Prose and Verse
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324 ] Prose and Verse1 The Chapbook, 22 (Apr 1921) 3-10 On the subject of prose-poetry I have no theory to expound; but as I find I cannot state my position merely by denying the existence of the subjectmatter , I may be excused for explaining it at greater length than a simple denial requires. I have found it convenient to put my remarks in the form of disconnected paragraphs. The present condition of English literature is so lifeless that there surely needs no extenuation of any research into past or possible forms of speech; the chief benefit of such a symposium as the present is not the verdict but the enquiry: an enquiry which might help to stimulate the worn nerves and release the arthritic limbs of our diction. The Definition. – I have not yet been given any definition of the prose poem, which appears to be more than a tautology or a contradiction. Mr. Aldington, for example, has provided me with the following: “The prose poem is poetic content expressed in prose form.”2 Poetic content must be either the sort of thing that is usually, or the sort of thing that ought to be, expressed in verse. But if you say the latter, the prose poem is ruled out; if you say the former, you have said only that certain things can be said in either prose or verse, or that anything can be said either in prose or verse. I am not disposed to contest either of these conclusions, as they stand, but they do not appear to bring us any nearer to a definition of the prose poem. I do not assume the identification of poetry with verse; good poetry is obviously something else besides good verse; and good verse may be very indifferent poetry. I quite appreciate the meaning of anyone who says that passages of Sir Thomas Browne are “poetry,” or that Denham’s “Cooper’s Hill” is not poetry.3 Also, the former may be good prose, and the latter is certainly good verse; and Sir Thomas is justified for writing in prose, and Sir John Denham for writing in verse. Mr. Aldington would say that there are two kinds of prose – that of Voltaire or Gibbon, on the one hand, and that of Gaspard de la Nuit or Suspiria de Profundis on the other.4 Perhaps he will admit, what seems to me equally likely, that there are two kinds of verse: we may contrast Poe and Dryden, Baudelaire and Boileau. He might fairly say that we need a fourth term: we have the term “verse” and the term “poetry,” and only the one term “prose” to express their opposites. The [ 325 Prose and Verse distinction between “verse” and “prose” is clear; the distinction between “poetry” and “prose” is very obscure. I do not wish to quibble over “content ”; I know that it is not a question of “subject-matter” so much as of the way in which this subject-matter is treated, apart from its expression in metrical form. The Value of Verse and Prose. – I take it for granted that prose is allowed to be, potentially or actually, as important a medium as verse, and that it may cost quite as much pains to write. Also that any enjoyment that can be communicated by verse may be communicated by prose, with the exception of the pleasure of metrical form. And there is an equivalent pleasure in the movement of the finest prose, which is peculiar to prose and cannot be compensated by verse. It may, for all that we have yet decided, be proper to call this prose poetry; but if we deny that all of the best prose is poetry, we have got no farther; and we have still to find two qualities or sets of qualities , and divide the best literature, verse and prose, into two parts which shall exemplify these two qualities. Each group of works of literature will comprehend both verse and prose. Intensity. – This is sometimes held, implicitly or explicitly, to be a character of poetry and not of prose. It must not be confused with concentration ,whichisstatingorimplyingmuchinproportiontothespaceoccupied, or with length, which is a different matter from either. The feeling communicated by a long piece of prose may be more intense than that of a short poem: Newman’s Apology is thus more intense than a poem of Anacreon, but this intensity of feeling cannot be extracted from select passages; you must read the...