An archaism is a figure of speech in which a writer’s choice of word or phrase is purposefully old fashioned.
Whether it’s a word, sentence, style of diction, or syntax, these examples all sound out of date. This literary technique is quite easy to recognize, especially if you are familiar with the time period in which the writer was working on a particular piece. If someone from the 21st-century crafts a piece of dialogue using words like “ye” or “thou” then you know right away that this is an example of an archaism.
Sometimes though, archaisms are harder to spot. This is especially the case when the poet’s cultural time period is distant from our own. Would words like “ye” and “thou” have been used during John Keats’ lifetime? What about William Blake’s? Or Christina Rossetti’s? This is when things get a little more complicated.
Archaism is part of a style of diction known as “archaic diction”. This is when, as the previous definition hinted at, old fashioned words are used to create a particular mood or tone. Writers make conscious choices in regards to the kind of diction they choose, so it should not be overlooked.
Examples of Archaism in Literature
Example #1 Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats
As mentioned above there are many subtle examples of archaism to be found within literature. Some are much harder to spot than others. In ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’ Keats used this literary device very skillfully. Take a look at these lines from the poem:
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
In these lines, Keats uses the word “ye” rather than “you”. Without an understanding of language, and the ins and outs of when certain phrases fell out of common use, this difference would be impossible to spot. During the period in which Keats was writing the word “you” was much more widely used than “ye”. He intentionally chose to use “ye” in order to elevate the diction, making it sound more poetic and artistic.
A reader might also look to another of Keats’ famous ode, ‘Ode to Autumn’ for other examples of archaism. In this work, he uses words like “Thee,” “Thy,” and “hath”.
Example #2 The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost
Th dramatic conclusion of Frost’s most famous poem ‘The Road Not Taken’ has a very clear example of archaism. Take a look at these lines:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
The words that stick out in this passage are “hence” and “shall”. They would not have been used in Frost’s everyday speech and were selected for this poem to heighten the sense of importance. This is epically impactful as they come at the end of the poem and lead up to the famous lines “I took the one less travelled by / And that has made all the difference”.
Even in these lines, if you are on the lookout for examples of archaism, the syntax should strike you as old fashioned. It would be easier to say, and more colloquial to say, “I took the road that was less traveled” rather than “took the one less traveled by”.
Example #3 The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe
In ‘The Raven’ Poe repetitively uses archaisms. They appear throughout the text and help create the elevated, highly poetic tone that has made it so popular. Take for example these lines from the gothic poem:
“Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting—
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
In this section of the text, the unnamed speaker is addressing the raven passionately. He’s yelling at it, shrining his words, demanding that it goes back to “the tempest” and “the Night’s Plutonian shore”. In this passage, Poe uses archaic words like “thy,” “thee” and “hath”. Other words that appear in the text that are undeniably archaic and would not have been used in a common speech at the time are “methought” and “quaff”.