Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch > On the Art of Writing > III. On the Difference between Verse and Prose
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Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863–1944).  On the Art of Writing.  1916.

III.  On the Difference between Verse and Prose

Wednesday, February 26


YOU will forgive me, Gentlemen, that having in my second lecture encouraged you to the practice of verse as well as of prose, I seize the very next opportunity to warn you against confusing the two, which differ on some points essentially, and always so as to demand separate rules—or rather (since I am shy of the word ‘rules’) a different concept of what the writer should aim at and what avoid. But you must, pray, understand that what follows will be more useful to the tiro in prose than to the tiro in verse; for while even a lecturer may help you to avoid writing prose in the manner of Milton, only the gods—and they hardly—can cure a versifier of being prosaic.   1
  We started upon a promise to do without scientific definitions; and in drawing some distinctions to-day between verse and prose I shall use only a few rough ones; good, as I hope, so far as they go; not to be found contrary to your scientific ones, if ever, under another teacher you attain to them; yet for the moment used only as guides to practice, and pretending to be no more.   2
  Thus I go some way—though by no means all the way—towards defining literature when I remind you that its very name (litterae—letters) implies the written rather than the spoken word; that, for example, however closely they approximate one to the other as we trace them back, and even though we trace them back to identical beginnings, the Writer—the Man of Letters—does to-day differ from the Orator. There was a time, as you know, when the poet and the historian had no less than the orator, and in the most literal sense, to ‘get a hearing.’ Nay, he got it with more pains: for the orator had his senate-house or his law-court provided, whereas Thespis jogged to fairs in a cart, and the Muse of History, like any street acrobat, had to collect her own crowd. Herodotus in search of a public packed his history in a portmanteau, carted it to Olympia, found a favourable ‘pitch,’ as we should say, and wooed an audience to him much as on a racecourse nowadays do those philanthropic gentlemen who ply a dubious trade with three half-crowns and a gold chain. It would cost us an effort to imagine the late Bishop Stubbs thus trying his fortune with a bag full of select Charters at Queen’s Club or at Kempton Park, and exerting his lungs to retrieve a crowd that showed some disposition to edge off towards the ring or the rails.   3
  The historian’s conditions have improved; and like any other sensible man he has advanced his claim with them, and revised his method. He writes nowadays with his eye on the printed book. He may or may not be a dull fellow: being a dull fellow, he may or may not be aware of it; but at least he knows that, if you lay him upside down on your knee, you can on awaking pick him up, resume your absorption, and even turn back some pages to discover just where or why your interest flagged: whereas a Hellene who deserted Herodotus, having a bet on the Pentathlon, not only missed what he missed but missed it for life.   4
  The invention of print, of course, has made all, or almost all, the difference.   5
  I do not forget that the printed book—the written word—presupposes a speaking voice, and must ever have at its back some sense in us of the speaking voice. But in writing prose nowadays, while always recollecting that prose has its origin in speech—even as it behoves us to recollect that Homer intoned the Iliad to the harp and Sappho plucked her passion from the lyre—we have to take things as they are. Except Burns, Heine, Béranger (with Moore, if you will), and you will find it hard to compile in all the lyrical poetry of the last 150 years a list of half a dozen first-class or even second-class bards who wrote primarily to be sung. It may help you to estimate how far lyrical verse has travelled from its origins if you will but remind yourselves that a sonnet and a sonata were once the same thing, and that a ballad meant a song accompanied by dancing—the word ballata having been specialised down, on the one line to the ballet, in which Mademoiselle Genée or the Russian performers will dance for our delight, using no words at all; on the other to Sir Patrick Spens or Clerk Saunders, ‘ballads’ to which no one in his senses would dream of pointing a toe.   6
