Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Power, Plain English, and the Rise of Modern Poetry$

David Rosen

Print publication date: 2006

Print ISBN-13: 9780300100716

Published to Yale Scholarship Online: October 2013

DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300100716.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM YALE SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.yale.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Yale University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in YSO for personal use (for details see http://www.yale.universitypressscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: null; date: 21 June 2018



(p.1) Introduction
Power, Plain English, and the Rise of Modern Poetry

David Rosen

Yale University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter summarizes the arguments about language and force that are to be explored throughout the book. Yeats's poem “The Song of the Happy Shepherd” asserts a faith in the basic authority of language, in its power whose implications reached far beyond literature. The first purpose of the book, then, is to examine how poets from Wordsworth to Auden try to present themselves simultaneously as individuals of power and at the same time active members of their respective communities, speaking and sharing their thoughts on certain public issues. The second project this book pursues is the history of the linguistic and cultural prejudice towards the low register of the English language—or what the book terms “plain English.” This chapter thus creates the foundation for the rest of the book, clarifying terms and providing historical context for the arguments to follow.

Keywords:   Yeats, The Song of the Happy Shepherd, language, force, power, plain English, Wordsworth, Auden

In “The Song of the Happy Shepherd,” the poem Yeats chose to print first in his Collected Poems, he shows a striking faith in the basic authority of language: “words alone,” he twice intones, “are certain good.”1 This epigram, asserting not just the power in language—diction, to be more precise—but the power to be had in wielding it, has implications reaching far beyond literature. A great many poets, however, beginning as early as Wordsworth, have made similar claims. In this book, I pursue two distinct but tightly intertwined arguments about language and force. It is, first and foremost, an account of the rise of Modern poetry with a prelude in the Romantic period: I look at the way poets from Wordsworth to Auden try to present themselves simultaneously as persons of power and as participating members of their communities, able to speak on public issues. In my account, the modern lyric derives its complexity—psychological, ethical, formal—from the extraordinary difficulty, perhaps the futility, of this effort.

The low register of our language, which I also call “plain English,” is deeply implicated in this story. Each of the poets I deal with makes use of the low register's power, as well as its peculiar and seemingly (p.2) groundless reputation for truthfulness. I take for my second project the history of this linguistic and cultural prejudice. To understand what I mean by “plain English,” consider the following lines from King Lear: “Thou wert better in a grave than to answer with thy uncover'd body this extremity of the skies. Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou ow'st the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha? Here's three on's are sophisticated. Thou art the thing itself: unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, fork'd animal as thou art” (III.iv.100–108).2 This is a dramatic situation that we will be revisiting frequently in the chapters that follow: a stormblasted landscape, and a speaker whose frame of mind is scarcely less troubled. Here, Lear, having been led to shelter by Kent, has just encountered Edgar, whom he takes to be a deranged beggar. Where his heightened language in previous scenes had vividly reflected his own maddened state—

  • You sulphr'ous and thought-executing fires,
  • Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
  • Singe my white head! (III.ii.4–6)

—his speech here is plain and bitter. Most of the few, scattered polysyllables gesture toward either the storm outside (“extremity of the skies”) or, with acrid irony, his own wretched company: the three “sophisticated [on's]” are Kent, the Fool, and himself. Edgar, by contrast, is dispatched in five blunt words: “Thou art the thing itself.”

The variety of register we observe even in a passage this brief is made possible by the unique lexical structure of English, in which words for abstractions are largely borrowed, and substantives usually native. This layered arrangement is a legacy of the Norman conquest, which replaced the more cultivated vocabulary of Old English with the victors'French, while leaving plainer, practical speech to the native underclass. When Lear suddenly shifts registers to describe Edgar, Shakespeare is following a linguistic convention well described more than a century later by Lord Kames: “As words are intimately connected with the ideas they represent, the emotions raised by the sound and the sense ought to be concordant. An elevated subject requires an elevated style; what is familiar ought to be familiarly expressed.”3 To put it another way: while the high pathos of a fallen king berating the elements requires (and receives) the grandest style, low subject matter (a deranged beggar) merits a low register: “poor, bare, fork'd” Convention can hardly explain, however, the utter power of this passage, especially Lear's assertion that Edgar is “the thing itself.” After his ranting at the tempest, (p.3) Lear's mind seems, abruptly, to clear; in Edgar he seems to perceive, in a most direct way, what Yeats would later call the desolation of reality. One almost senses in Shakespeare's shift an intuition, far transcending literary etiquette, of the low register's special ability to signify the actual world.

