Definition of Antistrophe

An antistrophe is the second part of an ode, and is meant to mirror the opening section, called the strophe. Originally, when the ode form was sung by choruses in ancient Greece, the strophe would be performed by moving from east to west. The antistrophe, which mirrored and reversed the strophe, was then performed by moving from west to east. Thus, the antistrophe was an act of balancing and reacting to the strophe.

Though the original definition of antistrophe was confined only to the ode form, it has also been expanded to refer to a specific type of repetition. This type of repetition is most commonly called epistrophe, and is also known as epiphora; it involves the repetition of the same word or words at the end of successive clauses or sentences. The word antistrophe has been adopted as a term for this figure of speech due to its original sense of mirroring what has come before. Antistrophe comes the Greek word ἀντιστροφή, in which it means “a turning back.” The Greek prefix ὰντὶ means “against” and the word στρέφω means “I turn.”

Common Examples of Antistrophe

Though the definition of antistrophe in its original form applies only to the very specific ode structure (Pindaric odes, specifically), we can find many examples of antistrophe when considering it as a form of repetition.

Here are some examples of antistrophe from famous orators:

  • “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny compared to what lies within us.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • “The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divides us has come.” – Nelson Mandela
  • “For no government is better than the men who compose it, and I want the best, and we need the best, and we deserve the best.” – John F. Kennedy

There are also antistrophe examples to be found in famous movies, such as in the following:

Don’t you ever talk about my friends! You don’t know any of my friends. You don’t look at any of my friends. And you certainly wouldn’t condescend to speak to any of my friends.

-The Breakfast Club

A day may come, when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends, and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day. An hour of wolves, and shattered shields when the age of men comes crashing down! But it is not this day! This day we fight!

-The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Significance of Antistrophe in Literature

The antistrophe was a very important part of the ode form of ancient Greece, which was, in turn, an extremely important form of literature that celebrated athletic victories and praised noble things and people. The antistrophe wasn’t just the second stanza or part; it often was written in a distinct tone and mood from the first part so as to balance the emotional effects of the opening part, or strophe. Thus, the antistrophe was an embodiment of the Greek quest for balance and aesthetic perfection. Greek odes ended with a third concluding section called the epode, which was different from the first two sections in both meter and length; it was all the more important to have two contrasting sections that would then later lead to this accordance in the third section.

When considered as a form of repetition, antistrophe works to highlight a certain word or phrase that the writer finds particularly important. The repetition serves to strengthen the importance of this word or phrase each time it is used.

Examples of Antistrophe in Literature

Example #1

Man’s feeble race what ills await,
Labour, and penury, the racks of pain,
Disease, and sorrow’s weeping train,
And death, sad refuge from the storms of fate!
The fond complaint, my song, disprove,
And justify the laws of Jove.
Say, has he given in vain the heavenly Muse?
Night, and all her sickly dews,
Her spectres wan, and birds of boding cry,
He gives to range the dreary sky:
Till down the eastern cliffs afar
Hyperion’s march they spy, and glittering shafts of war.

(“The Progress of Poesy: A Pindaric Ode” by Thomas Gray)

Thomas Gray was a famous English practitioner of the ode form, having helped resuscitate it from ancient Greek. His poem “The Progress of Poesy” is written in the traditional format of opening with a strophe, following with the antistrophe example excerpted above, and ending with an epode. The strophe glorifies the beauty and power of verse in exuberant terms, while the following antistrophe is melancholy and dwells on death and sorrow. The importance of the antistrophe is in tempering the original exultation.

Example #2

JUNO: (sings) Honor, riches, marriage, blessing,
Long continuance, and increasing,
Hourly joys be still upon you.
Juno sings her blessings on you.
Earth’s increase, foison plenty,
Barns and garners never empty,
Vines and clustering bunches growing,
Plants with goodly burden bowing—
Spring come to you at the farthest
In the very end of harvest.
Scarcity and want shall shun you.
Ceres’ blessing so is on you.

(The Tempest by William Shakespeare)

This example of antistrophe as a repetitive device in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest is subtler than other antistrophe examples. We see the repetition of the word “you” at the end of the third, fourth, eleventh, and twelfth lines. This in itself would not necessarily be that noteworthy, but in this moment the character of Juno is singing her blessings. The antistrophe example helps to make the verse more “majestic and harmonious,” as the character of Ferdinand later says.

Example #3

I resist any thing better than my own diversity,
Breathe the air but leave plenty after me,
And am not stuck up, and am in my place.

(The moth and the fish-eggs are in their place,
The bright suns I see and the dark suns I cannot see are in
their place,
The palpable is in its place and the impalpable is in its place.)

(“Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman)

Walt Whitman used many different forms of repetition in his famous poem “Song of Myself.” The poem as a whole explores many different facets of his own self, his place in the world, and the nature around him. This parenthetical stanza has a nice example of antistrophe in that each line ends with the word “place.” Whitman notes that he is in his place, and then goes on to note that every other thing is in its place as well. This repetition creates harmony and peace.

Example #4

Then it don’ matter. Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where — wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ — I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build — why, I’ll be there.

(The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck)

The character of Tom Joad makes the above pronouncement to his mother in John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath. His mother worries that Tom, an outlaw, will get hurt and she won’t ever know about it. Tom explains that he doesn’t think he has his own soul, but instead shares a piece of a larger soul. Thus, even if he is not literally in a certain place, he will be there in soul form. The antistrophe of “I’ll be there” is meant to reassure his mother that his spirit will live on, no matter what.

Test Your Knowledge of Antistrophe

1. Which of the following statements is NOT an applicable antistrophe definition?
A. The second part of an ode, which replies to and mirrors the opening part.
B. The repetition of a word or words at the beginning of successive clauses or sentences.
C. A figure of speech in which the last word or words in a clause are repeated at the end of successive clauses or sentences.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Which of the following is a function of antistrophe?
A. To achieve balance and equanimity.
B. To downplay the importance of a word or phrase.
C. To create discord and cacophony.

Answer to Question #2 Show

3.Consider the following stanzas from Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself”:

These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands,
they are not original with me,
If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing, or
next to nothing,

If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle they
are nothing,
If they are not just as close as they are distant they are

Which of the following words is an example of antistrophe in these two stanzas?

A. If they are not
B. All men in all ages
C. They are nothing

Answer to Question #3 Show

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