Craig Raine

Stylistic Prohibition

The New Oxford Book of Eighteenth Century Verse

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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’.

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