I will suggest shortly why this conclusion is anachronistic—or, at all events, why Lear's comments reflect neither the linguistic fashions of Shakespeare's time nor Shakespeare's usual practices as a writer. Nevertheless, one can see why an idiom consisting mainly of short, concrete, native words, purged of abstractions and low on foreign borrowings, deployed in simple syntax, would have such an appeal to writers of a later era: the power this idiom has to command belief, assent, lies somehow beneath reason or even ordinary awareness. Because poets beginning with Wordsworth seized so consciously on the low register—as an expression of their desires for both vatic authority and social participation—the history of plain English is also, in part, the history of post-Romantic (especially modern) poetry. At the very least, the low register can be a thread through the labyrinth of Modernism or, to pick a slightly different metaphor, a way of diagnosing the hidden motives and justifications of Modernism, exploring the courses the poetry took, and the choices the poets made.

Before going any further, I should offer a clarification. It is part of my claim that the association of plain English with truthfulness is largely an invention of Romanticism, even though it has an important pre-history in the Tudor-Stuart and Augustan periods. Theories of “the plain style,” however, something quite different from what I am calling “plain English,” had existed in the culture for some time. These grew out an argument between philosophy and rhetoric dating back to Greece and Rome. As recounted by George Williamson, Wesley Trimpi, and others, Renaissance humanists, debating how a proper vernacular should behave, looked back to classical models: on the one hand, an ornate rhetoric exemplified by Cicero, and on the other, the more austere, “philosophical” periods of Seneca, Tacitus, and Quintillian.4 Where the former privileged dazzling verbal dexterity over content, the latter aimed at clarity and unadorned presentation. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Senecan “plain style” enjoyed a significant and widespread boost in prestige: this came from playwrights like Jonson, low-church divines (who equated ornate persuasion with deceit), and above all, scientists.5 Francis Bacon was particularly effective in associating Senecan plainness with the aims of empiricism and inductive method: the new science demanded a prose in which as few words as possible (p.4) interfered with the presentation of object reality. From Bacon, the line of plain stylists descended to the scientists of the Royal Society (Wilkins, Boyle, with Thomas Sprat reporting), and philosophers like Hobbes and John Locke.

The histories of the plain English and “the plain style” intersect at points; indeed, as we shall see, the low register owes its reputation for truthfulness in part to Locke (who would be appalled by this conclusion). In most important respects, however, the two traditions are very different. The low register is, above all, a native phenomenon, a product of the uniquely striated English lexicon. Arguments about the plain style, on the other hand, occurred across Renaissance Europe; indeed, Williamson credits Erasmus for resurrecting the debate in his strongly antirhetorical Ciceronianus.6 Still more to the point, the two differ in their basic unit of analysis: for controversialists on both sides of the stylistic debate, everything finally came down to syntax, to the sentence as a conveyor of meaning. As it happens, even the most vehement seventeenth-century proponents of the plain style favored a Latinate vocabulary and classical hypotaxis. In the low register, however, words alone are certain good. Over the course of the period I study, this distinction slips somewhat, for reasons I explore at length; but (especially) when the low register first rises to prominence, diction comes to have a peculiar resonance, a special connotative value almost independent of syntax, and possibly independent of meaning.

This sounds perilously close to mysticism; but how else to explain the seemingly baseless credence its adherents attach to plain English? Consider one of the more famous statements of the case, the rules for proper usage George Orwell offers in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”:

  1. (i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

  2. (ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

  3. (iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

  4. (iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

  5. (v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Orwell is not concerned merely with good style. Rather, his essay argues that certain kinds of English usage are particularly truthful, while others are less so. Follow these rules, he concludes, and you will find it hard to deceive either yourself or others: “[I have been considering] language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought…. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy…. When you make a stupid (p.5) remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself” (italics mine).7 The bias for plain English enjoys a robust and largely unchallenged existence to this day, especially in contemporary political discourse and advertising copy.8 To suggest its persistence in contemporary literary discourse, consider briefly a second poet, writing almost four hundred years after King Lear, but strangely reminiscent of Lear on the heath.

