Posts Tagged ‘chiasmus’

from GIFTS OF RINGS AND GOLD, by Michael Murray


The Monk’s Tale contains seventeen out of, we are told, a hundred possible tales, of fall from fortune. All were falls from high estate, and the fall was cataclysmic for all: humiliation, death, and punishment by God. The tales range from Old Testament Lucifer and Adam, through classical, to historical figures; we find figures from Dante in (H)Ugolina. It has been speculated that the Monk’s tale was in part a satire on a similar work by Boccaccio.

Some of the tales: Adam, Samson, Hercules, Zenobia and Holofernes, reflected the Canterbury Tales’ seventh fragment’s concern with the role of women in society, and of the danger of acquiescence to their rule. Pride, ambition, disobedience, treachery and committing one’s secrets into unsafe hands (ie those of women) all figure here. All these themes were reflected in the other Tales of the Seventh Fragment. But they are on such general and widely known subjects, as the Christian lists of sins and vices, that they are bound to figure prominently.

Is there a structure to the Tale?
We need to think as an audience.

The seventeen tales fall into three distinct groups, with four variations.
The first are biblical figures, then we have a central four historical figures, and lastly classical figures.
This is a clear and intended arrangement. We need to know if it is a purely rhetorical arrangement, or whether it has some other function.
The four exceptions are the classical tale of Hercules (tale four) amongst the biblical, and of Zenobia, tale seven, also a classical tale amongst the biblical; and the tale of Holofernes, a biblical amongst the classical, tale thirteen, and Antiochus Epiphanes, tale fourteen, another biblical figure amongst the classical.
Do the positions of these four tell us anything about structural concerns of the Tale?
The Hercules tale follows immediately the Samson tale, and reiterates the untrustworthiness of women. The tale of Zenobia on the other hand is the tale of a strong woman of noble birth, one who chose when to bear children, and what the relationship with the father should be. Her fate for not following the traditional ‘office of wommen’ was one of utter humiliation, by Roman Emperor Aurelian.

Then we see the tales of Holofernes and Antiochus together. Holofernes follows the storyline of Nebuchadnezzar and Balthasar from the biblical half of the Tale; it is pertinent to the structure that he was killed by a woman, Judith. Antiochus in the latter half was a warrior general whose abuse of the Jewish people was punished by a series of increasingly terrible illnesses that corrupted him bodily.
The tales are generally lengthy, and the latter especially very colourful.

The four central historical tales provide the transit from predominantly biblical characters, to classical. This is illustrated in the sources of fall they record: we see the brother of King Pedro turn against him; the vassal lords of King Petro of Cyprus turn on him; the son-in-law of Barnardo de Lumbardie throw him into prison; the terrible turn-around of fortunes of imprisoned (H)Ugolino and sons, whose sons offer themselves up to him as sustenance.

Immediately following these is the Tale of Nero, and how the people of Rome turned against him and hunted him down. Whilst, before this central four is the Tale of Zenobia, fearless and triumphant warrior hunted down then humbled and paraded through Rome by Emperor Aurelian.

The opposing parallels of this Tale are pertinent: we see
Zenobia paralleled with Nero;
Balshasar with Holofernes;
Nebuchadnezzar with Antiochus;
Hercules with Alexander;
Samson with Julius Caesar, and
Adam with Croesus.

As has been noticed the Holofernes tale refers to both the Nebuchadnezzar and Balthasar tales: it is appropriate it finds its parallels there. Nebuchadnezzar, a Babylonian king we are told twice defeated Jerusalem; here we see the link between the two: defeat of the Jewish people and nation. Both were punished severely.
For the Monk it seems the Jewish people were still sacrosanct.

Do they form a chiasmus? I would argue that yes, they do, based on paralleling and antithetical structuring.
They have no ring, though, with beginning, middle and end devices. It can be seen that there is no central tale, nor interruption by the Host or other listeners. We have the introduction to the tale, and the rush to cut off further doom-laden tales at the end, but no essential middle turn.


