Chapter 2 of Arresting Poetry: Poetic Diction and the Substance of Kitsch
Modernist definitions of kitsch frequently identify kitsch as the antithesis of art (or, in Greenberg’s case, of the avant-garde), yet they also acknowledge a genealogical relation between art and kitsch. Broch, for example, declares, “we can say that Romanticism, without therefore being kitsch itself, is the mother of kitsch and that there are moments when the child becomes so like its mother that one cannot differentiate them.” The idea that kitsch becomes so much like art that the two cannot be differentiated recalls Francis Jeffrey’s judgment concerning the ostensibly divergent “beauties” of vulgar and refined poetries: “the qualities in a poem that give the most pleasure to the refined and fastidious critic are, in substance, we believe, the very same that delight the most injudicious of its admirers.” Jeffrey and Broch both stress the uncanny similarities between art and kitsch, yet Broch warns the reader not to view kitsch as merely derivative or imitative, stressing instead its insidious autonomy: “Kitsch is certainly not ‘bad art’; it forms its own closed system, which is lodged like a foreign body in the overall system of art.” Hence Broch views kitsch as at once contingent upon art--a genealogical descendant of it--and independent of it. Kitsch bears an uncanny resemblance to art, yet operates according to an autonomous “system” which undermines the values of art. Contrasting the destructive effects of internal and external threats--of kitsch and propaganda--to art, Broch states, “The enemy within, however, is more dangerous than these attacks from outside; every system is dialectically capable of developing its own anti-system and is indeed compelled to do so. The danger is all the greater when at first glance the system and the anti-system appear to be identical.” What the system and the anti-system, art and kitsch, share in common (according to both Jeffrey and Broch) is the “substance” of beauty.
If we accept the premise that kitsch emerges historically from a schism dividing art into system and anti-system, then we must acknowledge that the principal thesis of this book--that kitsch originates with poetry--will have a significant bearing on the question of when and how the crisis in art leading to the emergence of kitsch occurs. That is to say, if kitsch emerges as the result of a crisis in the conditions of art, and kitsch originates specifically with poetry (and not, more broadly speaking, with the rise of industrial culture), then we must search for evidence of a schism or rupture in the history of poetry per se, in order to explain the historical emergence of kitsch.
The question of poetry’s priority in the genealogy of kitsch bears directly on the larger question of whether kitsch should be regarded as a product of industrial capitalism, as Marxist analysis requires (a view supporting its fundamental correlation with material culture); or whether kitsch, as Broch claims, must be understood essentially as “a specific product of Romanticism” (a view supporting the idea that kitsch arises from a particular crisis in the history of poetry). These two positions are not, of course, entirely incompatible, but if kitsch originates specifically with poetry--and with the conditions of the Romantic Revival in the latter part of the eighteenth century in particular--then one cannot provide an adequate explanation of the origins of kitsch by focusing solely on the rise of the industrial capitalism and consumption in relation to the arts in general.
It was Francis Jeffrey who first identified poetic diction as the appropriate framework for a discussion of “very popular poetry”--a mode of verse signaling the emergence of a poetic anti-system, a lyric antibody to literature. By implication, therefore, Jeffrey established the criteria for assessing the earliest manifestations of kitsch arising in tandem, but also at odds with, what came to be known as the canon of Romantic poetry. That is to say, his essays in the Edinburgh Review in the first two decades of the nineteenth century indicate that the schism in poetry leading to the emergence of kitsch developed as a result of various experiments in poetic diction. These experiments were responding at once to the increasing appeal of literary antiquarianism and to the introduction of vernacular sources--principally prose--into school curricula and “literary” culture during the eighteenth century. These contradictory developments led, on the one hand, to the emergence of the category of “literature” and, on the other hand, to provisional formations of mass culture, anchored initially in the medium of print and in what one might call the “genre wars” between poetry and literature.
Careful examination of these historical developments reveals in fact that the schism underlying the emergence of kitsch occurred not between literature and popular culture as we know it today, but between the residual genre of poetry and the emergent super-genre of literature. A renegade and conservative subgenre of poetry--the precursor of kitsch--forged a recalcitrant language from archaic diction and a radicalized vernacular to avoid the middle ground of polite conversation--the purity of diction--cultivated by the new school of literary poets (Wordsworth and his followers). In this bitter and melancholy contest, it was a refractory and militant form of poeticism that established the dialectical terms of kitsch and mass culture, becoming the hyperbolically poetic anti-system to the middling, bourgeois system of literature.
In an essay of 1810, reviewing Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake, Jeffrey argues that his thesis regarding the common substance of beauty shared by vulgar and refined poetries can be confirmed by attending to “the history and effects of what may be called Poetical diction in general, or even of such particular phrases and epithets as have been indebted to their beauty for too great a notoriety.” Thus, Jeffrey not only identifies diction as the key to understanding the nature of poetic kitsch, but he acknowledges the contradictory judgments called forth by the “phrases and epithets” of poetic diction: “Our associations with all this class of expressions, which have become trite only in consequence of their intrinsic excellence, now suggest to us no ideas but those of schoolboy imbecility and childish affectation.” No longer able to recognize the “intrinsic excellence” of such expressions--and allowing their beauty to become a source of “notoriety”--“We look upon them merely as the common, hired, and tawdry trappings of all those who wish to put on, for the hour, the masquerade habit of poetry.” Jeffrey seeks to remind the cultivated reader of “the vivifying spirit of strength and animation” in Scott’s poetry even as he acknowledges the heterogeneity of its diction:
With regard to diction and imagery, too, it is quite obvious that Mr. Scott has not aimed at writing either in a very pure or a very consistent style. He seems to have been anxious only to strike, and to be easily and universally understood, and, for this purpose, to have culled the most glittering and conspicuous expressions of the most popular authors, and to have interwoven them in splendid confusion with his own nervous diction and irregular verification.
