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solemn lyrics as well as for shorter amatory and longer itself. By analogy, the word means “a row” or “a line of
narrative poems: it is particularly common for *com- writing,” esp. a line a poet composes in making a poem.
plaints and epyllia (see epyllion). Shakespeare used Etymologically, versus may recall the *boustrophedon
it again in Romeo and Juliet, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and or “turning-ox” style of writing we find in some Etrus-
other plays. Many -line poems of the th c. con- can and early Roman inscriptions, in which the lines
tain three Venus and Adonis stanzas; some of them travel, like an ox drawing a plough back and forth on
(many of the  sonnet-related poems in Thomas a field, alternately from right to left and left to right.
Watson’s Hekatompathia; Sidney’s Old Arcadia , The Gr. equivalent of versus is metron, “meter” or “mea-
Certain Sonnets ; Lodge’s Scillaes Metamorphoses) sure,” which conveys the same suggestions of length
seem to be larger structural imitations of the stanza and regularity.
form itself: two corresponding or analogous stanzas The ancients lack a specific noun for prose, a cir-
are followed by a third departing from the analogy cumstance to which we will return below. Their nearest
and concluding the poem succinctly. This AA/B pat- equivalents, the Gr. logos and the Lat. oratio, carry a wide
tern is descended from the *canzone and canso. The range of denotations, incl. “word,” “language,” “speech,”
Shakespearean sonnet clearly resembles such poems “story,” “conversation,” “oration,” “discourse,” “argu-
in that it ends with a couplet having the same closural ment,” “opinion,” and “account.” To indicate “prose,”
function. The Venus and Adonis stanza has been one particularly in terms of its literary practice, Roman writ-
of the most popular and superbly handled forms in ers often attach an adjective to oratio. The most common
Eng. and Am. poetry up to our time (seven poems by of the resulting phrases is oratio soluta, “speech loosened
William Wordsworth; John Wain, “Time Was”; Theo- [from meter],” but we also encounter (e.g., Quintilian,
dore Roethke, “Four for John Davies”; Thom Gunn, Institutio oratoria ..) prosa oratio, “straightforward
“Mirror for Poets”; Robert Lowell, “April Birthday at speech.” Versus is related to vertere, “to turn,” and pro-
Sea”). sus to provertere, “to turn forward”; and this morpho-
E. Haüblein; T.V.F. Brogan logical connection between versus and prosus and their
sharply contrastive characters—the first word signifying
VERISIMILITUDE. See mimesis. recurrence to a previously established course or pattern,
the second indicating continuous movement in one
direction—could explain why, in late antiquity and the
VERS. () In Occitan, a term used by the early *trou- Middle Ages, prosa oratio, in the ultimately contracted
badours to designate any song, incl. the love song, later form of prosa, establishes itself as our noun.
called *canso or chanso. The term derives from med. In addition to its primary meaning, the term verse
Lat. versus. Distinctions between canso and vers were serves, esp. in the U.K., as a synonym for “stanza.”
discussed by some troubadours ca. , when it was Verses also refer to those numbered divisions of the
becoming an outmoded term. During the th c., it chapters of the Bible that became standard after the
was revived to denote songs on moral, political, or scholar and printer Robert Estienne introduced them
satirical subjects (see sirventes) rather than amatory into his ed. of the Gr. NT of . Of the secondary
ones. The vers is apt to have short and uncomplicated meanings of prose, the most notable may be that which
stanzas. () In mod. Fr., the principal term for both the applies to the texts of the melismas, or “sequences,” of
discrete line of verse and verse taken generically, as a the med. mass. Since the melismas required perform-
form or mode of expression. ers to chant complicated musical phrases to a single
 Jeanroy, v. ; J. Chailley, “Les Premiers Troubadours syllable, young singers esp. had difficulty remember-
et le versus de l’école d’Aquitaine,” Romania  (); ing them. To make the melodies easier to recall, writers
J. H. Marshall, “Le Vers au XIIe siècle: Genre poé- started, in the th c., to set words to them. Because
tique?” Revue de langue et littérature d’Oc – (); these texts were initially in prose, they took that name,
Chambers; E. Köhler, “‘Vers’ und Kanzone,” GRLMA though prosae were gradually elaborated and, by the
.. (); and “Zum Verhaltnis von vers und canso th c., were composed in rhymed accentual verse.
bei den Trobadors,” Etudes de philologie romane et Writers and readers commonly regard verse and
d’histoire litteraire offerts a Jules Horrent, ed. J. M. prose as distinct from or even opposite to one another.
