Using Archaisms: A Question of Good Taste

When and how should writers use archaic words? In what context, for what use, and to what effect?

Some, even  most people in the writing/publishing business, will tell you that you should avoid archaic words altogether. And so you should, if you cannot be sure that you are using them artfully. But this is true of all words; you should never use a word that you cannot use artfully, if art is what you are making. On the other hand, if you can use a word artfully that is not in favor, you should not be cornered into unnaturally restricting your language, in the feeling that some word is the literary equivalent of “not cool.” This is how people learn to behave in that modern-day slave society known as High School, but slavish behavior is not appropriate to anyone aspiring to art.

As you can see, I stand apart, in considered opinion, from those people who will tell you that archaism is embarrassing or unspeakable or unpublishable. I do not even agree with people who claim that obsolete words are “dead” – and that is an almost universal opinion.

Like Jehovah indicated about the valley of dry bones, the deadness of the archaic or obsolete word or phrase is not a terribly solid fact. It is Jehovah that makes bones live, whether they are currently living or not; and it is the human mind that makes words live, whether they are currently in common use or not.

If you can make an archaism live, by all means do us all a favor and get to it. Much that has been lost from the language, or fallen out of favor, has deprived of us concepts necessary to the well-furnished mind.

Let us take the classic example of addressing God as “thee” in prayers. I sigh whenever people do it out of the mistaken notion that it’s more respectful. I grew up on the King James Bible, and you see quite clearly there that ‘thee’ is often used disrespectfully (“Get thee behind me, Satan”) and ‘You’ quite respectfully. The secret is that at one time English, like Asian languages now, had two forms of address, the formal and the informal. ‘Thee’ is the informal. ‘You’ is formal.

This is why it is so touching to hear the Lord addressed as ‘Thou, O Lord’. In the same breath, the worshipper adores the Highest, and approaches him as a familiar friend. It is no good dismissing this as not really belonging to your own language. You need to learn this. You need to feel it the moment you hear the words. Why? Because when the words are lost, part of the tradition of English-language piety is lost. And that’s unbearable.

More personally, once this comes alive for you, it will be impossible for your to suppress it from your usage. It would be lexicide.

That is the gist of my Reason. My reasons are as follows.

1st, that the word has a dual nature; the word is both an extension of mind, and a product of convention. But of these two, the mind is greater, and generates convention.

By ‘extension’ I don’t mean addition. I mean a reaching out, a lengthening. The word is a special movement that the mind makes in an outward direction. No one mind ever standardized a word alone, but if you have a mind, you are a member of the body that created the convention. Don’t bow to convention; make convention bow to you.

2nd, that in poetry especially, but in any literary art, the proper aim of the artist is to go beyond mundane speech, to do all that the language can do beautifully and well. It is in art especially that the unused and rare portions of the language become accessible.

Therefore, when I see people trying to rule out certain parts of the language as inappropriate for art, not because they lack the qualities that make good art – beauty, breadth, history, imaginative resonance – but because people have stopped using it in every-day speech, I regard this mere peer-pressure and I do not think it is helping the art form at all. No, thanks.

3rd, that the relationship of art and word-usage is such that if art restricts itself to those words in common current usage, the whole language spirals into increasing restriction and inaccessibility; but if literary art opens and re-opens avenues of expression, then the language as a whole will spiral upward into richness and breadth.

Common speech is shaped by literary art; it cannot accommodate itself to what it must produce. When the father tries to fit into the clothes of the child, the only thing that can result is shredded clothing.

And “shredded clothing” is a good description of most literary art that is getting published now.


Here are my rules for using archaic words and expressions. These rules are not absolute codes, but rather my idea of “good taste” – a guideline for writing elegant and readable prose that incorporates archaisms.

A. Life. As indicated above, a word is alive if it lives in your mind – even if it doesn’t live in anyone else’s. How do you know if it does? Quite simply, it lives if you know its meaning and if its proper use occurs naturally and immediately to your mind in a given situation, without your having to dredge it up (or look it up.) How does this happen? It happens by being raised on great literature instead of electronic entertainment. If you weren’t, don’t knock it.

B. Consistency. If an archaism appears in a work of literary art, then it should appear in a context where it will seem natural and contextually organic. For instance, if you write a prayer-as-poem, and use “Thee” to address God, you probably shouldn’t refer to him as a The Totally Unique Ultra-Cool Sky Dude in the following line. On the other hand, as I am seeing in Robert Frost, a little archaism of this kind melds into some very contemporary (but not trendy-sounding) conversation easily – because for some internal organic reason it belongs there. (It belongs there because even though people pretend to abhor this sort of thing, they understand it perfectly well and have it established in their minds in connection to specific ideas, images, and feelings.)