  • When the rain came it came
  • in a quick moving squall
  • moving across the island
  • murmuring from afar
  • then drumming on the roof
  • then marching fading away.
  • And sometimes one mistook
  • the weary tramp of feet
  • as the men came shuffling from the quarry
  • white-dust-filmed and shambling
  • for the rain
  • that came and drummed and marched away.9

Once again, this is man in extremis: this time, the Zimbabwean poet/activist Dennis Brutus recalling his imprisonment on Robben Island for activities against apartheid. The plainness of idiom is not quite Shakespeare's: more reliant on metaphor and personification, perhaps less reliant on image than tone of voice to convey its effect. As we will see, these differences are representative of changes the poetic use of plain English underwent in the twentieth century. It says much, however, for the low register's tenacity that a poet otherwise opposed to the British colonial legacy would draw on this idiom to convey the truth of his experiences. This book will track and account for the changes in plain English over the last two hundred years; and it will also suggest why, for poets, plain English has remained so seductive.

As the sequence of chapters suggests, my argument hinges on an account of the relation between Romantic and Modern poetry. This relation has been a matter of bitter debate since the time of Yeats and Eliot, a debate that has, if anything, intensified in recent decades. The mutually hostile camps into which most critics have placed themselves are implied concisely by the title question of Marjorie Perloff's essay “Pound/Stevens: whose era?”10 Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens, that is, are seen by each camp as expressing the qualities most essential (p.6) to Modern poetry; the two iconic poets, in turn, are sufficiently different in their goals and methods that each is usually dismissed or ignored by the other's followers. Both camps, it might be said, take their cue from the last stanza of Yeats's “Coole and Ballylee, 1931”:

  • We were the last romantics—chose for theme
  • .................................................
  •                   whatever most can bless
  • The mind of man or elevate a rhyme;
  • But all is changed, that high horse riderless,
  • Though mounted in that saddle Homer rode
  • Where the swan drifts upon a darkening flood. (41, 44–48)

In these lines, Yeats is discerning a sharp break between his own generation, the poets who came of age during the 1890s, and the writers who emerged after 1910. One camp of critics, those partial to Stevens, could not disagree more. As Randall Jarrell put it, “‘Modern’ poetry is, essentially, an extension of romanticism”; the concerns and practices of the two periods are continuous. These include an interest in the poet's own gift, apocalyptic to the point of annihilating the outside world. “Wordsworth,” claims Harold Bloom, “had no true subject except his own subjective nature.” Such poetry, Perloff adds, inevitably privileges content over structure, the poet's own imagination his obsessive recurring topic. The form most conducive for this kind of writing—narcissistic and limited to brief moments when the imagination is stirred—is lyric.11

Reading Modernism this way has an obvious appeal for critics who, like Bloom, approach poetry as a species of (or substitute for) religion. It is also an interpretation common among critics who locate the apocalyptic conflict of subject and world in the problem, inherent in all language, of reference.12 To call Modernism late-Romanticism, however, has its disadvantages. Most obvious are a habit of ignoring the historical contingencies of each period, and a tendency to devalue Modernists, like Frost, Moore, Eliot, or indeed Pound, who do not clearly fit the Shelleyan mold. In a more subtle way, modern poetry itself tends to be devalued: old themes are seen to be repeated, but in a “hypertrophied state,” lacking their former originality, power, or completeness. Late Romanticism is lesser Romanticism. Thus Bloom: “The whole tradition of the post-Enlightenment, which is Romanticism, shows a further decline in its Modernist … heirs…. Poetry in our tradition, when it [dies], will be self-slain, murdered by its own past strength.”13 Of most consequence to my argument, these accounts of Modernism rely on an understanding of the Romantic period itself, (p.7) and of Wordsworth specifically, that I believe to be unsupported either by the poetry or by the conspicuous beliefs of the poets in question. Even those Modernists who find favor do so for the wrong reasons.

This questionable understanding of Romanticism (which I will expand on shortly) is visible also in the second school of critics, those whose only response to the last stanza of “Coole and Ballylee” might be to add some exclamation points for emphasis. Unlike the first school, which was consolidated at least two decades after the fact, this second line, which includes Perloff, Eva Hesse, and Hugh Kenner, begins with the Modernists themselves.14 Eliot's well-known essay “The Metaphysical Poets” sets the tone: “The sentimental age began early in the eighteenth century, and continued. The poets revolted against the ratiocinative, the descriptive; they thought and felt by fits, unbalanced; they reflected.” Modernism positions itself against Romantic sentimentality and “rumination”; Modernism is indeed anti-Romanticism. As one might expect, Pound echoes Eliot's point without Eliot's sobriety. An appraisal of Wordsworth: “He was a silly old sheep with a genius, an unquestionable genius, for imagisme, for a presentation of natural detail, wild-fowl bathing in a hole in the ice, etc., and this talent, or the fruits of this talent, he buried in a desert of bleatings.” Modern poetry replaces Wordsworthian “bleatings” (the very meditativeness and self-pondering appreciated by camp one) with impersonality, a hard attention to details untainted by reflection. In Perloff's account, the advent of Modernism coincides with a breakdown of lyric: the brief gnomic poem, enshrining moments of Being, is replaced by more open forms, such as collage, which subordinate the poet's personality to a wide range of stimuli, and which express, in their refusal of closure, an ideology of action and process.15 The way is paved for constructivist sensibilities like Zukofsky and Olson, and language poets like Palmer, Bernstein, and Hejinian. But Stevens and Crane, arch-lyricists both, find as little welcome under this tent as Pound had under the other.