D’Heur et al. (). Verse involves *measure—it organizes speech into units
F. M. Chambers; J. H. Marshall; C. Scott of a specific length and rhythmical character—whereas
prose flows more freely at the discretion of the writer
VERSE AND PROSE or speaker employing it. Verse is, as the OED puts it,
“metrical composition, form, or structure; language or
I. Definitions and Background
literary work written or spoken in metre; poetry, esp.
II. History of Verse and Prose
with reference to metrical form. Opposed to prose.”
III. Collaborations between Verse and Prose
Prose is, in contrast, “the ordinary form of written or
IV. Transformations by Paraphrase or Translation
spoken language, without metrical structure: esp. as
V. Free Verse and Prose Poetry
a species or division of literature. Opposed to poetry,
VI. Conclusions
verse, rime, or metre.”
I. Definitions and Background. The term verse derives In one respect, we exhaust the subject by noting the
from the Lat. versus, which originally denotes “a turn- difference between verse with its rhythmical organi-
ing” of a plough at the end of a furrow or the furrow zation and prose with its rhythmical freedom; yet in
© Copyright, Princeton University Press. No part of this book may be
distributed, posted, or reproduced in any form by digital or mechanical
means without prior written permission of the publisher.


other respects, many factors complicate the relation- the body in general, and the ear in particular, a pur-
ship of the two media and blur the boundary between chase on meaning and significance. So, too, when
them. Throughout lit. hist., verse writers and prose a lang. is young or in a state of transition, metrical
writers share stylistic concerns and rhetorical strate- constraints help writers focus its grammar and explore
gies, and their methods of composition overlap in its idioms and vocabulary, with the result that poets
fascinating ways. Further, the relative status of verse and their verse forms exercise a permanent influence
and of prose shifts over time. Whereas from antiquity on subsequent linguistic evolution. Mod. Eng., for ex-
through the Ren., verse is preeminently the vehicle for ample, would not have developed quite in the way it
imaginative lit., thereafter prose genres like the novel has, nor would we speak and think in quite the ways
enjoy increasing prominence. Moreover, the expressive we do, if the iambic pentameter and William Shake-
theories of lit. that arise during the romantic period speare had never existed.
call into question the efficacy of artifice, and many When literary prose does arise, its writers often
writers come to believe that verse, with its regulated begin by imitating verse, as can be seen in the Eur. trad.
rhythm, is unduly mechanical and that prose, with its When in the th c. bce, Gorgias establishes oratory
freer rhythms, possesses greater organic authenticity. as an independent art, his effort involves nothing less
Such convictions contribute, in the th c., to the than importing into prose devices suggestive of verse,
devel. and widespread adoption of *free verse, many incl., according to Diodorus Siculus (Library of History
of whose modes blend into verse elements of com- ..-), *isocolon (clauses of similar length), pari-
position formerly associated with prose. And despite son (balanced clauses) and *homoeoteuleton (flectional
what dicts. say, some might argue that the opposition rhyme). More specifically, Gorgias’s revolutionary pe-
between the media has ceased to obtain and that, as riodic style (lexis periodos) aims to make, as Demetrius
W. C. Williams urges in a letter in  to Horace remarks (On Style ), “the periods succeed one another
Gregory, “there’s an identity between prose and verse, with no less regularity than the hexameters in the poetry
not an antithesis.” of Homer” (trans. Loeb Library ed.). Similarly, when
Gorgias’s student Isocrates starts systematically to culti-
II. History of Verse and Prose. As a literary medium, vate prose rhythm, his motive is to attract to prose the
verse develops earlier than prose. Archaeological evi- attention people devote to verse. As Cicero later reports
dence indicates that music, dance, and *song played (Orator ), “When [Isocrates] observed that people
critical roles in the lives of our prehistoric ancestors. listened to orators with solemn attention, but to poets
Our earliest surviving poetic texts, which date from with pleasure, he is said to have sought for rhythms to
th and th c. bce and which appear on clay tablets use in prose as well” (trans. Loeb Library ed.). From
from Sumer and papyri in Egypt, already employ this follows the preoccupation with *prose rhythm that
such devices as syllabic and grammatical *parallelism, we encounter among writers on rhet. from Aristotle
*antithesis, and *refrains. By the middle of the first forward (see rhetoric and poetry). Indeed, this pre-
millennium bce, poets have worked out sophisticated occupation is one reason that Roman prose writers, in
prosodies and have produced verse of the highest speaking of their medium, characterize it not simply as
order in, to cite three notable instances, China, India, oratio but by an adjective like solutus, prosus, numerosus
and Greece. Ancient peoples also practice prose, using (“rhythmical, melodius”), or compositus (“orderly, well-
it to document commercial transactions, to record knit”) to suggest its degree of rhythmical arrangement.
