Power, Plain English, and the Rise of Modern Poetry [NOOK Book]


In this engaging book David Rosen offers a radically new account of Modern poetry and revises our understanding of its relation to Romanticism. British poets from Wordsworth to Auden attempted to present themselves simultaneously as persons of power and as moral voices in their communities. The modern lyric derives its characteristic complexities—psychological, ethical, formal—from the extraordinary difficulty of this effort.
The low register of our language—a register of short,...
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Power, Plain English, and the Rise of Modern Poetry

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In this engaging book David Rosen offers a radically new account of Modern poetry and revises our understanding of its relation to Romanticism. British poets from Wordsworth to Auden attempted to present themselves simultaneously as persons of power and as moral voices in their communities. The modern lyric derives its characteristic complexities—psychological, ethical, formal—from the extraordinary difficulty of this effort.
The low register of our language—a register of short, concrete, native words arranged in simple syntax—is deeply implicated in this story. Rosen shows how the peculiar reputation of “plain English” for truthfulness is employed by Modern poets to conceal the rift between their (probably irreconcilable) ambitions for themselves. 
With a deep appreciation for poetic accomplishment and a wonderful iconoclasm, Rosen sheds new light on the innovative as well as the self-deceptive aspects of Modern poetry. This book alters our understanding of the history of poetry in the English language.
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Editorial Reviews

David Bromwich
“With great force and skill, David Rosen has brought to light a tension between the practice of modern poetry and the prestige it borrowed from the theory of plain language. His individual chapters on Wordsworth, Yeats, Eliot, and Auden are brilliantly argued and are supported by a wealth of quotations. This is a work of real originality, generous in its appreciations and disturbing in what it has to say about the limits of aesthetic self-knowledge.”—David Bromwich, Yale University
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300129489
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/2008
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Sales rank: 1,266,389
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

David Rosen is assistant professor of English, Trinity College, Hartford, CT.

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Power, Plain English, and the Rise of Modern Poetry

By David Rosen

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2006 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-10071-6

Chapter One


The Secret Reference of John Locke


Thou art the thing itself: unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, fork'd animal as thou art.

I begin my discussion of the low register and its history by returning to Lear on the heath. In Lear's description of Edgar, we saw, Shakespeare seems to intuit the low register's special ability to signify the actual world. To draw such a conclusion, I also suggested, would be anachronistic. Or rather, if Shakespeare has such an intuition, it in no way reflects-as it will, almost two centuries later, in William Wordsworth-either his wider practices as a writer or a systematic understanding of language on his part. As Albert Baugh observes, his vocabulary is by far the largest of any major English writer, and if anything, his deepest commitments are to the Latinate. Only a few scenes before this, Kent has railed against "plain knave[s]" who beguile in a "plain accent" (II.ii.111-112). Most to the point, the scene we examined is too rife with dramatic ironies to support any firm inferences. Lear is not merely insane (the next thing he does is tear off his clothes), but wrong: Edgar, neitherderanged nor poor, is only a "thing itself"-manqué. Although living in a time of intense debate about the English language, Shakespeare plays only a peripheral role in the history I wish now to examine. As we will see, he anticipates much later developments, but speaks little to his own time.

To be precise, the history of plain English divides into two very different historical periods, the first lasting roughly from 1500 to 1660 (and thus including Shakespeare), the second beginning with Wordsworth and continuing into the present. The 140 years between these periods witnessed a general hostility, in poetry especially, toward the low register, the restoration of Charles II bringing with it French and classical canons of literary taste. When Wordsworth reestablished claims for native diction, he did so on grounds quite dissimilar to those claimed by his seventeenth-century forerunners. The last three chapters of this study examine the nature and consequences of Wordsworth's revolution, especially his legacy to modern poetry. Most of the present chapter is devoted to the figure who, unwittingly, lay the groundwork for Wordsworth: John Locke. To understand the originality of Wordsworth's departure, however, we must first examine-albeit, with brevity-the earliest arguments for plain English.

