Purity of Diction in English Verse

By Donald Davie | Go to book overview

APPENDIX B
'STRENGTH' AND 'EASE' IN SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY CRITICISM

SOME. of our difficulty in dealing with the abundant good verse of the first part of the seventeenth century derives from the poverty of literary criticism in this period. Outside Jonson "Discoveries" and Hobbes' essay on "Gondibert" we look in vain for anything to tell us how the men of the period regarded the poetry they and their contemporaries were writing. And as there is no way of taking this poetry on its own valuation, we have to provide scales of our own--'Cavalier lyrists', 'metaphysicals', 'the marinist tradition', 'the line of wit'. None of these labels would have made sense to any of the poets to whom we attach them.

If there is no criticism in the period, there are clues to be found in the poetry itself to two terms which would have made sense to them. From title-pages, poems of dedication, and votive offerings to poetic masters, we can extricate the terms 'strength' and 'ease'; and we can deduce that it was in these terms that the poets discussed their own and each other's verse. Our difficulty lies in trying to define, on this meagre and fragmentary evidence, what was meant by each of these words. And in the case of 'ease' this question is probably insoluble, since the meaning appears to fluctuate between a smooth fluency in numbers and a quite different, though related, quality of social demeanour, the 'sprezzatura' of Castiglione and the Sidneyan ideal, a

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