Purity of Diction in English Verse


Some time ago I began to read the works of some English poets who lived in the middle and towards the close of the eighteenth century. I was surprised and pleased to find how much I enjoyed them; but I found it hard to rationalize the enjoyment they gave me. With most of my contemporaries, I thought that the surest sign of poetic greatness was the ability to organize experience by apt and memorable metaphor. Suitably qualified, this is still my belief. But to make those qualifications, and to account for the respect I felt, I have had to go a long way round. My difficulties hinged on the question: whether it is true that in the eighteenth century literary English was metaphorically impoverished. In the last hundred years most literary historians have found this metaphorical poverty falling, like a shadow, over most English poetry written between the death of Pope and the publication of Lyrical Ballads. I have come to believe that what seems poverty is sometimes economy; and that this economy in metaphor produces effects which I call 'poetical', to which, it seems to me, most readers of our day are blind. The effects seem to me to be morally valuable; otherwise I should not care to write of them.

I have spent much time trying to understand what is meant by the 'diction' of poetry. But I am interested in the problem of diction only so as to use that notion, where no other will meet the case, in appreciating certain poetry of the past and the present. I derive from this poetry a pleasure which I can only describe . . .

Additional information

Publisher: Place of publication:
  • London
Publication year:
  • 1952


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