The great popularity of Scott’s poetry, which Jeffrey views as a sign of its intrinsic merit, can be attributed then to a combination of “nervous diction” (a form of intertextuality), its preoccupation with effects (“anxious only to strike”), and to the accessibility granted to the “animation” of these qualities.
Jeffrey’s observations about poetic diction often serve as a way of theorizing about the anomalous features of “popular poetry” (Scott, Byron, and Keats are his favorites)--about kitsch. One might therefore note that the history of the concept of diction in relation to poetics--reaching back to Aristotle--frequently addresses the question of poetic popularity and therefore serves as a prehistory of the problem of kitsch in poetry. Jeffrey’s emphasis on the impurity--the “splendid confusion”--of Scott’s diction in his evaluation of popular poetry offers a good example of this concordance.
In Aristotle’s foundational discussion of diction (lexis)--understood as a function of vocabulary--he states, “Diction is at its clearest when composed of words in everyday use, but then it is commonplace.... An impressive diction, on the other hand, one that escapes the ordinary, results from the use of strange words, by which I mean foreign words, metaphors, expanded words, and whatever departs from normal usage.” To avoid the extremes of the “drab” and the enigmatic, Aristotle explains, “What is needed, therefore, is a blend, so to speak, of these ingredients, since the unfamiliar element...will save the diction from being drab and commonplace, while the colloquial element will ensure its clarity.” Thus poetic diction in general is a highly synthetic medium founded upon the vernacular, yet mixing the commonplace and the unfamiliar, the drab and the ornamental, the colloquial and the arcane.
One cannot help but note the surprising correspondence between the classical formulation of poetic diction and the particular qualities of Scott’s “nervous” yet popular poetry, comprising “a diction tinged successfully with the careless richness of Shakespeare, the harshness and the antique simplicity of the old romances, the loneliness of vulgar ballads and anecdotes, and the sentimental glitter of the most modern poetry--passing from the borders of the ludicrous to those of the sublime.” Jeffrey here describes a poetic language accessible to a mass audience, combining simplicity, vulgarity, archaism, sublimity, and the “sentimental glitter” of modern phrasing.
Following Aristotle’s definition, variations of the concept of a synthetic vernacular--a common language alienated from common usage--have figured prominently in discussions of poetic diction. For example, Dante’s seminal (and unfinished) essay on language and poetry, De Vulgari Eloquentia, addresses the problem of diction by elaborating the advantages of writing in the vernacular--in one’s native tongue, instead of Latin. At the same time, the title of his treatise, Eloquence in the Vulgar Tongue conveys the crucial idea of a synthetic language combining vulgarity and refinement, the familiar and the unfamiliar. According to Dante, “vernacular language is that which we learn without any formal instruction,” yet he is careful to explain that the vernacular--as a medium for poetry--“has left its scent in every city but made its home in none.” The vernacular, then, is “common to all yet owned by none,” a medium “tempered by the combination of opposites”: a language that is at once “womanish” and “brutally harsh,” belonging to no place and spoken, in effect, by no one. Ultimately, in a figure of speech I will adopt for the present study, Dante describes the vernacular as a “homeless stranger.” In Italian, Dante uses the term peregrinatur--wanderer, vagabond--suggesting that the poetic vernacular is not merely homeless, but outside the bounds of ordinary usage: a miscreant language.
The problem of poetic diction in the English tradition emerged as a visible and substantial polemic with the publication of the preface (along with various other textual appendices) to the Lyrical Ballads (especially the revised preface of the 1802 edition). The polarization of views is epitomized, on the one hand, by Wordsworth’s articulation of the first programmatic stance against poetic diction (embodied, in his view, by Gray’s insularity and the new barbarism of Gothic verse) and, on the other hand, by Jeffrey’s defense of poetic “animation”: sublimity and strong feelings, yet also irregularity of diction and a reliance upon borrowed sources.
The preface to the Lyrical Ballads (and the controversies surrounding it) is in fact a culmination of experiments and disputes over diction reaching back to the middle of the eighteenth century. In addition, stepping back even further, although Wordsworth addresses a range of issues pertaining to the immediate historical debate he inherits, he also inevitably conveys and revises the terms of a longer, episodic conversation about poetic diction reaching back to the early seventeenth century. He does so in order to reinforce the values of the “plainer and more emphatic language” he deemed appropriate for poetry. Wordsworth’s contrast between the “inane phraseology” of poetic diction and the “real language of men,” echoes the categories of diction established in the earliest commentaries about English poetry. Ben Jonson, for example, contrasts “a verse as smooth, as soft, as cream;/In which there is no torrent, nor scarce stream” with a verse in which one finds “nothing but what is rough and broken.” Of the first kind of poet, Jonson remarks, “Women’s poets they are called: as you have women’s tailors... They are cream-bowl, or but puddle deep”; and of the latter kind: “They would not have it run without rubs, as if that style were more strong and manly, that struck the ear with a kind of unevenness.” Though the commentary becomes more partisan (a seventeenth-century preface to Cleveland’s poetry contrasts “strenuous masculine style” with “enervous effeminate froth”), Jonson, Dryden, and later Samuel Johnson, call for a blend of the strong and the smooth.
