Poetry is one of the most sublime art forms imaginable.
It combines the written word with music and has a unique ability to capture our imagination like no other medium.
A love sonnet can raise our spirits and remind us of cherished times, while a soliloquy can let us into a character’s deepest and darkest thoughts.
When a poet sings their verses, there is always a strange sense that they are talking to you, the listener. There is a sense of intimacy, an opportunity to dive into another person’s soul and watch the gears of their mind twist and turn.
But, how does poetry do all of this? How does it leave such an effect on the listener?
For one thing, poets tend to reveal personal parts of themselves, the parts that are usually hidden in everyday interactions yet are always lurking beneath the surface.
But, another reason is that poetry has a bevy of tools in its arsenal.
There is alliteration, assonance, imagery, metaphor, rhyme, and onomatopoeia.
And, then you have unique poetic structures, like couplets, stanzas, and antithesis.
That last one, antithesis, is particularly interesting as it factors in so many aspects of our daily lives. Countless quotes and sayings rely on it for effect.
So, let’s take a closer look at it.
What is antithesis?
Antithesis is a tool that pits two opposing ideas against each other, and the result is a contrasting effect that highlights an overarching meaning. Moreover, this contrast is usually aided by parallelism, or parallel structures, which draws the attention of the listener and engages them.
To better understand what that was all about, let’s take a look at a few classic examples.
Those iconic words were spoken by Neil Armstrong when his foot first touched the moon. In fact, they are so iconic that I’m sure you have watched the footage or have heard the recording of Armstrong first uttering these words.
And, if you haven’t watched the footage, I recommend that you do. You can find it on YouTube.
Anyway, one reason this phrase has been immortalized is its use of antithesis.
The two contrasting ideas are “small step for man” and “giant leap for mankind.”
If I were forced to write out exactly what Armstrong meant with his quote, it would be something like this.
Not as eloquent as the original, is it?
So, the use of contrasting elements helps the quote work.
But, you should also notice the use of parallelism. Both parts of the quote are of equal length, use about the same number of words, and contain the same parts of speech.
When using parallelism, you are replicating the same exact sentence structure. This just highlights the contrasting nature of the ideas contained in these sentences.
A closer look at the word “antithesis” itself
“Antithesis” comes from the Greek “antithenai,” which means to oppose.
As a result, in addition to referring to a literary device, “antithesis” also means that something is the opposite of something else.
For instance, you can say that “the antithesis of love isn’t hate; it’s indifference.”
More examples of antithesis the literary device
To really get a feel for antithesis and to see how common it is in everyday life, here are a few common sayings and expressions that rely on this literary device.
The above quote is from Alexander Pope. It reminds us that people will always make mistakes, but only the best of us will find the strength to forgive and let go.
This is the famous line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It is taken from a soliloquy by the main character as he contemplates his next move.
Interestingly, the very next lines, the ones that explain what Hamlet meant by “to be or not to be” also use antithesis. Here they are.
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune Or to take arms against a sea of trouble.
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of trouble.
However, the parallelism in this latter example is not as clear-cut as the earlier phrase.
Anyone who is a DC fan knows that the above phrase is from the oath of the Green Lanterns. It tells us that a Green Lantern’s duty is to fight evil during the best of times and the worst of times.
Patrick Henry, the famous American Patriot, uttered the above words during a speech he gave, highlighting the main objective behind the American Revolution and explaining the lengths they were willing to go to.
By now, I hope you see how common antithesis is.
Can antithesis be used without parallelism?
The answer is yes, but its effect becomes much less potent. It’s like having a boat with a strong motor, but then you shut off the motor and hope the current will be strong enough to take you where you need to go.
To see how big of a difference parallelism plays, let’s take a look at an example that doesn’t use parallel structures.
The Temptations have a song called “My Girl.” There’s a line in it that goes like this.
You can clearly see that there are two opposing ideas here being presented in conjunction.
The artist is letting us know that even during the coldest of times, his girl keeps him warm.
However, in my humble opinion, the line doesn’t pop. It doesn’t stand out and demand to be memorable.
A big reason for this is that it comes across as any other line that presents two contrasting ideas.
So, the bottom line is if you want to use antithesis, then try to use parallelism as well.
Since we’re on the subject of contrasting ideas, it is worth taking a look at a few other literary devices that are usually confused with antithesis.
When you juxtapose two things, you place them next to each other to highlight either their similarities or their differences. Hence, whereas antithesis is always about contrast and difference, juxtaposition can be about difference, but it can also be about similarities. Put differently, every time you use antithesis, you are juxtaposing two opposing ideas, but every juxtaposition does not have to be an antithesis.
Oxymoron is when you combine two opposing and contradictory words to bring out a new, and sometimes unexpected, meaning.
For example, we describe zombies as the “living dead,” which illustrates their contradictory nature.
On the one hand, these are supposedly decaying corpses that belong six feet under. On the other hand, they are alive in every sense of the word.
They feed, they move around, and some of them can think depending on which movie you are watching.
We also describe parting as “sweet sorrow.”
You get the picture.
So, how is this different from antithesis?
First of all, antithesis uses more than a single word. It relies on parallel phrases, remember?
Also, antithesis combines two opposing yet not necessarily contradictory ideas with each other. So, while words in an oxymoron might seem like they shouldn’t belong together, the same cannot be said of antithesis.
Hey fellow Linguaholics! It’s me, Marcel. I am the proud owner of linguaholic.com. Languages have always been my passion and I have studied Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Sinology at the University of Zurich. It is my utmost pleasure to share with all of you guys what I know about languages and linguistics in general.