Purity of Diction in English Verse

By Donald Davie | Go to book overview

II
THE CHASTITY OF POETIC DICTION

ACCORDING to Goldsmith,1chastity in writing is the best safeguard against frigidity; and frigidity is "a deviation from propriety owing to the erroneous judgment of the writer, who, endeavouring to captivate the admiration with novelty, very often shocks the understanding with extravagance". This extravagance, he claims, betrays itself most often in the use of metaphor, and in two ways, in metaphors which are mixed and in metaphors which are laboured into conceits. It follows that hyperbolical and highly metaphorical language runs most risk of frigidity; and chastity therefore appears most often as restraint and economy in the use of metaphor.

Goldsmith allows that in certain genres the language may and should be less chaste than in others. Goldsmith gives no full account of the genres, and in practice he distinguishes only between the poetry of passion and the poetry of pathos. Chastity is more important in the poetry that aims at pathos:

Passion itself is very figurative, and often bursts out into metaphors; but, in touching the pathos, the poet must be perfectly well acquainted with the emotions of the human soul, and carefully distinguish between those metaphors which rise glowing

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1
I base this account of Goldsmith's doctrine on the three essays: "XV, Poetry distinguished from other writing"; "XVI, Metaphor"; and "XVII, Hyperbole". These essays are not very distinguished writing, and may be all the more representative of views commonly held by the readers of Goldsmith's age.

-18-

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