The purpose of this book is to provide the modern reader with a guide to literary language between Geoffrey Chaucer (1343–1400) and Samuel Johnson (1709–84). Is it possible to explain the range of choices available to a writer in this period, with all its diversity and variation of language, and from that explanation come to a closer understanding of the uniqueness of individual style? The traditional approach to literary style in this period is first to identify the meaning of archaic or difficult words in a text, then perhaps to note the rhetorical figures that the writer uses, and finally to trace typical patterns of imagery or thought in the text. Since this method requires work and close scrutiny of the text a great deal can be found out about a writer’s techniques and use of language. But there are a number of fatal objections to this approach. It assumes that a piece of writing is the same in style throughout; a writer’s language is like a yard of cloth. If it is a long work, he uses more of it. There is absolutely no explicit attention to context or to the effect of language use on the reader or hearer. The value of the same rhetorical figure may vary from one occurrence to another; yet it will be treated as the same. The writer’s motives are assumed to be unknown, and unimportant, as though he had no particular reason for writing anything in the first place.


Classical Tradition Literary Language Indexical Marker Modern Reader Paradise Lost 
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© A. J. Gilbert 1979

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  • A. J. Gilbert

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