The Continuity of Poetic Language: Studies in English Poetry from the 1540's to the 1940's

The Continuity of Poetic Language: Studies in English Poetry from the 1540's to the 1940's

The Continuity of Poetic Language: Studies in English Poetry from the 1540's to the 1940's

The Continuity of Poetic Language: Studies in English Poetry from the 1540's to the 1940's

Excerpt

To describe the common materials of language through which poets work is to describe at once the limitations and the potentialities of their medium. The language which the makers speak is not amorphous and not by any means susceptible of free improvisation. Its sounds and sentence structures, and the references and associations of its words, are well set for poets as for everyone else by social situation in time and place; and the poets' language is even further set by literary conventions. Among the arts, in fact, literature may be distinguished by this very intense conditioning of its medium. The tones of the musician, the stones of the sculptor, are full of their own character at the outset, but that character has not been so strongly socialized, so loaded with meaningful and valuable forms and associations, as has the language which the man of letters accepts to work with. Sentences and words cannot be neutral, nor can, for the poet specifically, the sounds and measures of sentences and words. Whether one is interested, then, in the personal achievement of the individual, the persistence of convention, the social matrix, or the sheer quality of the work of art as it embodies and transforms all these, it is necessary to distinguish between them, not to attribute to conventional demand the free choices of the artist, nor to the artist the full powers of the medium itself.

The methods for such discrimination are not easy, because individual and medium too readily pull apart. The study of the common language of the poet's time and country tends to persuade us now of potentialities he never saw; the study of the poet's own work, on the other hand, tends to persuade us of his own singular inventive capacities. The aspects of interaction come clearer, I propose, in a sort of study which makes a com-

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