Linguistic Convention In Poetry

How does this contrast between liberal and conservative trends apply to the language of literature? The obvious reaction to this question would be to place literature, and above all poetry, at the liberal extremity of the scale: there is no other variety of language in which originality is so prized and dogged orthodoxy so despised; poetry is the mode of composition which is creative par excellence. The task of a linguist trying to discover by objective means the underlying conventions of poetic composition in English would be a thankless one, since each new poem he examined would be apt to contradict any generalizations he had been able to make. Rules in poetry are made only to be broken. So, he might conclude, there is no such thing as a literary register, a code of accepted usage, in literature.

Yet if this is a correct assessment of the liberal climate of literary language today, such a degree of freedom has not always existed. In most periods of the history of English literature, quite a strong sense of linguistic appropriateness has informed the making and judging of poetry. The rival tendencies of conservatism and liberalism have tugged in opposite directions. The liberal spirit holds sway at the present time, but in other periods, notably the Anglo-Saxon period and the eighteenth century, a distinctly conservative tendency prevailed.

i.2. i The Trend of Conformity

To help us to appreciate the importance of the conformist (that is, conservative) tendency in poetic language, we may note a certain resemblance between literature and the institutions which typify conservatism in language: law and religion. Like them, literature is a sphere in which the linguistic transactions of past ages are stored up reverently for their value to posterity. Scriptures, statutes, and literary classics are three kinds of text which are preserved for future ages word by word and sentence by sentence. They are more than historical documents, surviving as dead exhibits in museums and libraries: they remain alive from generation to generation, and speak in as authoritative a voice to one age as to another.

It is not surprising that archaism, the survival of the language of the past into the language of the present, is a feature of these time-defying roles of language. We have already noticed it in the hereinafter of legal English and the thou forms of religious English. The archaic ingredient of poetic expression was noted long ago by Aristotle, and has persisted through much of the history of English poetry. There is a difference between the occurrence of archaism in literature and its occurrence elsewhere, in that literary archaism is often inspired by the wish to follow the model of a particular writer or school of writers of the past. Nevertheless in the period 1600-1900 there vaguely existed what could be called a 'standard archaic usage' for English poetry, not based on the style of any one writer.6 It is true that the individual influences of Spenser and Milton played a leading part in the establishment of this traditional pattern of usage, but later poets modified it, and the archaic element was renewed at various times by poets who found new inspiration in the literature of past ages: for example, Chatter-ton, Coleridge, D. G. Rossetti, Morris. This tradition kept alive in poetry such words as behold, betimes, burthen, damsel, eftsoons, eld, ere, fain, hither, lief, oft, quoth, smite, sprite, unto, wight, wot, yonder, long after they fell into general disuse.7 But this retention of older forms was by no means confined to vocabulary. Examples of obsolete grammatical features retained up to the later nineteenth century are the second person pronouns ye and thou; the verbal endings (e)st and (e)th; and the old negative and interrogative forms without an auxiliary, as in 'I know not' and 'Saw you anything?'. In addition, there survived grammatical variants such as 'tis, 'twas, 'gainst, ne'er, e'en, o'er, spake, holp, -ed (the past tense or past participle ending pronounced as a separate syllable, as in clothed). Many of these variants were obviously useful stock-in-trade for the versifier; they offered him alternatives with one more or less syllable than the normal form, and so made regular scansion easier. Even in orthography, archaic inclinations were fostered: under the antiquarian influences of the late eighteenth century, chant could appear as chaunt, and mariner as marinere (in Coleridge's poem).8

My use of the past tense above implies that archaism, as a regular component of poetic expression, is no longer with us. Indeed, I take it that the ' Spenserian' tradition of poetic expression eventually petered out towards the beginning of this century. Hardy, Yeats, and Bridges are perhaps the last major poets to have had any recourse to it. If the old-fashioned usages outlined above can be said to be part of the present-day English language, this is probably due more to the Authorized Version of the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Shakespearean canon, than to the outmoded conventions of poetic usage.

