Absurdity In Poetry

Next we turn to oxymoron and paradox: two types of absurdity which entail irreconcilable elements of meaning or reference.

8.3.1 Oxymoron

The way in which we arrive at an interpretation of oxymoron is enacted in slow motion for us at the opening of the revels in Act 5, Scene 1 of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Duke Theseus reads through the programme of entertainment:

A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus, And his love Thisbe; very tragical mirth.

and comments:

Merry and tragical! tedious and brief! That is, hot ice and wondrous strange snow. How shall we find the concord of this discord?

The Master of the Revels, Philostrate, explains:

A play there is, my lord, some ten words long, Which is as brief as I have known a play; But by ten words, my Lord, it is too long, Which makes it tedious: for in all the play There is not one word apt, one player fitted: And tragical, my noble lord, it is; For Pyramus therein doth kill himself: Which when I saw rehears'd, I must confess, Made mine eyes water; but more merry tears The passion of loud laughter never shed.

Theseus's question 'How shall we find the concord of this discord?' and Philostrate's reply represent the puzzle and the solution: two stages of a process which is generally so automatic that we are not aware of its taking place. The solution can take one of two forms. Firstly, the apparent irre-concilables may be found to be in this instance, contrary to expectation, compatible; as when Philostrate tells why brevity and tediousness, on the face of its mutually exclusive properties, are reconciled in Peter Quince's play. Second, an ambiguity may be discovered or invented, allowing the interpreter to by-pass the absurd interpretation. This occurs when Philostrate reveals a hidden ambiguity in the word tragical, which can be used in the technical sense of'play which ends in death'; or in a looser sense of an entertainment, etc., which provokes a solemn response. Philostrate points out that the first sense does not necessarily entail the second.

Although wresting a line from its context deprives the reader of many clues to interpretation, it is an interesting exercise to ask oneself to interpret the following examples of oxymoron, and then to analyse the result:

1. Parting is such sweet sorrow

[Romeo and Juliet, Il.ii]

2. Thou art to me a delicious torment

[Emerson, 'Friendship', Essays]

3. To live a life half-dead, a living death

[Milton, Samson Agonistes]

4. And love's the noblest frailty of the mind

[Dryden, The Indian Emperor, Il.ii]

Examples (x) and (2) testify to humanity's ability to experience pleasure mingled with pain: a type of apparent absurdity which has the classical precedent of Catullus' well-known paradox 'Odi et amo' ('I hate and I

love'). We probably interpret them as 'a mixture of sweetness and sorrow', 'a mixture of delight and torment', although it could be argued that it is the mysterious merging of contrary emotions that is imaginatively realized in such expressions rather than their coexistence.

Milton's oxymoron 'a living death', referring to Samson's blindness, can be resolved by construing death, by metaphorical extension, as 'a condition which seems like death'.

Dry den's 'noblest frailty' is not so much a logical absurdity as a contradiction of accepted values. Nobility is associated with strength, and ig-nobility with weakness. Hence 'noblest frailty' argues a reassessment of our moral assumptions, by telling us that nobility and weakness are compatible. Another possible interpretation would be to construe 'frailty' as emotional vulnerability rather than moral weakness.

8.3.2 Paradox

Much the same comments apply to paradox. The following examples will provide a basis for discussion:

War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.

[George Orwell, 1984,1.i]

Except you enthral me, never shall be free,

Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

[Donne, Holy Sonnets, XIV]

But he that hides a dark soul, and foul thoughts,

Benighted walks under the midday sun.

[Milton, Comtts]

Orwell's slogans reflect the nightmare society he created in 1984, and particularly the ability of its organizers to make its citizens believe the opposite of the truth. This equation of antonyms, perhaps the simplest and boldest form of paradox, can be made meaningful if we understand one term in a sense which is not incompatible with the other: 'Freedom of body' and 'slavery of mind', for example. Perhaps the authors of New-speak would prefer us to interpret each slogan in a manner similar to that earlier suggested for 'That truth is a lie'; i.e. 'What you think is war is actually peace'; 'What you think is freedom is actually slavery', etc.

Likewise 'benighted' and 'under the midday sun', hi the example from

Comus, have to be taken in non-equivalent senses, namely that of literal, physical sunshine, and that of metaphorical, spiritual darkness.

Domie's address to the Deity in the second example is a striking illustration of the religious use of paradox. That submission to God means freedom from the bond of sin is a commonplace of Christian thought. The notion of God as a bridegroom or a lover is more audacious, but scarcely more original. Tradition therefore predisposes us, without further context, to accept enthral and ravish in metaphorical senses. What gives particular force to the clash of meaning here is the way in which these verbs throw emphasis on the violence of God's taking possession of the soul.

Love and religion, two themes of universal and profound poetic significance, lend themselves especially to treatment by semantic contradictions. The 'delicious torment' of the lover, the 'fair cruelty' of the mistress, the 'sweet sorrow' of their parting, all bear witness to the powerful conflicts of emotion aroused by the experience of sexual love. Religion presents us with such enigmas as death in life and life in death:

I die, yet depart not,

I am bound, yet soar free;

Thou art and thou art not And ever shalt be!

[Robert Buchanan, 1841-1901, The City of Dreams]

There is a mystical feeling, in both these areas of inner experience, that truth eludes the puny force of unaided human reason. Reality lies beyond the literal, commonsense view of life as systematized in ordinary usage, and therefore the poet, to reach it, must violate the categories of his language.

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