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The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms

Chris Baldick


An abrupt lapse from growing intensity to triviality in any passage of dramatic, narrative, or descriptive writing, with the effect of disappointed expectation or deflated suspense. Where the effect is unintentionally feeble or ridiculous it is known as bathos; but anticlimactic descent from the sublime to the ludicrous can also be used deliberately for comic effect. Byron employs comic anticlimax repeatedly in Don Juan, as in these lines from Canto II (1819), which describe the survivors of a shipwreck:

  • Though every wave roll'd menacing to fill,
  • And present peril all before surpass'd,
  • They grieved for those who perished with the cutter
  • And also for the biscuit‐casks and butter.
The device is an important feature of W. H. Auden's verse style, used less for comic effect than as part of a deflating realism of tone.