The basic framework of this polemic about poetic diction clearly recalls the Aristotelian model of a synthetic vernacular combining disparate elements: familiar and unfamiliar, colloquial and arcane, drab and ornamental, rough and smooth. At the same time, the potentially “vicious” nature of either type of diction (rough or smooth) is often attributed in the English tradition to the incorporation of foreign sources, to the effects of translation. Dryden, for example, commenting on the strength of Jonson’s diction, remarks, “perhaps, too, he did a little too much Romanize our tongue, leaving the words which he translated almost as much Latin as he found them: wherein, though he learnedly followed their language, he did not enough comply with the idiom of ours.”
Infatuation with the foreign and the unfamiliar could also, by contrast, exaggerate the delicacy of tone prized by the so-called Cavalier poets. Herrick, and even a poet like Cowley (usually associated with the robust style of the Metaphysical poets), produced collections of Anacreontiques, described by Samuel Johnson as “paraphrastical translations of some little poems, which pass, however justly, under the name of Anacreon.” These dubious translations yield “songs dedicated,” Johnson explains, “to festivity and gaiety, in which even the morality is voluptuous.” Recalling Ben Jonson’s comparison of “women’s poets” to “women tailors,” Douglas Bush finds in Herrick’s diction “the feminine particularity of a dressmaker...the phrases are a succession of delicate or delicately mock-heroic paradoxes which turn a woman into a dainty rogue in porcelain, and one whose roguishness is not limited to her costume.”
The “intermixture of tongues” (as Coleridge calls it) can therefore produce either the Romanized diction of Jonson’s hybrid tongue or the delicate but “rogue” phrasing of Herrick’s songs. In both cases, impurities of diction result from excessive exposure to (and incorporation of) foreign languages. Some have even claimed (including Coleridge) that the origins of bad taste--of poetic kitsch--may be found in the impurities of diction cultivated by a classical education. But that is only part of the story.
By the time Wordsworth published his manifesto calling for a poetry based on “the language of conversation,” the historical commentary on poetic diction--or types of diction--had evolved into a ferocious debate about the distinguishing features of poetry itself (in contrast to prose)--about the “essence” of poetic language. In the 50 years preceding Wordsworth’s publication of the preface, several momentous changes were taking place in the realm of “letters” which placed in question the basic verbal criteria of poetry. More precisely, neoclassical poetics and the preeminence of poetry as the only classical genre (even drama was written in verse) came under pressure from the gradual introduction of vernacular writing into school curricula and from the development of a vernacular canon (in English), which included for the first time the nebulous genre of prose fiction. As a consequence of these developments, since the language of prose was understood to be more colloquial than that of poetry, or less beholden to ancient sources, it was inevitable that a new supergenre--called “literature”--would emerge to encompass the various levels of diction ranging from poetry to prose fiction to prose essay (a genre initially included within the domain of literature--of “polite letters”).
Though the verbal category of the vernacular was itself contested (as being grounded either in the language of “rustics”--as Wordsworth liked to think--or in “polite conversation”), one could reasonably claim, as John Guillory notes, that “it is only vernacular writing that has the power to bring into existence the category of ‘literature’ in the specific sense of poetry, novels, plays, and so on.” In addition, the reciprocal appearance of a model of Standard English guaranteed the value of writing associated with the category of literature, which in turn became the ultimate measure of usage (as the examples of usage in the O.E.D. attest). Hence, as Guillory explains, “Purity of diction [a marker of the literary indifference of the languages of poetry and prose] requires the participation of nearly all writing genres in the forging of a standard vernacular, in other words, a linguistically homogeneous bourgeois public sphere.”
At the same time, as the new supergenre of literature acquired the prestige and legitimacy to function as a vehicle for bourgeois social emulation (occupying the middle ground between classicism and “unimproved” common speech), the archaic and insular diction of poetry came under increasing pressure to assimilate itself to the middle ground of “polite letters” and prosaic language. A polemical school of poetry therefore appeared which rejected the “gaudiness and inane phraseology” of poetic diction and, correspondingly, advocated a new “purity” of diction grounded in “the language of conversation”--a language “purified indeed from what appear to be is real defects.”
Wordsworth was not the first poet, as we have seen, to make a distinction between “corrupt” diction and the qualities of the “plain style,” but he was the first to advocate a programmatic rejection of poetic diction: “There will also be found in the volumes little of what is usually called poetic diction; I have taken as much pains to avoid it as others ordinarily take to produce it.” He goes to considerable lengths in the Preface (supplemented by a separate “Appendix” on the subject of “poetic diction” in 1802) to explain the basis of the “adulterated phraseology” of poetic diction, condemning its “abuses” and “corruptions,” its “wanton deviation from good sense and nature,” its “extravagant and absurd language,” its “gross and violent stimulants.” Ultimately, he explains, poets “became proud of a language which they themselves invented and which was uttered only by themselves.” He condemns in particular the formulaic nature of “phrases and figures of speech which from father to son have long been regarded as the common inheritance of Poets...and which have been foolishly repeated by bad Poets.” As a result, “the taste of men was gradually perverted; and this language was received as a natural language.”
