further describing the tribal peoples who attacked Rome as a ‘mongrel race’, before describing how they used long wooden poles with hooks on the end, to grab Roman soldiers of the wall, before dashing their brains out on the rocks below.

Dan Snow misses out the ‘mongrel race’ part but includes all the other details. He is careful to note he is using a “description”, from Bede, but declines to mention the image is constructed in Bede’s memory hundreds of years after Romes decline and says nothing other than   in the 8th century Bede like Dan Snow saw the value in the use of deploying highly vivid and violent scenes to entertain and bring the subject to mind.

Modern Historian would note that the wall was not a frontier but a zone controlling the  population on both sides of the wall and the population of Northern England and Southern Scotland can both be considered Romano British.

Here the old fire and sword barbarian’s at the gate argument is deployed instead.

Hazard a guess the Irish angle is being used to counter the perception that result from using the word civilization and the charge of deploying a colonial 19th century historical value system to the subject.

Further danger in deploying the ien volk, ien riech, concept which belongs to modern nationalism. i.e. a culture is bound by a common language and comprises one people i.e the Irish who speak a Celtic language.

I think the fault line here is in the way Dan presents himself as a historian and as an authority on history.

Tags used by the B.B.C here are factual and historical.

I think this is an entertainment program presented by someone with an interest in contemporary  identity politics utilizing the descriptive features of historical myth.

Plundering memorable moments from the past, without any discussion of how these images are constructed and historical context they are deployed. How the past was imagined in the 8th century is presented as a fact about that past.

Program presents a very  contemporary perspective on the relationship between what we consider real and factual and the world of our imagination.

In the ten minutes I watched contemporary historical thought was notable by its absence.