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What is Adynaton? Meaning, Usage and Examples

Adynaton is common in everyday conversation. We use it to create humor or show how serious we are. In literature, this literary device helps writers express intense emotions and emphasize an idea. In this article, we analyze adynaton, its usage, and examples.

What is adynaton?

Adynaton is a literary device that employs hyperbole to the height of impossibilities. Here, the speaker exaggerates to a degree to suggest a complete impracticability. 

For example, "The sky will fall the day Mark accepts he was ever wrong." 

From this statement, we can see that the speaker doesn't believe Mark can ever admit to being wrong, and he expresses it with an adynation, a hyperbole that suggests impossibility.

The word adynaton comes from the Greek word adunaton, which means "unable" or "impossible." It was popular during the Classic period, employed in ancient Roman and Greek vows, covenants, poems, and drama. For example: One can expect an agreement between philosophers sooner than between clocks. — Seneca, The Pumpkinification of Claudius.

Usage of adynaton in literature

Adynaton features in romantic poems, where poets try to describe the love they have for their lover, the extent they would go for them, or how unending their affections are. W. H. Auden employs it in his poem, As I Walked Out One Evening:

“I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you Till China and Africa meet, And the river jumps over the mountain, And the salmon sing in the street. I’ll love you till the ocean Is folded and hung up to dry, And the seven stars go squawking Like geese about the sky.” 

Here, Auden uses these exaggerated impossibilities to show how impossible it is for his love to end.

Another example is in this passage of The Eclogues by Latin poet Virgil:

"So the swift deer will sooner feed on air, and the seas leave the fish naked on shore, or the Parthian drink the Saône, the German the Tigris, both in exile wandering each other’s frontiers, than that gaze of his will fade from my mind."

This passage features many adynata, listing several impossibilities. It is more likely for them to occur than the “gaze of his will fade from my mind.” This example clearly shows the effect adynaton creates. It emphasizes the certainty of something by using extreme hyperbole and expresses intense emotion effectively.

Examples of adynaton in literature

Here are other examples of adynaton in notable works of fiction":

1. William Shakespeare, Macbeth (1623). 

“Whence is that knocking? How is’t with me when every noise appalls me? What hands are here? Ha! They pluck out mine eyes. Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather The multitudinous seas in incarnadine, Making the green one red…”

2. William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (1597).

“Why then, O brawling love, O loving hate, anything, of nothing first create! Heavy lightness, serious vanity, Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms … 

Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health, Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is! This love feel I, that feel no love in this. Dost thou not laugh?”

3 Andrew Marvell, To His Coy Mistress (1681). 

“Had we but world enough, and time This coyness, lady, were no crime. We would sit down, and think which way To walk, and pass our long love’s day. Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide Of Humber would complain. I would Love you ten years before the flood And you should, if you please, refuse Till the conversion of the Jews.”



W. H. Auden, As I Walked Out One Evening, Another Time, 1940.

Virgil, The Eclogues, Trans by A. S. Kline, 2001.

Wikipedia, Adynaton,

Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Frank Stephen