Wordsworth, it seems, wished to replace one “natural” language with another. And he was not alone in ridiculing the “quaintnesses, hieroglyphics and enigmas” of poetic diction. The growing prestige of vernacular writing, along with the controversies surrounding the distinction between poetry and prose, had already begun to cast doubt on the integrity of poetic language. Coleridge, too--though in a manner for less doctrinaire than Wordsworth--shows no hesitation in condemning “the unmeaning repetition, habitual phrases and other blank counters” of poetic diction; he, too, appears to reject “the false and showy splendours” of the poet’s inheritance. Yet Wordsworth radicalized his campaign against poetic diction--a step Coleridge was unwilling to take--by equating the languages of poetry and prose: “there neither is, nor can be, any essential difference between the language of Prose and metrical composition.” Stripped of the “foreign splendor” of poetic diction, the language of poetry reveals itself to be no different from prose or indeed from common speech.
The material distinction between poetry and prose depends entirely, according to Wordsworth, on the “charm” of meter “superadded” to natural language: “The only strict antithesis to Prose is Metre.” Hence the specifically poetic character of Wordsworth’s writing is achieved, he claims, solely “by fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation.” By implication, without meter --and without the “gross and violent stimulants” of poetic diction--poetry ceases to exist in material terms: a formulation so restrictive that it would deny the name of poetry to the bulk of post-metrical, colloquial “poetry” written in the twentieth century.
Wordsworth’s emphasis on “vivid sensation” preserves, however, a means of distinguishing poetry from prose without reference to any material properties of language--a distinction that would become crucial to the integrity of much poetry written in the twentieth century. When Wordsworth declares, “all good Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of feeling,” he implies (perhaps inadvertently) that poetry can exist, in essence, solely as a state of feeling in the poet and in the reader--without possessing any distinctive or consistent verbal properties. According to Jean-Pierre Mileur, the Wordsworth of the Preface argues that “one is not a poet by virtue of actually having written poetry but by virtue of an essential disposition of the self.” Under such conditions, poetry persists not as a particular verbal formation but as a state of heightened sensibility. Without metrical constraint or the miscreant language of poetic diction, poetry can be distinguished from prose only in the most feeble terms, requiring the substance of poetry to retreat from the page to the sensibility of the poet. Guillory declares, “In the absence of poetic diction, the distinction between poetry and prose must be maintained elsewhere, as an assertion of the difference embodied in the poetic sensibility.” Poetry is poetry not because it may be distinguished from prose in any material sense, but because it expresses--in ways extrinsic to its actual verbal properties--the sensibility of the poet. Wordsworth, like many others (including his principal adversary, Francis Jeffrey) equates poetry with passion, yet his erasure of distinctions between the languages of poetry and prose--his willingness to dematerialize poetry, to force its withdrawal into the sensibility of the poet--reveals the fundamental importance of poetic diction to the material identity and viability of poetry.
Challenges to the integrity of poetic language in the latter part of the eighteenth century, culminating in Wordsworth’s attack on poetic diction, provoked reactions from various poets and critics reasserting the “peculiarity” of poetic language--a development essential to the conditions leading to the emergence of poetic kitsch. Robert Heron, for example, a critic whom Wordsworth paraphrases approvingly in the preface, rejects Wordsworth’s equation of the languages of prose, poetry, and conversation: “The purposes of poetry are therefore most successfully accomplished when its sentiments and images are conveyed in appropriated language and measures, distinct from those of prose.” Adopting a similar stance, Coleridge, despite his avowed distaste for “artificial phrases” and “pseudo-poesy,” defies (and indeed mocks the phrasing of) Wordsworth’s equation of poetry and prose: “there may be, is and ought to be, an essential difference between the language of prose and of metrical composition.” Regarding his own poetic practice, Coleridge states simply, “I write in metre because I am about to use a language different from that of prose.”
Defending the idea of a language appropriate to poetry, Coleridge’s position resembles--though it is free of condescension and the ugliest forms of class bias--the views of Francis Jeffrey, who condemns “Mr. Wordsworth’s open violation of the established laws of poetry” and his repudiation of “expressions which have been sanctified by the use of famous writers, or which bear the stamp of a simple or venerable antiquity.” Jeffrey’s defense of poetic language is directly linked, one must emphasize, to his focus on poetic diction in his formulations of “popular poetry,” of what can later be identified--with radically different class connotations--as kitsch in poetry.
These views on the propriety and idiosyncrasy of poetic language echo a line of defense which arose midway through the eighteenth century in response to the increasing popularity of prose and shifting views about generic distinctions. Oliver Goldsmith, for example, anticipating the terms of Wordsworth’s polemic, declares in 1765 (the year in which he produced--anonymously--the first edition of Mother Goose), “If poetry exists independent of versification, it will naturally be asked, how then is it to be distinguished? Undoubtedly by its own peculiar expression; it has a language of its own.” More polemically, Thomas Gray (whom Wordsworth identified as “the head of those who, by their reasonings, have attempted to widen the space of separation betwixt Prose and metrical composition”) wrote in a letter of 1742 to Richard West: “As a matter of stile, I have this to say: the language of the age is never the language of poetry.... Our poetry [in contrast to that of the French] has a language peculiar to itself; to which almost everyone that has written has added something by enriching it with foreign idioms and derivatives: nay sometimes words of their own composition or invention.” Samuel Johnson echoes Gray’s notorious views as he explains Gray’s tendency to drive a phrase “beyond apprehension”: “Gray thought his language more poetical as it was more remote from common use.
