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Poetic diction,- William Wordsworth and ST Coleridge
Prepared by Dr. Baburam Swami - Assistant Professor - English


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What is William Wordsworth's theory of poetic of diction?

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To begin, poetic diction must be defined. Poetic diction refers to the style of writing used in poetry (the linguistic style, vocabulary, and use of figurative language--normally metaphors). Up until Wordsworth's writing of the 1802 preface to Lyrical Ballads, the adherence to the poetic diction had yet to be seriously challenged.

Wordsworth's issue, essentially, with the use and adherence to poetic diction was the fact that it tended to alienate the common man. Given that the common man did not speak using elevated vocabulary and figurative language, Wordsworth believed, given he wanted poetry to speak to all, that complete adherence to poetic diction needed to be dropped.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate Wordsworth's point on the elimination of poetic diction is to examine the 1802 preface of Lyrical Ballads:

There will also be found in these volumes little of what is usually called poetic diction; I have taken as much pains to avoid it as others ordinarily take to produce it; this I have done for the reason already alleged, to bring my language near to the language of men, and further, because the pleasure which I have proposed to myself to impart is of a kind very different from that which is supposed by many persons to be the proper object of poetry.

Coleridge’s Criticism of Wordsworth’s Theory of Poetry and Poetic Diction

The most remarkable part of Biographia Literaria lies in Coleridge’s criticism of Wordsworth’s theory of poetry and poetic Diction. While critically analyzing Wordsworth’s theory Coleridge has offered his own views on the choice of rustic, themes and characters as well as the language of poetry.

In chapter XVII of Biographia Literaria, Coleridge refers to Wordsworth’s preface to the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads. In this preface, Wordsworth made three important statements which Coleridge found unacceptable. First Wordsworth asserts that the proper diction of poetry consists in the language or the real conversation of men under the influence of natural feelings. So he chose humble and rustic life, Coleridge points out that this statement is imperfect at all his characters are not chosen from low and rustic life, eg the characters in poems like “Ruth”, “Michael”, “The brothers” etc. Coleridge argues that their language and sentiments do not necessarily arise from their social standing. They spring from the general causes which will produce identical feelings in every kind of life either in town or in the country. Moreover, Coleridge maintains that Wordsworth’s theory of poetic Diction can be applicable to certain classes of poetry only but it can never be a rule of general application. In this connection, he refers to Aristotle’s conception of poetry as essentially ideal, so that individual characters in poetry should be general and typical, and their feelings should be typical and representative of the whole class.

Examine Wordsworth’s theory of Poetic Diction. Coleridge maintains that the language of the rustic purified from its defects and grossness will not differ materially from the language of any other man of common sense, however, learned or refined he may be. He points out that the experience of the rustic is very limited; the facts at his disposal are society; so he cannot think logically. He is unable to connect with fact and express himself logically, as an educated man can. Therefore, the language of the rustic lacks expressive visions (and range) making itself unfit for poetry. Coleridge also finds fault with Wordsworth’s conviction that the best part of the human language is derived from the objects into which the rustic daily communicate. The argues that rustic life is narrow and the rustic is actually acquitted with only a few things of life. Therefore, the words and the combinations of words derived from the very few objects with which the rustic are familiar, cannot be considered to form the best part of human language is derived from the reflections on the acts of the mind itself; It is formed by the use of appropriate signs and symbols for the process of human; imagination and reflection which the uneducated man cannot have. Whatever noble and poetic phrases the rustic use, are derived not from nature, but from repeated, listening to the Bible and to the sermons.

Giving his critical assessment of the language of prose and poetry as reflected in Wordsworth’s theory of Poetic Diction, Coleridge objects to the ambiguity in the use of the word real. Wordsworth maintains that the language of poetry is selection of the real language of men. Coleridge argues that everyone’s language varies according to the extent of his knowledge, the activities of his faculties and the depth and quickness of his feelings. Everyman’s language has its individual characteristics the common properties of the class to which he belongs and the words and phrases of universal use. He points out that the language used in the poems of Wordsworth differs greatly from the language of a common peasant. Coleridge opines that for the word real; we should substitute the word ‘ordinary’. He also objects to Wordsworth’s addition of the words “in a state of excitement”, for emotional excitement may result in a more concentrated expression, but it cannot create a noble and richer vocabulary. Moreover, a common uncultivated mind, overpowered by a strong passion can utter broken words or repeat the sets of words and phrases known to him already. It would be very difficult for a poet to make such language fit for poetry.

Coleridge also disagrees with Wordsworth regarding the statement that there neither is nor can be any essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition”. Coleridge asserts that there is and there ought to be an essential difference between the languages of prose argues that of poetry. Coleridge argues that language of written prose obviously differs from that of common conversation, in the same way as reading differs from talking. Even though some words are common to prose and poetry, they are differently arranged in the two compositions, making the language of the two essentially different. This difference arises from the fact that the poetry use meter and meter requires a different arrangement of words. Coleridge has already pointed out that metre is not a mere superficial decoration, but an essential organic part of a poem. Therefore there must be an ‘essential’ difference between the language of prose and that of poetry. The use of meter creates a different atmosphere in poetry and the metaphors as well as similes used by a poet are different in quality, but not art. There are passages which will out the one, but not the other.

Thus, Wordsworth theory of poetic Diction is critically examined by Coleridge in his Biographia Literaria and while making an assessment of these views, Coleridge offers his own views on the language of poetry in general.

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