1.2.2 The Function of Archaism

The examples of archaism I have given are poetic cliches which became threadbare a long time ago. Are they to be taken seriously today, as relevant to our appreciation of the poetry of past ages, or simply to be made fun of, in mock-Spenserian utterances such as' Hence, loathed wight' ? We must take them seriously if we are to explain something of what, in the past, has been considered the poetic heightening of language. Archaic language is naturally invested with a dignity and solemnity which comes from its association with the noble literary achievements of the past. It also gives a sense of cultural continuity. In religious life, this has recently been illustrated by the loss many people have felt wherever the New English Bible has replaced the Authorized or even the Revised Version. We may deplore this sense of the grandeur of old-fashioned language as a spurious emotion; we may belittle it by parody or by turning it into ' olde worlde' quaintness; but we still have to recognize that it exists, and that it has existed in a stronger form in the past.

The connection between archaism and the sublime is shown in the tendency of certain nineteenth-century prose writers to modulate into 'biblical' or 'poetical' language at points of emotional climax. But, of course, the step from the sublime to the ridiculous is short. When archaic diction had become a mere mannerism, an incongruity between loftiness of tone and poverty of emotion (often found, for example, in Victorian ballads and translations of German lieder) helped to bring it into disrepute.

1.2.3 Poetic Language and 'Poetical' Language

The conformist aspect of poetic language, of which archaism is an important part, is what we normally read into the adjective 'poetical', if we want to use that adjective in a slightly derogatory way. 'Poeticalness', on such an understanding, bears the same relation to poetry as 'journalese' bears to journalism: it sums up, in one word, all that is stale, hackneyed, or lacking in originality in that form of writing.

However, if we connect conformity with staleness in this way, we take a characteristically modern attitude. This is to be contrasted with the typical attitude of the eighteenth century - the period of the ascendancy of so-called poetic diction, when standards of the 'poetical' and 'unpoetical' in language were seriously observed. Gray reflected the assumptions of the age when he wrote (in a letter to Richard West, quoted at the beginning of this chapter):' Our poetry ... has a language peculiar to itself; to which almost every one that has written, has added something by enriching it with foreign idioms and derivatives: Nay, sometimes words of their own composition or invention'. Poetic language, he seems to suggest, is a treasury in which has been collected all that is best in the language of the past; it is a precinct set off from the 'ordinary' language of the day; the poet, who is a custodian of this heritage, may nevertheless be allowed in some small way to contribute to it. It is perhaps the daring tone in which Gray makes this last concession to the liberal point of view that most clearly reveals the strength of his conservatism.

As in all conservative roles, the set of conventions which make up ' poetical' usage have both a positive and negative aspect. The positive aspect consists of features which belong to the register of poetry, but are rarely, if ever, found elsewhere in the language. Examples are special poetical words, such as billow, main (='the sea'), nymph, slumber, steed, swain, verdant, woe, as well as many of the archaisms already mentioned. These, we may say, arc parts of the language 'specialized' to the role of poetry, and if they are ever used outside poetry (e.g. for comic purposes), they carry strong overtones of'poeticalness'. The poetic diction of the Augustan age was also noted for favourite expressions such as watery store, fleecy care, feather'd race.9 These are periphrases for 'sea', 'sheep', and 'birds' respectively. Typically, such periphrases consist of a descriptive adjective followed by a collective or abstract noun. Also characteristic of this periphrastic diction are nouns used in peculiar senses: care used in the sense of'what is cared for', for example, in fleecy care and woolly care.10

Again, one should not be misled by the term' diction' into thinking that this specialized poetic usage is only a matter of vocabulary or phraseology. Gulp'h andghyll (the latter 'apparently introduced by Wordsworth')11 are examples of special poetical spellings, by the side of gulf arid gill. Certain syntactic constructions which probably owe their currency to Milton's idiosyncratic influence are also virtually confined to poetry. An example is that of nor following an affirmative clause, in the sense 'and ... not', as in Browning's 'Flat thus I lie nor flinch' [Ivan Iviinovich].