Gray’s defense of poetic diction--of the “peculiarity” of poetic language--cannot be isolated from his use of what Heron calls “appropriated language and measures” in his own poetic practice. Gray preserved and enhanced the singularity of poetic language by following a “purely anthological principle” in his writing, by the compositional method of the commonplace book. In the Renaissance study of classical rhetoric, commonplaces are common topoi associated with the art of memory: topics, themes, quotations (and ultimately clichés) essential to the mastery of a particular field. One therefore collected commonplaces (quotations of Greek and Latin authors) in a commonplace book, a practice which had evolved by the eighteenth century to include the incorporation of not only vernacular writing, but letters, dried flowers, and other types of “evidence”--in the manner of a scrapbook. As a pedagogical device, then, the commonplace book was at once an aid to reading or memorization and a compositional tool: a notebook or matrix of sources in which poems could take shape.
The production and use of commonplace books had always been oriented primarily around the genre of poetry and, not surprisingly, Gray’s personal commonplace book (which ran to a thousand pages) was the matrix of his own verse. Yet the introduction of vernacular writing into school curricula during Gray’s lifetime brought about a shift in the types of poetry recorded in commonplace books. By the latter half of the eighteenth century, according to David Allan, “the familiar classics-heavy canon was not only being substantially supplemented. It was actually being supplanted, even among active commonplacers, by a growing preference for vernacular poetry in general and for comparatively recent British poetry in particular.” In addition to the dissemination of vernacular poetry, the rising popularity of new prose genres (fiction, essays, journalism) contributed significantly as well to the gradual demise of commonplace books (and to their conversion into anthologies, scrapbooks, and diaries).
Evidence of the declining prestige of the commonplace book (and its rarefied poetic contents) began to emerge with essays such as Edward Young’s Conjectures on Original Composition (1759), which posed the question, “Why are Originals so few?” Concern over the deleterious effects of commonplacing on poetic production evolved within a generation to Hazlitt’s outright scorn for the idolatrous cast of a classical education: “The ignorant, as well as the adept, were charmed only with what was obsolete and far-fetched, wrapped up in technical terms and in a learned tongue.” These shifts in the status of the commonplace, which reflect an unprecedented decline in the generic value of poetry, are in fact recorded in transformations in the usage of meaning of the term: the “commonplace” went from being something to be revered, collected, and reproduced, to a synonym for the vulgar, the insipid, the unoriginal--as reflected in our own usage of the term. What we mean by “commonplace” today is precisely the opposite of what it meant to Thomas Gray in 1750.
The incoherence of the history of the usage of the word “commonplace” extends as well to our assumptions about the class connotations of the types of poetry composed by “commonplace” methods during their decline. That is to say, we presume that the poets who remained wedded to the anthological method and classical materials of the commonplace book were anything but “commonplace.” In fact, we tend to view belated classicists such as Gray, who insisted on the peculiarity and insularity of poetic diction, as elitists. Yet evidence of the opinions of their peers indicates quite the opposite.
Wordsworth, for example, who accused Gray of seeking “to widen the space of separation” between poetry and prose, also identified his “curiously elaborate” diction as the basis of “the popular Poetry of the day”--in contrast to his own “experiments” with ordinary language. In the Preface, Wordsworth warned that, “in order entirely to enjoy the Poetry which I am recommending, it would be necessary to give up much of what is ordinarily enjoyed”--that is, the “inane phraseology” of Gray’s poetic diction. Hence, it was Gray, not Wordsworth, who was writing “popular” poetry.
The class connotations of this polemic render the emerging conflict between “commonplace” poetry and the emerging “literary”--ostensibly colloquial--poetry of Wordsworth’s new program. Gray, we must recall, came from relatively humble origins--his mother was a milliner--and his close friendship with Horace Walpole (the son of a Prime Minister, whom Gray met at Eton College--the same Walpole who wrote the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto) was estranged for a time due to Gray’s displeasure with Walpole’s social priorities. (On a lengthy Grand Tour of Europe--at Walpole’s expense--the two parted in Italy, it is said, over Walpole’s inclination to attend fashionable parties, in contrast to Gray’s plans to visit antiquities). Above all, one must attend to evidence of class affiliations--the specter of working-class Gothic--embedded in Gray’s most famous poem, “Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard,” which calls attention to the graves of the “rude Forefathers” of the plowman and the swain: “Let not ambition mock their useful toil,/Their homely joys, and destiny obscure.” Furthermore, as Joshua Scodel notes, “By imagining his own burial and monument in the churchyard, Gray links himself in death to the poor whose worth he defends against the ‘proud’.”
These symptoms of class affiliation become inverted--though the antagonism remains--in Donald Davie’s comparison of Wordsworth’s “sobriety” with the “glare and glitter” of Gray and other “poets of the uprooted.” By this cryptic phrase, Davie means to contrast “the uprooted, nomadic, and classless type of the governess and the paid companion” (a “classless” type encompassing the poetic values of Thomas Gray) with the “urbanity” of poets such as Wordsworth and Shelley. The vulgarity of Gray’s diction (its “glare and glitter”) stands in contrast, then, to the “purity of diction” cultivated by Wordsworth, which is at once “a sign of good breeding” (according to Davie) and a symptom of the emergent, bourgeois ideology of literature. Hence the glare and glitter of Gray’s belated and alienated classicism resists, through its “commonplace” method of poetic composition, the aspirational goals and the patronizing colloquialism of literature. By resisting the advancing, bourgeois hegemony of literature (aligned with prose fiction and “polite letters”), by removing itself from “the language of the age,” the substance of poetic diction reveals affinities between “commonplace” methods of composition and the nascent regime of the mass ornament, between high kitsch and low culture.
