Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch > On the Art of Writing > IV. On the Capital Difficulty of Verse
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Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863–1944).  On the Art of Writing.  1916.

IV.  On the Capital Difficulty of Verse

Thursday, April 17


IN our last lecture, Gentlemen, we discussed the difference between verse, or metrical writing, and prose. We traced that difference (as you will remember) to Music—to the harp, the lyre, the dance, the chorus, all those first necessary accompaniments which verse never quite forgets; and we concluded that, as Music ever introduces emotion, which is indeed her proper and only means of persuading, so the natural language of verse will be keyed higher than the natural language of prose; will be keyed higher throughout and even for its most ordinary purposes—as for example, to tell us that So-and-so sailed to Troy with so many ships.   1
  I grant you that our steps to this conclusion were lightly and rapidly taken: yet the stepping-stones are historically firm. Verse does precede prose in literature; verse does start with musical accompaniment; musical accompaniment does introduce emotion; and emotion does introduce an order of its own into speech. I grant you that we have travelled far from the days when a prose-writer, Herodotus, labelled the books of his history by the names of the nine Muses. I grant you that if you go to the Vatican and there study the statues of the Muses (noble, but of no early date) you may note that Calliope, Muse of the Epic—unlike her sisters Euterpe, Erato, Thalia—holds for symbol no instrument of music, but a stylus and a tablet. Yet the earlier Calliope, the Calliope of Homer, was a Muse of Song.
        [Greek6]
‘Had I a thousand tongues, a thousand hands.’—For what purpose does the poet wish for a thousand tongues, but to sing? for what purpose a thousand hands, but to pluck the wires? not to dip a thousand pens in a thousand inkpots.
   2
  I doubt, in fine, if your most learned studies will discover much amiss with the frontier we drew between verse and prose, cursorily though we ran its line. Nor am I daunted on comparing it with Coleridge’s more philosophical one, which you will find in the Biographia Literaria (c. XVIII)—
          And first for the origin of metre. This I would trace to the balance in the mind effected by that spontaneous effort which strives to hold in check the workings of passion. It might be easily explained likewise in what manner this salutary antagonism is assisted by the very state which it counteracts, and how this balance of antagonism becomes organised into metre (in the usual acceptation of that term) by a supervening act of the will and judgment consciously and for the foreseen purpose of pleasure.
I will not swear to understand precisely what Coleridge means here, though I believe that I do. But at any rate, and on the principle that of two hypotheses, each in itself adequate, we should choose the simpler, I suggest in all modesty that we shall do better with our own than with Coleridge’s, which has the further disadvantage of being scarcely amenable to positive evidence. We can say with historical warrant that Sappho struck the lyre, and argue therefrom, still within close range of correction, that her singing responded to the instrument: whereas to assert that Sappho’s mind ‘was balanced by a spontaneous effort which strove to hold in check the workings of passion’ is to say something for which positive evidence will be less handily found, whether to contradict or to support.
   3
  Yet if you choose to prefer Coleridge’s explanation, no great harm will be done: since Coleridge, who may be presumed to have understood it, promptly goes on to deduce that,
        as the elements of metre owe their existence to a state of increased excitement, so the metre itself should be accompanied by the natural language of excitement.
which is precisely where we found ourselves, save that where Coleridge uses the word ‘excitement’ we used the word ‘emotion.’
   4
  Shall we employ an illustration before proceeding?—some sentence easily handled, some commonplace of the moralist, some copybook maxim, I care not what. ‘Contentment breeds Happiness’—That is a proposition with which you can hardly quarrel; sententious, sedate, obviously true; provoking delirious advocacy as little as controversial heat; in short a very fair touchstone. Now hear how the lyric treats it, in these lines of Dekker—
        Art thou poor, yet hast thou golden slumbers?
    O sweet content!
Art thou rich, yet is thy mind perplex’d?
    O punishment!
Dost thou laugh to see how fools are vex’d
To add to golden numbers golden numbers?
    O sweet content! O sweet, O sweet content!
Work apace, apace, apace, apace;
Honest labour wears a lovely face;
    Then hey, nonny nonny—hey, nonny nonny!
Canst drink the waters of the crystal spring?
    O sweet content!
