Poetic words form a rather insignificant layer of the special literary vocabulary. They are mostly archaic or very rarely used highly literary words which aim at producing an elevated effect. They have a marked tendency to detach themselves from the common literary word-stock and gradually assume the quality of terms denoting certain definite notions and calling forth poetic diction.
Poetic words and expressions are called upon to sustain the special levated atmosphere of poetry. This may be said to be the main function of poetic words.
V. V. Vinogradov gives the following properties of poetic words:
"...the cobweb of poetic words and images veils the reality, stylizing it according to the established literary norms and canons. A word is torn away from its referent. Being drawn into the system of literary styles, the words are selected and arranged in groups of definite images, in phraseological series, which grow standardized and stale and are becoming conventional symbols of definite phenomena or characters or of definite ideas or impressions."1
Poetical tradition has kept alive such archaic words and forms as yclept (p. p. of the old verb clipian—to call, name); quoth (p. t. of cwedan — to speak); eftsoons (eftsona, — again, soon after), which are used even by modern ballad-mongers. Let us note in passing that archaic words are here to be understood as units that have either entirely gone out of use, or as words some of whose meanings have grown archaic, e. g. hall in the following line from Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage:
Deserted is my own good hall, its hearth is desolate.
It must be remembered though, that not all English poetry makes use of "poeticisms or poetical terms", as they might be named. In the history of English literature there were periods, as there were in many
1Vinogradov V. V. The Style of Pushkin. M., 1941, pp. 8—9.
countries, which were characterized by protests against the use of such conventional symbols. The literary trends known as classicism and romanticism were particularly rich in fresh poetic terms.
Poetical words in an ordinary environment may also have a satirical function, as seen in this passage from Byron.
But Adeline was not indifferent: for
(Now for a common-place!) beneath the snow,
As a volcano holds the lava more
Within—et cetera. Shall I go on?—No,
I hate to hunt down a tired metaphor,
So let the often-used volcano go.
Poor thing: How frequently, by me and others,
It hath been stirred up till its smoke quite smothers!
The satirical function of poetic words and conventional poetic devices is well revealed in this stanza. The 'tired metaphor' and the 'often-used volcano' are typical of Byron's estimate of the value of conventional metaphors and stereotyped poetical expressions.
The striving for the unusual—the characteristic feature of, some kinds of poetry—is akin to the sensational and is therefore to be found not only in poetry, but in many other styles.
A modern English literary critic has remarked that in journalese a policeman never goes to an appointed spot; he proceeds to it. The picturesque reporter seldom talks of a horse, it is a steed or a charger. The sky is the welkin; the valley is the vale; fire is the devouring element...
Poetical words and word-combinations can be likened to terms in that they do not easily yield to polysemy. They are said to evoke emotive meanings (see p. 66). They colour the utterance with a certain air of loftiness, but generally fail to produce a genuine feeling of delight: they are too hackneyed for the purpose, too stale. And that is the reason that the excessive use of poeticisms at present calls forth protest and derision towards those who favour this conventional device.
Such protests have had a long history. As far back as the 16th century Shakespeare in a number of lines voiced his attitude toward poeticisms, considering them as means to embellish poetry. Here is one of the sonnets in which he condemns the use of such words.
So is it not with me as with that Muse
Stirr'd by a painted beauty to his verse,
Who heaven itself for ornament doth use
And every fair with his fair doth* rehearse,
Making a couplement of proud compare,
With sun and moon, with earth and sea's rich gems,
With April's first-born flowers, and all things rare
That heaven's air in this huge rondure hems.
O, let me, true in love, but truly write,
And then believe me, my love is as fair
As any mother's child, though not so bright
As those gold candles fix'd in heaven's air:
Let them say more that like of hearsay well;
I will not praise that purpose not to sell.
It is remarkable how Shakespeare though avoiding poetic words proper uses highly elevated vocabulary in the first part of the sonnet (the octave), such as 'heaven's air', 'rehearse', 'couplement', 'compare' (noun), 'rondure', 'hems', in contrast to the very common vocabulary of the second part (the sestette).
