The Classical Tradition in Poetry, Chapter 5

Having published my “Apology for Poetry” and much of chapters I and II of Gilbert Murray’s great work, The Classical Tradition in Poetry, I am herewith offering Chapter V, “Poetic Diction.” Murray here defends the use of poetic diction, including archaic language, which for millennia was taken for granted as integral to the poet’s craft. The Classical Tradition in Poetry appeared in 1927. I beg to call my readers’ attention to my two published plays, The Tragedy of King Lewis the Sixteenth and Dido: The Tragedy of a Woman (both available on, as present-day works that in their modest way adhere to the Classical Tradition in poetic drama.

Chapter V


Is there in the classical permanent tradition any essential difference between the language of verse and ordinary prose speech when each is engaged on its characteristic work? There has always been, among both the despisers of poetry and the admirers, a feeling of impatience and rebellion against the robes and ornaments in which she is swathed. “If poetry really means something,” cry the Philistine and the realist poet alike, “surely it can say what it means, and say it as truly and exactly as possible! If it cannot, if it must always use poetic diction and ornamental phrases, and call things out of their proper names, then surely it stands condemned. We want the true, unveiled beauty of Nature, and we are given a figure rouged and robed and bewigged and lime-lighted, from a theatrical costumier.”

Everyone at times feels something like this. Yet before we yield to the feeling, we must bear in mind the enormous weight of authority against us. Homer, Vergil, Milton, Shakespeare—are they too classical and sophisticated?, Then think of the strangely artificial language of the mediaeval poets, of the curious tortuousness of much of Dante. Think of the great primitive Icelandic poems, with their riddles and kennings, or equally of the early Irish. It is quite indubitable that poetry, and primitive poetry as much as any, does try to make its language different from that of ordinary life.

Aristotle, at any rate, had no doubts on the subject. Indeed, Greek practice in the matter was so clear-cut and unanimous that theory could hardly venture to contradict it. Greek had not only a different method of speech for prose and poetry, but different dialects for epic, lyric, and dramatic poetry, and different sub-dialects, as it were, in prose for history and oratory, and in verse for love-elegies and for philosophical rhapsodies, even if both were in the same metre. Aristotle does not even show any consciousness here, as he so often does, that other philosophers differ from him and have to be confuted. He simply says:

“The virtue of poetical diction is to be clear and not mean. The clearest is that which is made up of the ‘regular’ or ‘proper’ words for things (κυρια ονοματα), but it is mean, as is shown by the poetry of Cleophon and Sthenelus. [We might perhaps think of Crabbe or parts of Wordsworth.] To be impressive and avoid commonness (σεμνη και εξαλλαττουσα το ιδιοωτικον), diction must use unfamiliar terms: by which I mean strange words, metaphors, lengthened forms, and everything out of the ordinary, though a style consisting entirely of such will result in riddles or barbarism. . . . A certain admixture is necessary.(1) . . .

“What helps most to make the diction clear and not common is the use of lengthened, curtailed, and altered forms.”

Here, no doubt, Aristotle is expressing himself wrongly, as was inevitable at a time when the science of language was unborn. His own dialect, fourth-century Attic, differed from the Greek of Homer by a long period of historic growth, involving much contraction of vowels. When an Attic poet used the old, uncontracted form of some word which was traditional in epic, he seemed to Aristotle—and no doubt to himself—to be “lengthening” or “altering” the normal form (in rare cases, curtailing it). The nearest modern parallel would be the use of obsolete verbal terminations, and so forth, like “thou goest, he goeth.”

“A too apparent use of these licenses has certainly a ludicrous effect . . . the rule of moderation applies everywhere. To realize the difference one should take an epic verse and see how it reads when ordinary words are used.”(2)

“Ariphrades used to ridicule the tragedians for introducing expressions unknown to common life. . . . In reality the fact of their not being ordinary saves the language from commonness. But he never saw this.”

A little later: “It is important to make proper use of these poetical forms . . . but the greatest thing by far is to be master of metaphor. It is the one thing that cannot be learnt from others and it is also a sign of genius (ευφυια), for to make good metaphors is to see similarity in things dissimilar.

“In heroic poetry all these varieties are useful. But iambic verse [that is, principally drama], which represents, as far as may be, familiar speech, prefers those words which can also be used in prose.”

