The Poet Master

Transfiguration is some of the most complex and dangerous magic you will learn at Hogwarts. Anyone messing around in my class will leave and not come back. You have been warned.
– Minerva McGonnagall to 1st year Gryffindors, 1991

You are here to learn the subtle science and exact art of potions-making. As there is little foolish wand-waving here, many of you will hardly believe this is magic. I don’t expect you will really understand the beauty of the softly simmering cauldron with its shimmering fumes, the delicate power of liquids that creep through human veins, bewitching the mind, ensnaring the senses. . . . I can teach you how to bottle fame, brew glory, even stopper death – if you aren’t as big a bunch of dunderheads as I usually have to teach.
– Severus Snape, to 1st year Gryffindors and Slytherins, 1991

Minerva McGonnagall and Severus Snape are my favorite Heads of House, and their introductions to their first year students are remarkably telling.

McGonnagall’s method of communicating is stern, no-nonsense, straightforward, and to the point. In her opening remarks, there are no introductory phrases, no subordination, no compound sentences. The only coordination she uses serves to connect a couple of adjectives or a couple of verbs.

Lost yet? I hope not because we are about to make a short leap into explication…


Severus Snape, on the other hand, uses a variety of rhetorical devices in his introduction – from complex and periodic sentences to alliteration, assonance, consonance, and even rhythm. The man could be a rhetorician or a poet were he not a Potions Master.

Ironically, when Snape tries to rhyme, it comes out doggerel:

Danger lies before you, while safety lies behind,
Two of us will help you, whichever you would find,
One among us seven will let you move ahead,
Another will transport the drinker back instead…

But when, unrhymingly, he illustrates his devotion to Potions, something different happens. He begins to use poetic devices far more sophisticated than mere mechanical rhyme.

Notice that in his introduction to Potions, there is a near constant stream of l and s sounds flowing through the passage – a combination of “liquid” and “sibilant” sounds, emulating the liquids being brewed in Potions and the simmering sound of the heat used to brew them.

Snape’s Liquids: learn, subtle, little, will, hardly, believe, really, softly, cauldron, delicate, liquids, bottle, glory, usually

Initial (or nearly-initial) Sibilants (in substantive words): subtle, science, softly, simmering, ensnaring, stopper

Since liquids – literal, not phonetic ones – are the subject of this speech, it is rather appropriate that phonetic liquids fall into varying positions in the words, flowing over Snape’s syllabic boundaries, just as literal liquids flow over physical boundaries. The sibilants, on the other hand, tend to alliterate – i.e. fall at the beginnings of words.

There are also a good number of “stop” sounds in this passage (p, t, k, b, d, g). It may be a bit of a stretch, but thematically, stops phonetically parallel the “stopper” Snape claims he can put in death – one that he literally puts in place to arrest Dumbledore’s inevitable death shortly before HBP begins.

Initial Stops (in substantive words):
b/p words: believe, bewitching, bottle, brew, big, bunch, Potions-making, power
g/k words: glory, cauldron, creep
d/t words: delicate, death, dunderheads, teach

The reason I put certain stops together (such as b/p) is that you use the same shape of your mouth to form the sounds. Try it, and determine what you do differently to make the two consonants in these pairs sound different.


Of course, sound can serve non-sense. Therefore, it is the sense of Snape’s words that matters most. And what he tells his students in this short passage is that Potions-making requires a subtle mind, precision, patience, and some measure of creativity. It is not big, brash, bold. It requires brains, not brawn.

In this mixed Potions class of Gryffindors and Slytherins, it fits less with the Gryffindor sensibility and possibly more with his own Slytherin preferences. But he apparently has little hope even for the Slytherins in his class, lumping Gryffs and Slythies alike into the probable category of “dunderheads.”
(One wonders what he tells his Ravenclaws.)

Essentially, he is saying that much benefit can come to the student who perfects this art/science – as he did (and as Harry’s mother did).

In her book Bring forth the best robes: a spiritual understanding of Severus Snape, Logospilgrim provides a mystical reading of this passage, taking it apart as a poetic description of deep prayer. I don’t expect that Snape is consciously describing prayer. But the worshipful language he uses about Potions-making certainly makes logospilgrim’s interpretation worth checking out.

6 responses to “The Poet Master

  1. Very interesting take on his words there. I actually read that chapter last night and did think there was quite a difference between McGonagall’s opening statements to the students, and Snape’s. Snape is much more loquacious and puts a great deal of thought behind what he has to say. I think he was referring to everyone in the class when he said “dunderheads.”

    • I wouldn’t call it “loquacious,” but he does have more to say than McGonnagall. ;)

      He does seem to have planned this speech at word level, so I would suggest that he probably wrote it out and memorized it, and then used it year after year with his new students.

  2. I think Snape would use the “dunderhead” line in a class with Ravenclaws as well. Harry observes that the effect of the speech on Hermione is that she is eager to begin demonstrating that she is NOT a dunderhead. I think this is the intended effect pf the line, and would probably work even better on the Ravenclaws.

    • This is probably true. The Ravenclaws would become very eager to prove their brains.

      The line also is effective because it is so different in tone and rhythm from the rest of the passage. There’s little poetry in the sounds – though ironically, it has the most consistent rhythm in the entire passage.

      The line “as big a bunch of dunderheads,” is in Iambic Tetrameter – which would tend to force the point home by its rhythmic beat.

  3. Harry says that he does end up criticizing everyone but Draco– this probably includes the other Slytherins. I think that makes it all the more likely that “dunderheads” referred to everyone (and possibly he was hoping to get a similar reaction to Hermione’s from his ambitious Snakelets?)

    You know, JKR’s often praised for her plot construction, and derided for her language (as if a young boy’s thoughts are going to be overly poetic). but it’s interesting to show what she can do with words if she puts her mind to it. :)

    I’d noticed the sibilants before, but the “liquid” sounds are a new concept for me. That’s really interesting to learn…it makes the whole speech sound like a hissing and bubbling cauldron.
    Ahhhh, Snape…potions and poetry…what’s not to love? *sigh*

    I do wonder, though, if the language really retains that quality after “stopper death,” when he makes the comment about dunderheads. I know next to nothing about phonetics, but the words “dunderheads” and “teach” (and even “big” and “bunch”) seem to be pretty harsh sounds in comparison to the rest of the speech, and they’re placed so close to one another that a lot of that quiet, “hissing” quality the rest of the speech has seems to disappear, and that the poetry and sound changes there as much as the subject does.

    LOL, I hope this makes sense. I feel like it’s only going to make sense in my mind. XD

    • Perceptive comments, Iggy. Yes, motivating his little Snakelets would be on his mind, I think.

      I agree that JKR can really come through with language when she puts her mind to it. And in my mind, the fact that she puts so much work into this little paragraph shows how significant she finds this character. (There’s no Snape-shaped hole in the Rowling universe!).

      Glad you enjoyed learning about the “liquids,” btw. :)

      Very perceptive comment about the shift in tone and language after the “stopper death” line. I answered above in response to arithmancer’s comment. But there is a definite shift at this point.

      The focus of the sentence (“as big a bunch of dunderheads”) consists almost entirely of “stop” words, btw. And it’s in a single meter.

      JKR definitely worked on this. And so, clearly, did Snape. ;)

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