T S Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land,’ section IV ‘Death By Water’, consisting of just ten lines, seems to consist of three short sections.

 Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward.
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome as and tall as you.

Ten lines, in this case, can also give two sections of five lines. This arrangement is important.
It is possible to be read as to have been composed in corresponding parts. It begins and ends:
Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,……………………..
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome as and tall as you.

So, we have opening, and ending, and then also a central section, or hinge:
……………………………………….. A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell/

He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.

So, we have what could almost be a chiasmus, each line and a half paralleling the other line and a half.

Surrounding this central section we have, firstly,

Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.

and lastly:
                                                      Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,

That gives opening and closing  correspondences, first section central-surround, central hinge, second section central-surround, and closing part.

The form gives suggestion of overall chiasmic structuring. Line length mirrors the arguments being presented.

If this is so, and it is strongly suggestive that this is the intended structure, then this  makes us read an unfortunate correspondence between ‘(…) the profit and loss.’(line 3) and ‘Gentile or Jew’(line 8).
The former is inclusive, the latter exclusive.
As a deliberate paralleling of lines 3 and 8 – indeed, the page layout emphasises the phrases – are we to read an anti-Semitic slur intended there?

In the former section of ‘Death by Water’, the first section of the poem (lines 1-3) is epitomized in this descriptive phrase; the latter third (lines 8-10) is an appeal to the reader, who may be Protestant Western Europe and New World, or Semitic and Old World – whoever it is that takes civilisation forward.
In this I would like to think are included Einstein, and Neils Bohr: the General Theory of Relativity, and the Quantum Theory.

Implicit here also in ‘once was’ is a progressive concept of civilisation and growth of  humankind away from middle-eastern religious roots, Judaism, and towards Western reason (- and non-autocratic Anglicanism?). The end-rhyme claims a relationship between Jew and you, that addressee being both contemporary reader, and Old World culture. The two terms are again in exclusive and inclusive arrangements emphasising the survival of one, but not both.
The earlier rhyme pair swell and fell state a sense of, if not cyclic (Vico-esque?), then organic growth and fall of civilizations that this last rhyme pair predicate.

The centre of the piece is the balancing of phrases ‘As he rose and fell/ He passed the stages of age and youth’ (lines 9 and 10) which gives a janus-like sense of descent of age to youth, and the life-review that is the accepted experience of death. The section ends as it begins with vocative appeal to the hearer/ reader as in the ‘Greek Anthology’.

We notice also the ‘current under the sea’ of half-line 4 is balanced with ‘(…) the whirlpool’ of half-line 7 each framing the central section of the piece. The ‘cry of gulls’ and ‘who look to windward’ are paralleled here, as are ‘the deep sea swell’ with ‘you who turn the wheel’. We sense a metaphysical mariner at work, a conflation of the wheel of fate, and a will that steers, that rises above and beyond the world.

If the form of this short example from ‘The Waste Land’ is certainly chiasmic, it not a ring – there is no tri-partite construction, the central section is a straight change from first half to second ABCCBA. Ring structure has ABCDCBA.

– The English sentence structure, of subject-predicate, has possibilities as another base-chiasmic scheme. It is not by any means a universal language structure, however. There are examples of chiasmic use in languages not structured in this way.


Excerpted arguments are from my study: Gifts of Rings and Gold, An Introduction to Chiasmic Text Structures.


Special Xmas Offer: see Amazon Kindle for details

Kindle book ready and waiting.

So what’s it about?
It is about how stories, poems, texts, were structured in a certain way from early times, and through to the present day.
The structure works as a memory system. I investigate how this structure fits into the now well-known Arts of Memory.
The book also looks at how the structuring works, and was passed down through time.

I look at twenty-plus texts from ancient times, through the medieval flowering, down to the present day.
You’d be surprised what I found.

Special Xmas Offer: see Amazon Kindle for details:





Kindle book ready and waiting.
Roll up! Roll up!