legal statutes and religious customs, and, as in the In the Middle Ages, the rhythmical basis of Eur.
Heb. Bible and in Herodotus’s Histories, to chronicle speech changes. The perception of syllabic length de-
legends and events that have shaped their world. Yet clines, and its place is supplied, both in Lat. and the
most of the central early texts—e.g., the Epic of Gil- emerging vernaculars, by syllabic accent. Yet the prac-
gamesh, The Tale of Sinuhe, the Vedic poems, the Iliad tice of prose rhythm persists, even to the extent that as
and Odyssey, and the Shih Ching—are in verse. And the use of rhyme increases in med. Lat. verse, so it also
this pattern repeats in later communities. Verse writ- increases in med. Lat. prose. (Trads. of rhymed prose
ers such as Abolqasem Ferdowsi, Dante and Chaucer also appear in Chinese lit. of the Han period and in cl.
are the first to explore and demonstrate the literary Ar. lit.) More to the point, verse remains the primary
resources of their langs. art, as is illustrated by Dante’s De vulgari eloquentia,
The mnemonic appeal of verse is the chief reason the earliest sustained study of poetics directed toward
for its primacy. Because verse is rhythmically orga- a mod. Eur. lang. In the first paragraph of the second
nized, we remember it more readily than prose. For book of this treatise, Dante proposes to demonstrate
much of our hist., literacy is rare and book produc- that It. is as “equally fit for use [for literature] in prose
tion laborious, and the survival of texts depends to ( prosaice) and in verse (metrice)” and then explains
a great extent on oral transmission. People naturally why he will treat verse first: “Because prose writ-
favor verse as a means of articulating and preserving ers rather get this language from poets, and because
those stories and experiences that most deeply express poetry seems to remain a pattern to prose writers,
their humanity. By the same token, insofar as people and not the converse, which things appear to confer
share an instinct for rhythm, verse suits public ritual a certain supremacy, let us first disentangle this lan-
and ceremony, as the folk songs and hymns of many guage as to its use in meter (metricum)” (trans. A.G.F.
cultures testify. The repetitive harmonies of verse give Howell, Medieval Literary Criticism, ). Further,
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distributed, posted, or reproduced in any form by digital or mechanical
means without prior written permission of the publisher.


just as most of the great imaginative writers of cl. times In addition, in the th and th cs., the prose novel
employ verse, it is the main instrument of expression rises to challenge and dislodge verse as the principal
for such med. and Ren. authors as Dante, Petrarch, vehicle for imaginative writing. The very novelty of the
François Villon, Ludovico Ariosto, Shakespeare, Lope novel attracts gifted authors like Gustave Flaubert, who
de Vega, and Jean Racine. writes to Louise Colet in , “Prose was born yes-
During the Ren., however, the relation between terday. . . . Verse is the form par excellence of ancient
verse and prose begins to alter. One factor in this pro- lits. All possible prosodic variations have been discov-
cess is Johannes Gutenburg’s devel. in the s of the ered; but that is far from being the case with prose.”
