Litotes and Chiasmus- I've Never Heard of Them, but Did Keats?

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“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.  


See what other literary devices my classmates found. 


Nice work Erica. That was a great idea to look for the devices in the poem.

I've been pondering the meaning of that example of chiasmus the past few days. The best I've been able to come up with is that in the world of the urn, the truth, what is painted on the urn, is beautiful because it is art. In their perfect world, life is easy and beautiful, presenting the contrast you were looking for with our own lives that have beautiful moments as well as moments of intense pain and suffering. Keats does not delve into this too much however because the poem focuses more on hope and eternity than it does on life.

Thank you for enlightening to the meaning of this word. I looked it up and was still confused, but after reading your comment and responding, I feel that I have a better understanding.

Erica Gearhart said:

Angela, I'm glad my comments have helped you. I also wanted to thank you because, although I could point out this line as a chiasmus, I was less sure than you are of a possible meaning. It actually seems really out of place to me, perhaps because of the quotation marks, but your comment has really helped me find more meaning in the line.

Bethany Merryman said:

Seriously good example!! I too struggled just like Angela trying to find examples that I understood. Mine that I found was just a little goofy...but yours was great! Taking a look at that quote from the poem really helped me see it in a more literary way. Not to say that the Band-Aid ad isn't literature.

Erica Gearhart said:

I'm glad my ideas helped you, Bethany, but yours was way more creative and awesome! If anyone else would like to take a look at Bethany's blog, here is the link:

Michelle Tantlinger said:

I had not thought of actually looking for any of the devices in the works we read but that is an excellent idea! I am glad to hear you knew what a few of those terms were because I hadn't heard them before. But once I read them I realized I knew what they were but I didn't know the term.

James Lohr said:

That was nice how you took the time to check the poem itself for examples of the words you did not understand. I should have probably taken the time to do the same thing.

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