My own assessment of modern poetry takes issue with both of these camps. The late-Romantic school could only have crystallized after Modernism had passed: it was comprised of critics whose first allegiances were to Romanticism (or a certain view of Romanticism), and whose purpose was to pearl a grain of sand. In retrospect, the irritant had really been normal and consistent with the main current of literary history. To view Modernism as anti-Romantic, however, as a clean break from the recent past, was a polemic perhaps necessary emotionally for the Modernists themselves, but precisely the kind of claim critics accept at their own risk. My own view is that the poetry of Yeats, Eliot, Auden, Pound, and Stevens was—what it was literally—post-Romantic: distinct from (p.8) Romanticism, yet emerging from questions posed by the earlier period. In essence, the model I am offering of literary historical process is not filial: the Modernists were neither faithful nor rebellious children. Rather, they picked up on implications left by the Romantics that their immediate predecessors had successfully ignored, or at least evaded. Above all, my reading is predicated on a view of Romantic poetry different from the visionary hermeticism accepted by Poundians and Stevensians alike. At the center of this reading is the poetry of Wordsworth.

In my reading of his career, I propose that plain English is itself the locus for several competing and probably incompatible ambitions that Wordsworth has for his work: to record the natural world faithfully, to speak with authority on national issues, to convey moments of uncanny but possibly meaningless power. Wordsworth discovers the imagination—and the force of plain English—at a moment of deep personal and professional doubt, a moment annihilating to the everyday self. The “great decade” (1797-1807) that follows is spent negotiating between his desire on the one hand to preserve this power, and on the other to reestablish himself as a healthy adult in a larger community. Far from the “solitary singer” (and thus, one might add, “dehistoricized singer”) offered by both Bloom and Perloff, his driving motives are social. His chief strategy of self-preservation in these years is an autobiographical, psychological myth that locates (or quarantines) his direct, obliterating encounters with nature in the deep past, the world of his childhood, while leaving his adult self intact. Language, the low register, is used to conceal the space between these periods; indeed, his argument for the truthfulness of plain English grows out of, and is inseparable from, his work in autobiography.

Wordsworth owes his reception as a “visionary” poet to an unhappy fortuity. He does not begin thinking of his imagination in such terms—as an internal, reality-creating capacity—until the end of his major decade. By 1805, the strain on his autobiographical myth, and on language, to hold together his imaginative and social selves, is too great; a gap opens in his history. Instead, however, of recognizing this vacancy (properly) as a kind of amnesia, he insists on detecting in it the intimations of a higher reality, the sublime. His conceit—at once an act of self-preservation and self-forgetting, a fiction that allows him to assert power, even as it means losing part of himself—in fact produces very little important work before his precipitous decline. Because, however, of superficial similarities to Blake (an authentic visionary), Coleridge (indebted, unlike Wordsworth, to German idealism), and Shelley (who from the start asserts his oracular gift), (p.9) Wordsworth has been placed at the head of a group, a visionary company ancestral to such modern prophets as Yeats and Stevens.

From Wordsworth, I then indeed move to the Modern period, and Yeats. But this of course begs the question: what of the eighty years between “The Solitary Reaper” and “The Song of the Happy Shepherd”? What of the important poets—second-generation Romantic, High Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite, Decadent—who wrote during these years? The answer, I believe, speaks to the underlying mechanics of long-term literary change. To put it bluntly: in literature, a revolution can occur without anyone quite noticing for a very long time. The Kuhnian notion of paradigm-shifting in the sciences is suggestive, but finally of limited value. Thomas Kuhn, that is, draws a distinction between “normal science” and revolutionary change. During periods of “normal science,” which are typically of long duration, scientific work proceeds according to certain universally accepted rules. These “paradigms” are accepted universally precisely because they make normal science possible. Over time, however, experimental data contradicting the paradigm builds up, and in a rapid shift, a new paradigm replaces the old. Thus Ptolemaic epicycles yield to Copernican heliocentrism; thus Einstein's relativity supplants the static Newtonian universe. Kuhn's summary: “Each [revolution] necessitated the community's rejection of one time-honored scientific theory in favor of another incompatible with it. Each produced a consequent shift in the problems available for scientific scrutiny and in the standards by which the profession determined what should count as an admissible problem or as a legitimate problem-solution. And each transformed the scientific imagination in ways that we shall ultimately need to describe as a transformation of the world within which scientific work was done.” Scientific revolutions occur quickly because paradigm shifts always address fundamental premises; more important, they are recognized as doing so. Once the new premises are accepted, wide consensus follows.16