As recounted by J. L. Moore and (preeminently) Richard Foster Jones, the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries witnessed a furious pamphlet war about the future of English. The Renaissance revival of learning (in the sciences, humanities, and so on) had exposed a deficiency in the language, namely, a vocabulary ill-equipped to meet a rapidly expanding body of knowledge. Should English replenish itself, the question was mooted, from within, from native resources, as common in the other Germanic tongues, or by borrowing from French, Greek, and Latin? Shakespeare, who of course did not participate explicitly in this debate, was clearly of the latter camp; according to Baugh, such now-common words as frugal, misanthrope, dislocate, and obscene make their first appearance in his work. Among the nativists, meanwhile, linguistic reform was above all a nationalistic affair: xenophobia, against the French mainly, mingled with a sentimental celebration of homebred virtues. Thomas Wilson, whose Art of Rhetorique (1553) was an important early salvo in this campaign, typically decried foreign borrowings (or "inkhorn words") as pretentious: "Some seke so farre for outlandish Englishe, that thei forget altogether their mothers language. And I dare swere this, if some of their mothers were alive, thei were not able to tell, what thei say, & yet these fine Englishe clerkes, wil saie thei speake in their mother tongue.... Some farre iorneid ientlemen at their returne home, like as thei love to go in forrein apparell, so thei wil pouder their talke with oversea language. He that cometh lately out of France, wil talke Frenche English, & never blushe at the matter." Hotter heads saw language reform as but one front in a sweeping removal of French influence from the island. Such extremities prompted Jones, in a perhaps hyperbolic moment, to deem the movement "slightly prophetic of the Nazis." Writing in 1642, John Hare asked, "Is it then suitable to the dignity, or tolerable to the Spirit of this our Nation, that after so noble an extraction and descent ... wee should have our Spirits so broken and un-Teutonized by one unfortunate Battaile [that is, Hastings], as for above 500 yeares together and even for eternity, not only to remaine, but contentedly to rest under the disgraceful title of a Conquered Nation, and in captivity and vassalage to a forraigne power? ... If wee survey our Language, we there meet with so much tincture of Normanisme, that some have esteemed it a dialect of the Gallick."

Not all of the nationalists were this vehement, nor did all define their position negatively. The writings of Sir John Cheke, for example, are less concerned with condemning the foreign than with praising the domestic: "I am of this opinion that our own tung shold be written cleane and pure, unmixt and unmangeled with borowing of other tunges.... For ... our tung [doth] naturallie and praisablie utter her meaning, when she bouroweth no counterfeitness of other tunges to attire her self withall, but useth plainlie her own with such shift, as nature craft, experiens, and folowing of other excellent doth lead her unto." One detects in Cheke's comments a feel for the distinctive character, or personality, of English writing: plain and natural. Since the sixteenth century, writers have, not surprisingly, identified this character with the rustic, with a class of people far removed from the fast-developing world of London. Today, the best-known document from this discussion is surely E. K.'s "Epistle" to the Shepheardes Calender. Spenser's pastoral language, he notes, brings "great grace and, as one would say, auctoritie to the verse" (14). "In my opinion it is one special prayse, of many whych are dew to this Poete, that he hath laboured to restore, as to their rightfull heritage such good and naturall English words, as have ben long time out of use and almost cleare disherited" (16). This last comment barely conceals, finally, the political implications of plain English. From the beginnings of the debate, the low register has been embraced by both ends of the social spectrum. On the left, often the religious left, critics have routinely viewed Latinate English as reinforcing social barriers; as early as the 1520s, William Tyndale vowed to make the Bible "plain reading for the ploughman." The aristocracy, on the other hand, has just as eagerly seized on plain English as a mark of authenticity, over against an insurgent and affected middle class. Both strands have long survived their Tudor origins; indeed, we will have occasion to revisit them in the chapters that follow, when examining W. H. Auden and, above all, W. B. Yeats.

Amidst the variety of positions staked out in the Renaissance language wars, one can easily overlook the near absence of truly philosophical claims for plain English. That is, the Tudor-Stuart authors and their successors based their judgments of the low register on its various social implications-national, economic, political, religious-without making any assertions for the idiom as such, as a mode of communication inherently superior to any other. To be sure, one finds the implication in some writers that native discourse, because more familiar, is also more effective than the borrowed. Thus Wilson:

The misticall wise menne, and Poeticall Clerkes, will speake nothyng but quaint prouerbes, and blynd allegories, delityng muche in their awne darkenesse, especially, when none can tell what thei dooe saie. The unlearned or foolishe phantasticall ... will so latine their tongues, that the simple cannot but wonder at their talke, and thynke surely thei speake by some Revelacion. I know them that thynke Rhetorique, to stande wholy upon darke woordes, and he that can catche an ynke horne terme by the taile, hym thei compt to be a fine Englishe man, and a good Retorician.

Such also seems the conclusion drawn, in the seventeenth century, by the Royal Society, a powerful influence on Locke, when they codified their rules for proper composition. Thomas Sprat, writing in 1667, reports:

[They have resolved] to reject all ... amplifications, digressions, and swellings of style: to return back to the primitive purity, and shortness, when men deliver'd so many things, almost in an equal number of words. They have exacted from all their members, a close, naked, natural way of speaking; positive expressions, clear senses, a native easiness: bringing all things as near the Mathematical plainness, as they can: and preferring the language of Artizans, Countrymen, and Merchants, before that, of Wits, and Scholars.