Swim’st thou in wealth, yet sink’st in thine own tears?
    O punishment!
Then he that patiently want’s burden bears
No burden bears, but is a king, a king!
    O sweet content! O sweet, O sweet content!
Work apace, apace, apace, apace;
Honest labour wears a lovely face;
    Then hey, nonny nonny—hey, nonny nonny!
There, in lines obviously written for music, you have our sedate sentence, ‘Contentment breeds Happiness,’ converted to mere emotion. Note (to use Coleridge’s word) the ‘excitement’ of it. There are but two plain indicative sentences in the two stanzas—(1) ‘Honest labour wears a lovely face’ (used as a refrain), and (2) ‘Then he that patiently want’s burden bears no burden bears, but is a king, a king!’ (heightened emotionally by inversion and double repetition). Mark throughout how broken is the utterance; antithetical question answered by exclamations: both doubled and made more antithetical in the second stanza: with cunning reduplicated inversions to follow, and each stanza wound up by an outburst of emotional nonsense—‘hey, nonny nonny—hey, nonny nonny!’—as a man might skip or whistle to himself for want of thought.
   5
  Now (still keeping to our same subject of Contentment) let us prosify the lyrical order of language down to the lowest pitch to which genius has been able to reduce it and still make noble verse. You have all read Wordsworth’s famous Introduction to the Lyrical Ballads, and you know that Wordsworth’s was a genius working on a theory that the languages of verse and of prose are identical. You know, too, I dare say, into what banalities that theory over and over again betrayed him: banalities such as—
        His widowed mother, for a second mate
Espoused the teacher of the village school:
Who on her offspring zealously bestowed
Needful instruction.
—and the rest. Nevertheless Wordsworth was a genius; and genius working persistently on a narrow theory will now and again ‘bring it off’ (as they say). So he, amid the flat waste of his later compositions, did undoubtedly ‘bring it off’ in the following sonnet:—
        These times strike monied worldlings with dismay:
  Ev’n rich men, brave by nature, taint the air
  With words of apprehension and despair;
While tens of thousands, thinking on the affray,
Men unto whom sufficient for the day
  And minds not stinted or untill’d are given,
  Sound healthy children of the God of Heaven,
Are cheerful as the rising sun in May.
What do we gather hence but firmer faith
  That every gift of noble origin
Is breath’d upon by Hope’s perpetual breath;
  That Virtue and the faculties within
  Are vital; and that riches are akin
To fear, to change, to cowardice, and death?
   6
  Here, I grant, are no repetitions, no inversions. The sentences, though metrical, run straightforwardly, verb following subject, object verb, as in strict prose. In short here you have verse reduced to the order and structure of prose as nearly as a man of genius, working on a set theory, could reduce it while yet maintaining its proper emotional key. But first let me say that you will find very few like instances of success even in Wordsworth; and few indeed to set against innumerable passages wherein either his verse defies his theory and triumphs, or succumbs to it and, succumbing, either drops sheer to bathos or spreads itself over dead flats of commonplace. Let me tell you next that the instances you will find in other poets are so few and so far between as to be negligible; and lastly that even such verse as the above has only to be compared with a passage of prose and its emotional pitch is at once betrayed. Take this, for example, from Jeremy Taylor:—
          Since all the evil in the world consists in the disagreeing between the object and the appetite, as when a man hath what he desires not, or desires what he hath not, or desires amiss, he that compares his spirit to the present accident hath variety of instance for his virtue, but none to trouble him, because his desires enlarge not beyond his present fortune: and a wise man is placed in a variety of chances, like the nave or centre of a wheel in the midst of all the circumvolutions and changes of posture, without violence or change, save that it turns gently in compliance with its changed parts, and is indifferent which part is up, and which is down; for there is some virtue or other to be exercised whatever happens—either patience or thanksgiving, love or fear, moderation or humility, charity or contentedness.
Or, take this from Samuel Johnson:—
          The fountain of contentment must spring up in the mind; and he who has so little knowledge of human nature as to seek happiness by changing anything but his own disposition, will waste his life in fruitless efforts and multiply the griefs which he purposes to remove.