C. Take pity on your reader. While I object to people looking down on language that they understand with perfect clarity just because it’s out of fashion, I do try to avoid obscurity and frustrating density just for the sake of using some phrase that used to be in.

D. Try to distinguish between great language that has fallen out of favor, and language that is dated because it was trendy in its own time (and has perhaps been preserved in a favorite old book.) This does go back to A – the best way to distinguish between great language and trendy language is to read a lot of stuff from many different time-periods so that the language, across time-periods, comes alive for you.

E. Take courage. You will be blackballed literarily if you follow this path, but on the other hand there is no other way for the language to be refreshed and strengthened than for artists to become living conduits from the springs of the language to their own part of the stream. It is partly for this quality of timelessness that inspiration is required.

 

19 thoughts on “Using Archaisms: A Question of Good Taste

  1. I didn’t know
    about thee and thou
    But now that I do
    I’m not sure how
    I could ever go
    Back to the slow
    Cool flow of new
    Straight speech
    Even though
    I used to teach
    That one way to reach
    Others is through
    Words that they know.

    *

    Good arguments, Alana. You make a case that requires careful thought to debate. I’m not so strong in that area. I’m better at conversation. I like exploring, and you opened an area that I used to think closed. I was always easily influenced by “authority,” but it was the poets I met (through their work and occasionally in person) who commanded my attention, not the professors or critics. Not the editors and publishers either.

    Who are these poets? Ones who have made it through the ranks of little magazines, university journals , small presses, and (most of the time) established publishing houses. These men and women are like the professional athlete or the small business owner–they like the game, they even like having rules (so the game can be enjoyed and success agreed upon without continual argument). They train, work hard, believe in themselves, are blessed with talent, and take advantage of opportunities for learning from masters. Some exceptional ones push boundaries. Others go off and become successful solo performers. There are no doubt many others with the same potential, but it’s up to them to discover what’s most important (to them), then decide if the work is worth the effort.

    (Please forgive the lecturing. Old habit.) From what I’ve read of your work, you are in that small crowd but you’re not sure about the game or what success means. The only question I would ask is, who are your mentors. And my advice: follow them, but keep on the lookout for new ones.

    I lean towards the concept of standards, but try to sort out gatekeepers from leaders. I don’t like the approach of Poetry magazine, or The New Yorker (to take two established but different editorial policies), but have found that the poems chosen for the annual Pushcart Prize publication reflect a nice balance of tradition and freshness.

    With regard to archaic words, that’s not the real issue, important as it may be in personal and religious terms. I think you are angling towards the big questions: what is art? and why is it important? That would make good material for a whole series of posts.

    I haven’t found archaic words in your poems, but maybe that’s because you use them well without calling attention to their presence. I can’t recall wondering about whether archaic words appear in the poems of the type written by the “authorities” I referred to above.

    In any case, calm down. You are an artist, that’s for sure. No need to defend yourself. Better to let the work speak.

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    • Albert, I can see how you would have respect for such poets. I’m not saying there’s nothing to respect there, or nothing to enjoy in their poetry. I do think that it’s becoming less and less feasible to reconcile the rules of the game with the nature of poetry. And I’m not concerned that “it’s too hard for me” – I’m concerned that this difficulty is the result and sign of culture-wide movement against poetry, led by none other than poets, editors, and publishers of poetry!

      When rules are applied to an art, they must be rules that describe what that art is and does. It’s kind of like that feeling that a nation ought to be ruled by its own people, and not by foreigners. Likewise, poetry ought to be ruled by poetic rules, and not by rules that force it to become more like conversation or prose or technical writing or movies. But this issue of archaisms is just one angle of a total movement against “poetic nationalism” if you will and toward foreign rule of poetry.

      And it’s true, this is somewhat personal, but it’s also a bigger issue. It is the only issue (except for child-rearing) about which I’m really passionate.

      I think your idea about a series of posts regarding art is a good idea. I’m gathering material on that question, but I’ve been holding a lot of it back until I arrive at a repletion of evidence, argument, and insight.

