Friday, May 3, 2013

Thomas Hardy's Excellent Use of Antithesis


She, at His Funeral by Thomas Hardy

They bear him to his resting-place— 
    In slow procession sweeping by; 

I follow at a stranger’s space; 

    His kindred they, his sweetheart I. 

Unchanged my gown of garish dye, 

    Though sable-sad is their attire; 

But they stand round with griefless eye, 

    Whilst my regret consumes like fire! 

Antithesis is an appealing rhetorical device, used by Hardy often and effectively. You too can make excellent use of antithesis, but first, a review, here provided by an outstanding resource:

“Antithesis establishes a clear, contrasting relationship between two ideas by joining them together or juxtaposing them, often in parallel structure. Human beings are inveterate … categorizers, so the mind has a natural love for antithesis, which creates a definite and systematic relationship between ideas…. Antithesis can [also] convey some sense of complexity in a person or idea by admitting opposite or nearly opposite truths…. Antithesis, because of its close juxtaposition and intentional contrast of two terms or ideas, is also very useful for making relatively fine distinctions or for clarifying differences which might be otherwise overlooked by a careless thinker or casual reader ….”

Reread the definition provided by Robert A. Harris, the writer behind Virtual Salt’s A Handbook of Rhetorical Devices.  Reread as much as you need in order to digest and understand the device of antithesis as defined by Mr. Harris. Now return to Hardy’s poem and identify the lines that delight and communicate through the use of antithesis.

Of course, the concluding lines of the poem are antithetical. The mourners stand unaffected, their eyes griefless, but she, the titular she, flickers in the flame of grief, a grief that consumes her.

Other contrasts facilitate the power of those final lines. She wears a gown of garish dye, often thought unseemly dress for a funeral, while the deceased’s relatives wear traditional sable-sad attire, yet they show no signs of grief beyond their superficial clothing choice. Thus, she must be an outlier, unwelcome among the company of mourners. She challenges the status quo by dressing differently, but she remains humble, following the funeral procession at a stranger’s space. Not only an outlier, she also defines herself as his sweetheart, not his kin by blood or marriage.

With few words and one powerful rhetorical device, Hardy delivers a vivid portrait of one man’s death and the one woman who feels his loss keenly.

Reading Challenge:

On November 7, 2012, newly re-elected President Barack Obama said, "Tonight you voted for action, not politics as usual. You elected us to focus on your jobs, not ours." Making use of antithesis, President Obama announces his overarching goal for a second term.

Other masterful users of antithesis are Charles Dickens' opening paragraph for A Tale of Two Cities, Winston Churchill's speech before the House of Commons on November 12, 1936 , Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail, and Abraham Lincoln's The Gettysburg Address.

Writing Challenge:

Imitate a well-worn, well-known example of antithesis, this one from Neil Armstrong: That's one small step for (a) man; one giant leap for mankind. Have fun!