“Alexander Hamilton” Literary Devices

For whatever reason, the internet gods have decided to bless me with a bunch of traffic for my post from last August, Hamilton and Literary Terms.  I’m kind of dumbfounded over this sudden uptick in interest for a post that was kind of a throwaway exercise that I did because I was having fun with something I was really into at the time and what I was working on for my classes.  When I reflected on the post, I figured it was rather incomplete, since it only offered a few examples of a handful of literary devices in the musical Hamilton.  I knew there were more devices that could have been addressed, but I limited myself just to the ones that the curriculum at my school focused on for tenth grade.

Anyway, I’ve been playing around with that idea and am thinking it might be possible to catalog the literary devices used in various songs in Hamilton.  I’m assuming that most of the traffic I’m seeing is from people looking for examples of literary devices in Hamilton lyrics for their lesson plans, so why not offer up some more resources.  I can’t make any guarantee of quality beyond the fact that I am an English teacher and I have more than passing familiarity with the Hamilton soundtrack.  Still, I’m not paid to do any of this stuff, so remember it’s a labor of love.

The major challenge I’m considering with this project is how to annotate the lyrics themselves.  I think that because the text’s primary format is as a stage musical and a soundtrack, reprinting the lyrics in full shouldn’t be a significant problem, but figuring out a readable system for noting different examples of literary devices will be… a challenge.

Still, we’ll see how it goes.

“Alexander Hamilton”

How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore
And a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten
spot in the Caribbean by Providence impoverished,
In squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

5 The ten-dollar Founding Father without a father
Got a lot farther by working a lot harder
By being a lot smarter, by being a self-starter
By fourteen, they placed him in charge of a trading charter.

And every day while slaves were being slaughtered and carted away
10 Across the waves, he struggled and kept his guard up.
Inside, he was longing for something to be a part of.
The brother was ready to beg, steal, borrow, or barter.

Then a hurricane came, and devastation reigned.
Our man saw his future drip, dripping down the drain.
15 Put a pencil to his temple, connected it to his brain,
And he wrote his first refrain, a testament to his pain.

Well, the word got around, they said, “This kid is insane, man!”
Took up a collection just to send him to the mainland.
Get your education, don’t forget from whence you came,
20 And the world is gonna know your name.
What’s your name, man?

Alexander Hamilton,
My name is Alexander Hamilton,
And there’s a million things I haven’t done,
25 But just you wait, just you wait.

When he was ten his father split, full of it, debt-ridden
Two years later, see Alex and his mother bed-ridden
Half-dead sittin’ in their own sick, the scent thick.

And Alex got better, but his mother went quick.

30 Moved in with a cousin, the cousin committed suicide,
Left him with nothin’ but ruined pride, something new inside,
A voice saying, “Alex, you gotta fend for yourself.”

He started retreatin’ and readin’ every treatise on the shelf.

There would have been nothin’ left to do for someone less astute.
35 He woulda been dead or destitute without a cent of restitution.
Started workin’, clerkin’ for his late mother’s landlord,
Tradin’ sugar cane and rum and all the things he can’t afford.
Scammin’ for every book he can get his hands on,
Plannin’ for the future see him now as he stands on
40 The bow of a ship headed for a new land.
In New York you can be a new man!

In New York you can be a new man. (Just you wait)
In New York you can be a new man. (Just you wait)
In New York you can be a new man.
45 In New York (New York)
Just you wait!

Alexander Hamilton,

We are waiting in the wings for you.

You could never back down.
50 You never learned to take your time.

Oh, Alexander Hamilton,

When America sings for you,
Will they know what you overcame?
Will they know you rewrote your game?
55 The world will never be the same. Oh,

The ship is in the harbor now!
See if you can spot him.

Another immigrant comin’ up from the bottom.

His enemies destroyed his rep; America forgot him.

60 We fought with him.

Me, I died for him.

Me, I trusted him.

Me, I loved him.

And me, I’m the damn fool that shot him.

65 There’s a million things I haven’t done,
But just you wait.

What’s your name, man?

Alexander Hamilton!

Literary Devices

The format for this section will begin with a line reference followed by a listing of examples from the line with any potentially necessary explanation of the devices themselves.

5. allusion – “ten dollar,” reference to Hamilton’s place on contemporary American currency
13. personification – “devastation reigned”
14. metaphor – “future drip, dripping down the drain”
15. metaphor – “connected it to his brain”
19. apostrophe? – Burr switches the subject of his address from the audience to Hamilton himself
20. synecdoche – “the world is gonna know your name,” world representing its human inhabitants
24-5. hyperbole – “there’s a million things I haven’t done / But just you wait, just you wait,” Hamilton does a lot, but he won’t do “a million things”
26. epithet – “debt-ridden” the construction of this line feels similar to epithets found in Anglo-Saxon poems like “Beowulf” (cf. 15, “the Lord, in requital, / Wielder of Glory”)
28. metonymy – “sittin’ in their own sick,” Sick stands in for filth associated with illness like vomit
52. personification – “America sings”
59. personification – “America forgot”

Sound Devices

The tightness of the internal rhymes and other sound devices present a unique challenge in annotation.  What I’ve done here is color coded examples of rhyme, assonance, and consonance to give a visual representation of how the sounds interlock in the lyrics in the first verse of the song.  You can see that assonance is the most common element here, since so much of the straight and slant rhymes of the lyrics depend on coupling similar syllable sounds in much longer words.

Rhyme

How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore
And a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten
spot in the Caribbean by Providence impoverished,
In squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

Assonance

How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore
And a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten
spot in the Caribbean by Providence impoverished,
In squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

Consonance

How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore
And a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten
spot in the Caribbean by Providence impoverished,
In squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

I’m a little rusty on the more advanced literary devices, so I’m reiterating that this may be an imperfect analysis.  If you see anything that you think I missed, feel free to let me know and I’ll see about getting this updated.  Depending on the response, I may continue this project to look at more of the songs from Hamilton, especially since there are a lot of interesting bits strewn about that don’t appear in the introduction.

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