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.