Prophets Old and Mountains Cold
“… such an expression as ‘prophets old’ may, and probably will, ‘mean’ something quite different from ‘old prophets’.
-Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction
In contemporary English we almost never place an adjective after the noun it modifies. Why and how did Tolkien get away with doing so in his poetry? And does this make him a poor poet?
When words are selected and arranged in such a way that their meaning either arouses, or is obviously intended to arouse, aesthetic imagination, the result may be described as poetic diction. Imagination is recognizable as aesthetic when it produces pleasure merely by its proper activity. Meaning includes the whole content of a word, or of a group of words arranged in a particular order, other than the actual sounds of which they are composed. Thus, this book is concerned with a realm of human experience in which such an expression as ‘prophets old’ may, and probably will, ‘mean’ something quite different from ‘old prophets’.
So Tolkien got away with saying “mountains cold” because the expression produces pleasure that “cold mountains” do not. It is not a sensory pleasure. It would be almost impossible to compare the musical effect of the two expressions.
To sum up, the intellect is pleased by the arrangement of words, even if the intelligentsia are not.
What is the proper way to use this kind of arrangement as a poet? It seems to me that in English poetic diction, the proper reason to place an adjective at the end of a phrase, after its noun, is because the adjective is very nearly redundant.
We are supposed to recoil in horror from redundant adjectives. Their utility is in question. “Of course mountains are cold and prophets are old!”
What is the point then?
Mountains are many things, some necessarily and some possibly and some potentially. Rather than leaving the reader to make what he will of the mountains, the poet invokes one characteristic of the mountain. Thus, poetic language is allowed to use language to other purposes than informational. Poetry may inform but that is not its essence.
Such an invocation of non-information produces a specific sort of pleasure, not least of which is our pleasure in being told something we already know – like a child listening to his favorite song for the hundredth time.
To my mind this insight calls into question the whole idea as poetry as merely another species of communication. I don’t know about you, but I hardly see the point in writing poetry if it’s no more than a thoughtful crystallization of everyday speech.
What do you think?