The world against me rages, its fury I disdain;
Though bitter war it wages, its work is all in vain.
My heart from care is free, no trouble troubles me.
Misfortune now is play, and night is bright as day.

--Awake, My Heart, with Gladness (Auf, Auf, Mein Herz, mit Freuden), Paul Gerhardt

Monday, September 27, 2010

Barfield, Owen ; Poetic diction: a study in meaning, foreward b (by Howard Nemerov)

Barfield, Owen ; Poetic diction: a study in meaning (1973, 1952 [2nd ed.], 1927) 
Forward (con't)

In Shakespeare’s time, poetic diction really belonged to the study of rhetoric, and most of what was emphasized were common sense techniques (practice, imitation, reading) for creating persuasive speakers.

Nemerov goes on to write: "In the 17th and 18th centuries it would appear that prose and poetry which had formerly been rather close together in their choice of language, were decisively differentiated from one another , and there gradually grew up a kind of language special to poetry and not admissible in prose except on the most exalted occasions." (5).

Hence, the concept of “poetic diction” is born. 

Me: This seems very interesting.  Still, to say “decisively differentiated” is to acknowledge that there had always been a bit of a differentiation here, right?  In other words, the chasm, likely due in part to the success of the experimental sciences - and their emphasis on the “objective” – simply got wider.  A distinction became a complete separation in the minds of many… 

Back to the book: Originally, Nemeov avers, as this occurred people did not seem to realize this was happening, and regarding questions of the past, attention was focused on things people could clearly see: like the historical works that Homer, who taught “that language of the Gods to men” (Pope), composed.  What this part about the Gods and their language might have really meant did not require explanation… (5, 6)

But now, in the 19th and 20th centuries we observe that when we try to say what something is (see Darwin and Freud) we “go back and talk about how it got to be the way it looks now” (6).  With Genesis losing influence, new scientific mythologies had to fill the void.

The Romantic movement rebelled not only against poetic diction in the technical sense (vs conventional language) but against “the belief about the world and the place of mankind in the world that produced the [intolerable] technical conventions”.  (The rebel makes his own creation myth if he pursues things to the end).   

Blake decried “systematic abstraction, priesthood, scientism, the loss of the good of the imagination”.  Wordsworth talked about how poetry had been corrupted by intellectualizing imitation of the “supposed practice of the earliest poets [of all nations]”, who he says “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.” (7) 

“For the great Romantics, then, poetic diction becomes a subject of the first importance, because out of their efforts to reform this highly specialized diction and reach back instead to ‘nature’ arose the deeper question of the extent of the imagination’s role as creator of the visible and sensible world.  For Blake that extent was total: Imagination is the Savior.  For Wordsworth the relation was a more tentative and balancing one, in which the world and thought were mutually adjusted to one another…” (8)

This idea of the primacy of imagination was a “point of considerable anxiety” as well, given the “[evidently triumphant] view of a universe of independently and fatally moving things” (“scientific materialism”) (8)

Nemerov goes on to say that it appears that recurring outbreaks of “modernism”, regarding themselves as anti-romantic, actually are variations on “superficial aspects of the Romantic Movement”, “while something submerged and unfinished about that movement remains largely untouched” (8).  Nevertheless, poetry and criticism today seems “enthralled by the false realism of the reason [and] spellbound to the merely picturesque”…it is prevented “from dreaming deeply or other than the common dream” (9).

My summary: -

My critique/comments:  This is all very interesting, and I don’t find much to criticize or question yet.  I have no reason to think that he analysis is not sound.  Still, although I am “willing to open this question of imagination again to a candid exploration” (9) I am uneasy and a bit skeptical about this journey.  When it comes to the way of the scientist, is our biggest problem that people uncritically reify, thinking that, for instance, "extended things" have intrinsic characteristics like "length, breadth, and depth" in the same way that, for example, elephants have intrinsic characteristics like tusks, trunks, and hair (or is talking about elephants in this way even permissible, as any such observations and descriptions cannot be conceived as arising from general human curiosity and a non-insidious desire to label?)?  Or is it an even bigger problem that people would think that there are no "joints" to reality whatsoever – and that it can be "carved up" in any way we like?  In other words: that there are no limits to our interpretations of reality or to what our imaginations can construct and build?

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