Craig Raine

Stylistic Prohibition

The New Oxford Book of Eighteenth Century Verse


Oxford University Press 870pp £15 order from our bookshop

In ‘Burnt Norton’, T S Eliot tells us that ‘human kind / Cannot bear very much reality’. You could say the same thing about eighteenth-century verse with more justice. The Augustans could bear much more propriety than now seems tolerable. They were easily shocked by breaches of decorum: Dr Johnson, commenting on Shakespeare’s King John, picked out the line, ‘The earth that serves as paste and cover to our bones’, and noted, ‘an image not of the most sublime kind- taken from a pie’. The nose-wrinkling italics are, it seems, typical of the period. It was the same great arbiter of taste who, in his Life of Cowley, argued the need for a poetic diction: ‘words being arbitrary must owe their power to association, and have their influence, and that only, which custom has given them … the most heroick sentiments will lose their efficacy, and the most splendid ideas drop their magnificence, if they are conveyed by words used commonly upon low and trival occasions, debased by ·vulgar mouths, and contaminated by inelegant applications’.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • The mystery of Jack the Ripper's identity has long been agonised over. But what do we know about his victims?… ,
    • A piece of Literary Review history from way back in 1983: John Haffenden talks to the great Iris Murdoch. ,
    • Britain’s only travelling lit fest, the Garden Museum Literary Festival is heading to Houghton Hall, Norfolk, for a… ,
    • 'The 19th-century German sage is not my idea of a pleasant travel companion' goes hiking with Friedr… ,
    • If you want ideas about what to read next, sign up to our free email newsletter, and get book reviews, archive mate… ,
    • 'The heroic male nude could not, I think, be used today to signify civic pride and glory', as Michelangelo’s 'David… ,
    • 'Munch’s later works show us a man liberated from the torments that gave rise to some of the best-known early works… ,