The correlation between the methodology of the commonplace book and Gray’s own poetry is close enough for one critic to declare that “Gray’s Elegy is composed in much the same manner as a commonplace book.” John Guillory indeed refers to “the cento of quotable quotations that is the poem,” describing it as “an anthology of literary clichés,” and noting that “its phrases sound familiar even in the absence of identified pretexts, as though it were the anonymous distillation of literary sententiae.” The “Elegy” therefore functions like a “rhapsody” (a term synonymous with “anthology”), an assemblage of poetic formulae stitched together by the poet. Mobilized against the reproductive bias of Gray’s poetics, and adumbrating the Gothic themes slumbering in Gray’s verse, his critics twisted “a polemic on the nature and function of poetic language into a romance of compulsive mimesis--addiction and repetition.”
It is therefore curious that the profound intertextuality of the poem has spawned such divergent notions of its reception. On the one hand, we find Hazlitt recalling that “Mr. Wordsworth had undertaken to shew that the language of the Elegy is unintelligible.” Views of this kind echo Gray’s insistence on the peculiarity of poetic language and its estrangement from common speech. Yet the majority of readers have followed Samuel Johnson’s judgment of the work: “The Church-yard abounds with images which find a mirror in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returned an echo. The four stanzas beginning ‘Yet e’en these bones’ are to me original: I have never seen the notions in any other place; yet he that reads them here persuades himself that he has always felt them.” From Jonson’s account, it appears that Gray has laid the groundwork for Baudelaire’s poetic program of “inventing clichés”--essential to the enchantment exercised by kitsch--of writing poems as if they had been “uttered by the Zeitgeist” (in Guillory’s phrase)--despite the peculiarity of their language. Leslie Stephen describes even more precisely how the poem, a repository of poetic clichés, acts in turn like a commonplace book upon the memory of its readership: “The Elegy has so worked itself into the popular imagination that it includes more familiar phrases than any poem of equal length in the language.”
Johnson’s recognition of the popularity of Gray’s poem must be reconciled, however, with his acknowledgment that Gray’s poetic diction is “remote from common use.” The poem appears to be at once contrived and intuitive, arcane and popular. This dichotomy does in fact reflect two prevailing yet divergent assessments: Gray’s poetic diction is said to be unnatural, arcane, and unintelligible, yet also popular, stereotypical and familiar. Both of these views are contained, as I mentioned, in the antithetical usage of the word “commonplace.” The practice of commonplacing, which is the methodological key to the aesthetic of kitsch, succeeds in arresting poetry in two ostensibly divergent ways: by removing poetic language from history and actual usage, so that it becomes increasingly insular and arcane; but also by endlessly repeating poetic clichés, thereby cultivating an artificial, common language--a counterfeit vocabulary available to a mass audience.
Yet the “Elegy” is not a pastiche, and Gray’s use of “appropriated phrases and measures” is not to be read in a satiric vein. The poem is not self-conscious or reflexive about its commonplace method and refrains from ironizing its “phraseology.” Indeed, the fatalism of Gray’s rhapsodic (i.e., anthological) method may be contrasted to the wickedly satirical mode of Alexander Pope’s poem, “Lines of a Person of Quality,” a poem composed entirely of borrowed phrases, figures, and sentiments. Pope, unlike Gray, deliberately pushes his commonplace lines towards bathos and doggerel:
Thus the Cyprian Goddess weeping,
Mourned Adonis, darling Youth:
Him the boar in silence creeping,
Gor’d with unrelenting Tooth.
Some of the same effects--though inadvertent--can be detected in Gray’s synthetic verse, but Pope signals that the bathos of his lines is deliberate--he ironizes the clichés--by depicting and exposing to ridicule the rhapsodic mode of composition:
Cynthia, tune harmonious Numbers
Fair Discretion, string the Lyre;
Sooth my everwaking Slumbers:
Bright Apollo, lend they Choir.
Yet the song culled from the borrowed “Choir” is less an integral poem (as Pope’s title indicates) than a collection of disparate “lines,” a spectacle of poetic “stooping”:
Thus when Philomela drooping,
Softly seeks her silent Mate,
See the Bird of Juno stooping;
Melody resigns to Fate.
The final line of Pope’s satire therefore suggests that poetry, resigns itself to a pathetic “Fate” by re-signing (signing again and again) the verbal clichés of the poetic tradition.
Pope’s nonsatiric poetry is, of course, implicated in the stereotypical tradition he mocks, just as the “drooping” fate to which poetry resigns itself evokes the graveyard setting--the commonplace--of melancholy:
Mournful Cypress, verdant Willow,
Gilding my Aurelia’s Brows,
Morpheus hov’ring o’er my Pillow,
Hear me pay my dying Vows.
Gray, by contrast, views the “Fate” of commonplace poetry not as a satirical subject (as Pope does), but as equivalent to the “dying Vows” of the swain in the churchyard. More precisely, the “dying Vows” of the melancholy figure in Pope’s poem signify quite literally, from Gray’s perspective, the language of poetry arrested by the commonplace method of reinscription. In essence, this caesura--the stilling of poetic diction--confronts poetry with its mortality, its own possible death, yet we have already seen that this verbal seizure is only one possible death among several advancing upon the genre of poetry: Wordsworth’s erasure of the distinctions between the languages of poetry and prose; the equation of poetry with feeling rather than the material act of writing; the withdrawal of poetry’s essence into the sensibility of the poet: each of these possible revisions pushes poetry towards an impasse.