So what’s it about?
It is about how stories, poems, texts, were structured in a certain way from early times, and to the present day. The structure works as a memory system. I investigate how this structure fits into the now well-known Arts of Memory. The book also looks at how the structuring works, and was passed down through time.

I look at twenty-plus texts from ancient times, through the medieval flowering, down to the present day.
You’d be surprised what I found.

Can be bought at:

Why that title?
Partly because of the position of the letter G: when you recognise the form of a ring-composition text, you will recognise this positioning of G was not random.

What is the difference between a chiasmic form of text, and a ring-composition text?
Read, and find out!

In this book I attempt to align the ancient use and craft of chiasmic structures to The Arts of Memory.

I attempt to trace the transmission of these crafts and skills through history.
– There is evidence of their use in the ancient middle-east, and in early Greece.
– They next re-emerged in grand style in the 10th-11th-12th-and 13th centuries in Western Europe: a great flowering of chiasmic and ring forms.
– Our times have classic examples of the form – in surprising places!

Chiasmic form is so deeply rooted in our thinking, the structures of our thought. How did this happen? What are the consequences? Is it possible to break away?

Read the book, and find out!

Update on my book – coming soon on Kindle

Table of Contents


Table of Contents 


PART 1 – Long Ago and Far Away 

Chapter 1     ‘The Tale of Sinuhe’

Chapter 2     ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’

PART 2 – Gifts of Rings and Gold 

Chapter 3     Simonides and Ring-composition 

Chapter 4     ‘Beowulf’

Chapter 5    ‘The Mabinogion’.

Chapter 6     ‘The Voyage of St Brendan/ Brendan the Navigator’

Just a taster of the 20+ chapters completed.


Previous posts on this blog covered the investigation of a range of early texts: ancient Egyptian and Sumerian tales; medieval tales and stories; more modern books.

I examined them all to highlight their structure of composition – I was investigating the use of chiasmus in texts.

Chiasmus is a way of structuring: think of an arch way – each side mirrors the other as it builds towards the middle. Mirrors, that is, in that the first arc builds up to the keystone, and the other arc repeats the same steps away from it. There is a ‘crossing over’ from one arc to another.


In a text this occurs in a line, say:

“I flee who chases me, and chase who flees me.”
“Fair is foul, and foul is fair.”
(William Shakespeare, Macbeth I.i)

Or you may display it like this:


But to structure a whole text/book that way…!
And Yes they did. Not all, but enough to make it matter.

And so, I have gathered all my researches together, worked them up, and rounded off the whole enterprise.

The result is this ebook: GIFTS OF RINGS AND GOLD.

It will be due out on Amazon in December.

I will update regularly to keep you posted.


(All poems are from the translations by Anne Pennington.)

One of the most interesting commentaries on the poetry of Vasko Popa has been Alexander Ronelle in his THE STRUCTURE OF VASKO POPA’S POETRY, UCLA Slavic Studies, 1986.

Here he identified in the first seven books published up to 1980 a definite pattern, as well as purposeful arrangement of contents. Each book he commented has its own identifiable pictoral symbol used in the book. Each book in turn is comprised of variable cycles of poems.


More books have been added since:


By far the majority of cycles are uneven in number, usually seven. He writes ‘…one element can be set off as the centre of the structure, in that the surrounding elements form opposing pairs, but the central element stands alone.
We can see this in the titles of the One Bone to Another cycle in UNREST-FIELD (1956): they are concentrically titled –
At the beginning – At the end
After the beginning – Before the end
In the sun – In the moonlight
and the centre poem Underground

The Quartz Pebble sequence has a similar but tantalising structure of titles:
The quartz pebble – Two quartz pebbles
The heart of the quartz pebble – The secret of the quartz pebble
The dream of the quartz pebble – The adventure of the quartz pebble
and the central one The love of the quartz pebble

The following book SECONDARY HEAVEN (1968), has less explicit titling of its sequences. Heaven’s Ring, for instance gives us:
The stargazer’s death – Fugitive stars
Heaven’s ring – the starry snail
Nothingness – The shadow maker
and the central one Orphan absence.

