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This article is taken from PN Review 105, Volume 22 Number 1, September - October 1995.

Pater, Leavis and the Truths of Style Michael Grant

'The most ancient poetic creation of man was the creation of words. Now words are dead, and language is like a graveyard, but an image was once alive in the newly-born word.' Thus the Russian Formalist, Viktor Shklovsky, writing in 1914. For Shklovsky, the etymology of words returns us to the reality from which over time they have become estranged. So Shklovsky contends that the Russian words for grief and sorrow meant in their original significance that which bakes and scorches, while we, as English speakers, might perhaps point to the new life the word 'infant' derives from its etymology in Eliot's memorable line from 'Gerontion': 'The word within a word, unable to speak a word'. Shklovsky writes: 'As many such examples as there are words in the language could be adduced. And often enough, when you get through to the image which is now lost and effaced, but once embedded at the basis of the word, you are struck by its beauty - by a beauty which existed once and is now gone.' There is here a profound inclination to believe that insofar as poetry succeeds in the resurrection of the word it may also renew the world.

What Shklovsky is offering is not a theory but a picture of language, a vision or myth of it. It is a myth which is at its most potent in the notion of art as a device for making strange. This is the idea that what makes poetry ...


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