This is clearly not the way paradigms shift (to use the available metaphor) in literary history. Almost always, when examining a revolution in literature, one can draw a distinction between, on the one hand, new fundamental premises and, on the other, their overt manifestations (practices, artifacts). In Wordsworth's case, a radically new understanding of poetic psychology, his new way of claiming authority as a poet, produced equally innovative ideas about style and subject matter. It is only to be expected, furthermore, that the poets immediately following him would respond vehemently to the latter (for or against), without entirely grasping the more consequential shift in position. A young poet searching for his or her own voice is far less likely to be influenced by an older poet's (p.10) worldview than by his (or her) subject matter, or the way she (or he) turns a phrase.17 This state of incomplete assimilation can last a very long time, as subsequent generations of poets continue to build on the surface innovations of the revolutionary poet, without accepting, or even understanding the change itself—while, indeed, adhering to notions of poetic selfhood that the revolutionary poet, in effect, supplanted. It is perfectly common for artifacts from an earlier dispensation to persist in lively, unacknowledged contradiction to the new, even when the new dispensation has fully taken hold; indeed, over the course of the history I trace, this is exactly the position often occupied by plain English, and one of the reasons my argument relies heavily on close reading. During these periods, finally, of lively contradiction, the revolutionary change of premises continues to exert an unseen influence on poetic practice; but full acknowledgment of the change may not happen for decades. In my view, the Moderns were the first fully to grasp the implications of Wordsworth's psychology, and to offer strategic responses to it; not, it happens, Modernists like Frost and Hardy, who resembled Wordsworth in using the low register, but Yeats and Eliot, whose grasp of plain English showed a more subtle (and more hostile) understanding of Wordsworth's innovations. At all events, this is why I largely leave aside the Victorians, and also, with one exception, the second generation of Romantic poets.

That exception is John Keats. Alone among his contemporaries, Keats grasps the bad faith in Wordsworth's psychology—the locating of extraordinary personal claims in a failure of memory—and attempts to articulate a theory of poetry not grounded in biography or visionary experience. It is not my purpose to replace one genealogy with another, Keats supplanting Shelley as the Moderns' most important direct “influence.” Rather, I suggest a kind of parallel evolution, in which the strategy of Keats is repeated ninety years later by Yeats, Eliot, and company. Specifically: the Shelleyan imaginative tradition, which built on Wordsworth's visionary pose without acknowledging his psychology, collapses during the 1890s, under pressure from a series of external and internal crises. The latter are easiest seen in the career of Yeats, who begins as a Shelleyan Romantic, but who, after suffering a loss of purpose at the turn of the century, finds the uncomplicated peremptory assertion of poetic power impossible to sustain or believe. He is thus confronted with a question that will haunt subsequent Modernists: how, after Romanticism, can he retain the old poetic claim to exceptionalism—to being, because of a special endowment, different from and better than other people? This question is further complicated by his utter antipathy to psychology, an attitude that he shares with most of his fellow Modernists, and which, I suggest in chapters 3 and 4, has both social and personal origins.