Along with the positive specialization we have to consider the negative, exclusive side of poetry's' language peculiar to itself'. It is difficult to determine what is excluded from the repertoire of the poet, that is, all that lies in the 'unpoetical' sections of the language; but such tacit proscription is attested whenever we have the intuition, in the words of Donald Davie, that' words are thrusting at the poem and being fended off from it'.12 This is certainly the feeling one gets on reading this stanza from Gray's Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College:

Say, Father Thames, for thou hast seen

Full many a sprightly race Disporting on thy margent green,

The paths of pleasure trace; Who foremost now delight to cleave With pliant arm, thy glassy wave?

The captive linnet which enthral ? What idle progeny succeed To chase the rolling circle's speed Or urge the flying ball ?

Here the everyday spectacle of children at play is described in far from everyday language; almost all the common words a person would normally use for this purpose, such as children, play, swim, bank, water, hoop, roll, throw, catch, bird, are avoided by the poet.

1.2.4 Grand, Middle, and Plain Styles13

The subject of linguistic appropriateness has not been neglected by the literary theorists of the past. The doctrine of decorum, or fittingness of style, has been passed down to us from the rhetoricians of Greece and Rome, who applied it first to oratory and then to written language. This is not so much concerned with the relation between literary and' ordinary' language, as with the relation between various styles of literary expression. Generally three styles were distinguished: the grand, middle, and plain styles. They can be associated with the registerial factor of tone, and can be considered three stages on a scale of poetic elevation. The analogy of clothing can again give some idea of what was meant by the three styles: we may think of the plain style as the working dress of language, and the grand style as ceremonial dress for a state occasion. For the middle style, between the two, the watchword was elegance - perhaps respectable clothes for a night out. The archaisms and other features contributing to poetic heightening belonged more to the grand style than to the others. Plain style was most like colloquial speech, but even here some degree of literary artistry (felicitous choice and arrangement of words, etc.) was usually insisted on.

Like most of the classifications of rhetoric, this one was variously interpreted and elaborated by writers of different periods. I have merely picked out what seem to be the most constant and significant elements of the theory. The idea that there are just three literary styles seems to have no justification apart from the sanction of tradition. Why should there be three, rather than four, or five, or an unlimited number ? In the past two centuries, the code of decorum has been so vaguely conceived as to be of no particular use either to writer or critic. Nevertheless, it is useful to be reminded that whilst poetic language has to be distinguished from other kinds of English usage, there are further divisions to be made within poetic language itself. Previous ages have been much more conscious of these than we are today.

1.2.5 The Routine Licences of Verse Composition

We come now to a point at which it is necessary to deal more carefully with the division between poetry and prose literature. The bland characterisation of poetry as 'verse literature' in §0.3 above located this distinction in the apparently superficial matter of whether a given composition has a discernible metre, rhyme scheme, or stanza form, or even whether it is arranged in verse lines on the printed page. One might assume from this that there is no fundamental difference between poetic language and prose language, except that the features typifying literary composition tend to be more pervasive and pronounced in poetry than in prose.

But the difference is a little more subtle than this. Looking back over the span of English literature- since Chaucer, we note that certain freedoms of language have been traditionally sanctioned in verse, but not in prose. These enter the study of poetic language at a rather low level: in fact, they belong to the mere mechanics of verse composition. Their obvious func tion is to compensate the poet for his loss of freedom in submitting himself to the discipline of verse composition; to furnish him with a wider set of choices than are normally available in English and thus to give him a better chance of squeezing his language into a predetermined mould of versification. If he rejects these 'routine licences', as we may call them, the task of versification is that much more difficult.

One such licence has already been exemplified: the retention in the poetic register of alternative forms (such as 'tis for it is, ne'er for never, oft for often, winged for winged) containing a different number of syllables. Of the types of shortening shown in these examples, the omission of an initial part of a word or phrase is called apiiesis, the omission of a medial part syncope, and the omission of a final part apocope. I do not mean to suggest that the shorter variant is necessarily derived historically from the longer one: oft, for example, is an older form than often.

