Which literary device uses elevated language and imagery to convey an often trivial subject matter, from the Greek word "deep"?

And the answer: bathos.    
Photo credit: public domain. 

Resulting in artwork that becomes overly sentimental, ridiculous, or amusing, “bathos” is occasionally an exaggeration of “pathos.” Alexander Pope first used the term in his treatise Peri Bathous; or, The Art of Sinking in Poetry, in 1728.

Pathos’ lesser-known younger cousin, bathos, is a device used to bring humor into sentimentality. When it was first coined by Alexander Pope, bathos was used to describe writers who showed a lack of skill in their craft by falling into absurd metaphors, descriptions, and ideas—most often when attempting to express passion. Nowadays, however, authors use the device intentionally to create humor. Just see this passage from Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

"You know," said Arthur, "it’s at times like this, when I’m trapped in a Vogon airlock with a man from Betelgeuse, and about to die of asphyxiation in deep space that I really wish I’d listened to what my mother told me when I was young."
"Why, what did she tell you?"
"I don’t know, I didn’t listen."

Adams turns a dire situation into a comedic one by disrupting the reader’s expectation of genuine sentimentality. When used in such forms, bathos can add a great degree of wit and fun to a scene, simply by highlighting the contrast in tone. However, writers creating both serious and whimsical prose are advised to use bathos sparingly, as jokes can easily break the tempo of a serious scene.

Although bathos is a tool that was developed originally in poetry, it's also frequently seen in TV shows and longer literary works today. Some of the more famous writers who frequently used bathos in their works are, of course, Douglas Adams, but also more “serious” writers such as John Keats and Jane Austen, while onscreen productions that engage bathos include The Simpsons and Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Learn more about bathos and how to use it here.


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