A fine prose style, if we are veteran readers, and equal to it, affords one of the most delicious experiences in the whole world of art. It is so subtle and fastidious that it must be considered very advanced among the art-forms. If it does not baffle reception, it almost baffles description; few of the many busy critics in our time have shown any interest in describing it. Therefore Herbert Read’s new book, revising and expanding his earlier book of 1928, is virtually without competition. It is a good book anyway. Read employs some smart categories in his study, as for example in distinguishing between impressionism and expressionism, or between fantasy and imagination. The discussions are bright, and they are illustrated by fascinating passages from the prose masters. It makes an excellent first reading. At the second reading I am sure that the spirited reader will begin to take some exceptions, and to counter with ideas of his own. But then it is a virtue in the pioneering critic if he draws other critics to the scene.
There is one element of prose style which is badly scanted by Read, whose moderate-sized book covers a great deal of territory; yet it would seem indispensable in the prose art; it is the so-called but rarely-explained “rhythm” of prose. And this calls up the name of George Saintsbury, who forty years ago in his History of English Prose Rhythm produced doubtless the best technical study of the art which has yet been offered in our language. It is my impression that critics are not yet well acquainted with this work, though it too was a pioneering affair which in many ways needs their attention. (Herbert Read is content to refer briefly to what Saintsbury established.) Saintsbury showed, in effect, that it has been the rule for any stylized prose to vary the sound of its phrases incessantly, and not to repeat one pattern uniformly. On the other hand, it is the rule for formal poetry to cast itself in a uniform rhythmic pattern; to do so it has to atomize its language into syllables, and fit them successively into a pattern of great simplicity, such as the iambic foot, which becomes the powerful under-tone of the poem and is independent of the words and phrases.
The rhythm of a prose passage is really a polyrhythm, a unique assemblage of many phrasal rhythms. When we think we make out “the” rhythm of it, singular, that is because it is seen to favor certain general types of rhythm or rough progressions of rhythms, though never to make them binding. Prose is an old art, which came to its most magnificent flower in the Seventeenth Century with such writers as Browne, Milton, Taylor, and those writers who gave us such things as Isaiah 60 and I Corinthians 13 inthe Authorized Version. But even then it had the kind of sophistication we think of as belonging to a “modern” art. Its effect is something like that which a modern musical composition will make upon an old-fashioned ear; teasing it with incipient melodies which never come to triumphant realization. But the author must be of strong mind to deny to his auditor, and himself, the fixed melody, or the metered rhythm.
A writer whocannot quite play this game appears for example in one of Read’s specimens. It is the passage from Trelawney’s Last Days of Shelley and Byron, with Trelawney telling how Shelley’s friends, exhumed the poet’s body and burnt it on a funeral pyre, and itopens with the sentence,
Three white wands had been stuck in the sand to mark the poet’s grave, but as they were at some distance from each other, we had to cut a trench thirty yards in length, in the line of the sticks, to ascertain the exact spot, and it was nearly an hour before we came upon the grave.
The first clause and the last are in standard poetic rhythm; either is a fair example of the folk-line, in seven heavy beats. Trelawney is writing prose, and the inside of his sentence (like the following sentences) allows no trifling with meter. Yet poetry is ringing in the head of this man who is living with poets and writing about them. It comes out clear as a bell in the opening clause, though we do not know how involuntarily; then in the conclusion it sounds again, like a prose writer’s reluctant farewell to poetry.
Prose art is the invention of poets who have come to the point, not of surrendering the rhythmic interest of language, but of wanting to register it in a less primeval or elementary manner. I think we may go a little further. It may be that the prose rhythm develops first in the poetry itself. The poet reaches the stage of virtuosity where he likes to show how the brutal engine meter will cut to pieces even the firmest of natural prose phrases and make them supply its phonetic materials. He manages to give high audibility to the prose rhythms and the fixed meters in the same line; he has produced the admired effect called “counterpointing.” In the following passage Michael has arranged for Adam a vision of the future, to show him how his fail has brought death into the world. The scene is a “lazar-house” or paupers’ hospital, where Adam sees
all fev’rous kinds,
Convulsions, epilepsies, fierce catarrhs.
Intestine stone and ulcer, colic pangs.
Demoniac phrenzy, moping melancholy.
And moon-struck madness, pining
Marasmus, and wide-wasting pestilence.
Dropsies and asthmas, and joint-racking
If we put the syllables of these pentameter lines, two by two, into the iambic feet, thirty-two in all, the only feet which are meaningful units of language will be catarrh and dropsies, the latter a trochaic substituting for iambic. But the commas help us to sense separately the sound of the word-units and short phrases of the prose. If now we will mark off the minimal prose units, we will find from three to five per line, and they will range in length from one to five syllables. We have here another system of effects altogether, and there would surely be enough phonetic similarity among the units to make an appreciable over-all “rhythm” as prose rhythms go.
The alternativeto rhythmed prose is the prose which drops the phonetic dimension from notice altogether. If this prose serves the uses of art, it does so only in the meaningful dimension. For example, it will be the language of fiction; doubtless it will have art enough. Dryden is regarded as the first important man of letters to succeed, though a poet, in writing prose without rhythm. Swift and Defoe followed him in time though their achievement was independent of his; probably it was less difficult, for they-were not poets in the first place. But in spite of these distinguished examples, rhythmed prose did not fail to come back, and it is with us today.
A good conclusion to a history of English prose rhythm written today would be by stopping with a placement for two important figures: James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway. Joyce was a complete man of letters and knew all about the rhythms of both poetry and prose. In Ulysses, he shows amazing skills for prose style, exhibiting a vast number of kinds and never allowing them to be corrupted by lapses into meter. But in Finnegans Wake he is in the world of fantasy, playing with the language, now for comic and now for lyric effects, with his guards completely down; he has many folk-lines embedded in the prose, and differs from Milton who had the rhythmed prose embedded in the lines. On the other hand, Ernest Hemingway would scarcely be, nor would he covet being, a man of letters; one presumes that he has never tolerated the kind of education which would have made the meters resound in his consciousness. And we approve of that. We say to ourselves that this bare unrhythmed prose of his is the most transparent medium yet invented for the pure art of fiction.