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to it that our language has variety, so as not to weary, and music, so as actually to charm.
Verse gets its musical quality in part by the beat of successive feet in the metre, and by the measured recurrence of rhymes, cæsuras, etc. But prose substitutes a much freer wave form, namely, cadence. Ruskin was a master of cadence. Says Mr. Brownell, “The cadence of Gibbon, of De Quincey, even of Jeremy Taylor, is a simple affair beside Ruskin's, which, in comparison, possesses an infinite variety of notes and chords." Cadence is wholly a matter of the ear. Without an ear for fine harmony iť inevitably runs into disagreeable sing-song, or fails altogether. The prose writer uses it so long as it serves its purpose, and the moment he does not need it, he drops it. The unfortunate thing about verse is that the regular beat stays by a man whether he wants it or not, and if it does not come naturally on suggestion of his ear, he feels obliged to force it even when the result is totally destructive of harmony. Ruskin in his use of cadence has precisely the same fault, for it becomes a mannerism with him, and finally wearies the reader past all endurance. This excess we realize as a fault in Ruskin. It is equally an inherent fault in all verse forms.
And now we may consider the element of restraint. Verse affords mechanical restraint in that it requires a prodigious effort to express a high and noble idea effectively in words which
will serve the mechanical requirements of metre, rhyme, etc., to say nothing of poetic dignity and the iron laws of the custom of the ages. The writer has to weigh well every syllable, and the continued and repeated polishing that is forced upon him goes a long way to take the insanity out of his emotional expression. Prose has no such mechanical restraints, and hence some critics would have us believe that it is not so well suited to the sane expression of passionate ideas. In other words, their cry is, “ Tie the maniacs down with straps ! ”
The penalty that the prose writer suffers when he fails in his self-restraint is merely ineffective
He is like a free man working freely in a free country, as compared with the poet, who is more or less confined and liable to a lashing from his master's whip if he goes wrong. Or to drop the figure, poetry offers the advantage of a mechanical restraint, while prose must depend upon the writer's own restraint of his feelings by his free-will. Self-mastery is an indispensable prerequisite to writing passionate prose. The case of the poet is precisely the opposite, and being a lunatic is no special bar to the writing of poetry.
It will not be difficult to discover that writing the highest forms of prose is exceedingly more difficult than writing poetry of a corresponding grade. Poor prose is far more quickly detected by the average man than poor poetry. Matthew Arnold has somewhere suggested that good
poetry can be produced only by a more or less barbarous age. It is the natural exalted language of all rude peoples. As civilization advances, its power seems to be refined
Some have suspected that the race deteriorates as it becomes more civilized, simply for the reason that it can no longer produce the poetry of its infancy. A better view is to believe that as a man in his civil relations advances from a condition of slavery to one of freedom and liberty, where his own moral sense becomes his real master, the controlling force of his life, so literature advances from the period when poetry flourishes above prose because the self-restraint and self-mastery of the writer cannot be depended upon and mechanical restraint is necessarily employed, to the nobler freedom of prose developed as a fine art and depending for its effect and usefulness upon the self-mastery and artistic mastery of the writer; in other words, upon his eminent sanity fitting him for the just exercise of the unlimited powers
1 It is also to be observed that poetry is most often written successfully by young men (Keats, Shelley, Byron), while prose is seldom written successfully till age and experience have ripened the mind (vide Thackeray, Lamb, George Eliot, and many others).