The last two statements will be generally accepted: metaphor is a very important characteristic of the poetic style, and drama should keep generally closer to real speech than other poetry. But the main doctrine is both disputed by critics and not quite rightly stated by Aristotle himself. He saw indeed, what Ariphrades and perhaps Wordsworth failed to see, that the use of “expressions unknown to common life” somehow increases the dignity and beauty of poetry, but he did not fully see the reason why. He says that they “save the language from commonness.” That is quite true: they keep it away from the associations of the shop, the newspaper, and the drinking saloon. They keep it free from infections that would spoil the poetry. So much Aristotle sees; but he does not perhaps see clearly that these “expressions unknown to common life” are good not merely because they are uncommon, but positively because they are poetical: that is, they carry with them the atmosphere and associations of poetry. A poet tends to use the language that is generally used in poetry: it comes natural to him, just because it is used in poetry, and it helps to produce the expectation of poetry in the reader or hearer for the same reason. This also explains why old words are generally poetical: not simply because they are old, but because it is chiefly through poetry or good literature that they are known. They bring to our mind Chaucer or Shakespeare, not their average vulgar contemporaries.

Observe also an interesting point of style. If a poet wants a particular passage to stand out with special effect from the body of his poem, he can equally well do two opposite things: he can either key up the poetical quality of his language, or he can drop suddenly into extreme prose-like simplicity. There is a time to say,

Nay this my hand would rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,

and a time to say, “Undo this button”; a time in Greek tragedy to say,

φαιοχιτωνες και πεπλεκτα νημεναι, and a time to say, “Ουτος εστιν Αγαμεμνων εμος ποσις.” Both the gorgeousness and the plainness stand out against the background of normal poetical speech.

Now suppose we take the opening of Book II of Paradise Lost:

High on a throne of royal state, which far
Outshone the wealth of Ormuz and of Ind,
Satan exalted sate;

and rewrite it: “His Excellency was on a raised dais, seated on a state chair carved in a style suggestive of the Persian Gulf or India, but far more brilliant and expensive than can be found in the possession of any of the native rulers.” The information conveyed is, as far as possible, the same, though slightly more explicit; the whole change is a change of atmosphere, from poetry to prose. To say that the throne outshone the wealth of Ormuz and of Ind is poetry; to say that it was far more expensive and brilliant than is usual in the Persian Gulf is prose, though the objective fact stated may be the same. Any detailed analysis will probably be deceptive, but we may notice that in the first place the order of the words has an effect:

High on a throne of royal state . . .

The mind is filled with a conception of loftiness and majesty: “height,” “throne,” “royal state,” with no details added; then a great brilliance. Further, when “wealth”—generally a most unpoetical subject—is mentioned, it is a vague splendour, like wealth in dreams, with no suggestion of expenses and bills and sums. The wealth “of Ormuz and of Ind” forms an undefined impression in our minds, coloured by old poetical memories. If we substitute “the wealth of the Rockefeller Foundation,” the phrase is stronger and more precise, and therefore according to some critics altogether better; but the associations are wrong.

This is, briefly and simply, the case for the Aristotelian or classical view that there is such a thing as “poetic diction,” and that the language of poetry is essentially somewhat different from that of prose. But let us hear the objectors. I remember a modern rhapsody in which the writer enthusiastically argued that the true ideal of style was to utter the most elevated and profound thoughts in the most common and colloquial language, by no means avoiding slang. The difficulty is that colloquial language consists of a small number of words used by common men on common occasions; while slang, though no doubt it has its place and its uses, consists mostly of unnecessary and ill-thought-out words used, I will not say by ignoble people, but by people in ignoble states of mind on ignoble occasions. There is generally a grumble, a snarl, or at best some affectionate derision, latent at the heart of slang. And how “the most elevated thoughts” are to be uttered in a medium invented for a quite different and almost contrary purpose is a problem that would, I think, tax the ingenuity of the poet beyond its limits.

What a poet can do, of course, is to use dialect or slang for the sake of contrast, and so get a poignant, though perhaps sometimes rather a cheap, effect. But the effect depends on the deliberate unsuitability of the medium chosen: just as when a fool in Shakespeare, or a drunken man in Ibsen, is made to utter words of wisdom, or the thief gives back the money, or the executioner weeps. These are effects of shock or paradox. You cannot construct a consistent world of wise fools and scrupulously honest thieves.

But let us consider the arguments of the greatest poet who ever maintained that poetry should speak exactly the same language as prose. Wordsworth in the preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads claims—or admits—that, in so far as he is carrying out his own theory, he is making “an experiment,” and that, if his example is followed, “a class of poetry will be produced well adapted to interest mankind permanently.” It is clear that he conceives it to be a new kind; that is, that on the whole he recognizes that the tradition of poetry is against him.

The experiment consists in “fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation.” The phrase occurs repeatedly: “to imitate and, as far as possible, adopt the very language of men.” He will “choose incidents and situations from common life, and relate or describe them throughout, as far as is possible, in a selection of the language really used by men.”

In one place he gives a quasi-historical explanation. “The earliest poets of all nations generally wrote from passion excited by real events: they wrote naturally and as men: feeling powerfully, as they did, their language was daring and figurative.

