The Law Of Poetic Licence

By Nirmaldasan

The freedom to violate any law of language is called poetic licence. But this licence itself is governed by a certain law which cannot be violated. Poetic licence implies a knowledge of the laws of language. For, without knowing the laws, how can you violate them?

George Orwell, in 'Politics And The English Language', lists six rules for writers:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.

Orwell's sixth rule is the most important. It indicates the law of poetic licence. But we may have to break rules, not only to avoid saying something barbarous but also to achieve certain ends. In 'The Complete Plain Words', Sir Ernest Gowers says, "It is true that there are rules of grammar and syntax, just as in music there are rules of harmony and counterpoint. But one can no more write good English than one can compose good music, merely by keeping the rules." This does not mean that rules should not be kept. What Gowers seems to suggest is that there may be occasions when good writing consists in going beyond the rules.

So poetic licence is violating a law to fulfil a higher law. For poets, the higher law may be aesthetics; for journalists, it may be just communication. Here are a few examples of poetic licence:

1. Dark was the night and weird the atmosphere.

(The normal word order is 'The night was dark; and the atmosphere, weird'. But poetic inversion helps the writer lay emphasis on 'dark' and 'weird'.)

2. To boldly go where no man has gone before.

(This sentence may be scanned thus: ta-tum / ta-tum / ta-ta-tum / ta-tum / ta-tum. If you correct the split infinitive, the sentence will read 'To go boldly...' And the metrical effect is lost.)

3. You pays your money, you takes your choice.

(The correct verbs are 'pay' and 'take'. But this sentence communicates a jovial mood which 'You pay your money, you take your choice' cannot.)

Writers violate certain laws and fulfil others to achieve a certain end. A complete understanding of the laws of language, which includes the law of poetic licence, will help them do this in style. Lest you forget,


(Presented at the Madras Christian College, 11 February 2005.)

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