Bathos is an insincere and/or excessively sentimental demonstration of pathos. The adjective is bathetic.
The term bathos may also refer to an abrupt and often ludicrous transition in style from the elevated to the ordinary.
As a critical term, bathos was first used in English by poet Alexander Pope in his satirical essay "On Bathos: Of the Art of Sinking in Poetry" (1727). In the essay, Pope solemnly assures his readers that he intends "to lead them as it were by the hand… the gentle downhill way to Bathos; the bottom, the end, the central point, the non plus ultra of true modern poesy."
From the Greek, "depth."
Examples and Observations
- "Bathos… is a negative term used when writers have tried so hard to make their readers cry-loading misery on sadness-that their work seems contrived, silly, and unintentionally funny. Soap opera has that effect when you read a synopsis of all the complexities that beset people in a single episode."
(Jerome Stern, Making Shapely Fiction. W.W. Norton, 2000)
- "True bathos requires a slight interval between the sublime and the ridiculous."
(Christopher Hitchens, review of Flaubert's unfinished novel, Bouvard et Pécuchet. The New York Times, January 22, 2006)
- "The Tay Bridge Disaster" by William McGonagall
"It must have been an awful sight,
To witness in the dusky moonlight,
While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray,
Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay,
Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay,
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed."
("Knight of the White Elephant of Burmah" William McGonagall, "The Tay Bridge Disaster," 1880)
"If it were known… that William McGonagall intended his bathetic doggerel 'The Tay Bridge Disaster' to be a parody of sentimental poetry-i.e. to be deliberately bad and exaggerated-the work might be reassessed as witty and amusing. The argument might be that only when we know what kind of work it is intended to be, can we evaluate."
(Patricia Waugh, Literary Theory And Criticism: An Oxford Guide. Oxford University Press, 2006)
- Richard Nixon's Checkers speech
"I should say this-that Pat doesn't have a mink coat. But she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat. And I always tell her that she'd look good in anything.
"One other thing I probably should tell you because if we don't they'll probably be saying this about me too. We did get something-a gift-after the election. A man down in Texas heard Pat on the radio mention the fact that our two youngsters would like to have a dog. And, believe it or not, the day before we left on this campaign trip we got a message from Union Station in Baltimore saying they had a package for us. We went down to get it. You know what it was?
"It was a little cocker spaniel dog in a crate that he'd sent all the way from Texas. Black and white spotted. And our little girl-Tricia, the six-year-old-named it Checkers. And you know, the kids, like all kids, love the dog, and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we're gonna keep it."
(Richard M. Nixon, "Checkers Speech," September 23, 1952)
- Sentimentality and gratuitous moralizing
"Bathos presents a victim in maudlin, sentimental, and melodramatic action… Bathos presents gratuitous moralizing, but there is nothing to learn and no dimension. It was popular at the height (some would say the depth) of Victoriana but is out of fashion and repellent to modern audiences. Bathos still exists in the melodramatic potboiler, but for the most part, modern readers don't want a story 'milked' or moralized. They want it told with restraint, clarity, and artistry, and they want to make their own judgment and interpretation."
(Paula LaRocque, The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well. Marion Street Press, 2003)
- The Lighter Side of Bathos: Bad Verse
"O Moon, when I gaze on thy beautiful face,
Careering along through the boundaries of space,
The thought has often come into my mind
If I shall ever see thy glorious behind."
(A Housemaid Poet, quoted by D.B. Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee in The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse, 1930)