Poetic diction means the choice and arrangement of words in a line of poetry. Thus it is a matter both of vocabulary and syntax. In almost all ages, poets have used a language different from the language of everyday use. It was believed that, “the language of the age is never the language of poetry”, and further that the calling of a poet is a noble and exalted one and so his language also should be equally noble and dignified, different from common language.
Thus it was considered necessary for a poet to avoid low, common and vulgar words, specially in epic-poetry where the diction used should be lofty and sublime in keeping with its lofty and exalted theme. For this reason, in all ages, the diction of poetry has tended to differ from the language of prose, as well as from that of everyday speech. For example, in his Fairy Queen Spenser intentionally used archaic and obsolete words, for his theme was medieval, and archaic words like ‘methought’, ‘I ween’, etc., help to create a proper, old world atmosphere. Milton used a highly Latinised and figurative diction for his Paradise Lost, and in this way sought to impart epic dignity and elevation to his language. Milton had considerable influence on the succeeding generation of poets, and this influence was not all healthy. Much that is artificial and unnatural in the diction of the Augustan Age may be traced to Milton.
Though poets in every age have used a specialised diction for their poetry, never was such attention paid to the subject as in the age of Dryden and Pope. The critical theory of the period laid great stress on the need of ‘decorum’. ‘Decorum’ implied that the diction of poetry should be noble and exalted, that it should suit the genre and the characters or personages in a piece of poetry, that the low and the vulgar should be avoided as their use is below the dignity of the poet as well as that of his readers, and lastly that there must be absolute economy in the use of words. The poet must say what he had to say in the fewest and the best possible words. The best’ were the words which enabled the poet to convey his meanings with absolute clarity, and with this end in view the use of the archaic, the obsolete, the foreign and the technical words was to be avoided. The older poets like Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare were guilty of such faults and it was felt, that they should be refined and polished. They might be jewels but they were unpolished jewels, and it was their misfortune to have lived and produced in a barbarous age. Throughout the Augustan Age, numerous efforts were made to refine Shakespeare, and many of his poetic beauties were lost on the age.
Various devices were used to achieve a noble, pure and exalted diction, a diction proper for poetry meant for refined and cultured audiences. First, Periphrasis or Circumlocution or a roundabout way of saying things was widely used. In this way, efforts were made to avoid the vulgar, the archaic and the technical. Thus Pope uses ‘finny creatures’ for ‘fish’, ‘Velvet plain’ for a green table, ‘two-handed engine’ for a pair of scissors and so on. Secondly Latin words and Latin constructions were abundantly used to impart dignity and elevation. Thus Pope uses ‘Sol’ in place of the sun. Words are frequently used both by Dryden and Pope in their original Latin sense. Thirdly, Figures of Speech, more particularly Personifications and Hyperbole, were abundantly used to decorate the language and to impart to it force, dignity and effectiveness. An instance of personification and Hyperbole may be given from The Rape of the Lock:
And all Arabia breathes from yonder box
The Tortoise here and Elephant unite
Transformed to combs, the speckled and the white.
Another remarkable feature of Pope’s diction is his use of antithesis. This he uses it to produce the mock-heroic effect:
Or stain her honour, or her new brocade
Forget her prayers, or miss a masquerade
Or lose her heart, or necklace, at a ball.
Effective, telling, vivid and pictorial images (similes and metaphors) are used by Pope with great frequency and abundance. There are frequent revisions and everything that is superfluous or inapt is carefully eschewed. In this way, the diction acquires not only clarity, elevation and perfection, but also epigrammatic terseness and condensation. There are more quotable lines in Pope than in any other English poet outside Shakespeare.
Pope, in short, represents the best as well as the worst in the poetic diction of the 18th century. He is the clearest as well as the most correct of English poets, but there is also much in his diction that is unnatural and artificial. He bewitched and dazzled his age with his highly ornate and polished language and the various stylistic devices used by him were imitated throughout the century. Even the pre-romantics were unable to break free from his influence. Gray, Collins, Crabbe, Blake and Burns all show his influence. The substance of their poetry is much nobler, but their style continues to be stilted and artificial. Indeed, the full flowering of romanticism in their poetry is checked and retarded by the dead hand of the past. Circumlocution Personification, Latinism etc., all continue to be used by them and their diction continues to be as artificial and unnatural as that of Pope and his imitators.
It was against this innane and affected poetic diction that Wordsworth raised his powerful voice. Reacting against the artificiality of the poetic diction of Pope and the ‘Popians’, he maintained that the language of poetry should be a selection of language really used by men, and added that, “there is no essential difference between the language of prose and poetry.” However, his own practice shows that there is such an essential difference. Language is both a matter of vocabulary, the choice and selection of words, as well as of their arrangement. Wordsworth follows his theory of poetic diction only in so far as the selection of words or vocabulary is concerned, and not always even in this respect. As far as the arrangement of words is concerned, he frequently uses inverted constructions. Poems like the Immortality Ode can by no stretch of imagination be regarded as having been written in the language of every day use. Moreover, as Coleridge was quick to point out, metre medicates the whole atmosphere, and exigencies of rhyme and metre determine the diction of a poet. Hence it is bound to be different from ordinary language. It should also be remembered that the end of poetry is to give aesthetic pleasure and the use of ornament is an element in that pleasure. Poetry is ‘musical speech’, and so the words used by a poet must be selected both with reference to their sense and their sound. Obviously, for all these reasons, we cannot agree with Wordsworth when he says that there is no essential difference between the language of poetry and the language of prose.
Wordsworth’s attack on the 18th century poetic diction served to stress the need of simplicity both in theme and treatment. But diction has continued to flourish, despite Wordsworth’s condemnation of it. The verbal art of both Keats and Tennyson is beyond praise, and many of their verbal beauties are echoed by the poetic diction of the Pre-Raphaelities / Rossetti, Swinburne, and Morris. Rossetti’s love of ‘stunning’ words is well-known and Swinburne is equally noted for his sensuous epithets and verbal music. Rossetti’s influence on the next generation of poets was great; some adopted his idiosyncrasies; few bettered his example. He helped to introduce a new school of poetry in which the diction diverged as far from the ‘real language of men’ as in any part of the eighteenth century. The reaction in our own times against this movement has been as vigorous as that of Wordsworth was in 1801 against the ‘gaudiness’ of false ‘poetic diction’ of the 18th century.
Robert Bridges is a great stylist of the 20th century, who tries consciously to cultivate an effective and elevated poetic style. He is a great craftsman with words. His poetry abounds in vivid word-pictures. T.S. Eliot has a peculiar diction of his own. It has been called, “a mosaic of quotations and allusions.” His poetry is the poetry of the city, and hence quite rightly his vocabulary and his imagery are drawn from the facts and experiences of city life. He is terse and epigrammatic, so terse and epigrammatic that often it becomes difficult to follow his sense.
In short, poets in all ages have used poetic diction i.e. a poetic language which is different from the language both of prose and of everyday use. From time to time such devices to embellish and elevate the language of poetry have been much criticised, but despite such criticism poets have continued to use them.