(p.11) Chapter 3 traces Yeats's attempts to salvage a visionary authority, without basing his claims on personal history. The chapter is thus, like its predecessor on Wordsworth, a study in autobiography, or autobiography evaded. But to Perloff's question “Pound/Stevens: whose era?” my more general answer is: Eliot. T. S. Eliot, I suggest in the first part of chapter 4, formulates the most influential response to the nineteenth-century crisis of vision, and in so doing initiates a revolution of his own. Unlike Yeats, who tries to recoup the loss, Eliot supplies a new term for the special aptitude with which poets are endowed: not “imagination,” but “consciousness.” As with Keats, a sensibility heightened and refined almost to the point of affliction, not originating in the personal past, nor, in any usual sense of the word, “creative,” is what sets poets apart.18 I do not wish to overdetermine the case, but Eliot, with his peculiar mixed nationality, is perfectly positioned to initiate this change. T. J. Clark is half right when he characterizes modernity as a “social order which [turned] from the worship of ancestors and past authorities to the pursuit of a projected future,” resulting in “a great emptying … of the imagination.” While this is a compelling description of early-twentieth-century Europe, it hardly fits the United States, in which “past authorities” are rarely “worshipped” and the “pursuit of a projected future” is part of the national mythos. Eliot, exactly between the cultures, could appreciate the crisis of modernity in the terms Clark describes, without desiring, like Yeats, to recover the lyric imagination.19 In general, American poets were faster than the British to follow Eliot into a poetry of consciousness—though, as a whole, they were less attuned than he to the underlying pathos of this gesture. In this light, I believe, both Pound and Stevens, may be understood as poets of consciousness, extending, albeit in very different ways, the Eliotic model. In Stevens and his descendants, we see a consciousness that takes the imagination as its primary (perhaps only) subject; in the Pound of the Cantos and his followers, we see the consciousness as an arranger of experience.

My last chapter, instead of focusing on either of these poets, returns to England and W. H. Auden, who offers a third and to my mind more compelling possibility: the poet of consciousness as propagandist. A poetry of consciousness, lacking a strong inner reason for being, is particularly susceptible to the seductions of external Authority. The tensions between power and meaning (the overwhelming gift versus the desire to be a normal social being), which rend the work of Wordsworth, Yeats, and even Eliot, find some (as we shall see, rather ambivalent) resolution in Auden. With Auden, too, my history of plain English is brought to a close. If Wordsworth's legacy to the twentieth century is a low register with a reputation for truthfulness in signifying object reality, modern (p.12) poets beginning with Yeats use this reputation for their own devious purposes. One result is a change in the nature of plain English itself. Once valued as an accurate signifier of the world, plain English, by the middle of the twentieth century, has become a counter in a language game: an indicator of honest intentions. Whereas my discussion of the low register begins, however, with an examination of John Locke, it does not conclude with Philosophical Investigations.20 Wordsworth is drawing explicitly on Lockean empiricism when he articulates his theory of language; but if poets' subsequent use of register echoes twentieth-century language philosophies, I am inclined to suspect convergence, or the spirit of the age. Indeed, questions of language as such move ever more to the background over the course of this study; and this is itself a symptom of the ever more covert role the low register plays in the twentieth century. The history I narrate is increasingly poetry-specific; in Yeats, and especially Auden, plain English is used to cast an aura of sincerity and good sense over otherwise tendentious views.21

A brief word about method. Chapter 1 stands apart somewhat from the others: as I just suggested, my account of plain English begins with a work not of literature but philosophy. And while Locke's Essay can be read fruitfully as a literary text, my analysis focuses on his arguments; it is these arguments, both linguistic and epistemic, that later influence Wordsworth.22 I then approach each of the four central poets from a variety of perspectives—psychological, historical, rhetorical, and so on. My readings take me into areas where the borders between these approaches begin anyway to blur. A problem, for example, that I revisit in every chapter—the way powerful poetic language often effaces any recoverable meaning—may well recall deconstructive criticism. But where de Man would treat this problem as an atemporal failure of all language, I read the problem historically. Rather than aim at an overarching truth about the nature of discourse, I try to show the ways a series of poets dealt with the problem differently, and the ways their motives and solutions, because of changing personal, social, or historical conditions, changed over time. Because these changes often occurred slowly over the poets' lives, I draw on their biographies, and proceed at the pace biographical readings require. My larger emphasis could be considered psychological—yet the meaning of the word psychology itself shifts from chapter to chapter. Wordsworth, in my account, is an intuitive psychologist, the inventor of a way to understand personal history. Yeats and Eliot are both loud despisers of psychology in its modern therapeutic guise, yet both finally resemble Wordsworth in the structure of their poetry. Along with H.D., Auden is perhaps (p.13) the first poet in English fully comfortable with modern psychology, writing a lengthy elegy for Freud and incorporating Freudian argot into his verse; yet his poetry lacks, perhaps because of this very comfort, his predecessors' psychological complexity.