Now, to be frank, I do not call that first passage very good prose. Like much of Jeremy Taylor’s writing it is prose tricked out with the trappings and odds-and-ends of verse. It starts off, for example, with a brace of heroics—‘Since all the evil in the world consists’…‘between the object and the appetite.’ You may say, further, that the simile of the wheel, though proper enough to prose, is poetical too: that Homer might have used it (‘As in a wheel the rim turns violently, while the nave, though it turns also, yet seems to be at rest’—something of that sort). Nevertheless you will agree with me that, in exchanging Wordsworth for Taylor and Johnson, we have relaxed something with the metre, something that the metre kept taut; and this something we discover to be the emotional pitch.
   7
  But let me give you another illustration, supplied (I dare say quite unconsciously) by one who combined a genuine love of verse—in which, however, he was no adept—with a sure instinct for beautiful prose. Contentment was a favourite theme with Isaak Walton: The Compleat Angler is packed with praise of it: and in The Compleat Angler occurs this well-known passage:—
          But, master, first let me tell you, that very hour which you were absent from me, I sat down under a willow tree by the waterside, and considered what you had told me of the owner of that pleasant meadow in which you then had left me; that he had a plentiful estate, and not a heart to think so; that he had at this time many law-suits depending, and that they both damped his mirth and took up so much of his time and thoughts that he had no leisure to take the sweet content that I, who pretended no title to them, took in his fields: for I could there sit quietly; and looking on the water, see some fishes sport themselves in the silver streams, others leaping at flies of several shapes and colours; looking on the hills, I could behold them spotted with woods and groves; looking down the meadows, could see, here a boy gathering lilies and lady-smocks, and there a girl cropping culverlocks and cowslips, all to make garlands suitable to this present month of May. These and many other field-flowers so perfumed the air that I thought that very meadow like that field in Sicily of which Diodorus speaks, where the perfumes arising from the place make all dogs that hunt in it to fall off and lose their hottest scent. I say, as I thus sat, joying in my own happy condition, and pitying this poor rich man that owned this and many other pleasant groves and meadows about me, I did thankfully remember what my Saviour said, that the meek possess the earth; or rather they enjoy what the others possess and enjoy not; for Anglers and meek quiet-spirited men are free from those high, those restless thoughts which corrode the sweets of life; and they, and they only can say as the poet has happily exprest it:
        ‘Hail, blest estate of lowliness!
  Happy enjoyments of such minds
As, rich in self-contentedness,
  Can, like the reeds in roughest winds,
By yielding make that blow but small
  At which proud oaks and cedars fall.’
There you have a passage of felicitous prose culminating in a stanza of trite and fifth-rate verse. Yes, Walton’s instinct is sound; for he is keying up the pitch; and verse, even when mediocre in quality, has its pitch naturally set above that of prose. So, if you will turn to your Walton and read the page following this passage, you will see that, still by a sure instinct, he proceeds from this scrap of reflective verse to a mere rollicking ‘catch’:
        Man’s life is but vain, for ’tis subject to pain
  And sorrow, and short as a bubble;
’Tis a hodge-podge of business and money and care,
  And care, and money and trouble…
—which is even worse rubbish, and yet a step upwards in emotion because Venator actually sings it to music. ‘Ay marry, sir, this is music indeed,’ approves Brother Peter; ‘this cheers the heart.’
   8
  
  In this and the preceding lecture, Gentlemen, I have enforced at some length the opinion that to understand the many essential differences between verse and prose we must constantly bear in mind that verse, being metrical, keeps the character originally imposed on it by musical accompaniment and must always, however far the remove, be referred back to its origin and to the emotion which music excites.   9
  Mr George Bernard Shaw having to commit his novel Cashel Byron’s Profession to paper in a hurry, chose to cast it in blank verse as being more easily and readily written so: a performance which brilliantly illuminates a half-truth. Verse—or at any rate, unrhymed iambic verse—is easier to write than prose, if you care to leave out the emotion which makes verse characteristic and worth writing. I have little doubt that, had he chosen to attempt it, Mr Shaw would have found his story still more ductile in the metre of Hiawatha. But the experiment proves nothing: or no more than that, all fine art costing labour, it may cost less if burlesqued in a category not its own.  10
  Let me take an example from a work with which you are all familiar—The Student’s Handbook to the University and Colleges of Cambridge. On p. 405 we read:—
          The Medieval and Modern Languages Tripos is divided into ten sections, A, A2, B, C, D, E, F, G, H and I. A student may take either one or two sections at the end of his second year of residence, and either one or two more sections at the end of his third or fourth year of residence; or he may take two sections at the end of his third year only. Thus this Tripos can be treated either as a divided or as an undivided Tripos at the option of the candidate.