      Mentors: well, you mentioned two types. The only people who read my poetry sensitively and respond with friendly criticism are you and Leah, during the poetry challenges. I’m happy with that; I could hardly imagine better poetic writing partners than you two. Even if we write somewhat differently (your poetry is more domestic; mine more outlandish) we respect what the other is trying to do.

      As far as poets I re-read and follow, there are a few. My favorites are Chaucer, George Herbert, William Blake, Elizabeth Browning, Francis Thompson, Lewis Carroll, Walter de la Mare, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Robert Frost, Sara Teasdale.

      I also follow Chesterton and the Inklings on poetry, and deeply enjoy their poetic works and their writing about poetry. (Barfield, for instance, goes so far as to say that the particular effect which ‘poetic diction’ achieves is dependent on ‘strangeness.’) Many people think that the Inklings were poor to indifferent poets. It’s true that Chesterton and the Inklings did a lot of different stuff literarily and weren’t devoted to poetry exclusively, but I see what they believed about poetry, what they were trying to do – often without proper encouragement – and what they accomplished and I think I’d rather follow that path than, say, the paths founded by T. S. Eliot or Ezra Pound – even if the latter are ‘greater’ in some senses.

      The difference is that Eliot and Pound responded to cultural decay by trying to invigorate a narrower more restricted tract of accomplishment. Chesterton and the Inklings seemed to think more historically – everything would pass, and in the meanwhile, through history and literature, reason and imagination, the right-feeling man (or poet) continues to live in the breadth that his culture denies him. How far this small group of writers went in bringing back the romantic, the mythopoeic, the panchronical, and the fantastical in fiction is obvious; it remains for their admirers and disciples to do the same for poetry.

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    • “one way to reach
      Others is through
      Words that they know”

      This is a good-hearted consideration, Albert. And it’s true so far as it goes. If you were going to try to write poetry for the purpose of reaching others, and if those others were suspicious of, or had no capacity for receiving, the unfamiliar, the poetically ‘strange’ to use Barfield’s word, then I suppose the poetry that resulted would be very plain and warm and familiar. Nothing objectionable about that.

      I have never been that kind of reader, and so I suppose my interest in writing for that kind of reader is low.

      And yet I wonder how many people would be capable of receiving the poetical in spoken form, who might not be able to benefit from it in written form. Just a half-formed thought there.

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      • “Half-formed” describes most of my thinking. Most of my forays into poetry as well. (Is “forays” an archaic word? I don’t even know if it fits here.)

        Now that you’ve got my attention, I’ll probably be caught looking into my lexical mirror far too often. Of course I might become better boomed…

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        • Better what??

          *

          “…when the words are lost, part of the tradition of English-language piety is lost. And that’s unbearable.”. Well, Alana, i passed over the passion here first time through. I miss that in myself, too concerned as I am to adapt to the popular crowd. Your convictions stand out, and inspire–when i come back, and reread , as I often do,

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  2. And another thing (sounding like my mother)…. Read the lives of the poets, starting with G. M. Hopkins, who never got through the gates of publishers, but whose poems–preserved and presented by a friend–not only were published 15 years after his death in the late 19th century, but started a revolution: familiarity with older poets, very very pre-modern ones (that is the classical writers of ancient Greece and Rome) somehow led to a brand new way of composing, inventing rhythms but using traditional ones, speaking in the tongues of “the people” but blending those with, yes, archaic words, and often inventing variations on both types. An innovator rising out of tradition but always respecting it. He didn’t get many poems out, but the ones that finally arrived changed the (poetic) world. Changed me as well., personally, spiritually. A force of language and spirit. Art, but not for the sake of art. (Lecture #__)

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    • P. S. So in this case, the word “mentorc takes on non-traditional meanings: (1) poets from the past whom you know almost by heart, and (2) a friend, welll versed (Robert Bridges was a poet himself), to send poems to and trust that they will be treated with respect and care. He was needing or looking for suggestions and critiques. He simply wanted to know he had a reader.

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    • My familiarity with Hopkins is slight but I take your point. Robert Frost, whose life I read with pleasure and interest, was of course very well published – but only by the accident of having in his youth found an obscure editor in a small journal who grasped what he was doing with his poetry (so different to what others were doing at the time; so unappreciated and undetected by most other editors.) He, like Hopkins, had studied classical verse in the original languages (though only at a high school level) and he adapted the meters to American speech (and vice verse perhaps.)

      I would like to read Hopkins’ life. Perhaps no one else’s poetry would be so apt to back up my opinions here. I think sometimes people look at poets writing 100 years ago and read their archaisms as somehow belonging to that time period, when in fact they were already archaic then.

