Night after night have I sung of him, though I knew him not: night after night have I told his story to the stars, and now I see him. His hair is as dark as the hyacinth-blossom, and his lips are red as the rose of his desire; but passion has made his face like pale ivory, and sorrow has set her seal upon his brow.

Oscar Wilde, The Nightingale and the Rose (1888)

There are a number of questions I would like to ask about this short extract; for example, were dark purple hyacinths common in late 19th century England? When is ivory never pale? But these questions are not strictly related to the English language.

Instead my main focus is the literary device used by Wilde when he inverted the subject with the auxiliary verb in the affirmative phrases (...have I sung of him. …have I told his story…) and the following negative clause, I knew him not, instead of “I did not know him”.

I would like to know what these poetical devices are called, and if they ever represented natural speech in 19th century England.

  • 1
    As a side question, how do we know what was "natural" speech in the 19th century (or earlier)? Except perhaps what was documented by linguists (such as the fictional Henry Higgins), the rest is all stylized for poetry, novelization, oratory, etc. Also, art imitates life, and while Wilde wrote in an exaggerated way to entertain his audiences, perhaps his audiences started to repeat the most memorable bits. Consider how many of Shakespeare's neologisms survive as regular English vocabulary.
    – Andrew
    Aug 2, 2017 at 19:51
  • 2
    If I were to say "...made his face like ivory," you might think I'm referring texture, not color. But when I say, "...like pale ivory," you more readily conclude that color is an integral part of my metaphor.
    – J.R.
    Aug 2, 2017 at 19:55
  • @J.R. But "made his face look like ivory" refers to its colour :)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 2, 2017 at 19:58
  • 2
    Placing something other than the subject before the verb for emphasis is more common in German than Engish---which suggests to me it could have been common in older versions of English also, and only become rare in Modern English. With poets continuing to use it either for meter or rhyme or simply to sound old-fashioned.
    – The Photon
    Aug 2, 2017 at 21:02
  • 1
    @Mari-LouA I have no preference. I just think it's an interesting question, and I don't know enough to answer your actual question. :)
    – Andrew
    Aug 2, 2017 at 21:20

1 Answer 1


Inverting the subject and verb is not unusual in poetry. It is usually just called "inversion," but its technical name is "anastrophe." Sometimes it is prompted by considerations of scansion, but really it is for poetic effect. Other inversions are common too.

Here is Yeats' The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,

And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;

Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,

And live alone in the bee-loud glade.


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