In Augustan Poetic Diction (London: Athlone Press, 1964), Geoffrey Tillotson offers three meanings of the term poetic diction:

1. Words "used in poetry but not in prose."

This kind of poetic diction refers only to pre-twentieth-century poetry, "for modern verse makes no use of a special vocabulary of this kind. We should mean by it such words as 'ope' [for open] and 'morn,' shortened forms that were found convenient because of the local claims of metre, and which, in addition, may once have been felt to be delightful" (47). Since most twentieth-century poets (supposedly) make no distinction between prose and poetic vocabulary, you might ask yourself the following:

"The sum of the words used by any single poet, or set of poets"

Poetic diction also can mean "the sum of the words used by any single poet, or set of poets" (48). What words and what kind of words do you find in Pope than you don't find in Swift? in Pope but not in Keats? Equally important, how many words do very different poets, say, Johnson and Wordsworth, Tennyson and Pope, share?

The favorite words used by a particular poet

Poetic diction can also mean the sum of the favorite words used by a particular poet. Tillotson points out that various periods have favored different sets of words, which then become characteristic of one group or age of poets (and also a way that later ones can allude to them).

Augustan (or neoclassical), 1650-1750:

sad, pensive, anxious, purple (usually in the snese it has in Latin poetry of 'very bright'), various, refulgent, . . . num'rous, glitte'ring, beauteous, promiscuous, trembling, plae, British (a glorious word in the eighteenth century), harmonious, easy, opening, emulate, yielding, conscious (usually with some taint of its Latin sense of guiltily conscious).

Nineteenth century: shadowy, violet (adjective), wild, light (adjective), breathe

1930s: "Most poet's of the 1930s liked the word 'history' — and also the generalizing word "the." (49).

Originally created 1987; last modified July 2000

Incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000