May 31, 2013

Further food for thought

A warning against colloquialism and false modernity has already been given by implication above. Personally you may not like an archaic vocabulary, and word-order, artificially maintained as an elevated and literary language. You may prefer the brand new, the lively and the snappy. But whatever may be the case with other poets of past ages (with Homer, for instance) the author of Beowulf did not share this preference. If you wish to translate, not re-write, Beowulf, your language must be literary and traditional: not because it is now a long while since the poem was made, or because it speaks of things that have since become ancient; but because the diction of Beowulf was poetical, archaic, artificial (if you will), in the day that the poem was made...

This sort of thing - the building up of a poetic language out of words and forms archaic and dialectal or used in special senses - may be regretted or disliked.  There is nonetheless a case for it: the development of a form of language familiar in meaning and yet freed from trivial associations, and filled with the memory of good and evil, is an achievement, and its possessors are richer than those who have no such tradition. It is an achievement possible to people of relatively small material wealth and power (such as the ancient English as compared with their descendants); but it is not necessarily to be despised on that account.

- J.R.R. Tolkien



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