Purity of Diction in English Verse

By Donald Davie | Go to book overview

IV
POETIC DICTION AND PROSAIC STRENGTH

A PURE poetic diction can purify the national language by enlivening metaphors gone dead. But since nearly all meanings are metaphorical by origin, we have to say that poetry re-creates a metaphor whenever it makes us aware, with new or renewed nicety, of the meaning of almost any word. To say this is to use 'metaphor' in a specially extended sense. And in general there is something ludicrous about the way modern criticism circles round and round 'metaphor', explaining poetry more and more in terms of 'images'; this is sufficient reason for not extending the use of the word even further, and if 'metaphor' is taken in a more usual and restricted sense, one of the conclusions to be derived from the present study is that poetry can be written in unmetaphorical language. This is no new discovery-- we have seen it affirmed, in different ways, by both Goldsmith and Wordsworth--but it is an aspect of poetry little considered to-day. In the Prologue to "A Word to the Wise", Johnson renovates the word 'Bounty', and makes us more conscious of its meaning. In a sense he does so by re-creating a metaphor gone dead in the word, but to say so is to use 'metaphor' in a specially extended sense; and it is better, when dealing with this sort of achievement, to forget about metaphor and, following Johnson, to call it 'strength'.

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