  Thus with Verse the written (or printed) word has pretty thoroughly ousted the speaking voice and its auxiliaries—the pipe, the lute, the tabor, the chorus with its dance movements and swaying of the body; and in a quieter way much the same thing is happening to prose. In the Drama, to be sure, we still write (or we should) for the actors, reckon upon their intonations, their gestures, lay account with the tears in the heroine’s eyes and her visible beauty: though even in the Drama to-day you may detect a tendency to substitute dialectic for action and paragraphs for the [Greek5], the sharp outcries of passion in its give-and-take. Again we still—some of us—deliver sermons from pulpits and orations in Parliament or upon public platforms. Yet I am told that the vogue of the sermon is passing; and (by journalists) that the leading article has largely superseded it. On that point I can offer you no personal evidence; but of civil oratory I am very sure that the whole pitch has been sensibly lowered since the day of Chatham, Burke, Sheridan; since the day of Brougham and Canning; nay, ever since the day of Bright, Gladstone, Disraeli. Burke, as everyone knows, once brought down a Brummagem dagger and cast it on the floor of the House. Lord Chancellor Brougham in a peroration once knelt to the assembled peers, ‘Here the noble lord inclined his knee to the Woolsack’ is, if I remember, the stage direction in Hansard. Gentlemen, though in the course of destiny one or another of you may be called upon to speak daggers to the Treasury Bench, I feel sure you will use none; while, as for Lord Brougham’s genuflexions, we may agree that to emulate them would cost Lord Haldane an effort. These and even far less flagrant or flamboyant tricks of virtuosity have gone quite out of fashion. You could hardly revive them to-day and keep that propriety to which I exhorted you a fortnight ago. They would be out of tune; they would grate upon the nerves; they would offend against the whole style of modern oratory, which steadily tends to lower its key, to use the note of quiet business-like exposition, to adopt more and more the style of written prose.   7
  Let me help your sense of this change, by a further illustration. Burke, as we know, was never shy of declaiming—even of declaiming in a torrent—when he stood up to speak: but almost as little was he shy of it when he sat down to write. If you turn to his Letters on the Regicide Peace—no raw compositions, but penned in his latter days and closing, or almost closing, upon that tenderest of farewells to his country—
          In this good old House, where everything at least is well aired, I shall be content to put up my fatigued horses and here take a bed for the long night that begins to darken upon me—
if, I say, you turn to these Letters on the Regicide Peace and consult the title-page, you will find them ostensibly addressed to ‘a Member of the present Parliament’; and the opening paragraphs assume that Burke and his correspondent are in general agreement. But skim the pages and your eyes will be arrested again and again by sentences like these:—
          The calculation of profit in all such wars is false. On balancing the account of such wars, ten thousand hogsheads of sugar are purchased at ten thousand times their price—the blood of man should never be shed but to redeem the blood of man. It is well shed for our family, for our friends, for our God, for our country, for our kind. The rest is vanity; the rest is crime.
Magnificent, truly! But your ear has doubtless detected the blank verse—three iambic lines:—
        Are purchased at tea thousand times their price…
Be shed but to redeem the blood of man…
The rest is vanity; the rest is crime.
Again Burke catches your eye by rhetorical inversions:—
          But too often different is rational conjecture from melancholy fact,
  Well is it known that ambition can creep as well as soar,
by repetitions:—
          Never, no never, did Nature say one thing and Wisdom say another…
  Algiers is not near; Algiers is not powerful; Algiers is not our neighbour; Algiers is not infectious. Algiers, whatever it may be, is an old creation; and we have good data to calculate all the mischief to be apprehended from it. When I find Algiers transferred to Calais, I will tell you what I think of that point—
by quick staccato utterances, such as:—
          And is this example nothing? It is everything. Example is the school of mankind, and they will learn at no other—
or
          Our dignity? That is gone. I shall say no more about it. Light lie the earth on the ashes of English pride!
I say that the eye or ear, caught by such tropes, must (if it be critical) recognise them at once as rhetoric, as the spoken word masquerading under guise of the written. Burke may pretend to be seated, penning a letter to a worthy man who will read it in his slippers: but actually Burke is up and pacing his library at Beaconsfield, now striding from fire-place to window with hands clasped under his coat tails, anon pausing to fling out an arm with some familiar accustomed gesture in a House of Commons that knows him no more, towards a Front Bench peopled by shades. In fine the pretence is Cicero writing to Atticus, but the style is Cicero denouncing Catiline.
