restricted access The Borderline of Prose
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[ 537 The Borderline of Prose The New Statesman, 9 (19 May 1917) 157-59 In the days when prosperous middle-class chimney-pieces were decorated with overmantels and flanked by tall jars of pampas grass; when knowing amateurs began to talk of Outamaro and Toyakuni;1 in the days when Mrs. Pennell’s friends found source of laughter in feeding peacocks with spongecake soaked in absinthe; when Mr. George Moore was wearing a sugarloaf hat with a flat brim;2 then, or perhaps a little later; in the age of music-halls and cabmen’s shelters; in the long-forgotten ’Nineties when sins were still scarlet, there appeared a little book called Pastels in Prose. It was mostly, if notaltogether,translationsfromtheFrench–fromEphraimMikhaël,Judith Gautier, Mallarmé, and many less-remembered names. This book introduced to the English reader the Prose-Poem.3 It was after the time when Gautier had written the Symphonie en blanc majeur, and Whistler had painted symphonies in various colours, and programme music was not unknown.4 So that several serious critics took alarm at the confusion of the genres, cried out upon an age of decadence and charlatanism. Charlatanism, no doubt, still exists; but decadence is far decayed; and it is now a little late to assume this motherly perturbation. Time has left us many things, but among those it has taken away we may hope to count À rebours,5 and the Divagations, and the writings of miscellaneous prose poets. They may eventually find refuge in that repository of indis­cretions—the North Room of the British Museum—but to the general public they are no great loss.6 A considerable body of poetry has been proved worth saving; the rest is already forgotten; Dorian Gray has fled to Germany, where a cigarette has been named after him;7 * and the ’Nineties’ aesthetic eccentricities may now be ignored. But in our times the cycles of change recur very quickly. I have remarked recently a recrudescence of the poem in prose–not only in France, but in England;notonlyinEngland,butinAmerica;perhapsnotonlyinAmerica, England, and France, for the tide of civilisation may now have carried it in the wake of Strindberg and Ibsen to the shores of Japan.8 It is noticeable that poetry which looks like prose, and prose which sounds like poetry, are assured of a certain degree of odium and success. Why should this be so? I 1917: Journalism 538 ] know that the difference between poetry and prose is a topic for school debating societies, but I am not aware that the debating societies have arrived at a solution. Do the present signs show that poetry and prose form a medium of infinite gradations, or is it that we are searching for new ways of expression? There are doubtless many empirical generalisations which one may draw from a study of existing poetry and prose, but after much reflection I conclude that the only absolute distinction to be drawn is that poetry is written in verse, and prose is written in prose; or, in other words, that there is prose rhythm and verse rhythm. And any other essential difference is still to seek. When I refer to recent prose poetry I am not thinking of either Paul Fort or Walt Mason. The former, I know, is the King of Poets; and the latter , I am informed, commands the highest rates of payment. Nor have I in mind Claudel.9 These writers may have done prose poems; but, on the other hand, what they have done is possibly neither prose nor poetry.10 * If I am thinking of one writer more than another, it is of a poet who has done interesting work in what is unfairly called vers libre, who has distinguished himself by a genuine passion for the Hellenic, and even more for the Sicilian, a poet of whom I have lately seen some prose poems–Mr. Richard Aldington.11 Now, reverting for a moment to the ’Nineties, it must be observed that the prose poetry of this epoch was probably based upon the work of a man much greater than any poet then living—and that is Arthur Rimbaud. Few people in England have heard of the Illuminations, and most of them perhaps believe that the title indicates a supposed divine insight, instead of meaning simply “Picture-book illustrations.” Rimbaud, who I suspect is responsible for everything that is good in Verlaine, wrote his prose poems between 1872 and 1875.12 They are short...