“In succeeding times poets, and men ambitious of the fame of poets, perceiving the influence of such language and desirous of producing the same effect without being animated by the same passion, set themselves to a mechanical adoption of these figures of speech. . . . A language was thus produced differing materially from the real language of men in any situation.

“This language was received as the natural language of poetry; and at length, by the influence of books upon men, did to a certain degree really become so. Abuses of this kind were imported from one nation to another.”

“Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”

“The object of Poetry is truth, not individual and local, but general and operative.”

“There neither is nor can be any essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition.”

Let us observe first the complete doctrine which seems to lie behind these various utterances, and then make allowance for the compromises and qualifications which the wise poet has been careful to admit.

The doctrine is the old fallacy of realism or naturalism, so often slain and reborn. It holds that the beauty of poetry is in the real facts of life, and more or less equally in all of them. The object of poetry is truth. A passion and a tree and a dead pig are all facts of life, and the poet can either describe them objectively—and if so must describe them correctly—or, in the case of the passion, can let the fact express itself. (Strictly speaking, he should do the same by the tree and the pig, also.) Poetry is then “the spontaneous overflow of strong feeling.” And that is the only true poetry.

Many questions will then arise, and it will be seen that Wordsworth takes a position quite different from that of the true realist. He makes concessions. He says that a poet “writes under one restriction only, that of giving immediate pleasure to a human being.” Why in the world, asks the orthodox realist, should the poet seek to give pleasure—and immediate pleasure—to a human being if his real object is truth? Why should he yield to the wish to be agreeable, a notorious and not very interesting source of mendacity?

Again, Wordsworth strongly insists on the need of metre. But real men do not naturally speak in metre. Why mar the exact truthfulness of your picture by an obvious falsity?

Lastly, Wordsworth always speaks of “selection.” He gives a “selection of the real language of men,” and the like. He also selects the subjects of his poems, preferring common life and rustic scenes to the pursuits of the idle rich. But if mere truth is the object, if beauty is present in all life and only needs to be expressed, why make a selection? All life is beautiful; let it speak. And let it speak its natural language. It is of little use to answer that the poet is not trying to represent concrete facts but the inner spirit of life, because on the realist theory this inner spirit is necessarily existent everywhere. The purpose of God—to use theological language—is just as truly present in a General Purposes Committee or a rubbish-heap or a Newport dinner-party, as in the Aphrodite of Melos or in Socrates or in a peasant woman weeping for her son. To select one aspect of life rather than another is a sort of blasphemy. The poet, in fact, has nothing to do, except to express the overflow of his feelings. And he need not really trouble about that, because in so far as they are real they will express themselves; and that is all that is wanted. If he thinks about them and adds something of his own, he makes them artificial, and ruins everything. In fact, the best thing the poet, qua poet, can do is to “shut up.” The theory of pure Realism or Naturalism destroys itself by its own contradictions in the realm of aesthetic, as well as in the realms of ethics and of logic.

This means, if I am not mistaken, that, exquisite as Wordsworth’s style is at its best, the speculative foundation on which his theory rests is completely unsound. Poetry is not a representation of an objective fact, nor yet a series of propositions whose merit is to be true. Poetry is creation or mimesis; and the poem an “artifact,” whose merit is to be beautiful. And the beauty of the poem is in the poem itself, not in the thing described by the poem. How the poem can best attain its end—by simple prose-like language or by elaborate and exquisite language—is purely a question of technique.

(1) E.g., a critic of one of Andrew Lang’s translations unfairly parodied it by collecting the archaic words together: “What would Mr. Lang do if he found a redeless etin pilling in an almry? Eftsoons he would busk him a winsome mead.”

(2) “Aristotle’s examples illustrate, of course, only the effect of the Greek words, and cannot be translated. Polyphemus calls Odysseus

“Little and strengthless and of mean aspect.”

Aristotle suggests an alternative consisting of prose words something like

“Quite short and plain and physically weak.”

In English we might take the lines:

“Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.”

To substitute “dies the duck” would—such is the injustice of the world—make the line ridiculous.

David Lane

I am the author of two published plays, The Tragedy of King Lewis the Sixteenth and Dido: The Tragedy of a Woman, in both of which I used regular traditional metrics (blank verse) and the traditional language of poetry, all but universal from the Trojan War to the First World War. I am a retired editor and a veteran of the Vietnam War. For nearly twenty years, I have served as Chairman of Una Voce New York, an organization dedicated to restoring traditional Roman Catholicism, especially the ancient Latin Rite superseded by the heavily revised vernacular liturgy born of the Second Vatican Council, an event that introduced sweeping changes into the Catholic Church and ignited fierce controversy that rages to this day.

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