The Literary and the Literal

  • Juliet Dusinberre


Carroll allowed an ancient sage to give an aspiring young poet instructions, in ‘Poeta Fit, non Nascitur’, on how to acquire a ‘literary’ style:

Then, fourthly, there are epithets That suit with any word — As well as Harvey’s Reading Sauce With fish, or flesh, or bird — Of these, ‘wild’, ‘lonely’, ‘weary’, ‘strange’, Are much to be preferred.1

The special literary language which Tennyson, Longfellow and Swinburne inherit from the Romantics is presented as a trick, performed by the great writer with the suavity with which a conjurer pulls a string of coloured scarves out of an empty box. But the children remain more impressed by the fact that there was nothing in the box than they are by the display of showy silks. All grin and no Cat can become tiresome. Such language conjures up only other literary works, the other books in which it has been used. But it never breaks out of that magic circle to find something which has never been colonised into language within a book. ‘Literary’ language is conservative, in that the world it creates remains, with minor variations, the world it has always created.


Fairy Tale Black Currant Silver Lake Indian Territory Magic Circle 
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  1. 155.
    Nesbit, ‘My Schooldays’, Girl’s Own Paper, XVIII (Apr. 1897) 436Google Scholar
  2. 158.
    Zangwill, ‘Without Prejudice’, Pall Mall Magazine, IX (May–Aug. 1896) 156.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Juliet Dusinberre 1999

Authors and Affiliations

  • Juliet Dusinberre
    • 1
  1. 1.Girton CollegeCambridgeUK

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