   8
  As such it is not for your imitation. Burke happened to be a genius, with a swoop and range of mind, as of language to interpret it, with a gift to enchant, a power to strike and astound, which together make him, to my thinking, the man in our literature most nearly comparable with Shakespeare. Others may be more to your taste; you may love others better: but no other two leave you so hopeless of discovering how it is done. Yet not for this reason only would I warn you against imitating either. For like all great artists they accepted their conditions and wrought for them, and those conditions have changed. When Jacques wished to recite to an Elizabethan audience that
        All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players—
or Hamlet to soliloquise
        To be, or not to be: that is the question—
the one did not stretch himself under a property oak, nor did the other cast himself back in a chair and dangle his legs. They both advanced boldly from the stage, down a narrow platform provided for such recitations and for that purpose built boldly forward into the auditorium, struck an attitude, declaimed the purple passage, and returned, covered with applause, to continue the action of the play. This was the theatrical convention; this the audience expected and understood; for this Shakespeare wrote. Similarly, though the device must have been wearing thin even in 1795–6, Burke cast a familiar epistle into language proper to be addressed to Mr Speaker of the House of Commons. Shakespeare wrote, as Burke wrote, for his audience; and their glory is that they have outlasted the conditions they observed. Yet it was by observing them that they gained the world’s ear. Let us, who are less than they, beware of scorning to belong to our own time.
   9
  For my part I have a great hankering to see English Literature feeling back through these old modes to its origins. I think, for example, that if we studied to write verse that could really be sung, or if we were more studious to write prose that could be read aloud with pleasure to the ear, we should be opening the pores to the ancient sap; since the roots are always the roots, and we can only reinvigorate our growth through them.  10
  Unhappily, however, I cannot preach this just yet; for we are aiming at practice, and at Cambridge (they tell me) while you speak well, you write less expertly. A contributor to The Cambridge Review, a fortnight ago, lamented this at length: so you will not set the aspersion down to me, nor blame me if these early lectures too officiously offer a kind of ‘First Aid’: that, while all the time eager to descant on the affinities of speech and writing, I dwell first on their differences; or that, in speaking of Burke, an author I adore only ‘on this side idolatry,’ I first present him in some aspects for your avoidance. Similarly I adore the prose of Sir Thomas Browne, yet should no more commend it to you for instant imitation than I could encourage you to walk with a feather in your cap and a sword under your gown. Let us observe proprieties.  11
  To return to Burke.—At his most flagrant, in these Letters on the Regicide Peace, he boldly raids Shakespeare. You are all, I doubt not, conversant with the Prologue to Henry the Fifth:—
        O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention!
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars: and at his heels,
Leash’d in like hounds, should Famine, Sword and Fire
Crouch for employment.
Well, this passage Burke, assuming his correspondent to be familiar with it, boldly claps into prose and inserts into a long diatribe against Pitt for having tamely submitted to the rebuffs of the French Directory. Thus it becomes:—
          On that day it was thought he would have assumed the port of Mars: that he would bid to be brought forth from their hideous Kennel (where his scrupulous tenderness had too long immured them) those impatient dogs of War, whose fierce regards affright even the minister of vengeance that feeds them; that he would let them loose in Famine, Plagues and Death, upon a guilty race to whose frame and to all whose habit, Order, Peace, Religion and Virtue, are alien and abhorrent.
Now Shakespeare is but apologising for the shortcomings of his play-house, whereas Burke is denouncing his country’s shame and prophesying disaster to Europe. Yet do you not feel with me that while Shakespeare, using great words on the lowlier subject, contrives to make them appropriate, with Burke, writing on the loftier subject, the same or similar words have become tumid, turgid?
