Why They Are Still Useful In Poetry Today
by Murray Alfredson
M odern poetic taste, at least in English, has changed vastly over the last 100 to 150 years, to the extent that, for example, free verse has come to predominate. Among these changes, and perhaps integral to them, is a deep-seated aversion to so-called “archaism.” Perhaps “archaism,” or the use of older modes of writing, lingered in poetry longer than in prose writing. Hence the first edition of the OED tolerantly labeled some words or uses as both “archaic” and “poetic.” At any rate, a distaste for “archaisms” has led some editors to declare them unacceptable. Such a guideline can save time. But it can also, for better or worse, inhibit certain writing practices.
Such lists are necessarily brief and incomplete. There are several ways in which a poet might appear old fashioned in his or her wording.
- Use of formerly current word forms, that have fallen into disuse:
- the old intimate forms of address, pronouns and related verb forms (thou, thee, thy, thine, ye, with the “–st” verb inflection, as in thou hast);
- the subjunctive mood of verbs, where the singular subjunctive form differs from the indicative, as in “Were there a place . . .” expressing either a conditional, or a wish or supposition.
- particular elisions that have either disappeared or been displaced (e.g., ’tis, displaced by it’s.)
- Inversion of “normal” English syntax, most often:
- an adjective following the qualified noun, or, as in Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” two adjectives bracketing their noun, “vast edges drear” and “with tremulous cadence slow” (strictly, this is not archaic since it was not used in Old and Middle English, but a later adaptation from Romance languages); or,
- the predicate of a sentence preceding the verb, as twice in this grafted verse from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
Mourn not overmuch! Mighty was the fallen,
meet was his ending. When his mound is raised,
women then shall weep. War now calls us.
- Using “archaic” or even “obsolete” words or meanings. For example, some might regard Tolkien’s use of “meet” in the sense of “fitting” or “proper” as archaic (the Macquarie dictionary, 4th ed. 2005 so labels it; the OED 2nd ed. still does not, and cites an example from the 1980s). I have come under heavy editorial pressure to replace “naught” in its sense as “nothing” and, indeed, the OED 1st and 2nd eds., and the Maquarie 4th ed., brand it archaic; yet I Google-searched and found it still in normal journalistic prose in 2004. Curiously, the unabridged Random House dictionary (1966) does not label this meaning of “naught” as archaic. My conclusion: though we depend heavily on dictionaries, never hand over judgment to the lexicographers! And “archaic” words and uses do come back, as did “gear” to mean “clothing.”
I was challenged to find examples of poets using “archaisms” appropriately from the mid-twentieth century onwards. My examples are selected from just a few hours’ browsing. JRR Tolkien squeaks in. He, of course, was well versed in older forms of English and other Germanic languages, and he sustained certain archaic lacing through both his narrative prose and his poetry. The passage above, like the Rohirrim overall, is modelled on ancient Germanic values and ancient alliterative verse form. The name “Rohirrim” has, however, a Hebrew plural. This is clearly the model for the men of Gondor. So when the eagle sings the news of victory to them, his verse is modeled on the English of the older Bible translations. It is also in written in ancient eastern Mediterranean parallel verse.
Sing and rejoice, ye people of the Tower of Guard,
for your watch hath not been in vain,
and the Black Gate is broken,
and your king hath passed through,
and he is victorious.
Again, around the same time, Robert Frost wrote a delightfully witty love poem, “Iota Subscript,” built round one conceit, lightly spiced by some seventeenth century usages.
Seek not in me the big I capital,
Nor yet the little dotted in me seek.
If I have in me any I at all
’Tis the iota subscript of the Greek.
So small am I as an attention beggar,
The letter you will find me subscript to
Is neither alpha, eta, nor omega,
But upsilon which is the Greek for you.
Robert Graves used inverted syntax more frequently than Frost. In this example he used a triad of “archaisms”: the old word “physic” (both for rhyme and for a shorter word than “medicine”), inverted syntax, and the subjunctive mood (written off some forty years before by H. Fowler as “moribund”).
A wild beast falling sick
Will find his best physic—
Herb, berry, root of tree
Or wholesome salt to lick
And so run free.
But this I know at least
Better than a wild beast:
That should I fall love-sick
And the wind veer to East,
Truth is poor physic.
Last, two honoured Australian poets: James McAuley and A.D. Hope. McAuley’s opening stanza of “Parish Church” has a sequence of inversions for emphasis on the colours.
Bonewhite the newborn flesh, the crucified,
The risen body; bonewhite the crowding faces.
Green, crimson, yellow, blue the robes are dyed,
The wings and armour, the skies and heavenly places.
And the inversion “all things visible” from his “Sister Arts” evokes the phrasing of the Nicene creed.
As Dürer noted, all things visible
Become a treasure hoarded in the heart
Till brought forth by the artist’s hand, transformed
Into an image.
Hope made unusual, though probably not archaic, transitive use of the verb “sing” in this stanza from “Apollo and Daphne II”; and the inversion in the third line is clearly there for the rhyme.
Sing, poet, sing that metamorphosis!
In this alone men share in the divine;
In this alone the gods their power resign;
The natural order triumphs alone in this.
So, where from here? I am happy with the examples above, though I dislike too frequent inversion, as occasionally in both Arnold and McAuley. I find the subjunctive valuable, not only for conditionals, but also to express wishes and the hypothetical. The subjunctive accentuates uncertainty. And I quite like words others might think archaic. As I argued earlier, the label, “archaic,” even from lexicographers, can be unreliable. Lexicographers from Samuel Johnson on have had a way of putting their tastes and prejudices into their dictionaries. H.W. Fowler, who is no friend of archaic words, is quite balanced when he says that the label “archaic” is a warning to writers to avoid incongruent choices. The obvious moral for poets is to be discerning in one’s use of “archaic” and unusual words, usages, turns of phrase, inversions and word forms, as one also must when using slang, dialect and new coinings. I for example, have used the word, “yearhundreds” instead of “centuries.” Though it “feels” old, actually it is newly coined. The “he” is Óðinn.
Full yearhundreds he failed to fathom
creeping loss till loosened Ásgarð
slid into tales of times long past.
The present no-no against archaism is simply a matter of taste, mere fashion. So long as the meanings are clear and the use is appropriate, I see nothing wrong with “archaisms” when used sparingly. Chili is a tasty spice; but too much makes the curry inedible.
Murray Alfredson is a former librarian, lecturer and Buddhist Associate in the Multi-Faith Chaplaincy at Flinders University. He has published essays on Buddhist meditation and on inter-faith relations, and poetry in The Middle Way, Cadenza, Eremos, Orbis, Overland, and other journals in Australia, the UK and the USA, and a collection, Nectar and Light (Friendly Street new poets, 12. Adelaide: Wakefield Press and Friendly Street Poets, 2007.).