Another freedom poets have enjoyed by custom is that of arranging syntactic elements in an irregular order (hyperbATOn) : for example, placing an adjective after the noun it qualifies (cities fair) instead of before (fair cities). Jumbled clause structures have been taken so much for granted in verse, that we scarcely notice them. The opening two stanzas of Cowper's The Diverting History of John Gilpin contain three examples:

John Gilpin was a citizen Of credit and renown,

A train-band captain eke was he Of famous London town.

John Gilpin's spouse said to her dear, 'Though wedded we have been

These twice ten tedious years; yet we No holiday have seen.'

The sections in italics each contain the main, clause elements subject (S), verbal (V), and object/complement (C), which in prose, as in ordinary speech, would almost certainly occur in the order SVC. Cowper gives us three separate variations of that order: C V S, C S V, and S C V. Only when we see Mrs Gilpin's remark written as prose, do we fully realize that no citizen's wife would have uttered, in reality, sentences of such odd structure: 'Though wedded we have been these twice ten tedious years, yet we no holiday have seen.' It would perhaps be going too far to suggest that in verse the elements may be scrambled into any order whatsoever: one would scarcely meet, even in a poem, such a violent disorganization as that of (say)' have been though wedded we' or' been have we wedded though'. Yet poets have exercised great freedom in this matter.

Some poets have claimed a greater degree of this kind of freedom than others. Spenser, of all major English poets, probably claimed most: in The Faerie Qneene he was not averse, for instance, to leaving out a normally obligatory definite article or other grammatical determiner if it threatened the metre:

Let all that live hereby be counselled

To shunne Rocke of Reproch, and it as death to dred!

In justification, if it is accepted as such, we can point to Spenser's achievement of sustaining an exacting verse form through the longest good poem in the English language. In contrast, the poets of the present century have veered far away from Renaissance artifice, preferring to reject these conventional peculiarities of poetic expression together with the rigidity of metre and complexity of verse form which made them necessary.

These matters belong, as I have said, to the mechanics of composition -to the level of craftmanship rather than art. Yet the point that has been made - that by the very act of writing in verse an author can claim special exemptions from the laws of normal usage - is by no means trifling. The feeling of' heightening' in poetic language is, in part, nothing more than the consciousness that it is strange and arresting by the side of common usage. Since the bread-and-butter licences of versification in themselves bring about an alienation of poetic language from everyday language, we can see how verse may be accepted as the vehicle for a much more daring departure from linguistic norms than prose, and hence for the singularity of expression and concentration of meaning which contribute to 'heightening ' in a more profound sense. Consequently, even the visual signal that a text is verse and not prose, its irregular lineation on the page, is sufficient to call up in a reader a whole range of expectations which would otherwise be absent.

Examples for discussion

[note: The topics suggested here cannot he investigated thoroughly without the use of reference books. Nevertheless, the exercise will be of some profit, I hope, to readers who rely simply on their own knowledge of the language past and present.]

I, Identify archaisms (grammatical, etc., as well as lexical) in the following two stan2as by Byron. To help in this, attempt a paraphrase of the first stanza in everyday modern English. Disregarding the factor of versification, what is gained or lost by such a paraphrase?

Whilome in Albion's isle there dwelt a youth, Who ne in virtue's ways did take delight; But spent his days in riot most uncouth, And vex'd with mirth the drowsy ear of Night. All me! in sooth he was a shameless wight, Sore given to revel and ungodly glee; Few earthly things found favour in his sight Save concubines and camal companie, And flaunting wassailers of high and low degree.

Cliilde Harold was he hight: - but whence his name And lineage long, it suits me not to say; Suffice it, that perchance they were of fame, And had been glorious in another day: But one sad losel soils a name for aye, However mighty in the olden time; Nor all that heralds rake from coffui'd clay, Nor florid prose, nor honeyed lies of rhyme, Can blazon evil deeds, or consecrate a crime.

[Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, I]

2. Distinguish conventional features of poetic language in the following passage (in which the goddess Venus is arguing the superiority of love to war). As in (i) above, a paraphrase in 'unpoetical' language will help to determine the extent of the conventionality, and its value (if any). Arthos and Groom (see die Notes below) are useful books to consult oil eighteenth-century poetic diction.

No savage joy th'liarmonious hours profane!

Whom love refines, can barbarous tumult please? Shall rage of blood pollute die sylvan reign? Shall Leisure wanton in the spoils of Peace?

Free let the feathery race indulge the song, Inhale the liberal beam, and melt in love: Free let the fleet hind bound her hills along, And in pure streams the watery nations rove.

[James Beattie, Judgement of Paris, 1765]

3. Show, 011 the basis of linguistic evidence, why this poem strikes one as colloquial and familiar in tone, rather than formal or elevated. Does it contain any lines which could not be heard in everyday speech?

Why should I let the toad work Squat on my life?

Can't I use my wit as a pitchfork And drive the brute off?

Six days of the week it soils With its sickcning poison -

Just for paying a few bills! That's out of proportion.

Lots of folk live on their wits: Lecturers, lispers,

Lösels, loblolly-mcn, louts -They don't end as paupers;

Lots of folk live up lanes With fires in a buckct,

Eat windfalls and tinned sardines -They seem to like it.

Their nippers have got bare feet, Their unspeakable wives

Are skinny as whippets - and yet No one actually starves.

Ah, were I courageous enough To shout Stuff your pension!

But I know, all too well, that's the stuff That dreams are made on:

For something sufficiently toad-like Squats in me, too;

Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck, And cold as snow,

And will never allow me to blarney My way to getting

The fame and the girl and the money All at one sitting.

I don't say, one bodies the other One's spiritual truth;

But I do say it's hard to lose either, When you have both.

[Philip Larkin, Toads]


1 Letter to Robert Bridges, 14 August 1879.

2 Letter to Richard West, April 1742.

3 Both passages arc quoted in Chapter 15 of r. quirk, The Use of English (2nd edn.), London, 1968. That chapter is the source of many of the ideas and examples in Chapters I and 2 of this book, and I here declarc my great indebtedness to its author.

4 This threefold system of register analysis has appeared in various forms in various publications. The term 'tone' is here preferred to alternatives 'style' and 'tenor', which are required for other purposes in this book. See m. a. k. halliday, a. mcintosh, and p. strevens, The Linguistic Sciences and Language Teaching, London, 1964, 90-4; n. e. enkvist, j. spencer, and m. j. gregory, Linguistics and Style, London, 1965, 86. The most thorough and extensive treatment of English register to date is d. crystal and d. davy, Investigating English Style, London, 1969.

5 M. A. K. HAILIDAY, A. MCINTOSH, and P. STREVENS, Op. cit., 87.

6 In this discussion ofpoctic tradition, I have drawn freely on the wealth of information in d. groom, The Diction of Poetry from Spenser to Bridges, Toronto, 195.5.

7 groom, op. cit., gives lists of archaisms under relevant authors: 14, 75, 159-61, 212-3, 228, 254-5, 257-8.

10 Ibid., 104. A valuable source book for eighteenth-century poetic diction is j. arthos, The Language of Natural Description in Eighteenth Century Poetry, Ann Arbor, 1949.

12 d. davie, Purity of Diction in English Verse, London, 1952, 5.

13 For the history of this subject, consult the index of j. w. h. atkins, Literary Criticism in Antiquity, 2 Vols., Cambridge, 1934, and of other volumes by the same author 011 the history of English literary criticism.

The Creative Use of Language

We now pass from the conservative to the liberal, from the derivative to the creative aspect of poetic language. The latter is the more important and interesting subject, and with few interruptions will occupy the rest of this book. The poet is nothing if not creative, and since language is his medium, one might well ask how he could be creative without using language in some sense creatively.

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  • asfaha
    Is it complustory to have poetry conventions and forms in poetry language?
    2 years ago
  • dirk
    What are the conventional features of poetic language?
    10 months ago

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