Tuesday 23 August 2022

Dunsany on the Comma


Another brief extract from the first of the three ‘Donellan Lectures’ which Dunsany gave in 1943 at Trinity College, Dublin. Here he amusingly bewails the tendency of 1940s printers to add superfluous commas to texts. (Modern copy-editors are more likely to remove them!)


[Commas] are little things, but to ignore these fatal pests when speaking of prose is as though I were to speak of the splendours of Africa and never mention the malarial mosquito. Between the African traveller and the ends of all his journeys hovers a veil of these nearly invisible insects, often only irritating, sometimes thwarting his enterprise; so, between every writer and his readers come these little commas bred in the printer’s office, as the anopheles breed in marshes. Certain words are like treacle to them, and any writer who makes use of the word perhaps, must expect them to come to him in swarms. Perhaps I exaggerate, but certainly two will come. The writer puts down, ‘I am going to Dublin perhaps, with Murphy’. Or he writes, ‘I am going to Dublin, perhaps with Murphy’. But in either case these pestilent commas swoop down, not from his pen, but from the darker parts of the cornices where they were bred in the printer’s office, and will alight on either side of the word perhaps, making it impossible for the reader to know the writer’s meaning; making it impossible to see whether the doubt implied by the word perhaps affected Dublin or Murphy.

I will quote an actual case that I saw in a newspaper. A naval officer was giving evidence before a court, and said, ‘I decided on an alteration of course’. But since the words ‘of course’ must always be surrounded by commas, the printer’s commas came down on them, as surely as the mosquito upon a man’s ear, and the sentence read, ‘I decided upon an alteration, of course’. [...] I saw not long ago a story of my own in a New Zealand paper, where the commas seem to have bred more abundantly than they even do in our climate. I read for instance the words, ‘breathing, of course, ceased, too.’ Although this flight of commas looks absurd, it does no actual harm, but ... further on in the same story I had written, ‘for the surgeons had got his heart going again, and however the soul knew, it returned and got back in time’. But the word however is one of those sticky words which attract the printer’s commas, so down came two of them. It then read, ‘for the surgeons had got his heart going again, and, however,’ but I need read no further, for it is now merely nonsense.

Once when I had written upon this subject in some paper there came a hoot of triumph from a printer’s reader, or one of his friends, and he described how printers had ruined a line of Gray’s Elegy: he said that Gray had written a comma after the third word, the curfew tolls, but that a printer had improved the line by leaving the comma out. I don’t know how he knew, but the moment I read what he wrote I saw the harm the printer had done, and saw for the first time that Gray would never have opened his elegy in the solemn hour when the curfew tolled for the dying day with so jingling a line as the one that has been handed down to us: 'The curfew tolls the knell of parting day'.

This must have been, as that friend of printers stated, what Gray wrote:

 'The curfew tolls, the knell of parting day'.


NB: I'm sceptical about this. (And how Dunsany can suggest that line is remotely 'jingling', I do not know!) It's true that adding the comma slows the pace to something more stately, transforming the second half of the line into a reverberant adjectival clause. (The tolling curfew does not produce, but IS 'the knell of parting day'.) However, the first lines of almost all the other verses flow smoothly and comma-less: 'Now fades the glimm'ring landscape on the sight' - 'The breezy call of incense-breathing morn' - 'Full many a gem of purest ray serene'...  Still, it's interesting to see the difference that can be achieved by the placement of one little comma. [KL] 


Picture credit:

Designs by Mr. R. Bentley, for Six Poems by Mr. T. Gray (1775) 


Tuesday 16 August 2022

Dunsany on Prose


Extracts from Lord Dunsany’s first 'Donellan Lecture' given at Trinity College Dublin, in 1943. Here he speaks about prose: its rhythms and its relationship to poetry.