  12
  Why? I am sure that the difference lies not in the two men: nor is it all the secret, or even half the secret, that Burke is mixing up the spoken with the written word, using the one while pretending to use the other. That has carried us some way; but now let us take an important step farther. The root of the matter lies in certain essential differences between verse and prose. We will keep, if you please, to our rough practical definitions. Literature—the written word—is a permanent record of memorable speech; a record, at any rate, intended to be permanent. We set a thing down in ink—we print it in a book—because we feel it to be memorable, to be worth preserving. But to set this memorable speech down we must choose one of two forms, verse or prose; and I define verse to be a record in metre and rhythm, prose to be a record which, dispensing with metre (abhorring it indeed), uses rhythm laxly, preferring it to be various and unconstrained, so always that it convey a certain pleasure to the ear.  13
  You observe that I avoid the term Poetry, over which the critics have waged, and still are waging, a war that promises to be endless. Is Walt Whitman a poet? Is the Song of Songs (which is not Solomon’s)—is the Book of Job—are the Psalms—all of these as rendered in our Authorised Version of Holy Writ—are all of these poetry? Well ‘yes,’ if you want my opinion; and again ‘yes,’ I am sure. But truly on this field, though scores of great men have fought across it—Sidney, Shelley, Coleridge, Scaliger (I pour the names on you at random), Johnson, Wordsworth, the two Schlegels, Aristotle with Twining his translator, Corneille, Goethe, Warton, Whately, Hazlitt, Emerson, Hegel, Gummere—but our axles grow hot. Let us put on the brake: for in practice the dispute comes to very little: since literature is an art and treats scientific definitions as J. K. Stephen recommended. From them
        It finds out what it cannot do,
And then it goes and does it.
I am journeying, say, in the West of England. I cross a bridge over a stream dividing Devon from Cornwall. These two counties, each beautiful in its way, are quite unlike in their beauty: yet nothing happened as I stepped across the brook, and for a mile or two or even ten I am aware of no change. Sooner or later that change will break upon the mind and I shall be startled, awaking suddenly to a land of altered features. But at what turn of the road this will happen, just how long the small multiplied impressions will take to break into surmise, into conviction—that nobody can tell. So it is with poetry and prose. They are different realms, but between them lies a debatable land which a De Quincey or a Whitman or a Paul Fort or a Marinetti may attempt. I advise you who are beginners to keep well one side or other of the frontier, remembering that there is plenty of room and what happened to Tupper.
  14
  If we restrict ourselves to the terms ‘verse’ and ‘prose,’ we shall find the line much easier to draw. Verse is memorable speech set down in metre with strict rhythms; prose is memorable speech set down without constraint of metre and in rhythms both lax and various—so lax, so various, that until quite recently no real attempt has been made to reduce them to rule. I doubt, for my part, if they can ever be reduced to rule; and after a perusal of Professor Saintsbury’s latest work, A History of English Prose Rhythm, I am left doubting. I commend this book to you as one that clears up large patches of forest. No one has yet so well explained what our prose writers, generation after generation, have tried to do with prose: and he has, by the way, furnished us with a capital anthology—or, as he puts it, with ‘divers delectable draughts of example.’ But the road still waits to be driven. Seeking practical guidance—help for our present purpose—I note first that many a passage he scans in one way may as readily be scanned in another; that when he has finished with one and can say proudly with Wordsworth:—
        I’ve measured it from side to side,
’Tis three feet long and two feet wide,
we still have a sensation of coming out (our good master with us) by that same door wherein we went; and I cannot as yet after arduous trial discover much profit in his table of feet—Paeons, Dochmiacs, Antispasts, Proceleusmatics and the rest—an Antispast being but an iamb followed by a trochee, and Proceleusmatic but two pyrrhics, or four consecutive short syllables—when I reflect that, your possible number of syllables being as many as five to a foot, you may label them (as Aristotle would say) until you come to infinity, where desire fails, without getting nearer any rule of application.
  15
  Let us respect a genuine effort of learning, though we may not detect its immediate profit. In particular let us respect whatever Professor Saintsbury writes, who has done such splendid work upon English verse-prosody. I daresay he would retort upon my impatience grandly enough, quoting Walt Whitman:—
        I am the teacher of athletes;
He that by me spreads a wider breast than my own proves the width of my own;
He most honours my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher.
