Throughout the history of poetry, concepts of what “poetic diction” is have changed. Some authors seek to use elaborate and abstract diction in their works. While others, such as William Wordsworth (and most contemporary poets), have challenged this idea. Famously, in his manifesto of the Romantic Movement, he described the language that should be used for poetry as “language near to the language of men.” The same vocabulary and syntax are appropriate for poetry as they are for prose, he noted.
Interestingly, what Wordsworth considered the “language of men” is today seen as an example of poetic diction. This is due to the transformation of language and what is considered “common” as the decades have passed. (Explore an example of William Wordsworth’s verse below.)
Ezra Pound is another poet who wrote against the use of poetic diction. In his A Few Don’ts, published in 1913, he wrote that superfluous words, like extra adjectives, should be avoided. He said that “the natural object is always the adequate symbol.”
When exploring poetic diction, readers are likely to notice the use of elisions and syncope. These devices are used in order to make lines fit metrical patterns and elevate the sound of the verse. The devices also create words that only exist in poetry, such as “howe’er” or “grow’st.”
Explore Poetic Diction
Poetic Diction Definition
The term “poetic diction” refers to the language used in poetry. Commonly, this term is used to describe the most abstract examples of poetic language. For example, poems in which authors seek to use a wide range of vocabulary words, complicated syntax, and archaic words related to detailed concepts that many readers are not going to understand.
Classically, Greek and Roman authors saw only certain types of language as suitable for poetry and plays. This would change in regard to the genre. For example, tragedies would employ different dialects or types of poetic diction than other types of plays. Famously, Aristotle wrote about poetic diction and his Poetics. He said that:
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… A certain admixture, accordingly, of unfamiliar terms is necessary.
Going on, he added that “the strange word, 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. What helps most, however, to render the Diction at once clear and non-prosaic is the use of the lengthened, curtailed, and altered forms of words.”
He was interested in pursuing a balance in poetry between the “ornamental” and the “familiar.”
Examples of Poetic Diction
‘Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey‘ is one of Wordsworth’s most famous poems. It is also one of the most important poems of the Romantic movement. It exemplifies Wordsworth’s desire to use the language of the common man and his work, rather than seeking out abstract metaphors and symbols to convey his point. Here are a few lines from the second section of ‘Tintern Abbey:’
These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
Readers can compare these lines, which to contemporary readers are likely to feel poetic, to those in the next example (which utilize language in a way that authors like Wordsworth disagreed with).
Read more William Wordsworth poems.
John Keats, while also a member of the Romantic movement, was not as concerned with using the “language of men” in his work. He was far more interested in seeking inspiration from classical Greek poets. Therefore, much of his poetry feels more complicated and “poetic” than his contemporaries. Consider these lines from ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn:’
Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In this piece, the poet attempts to engage with the beauty of art and nature, addressing a piece of pottery from ancient Greece. He uses complex phrases and words like “lead-fring’d” and “unravish’d.”
Explore more John Keats poems.
Batter my heart (Sonnet 14) by John Donne
‘Batter my heart’ is one of Donne’s best-known poems. It is directed at God and asks him to take hold of the speaker. Here are a few lines:
Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurped town, to another due,
Donne’s use of poetic diction in these lines comes through clearly. He uses words like “o’erthrow” to maintain the rhythm and give the poem an elevated sound. It takes time for readers, especially contemporary readers, to sort out the syntax as well. Parts of sentences feel out of order or rearranged, making it tough to analyze Donne’s work.
Discover more John Donne poems.
“Diction” refers to an author’s word choice. That is, the speaking style of a writer or character in their literary work. Writers choose their diction according to the intentions of their novel or poem. It could be poetic, common, etc. Slang diction is also commonly used in contemporary writing.
To figure out the diction an author uses in a literary work, it’s important to look for specific words that stand out. One might also seek out short phrases that seem more important than those around them. Any patterns in the use of words, the structure of sentences, and any use of slang are also important to notice.
Related Literary Terms
- Style: the way a writer writes. An individual writer’s style is original and unlike any other.
- Prose: a written and spoken language form that does not make use of a metrical pattern or rhyme scheme.
- Novella: a prose, fiction work that’s shorter than a novel and longer than a short story.
- Formal Diction: used when the setting is sophisticated. This could be anything from a speech, to a paper submitted to a journal.
- Slang Diction: contains words that are very specific to a region and time, and have been recently coined.
- Watch: Romanticism
- Watch: The Elements of a Poem
- Watch: Poetry for Beginners – What is Figurative Language?