Powerful an anticipation of Locke (and Wordsworth) as this is, Sprat's report still more resembles, in its evocation of "primitive purity," a school of thought Locke would take it upon himself to refute. The exiled recusant Richard Verstegan is probably best remembered today for his wayward attempts to prove the great antiquity of Old English. Our tongue, we know, was spoken at the Tower of Babel, because the word babble, to talk incoherently, survives in the lexicon; more creative etymologies follow. "If Teutonic bee not taken for the first language of the world, it cannot bee denied to bee one of the most ancientest of the world." Eccentricities aside, Verstegan discerns a suggestive alliance between English monosyllables and God's creation, the former seeming an exact fit for the latter: "This our ancient language consisted moste at the first of woords of monosillable, each having his own proper signification, as by instinct of God and nature they first were receaved and understood, but heerof grew this benefit, that by apt ioyning together of two or three of these woords of one sillable, new woords of more diversitie of sence and signification were stil made and composed, according as the use of them for the more ful and perfect expressing of the composers meanings did require." Verstegan thus perceives a special ability of native nouns, "each having his own proper signification," to communicate the world of things. Transparent compounds are also ideally clear. English, like the language spoken in Eden by Adam, is a "natural" discourse. As a religious writer, Verstegan detects the divine will behind this flawlessness. It is ironic perhaps that Adamist doctrine, the line of thought to which Locke was most hostile, offered the nearest approximation to a seventeenth-century theoretical defense of the low register. Ultimately, however, neither Verstegan nor his secular contemporaries articulated clear systematic or (without distorting the term) philosophical grounds for plain English as a language of truth. Nor, for very different reasons, did Locke. By offering, however, a fully worked-out account of language and the world, he paved the way for these developments. It is to this theory of language that we now turn.


As Locke admits at the end of Book II, where he develops the greater part of his epistemology, the study of language played no role in his original plan for the Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Book III became necessary as, during the composition, he discerned the "close ... connection between ideas and words" (Essay, II.33.19). He came to see, in fact, that words and ideas can often be virtually indistinguishable from each other. To take a relatively banal example: because the mind receives far more stimuli than it can possibly name, it relies heavily on abstraction. We look at a tomato one moment and receive an impression; we look again and receive another. Over the course of the day we see blood, a ruby, a glass of cranberry juice, a person blushing. Rather than assign a different name to each color, we think "red" each time. Locke describes this process:

If every particular idea that we take in should have a distinct name, names must be endless. To prevent this, the mind makes the particular ideas, received from particular objects, to become general; which is done by considering them as they are in the mind such appearances separate from all other existences, and the circumstances of real existence, as time, place, or any other concomitant ideas. This is called 'abstraction,' whereby ideas taken from particular beings become general representatives of all the same kind; and their names, general names, applicable to whatever exists conformable to such abstract ideas. (II.11.9)

In other words, when we recognize the cranberry juice as red, we may be perceiving nothing in the liquid itself besides an imperfect conformity to a preexisting idea, an idea quite possibly held together by nothing more the word red itself. When one considers that "red" is one of the more rudimentary ideas we can have (compare "edifice," "mountain goat," or "anomie"), the problem for philosophy-the often tenuous, but also interdependent relation between words, ideas, and things-is all too obvious.

Accordingly, Locke undertakes in Book III to give a philosophically consistent account of how language works. He begins with two propositions that seem, in themselves, neither controversial nor particularly relevant to the revival of plain English at the end of the eighteenth century. As generations of commentators have noted, however, these first two paragraphs, which form the kernel of his language theory, apparently contradict each other when read in the context of his epistemology.

1. Man fitted to form articulate sounds.-God, having designed man for a sociable creature, made him not only with an inclination and under a necessity to have fellowship with those of his own kind, but furnished him also with language, which was to be the great instrument and common tie of society. Man therefore had by nature his organs so fashioned as to be fit to frame articulate sounds, which we call "words." But this was not enough to produce language; for parrots and several other birds will be taught to make articulate sounds distinct enough, which yet by no means are capable of language.

2. To make them signs of ideas.-Besides articulate sounds, therefore, it was farther necessary that he should be able to use these sounds as signs of internal conceptions, and to make them stand as marks for the ideas within his own mind; whereby they might be made known to others, and the thoughts of men's minds be conveyed from one to another. (III.1.1-2)

The problem is simple: if language, as "the common tie of society," indeed facilitates communication, then it should be relied on to signify things in the world. This confidence is undermined by the second paragraph, the gist of which Locke restates later with force and brevity: "words in their primary or immediate signification stand for nothing but ideas in the mind of him that uses them" (III.2.2, italics mine). Since ideas about the world often differ wildly from person to person (is your "red" my "red"?), these passages seem to beg the question: how is any communication possible when our words inevitably refer to private experience? To make matters worse, Locke is unwavering in his conventionalism: reacting in part against contemporary theories of natural discourse, he insists, with as much conviction as Saussure, that the relation of words to ideas is completely arbitrary. The interest of contemporaries like Verstegan (or Leibniz) in recovering an "Adamic language" strikes Locke as ludicrous. Words are "but empty sounds" (I.2.23), conveying in themselves no knowledge of the idea signified, let alone the original object (III.2.1).


Excerpted from Power, Plain English, and the Rise of Modern Poetry by David Rosen Copyright © 2006 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Prologue : the secret reference of John Locke 15
2 Wordsworth's empirical imagination 33
3 Certain good : W. B. Yeats and the language of autobiography 73
4 The lost youth of modern poetry : T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden 123
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