The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018
Poetic diction: Diction — the choice and phrasing of words — deemed suitable to verse. Poets and critics have long disagreed about what constitutes proper poetic diction. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, for instance, argued in the Poetics (c. 330 B.C.) that diction should be “at once clear and not mean,” using “ordinary words” for clarity and “unfamiliar terms” such as “strange words, metaphors, [and] lengthened forms” to “save the language from seeming mean and prosaic.” Many subsequent theorists, however, took more extreme positions, with some maintaining that poets should speak in the ordinary language of their contemporaries.
From the Renaissance through the eighteenth century, elaborate and elevated poetic diction, often characterized by the use of archaisms, epithets, periphrasis, and unusual syntax, was common. As the English poet Thomas Gray remarked in a 1742 letter, “The language of the age is never the language of poetry; except among the French… . Our poetry … has a language peculiar to itself.” Indeed, poetic diction reached its height in the Neoclassical Period, with its stress on decorum. With the advent of romanticism, however, the use of ordinary discourse began to gain ground, heralded by English poet William Wordsworth’s effort “to bring my language near to the language of men” as well as by his derogatory characterization of poetic diction as artificial in his 1800 preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads (1798). In the twentieth century, modernists likewise rejected the idea of a special language for poetry, and many subsequent poets even adopted diction and discourse patterns typically associated with prose.
EXAMPLES: Words such as ere (for before), thrice (for three times), and thou (the formal address for you) are commonly associated with poetic diction. The following line from John Keats’s “The Eve of St. Agnes” (1820) also exemplifies poetic diction: “Of all its wreathéd pearls her hair she frees.” In ordinary discourse, the subject (“she”) would precede the verb (“frees”), which would be followed by the direct object (“her hair”) and its prepositional modifier (“of all its wreathéd pearls”).