His speculations may lead to much in time; though for the present they yield us small instruction in the path we seek.
  16
  It is time we harked back to our own sign-posts. Verse is written in metre and strict rhythm; prose, without metre and with the freest possible rhythm. That distinction seems simple enough, but it carries consequences very far from simple. Let me give you an illustration taken almost at hazard from Milton, from the Second Book of Paradise Regained:—
        Up to a hill anon his steps he reared
From whose high top to ken the prospect round,
If cottage were in view, sheep-cote or herd;
But cottage, herd, or sheep-cote, none he saw.
These few lines are verse, are obviously verse with the accent of poetry; while as obviously they are mere narrative and tell us of the simplest possible incident—how Christ climbed a hill to learn what could be seen from the top. Yet observe, line for line and almost word for word, how strangely they differ from prose. Mark the inversions: ‘Up to a hill anon his steps he reared,’ ‘But cottage, herd, or sheep-cote, none he saw.’ Mark next the diction—‘his steps he reared.’ In prose we should not rear our steps up the Gog-magog hills, or even more Alpine fastnesses; nor, arrived at the top, should we ‘ken’ the prospect round; we might ‘con,’ but should more probably ‘survey’ it. Even ‘anon’ is a tricky word in prose, though I deliberately palmed it off on you a few minutes ago. Mark thirdly the varied repetition, ‘if cottage were in view, sheep-cote or herd—but cottage, herd, or sheep-cote, none he saw.’ Lastly compare the whole with such an account as you or I or Cluvienus would write in plain prose:—
          Thereupon he climbed a hill on the chance that the view from its summit might disclose some sign of human habitation—a herd, a sheep-cote, a cottage perhaps. But he could see nothing of the sort.
But you will ask, ‘Why should verse and prose employ diction so different? Why should the one invert the order of words in a fashion not permitted to the other?’ and I shall endeavour to answer these questions together with a third which, I dare say, you have sometimes been minded to put when you have been told—and truthfully told—by your manuals and histories, that when a nation of men starts making literature it invariably starts on the difficult emprise of verse, and goes on to prose as by an afterthought. Why should men start upon the more difficult form and proceed to the easier? It is not their usual way. In learning to skate, for instance, they do not cut figures before practising loose and easy propulsion.
  17
  The answer is fairly simple. Literature (once more) is a record of memorable speech; it preserves in words a record of such thoughts or of such deeds as we deem worth preserving. Now if you will imagine yourself a very primitive man, lacking paper or parchment; or a slightly less primitive, but very poor, man to whom the price of parchment and ink is prohibitive; you have two ways of going to work. You can carve your words upon trees or stones (a laborious process) or you can commit them to memory and carry them about in your head; which is cheaper and handier. For an illustration, you find it useful, anticipating the tax-collector, to know how many days there are in the current month. But further you find it a nuisance and a ruinous waste of time to run off to the tribal tree or monolith whenever the calculation comes up; so you invent a formula, and you cast that formula into verse for the simple reason that verse, with its tags, alliterations, beat of syllables, jingle of rhymes (however your tribe has chosen to invent it), has a knack, not possessed by prose, of sticking in your head. You do not say, ‘Quick thy tablets, memory! Let me see—January has 31 days, February 28 days, March 31 days, April 30 days.’ You invent a verse:—
        Thirty days hath September,
April, June and November…
  18
  Nay, it has been whispered to me, Gentlemen, that in this University some such process of memorising in verse has been applied by bold bad irreverently-minded men even to the Evidences of our cherished Paley.  19
  This, you will say, is mere verse, and not yet within measurable distance of poetry. But wait! The men who said the more memorable things, or sang them—the men who recounted deeds and genealogies of heroes, plagues and famines, assassinations, escapes from captivity, wanderings and conquests of the clan, all the ‘old, unhappy, far-off things and battles long ago’—the men who sang these things for their living, for a supper, a bed in the great hall, and something in their wallet to carry them on to the next lordship—these were gentlemen, scôps, bards, minstrels (call them how you will), a professional class who had great need of a full repertory in a land swarming with petty chieftains, and to adapt their strains to the particular hall of entertainment. It would never do, for example, to flatter the prowess of the Billings in the house of the Hoppings, their hereditary foes, or to bore the Wokings (who lived where the crematorium now is) with the complicated genealogy of the Tootings: for this would have been to miss that appropriateness which I preached to you in my second lecture as a preliminary rule of good writing. Nay, when the Billings intermarried with the Tootings—when the Billings took to cooing, so to speak—a hasty blend of excerpts would be required for the Epithalamium. So it was all a highly difficult business, needing adaptability, a quick wit, a goodly stock of songs, a retentive memory and every artifice to assist it. Take Widsith, for example, the ‘far-travelled man.’ He begins:—
        Widsith spake: he unlocked his word-hoard.
