Litotes and Chiasmus- I've Never Heard of Them, but Did Keats?
“There is not ‘literary’ device- metonymy, synecdoche, litotes, chiasmus, and so on- which is not quite intensively used in daily discourse.”
-From Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction “Intorduction: What is Literature? page 5
I have heard of the first two literary devices, and I am familiar with their definitions; however, I do not recall ever having learned about the other two, litotes and chiasmus. I chose to apply these terms to the poem we have been discussing, John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn. But first, here are the definitions according to Sharon Hamilton’s Essential Literary Terms:
“Litotes is a figure of thought in which a point is affirmed by negating its opposite. It is a special form of understatement, where the surface denial serves, through ironic contrast, to reinforce the underlying assertion” (57-58).
“Chiasmus is a figure of speech in which two successive phrases or clauses are parallel in syntax, but reverse the order of the analogous words” (65).
I was unable to find litotes in the poem, but I did find one possible instance of chiasmus in the final stanza. Keats writes, “ ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ ” (Keats qtd. in Keesy 487. While these devices can be used to effect a stark contrast or even highlight a similarity, Keats obviously did not feel these were very necessary in this poem. Perhaps in Keats' time these devices were not viewed as literary, maybe because they are simple and were used more often in daily speech than they are now, or perhaps the poem was, in Keats opinion, more effective without them.