I had seen the following excerpt from this poem in a rhetoric workbook a while ago as an example of a word construction:

They said, "You have a blue guitar, You do not play things as they are."

The man replied, "Things as they are / Are changed upon the blue guitar."

My question is regarding the use of the word "upon" in the last line. Is this usage ever correct, or is this just an example of creative license in poetry?


Ah, one of my favorite poets. Stevens uses an extensive and sometimes recondite vocabulary, but he is one of the last poets I would accuse of poor grammar.

Just remember that on and upon are synonyms, and that in this case upon is an older (not to say archaic) term used to describe the act of playing on an instrument.

  • But is "changed on/upon" correct? – Daniel Jun 29 '11 at 15:38
  • @drm65: Yes, it is. Compare "Pieces written on the guitar are changed on/upon the piano." – Robusto Jun 29 '11 at 15:43
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    Yes. Think of it as "changed [when played] on/upon." – user1579 Jun 29 '11 at 15:44
  • @Rhodri: Exactly what I was about to post :) – psmears Jun 29 '11 at 16:20
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    Don't you think the word "recondite" is rather recondite? It's recursively autological. How fun! – Mike Christian Jun 29 '11 at 16:31

Upon has the same meaning of on. Sometimes it is more formal than on, and sometimes it is used in abstract senses.

It was based upon two principles.

In some cases, upon is preferred to on, as in the following phrases. For other phrases, using upon instead of on is not a question of correctness (although there could be some set phrases where on is used instead of upon).

  • once upon a time
  • upon my word
  • row upon row of seats
  • Christmas is almost upon us.
  • I do know what "upon" means. That wasn't my question. – Daniel Jun 29 '11 at 16:37
  • @drm65 There are few phrases where upon is preferred, such as once upon the time; for the other phrases, you can use indifferently one or the other. Upon is sometimes considered more formal, but you cannot say that using it instead of on is correct, or it is not correct. Set phrases are a different case, but I don't think I would talk of correctness, even in that case. – kiamlaluno Jun 29 '11 at 23:27
  • What I'm trying to say is that I understand the difference between on and upon. My question was about whether upon is used correctly in the poem excerpt I provided. – Daniel Jun 29 '11 at 23:31
  • @drm65 And to that, I replied. – kiamlaluno Jun 29 '11 at 23:35
  • Sorry if I'm not being clear - I was not wondering if "on" would have been more correct. I was wondering if "on/upon" was correct, or if some third possibility was correct. – Daniel Jun 30 '11 at 0:32

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