Much of Gray’s poetry (he wrote less than a thousand lines) is preoccupied with death, melancholy, and sensuous anomie in ways that are consistent with the narratives of poetic decline espoused by many poets and critics (including Wordsworth and Jeffrey), which in turn derive from Vico’s genealogy of increasing abstraction (and enervation) in “the progress of poesy” (to borrow the title of one of Gray’s odes). More specifically, the “Elegy” and “The Bard” (another one of Gray’s odes) feature melodramatic and, perhaps one could say, influential suicides. Goethe’s Werther, for example, encounters--before he takes his own life--a figure he calls “the wandering gray bard who reaches for the footsteps of his fathers on the vast heath and finds alas! Only their tombstones.” Gray’s “Elegy” is, of course, set in a graveyard, where the speaker imagines his own death and funeral, and composes his own epitaph. At least one Gray scholar has noted as well as a premonitory aspect of Gray’s poetic suicides, in relation to the notorious fate of the poet, Thomas Chatterton, a spectacular suicide in 1770 (some 20 years after the publication of Gray’s “Elegy”). One might even construe the suicidal drive of Frankenstein's monster--a poet of sorts--to be a legacy of Gray's doomed poets. Whatever may be the legacy of Gray’s suicidal bards, there can be little doubt, as Jean-Pierre Mileur has noted, that “Death is especially privileged in this vision as the intersection of the poet’s personal fate and the fate of poetry in the imminent future.” Furthermore, Mileur remarks, “For Gray, the inevitability of death extends to poetry, which is moving inexorably throughout the poem towards its ultimate reduction to epitaph.”
Before the speaker of the “Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard” becomes, through the apparatus of the poem, a witness to his own disappearance, he stages the recollection of his solitary and disturbed behavior by “some hoary-headed Swain”:
‘Mutt’ring his wayward fancies he wou’d rove,
‘Now drooping, woeful wan, like one forelorn,
‘Or craz’d with care or cros’d in hopeless love.
The possibility that the sudden disappearance of the speaker’s alter ego (noted by the Swain and his friends) may be a suicide is reinforced by lines that formed the poem’s conclusion in the original Eton manuscript of the “Elegy”:
Hark how the sacred Calm, that broods around
Bids ev’ry fierce tumultuous Passion cease
In still small Accent whisp’ring from the Ground
A grateful Earnest of eternal Peace
No more with Reason & thyself at Strife;
Give anxious Cares & endless Wishes room
But thro’ the cool sequester’d Vale of Life
Pursue the silent Tenour of thy Doom.
With his disappearance, the speaker becomes by the end of the poem a spectator at his own funeral, overhearing a “kindred Spirit” read aloud (for the illiterate swains) the lengthy epitaph the speaker has prepared for his own gravestone--the final 12 lines of the “Elegy.” The somber but genial epitaph recalls the tone of one of Gray's earliest published poems, "Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes." But the poem’s closure with the epitaph of the speaker also anticipates the restriction of Gray’s own poetic production to a few epitaphs composed for friends after he formally stopped writing poetry in 1753 (several years after he completed the “Elegy”) at the age of 36. In 1757, he was offered the Poet Laureateship, which he refused.
The implied suicide of the speaker of the “Elegy” becomes explicit in the fate of the speaker of “The Bard,” whose death is announced precipitously in the final lines of the poem:
He spoke, and headlong from the mountain’s height
Deep in the roaring tide he plung’d to endless night.
The bard’s suicide is emblematic, as I indicated earlier, of the fate of poetry, enunciated elsewhere in the poem:
‘A Voice, as of the Cherub-Choir,
‘Gales from blooming Eden bear;
‘And distant warblings lessen on my ear,
‘That lost in long futurity expire.
Poetry suffers a similar fate in “The Progress of Poesy”: “But ah! ‘tis heard no more--/Oh! Lyre divine, what daring Spirit/Wakes thee now?”
Ultimately, Gray’s most significant poems reveal that the poetics of the commonplace--the halting of poetic language--enacts not simply the dying vows of poetry, but the suicide of the poet--a speech act whose "felicity" is ensured only by its duration, its continuity, and indeed by it endlessness. More precisely, and more in keeping with its Gothic implications, the "death" of poetry turns out to be a live burial, a secreting of poetic language within the "chaste" and generalizing diction of literature For if kitsch, the direct descendent of the commonplace method, can be understood as the self-inflicted and self-sustaining death of poetry (as so many modernists would argue), then poetry's ending, its self-consumption, is interminable, an enduring form of resistance to the middling, bourgeois ideology of literature.
Lest one presume that the confrontation between Gray and Wordsworth over the “gross and violent stimulants” of poetic diction did not establish the terms of a polemic that continues to haunt the fate of poetry, or that the lyric fatalities of Gray’s poetic production were terminal events, one need only recall the notorious abandonment of poetry by one of modernism’s most gifted poets, Laura Riding. After announcing her repudiation of poetry in 1938, Riding returned repeatedly to the grounds of her disavowal, explicating her poetic beliefs: “The difference of the poetic use of words was precious: the difference must be served with a devout separate-keeping of the poetic and the non-poetic verbal practice.” Further, she explains, “The price of poetic freedom of word was poetry’s having the identity of a mode of verbal expression outside the norms of expression that language, as the common human possession, seemed to ordain to be natural, ‘ordinary’ practice.” Her commitment to poetic diction reached a crisis, however, with the “degeneration of the ‘language’ of poetry into a compound of super-ordinary ‘ordinary language’”--into what she called “the super-mongreloid.” As a result of the public conversion of poetic language, she concludes, “I found poetic utterance arrested [emphasis added] even in its being poetic utterance: it adumbrated a potentiality that was not developable within it, its limits of achievement was the adumbration of potentiality. I ended, in my movement in the poetic path, at no-end.” As these statements demonstrate, the arresting of poetry over the “potentiality”--and dissolution--of poetic language continues to evolve, and to resonate, as a poetic event within the disciplinary horizon of literature.