The book ’s first poem, however,  is The Stargazer’s legacy, of the Yawn of Yawns cycle.
Heaven’s ring is another name for the milky way; the Starry snail’s path also alludes to this feature. We find this feature, as well as the Yawn in the previous book THE UNREST-FIELD.

In the Quartz Pebble cycle we can see how the single Quartz pebble of poem one, through the central poem Love of the quartz pebble, relates to the last poem Two quartz pebbles. This is a distinctive arrangement. There are two arcs to this cycle; we need to know how they relate to each other.

The first half of the sequence centres on the quartz pebble and a number of unidentified agents: two in the Heart, a hand in the Dream. The second half, from The Love onwards identifies the other as He throughout and the He is identified as the Quartz pebble; the first half others are external and acting upon the Quartz pebble. The change from the insular, isolated ‘stubborn’ singular pebble of the first half occurs through the outward focus onto the her of the other pebble in the central Love poem; the singular pebble is described in the poem as being ‘transformed’.

The Adventure and Secret poems of the second half find the pebble with an awareness of self, and of its ‘cramped’ limits; in the Secret this self awareness becomes its own subject, but it with externalised consequences. And we find in the last poem that the sense of conjoining in Love of the central poem, has been lost in the awareness of separate selfhoods:

Two victims of a little joke
A bad joke without a joker.

In the first half we see the pebble acted upon and producing a display of what could be cosmic proportions, the broken open pebble’s glittering quartz likened to a snake around the sky of the earth: the milky way.

In the second half this self display is found wanting when compared with the discovery of the other pebble. But the two exhaust each other.

The Quartz Pebble cycle can be seen to be formed as a chiasmus, that is of two halves which relate to one another closely, and that the poems, as set out above, do relate antithetically to each other across the two arcs.
There are generally two basic forms of chiasmus; one consists of two arcs of paralleled ‘episodes’ (for want of a better term), they are paralleled in that the latter episodes refer to their former counterparts but in an antithetical or changed mode.
The second form is as the first but the change from first to second arc has its own episode which is generally referred to as the ‘turn’, as below.

VP4The consequences of the second form allow the first, central and last episodes to relate to each other closely.

Change the term episodes to poems and we can see that the first poem in the Quartz pebble cycle relates to the middle and last (also note how Vasko Popa uses the personal identifiers in each poem):

Two sweets yesterday
On the tongue of eternity
Two stone tears today
On an eyelash of the unknown  

(: Two Quartz pebbles)

Whereas the first poem, The Quartz pebble, has:

It holds all
In its passionate
Internal embrace
It smiles with the eyebrow of the moon

The central poem, The love of the quartz pebble, gives us in relation to these:

He is quite transformed
Into the white of her eye

Only she understands him
Only her embrace has
The shape of his desire

The eye image is transformed, and transmitted to the other: to see the other and the other to see him: identification of uniqueness in the mass. What we find here is a chiasmus and ring, which the second form of chiasmus above: the quartz pebble is first seen as

Headless limbless


A smooth white innocent corpse

(: The Quartz pebble)

and in the last poem of the cycle:


They look at each other dully
They talk without lips
They talk hot air

It is not the chiasmus we had expected from the titles, though: this is not the transformation through love of convention, but a love where the self is compromised, exhausted, through love.
Can this form be found in other cycles? The One Bone to Another cycle is another cycle of two halves, the first optimistic, positive, adventurous. The central poem Underground flips the mood to:

As if everything were beginning again
With a more horrible beginning
 (: In the moonlight)

The two speakers (one?) throughout the cycle move from positive if sometimes malicious glee:

What shall we do when the dogs come
They like bones

Then we’ll stick in their throats
And have fun
(: After the beginning)

Where all is open and visible and the senses/ a memory of senses, continue, to a cold dark eternity where nothing is:

There long awaiting us
No one and his wife nothing
(: Before the end)

The cycle takes the form of a dialogue, one bone to another, one of whom is witty and lively, the other appreciative. At the end of the cycle they cannot distinguish between each other, both are in the dark figuratively and sensorally: Why have you swallowed me…//…….It’s you have swallowed me.

