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