Abstract diction occurs when the poet wants to express something ephemeral, or ungraspable. The examples are endless, but they are generally related to things that can be perceived with the senses or emotions. Abstract diction might be employed to speak on an idea, such as freedom. Or, on what a memory feels like, joyous or solemn.
Often abstract diction is the kind of language new-comers to poetry most commonly associate with poetic writing. It can sound lofty, unreachable, and sometimes hard to understand. In some cases, this is done intentionally, in others this is simply because the poet is reaching for something that is not easily described with words. These experiences are had by the heart and soul, not by the brain.
Examples of Abstract Diction in Literature
Example #1: The Freedom of the Moon by Robert Frost
For example, let’s look to ‘The Freedom of the Moon’ by Robert Frost. In these lines, Frost writes about human freedom by describing the speaker’s ability to pick up the moon, walk with it, and place it where he likes.
put it shining anywhere I please.
By walking slowly on some evening later,
I’ve pulled it from a crate of crooked trees,
And brought it over glossy water, greater,
And dropped it in, and seen the image wallow,
The color run, all sorts of wonder follow.
This hyperbolic and deeply metaphorical statement is meant to evoke something of what it means to be human. Frost is interested in getting to the root of human nature, choice, and idealism. As a whole, what it means to be human and how that can be represented in poetry.
Example #2: Ash Wednesday by T.S. Eliot
As another example, let’s look at the work of T.S. Eliot in ‘Ash Wednesday’. This long, complex, six-part poem concerned with a speaker’s hope for human salvation in a faithless world. In the first stanza, Frost dives headfirst into his speaker’s complicated relationship with faith, and how humanity interacts with it. The first stanza reads:
Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Becaus I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?
These lines begin the poem and start the poem out on a very depressing note. The speaker makes a statement of hopelessness. He has no hope that his life is going to change, or that he will again find joy. This is all due to the fact that he has lost his faith.
Despite the complexity of these lines, and their syntactic oddities, a reader can get a general grasp of what the speaker is dealing with. The man feels as though his life and fate is out of his control, there is no reason to fly. He’s an “agèd eagle” who will surely not reach its destination before its death. The man is so downtrodden he lacks the ability to mourn this change altogether.
You can read the full poem here.