Often it is felt that poetry and prose are basically different kinds of writing: that the difference between them is not just a question of versification, not just a matter of the greater degree of linguistic boldness and compression of significance to be found in poetry, but of something fundamentally different in the character of the linguistic effort involved. If it is valid to think, in this way, of'good poetry' and 'good prose' as separate ideals, then these can be associated with the two types of linguistic creativity. Now we are using 'prosaic' and 'poetic' in the sense 'having the qualities typical of prose/poetry', so that there is no contradiction in talking of 'prosaic poetry' or 'poetic prose': indeed, people often feel the need to talk of such categories. Just as prose has sometimes aspired to be poetic, so prosaic strength has sometimes been an ideal in poetic composition. 'Prosaic strength' (Donald Davie's phrase)4 is a fitting term to apply to writing which explores the expressive resources of the language to the full, without noticeably exceeding them. Poetry which excels in this property can be said to have 'the qualities of good prose'.5
Although anyone who speaks English has the ability, in theory, to produce and understand an infinite number of English sentences, in practice we make very limited use of this inventive capacity, finding it easier to rely on a limited repertoire used over and over again. The elements of the repertoire can be words, or whole sentences; but most typically they are pieces of intermediate length, consisting of perhaps three or four words. Consider, for example, the answer I might make to a request for the name of a plumber in my home town: 'You might try having a look through the Classified Directory.' In making this suggestion, I would not be aware of consciously picking one expression rather than another; the reply is almost effortless and automatic. It breaks down into three fixed locutions: You might try---ing; hav---a look through; and the Classified Directory. I have used each of these chunks many times before; in using them here I have called only on my memory, not on my skill to invent new combinations of elements. To make up the whole utterance, I have merely threaded them together in their right order.
Such prefabricated sentences are an inevitable part of casual, spontaneous communication, which would be intolerably laboured if every word were individually weighed and chosen. But in serious writing, of course, they are generally considered the mark of bad prose style - a sign of intellectual feebleness or slovenliness. George Orwell had this kind of thing in mind, with particular reference to political propaganda, when he denounced ' Gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug'.6 Orwell felt that cliche-ridden writing, following the ready-made grooves of past communications, stultifies the intellect of author and audience, and debases the language so misused. The fixed phrases, runs this argument, become mere counters substituting for the mental effort that should attend the serious use of language, and the words making up the counters lose their independent semantic force. Hackneyed phrases like each and every one of us, or bring to a satisfactory conclusion, become formulae in which the individual meanings of each, satisfactory, etc., are virtually unconsidered.
The mechanical, humdrum, repetitive element in everyday communication is anathema to a literary artist, whose task is to restore and enhance the value of the debased linguistic currency; in Eliot's phrase translated from Mallarmé, to 'purify the dialect of the tribe' [Little Gidding], A respected literary style is one in which each choice of vocabulary or grammar is arrived at by exercise of the writer's judgment and sensibility. Indeed, every serious, premeditated use of language, unless it is totally inept, goes some way towards the ideal of a style in which linguistic choices precisely fit their purpose, and bear their full weight of meaning. The phrase 'le mot juste', which comes to mind in this connection, is misleading if it suggests that acceptable prose style is merely a matter of choosing the right words -it is rather a question of drawing freely from all the expressive resources of the language, lexical, grammatical, even orthographic and phonological, for the purpose in hand.
To illustrate this quality in its typical habitat, I shall turn to a short passage from a modem novel, Under the Net by Iris Murdoch7 :
While I was thinking these thoughts a little stream was running softly somewhere in my mind, a little stream of reminiscence. What was it? Something was asking to be remembered. I held the book gently in my hands, and followed without haste the course of my reverie, waiting for the memory to declare itself.
This describes an unremarkable experience, which could be briefly described in pedestrian language as ' trying to track down something in the back of your mind'. What makes Iris Murdoch's account ««pedestrian is partly a negative matter - the very absence of memorized chunks like track down and in the back of your mind. More positively, it gives a precise, vivid account of the experience by apt choice of vocabulary (reminiscence, reverie), and by a syntax which imitates the thought process being recalled: 'What was it? Something was asking to be remembered.' The style approaches poetic boldness in the personification of a memory which 'asks to be remembered ' and eventually ' declares itself, but otherwise contains no unorthodox features. The description of the memory as a 'stream ... run ning softly' freshly recreates a much-used metaphor found in phrases like stream of consciousness and flow, of ideas. The adverb softly and the phrase without haste in this passage seem to me good examples of very ordinary expressions which are endued with strength of meaning within an appropriate literary context.
The Augustan period of English literature has been aptly called the 'age of prose', for it was during this period that 'prosaic strength' was particularly admired and cultivated not only in prose, but in poetry. Indeed, Pope's well-known definition of wit, 'What oft was thought but ne'er so well express'd' [An Essay on Criticism, 298], seems to sum up the kind of virtue we expect to find in the prose of Iris Murdoch, as of most other serious prose writers. The aim of'prosaic' writing is to realize in an apt and illuminating form the common experience of man. We see this aim strikingly realized in the following character sketch from Absalom and Achitophel, a passage in which Dryden seems to weigh up each word with a delicate balance, so as to describe with probing accuracy the character of a public figure (the Earl of Shaftesbury) he assumes to be known to his readers:
Of these the false Achitophel was first, A name to all succeeding ages curst. For close designs and crooked counsels fit, Sagacious, bold, and turbulent of wit, Restless, unfixt in principles and place, In pow'r unpleased, impatient of disgrace; A fiery soul, which working out its way, Fretted the pigmy body to decay: And o'er-informed the tenement of clay. A daring pilot in extremity;
Pleas'd with the danger, when the waves went high He sought the storms; but, for a calm unfit, Would steer too nigh the sands to boast his wit.
As with most good prose, the positive qualities of this piece of verse are difficult to define. We can again point negatively to the absence of commonplace diction. For example, the three adjectives in the fourth line, sagacious, bold, and turbulent, each add a deliberate, precise stroke to the verbal portrait: they are far from being chosen mechanically, like the adjectives of many a spontaneous thumbnail sketch produced in conversation: terribly kind and helpful; tall, dark, and handsome, etc. On the other hand there is no violent departure from accepted usage. Figurative lan guage, where it occurs, is of a traditional kind: the metaphor of the 'ship of state', for example, is found in classical literature. Much of the strength of the passage comes from Dryden's deployment of verse form in relation to syntax, in order to give the right kind of contrastive emphasis to each significant lexical item. There is a great deal more to be said about Dryden's skill in this description - but I hope I have made my point about the 'prosaic' toughness typical of Restoration and Augustan poetry.8
Although it is to Dryden and Pope that one turns for masterpieces of prosaic poetry, the solid, unpretentious qualities of good prose are perhaps more of an essential part of poetry than we realise. 'No poet', says Eliot in The Music of Poetry, 'can write a poem of amplitude unless he is a master of the prosaic.'9
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