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As a figure of speech, it is a seemingly self-contradictory phrase or concept that illuminates a truth. For instance, Wallace Stevens, in “The Snow Man,” describes the “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” Alexander Pope, in “An Essay on Man: Epistle II,” describes Man as “Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all.” Paradox is related to oxymoron, which creates a new phrase or concept out of a contradiction.

The metaphysical poets often fixated on the paradoxical nature of the Christian God’s triune nature (Father, Son, Holy Ghost). In his “Holy Sonnet: Batter my heart, three-person’d God,” John Donne considers God’s power to restore the spirit to life by first dismantling it:

            Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
            As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
            That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
            Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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