  11
  Now I do not hold that up to you for a model of prose. Still, lucidity rather than emotion being its aim, I doubt not that the composer spent pains on it; more pains than it would have cost him to convey his information metrically, thus:—
        There is a Tripos that aspires to blend
The Medieval and the Modern tongues
In one red burial (Sing Heavenly Muse!)
Divided into sections A, A2,
B, C, D, E, F, G and H and I.
A student may take either one or two
(With some restrictions mention’d in a footnote)
At th’ expiration of his second year:
Or of his third, or of his fourth again
Take one or two; or of his third alone
Take two together. Thus this tripos is
(Like nothing in the Athanasian Creed)
Divisible or indivisible
At the option of the candidate—Gadzooks!
This method has even some advantage over the method of prose in that it is more easily memorised; but it has, as you will admit, the one fatal flaw that it imports emotion into a theme which does not properly admit of emotion, and that so it offends against our first rule of writing—that it should be appropriate.
  12
  Now if you accept the argument so far as we have led it—that verse is by nature more emotional than prose—certain consequences would seem to follow: of which the first is that while the capital difficulty of verse consists in saying ordinary things the capital difficulty of prose consists in saying extraordinary things; that while with verse, keyed for high moments, the trouble is to manage the intervals, with prose the trouble is to manage the high moments.  13
  Let us dwell awhile on this difference, for it is important. You remember my quoting to you in my last lecture these lines of Milton’s:—
        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.
We agreed that these were good lines, with the accent of poetry: but we allowed it to be a highly exalted way of telling how So-and-so climbed a hill for a better view but found none. Now obviously this exaltation does not arise immediately out of the action described (which is as ordinary as it well could be), but is derivative. It borrows its wings, its impetus, from a previous high moment, from the emotion proper to that moment, from the speech proper to that emotion: and these sustain us across to the next height as with the glide of an aeroplane. Your own sense will tell you at once that the passage would be merely bombastic if the poet were starting to set forth how So-and-so climbed a hill for the view—just that, and nothing else: as your own sense tells you that the swoop is from one height to another. For if bathos lay ahead, if Milton had but to relate how the Duke of York, with twenty thousand men, ‘marched up a hill and then marched down again,’ he certainly would not use diction such as:—
        Up to a hill anon his steps he reared.
Even as it is, I think we must all detect a certain artificiality in the passage, and confess to some relief when Satan is introduced to us, ten lines lower down, to revivify the story. For let us note that, in the nature of things, the more adorned and involved our style (and Milton’s is both ornate and involved) the more difficulty we must find with these flat pedestrian intervals. Milton may ‘bring it off,’ largely through knowing how to dodge the interval and contrive that it shall at any rate be brief: but, as Bagehot noted, when we come to Tennyson and find Tennyson in Enoch Arden informing us of a fish-jowter, that:—
        Enoch’s white horse, and Enoch’s ocean-spoil
In ocean-smelling osier—
(i.e. in a fish-basket)
                                  —and his face
Rough-reddened with a thousand winter gales,
Not only to the market town were known,
But in the leafy lanes beyond the down
Far as the portal-warding lion-whelp
And peacock yewtree of the lonely Hall
Whose Friday fare was Enoch’s ministering,
why, then we feel that the vehicle is altogether too pompous for its load, and those who make speech too pompous for its content commit, albeit in varying degrees, the error of Defoe’s religious lady who, seeing a bottle of over-ripe beer explode and cork and froth fly up to the ceiling, cried out, ‘O, the wonders of Omnipotent Power!’ The poet who commends fresh fish to us as ‘ocean-spoil’ can cast no stone at his brother who writes of them as ‘the finny denizens of the deep,’ or even at his cousin the journalist, who exalts the oyster into a ‘succulent bivalve’—
        The feathered tribes on pinions cleave the air;
Not so the mackerel, and, still less, the bear!