The very secret of a truely poetic quality of a word does not lie in conventionality of usage. On the contrary, a poeticism throughconstant repetition gradually becomes hackneyed. Like anything that lacks freshness it fails to evoke a genuinely aesthetic effect and eventually call forth protest on the part of those who are sensitive to real beauty As far back as in 1800 Wordsworth raised the question of the conventional use of words and phrases, which to his mind should be avoided. There was (and still persists) a notion called "poetic diction" which still means the collection of epithets, periphrases, archaisms, etc., which were common property to most poets of the 18th century.
However, the term has now acquired a broader meaning. Thus Owen Barfield says:
"When words are selected and arranged in such a way that their meaning either arouses or is obviously intended to arouse, aesthetic imagination, the result may be described as poetic diction."1
Poetic diction in the former meaning has had a long lineage. Aristotle in his "Poetics" writes the following:
"The perfection of Diction is for it to be at once clear and not mean. The clearest indeed is that made up of the ordinary words for things, but it is mean... the diction becomes distinguished and non-prosaic by the use of unfamiliar terms, i. e. strange words, metaphors, lengthened forms and everything that deviates from the ordinary modes of speech... A certain admixture, accordingly, of unfamiliar terms is necessary. These, the strange words, the metaphor, the ornamental equivalent, etc will save the language from seeming mean and prosaic, while the ordinary words in it will secure the requisite clearness."2
A good illustration of the use of poetic words the bulk of which are archaic is the following stanza from Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage
Whilome (at some past time) in Albion's isle (the oldest name of the island of Britain) there dwelt (lived) a youth,
Who ne (not) in virtue's ways did take delight:
But spent his days in riot (wasteful living) most uncouth (unusual, strange)
And vex'd (disturbed) with mirth (fun) the drowsy ear of Night.
1 Barfield, Owen. Poetic Diction. Ldn, 1952, 2d ed. (cit. from Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, p. 628)
2Aristotle. Poetics. (cit. from Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton, 1969, p. 628)
Ah me! (interjection expressing regret, sorrow) in sooth (truely) he was a shameless wight (a human being)
Sore (severely, harshly) given to revel (noisy festivity) and ungodly (wicked) glee (entertainment);
Few earthly things found favour in his sight
Save concubines (prostitutes) and carnal (not spiritual) companie,
And flaunting (impudent) wassailers (drunkards; revellers) of high and low degree.
The use of poetic words does not as a rule create the atmosphere of poetry in the true sense; it is a substitute for real art. Poetic words are not freely built in contrast to neutral, colloquial and common literary words, or terms. The commonest means is by compounding, e. g. 'young-eyed', 'rosy-fingered'.
Some writers make abundant use of this word-building means. Thus Arthur Hailey in his novel "In High Places" has 'serious-faced', 'high-ceilinged', 'beige-carpeted', 'tall-backed', 'horn-rimmed' in almost close proximity. There is, however, one means of creating new poetic words still recognized as productive even in present-day English, viz. the use of a contracted form of a word instead of the full one, e. g. 'drear' instead of dreary, 'scant' (=scanty). Sometimes the reverse process leads to the birth of a poeticism, e. g. 'vasty' (=vast. 'The vasty deep', i. e. the ocean); 'steepy' (=steep), 'paly' (=pale).
These two conventional devices are called forth by the requirements of the metre of the poem, to add or remove a syllable, and are generally avoided by modern English poets.
Poetical words and set expressions make the utterance understandable only to a limited number of readers. It is mainly due to poeticisms that poetical language is sometimes called poetical jargon.
In modern English poetry there is a strong tendency to use words in strange combinations. It manifests itself in the coinage of new words and, most of all, in combining old and familiar words in a way that hinders understanding and forces the reader to stop and try to decipher the message so encoded.
The following may serve as examples:
'The sound of shape'; "night-long eyes'; 'to utter ponds of dream'; 'wings of because'; 'to reap one's same'; 'goldenly whole, prodigiously keen star whom she—and he—, —like ifs of am perceive...' (E. E. Cummings).
All these combinations are considered ungrammatical inasmuch as they violate the rules of encoding a message. But in search of new modes of expression modern poets, particularly those who may be called "modernists", have a strong bias for all kinds of innovation. They experiment with language means and are ready to approve of any deviation from the normal. So also are literary critics belonging to what is called the avant-garde movement in art, the essence of which is the use of unorthodox and experimental methods. These usually lead both the poet and the critic to extremes, examples of which are given, above.