What is Poetic Diction:
English neo-classical poets, like their French counterparts, were very particular about the division of poetry into various kinds of genres-such as the elegy, the heroic poem, the satire, the epic, and so on.
They upheld the principle of decorum which demands that for every kind a particular style is needed and that there should not be any confusion of styles. Further, they drove a wedge between the language of prose and the language of serious poetry. For lower genres like satire they did not mind using the language and idiom of prose, but for the elegy, the heroic poem, the epic, and such like genres, what they aimed at employing was a language as far removed from the lowly prose as possible. Obviously, in an epic such words as pot, broom, or even door could not be used, as their presence would create a bathetic effect. Consequently, a special language of poetry was devised, and later traditionalised, by the practice of poet after poet. This special language, somewhat stilted and artificial, ruled the roost for decades and was challenged only by Wordsworth at the end of the eighteenth century. In the Preface to -the second edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800) Wordsworth vehemently protested against what he called “the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers”. He further protested “There will also be found in these volumes little of what is usually called poetic diction; as much pain has been taken to avoid it as is ordinarily taken to produce it.” Wordsworth was against the very principle of the divison of language into the language of prose and the language of poetry. He went so far as to assert that “there neither Js, nor can be any essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition-Poetry sheds no tears ‘such as Angels weep’, but natural and human tears: she can boast of no celestial ichor that distinguishes her vital juices from those of prose; the same human blood circulates through the-veins of both.” Coleridge in Biographia Literaria controverted Wordsworth’s point of view. He maintained that there ought to be some difference between the language of poetry and that of prose, as there should be some difference between the language of prose and that of actual conversation. “I write,” said Coleridge, “in metre because I am about to use a language different from that of prose.” It may be pointed out here that Wordsworth did not only criticise the language (diction) used by many of his predecessors but also their frequent indulgence in archaisms (both of grammar and vocabulary) and various other “poetic licences” pressed into service for poetising their language and consequently removing it as far from the language of prose as possible. Robert Bridges in his essay “Poetic diction in English” in Collected Essays (1910) observes: “The revolt against the old diction is a reaction which in its general attitude is rational: and it is in line with the reaction of “The Lake School” of poetry, familiar to all students in Wordsworth’s statement, and Coleridge’s criticism and correction of that statement in his Biographia Literaria. Both .movements alike protest against all archaisms of vocabulary and grammar and what are called literary forms and plead for the simple terms and direct forms of common speech.”
Its History and Examples:
It is usual to blame Dryden and Pope—the protagonists of the neo-classical school of poetry-as the poets who established the so-called poetic diction in England. However, it is not Dryden and Pope but their imitators who ought to be blamed, for it was they who thought that poetic diction could be a substitute for poetic inspiration. But poetry is not diction alone. It is so many thing besides. “In all fields of Art,” observes Robert Bridges in the essay mentioned above, “the imitators are far more numerous than the artists and they will copy the externals in poetry, the Versification and the Diction which in their hands become futile”. Eighteenth-century poetic diction does not start with Pope. The vast fund of poetic diction could not be created overnight. It was rather the cumulative result of the efforts of a large number of poets spread over many years.
Nevertheless, broadly speaking, it is Joshua Sylvester who can be credited with the use for the first time of that peculiar phraseology which goes under the label of poetic diction. In his verse translation of the French poet Du Bartas’ epic La Semaine we come across numberless ‘”poetic ornaments” and extravagances.which are rather unimaginatively flung here, there, and everywhere. Both Du Bartas in his original French composition and Sylvester in his English translation employed a very large number of expressions derived from Latin instead of their native equivalents. Such expressions ultimately formed a fair’v lame proportion of poetic diction. The tendency of ‘Du Bartas and Sylvester to use Latinisms was chiefly dictated, apart from the consideration of ornamental value, by their search for compression. Verbs and participle adjectives derived from Latin were evidently more concise than their composite equivalents in French and English. For illustration see the following lines by Sylvester:
A novice Thief (that in a Closet spies
A heap of Gold, that on the Table lies)
Pale, fearful, shivering twice or thrice extends,
And twice or thrice retires his fingers’ ends.
The unpurgedAire to Water would resolve,
And Water would the mountain tops involve.
Another method of compression employed by Sylvester and the later poets was of the “pictorial” kind. For instance, for the loadstone, “iron mistress”; for the sea, “watery camp”; for the fish, “scaly crew”; and so on. A very common procedure was to frame a two-worded phrase with “round” as the second word and some epithet as the first. All-these practices contributed towards the proliferation of eighteenth-century poetic diction.
Many poets of the seventeenth century accepted the lead of Sylvester. Among them may be mentioned Drayton, William Browne, Sandys, Benlowes, Milton, and Dryden. Sandys, the translator of Ovid, did the most, before Dryden, to popularise poetic diction through his own example. He had taken upon himself the task of translating Ovid into an almost equal number of lines in English. Moreover, he was to employ pentameters, not the hexameters of the original. This put him to the necessity of compression, more particularly because Latin itself is a much more concise language than English. Naturally enough, Sandys had to have a recourse to the methods of Sylvester and also to devise a number of formulas of his own. The result was that the language, of metrical composition moved farther and farther from the language of prose or the language of actual conversation which was to be advocated by Wordsworth for use in metrical composition.