      At the same time, I realize that the reaction against hackneyed “poetic diction” led by Wordsworth was a needed reaction against usages that, at the time, mitigated against real poetic freshness. Still, it’s outdated to the point of bedragglement to still be reacting against that, now when true poetic diction hardly exists any more! If all kinds of poetic diction disappear, what is left to distinguish between poetry and prose, except the convention of breaking it up into lines (which is also being discarded by some prominent poets)? And if poetry and prose can no longer be distinguished, then either poetry and prose have both ceased to exist, or else one or the other has ceased to exist. I think it’s evident that prose is in no danger of ceasing to exist, and so the upshot is that poetry is actually disappearing!

      My vision is that, not only should prose and poetry be easy to distinguish, but that question should become obsolete because poetry should so bravely and laughingly and delightedly strike out for the outlying regions of the language, bringing back treasures like ancient merchants returning from the far East.

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      • I don’t recommend reading about Hopkins’ life – – not very inspiring. What I am impressed by is how friendship with a reader who lived in such different circumstances from his–Hopkins was a Jesuit priest confined to teaching Latin and Greek to “reluctant learners” in an unfamiliar culture; he died fairly young by our standards (sbout 45) – – brought forth a small set of carefully crafted poems, oten revised until he thought he was satisfied; but even then he didn’t try to publish thinking that they stiill weren’t good enough. Hopkins burned most of his early poems,and Bridges sorted out the rest, fortunately.

        Here’s one he probably should have burned:

        Pure fasted faces draw unto this feast:
        God comes all sweetness to your Lenten lips.
        You striped in secret with breath-taking whips,
        Those crooked rough-scored chequers may be pieced
        To crosses meant for Jesu’s; you whom the East
        With draught of thin and pursuant cold so nips
        Breathe Easter now; you serged fellowships,
        You vigil-keepers with low flames decreased,

        God shall o’er-brim the measures you have spent
        With oil of gladness, for sackcloth and frieze
        And the ever-fretting shirt of punishment
        Give myrrhy-threaded golden folds of ease.
        Your scarce-sheathed bones are weary of being bent:
        Lo, God shall strengthen all the feeble knees.

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    • P.S. Thank you for your conversation. It does help, knowing someone is there to listen and come back with thoughts of his own. And I think most of the time the comment section is richer than the post. 🙂

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      • Listen, there would be no comments if not for the posts. No new thoughts if not for yours. e. g., I stopped talking about poetry years ago because I couldn’t find anyone who knew or cared enough to respond. I don’t like poetry writing groups because they are too much like prayer groups (the ones I’ve e known) – – serious and deeply personal. I think poetry should be liberating, not restricting. When I happened upon your blog a couple of years ago, it was so surprising to find years and years of poems preserved and easily brought forth again. Poems that grew as the poet grew. Poems offered free of charge to anyone at all. Before that, I was not an Internet user, except for email. Here I was with a source that I had never anticipated. Poems, carefully fashioned poems, poems that sounded and felt like what I wanted mine, small in number but important to me, to sound like and covey what it feels like to write one. So the first of yours I read, about driving along a coastal road at night with stars both I’ve rhea and in the black water–going from memory here–challenged me to think about what I saw imaginatively and heard through the poem’s voice. I wasn’t sure about expectations or protocol, but I had seen detailed comments on another blog (your comments, in fact) that made me feel OK about writing back, posting a comment. It was liberating to be able to talk about a poem in depth. After that, I wanted to keep talking. What a surprise to know that I could have conversations about poems at any time of the day or night.! But, as is the case with so much that is important in life, it all starts at home. Your “home” within the blog. I’m having a great time reading and thinking about what I see here. I am reminded of the scene at

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        • . . . at the end of the movie “Mr. Holmes,” where the old man recognizes–grimly–that he completely missed the idea of being “alone together.” Unlike Holmes, fortunately for me, I’m not alone any more in a world (small circle of family, friends, acquaintances) without poems to talk about. *

          Thank you, internet. Thank you, like-minded and – hearted users.

          *I could say the same about religion. Your ideas on its various elements have challenged, sharpened, reinvigorated mine.

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        • Good grief! ” with stars both I’ve rhea and in the black water” – who wrote that??.? (I’m throwing my little Nook out the window. My fingers are too big and it thinks faster than I do, thinking it knows more and is trying to be helpful. Trouble is, it can’t read!)

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