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POETIC DICTION




Any word or set expression which is peculiar to a certain level of style or a certain type of environment and mood will become associated with it and will be able to call up its atmosphere when used in some other context. There is no such thing as one poetic style in the English language. The language a poet uses is closely bound with his outlook and experience, with his subject-matter and the message he wants to express. But there remains in English vocabulary a set of words which contrast with all other words, because, having been traditionally used only in poetry, they have poetic connotations. Their usage was typical of poetic conventions in the 18th century, but since the so-called Romantic Revolt in the first quarter of the 19th century poetic diction fell into disuse. These words are not only more lofty but also as a rule more abstract in their denotative meaning than their neutral synonyms. To illustrate this layer, suffice it to give some examples in oppositions with their stylistically neutral synonyms. Nouns: array : : clothes; billow : : wave; brine : : salt water; brow : : forehead; gore : blood; main : : sea; steed : : horse; woe : : sorrow. Verbs: behold : : see; deem : : think; hearken : : hear; slay : : kill; trow : : believe. Adjectives: fair : : beautiful; hapless : : unhappy; lone : : lonely; murky : : grim; uncouth : : strange. Adverbs: anon : : presently; nigh : : almost; oft : : often; whilom : : formerly. Pronouns: thee : : thou; aught : : anything; naught : : nothing. Conjunctions: albeit : : although; ere : : before.

Sometimes it is not the word as a whole that is poetic but only one of its variants. It may be semantic: the words fair, hall, flood and many others have among their meanings a poetical one. It may be also a phonetical variant: e'en : : even; morn : : morning; oft : : often.

In the 18th century the standards of poetic diction were rigorously observed and the archaic ingredient was considered not only appropriate but obligatory. This poetic diction specialised by generations of English poets was not only a matter of vocabulary, but also of phraseology, imagery, grammar and even spelling. Traces of this conservative tendency may be observed in the 19th century poetry. They may either heighten the emotional quality of the expression or create an ironical colouring by juxtaposing high style and trivial matter.

In the following stanza by G.G. Byron conventional features of poetic language can be interpreted both ways:

I’ve tried another’s fetters too

With charms perchance as fair to view And I would fain have loved as well,

But some inconquerable spell

Forbade my bleeding breast to own

A kindred care for ought but one.

("Stanzas to a Lady on Leaving England")



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