Antithesis—says the oldest surviving Latin book on rhetoric, Ad Herennium—“occurs when the style is built upon contraries… Embellishing our style by means of this figure,” it goes on, “we shall be able to give it impressiveness and distinction.” Needless to say, each of the 10 examples below—carefully chosen from some of the greatest works of poetry ever written—can be described in these terms. So much so, in fact, that it would be difficult for you not to remember at least two or three of them. That is, unless they have been already engraved in your memory.
Examples of Antithesis in Poetry
#1. Book of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 (~ 300 BC)
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
2 a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot;
3 a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build;
4 a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance;
5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing;
6 a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away;
7 a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak;
8 a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
The first eight verses of Ecclesiastes 3 are, quite possibly, the best demonstration of the emphasizing power of antithesis. The only point this passage is trying to make is already stated explicitly in the first verse: everything has its time. However, it is the 14 antithetical relations which follow (reinforced through anaphora) that call attention to this fact with such a poetic force that makes this one of the most memorable passages from the Bible. In “The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock,” T. S. Eliot alludes to it in the verses beginning with this one: “There will be time to murder and create…”
#2. Petrarch, The Canzoniere CXXXIV (1374)
I find no peace, and I am not at war,
I fear and hope, and burn and I am ice;
I fly above the heavens, and lie on earth,
and I grasp nothing, and embrace the world.
One keeps me jailed who neither locks nor opens,
nor keeps me for her own nor frees the noose;
Love does not kill, nor does he loose my chains;
he wants me lifeless but won’t loosen me.
I see with no eyes, shout without a tongue;
I yearn to perish, and I beg for help;
I hate myself and love somebody else.
I thrive on pain and laugh with all my tears;
I dislike death as much as I do life:
because of you, lady, I am this way. (Tr. Mark Musa)
It would be difficult to overestimate the impact Petrarch’s Canzoniere had on the outlooks and worldviews of the generations of poets born after its publication. This, its most regularly translated sonnet, is widely considered to have been the poem which introduced them to “the stylistic convention of the antithesis” and the power it possesses to capture “the contradictory torments felt by the poet in love.” (Marc Bizer) As you can see above, antithesis can sometimes naturally evolve into an even more powerful trope: the oxymoron (“I see with no eyes, shout without a tongue”).
#3. William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet I.5.152-153 (1597)
My only love sprung from my only hate!
Too early seen unknown, and known too late!
These are the words the devastated Juliet utters when she finds out that Romeo is a member of the Montague family. Shakespeare uses two antithetical verses to portray her agony and torment. Her only love (Romeo) has sprung from her only hate (the Montagues). Moreover, in the mind of Juliet, that only happened because she had seen him before she learned that he was a Montague, and found out his identity only after falling in love with him.
#4. John Milton, Paradise Lost IV.296-299 (1674)
Not equal, as their sex not equal seemed;
For contemplation he and valour formed,
For softness she and sweet attractive grace;
He for God only, she for God in him.
Just like William Shakespeare, John Milton may have been a poet for all ages, but he was also a man of his time (yes, that’s an example of antithesis there!). As such, he didn’t hold women in high regard. In this infamous passage, he uses antithesis to compare and contrast the characteristics of Adam and Eve. It is the clarifying capacity of the literary device which helps Milton express and affirm in these verses with “unequivocal firmness and clarity… the orthodox view of his age.” (Helen Gardner)
#5. Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism 527 (1711)
To err is human, to forgive divine.
This well-known verse by Pope vividly illustrates the powerful effects of antithesis—especially when compared to its much less popular source. Namely, it is a variation of a line by Plautus from his comedic play The Merchant, translated by Wolfgang de Melo as “It is human to go astray and it is human to forgive” (319 / II.2.46). As you can see, the original verse already employs one antithesis (err/forgive); however, Pope adds another (human/divine) to further emphasize the point and engrave it in the collective memory.
#6. Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism 627 (1711)
For Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread.
The fact that he was barely 23 years old when he published An Essay in Criticism speaks volumes of Alexander Pope’s genius. This is especially true given the fact that so many of its verses have become part of the common lore, as fresh today as three centuries ago. Pope aims for memorability in almost every second line, so it’s no wonder antithesis is one of his favorite literary devices. Here, exactly one hundred verses after the adage from #5, Pope once again masterfully employs double antithesis to give us a more profound and memorable version of the popular sayings “good and quickly seldom meet” and “slow and steady wins the race.”
#7. William Blake, “The Clod and the Pebble” (1794)
“Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care,
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a Heaven in Hell’s despair.”
“Love seeketh only self to please,
To bind another to its delight,
Joys in another’s loss of ease,
And builds a Hell in Heaven’s despite.”
It’s only natural that one can find a paradigmatic example of antithesis in a book whose title is Songs of Innocence and of Experience and whose subtitle claims that it shows “the two contrary states of the human soul.” Everything—even the descriptions of the main actors in the omitted stanza—is antithetical in “The Clod and the Pebble.” Line by line, the concluding words of the pebble structurally echo the ones of the clod from the opening stanza; however, semantically they try to relay their exact opposite, pitting against the clod’s vision of selfless and generous love, one according to which love is, in fact, selfish and sadistic.
#8. Lord George Gordon Byron, “She Walks in Beauty” 7-8 (1813)
One shade the more, one ray the less
Had half impaired the nameless grace…
During his brief life, Lord Byron managed to write a number of extremely quotable love poems; this one may be the most celebrated of the bunch. “She Walks in Beauty” uses antithesis quite a few times, most perceptibly in the first verse above, which contrasts “shade” with “ray” and “more” with “less” to illustrate the perfect balance of this girl’s beauty; so perfect, in fact, that any change (in either way) could severely impair and ruin it.
#9. Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1897)
Yet all men kill the thing they love,
By all let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!
The first verse of Wilde’s famous concluding stanza of The Ballad of Reading Gaol is antithetical with regards to its most probable source, i.e., Bassanio’s question to Shylock in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice: “Do all men kill the things they do not love?” Wilde builds upon this unexpected twist with three obvious antitheses (bitter/flattering, look/word, coward/brave) so that he can top them off with the fourth and concluding one, the piercingly beautiful pair of “kiss” and “sword.”
#10. Geoffrey Hill, “September Song” 1-2 (1968)
Undesirable you may have been, untouchable
you were not.
An elegy for a 10-year-old child almost certainly killed in the Nazi concentration camps, “September Song” is one of Geoffrey Hill’s most relatable poems. This is how it opens: with the subtlest and most heartbreaking of all antitheses. Notice how skillfully Hill builds our expectations in the first verse (two negative adjectives embracing a conditional) before establishing the antithetical relation (may have been/were not) in merely three words from the second. And how painful is that pause in between, that sobering enjambment?