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Prosody: The Rhythm Of Prose (extract)

This is an extract from a presentation I gave during my Master`s Degree, written out in prose, on the topic of "Prosody", or prose rhythm.

Date : 30/09/2017

Janet

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Uploaded by : Janet
Uploaded on : 30/09/2017
Subject : English

"One of the differences between mediocre prose and great prose is that great prose has fine rhythm... the rhythm of poetry consists, with a few exceptions, of a regular pattern of stresses... the rhythm of prose depends entirely on subtle variations"1

Certain rhythmic techniques are oft used in prose, such as using "light" endings to sentences so as to suggest a need to continue, or the use of a "heavy" ending to give a feeling of finality. A passage can suggest the kind of movement it described by its sound. Repetition and metre, as found in poetry, are not usually wanted in prose (though some stylised writers have used lines of verse, such as Joyce). Prose can be "scanned" divided into feet, by marking the stressed syllables in the test. This allows for a rhythmical analysis. There is often more than one way to divide a passage into feet - but the same is true in poetical analysis.

"By his elbow a delicate Siamese conned a handbook of strategy. Fed and feeding brains about me under glowlamps, impaled, with faintly beating feelers: and in my mind`s darkness a sloth of the underworld, reluctant, shy of brightness, shifting her dragon scaly folds. Thought is the thought of thought. Tranquil brightness. The soul is in a manner all that is: the soul is the form of forms. Tranquility sudden, vast, candescent: form of forms."2

In English prose there are many more technical terms than in poetry, where the smaller forms usually suffice. By dividing a section of prose into feet, defined by the number of syllables in each, and whether they are stressed or unstressed, one can define those feet term by term. Below are the four forms of two-syllable feet, with examples of their use:

The full list of technical terminology in prosody is as follows:

At first glance, there doesn`t seem to be much difference between two Pyrrhic feet and a Proceleusmatic foot (or between other such comparable forms). In English prose, sometimes to split a four-syllable foot into two-syllable feet is to create a break where there ought not to be one.

"Nothing that is unnatural distortion of the patterns of normal competent speech can be correct scansion."1

By taking a paragraph and analysing its scansion, we can learn a great deal about prose style and the criticism of prose. We can see how the important words are placed where, with their own strong stresses, they are surrounded by weaker stresses to bolster their strength in contrast. If we examine the extract of Joyce from earlier, we can examine exactly how this appears in practice.

"By his elbow / a delicate / Siamese / conned a / handbook of / strategy. / Fed and / feeding brains / about me / under glowlamps, / impaled, / with faintly / beating feelers: / and in my mind`s / darkness / a sloth / of the / underworld, / reluctant, / shy of brightness, / shifting her / dragon / scaly folds. / Thought is the thought / of thought. / Tranquil brightness. / The soul is / in a manner / all that is: / the soul / is the / form of forms. / Tranquility / sudden, vast, / candescent: / form of forms."

"Discussion of stresses and feet is for the student, the analyst who is trying to be objective. Let it not be thought that the translators of the Bible, or any lesser writers of good prose with a grand rhythm, sat down to a half-finished paragraph and said, `I think it is time I had a dochmiac here to lighten the line...` It is difficult to know how the good writer acquires the habit of good rhythm. Certainly he will be conscious of rhythm."1

Rhythm can have a keen effect on translation, and comes to the root of two schools of thought in translation, which I intend to illustrate below. The following comparison in the translation of rhythm compares the same three sections of Beowulf, firstly the original Anglo-Saxon, written some time in the 10th Century, then Seamus Heaney`s 1999 translation, and then J.R.R. Tolkien`s 1926 translation (published in 2014).

  1. Hwæt wē Gār-Dena in geārdagum,
  2. Þēodcyninga Þrym gefrūnon,
  3. Hū ðā æþelingas ellen fremedon.
  4. Oft Scyld Scēfing sceaþena þrēatum,
  5. Monegum mægþum meodosetla oftēah,
  6. Egsode eorl[as], syððan ǽrest wearð
  7. Fēasceaft funden hē þæs frōfre gebād,
  8. Wēox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þāh,
  9. Oðþæt him ǽghwylc þ[ǽr] ymbsittendra
  10. Ofer hronrāde hŷran scolde,
  11. Gomban gyldan. þæt wæs gōd cyning!

  1. So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
  2. And the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
  3. We have heard of the princes` heroic campaigns.
  4. There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes,
  5. A wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.
  6. This terror of the hall-troops had come far.
  7. A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on
  8. As his powers waxes and his worth was proved.
  9. In the end each clan on the outlying coasts
  10. Beyond the whale-road had to yield to him
  11. And begin to pay tribute. That was one good king.3

  1. Lo! The glory of the kings of the people
  2. of the Spear-Danes we have heard tell,
  3. how those princes did deeds of valour.
  4. Oft Scyld Scefing robbed the hosts of
  5. foemen, many peoples, of the seats
  6. where they drank their mead, laid fear
  7. upon men, he who first was found
  8. forlorn comfort for that he lived to
  9. know, mighty grew under heaven,
  10. throve in honour, until all that dwelt
  11. nigh about, over the sea where the
  12. whale rides, must hearken to him and
  13. yield him tribute - a good king was he!4

The original Anglo-Saxon was intended to be read aloud. There was no established form of prose at the time, no concept of the "novel" had developed yet. Heaney translates the Anglo-Saxon verse as a poem, but Tolkien, on the other hand, translates the lines of verse into prose. Arguably, while poetry is more in keeping with the original style, prose retains more of the dramatic rhythm and structure. Tolkien also keeps more of the archaic vocabulary and weaves it into the scansion. Poetry rhythm and prose rhythm have different concerns, as stated earlier, so the two translations read very differently.

Heaney translates the final words into "That was a good king", while Tolkien translates it to "A good king was he!": Tolkien retains more of the drama one would expect of a story designed to be narrated, not read.

In practice, as Boulton states, it is not necessary to break down prose into the technical scansion, but it is a useful tool to examine parts on occasion. Being aware of the rhythm of prose is extremely important when it comes to sentence structure and the choice of words in any given sentence. Most writers come to some awareness of rhythm through natural experience. Reading work aloud can often give you a better sense of the rhythm than reading it in your head.


1 Marjorie Boulton The Anatomy of Prose (1954)

2 James Joyce Ulysses (1922)

3 Seamus Heaney Beowulf (1999)

4 J.R.R. Tolkien Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary (1926 published 2014)

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