It is usually dangerous for anyone whose gift is one art to attempt to follow another, unless it so happens that he has more than one artistic gift. The pitfalls of following poetry when your gift is prose are obvious enough to be a bye-word, and a very common error is to follow the dramatic art for no better reason that that someone has written a successful novel, and has heard that managers pay better than publishers. Now, the difference between prose and the drama I can show you very easily. For instance the novelist may write: ‘Far away to the left the sun was sinking under the hill, touching the treetops with pink and gold and orange, leaving long layers of crimson across the sky and turning stray clouds to purple’; and a great deal more; but the dramatist will write: “Sun sets left.” The electrician, or whoever is responsible for the lighting in a theatre, will do all the rest. Yeats told me once that a play had been sent to him with the stage direction: ‘A bee buzzes across the evening, leaving a track of silence in its wake.’ The novelist had been at work there.

But between prose and poetry I find it so difficult to define the line, that I have never known at what point prose strays over it. Therefore I cannot tell you where this line goes, nor can I define exactly what poetry is or what prose is; I can only faintly indicate to you the difference by saying to you that in Ecclesiastes there is a melody in the words, and a frequent hurrying past of grand images, which from my earliest years has always suggested poetry to me, and does so still; whereas in the works of Pope there is a certain precision, a scientific and philosophical logic, which has always seemed to me to be of the nature of prose. So the essential thing about poetry is neither rhyme nor metre, and yet all thoughts of a certain elevation appear to demand appropriate words for their dwelling. [...]

Once a man showed me the opening pages of a novel he was writing, and he had something of a name. It began something like this: ‘The mountains stretched away into the blue distance, rising up sheer from the sea, some of them a thousand feet and one of them eleven hundred and twenty.’ I suggested his cutting out the measurements, which he did, but I then saw I could help him no further, for every paragraph had something like this, and I had no time to rewrite the book for him. What was wrong was that altitude, colour and distance, mountains and sea, are all significant, and are materials as useful to the poet as any colours a painter keeps in his tubes; but measurement is arbitrary and has no eternal significance. [...] Of course the book in question was not poetry but a novel, but I believe that the rhythms of prose are able to hold poetry, as Japanese craftsmen inlay gold in their gun-metal. [... ] I think myself that prose is a vessel capable of containing the molten gold of poetry; but it has to be the best prose, or it will crack and the gold will escape. The rhythms of prose are subtler than those of verse: you cannot name the rhythm at once as you name an Iambic. On what then do its rhythms depend? I think they depend upon the spoken word; I think they are suited to our breathing; and just as no weapon or implement can be handily used if not properly balanced, so the weight of a sentence should be adjusted as carefully as that of a spear... 

I would refer you to the last chapter of Ecclesiastes, beginning:

1.      Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them;

2.      While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain:

For English prose has probably risen to few greater heights, especially perhaps the first eight verses, ending: 

6.      Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.

7.      Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit return to God who gave it.

8.      Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity. 

It is this that first made me believe that the boundary between poetry and prose was only an arbitrary line. I will not go into the meaning of it, beyond saying that it is as full of images as a picture gallery, as poetry should be; and indeed, long before much meaning was clear to me in it at all, those images shone for me very clearly, being carried into the sight of my imagination by the melody of the lines, though there is no metre there, and no rhyme, except for those rhymes of which the Old Testament is particularly full, the rhyme of ideas, such for instance, to take a verse almost at random out of the Song of Solomon, Thine head upon thee is like Carmel, and the hair of thine head like purple.

            But though prose has not metre, nor rhyme, it has its rhythms, and may share with poetry a certain chiming that is sometimes made with vowels, of which A.E. (George William Russell) was particularly fond, as he told me himself. He told me that, for this reason, his favourite poem in the whole of the Oxford Book of English Verse was that one that begins: 

            As ye came from the holy land

                        Of Walsinghame

            Met ye not with my true love

                        By the way as you came? 

