Purity of Diction in English Verse

By Donald Davie | Go to book overview

I
THE DICTION OF ENGLISH VERSE

A FRIEND asks me what I stand to gain from talking about 'the diction of verse', instead of 'the language of poetry. For him, these are two ways of saying one thing, and my way is only the more pretentious. Now it seems to me that it would be pretentious to talk about the 'diction' of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and faintly precious, even, to talk of his 'verse'. If 'diction' is a selection from the language of men, then Hopkins may be said to use a poetic diction in the ridiculous sense that 'hogshead' or any other word one may call to mind was never used by him in any of his poems, and that he therefore used a selection of the language which excluded 'hogshead' or whatever word it is. But the point is that in reading the poems of Hopkins one has no sense of English words thrusting to be let into the poem and held out of it by the poet. One feels that Hopkins could have found a place for every word in the language if only he could have written enough poems. One feels the same about Shakespeare. But there are poets, I find, with whom I feel the other thing--that a selection has been made and is continually being made, that words are thrusting at the poem and being fended off from it, that however many poems these poets wrote certain words would never be allowed into the poems, except as a disastrous oversight. These different feelings we have, when we read English poetry, justify us in talking of the language of the one kind of poet, and the

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