The tendency of contemporary theory I am most ambivalent about, ironically, is the one most prevalent in the study of Modernism today. Modernist studies has prospered, in the last two decades especially, from an alliance with cultural theories.23 Perhaps the most influential recent accounts of the period have been offered from this angle. These include Fredric Jameson, Andreas Huyssen, and John Carey's depiction of “High” Modernism as a reaction by intellectual and social elites against an insurgent mass culture. Less fraught accounts have questioned the validity of such categories as high and low modernism. Yet apart from the study of ideology—Yeats's self-positioning in Irish politics, Eliot's anti-Semitism—cultural theory has had little to say about modern poetry.24 This lack is most likely attributable to the way culture itself is usually conceived: as something larger than the individual, as large as the whole society, but which operates through (or more darkly, colonizes) individual minds. In Hugh Underhill's paraphrase, “there is no identity which is not socio-historical, which is other than a cultural construction.”25 A particularly dark statement of the case from one of the founders of the discipline:

Neutralized and ready-made, traditional culture has become worthless today…. And the hucksters of mass culture can point to it with a grin, for they treat it as [trash]. The more total society becomes, the greater the reification of the mind and the more paradoxical its effort to escape reification on its own. Even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter. Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today. Absolute reification, which presupposed intellectual progress as one of its elements, is now preparing to absorb the mind entirely. Critical intelligence cannot be equal to this challenge as long as it confines itself to self-satisfied contemplation.26

It is not necessarily barbaric (as Adorno has sometimes been read to be saying) to write novels or to paint pictures after Auschwitz. Indeed, the modern novel, or prose in general, might well be perceived a natural ally, mimetically reproducing the conditions of study or, through techniques of abstraction and experiment, echoing the critic's own subversive labor. One need only recall Joyce's Gerty MacDowell, the helpless product of all the advertising copy and women's magazines she reads, or of Bloom the ad-man, both victim of and participant in (p.14) the consciousness industry. Poetry, however, with its delusions of autonomy, is for that very reason a particularly susceptible and unwitting servant of the larger culture. Adorno's position, I believe, is far too stark and pessimistic to represent the field; nonetheless, I would argue that he anticipates much subsequent cultural theory in not taking seriously the poetic claim to a unique and independent subjectivity.

That claim is very much the topic of this study. If a single conviction holds my project together, it is my sense that the study of poetry is, almost in the medieval sense of the word, a discipline. That is to say, poetry offers, and the study of poetry, poetic language in particular, can bring, a unique kind of knowledge. My starting point is poetry's singular burden among the literary genres of always needing to justify its own existence. Indeed, the revolutionary shifts in dispensation that I trace stem from the failure of old j ustifications, and the need to produce new ones, a process that is unlikely to cease. Considered with cruel detachment, the basic lyric gesture, the naked and subjective utterance, is perhaps inherently absurd. It is thus a task of poetry, especially after Wordsworth, to provide grounds for the poet's authority, the poet's right to speak. These grounds are often tangled in self-deception; yet it is precisely poetry's embrace of the fruitful mistake that leads to a kind of self-knowledge unavailable to philosophy. “It … may serve much to the quieting of disputes [if] we confine our thoughts within the contemplation of those things that are within the reach of our understandings, and launch not out into that abyss of darkness (where we have not eyes to see, nor faculties to perceive any thing), out of a presumption that nothing is beyond our comprehension.”27 Although the author of these comments could never have been a poet, the poetry we will read originates in (a not always disagreeing) response to his position. It is thus with Locke, with his ideas of truth and language, that we also start.


(1.) W. B. Yeats, The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, ed. Richard J. Finneran, 2nd ed. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 7–8.

(2.) William Shakespeare, The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), 1325.

(3.) Albert C. Baugh and Thomas Cable, A History of the English Language, Fourth Edition (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1993), 105–23; Henry Home, Lord Kames, Elements of Criticism, vol. 2 (Edinburgh, 1785), 342–343.

(4.) Classic histories of the “plain style” include George Williamson, The Senecan Amble: A Study in Prose Form from Bacon to Collier (London: Faber and Faber, 1951), and Wesley Trimpi, Ben Jonson's Poems: A Study of the Plain Style (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1962). See also Emerson R. Marks, Taming the Chaos: English Poetic Diction Theory since the Renaissance (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998).

(5.) See Trimpi, Ben Jonson's Poems, 70–91.

(6.) Williamson, Senecan Amble, 11–12.

(7.) George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” A Collection of Essays (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1946), 170.

(8.) Good histories of the earliest arguments for plain English include J. L. Moore, Tudor-Stuart Views on the Growth, Status, and Destiny of the English Language (Halle, Germany: M. Niemeyer, 1910), and Richard Foster Jones, The Triumph (p.182) of the English Language (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1953). More general social histories of the language (not focusing on register) include Richard W. Bailey, Images of English: A Cultural History of the Language (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991), and Tony Crowley, ed., Proper English? Readings in Language, History and Cultural Identity (London: Routledge, 1991).

