NOW THAT we have come to the end of the 1940's, a backward look at the character of poetry in earlier centuries may tell us, by comparison, more about the character of what we have come to. There is inheritance in language and in poetic language, as well as innovation, and even the innovation may follow clear lines of development, as Eliot has emphasized.
To begin with the simple major vocabulary: the terms for the 1940's are, it will be remembered, the adjectives little,old,white, the nouns day,death,eye,God,hand,head,heart,life,light,love,man,mind, night,sun,thing,time,world, the verbs come,fall,give,go,hear, know,lie,make,see,take. If we look back to the 1540's, the decade of Wyatt and Surrey and their early century in general, we see an equal number of verbs and a majority of the same verbs; many fewer shared nouns, but a majority of those agreed on; and fewer and different adjectives.
Verbs are the most stable, the least changing. They persist through all centuries except the eighteenth, with about ten major terms, and of these come,give,go,know,make,see,take specifically, persist. Note the pairs of actions, come and go,give and take,know and make. The great change in the five centuries is the loss of find,tell,think, and the gain of hear,fall,lie, from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The verbs have become more passive and receptive.
Of major nouns of the 1540's, eight, all but king and lord, are primary still for the 1940's. Indeed these are primary terms for almost the whole range of the poetry: basic day, God, heart, life, love, man, time; the eighth noun, thing, is less steady, but is taken up from across the centuries by the 1940's in its renewed awareness of human construction. From the 1640's we take persistent eye, but have dropped its heaven and soul; from the 1740's, hand, but not air, friend, joy, nature, power, youth; from the 1840's, light, night, sun, world, but not spirit, thought, and word. Finally, on our own, we have added death, head, mind, and possibly sky. So, of our many agreed-on nouns in the 1940's,