Older Masters: Essays and Reflections on English and American Literature

By Donald Davie | Go to book overview

17
Personification

Although this is an academic occasion, I think none of us want to see the academic proprieties observed with any sort of prissy austerity. That was never Freddy Bateson's way. And it would be particularly out of keeping with my sense of him, and my memories. For deeply as I was indebted to him for compliments that he paid to me in my capacities as literary historian and literary critic, what has always weighed more with me is the encouragement that I got from him when I was a beginning poet. And there are other poets among my contemporaries who would say the same. Indeed it was Bateson's virtually unique distinction, in his generation, not just that he never divided poetry as an object of study from poetry as a source of pleasure, but that he always moved from considering a poem of the past as a source of information or of intellectual and imaginative stimulus to thinking of it as a poem we might have written or one that might have been written yesterday or last week. And it's in that context, of the here and now, that I want to consider the matter of personification.

Bateson himself characteristically, on that very page of A Guide to English Literature which supplies me with a text for my sermon, turns from considering the diction of our eighteenth-century poetry to deliver the mordant aside: 'Such effects have not been possible in more recent poetry, when the poet has all the words in the English dictionary at his beck and call and is allowed to be as long-winded as he likes'. However that may be, the sentences from Bateson that I want to remind you of are these:

. . . the specifically Augustan personifications simply exploit — at their best with great force and economy — a grammatical characteristic of the English language, viz. that a single noun, however abstract or general, must be followed by a verb in the third person singular. The present indicative tense, simply because it distinguishes between its singular and plural forms, inevitably imposes a degree of personification on the single abstract word. (Compare 'war begins' with 'hostilities commence'.) Horace Walpole's comment on Gray's speech compared with the slovenly

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