What survived poetry’s composition of its own epitaph in Gray’s poetry was precisely the method of the commonplace, which had succeeded in arresting the language of poetry even as it transformed itself into a prototype of the mechanism of repetition that would sustain mass culture and the genre of kitsch. The method of the lyric automaton prevailed even as the gingerbread details of poetic diction--archaism, elision, syntactical inversion--were revised and supplanted by a new generation of poetic special effects. In fact, Gray was among the early connoisseurs and fabricators (including Macpherson, Percy, and others) of the archaic ballads whose often spurious diction contributed to the “glare and glitter” of Gothic verse condemned by Wordsworth. In the Preface, Wordsworth targets not only the “vicious” materials of poetic diction, whether classical or pseudo-vernacular, but the mechanism of their popularity. The method of the commonplace book--what John Guillory calls Gray’s “systematic linguistic normalization of quotation”--could be applied to Greek and Latin sources, or to “popular” epics of ancient “poesy.”
Francis Jeffrey thus notes a continuation of commonplace methods, with a changing array of sources: “the new poets are just as great borrowers as the old; only that, instead of borrowing from the more popular passages of their illustrious predecessors, they have preferred furnishing themselves from vulgar ballads and plebian nurseries.” Poetic diction shifts from the “motley masquerade” of Gray’s classicism to the “motley masquerade” of distressed native genres--both equally popular and equally far removed from common speech: “Instead of ingenious essays, elegant pieces of gallantry, and witty satires all stuck over with classical allusions, we have, in our popular poetry, the dreams of convicts, and the agonies of Gypsey women.” In fact, the poetic diction of Gothic verse--the first fully realized province of poetic kitsch--swings wildly between slang and “literary pomp,” synthesizing a language of “calculated impurity,” according to Donald Davie. As a genre, poetic kitsch first appears in a transitional space between “residual” and “emergent” literary cultures (to borrow the terminology of Raymond Williams), between the antique confection of belated classicism and the new barbarism of counterfeit balladry. What is surprising about this transition--and essential to the popularity of kitsch--is that the “quaintness, hieroglyphics, and enigmas” of poetic diction are normalized, engraved in the popular imagination, by an accelerated and technological mode of the commonplace book, by a kind of poetic automation.
Archaism, with regard to word choice and word order, is certainly among the most common and powerful of the verbal ”special effects” associated with poetic diction. More specifically, the persistence of verbal archaism in the balladry of the Romantic Revival must be understood as an extension of the antiquarian cast of late classicism--both concerned with the preservation of poetic diction--but also as a way of appropriating, and refashioning, the substance of the vernacular.
Rejecting the purity of diction intrinsic to the hegemony of literature, and contesting the premise that a basic model of the vernacular (Standard English) should be grounded in the “language of conversation” and “polite letters,” defenders of poetic diction sought to anchor the vernacular in deposits of archaic usage (whether native ballads, classical formulae, or rustic speech) possessing the atavistic trait of the commonplace. Thus Gray was concerned to develop, according to John Guillory, “a poetic diction which replicated within the vernacular a distinction like the distinction between classical and vernacular literacy. This distinction could be articulated as an essential difference between poetry and prose.” More compellingly, Gray responded to the privileging of prose “by reworking the vernacular precisely in order to estrange it from itself, to invent a kind of vernacular Latin.” Defenders of poetic diction therefore weathered the demise of classical literacy by sourcing the vernacular to native, atavistic sources and by grounding the language of poetry in a vernacular estranged from itself. Understandably, then--from the perspective of those defending a purity of diction based on polite conversation--Samuel Johnson condemned poets who “conceive it necessary to degrade the language of pastoral, by obsolete terms and rustic words, which they very learnedly call Dorick, without reflecting, that they thus become authors of a mingled dialect, which no human being ever could have spoken,...joining elegance of thought with coarseness of diction.” Yet “Dorick” diction (an allusion to the earliest presumed order of Greek style) therefore resembles in its “mingled aspect, one must acknowledge, the classical paradigm of synthetic vernaculars.
In this polemical context, one can see quite clearly, as Guillory notes, that “poetic diction is not simply archaic: it represents a reaction against polite letters as the emergent discourse of the bourgeois public sphere.” While verbal archaism, as a device intrinsic to the replicative methods of the commonplace book, may certainly be regarded as a means of arresting poetry (and popularizing it), it is also implicated in a more complex discourse of inversion, resistance, and return. For, as Owen Barfield notes, “True archaism does imply, not a standing still, but a return to something older, and if we examine it more closely, we shall find that it generally means a movement towards language at an earlier stage of its own development.” In this sense, poetic archaism--understood as a return to language in its youth, as youthful language--is, Barfield asserts, “the very opposite of conservatism.” Archaic deposits of vernacular language, sequestered from the history of usage and abstraction, therefore offer a means of preserving and, at the same time, radicalizing, poetic language, a fusing of archaic diction with the substance of the vernacular. Mingled in the new pop genre of Gothic verse, impressed upon the public by commonplace methods of inculcation, and challenging the ascendance of “polite letters,” these elements of poetic diction lay the foundation for the miscreant genre of kitsch.
Pictured: Image from the cover of Patrick Moran's wonderful new book, Doppelgangster, coming soon from Main Street Rag.