            To hear A.E. himself quote that poem was to understand the theory at once, and the loss of his voice is one that will be hard to repair. But I wander from prose over that invisible line that so slightly divides it from poetry. What is there, then, in the rhythm by which you can test great prose lying so near to poetry that the Muses can hear it from across their frontier and understand its language? Well, there is a proverb that guides us here. And I have never known a proverb that was not wise. This one is: ‘The proof of the pudding is in the eating.’ Prose, therefore, should be read aloud to test its quality, and with great prose it will always be found that the emphasis is balanced upon the rhythm as a rider upon his horse, easily and in the right place.

Picture credit:

Mountain Landscape by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday 2 August 2022

Lord Dunsany on the magic of poetry (2)

"There is a line of Homer, which I forget, which tells of mules going up a mountain pass, and you can hear the clatter of their hooves; and another tells of Apollo going back in anger to Olympus, and his quiver against his armour booms as it goes. And then there is Virgil’s line, though Latin can never quite equal Greek:

Quadrupedante putrum sonitu quatit ungula campum*

which tells of a horse galloping, without the aid of meaning, for the sound can be detected without knowing Latin. But these are are rare instances in which the magician has written his spell without mystery in plain earthly lettering; where the mortal ear can detect known words among the notes with which the spirit is called by the horns of elfland, and are not enough to enable us to decipher the other spells which give its power to metre. There must be rhythms in our hearts too deep for the eyes of scientists, rhythms which rhyme with these rhythms, all in harmony with some ancient order that may be called the technique of Creation.



"Well, I cannot explain it, but let us always remember that it is there; never let us read poetry as though it were prose, and let us never wrong a poet by reading one of his lines for instance like this:

 Captain or col’nel or knight in arms.

"That is a jingle that ruins the stately form of a sonnet. It is not that you know how to pronounce the word colonel; that is a very trivial matter: the point at issue is whether Milton knew how to write a line of a sonnet. If he did, it must be obvious that he pronounced colonel as a three-syllable word, as it is written:

             Captain or colonel or knight in arms

is a fine line opening a sonnet; it is like the beginning of a wide avenue leading up to a great house; the other is like a gap in a wire fence that rattles as you break through. Look again at the difference between the two lines ‘Captain or col’nel or knight in arms’ and ‘Captain or colonél or knight in arms’. You must not rob a poet of one of his syllables; it is like leaving out one of the black Cathayan letters from a magician’s spell; it is like pinching the horns of elfland and slightly narrowing them, so that they will not sing to you.

            "Remember that this thing that I cannot explain is of the first importance, and that without it the music breaks down, even though you can read poetry in translation, which of course has the same effect on this particular magic that lead has on X-rays; but what happens is that our reason, which is not so near to Heaven as our emotions, is nevertheless able to see that much; it travels by its own power the paths of a wonderful country, but its hand is not held by a spirit leading it to fairyland.

           "If then the metre is a spell whereby something is enchanted and brought in its transmuted form into sight of our mind’s eye, what then is the material which the spell transmutes or enchants? Well, one kind of material is somewhat similar to the base metals of the philosophers which they sought to change by means of alchemy; it is this world of ours, all the paths along which men walk and the fields lying about them. Indeed, roughly speaking, that was the principal material of all the poets up to the age of Stephenson. I do not mean the poet Stevenson, but that great inventor who, with James Watt, may have been whom Shahrazad prophetically had in mind when she told the story of the fisherman who released an evil spirit from a brass bottle, in which he had much better have stayed. These two men set rhythms going, and made certain changes in the British Isles that I need not go into, from which the poets began to turn away. It was only a tendency; they continued to write mainly about the world we know; but I think that strange remote poems like Khubla Khan and most of the country of Edgar Allan Poe and some of Shelley, like none of Wordsworth, are more frequent in the age of the steam-engine than they were before it. I think that in our own time there is a tendency to give Pegasus a rather longer gallop, to get away from the streets that have no longer the beauty of the country near Cork, which they say Spenser found good enough for the landscape of his Faery Queen.