I believe this difficulty, which verse, by nature and origin emotional, encounters in dealing with ordinary unemotional narrative, to lie as a technical reason at the bottom of Horace’s advice to the writer of Epic to plunge in medias res, thus avoiding flat preparative and catching at once a high wind which shall carry him hereafter across dull levels and intervals. I believe that it lay—though whether consciously or not he scarcely tells us—at the bottom of Matthew Arnold’s mind when, selecting certain qualities for which to praise Homer, he chose, for the very first, Homer’s rapidity. ‘First,’ he says, ‘Homer is eminently rapid; and,’ he adds justly, ‘to this rapidity the elaborate movement of Miltonic blank verse is alien.’
  14
  Now until one studies writing as an art, trying to discover what this or that form of it accomplishes with ease and what with difficulty, and why verse can do one thing and prose another, Arnold’s choice of rapidity to put in the forefront of Homer’s merits may seem merely capricious. ‘Homer (we say) has other great qualities. Arnold himself indicates Homer’s simplicity, directness, nobility. Surely either one of these should be mentioned before rapidity, in itself not comparable as a virtue with either?’  15
  But when we see that the difficulty of verse-narrative lies just here; that the epic poet who is rapid has met, and has overcome, the capital difficulty of his form, then we begin to do justice not only to Arnold as a critic but (which is of far higher moment) to Homer as a craftsman.  16
  The genius of Homer in this matter is in fact something daemonic. He seems to shirk nothing: and the effect of this upon critics is bewildering. The acutest of them are left wondering how on earth an ordinary tale—say of how some mariners beached ship, stowed sail, walked ashore and cooked their dinner—can be made so poetical. They are inclined to divide the credit between the poet and his fortunate age—‘a time’ suggests Pater ‘in which one could hardly have spoken at all without ideal effect, or the sailors pulled down their boat without making a picture “in the great style” against a sky charged with marvels.’  17
  Well, the object of these lectures is not to explain genius. Just here it is rather to state a difficulty; to admit that, once in history, genius overcame it; yet warn you how rare in the tale of poetical achievement is such a success. Homer, indeed, stands first, if not unmatched, among poets in this technical triumph over the capital disability of annihilating flat passages. I omit Shakespeare and the dramatists; because they have only to give a stage direction ‘Enter Cassius, looking lean,’ and Cassius comes in looking leaner than nature; whereas Homer has in his narrative to walk Hector or Thersites on to the scene, describe him, walk him off. I grant the rapidity of Dante. It is amazing; and we may yield him all the credit for choosing (it was his genius that chose it) a subject which allowed of the very highest rapidity; since Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, though they differ in other respects, have this in common, that they are populous and the inhabitants of each so compendiously shepherded together that the visitor can turn from one person to another without loss of time. But Homer does not escort us around a menagerie in which we can move expeditiously from one cage to another. He proposes at least, both in the Iliad and in the Odyssey, to unfold a story; and he seems to unfold it so artlessly that we linger on the most pedestrian intervals while he tells us, for example, what the heroes ate and how they cooked it. A modern writer would serve us a far better dinner. Homer brings us to his with our appetite all the keener for having waited and watched the spitting and roasting.  18
  I would point out to you what art this genius conceals; how cunning is this apparent simplicity: and for this purpose let me take Homer at the extreme of his difficulty—when he has to describe a long sea-voyage.  19
  Some years ago, in his last Oxford lectures, Mr Froude lamented that no poet in this country had arisen to write a national epic of the great Elizabethan seamen, to culminate (I suppose) as his History culminated, in the defeat of the Armada: and one of our younger poets; Mr Alfred Noyes, acting on this hint has since given us an epic poem on Drake, in twelve books. But Froude probably overlooked, as Mr Noyes has not overcome, this difficulty of the flat interval which, while ever the bugbear of Epic, is magnified tenfold when our action takes place on the sea. For whereas the verse should be rapid and the high moments frequent, the business of seafaring is undeniably monotonous, as the intervals between port and port, sea-fight and sea-fight, must be long and lazy. Matters move more briskly in an occasional gale; but even a gale lasts, and must be ridden out; and the process of riding to a gale of wind:—
        For ever climbing up the climbing wave
—your ship taking one wave much as she takes another—is in its nature monotonous. Nay, you have only to read Falconer’s Shipwreck to discover how much of dulness may lie enwrapped, to discharge itself, even in a first-class tempest. Courses, reckonings, trimmings of canvas—these occur in real life and amuse the simple mariner at the time. But to the reader, if he be a landsman, their repetition in narrative may easily become intolerable; and when we get down to the ‘trades,’ even the seaman sets his sail for a long spell of weather and goes to sleep. In short you cannot upon the wide Atlantic push action and reaction to and fro as upon the plains of windy Troy: nor could any but a superhuman genius make sustained poetry (say) out of Nelson’s untiring pursuit of Villeneuve, which none the less was one of the most heroic feats in history.
