Oxymoron

“Oxymoron: (Greek ‘pointedly foolish’) A figure of speech which combines incongruous and apparently contradictory words and meanings for special effect. As in Lamb’s celebrated remark: ‘I like a smuggler. He is the only honest thief.’

It is a common device, closely related to antithesis and paradox (qq.v), especially in poetry, and is of considerable antiquity. There are many splendid instances in English poetry. It was particularly popular in the late 16th century and during the 17th. A famous example occurs in Romeo and Juliet, when Romeo jests about love:

“Here’s much to do with hate, but more with love.

Why then, O brawling love! O loving hate!

O anything! of nothing first create!

O heavy lightness! serious vanity!

Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms!’

Other well-known examples are Milton’s description of hell in Paradise Lost:

‘No light, but rather darkness visible.’

And Pope’s reference to man in Essay on Man:

‘Plac’d on this isthmus of a middle state,

A being darkly wise, and rudely great.’

Goldsmith has some striking ones in The Deserted Village:

 ‘Where grey-beard mirth and smiling toil retired

The toiling pleasure sickens into pain.’

A particularly well-known example comes in Tennyson’s Lancelot and Elaine:

‘The shackles of an old love straiten’d him

His honour rooted in dishonor stood,

And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true.’

Almost as well known are these lines in Francis Thompson’s The Hound of Heaven:

‘I tempted all His servitors, but to find

My own betrayal in their constance,

In faith to him their fickleness to me,

Their traitorous trueness, and their loyal deceit.’

And a very arresting one in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s The Wreck of the Deutschland:

‘[She] Was calling ‘O Christ, Christ, come quickly’:

The cross to her she call Christ to her, christens her

wild-worse Best.’

Probably the most famous instance of a sustained oxymoron is Sir Thomas Wyatt’s version of Petrarch’s 134th sonnet, which begins:

“I find no peace, and all my war is done;

I fear and hope, I burn and freeze like ice;

I flee above the wind, yet can I not arise;

And nought I have and all the world I season.’

Other English poets who have used the figure extensively are Keats and Crashaw. The Italian Marino and the Spaniard Gongora also had a predilection for it.”

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