P7: Figurative Language 3: Paradox, Overstatement, Understatement, Irony

I. Paradox--an apparent contradiction that is nevertheless somehow true.
A. In a paradoxical statement, the contradiction usually stems from one of the words being used figuratively or with more than one denotation.
B. Value is in the shock; its seeming impossibility startles the reader into attention and thus, by the fact of its apparent absurdity, it underscores the truth of what is being said.
Application: "Much madness is divinest sense" by Emily Dickenson
1. This poem presents the two sides of a paradoxical proposition: that insanity is good sense, and that good sense is insane. How do the concepts implied by the words "discerning" (2) and "majority" (4) provide the resolution of this paradox? Discussion.
2. How do we know that the speaker does not believe that the majority is correct? How do the last five lines extend the subject beyond a contrast between sanity and insanity? Discussion.
II. Overstatement and Understatement
A. Overstatement, Understatement, and Verbal Irony form a continuous series: saying more, saying less, saying the opposite of what one really means
B. Overstatement (Hyperbole)--exaggeration (in service of truth)
1. Not the same as fish story (bald-, bold-, or bare-faced lie); although appears true, don't expect to be believed literally
2. Used with a variety of effects

a. humorous or grave

b. fanciful or restrained

c. convincing or unconvincing

3. Examples and degrees
a. Tennyson says of his eagle (659) "Close to the sun in lonely lands," appears to be true though we know it isn't

b. Wordsworth's daffodils "stretched in never-ending line," a visual experience not literally true.

c. Frost's "I shall be telling this with a sigh / Somewhere ages and ages hence" in "Road Not Taken" (748) is so subtle we barely notice it

d. But unskillfully used overstatement sounds strained and ridiculous, as Gertrude in Hamlet says of the player-Queen's speech: The lady doth protest too much."

********** Paradox: one can emphasize a truth by **********

********** either overstating or understating it **********

C. Understatement--saying less than what one means--may exist in what one says or merely in how one says it
1. Plate piled with food: this seems a good bite--less than truth
2. Artemus Ward: hand held in fire 1/2 hour "a sensation excessive and disagreeable warmth"--true but stated with less force than the situation might seem to warrant
Application: "The Sun Rising" John Donne
1. Vocabulary:

offices (8): duties; their work

alchemy (24): a seemingly magical power or process of transmuting

2. As precisely as possible, identify the time of day and the locale. What three "persons" does the poem involve? Discussion.
3. What is the speaker's attitude toward the sun in stanzas 1 and 2? How and why does it change in stanza 3? Discussion.
4. Does the speaker understate or overstate the actual qualities of the sun? Point out specific examples. Identify the overstatements in lines 9-10, 13, 15, 16-20, 21-24, 29-30. Discussion.
5. Line 17 introduces a geographical image referring to the East and West Indies, sources respectively of spices and gold. What relationship between lovers and the rest of the world is expressed in lines 15-22? Discussion.
6. Who is actually the intended listener for this extended apostrophe? What is the speaker's purpose? What is the poem's purpose? Discussion.
Application 2: "Incident" Countee Cullen
1. What accounts for the effectiveness of the last stanza? Comment of the title. Is it in key with the meaning of the poem? Discussion.
III. Irony has meanings that extend beyond its use merely as a figure of speech
A. Verbal Irony--saying the opposite of what one means
1. Distinction from satire and sarcasm (both of these indicate ridicule)
a. Sarcasm
(1) used on colloquial level; bitter or cutting speech intended to wound the feelings (derived from Greek word for "to tear the flesh")

(2) bully--cruel, merely to hurt

b. Satire
(1) a more formal term, usually applied to written literature rather than to speech and ordinarily implying a higher motive: ridicule of human folly or vice for the purpose bringing about reform and to keep others from folly or vice