Following the form of the Quartz pebble we need to know now if and how the first, middle and last poems relate to each other. In the central poem they resolve to … grow pure… until they are … eternal beings of bone// Just wait for the earth to yawn. In the first poem they can lay claim to being

The backbone of a streak of lightening


Pelvis of a storm


Ribs of heaven


But the last poem finds them lost:

Now no one knows any more
All is an ugly dream of dust

So yes they do relate bleakly to one another as before.

It is safe to say that a lot of Vasko Popa’s work deals with the destructiveness of relationships. It is also tempting to read into the two cycles just looked at, and bringing in unfashionable contextual elements, critiques of a growing isolationist stance in politics that led to the imposition of the Iron Curtain across Europe.

Do the seven books of Alexander Ronelle’s study also display this meticulous structuring and arrangement? That is a matter for another time.

Vask Popa (1922 -1991)


I have taken down a whole section of blogs.


The whole section on ring-structured texts.


Well, I’ve written them all up and expanded and analysed and just generally played around some more. Now I’m looking for a publisher. I think they’re kinda Cultural History – I’m a big fan of les histoires des mentalities and was hoping to fit in there.

Ah, but to do that you have be, you know, ‘affiliated’. And your blog is called Outside the Academy. So, you’re not, like, affiliated, yeh?

Drat and drumgoes! I knew I’d forgotten something.

So whatya gonna do now?

Well, still look for a publisher – more kind of popular but intelligent. Not academic, not intellectual, but….

Yeh, but this topic is not, like, General Reading, or General Interest, it’s more… skewed, off on aside road.

Alright, alright! But it does have ramifications for the general reader. And that is exactly the point.

Does this book have a name?

GIFTS OF RINGS AND GOLD. It’s all in the position of the g’s; like in a ring structure. Geddit?




Pisander in Athens, in time of war

with armsful of presents (labelled ‘If’,

labelled ‘Trust Me’, ‘Guaranteed’),


says: “Alciabades …”,  (whoa, place him later – )

“…should be recalled, and the democratic

whatyoucallit, bodypolitic

thingy…” – (slight misdirection) – “… you know,

the constitution,  changed…”  (madness, surely)…


but they were counting off, like he was

on fingers – how they loved newfangleness –

now placed his, and they with him, this point, thus,

–  the sophist’s snake in the attic vase – this Then:

“…then they would have the king their ally.”


(Read: Paymaster, and read: Buy Me, Cheap;

read Desperate, Patched, and Thin.)



Though Phrynichus, intrigued against intriguer,

said Alciabades cared little for cause

so long as he was recalled: democracy, oligarchy…

–  what we were free to do, what we were bound to do …


and how he feared the discovery of his inability,

and how that was what woke him constantly.


But no one listened nor wanted knowledge,

only peace, and so Phrynichus, the worn

and compromised rag that was their conscience,

readied himself for the assassin’s knife.












“That we may understand really

the bottom of our desires…” …

“…not just plausible and good things

but seasonable and honest…”…

“…what we were, where we are,

what we were bound to do, what we are free to do….”

he paused, for he understood, then,

desires can change.

And when offered the crown

“…three times he put it by, each time

a little more reluctantly…”

I noticed this.

“Time was we had not boggled at this word.”

he said. To kill a king is no newfangleness.


The Divine Rights of Kings – and of assassins;

Pascal’s Provincial Letters, their quiet reading,

subversively plots out the reasoning –

like a knot garden, a quiet strength

in the midst of tumult, where God

is the repository of conscience, and conscience

the true measure of action.

When God is wrenched out of gesture

let conscience be questioned

I would like to think

by each cut, slash… despatch.


Naseby Hill, and the King coming on

from before, Prince Rupert from the right –

auxiliaries challenged their phalanx

and it broke.

How many stumbled, caught, vulnerable, died

in that garden, the rabbit warren

they charged across? The underground chambers

palpitating with life.