            "Of the Irish poets of our own time, the one who most habitually told of the fields around him was Francis Ledwidge. When he fled from this city, in which he had been apprenticed to a grocer, he did not flee like Coleridge in spirit to China, but in bodily form no further than a body can go on foot in a day, the thirty miles from here to Slane. And there he wrote one of his earliest poems, one verse of which goes like this:

 Above me smokes the little town

With its white-washed walls and roofs of brown

And its octagon spire tones smoothly down,

            As the holy minds within.

And wondrous impudently sweet,

Half of him passion, half conceit,

The blackbird calls adown the street

            Like the piper of Hamelin.


"A.E. also wrote of Irish fields, but as though a spirit were constantly calling to him from India, and from times long past, and he seemed to see in the twilight, on hills familiar to all of us, figures of kings long dead, and shapes of gods remote from our Irish imagination. Yeats, it seemed to me, wrote of a stranger country; and, though he called it Ireland, it still remains strange to us; while James Stephens writes of things very near to our doors, things we might meet with in the streets of this city, but rather as though it were he that had come from far away to peer with bright eyes at our familiar things. Perhaps a leprechaun that had lost its way on a red bog far in the west and strayed to this city might write of our surroundings in some such way, sometimes deriding us for living here, where the horizon peeps so seldom over the end of a street, and sometimes resentful at being kept so far from the heather.

            "And I cannot speak of Irish poets, writing of Ireland in our time, without quoting a poem by Mr. H.L. Doak, which has always seemed to me to be quite perfect. It was written during the last war [World War I] and was called ‘Johnny Durney’:


 As into Dublin I rode down

   With wonder I was filled,

The way they said in Blanchardstown

   “Young Johnny Durney’s killed.”


Men leaned upon the spade to hear,

   And women wiped their eyes,

And all because a lad grown dear

   In a far country lies.


Great kings have made a bigger stir,

   And yet have missed romance.

But here’s an Irish villager

   Has got a grave in France.


Maybe a grand man fired the shot –

   He laid a grander low.

Who’s Johnny Durney? Ask me not.

   None but his own folk know.



"One of the ingredients of poetry, then, is the world that we say we know, but that we do not always know very well until this enchantment of which I have spoken illuminates it, and our eyes see things clearly for the first time. The commonest things, things lying all round about us, and often to be seen from a nursery window, are for instance the usual material of Walter de la Mare; but he comes into the nursery like a witch, or a  good fairy, always enchanting whatever he touches. This simple material, a flock of sheep, a dog and a shepherd, is shown in a poem that I will read to you – as also this enchantment.

 Softly along a road of evening

   Through a twilight dim with rose

Wrinkled with age and drenched with dew

   Old Nod the shepherd goes.


His drowsy flock streams on before him,

   Their fleeces charged with gold,

To where the sun’s last beam leans low

   On Nod the shepherd’s fold.


The hedge is quick and green with briar,

   From their sand the coneys creep;

And all the birds that fly in heaven

   Flock singing home to sleep.


His lambs outnumber a noon’s roses,

   Yet, when night’s shadows fall,

His blind old sheep-dog, Slumber-soon

   Misses not one of all.


His are the quiet steeps of dreamland,

   The waters of no-more-pain,

His ram’s bell rings ’neath an arch of stars,

   ‘Rest, rest, and rest again.’


[* 'The four-footed galloping horse-hoof shakes the crumbling plain.' Virgil's Aeneid: tr: J. W. Mackail]


Picture credits:

The Pleiades - by Bernard Sleigh (1872-1954) 

The Horns of Elfland - by Bernard Sleigh (1872-1954) 

Faun Whistling at a Blackbird - by Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901)

The Last General Absolution of the Munsters at Rue du Bois - by Fortunio Matania (c. 1915)

Shepherd with flock of sheep - by Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky (1817-1900)