“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!’
‘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.’
‘Where grey-beard mirth and smiling toil retired
The toiling pleasure sickens into pain.’
‘The shackles of an old love straiten’d him
His honour rooted in dishonor stood,
And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true.’
‘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.’
‘[She] Was calling ‘O Christ, Christ, come quickly’:
The cross to her she call Christ to her, christens her
“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.’