Poetic Diction: Definition & Explanation

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“There neither is, nor can be, any essential difference between the language of Prose and Metrical composition”— Wordsworth.

      Wordsworth, in the introductory note or ‘Advertisement’ to the 1798 edition of Lyrical Ballads announced a two fold innovation. First, with regard to themes, he had chosen incidents and situations from common, preferably humble and rustic, life. Second, with regard to style, he had avoided what is called poetic diction, and used, as far as possible, the real language of men.

      From this statement of his intentions and practice in Lyrical Ballads it was only the next step for him to propound a general theory of poetic diction, which he did in the Preface to the 1800 edition of the Ballads. He said that poetic diction was not a specialized vocabulary but consisted in a selection of the real language used by men. ‘A selection’ was only a cautionary phrase which he introduced in the edition of 1800. However, the indefensible stand which he had taken did not become any more defensible and led him into other difficulties. He was forced to admit, as a corollary of his language theory, that meter was a merely ‘superadded’ attraction, and to declare that’ there neither is, nor can be, any essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition’.

      Wordsworth had his own reasons for selecting incidents, situations and characters from humble and rustic life; and for adopting, in the relation of these incidents, the very language used by men in humbler stations. His choice of the innocent, the simple and the primitive formed part of his gospel of a Return to Nature. And it was because of his belief in their uncorrupted nature, the uninhibited expression of their feelings, and their closeness to the sources of the best in language, that he thought their language likely to be poetic. Thus it will be seen that the double innovation in respect of choice of themes and of diction originated from one and the same theoretical belief.

      But it is one thing to use a selection of the real language used by men for a particular kind of poetry and quite another to state in general that all poetic diction is a selection of the real language used by men. The principle was sound so far as Wordsworth’s immediate and limited ends were concerned. And it can best be illustrated by reference to one of his best poems, viz. the Lucy poem, which ends with

But she is in her grave, and, oh, The difference to me! and to ‘The Solitary’ Reaper’, which has
For old, unhappy, far-off things And battles long ago.

      But when it is made into a general theory, it begins to offer difficulties. For his own “Roll’d round in earth’s diurnal course” (‘A Slumber did my spirit seal) is not the real language of men, not even a selection of ‘if. Not only was Wordsworth inconsistent in his own practice, but by too doctrinaire an approach he helped to uncover the limitations of his own theory, as when he lapsed into the trivial

No, little Edward, say why so:
My little Edward, tell me why.

      This kind of simplism is a travesty of the doctrine. No amount of selection can avail where the true poetic touch is lacking. However, the Wordsworthian theory of realistic diction has been echoed in our own times. Harriet Monroe (quoted in ‘New Voice’-refer to footnote on page 350 in Literary Criticism: A Short History by Wimsatt and Brooks) stated that the language which is good enough for labor, and marriage, for birth and death .... is good enough for poetry. True, poets do not invent language, except in a limited way; they only give poetic sanction to it by their usage. And such language as poets do use need not exclusively be the ‘real’ language used by men in daily life. The valid idiom of poetry is a judicious compound of the actual words used by men as well as those that do not occur in daily converse. ‘Multitudinous’ and ‘incarnadine’ are not words that ever fall from men’s lips in daily intercourse. They have a legitimate place only in poetry. So no dogmatism in this respect will do. No limits can be set to the resources of poetic language. Even where the poet is making use of the real language of men, the sanction will he not in any selection but in ‘noble employment’. As Sir Walter Raleigh has said, the poets can “redeem words from degradation by a single noble employment”.

      Wordsworth’s theory must be understood only with reference to the trends against which he was reacting. It was against the effete, artificial, conventional diction of 18th-century poetry, which never spoke of the west wind but as ‘the trembling Zephyr’ or any wind except as ‘the fragrant gale’, that he was enunciating this theory. The issue before him was one of nature against artifice. Even so it had its limitations, as some of Wordsworth’s own uninspired poems reveal. As a general theory it is, as we have seen, an arbitrary limitation of poetic words to those in actual currency. It would be best to conclude that there is no word either poetic or unpoetic in itself. Only its use by the poet must determine its poetic quality. So the diction of poetry is neither limited to the real language of men (What does ‘real’ mean here? asked Coleridge) nor can it be said to consist in a special vocabulary. The valid diction of poetry includes any word or words in the language which receive poetic sanction from the efficient, expressive use the poet makes of them. (Cp. J. L. Lowes— Convention & Revolt in English Poetry).

      A latter-day champion of ‘the language of ordinary speech’ was Gerard Manley Hopkins, who declared that the poetical language of an age should be the current language heightened. We have no clue as to whether we would be right in taking ‘current’ language as meaning ‘the language of ordinary speech’. Fortunately for us, James Milroy (The Language of G.M.Hopkins) has interpreted it as such: ‘the language of ordinary speech as he (Hopkins) heard it around him in all its complexcity and variety. But the methods Hopkins used in order to ‘heighten’ it, made his language difficult, elliptical, obscure indeed ‘extraordinary’.

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