(2) surgeon--cruel and kind at same time

c. Irony
(1) literary device used in service of sarcasm or satire

(2) but not limited to those two expressions

2. Though verbal irony always implies the opposite of what is said, it has many gradations and only in its simplest form does it mean only the opposite--examples from Houseman's "Terrence, This Is Stupid Stuff"
a. Just the opposite: In "Pretty friendship 'tis to rhyme / Your friends to death before their time" (11-12), we can substitute the literal sorry for the ironic "pretty" with little or no loss of meaning
b More complex: But concerning the pleasures of drunkenness in "And down in lovely muck I've lain / Happy til I woke again" (35-36), we cannot substitute loathesome for "lovely" without considerable loss of meaning
3. When reading irony, the risk of misinterpretation is greater than with any other trope
a. when metaphor is misread, we are confused or we get less than the full meaning of the poem
b. when irony is misread, we go in the opposite direction, we believe just the opposite of what the poet intended
c. The poet must convey ironic intent through clues and the reader must be sensitive enough to recognize this
d. Yet, irony is most delightful and most effective when it is at its subtlest; therefore, we have Ferlingetti's poetic tightrope walker, trying to make irony clear enough to be recognized, yet subtle enough to create maximum effect ("Constantly risking adsurdity," page 935).
Application.: "Barbie Doll," Marge Piercy
1. In what ways is the girl described in this poem different from a Barbie doll? Discuss the poem's contrast of the living girl, a human being with intelligence and healthy appetites, and the doll, an inanimate object.  Discussion
2 The poem contains a surprising but apt simile: "Her good nature wore out like a fan belt" (15-16). Why is the image of the fan belt appropriate here?  Discussion
3 Why does the speaker mention the girl's "strong arms and back" (8) and her "manual dexterity' (9)? How do these qualities contribute to her fate?  Discussion
4 Discuss the verbal irony in the phrase "the magic of puberty" (5) and in the last three lines. What is the target of this satire?      Discussion
While irony in general implies some sort of discrepancy or incongruity and the most obvious form is verbal irony in which the discrepancy is between what is said and what is meant, it manifests itself in other forms which usually are more effective for the poet
B. Dramatic Irony--a discrepancy between what the speaker says and what the author means
1. The speaker's words may be straightforward,
2. But the author indicates to the reader ideas or attitudes quite opposed to those the speaker voices
3. This can convey attitudes or illuminate character
a. author indirectly commenting on the value of the idea expressed
b. may also be indicating the nature of person the speaker is
Application: William Blake, "The Chimney Sweeper"
1 In the eighteenth century small boys, sometimes no more than four or five years old, were employed to climb up the narrow chimney flues and clean them, collecting the soot in bags. Such boys, sometimes sold to the master sweepers by their parents, were miserably treated by their masters and often suffered disease and physical deformity. Characterize the boy who speaks in this poem. How do his and the poet's attitudes toward his lot in life differ? How, especially, are the meanings of the poet and the speaker different in lines 3, 7-8, 24? Discussion.
2. The dream in lines 11-20, besides being a happy dream, can be interpreted allegorically. Point out possible significances of the sweepers' being "locked up in coffins of black" (12) and the Angel's releasing them with a bright key to play upon green plains.    Discussion
C. Irony of Situation--the discrepancy between circumstances and what seems appropriate, or between expectation and reality.
1. O. Henry's "The Gift of the Maji"--gold watch for comb; hair for watch fob
2. King Midas--golden touch
3. Cooleridge's "The Ancient Mariner"--"Water, water everywhere," but not a "drop to drink."
D. Dramatic Irony and Irony of Situation are powerful poetic devices because
1. like symbolism they are able to suggest meanings without stating them
2. they, along with paradox, can function as safeguards against sentimentality (require careful critical reading)
Application: "Ozymandias" by Percy Bysshe Shelly
1. "Survive" (7) is a transitive verb with "hand" and "heart" as direct objects. Whose hand? Whose heart? What figure of speech is exemplified in "hand" and "heart"? Discussion
2. Characterize Ozymandias. Discussion
3. Ozymandias was an ancient Egyptian tyrant. This poem was first published in 1817. Of what is 0zymandias a symbol? What contemporary reference might the poem have had in Shelley's time?   Discussion
4. What is the theme of the poem and how is it "stated"?   Discussion