The translations of Lucan rendered by Thomas May (1626-27) and Rowe (1718) show much indebtedness to Sylvester and Sandys. So do Milton’s minor and some of his major poems. In’Lycidas, for instance, Milton uses various phrases which have the ring of poetic diction and many more which are used for their poetic beauty and even “unnaturalness”. Dr. Johnson expressed his keen dislike ofLycidas or the ground that much in it was unnatural or away from commonexperience.’ After Milton it was Dryden, the founder of the neo classical school of poetry, who really established poetic diction so firmly that it continued reigning uninterrupted for about a hundred years to follow. Specifically speaking, it was in his translation of Virgil that, to maintain the dignity of the original, he employed highstrung diction. In his satires, however, his diction and idiom are nearer the language of prose. Satire, as we have already pointed out, was considered by the neo-classicists a low genre, and, as such, was not deemed to require any specially wrought diction and idiom.
The Role of Pope:
In this respect Pope thought alike with Dryden. In his satires we have not much of the so-called poetic diction. They are couched in a conversational language unadorned with poetic gewgaws. Consider, for instance, the opening lines of his Epistle to Arbuthnot:
Shut, shut, the door, good John! fatigu’d I said,
Tie up the knocker, say I’m sick, I’m dead.
Pope was very much particular about the demands of decorum–the appropriateness of the style to the subject or the genre. As he says in the Essay on Criticism,’
Expression is the dress of thought, and still
Appears more decent, as more suitable:
For different styles with different subjects sort,
As several garbs with country, town and court.
In practice he was very particular even about the style of his letters. Spence reports these words of Pope: “It is idle to say that letters should be written in an easy familiar style: that, like most other general rules, will not hold. The style, in letters as in all other things, should be adapted to the subject”.
It is in his translation of Homer that Pope makes the maximum use of poetic diction. Pope felt that the sublimity and grandeur of the original were incapable of being conveyed in ordinary, familiar English phrases. So he had to coin new ones and had to borrow numerous others from his predecessors. His Homer has been almost universally and wholly held responsible for the creation of eighteenth-century poetic diction. To quote some opinions. Consider first Coleridge’s who called it “the main source of our pseudo poetic diction.” Southey asserted that it had “done more than any or all other books, towards the corruption of our poetry.” Whatever be the other faults of Pope’s Homer, it is evident that is was not the originator of poetic diction. Pope was merely following a tradition and passing it on to his successors. Geoffrey Tillotson observes in this connexion: “Pope’s Homer is certainly the greatest work which used this diction.‘ But Pope did not invent the diction. When he used it he was drawing from and adding to a fund which had been growing for more than a hundred years, a fund which has been argumented and improved by the ‘progressive’ poets of the seventeenth century that is, by those who stand in the direct line of development.”
Pope used poetic diction in his Homer with a definitely utilitarian purpose in view. The compression, sublimity, and archaic flavour of the original could be captured, he felt, only by the use of a peculiar diction. He did not use it, as many of his successors did, for the purpose of ornament or for camouflaging in attractive trappings the spells of poetic sterlity. He would, as he tells us,
Show no mercy to an empty line.
Pope is one of the most concise of English poets, though, to quote Tillotson again, he “makes no fuss about his conciseness as Browning does.” The only senselessly prolix lines in his poetry are those in which he parodies the senseless prolixity of others. This is how-.he satirises the emptiness of his rivals in pastoral poetry:
Of gentle Philips will I ever sing,
With gentle Philips shall the valleys ring.
My number too for ever will I vary,
With gentle Budgell and with gentle Carey.
Or if in ranging of the names i judge ill,
wih gentle carey and with gentle Budgell.
Pope, in fact, condemns the needless, unthinking use of poetic diction. In Peri bathous he lashes the foolish poets who, as he puts it, instead of writing the plain shut the door (as he himself wrote in the first line of the Epistle to Arbuthnot quoted above) write:
The wooden guardian of our privacy,
Quick on its axle turn.
After Pope poetic diction ruled supreme right till the end of the eighteenth century. The names of almost all the poets of the century are associated with its use. Dr. Johnson, Collins, Cowper-all made use of it and augmented and consolidated its fund, wordsworth in the Preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads quotes verses from Dr. Johnson, Cowper, and Gray and points out how their diction differs from the words used in speech and in written prose. He calls them bad poetry for this reason. Those who really did the most mischief were not these poets, however, but the numberless imitators of Pope who made the language of Poetry altogether fantastic, and altogether lifelesws and conventional. Hence Wordsworth went to the opposite extreme. In the keen desire for fresh air a few windows are likely to get broken. In condemning the poetic diction of the eighteenth century, Wordsworth went to the extent of condemning all the poetry which employed this diction.Hence Tillotson’s complaint: ” The poetic diction of good eighteenth-century poetry has been much misunderstood, and denunciation of it has sometimes been taken as the automatic denunciation of the poetry as a whole”. We must allow eighteenth-century English poetry its due, in spite of our disapproval of its poetic diction.