  20
  This difficulty, inherent in navigation as a subject for the Epic Muse, has, I think, been very shrewdly detected and hit off in a parody of Mr Noyes’ poem by a young friend of mine, Mr Wilfred Blair:—
        Meanwhile the wind had changed, and Francis Drake
Put down the helm and drove against the seas—
Once more the wind changed, and the simple seaman,
Full fraught with weather wisdom, once again
Put down the helm and so drove on—et cetera.
Now Homer actually has performed this feat which we declare to be next to impossible. He actually does convey Odysseus from Troy to Ithaca, by a ten years’ voyage too; he actually has narrated that voyage to us in plain straightforward words; and, what is more, he actually has made a superb epic of it. Yes, but when you come to dissect the Odyssey, what amazing artifice is found under that apparently straightforward tale!—eight years of the ten sliced out, to start with, and magnificently presented to Circe
        Where that Aeaean isle forgets the main
—and (one may add), so forgetting, avoids the technical difficulties connected therewith.
  21
  Note the space given to Telemachus and his active search for the lost hero: note too how the mass of Odysseus’ seafaring adventures is condensed into a reported speech—a traveller’s tale at the court of Alcinoüs. Virgil borrowed this trick, you remember; and I dare to swear that had it fallen to Homer to attempt the impossible saga of Nelson’s pursuit after Villeneuve he would have achieved it triumphantly—by means of a tale told in the first person by a survivor to Lady Hamilton. Note, again, how boldly (being free to deal with an itinerary of which his audience knew nothing but surmised that it comprehended a vast deal of the marvellous, spaced at irregular distances) Homer works in a shipwreck or a miracle wherever the action threatens to flag. Lessing, as you know, devoted several pages of the Laoköon to the shield of Achilles; to Homer’s craft in depicting it as it grew under Hephaestus’ hammer: so that we are intrigued by the process of manufacture instead of being wearied by a description of the ready-made article; so also (if one may presume to add anything to Lessing) that we are cunningly flattered in a sense that the shield is being made for us. Well, that is one artifice out of many: but if you would gauge at all Homer’s resource and subtlety in technique I recommend you to analyse the first twelve books of the Odyssey and count for yourselves the device by which the poet—[Greek7] as was never his hero—evades or hurries over each flat interval as he happens upon it.
        These things, Ulysses,
The wise bards also
Behold and sing.
But O, what labour!
O Prince, what pain!
You may be thinking, Gentlemen, that I take up a disproportionate amount of your time on such technical matters at these. But literature being an art (forgive the reiteration!) and therefore to be practised, I want us to be seeking all the time how it is done; to hunt out the principles on which the great artists wrought; to face, to rationalise, the difficulties by which they were confronted, and learn how they overcame the particular obstacle. Surely even for mere criticism, apart from practice, we shall equip ourselves better by seeking, so far as we may, how the thing is done than by standing at gaze before this or that masterpiece and murmuring ‘Isn’t that beautiful! How in the world, now…!’
  22
  I am told that these lectures are criticised as tending to make you conceited: to encourage in you a belief that you can do things, when it were better that you merely admired. Well I would not dishearten you by telling to what a shred of conceit, even of hope, a man can be reduced after twenty-odd years of the discipline. But I can, and do, affirm that the farther you penetrate in these discoveries the more sacred the ultimate mystery will become for you: that the better you understand the great authors as exemplars of practice, the more certainly you will realise what is the condescension of the gods.  23
  Next time, then, we will attempt an enquiry into the capital difficulty of Prose.  24

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