An Introduction to Apostrophe

Apostrophe (etymologically derived from the Greek word apostrophein, literally meaning “to turn away”), is a rhetorical device which consists when an orator interrupts the flow of the discourse; turning his attention from his immediate audience, to address some person or other objects different from that to which the discourse was at first directed.

This figure is seldom used; but when it is used, it is usually in a fashion of violent commotion, which the speaker turns himself on all sides, and appeals to the living and the dead, to angels and to men, to rocks, groves, and rivers, for the justice of his cause, or calls upon them to sympathize with his joy, grief, or resentment.

The tone of voice to be employed in pronouncing this figure is as various as the passions it assumes; but as these passions are generally very vehement, a higher and louder tone of voice is generally necessary in the apostrophe than in that part of the oration that precedes it. When we address inanimate things, especially if they are supposed to be distant, the voice must rise in height and loudness, as if the speaker were resolved to make them hear him.

Literary Works Featuring Apostrophe
    In ShakespeareanOpens in new window Julius CaesarOpens in new window, Mark Antony uses apostrophe when he turns from the assasins to address Caesar’s corpse:
  • “That I did love thee, Caesar, O,’tis true
    If then thy spirit look upon us now,
    Shall it not grieve thee dearer than thy death
    To see thy Antony making his peace
    Shaking the bloody fingers of thy foes,
    Most noble! In the presence of thy corpse?”
    (Julius Caesar 3.1.194).
  • With the correlation of this illustration, apostrophe consists in amplifying a speech with heightened vocal tone. In the same manner, as observed above, we may presume that CiceroOpens in new window made a fine pronouncement of apostrophe in his Oration for MiloOpens in new window, when, speaking of the death of ClodiusOpens in new window, as thus:

  • O ye judges! It was not by human counsel, nor by any thing less than the immediate care of the immortal gods, that this event has taken place. The very divinities themselves, who beheld that monster fall, seemed to be moved, and to have inflicted their vengeance upon him. I appeal to, I call to witness, you, O ye hills and groves of Alba! you, the demolished Alban stars! ever accounted holy by the Romans, and coёval with our religion, but which Clodius, in his mad fury, having first cut down and deveiled the most sacred groves, had sunk under heaps of common buildings; I appeal to you, I call you to witness, whether your altars, your divinities, your powers, which he had polluted with all kinds of wickedness, did not avenge themselves when this wretch was extirpated? And thou, O holy Jupiter! from the height of thy sacred mount, whose lakes, groves, and boundaries, he had so often contaminated with his detestable impurities; - and you, the other deities, whom he had insulted, at length opened your eyes to punish this enormous offender. By you, by you, and in your sight, was the slow, but the righteous and merited vengeance executed upon him.
  • In pronouncing this passage, it is required that the speaker must raise his voice at I appeal, &c. and, with a force and rapidity bordering on enthusiasm, continue the voice in this pitch till the invocation of JupiterOpens in new window, who, as the supreme being, is supposed to be present, and to be too sacred to be addressed with the same violence as inanimate objects; for which reason the speaker must lower his voice into a solemn monotoneOpens in new window, and continue in his lower tone with increasing force to the end.
Other Examples of Apostrophe
  • O by the newcomer! I have heard
    I hear thee and rejoice
    Cuckoo! Shall I call thee bird
    Or but a wandering voice?
  • — (Williams Wordsworth)
  • When I saw you last, rose, You were only so high How fast time goes!
  • — (Austin Dobson)
    An excerpt from Dryden’s All for Loce: Cleopatra’s address to the serpent, with which she was about to poison:
  • “Welcom, thou kind deceiver,
    Thou best of thieves, who, with an easy key,
    Dost open life, and, unperceived by us,
    Ev’n steal us from ourselves, discharging so
    Death’s dreadful office, better than himself,
    Touching our limbs so gently into slumber,
    That Death stands by, deceiv’d by his own image,
    And thinks himself but sleep”
  • — (Dryden, All for Love)
    In the tragedy of Douglas, Lady Randolph accounting for the loss of her son:
  • “That very night in which my son was born,
    My nurse, the only confident I had,
    Set out with him to reach her sister’s house;
    But nurse nor infant have I ever seen,
    Nor heard of Anna since that fatal hour.
    My murder’d child! had thy fond mother feared
    The loss of thee, she had loud fame defied,
    Despised her father’s rage, her father’s grief,
    And wander’d with thee through the scorning world.”
Further Readings:
John Walker, A Rhetorical Grammar: In which Improprieties in Reading and Speaking are [...] | ApostropheOpens in new window
Alexander Jamieson, A Grammar of Rhetoric and Polite Literature | ApostropheOpens in new window
Theresa Enos, Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition | ApostropheOpens in new window