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Power, Plain English, and the Rise of Modern Poetry

Power, Plain English, and the Rise of Modern Poetry

David Rosen
Copyright Date: 2006
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Power, Plain English, and the Rise of Modern Poetry
    Book Description:

    In this engaging book David Rosen offers a radically new account of Modern poetry and revises our understanding of its relation to Romanticism. British poets from Wordsworth to Auden attempted to present themselves simultaneously as persons of power and as moral voices in their communities. The modern lyric derives its characteristic complexities-psychological, ethical, formal-from the extraordinary difficulty of this effort.The low register of our language-a register of short, concrete, native words arranged in simple syntax-is deeply implicated in this story. Rosen shows how the peculiar reputation of "plain English" for truthfulness is employed by Modern poets to conceal the rift between their (probably irreconcilable) ambitions for themselves.With a deep appreciation for poetic accomplishment and a wonderful iconoclasm, Rosen sheds new light on the innovative as well as the self-deceptive aspects of Modern poetry. This book alters our understanding of the history of poetry in the English language.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-12948-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    In “The Song of the Happy Shepherd,” the poem Yeats chose to print first in hisCollected 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,...

  5. Chapter 1 Prologue: The Secret Reference of John Locke
    (pp. 15-32)

    I begin my discussion of the low register and its history by returning to Lear on the heath. In Lear’s description of Edgar, we saw, Shakespeare seems to intuit the low register’s special ability to signify the actual world. To draw such a conclusion, I also suggested, would be anachronistic. Or rather, if Shakespearehassuch an intuition, it in no way reflects—as it will, almost two centuries later, in William Wordsworth—either his wider practices as a writer or a systematic understanding of language on his part. As Albert Baugh observes, his vocabulary is by far the largest...

  6. Chapter 2 Wordsworth’s Empirical Imagination
    (pp. 33-72)

    John Locke often enters discussions of Romantic poetry as a straw man or a specter. Perhaps there is good reason for this. The vital achievement of Romanticism, a prominent line of criticism informs us, was to reclaim for the imagination a world laid desolate by eighteenth-century rationalism. Locke, whose polemic against art we examined in the last chapter, is often made to stand for a set of prejudices supplanted by Wordsworth’s generation. In Basil Willey’s account, “Wordsworth was the kind of poet who could only have appeared at the end of the eighteenth century, when mythologies were exploded. . ....

  7. Chapter 3 Certain Good: W. B. Yeats and the Language of Autobiography
    (pp. 73-122)

    In January of 1909, Yeats, forty-three years old, unmarried, and estranged from Irish politics, wrote a short poem expressive of his frustrations; he called it “Words.”

    I had this thought a while ago,

    “My darling cannot understand

    What I have done, or what would do

    In this blind, bitter land.”

    And I grew weary of the sun

    Until my thoughts cleared up again,

    Remembering that the best I have done

    Was done to make it plain;

    That every year I have cried, “At length

    My darling understands it all,

    Because I have come into my strength,

    And words obey my...

  8. Chapter 4 The Lost Youth of Modern Poetry: T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden
    (pp. 123-180)

    Modern poetry was never young. In 1913 or thereabouts, W. B. Yeats, fifty years a youth, declared himself an old man, and thereupon was recognized as a kindred spirit by Ezra Pound. In that same year, Robert Frost published his first book of verse at the advanced age of thirty-nine. Within the next twelve months, T. S. Eliot arrived in England from America, still in his mid-twenties, yet toting a manuscript of poems, many begun much earlier, about fading old ladies and anxious aesthetes. W. H. Auden, finally, who belonged to the next generation of writers and who understood himself...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 181-200)
  10. Index
    (pp. 201-212)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 213-214)