“An archaism is annoying,” whines David Orr in his review of Yvor Winters: Selected Poems (December 2005), articulating a common contemporary prejudice against an expansive vocabulary. Yet the instance he cites from Winters’s poems (“amid evil true”) is not an archaism but half a chiasmus. The lines he quotes from “To a Woman on Her Defense of Her Brother Unjustly Convicted of Murder” seem to me unobjectionable—
Yet may you two, bound in a stronger whole,
Firm in disaster, amid evil true,
Give us some knowledge of the human soul
And bend our spirits to the human due!
—the brother and sister portrayed as both firm and true, although I admit that I’m not sure what he means by “the human due”: a debt we owe or something owed to us? Both?
But to return to the animus against archaisms: annoyance is surely in the eye/ear of the reader/listener. Why should poets restrict their diction to the idioms used in common, uh, parlance or intercourse or whatever? Some people object that archaisms are overly literary and smell of the inkhorn, but isn’t it a romantic pose for most poets to pretend they aren’t literary? (On second thought, perhaps not.) Are we forgetting that the same volume that included the romantic manifesto of the poet as “a man speaking to men” (Lyrical Ballads) also included “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” which begins, “It is an ancient Mariner,/And he stoppeth one of three.... ”? One would have to be completely tone deaf to object to that “stoppeth.”
Orr’s misreading of Winters’s poem bespeaks another loss to contemporary poetry. We not only have a diminished vocabulary but we are also rhetorically deprived. Confined to declarative sentences and simple diction, our poems would resemble Pope’s parody: “And ten low words oft creep in one dull line.” It’s a miserly poetic that hoards all its riches in the past.
New York, New York