The figure of speech known as an “oxymoron” refers to a pair of terms that contradict each other, but are used together to create a specific and special effect. Poets have been using oxymoron as a literary device for hundreds of years to stimulate humor, range of emotion and philosophical thought.
Oxymorons are used to:
- express emotion
- spur thought
- emphasize complexity
- evoke humor
These four uses are further explained, with examples from literature, below:
Oxymoron as a poetic device can express the range of emotion that is felt in passionate love or hate. Using contradictory terms to express deep emotion illustrates how confusing our feelings can be.
One of the most well known uses of oxymoron is from a passage in Act 1, scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet, where Romeo expresses his conflicting feelings on unrequited love in several oxymoronic phrases.
"Why then, O brawling love, O loving hate, O anything, from nothing first create, O heavy lightness! Serious vanity! Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms, Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health, Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is! This love feel I, that feel no love in this."
The use of oxymoron suggests that something can have two qualities at the same time. This concept spurs philosophical thought, and therefore the Romance poets made use of oxymoron to stimulate meditation.
In William Wordsworth’s poem “The World is Too Much With Us” he uses the contradictory words “sordid boon” to express his dismay in the fact that “we have given our hearts away” by putting too much emphasis on industrial capital and material prosperity and have neglected to allow the wonder of nature to make us better people.
Using oxymoron can focus attention on a specific element and make the reader take notice. When an author uses oxymoron to explain or describe a concept, he draws attention to the fact that there is something complex here to be explored.
John Milton in his poem “Paradise Lost” describes hell as “darkness visible.” Wilfred Owen's "The Send-off" speaks of soldiers being sent to the battlefield who "lined the train with faces grimly gay."
Sometimes oxymoron is used in nonsense poetry to make people laugh.
In this poem by Brian Cleary, hyperbole and oxymoron are used in a silly tale that makes little sense, but is fun to read. The images of a “tall midget” and an “oval square” leave the reader perplexed.
"One tall midget reached up high, Touched the ground above the sky, Tied his loafers, licked his tongue, And told about the bee he stung. He painted, then, an oval square The color of the bald man's hair, And in the painting you could hear What's undetected by the ear."
Debbie McCarson is a former English teacher and school business administrator. Her articles have appeared in "School Librarians’ Journal" and "The Encyclopedia of New Jersey." A South Jersey native, she is a regular contributor to "South Jersey MOM" magazine.