(9.) Dennis Brutus, A Simple Lust: Selected Poems (London: Heinemann 1973), 71.

(10.) Marjorie Perloff, “Pound/Stevens: whose era?” The Dance of the Intellect: Studies in the Poetry of the Pound Tradition (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 1–32. Also, in the same volume, “Postmodernism and the impasse of lyric,” 172–200. A particularly nuanced statement of the case, from which I borrow some terms, is offered by: George Bornstein, Transformations of Romanticism in Yeats, Eliot, and Stevens (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976).

(11.) Randall Jarrell, “A Note on Poetry,” Kipling, Auden and Co: Essays and Reviews, 1935–1964 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1962), 48; Harold Bloom, Agon: Toward a Theory of Revisionism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 287; Perloff, “Postmodernism and the impasse of lyric,” 172–176. For a classic analysis of Romanticism's privileging of lyric, see: M. H. Abrams, “Structure and Style in the Greater Romantic Lyric,” Romanticism and Consciousness, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: W. W. Norton, 1970), 201–229.

(12.) Compare Paul de Man, “Intentional Structure of the Romantic Image,” The Rhetoric of Romanticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984). Also Frank Kermode, Romantic Lmage (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957).

(13.) Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (London: Oxford University Press, 1973), 10; the comment that modern poetry is often only “hypertrophied” Romanticism is from Jarrell, “A Note on Poetry,” 48.

(14.) See Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (London: Faber and Faber, 1951). One rare critic who analyzes Stevens from within this tradition is Charles Altieri. See: Painterly Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 321–358.

(15.) T. S. Eliot, “The Metaphysical Poets,” Selected Essays (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975), 65; Ezra Pound, “The Rev. G. Crabbe, LL.B.,” Literary Essays of Ezra Pound (New York: New Directions, 1968), 277; Perloff, “Postmodernism and the impasse of lyric,” 172–183.

(16.) Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), 6, 11.

(17.) Compare Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence. I suspect that younger poets rarely read their predecessors with the same priorities as their best critics.

(18.) Compare Altieri 76–88. Altieri is very suggestive about Keats's rejection of the Wordswor-thian imagination; in his view, the malaise suffered by Victorian poets came from following Keats's example too closely.

(19.) T. J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 7; compare Richard Poirier, Poetry and Pragmatism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992), 20–21. Although Eliot might be considered an “ancestor worshipper” himself, I follow Poirier in reading Eliot's concept of “tradition” as an essentially pragmatic gesture, responding to the needs of the present, and relatively uninterested in the recovery of something tangible. I say more about this in chapter 4.

(20.) Compare Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1953), paragraphs 7, 20–23.

(21.) In some ways this anticipates the rhetorical turn that Mutlu Konuk Blasing defines as the borderline between modern and postmodern poetics. While Biasing's description of the replacement of organicism by self-aware rhetoric is convincing, I would suggest that—on the level of register if not form—some Modernists are already initiating the shift. See: Politics and Form in Postmodern Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 1–22.

(22.) For a more literary approach to Locke, see: Cathy Caruth, Empirical Truths and Critical Fictions: Locke, Wordsworth, Kant, Freud (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), 1–43.

(23.) The two most significant institutional developments of the last decade, for example, are the founding of the Modernist Studies Association and the journal Modernism/Modernity, both of which are largely (not entirely) culturalist in bent.

(24.) Andreas Huyssen, After the Great Divide (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), especially the chapters “The Hidden Dialectic: Avant-Garde—Technology—Mass Culture” and “Mass Culture as Woman: Modernism's Other.” Also John Carey, The Intellectuals and the Masses (London: Faber and Faber, 1992), and Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981). Along the same lines, but refusing any easy binaries, is: Pierre Bourdieu, The Rules of Art, trans. Susan Emanuel (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995). See especially the long chapter “The Conquest of Autonomy: The Critical Phase in the Emergence of the Field.” For a consideration of High versus Low Modernism, see Maria DiBattista, introduction, High and Low Moderns: Literature and Culture, 1889–1939, ed. Maria DiBattista and Lucy McDiarmid (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 3–19. Recent ideologically inflected accounts of modern poetry include Jonathan Allison's anthology Yeats's Political Identities: Selected Essays (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996), and Anthony Julius, T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

(25.) Hugh Underhill, The Problem of Consciousness in Modern Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 13.

(26.) Theodor Adorno, “Cultural Criticism and Society,” Prisms (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1967), 34.

(27.) John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1995), 450–451.