So he had a hoard of words, you see: and he must have needed them, for he goes on:—
          For[char1]on ic maeg singan and secgan spell,
Maenan fore mengo in meoduhealle,
Hu me cynegode cystum dohten.
Ic waes mid Hunum and mid Hre[char2]-[char3]otum,
Mid Sweom and mid [char3]eatum, and mid Su[char2]-Denum.
Mid Wenlum ic waes and mid Waernum and mid Wicingum.
Mid [char3]ef[char1]um ic waes and mid Winedum.… 1 
and so on for a full dozen lines. I say that the memory of such men must have needed every artifice to help it: and the chief artifice to their  hand was one which also delighted the ears of their listeners. They sang or intoned to the harp.
  20
  There you get it, Gentlemen. I have purposely, skimming a wide subject, discarded much ballast; but you may read and scan and read again, and always you must come back to this, that the first poets sang their words to the harp or to some such instrument: and just there lies the secret why poetry differs from prose. The moment you introduce music you let in emotion with all its sway upon speech. From that moment you change everything, down to the order of the words—the natural order of the words: and (remember this) though the harp be superseded, the voice never forgets it. You may take up a Barrack Room Ballad of Kipling’s, and it is there, though you affect to despise it for a banjo or concertina:—
        Ford—ford—ford of Kabul river…
‘Bang, whang, whang goes the drum, tootle-te-tootle the fife.’ From the moment men introduced music they made verse a thing essentially separate from prose, from its natural key of emotion to its natural ordering of words. Do not for one moment imagine that when Milton writes:—
        But cottage, herd, or sheep-cote, none he saw.
or
        Of man’s first disobedience and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree…
—where you must seek down five lines before you come to the verb, and then find it in the imperative mood—do not suppose for a moment that he is here fantastically shifting words, inverting phrases out of their natural order. For, as St Paul might say, there is a natural order of prose and there is a natural order of verse. The natural order of prose is:—
          I was born in the year 1632, in the City of York, of a good family, though not of that county; my father being a foreigner of Bremen, who settled first in Hull.—[Defoe.]
or
          Further I avow to your Highness that with these eyes I have beheld the person of William Wooton, B.D., who has written a good sizeable volume against a friend of your Governor (from whom, alas! he must therefore look for little favour) in a most gentlemanly style, adorned with the utmost politeness and civility.—[Swift.]
The natural order of poetry is:—
                Thus with the year
Seasons return, but not to me returns
Day, or the sweet approach of Ev’n or Morn,
Or sight of vernal bloom, or Summer’s Rose,
Or flocks, or herds, or human face divine.
or
        But cottage, herd, or sheep-cote, none he saw.
and this basal difference you must have clear in your minds before, in dealing with prose or verse, you can practise either with profit or read either with intelligent delight.
  21


Note 1.  Therefore I can sing and tell a tale, recount in the Mead Hall, how men of high race gave rich gifts to me. I was with Huns and with Hreth Goths, with the Swedes, and with the Geat, and with the South Danes; I was with the Wenlas, and with the Waernas, and with the Vikings; I was with the Gefthas and with the Winedae… [back]

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