Bathos: Descent into mundane or sentimental language by a writer who is striving for the noble and elevated. Bathos is a stylistic anticlimax, the unintended (and therefore ridiculous) result of an unsuccessful attempt to achieve pathos or the sublime. English neoclassical poet and critic Alexander Pope gave prominence to the term in an essay entitled “Peri Bathous [On Bathos]: Of the Art of Sinking in Poetry” (1728), in which he mocked much of the poetry of his time.
EXAMPLES: Pope’s generally lofty, philosophical poem entitled “An Essay on Man” (1733) itself sinks into bathos in the following lines:
The lamb thy riot dooms to bleed today,
Had he thy reason, would he skip and play?
Pleased to the last, he crops his flowery food,
And licks the hand just raised to shed his blood… .
The following passage from Robert James Waller’s novel The Bridges of Madison County (1992), in which itinerant photographer Robert Kincaid tries to control his attraction to a married woman, is a modern example of bathos:
The old ways struggling against all that is learned, struggling against the propriety drummed in by centuries of culture, the hard rules of civilized man. He tried to think of something else, photography or the road or covered bridges. Anything but how she looked just now.
But he failed and wondered again how it would feel to touch her skin, to put his belly against hers. The questions eternal, and always the same. The goddamned old ways, fighting toward the surface. He pounded them back, pushed them down, lit a Camel, and breathed deeply.
Also bathetic is the anonymous poem “The Handwriting on the Wall,” widely circulated as an email “forward.” In the poem, a “weary mother,” informed that her son has written in crayon on the wall, “rant[s] and rave[s] / About the expensive wallpaper and how she had saved” — only to find, moments later, that “The message she read pierced her soul with a dart. / It said ’I love Mommy,’ surrounded by a heart.”