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The Meaning and Usage of Antiphrasis in Poetry

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Centfie writes, reads, and analyzes poems from a psychological POV while acknowldeging her subjective arguments.

This article will take a look at the meaning and usage of the literary concept of antiphrasis.

This article will take a look at the meaning and usage of the literary concept of antiphrasis.

Have you ever read a poem in which a word or phrase makes sense both literally and figuratively despite giving an opposite meaning?

Or rather, you have to "read between the lines" to find the real meaning, rather than you understanding its surface meaning.

This poetic device, and figure of speech, is characterized by speaking or writing the opposite of what you mean—although the actual meaning is obvious—is called antiphrasis.

"Antiphrasis" is derived from Greek and means "opposite word." It's an affirmation of the contrary such that the word is used in contrast to the proper meaning.

Interpreting the text to mean the opposite of what it appears to say, e.g. saying the opposite of "good" to mean someone is good. For example: saying "he's wicked" when you actually mean that he is great.

Or let's consider the contemporary use of G.O.A.T. At first glance, some may think it is an abusive term, when in reality it means "greatest of all time."

The Importance of Antiphrasis

Antiphrasis is often used to exemplify other stylistic devices used in poetry such as sarcasm, irony, euphemism, and litotes (understatement.)

Furthermore, it also creates a comic effect, grasps the attention of the audience by provoking their thoughts, enhances the meaning, and adds to the aesthetic value of a poem.

As in the case of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Juliet tells her mother "I hate him", yet she is secretly planning to marry Romeo. In essence, the use of the word "hate" although actually meaning "love" is antiphrastical in that context.

How to Identify Antiphrasis

It needs attention on the part of the listener or reader to identify when a poet uses this technique:

  1. A poet defines something by what it is not, rather than what it is; implying a negation of the very subject in question.
  2. A word or phrase in the first instance used implies a different meaning when used again.
  3. A word or phrase stands out in contradiction to the sense of the rest of the poem or line it appears in.
  4. When it's necessary to know the context of the opposite phrases used. Separately, you might not get it. Thus, you need to understand under what context the poet uses antiphrasis.

Examples of Antiphrasis in Poetry

Let's look at examples of antiphrasis from famous poets in the literary world such as Robert Frost, Wilfred Owen, Emily Dickinson, W.H. Auden, Pablo Neruda, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Charles Bukowski.

1. "The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost

The title "The Road Not Taken" is an example of antiphrasis because the poem describes the road taken. Also, the roads seem to have multiple meanings, since they refer to actual roads through a forest, and so are representative of a person's choices. The person says the opposite of what they mean, and yet means what they say by taking the road less traveled.

2. "Dulce et Decorum Est" by Wilfred Owen

The poem explains the antiphrasis of this statement "Dulce et decorum est/pro patria mori" in the last line of the poem from Latin meaning "it is sweet and fitting to die for one's country." But the poem actually implies that it is not sweet and fitting. Antiphrasis here creates a strong instance of irony throughout the poem.

3. "Nothing Gold Can Stay" by Robert Frost

In the first line "Nature's first green is gold" one knows that obviously green is not gold, but the poet is referring to the value of gold. You'd expect nothing "green" can stay because we know plants wither, rather than gold. Hence, gold is being referred to as a color, not as a metal, because the metal is long-lasting but flowers are transitory.

4. "The Brain—is wider than the Sky" by Emily Dickinson

Stanza 1 states: "The Brain—is wider than the Sky—/For—put them side by side—/ The one the other will contain." In a literal sense, the sky is wider than the brain, so the poet used the contradictory meaning to create a metaphorical sense of the word "brain."

5. "The Unknown Citizen" by W.H. Auden

The title is antiphrasis because, given what the poem states, and all that the government knows about him, he is "known" rather than unknown. They even know the number of children he has, and that he is married. They also know of his attitude.

6. "I Am Nobody, Who Are You?" by Emily Dickinson

The use of the word "nobody" is an antiphrasis because, on reading the poem, it seems she meant "somebody."

7. "Because I could not stop for Death" by Emily Dickinson

In this poem, antiphrasis creates irony since the phrase "for His Civility" and "toward eternity" in reference to death is the opposite of what we would expect death to be described as.

8. "Alone With Everybody" by Charles Bukowski

The poet is describing a shared human experience, rather than only his own. However, instead of a title reading "Together with Everybody", he uses a contradictory word: "alone." It creates a dramatic effect that makes the reader think deeply about what the poem means.

9. "I Do Not Love You Except Because I Love You" by Pablo Neruda

The emphasis of antiphrasis is on exact words or phrases rather than the situation as evident in these lines:

I love you only because it's you the one I love;/I hate you deeply, and hating you

10. "We Wear the Mask" by Paul Laurence Dunbar

The use of the word smile in this poem after the words expressing sadness and pain is an antiphrasis, since we'd expect a negative life of a frown or tears. But instead, the poet used the word "smile" in contrast to the preceding "torn and bleeding."

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile/And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Sources

  • Baldick, C. (2008). Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms: Oxford University Press.
  • Cuddon, J. A. (2012). A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Greene, R., Cushman, S., Cavanagh, C., Ramazani, J., Rouzer, P., Feinsod, H., ... & Slessarev, A. (Eds.). (2012). The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton University Press.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Centfie

Comments

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on September 15, 2021:

This was very helpful, centfie. I had never heard of “antiphrasis” before. I couldn’t comment when I first read this as it didn’t appear on my feed until someone else left a comment. Nice work.

Centfie (author) from Kenya on September 14, 2021:

Chitrangada Sharan, I appreciate that you found this article informative.

Centfie (author) from Kenya on September 14, 2021:

MsDora, thanks for your comment. I am happy to hear from you.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on September 14, 2021:

Well written and informative article about antiphrasis. Thanks for sharing the meaning with examples.

An interesting and enjoyable read.

Have a good day!

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on September 14, 2021:

Thank you for introducing "antiphrasis" and for explaining its meaning and usage. This is my academic lesson for today, and you've been a good teacher.

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