‘Understatement’ is the antonym of ‘hyperbole’. Often used for irony to downplay a catastrophe, sometimes they come across as amusing. Witness The Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail having his arm chopped off and dismissing it as ‘just a flesh wound’ that he’ll get over. This was deliberately humorous but sometimes they can demonstrate something tragic ‘ denial perhaps. This is why understatement is so diverse as a tool of prose and poetry. Here is a list of ten interesting examples.
1. Fire and Ice by Robert Frost
‘I think I know enough of hate, to say that for destruction ice, is also great, and would suffice’
The entire poem is understatement as he compares the world ending by fire or ice as being equally sufficient. The meaning is clear in that he is talking of relationships (fire being passion and hatred being ice) but in so comparing, he is ambivalent about both the end of the world and the end of a relationship when both would clearly be distressing. Frost merely shrugs his shoulders in complete ambivalence.
2. Afternoon in School The Last Lesson By DH Lawrence
‘Shall have raked the embers clear: I will keep, Some of my strength for myself, for if I should sell, It all for them, I should hate them – – I will sit and wait for the bell.’
Here, Lawrence spends several stanzas building up a sense of anxiety about wanting the lesson to end. He goes through many emotions: boredom, annoyance, restlessness and many others but when it really comes down to it, he too shrugs his shoulders in apathy’¦ stating that he will just sit and wait.
3. Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley
‘Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains. Round the decay, Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.’
This rousing favourite from Shelley describes a large statue from ancient Egypt ‘ most believe that he was inspired by the enormous statue of Ramses II in The British Museum prior to its removal, and by extension, maybe even Egypt herself. He describes in great detail the kingdom it most likely once looked out over but at the end contrasts this with an abject blandness of a description of the sand that now surrounds it.
4. This Is Just To Say by William Carlos Williams
‘I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox, and which you were probably saving for breakfast. Forgive me, they were delicious, so sweet, and so cold’
Written in the form of a letter of apology, we are led to believe that the detailed description of the plums that the person has taken is leading to a grovelling letter; Williams finishes it off subtly with a ‘they were tasty’ apparently meaning that the apology is a little half-hearted.
When leading his men to the lair of the fire dragon inside which it guarded gold, Beowulf announces that it would be: ‘no easy bargain for any man to try to acquire them’
Litotes are a form of understatement often used for rhetorical or ironic effect, sometimes a double negative in order to underplay the gravity of a situation: a positive statement made by stating the negative of its opposite (as per example above). There are many examples in Beowulf and it is considered a feature of Old English epic poetry.
6. The Spider and the Fly by Mary Howitt
‘I’m sure you must be weary, dear, with soaring up so high Will you rest upon my little bed?’ said the Spider to the Fly.
An example of irony with a sense of menace (and another litote) is this children’s poem. Littered with many examples, particular references to ‘come into my parlour’ as the spider attempts to coax the fly into the web. In this, at the beginning of the poem, the fly uses underhand words ‘rest upon my little bed’, earlier using ‘parlour’ and later other euphemisms.
7. To His Coy Mistress By Andrew Marvel
‘The grave’s a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace.’
This is the biggest understatement in this list. Marvel is hinting that death means you will find no affection, love or even sex after death (he thinks). The implication is to sow seeds of thought in the mind of the reader that they should live their life as they see fit because once it is over there is no going back. The addition of ‘I think’ makes it an understatement.
8. Metamorphoses by Ovid
Far less common in Latin than in other ancient languages and literature (Icelandic and Old English Sagas), Ovid does indeed use several examples but none as large as other examples on this list. What he does use though is the above statement several times which translates as ‘not one occasion’. This is an example of a double negative in poetry, meaning ‘on more than one occasion’.
9. Homer’s Iliad
‘ÃŽ¿Ã¡½’Ã’žÃŽµ ÃŽ³ÃŽ¬Ã Ã¡¼’ÃÆ’Ã’žÃ¡¾½ Ã¡¼’žÃ’ ÃÃ’°ÃŽ½ ÃŽ¿Ã¡½’Ã’žÃ¡¾½ Ã¡¼’žÃÆ’ÃŽºÃŽ¿Ãâ‚¬ÃŽ¿Ã’š’
As well as Latin, there are examples in Greek epics too. The line above describes Achilles and roughly translates as: ‘he is neither unthinking, nor unseeing”, another good example of a double negative used for dramatic effect to explain that he is both wise and intelligent ‘ this is probably the biggest understatement of his character, one of Greece’s most famous ancient literary heroes.
10. Since Feeling is First by E.E. Cummings
‘for life’s not a paragraph and death I think is no parenthesis’
Similar to several examples in this list, E.E. Cummings emphasises the finality of death after life by underemphasising the importance of both: ‘not a paragraph’ and ‘no parenthesis’. Some comment that it is not for writing about our feelings, but for living and experiencing them. This is no better demonstrated in the preceding paragraph. This final line is more poignant because of it.
As we can see above, understatement can be an effective tool in poetry to convey a number of feelings and elicit an immediate emotional response in the reader. Like hyperbole (its opposite) it is a device that can be used to great effect, depending on the nature of the poem. Above are some examples of both classic and contemporary poetry. Litotes are a well-known device in both literature and poetry, discussed in language classes in the western world.