Augustan Studies

Augustan Studies

Augustan Studies

Augustan Studies

Excerpt

It is still true that most readers of eighteenth-century poetry approach it by way of nineteenth-century poetry. They have been brought up to expect poetry to be written in a certain way, its words to be chosen in accordance with certain principles. They know what Wordsworth said about Pope before they read Pope. And this means that when they read Pope and other eighteenth-century poets, they apply the wrong criteria: criteria which are wrong because irrelevant.

These wrong criteria are often applied to the poetic diction of eighteenth-century poetry. In using the terms 'eighteenth- century' and 'nineteenth-century' I do not intend to imply that they carry any well-defined meanings for the historian or critic of the poetic diction. Blake, who uses almost none of the diction, is an eighteenth-century poet. On the other hand, poets born later are not necessarily immune from the waning infection. The passionate attack on the diction made by Wordsworth and Coleridge, whom we think of as nineteenth-century poets, is all the more passionate because the eighteenth-century is in their blood and will not be expelled. Byron, of course, glories in the ancestral germs. Keats and, to a smaller extent, Shelley use the diction more than is generally seen, and even Tennyson does not cut himself off from it, though he seems to discover it again for himself rather than to use it from habit. Browning appears to be the first poet of the nineteenth century who is not indebted to the diction.

The generalizations made below will apply in various degrees to the poets of the two centuries and also to poets of the seventeenth and the sixteenth, since the methods of forming the diction, and even part of the diction itself, are already found in Spenser, in Sylvester's translation of Du Bartas, and in most succeeding poets except, broadly speaking, the metaphysicals.

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