Poetic Diction - Poetic Diction in English

Poetic Diction in English

In English, poetic diction has taken multiple forms, but it generally mirrors the habits of Classical literature. Highly metaphoric adjective use, for example, can, through catachresis, become a common "poetic" word (e.g. the "rosy-fingered dawn" found in Homer, when translated into English, allows the "rose fingered" to be taken from its Homeric context and used generally to refer not to fingers, but to a person as being dawn-like). In the 16th century, Edmund Spenser (and, later, others) sought to find an appropriate language for the Epic in English, a language that would be as separate from commonplace English as Homeric Greek was from koine. Spenser found it in the intentional use of archaisms. (This approach was rejected by John Milton, who sought to make his epic out of blank verse, feeling that common language in blank verse was more majestic than difficult words in complex rhymes.) William Wordsworth also believed in using the language of the common man to portray a certain image and display his message. In the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth says "I have proposed to myself to imitate, and as far as possible, to adopt, the very language of men."

In the 18th century, pastoral and lyric poetry both developed a somewhat specialized vocabulary and poetic diction. The common elision within words ("howe'er" and "howsome," e.g.) were not merely graphical. As Paul Fussell and others have pointed out, these elisions were intended to be read aloud exactly as printed. Therefore, these elisions effectively created words that existed only in poetry. Further, the 18th century saw a renewed interest in Classical poetry, and thus poets began to test language for decorum. A word in a poem needed to be not merely accurate, but also fitting for the given poetic form. Pastoral, lyric, and philosophical poetry was scrutinized for the right type of vocabulary as well as the most meaningful. Joseph Addison and Richard Steele discussed poetic diction in The Spectator, and Alexander Pope satirized inappropriate poetic diction in his 1727 Peri Bathos.

The Romantics explicitly rejected the use of poetic diction, a term which William Wordsworth uses pejoratively in the 1802 "Preface to Lyrical Ballads":

"There will also be found in these volumes little of what is usually called poetic diction; I have taken as much pains to avoid it as others ordinarily take to produce it; this I have done for the reason already alleged, to bring my language near to the language of men, and further, because the pleasure which I have proposed to myself to impart is of a kind very different from that which is supposed by many persons to be the proper object of poetry."

In an appendix, "By what is usually called poetic diction", Wordsworth goes on to define the poetic diction he rejects as above all characterized by heightened and unusual words and especially by "a mechanical adoption of... figures of speech, ... sometimes with propriety, but much more frequently applied... to feelings and ideas with which they had no natural connection whatsoever". The reason that a special poetic diction remote from prose usage gives pleasure to readers, suggests Wordsworth, is "its influence in impressing a notion of the peculiarity and exaltation of the Poet's character, and in flattering the Reader's self-love by bringing him nearer to a sympathy with that character." As an extreme example of the mechanical use of conventionally "poetic" metaphors, Wordsworth quotes an 18th-century metrical paraphrase of a passage from the Old Testament:

How long, shall sloth usurp thy useless hours,
Unnerve thy vigour, and enchain thy powers?
While artful shades thy downy couch enclose,
And soft solicitation courts repose,
Amidst the drowsy charms of dull delight,
Year chases year with unremitted flight,
Till want now following, fraudulent and slow,
Shall spring to seize thee, like an ambushed foe.3

"From this hubbub of words", comments Wordsworth, "pass to the original... 'How long wilt thou sleep, 0 Sluggard? when wilt thou arise out of thy sleep? Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep. So shall thy poverty come as one that travaileth, and thy want as an armed man.'" (Proverbs, vii, 6)

At the same time, Wordsworth himself, and Coleridge had an interest in the archaisms found in the border regions of England and introduced dialect into their poetry. While such language was "unnatural" to the London readership, Wordsworth was careful to point out that he was using it not for an exotic or elevated effect, but as a sample of the contemporary "language of men", specifically the language of poor, uneducated country folk. On the other hand, the later Romantic poet John Keats had a new interest in the poetry of Spenser and in the "ancient English" bards, and so his language was often quite elevated and archaic.

Modernism, on the other hand, rejected specialized poetic diction altogether and without reservation. Ezra Pound, in his Imagist essay/manifesto A Few Don'ts (1913) warned against using superfluous words, especially adjectives (compare the use of adjectives in the 18th-century poem quoted above) and also advised the avoidance of abstractions, stating his belief that ' the natural object is always the adequate symbol'. Since the Modernists, poetry has approached all words as inherently interesting, and some schools of poetry after the Modernists (Minimalism and Plain language, in particular) have insisted on making diction itself the subject of poetry.

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