printing press. This facilitates the production and dis- So fresh and impressive are the achievements of th-c.
tribution of books and makes memory less essential to novelists like Jane Austen, Stendhal, Honoré de Balzac,
textual preservation and transmission. Another factor Ivan Turgenev, Flaubert, Leo Tolstoy, George Eliot, and
is the entrance of Aristotle’s long-lost Poetics into wide Henry James that, early in the th c., we find Ford
circulation in the th c. In the wake of this event, the Madox Ford repeatedly instructing younger authors
study of poetry focuses increasingly on the nature and like Ezra Pound that, as Ford puts it in Thus to Revisit,
theory of the art per se and draws away from its histori- “Verse must be at least as well written as prose if it is to
cal associations with rhet. In the rhetorical trad., verse be poetry.” Though Ford’s position makes perfect sense
is the essence of poetry, in that verse is what distin- in light of the literary conditions of his day, his dictum
guishes poetry from that other art of persuasive speech, also reflects that prose has taken over verse’s traditional
oratory. Aristotle himself reflects this view when, in status as the leading form for imaginative lit.
his Rhetoric (..), he identifies prose oratory with Finally, *romanticism, with its emphasis on spon-
*rhythm and poetry with *meter: “Prose (logon) must taneity and naturalness, undermines the traditional
be rhythmical (rhythmon), but not metrical (metron), idea that prosodic rules assist the poet and sets in its
otherwise it will be a poem ( poiēma)” (trans. Loeb place the belief that the structures of verse hinder self-
Library ed.). However, in his Poetics, which considers expression. More specifically, meter becomes associated
poetry in comparison not to oratory but to all forms with mechanical sterility and freer rhythm with organic
of discourse, Aristotle rejects this identification, ar- richness. Martin Tupper terms his Proverbial Philoso-
guing instead (Poetics b–; b–) that a phy (first series, ), an early popular work in what
poem is first and foremost an imitation (mimesis) of we might now call free verse, “Rhythmics”; and in his
human action embodied in a story or plot (mythos). long scriptural line, and in Walt Whitman’s subsequent
Aristotle acknowledges that people customarily iden- transformation of it, we see beginnings of what George
tify poets with their meter (metron) and treat both Saintsbury calls, writing of Tupper in The Cambridge
Homer and Empedocles as epic poets because they Companion to English Literature, “the revolt of rhythm
both write in dactylic hexameter; but he insists that against metre.” Moreover, many late th- and early
only Homer imitates and deserves the name of poet th c. poets come to identify metrical composition
( poiētēs), whereas Empedocles should be termed a itself with the dated idioms and stale subjects of Vic-
physics writer ( physiologos). And this mimesis-centered torian poetry and, as a result, believe that to get rid of
(or substance-not-style-centered) analysis of poetry those idioms and subjects, they also need to disman-
gives rise to the view, which will strengthen over time, tle the structures of verse. And the second and third
that verse embellishes rather than defines poetry and decades of the th c. witness an explosion of poetic
that poetry can be written just as well without verse styles that forgo traditional metrical arrangement. If by
as with it. As Philip Sidney puts it in his Defence of the end of the th c., the prose novel has supplanted
Poesy (), “Poesie therefore is an art of imitation, the verse epic—and if by the end of the th, drama
for so Aristotle termeth it in his word Mimesis . . . has gone over to prose—by the end of the th, the
verse being but an ornament and no cause to Poetry, *lyric has largely abandoned verse as historically un-
sith there have been many most excellent Poets that derstood. Whereas an ancient critic like Quintilian
never versified [Sidney alludes here to ancient authors worries (..–) that students of oratory may, in
of prose romances like Xenophon and Heliodorus], their concern for rhythm, turn prose into quasi-verse,
and now swarm many versifiers that need never answer mod. readers sometimes worry that poets are too lit-
to the name of Poets.” tle attentive to rhythmical arrangement and that the
No less significant is the rise of the mod. physi- ascendance of prose has reduced verse to, in Edmund
cal sciences. These give the mod. world an intellectual Wilson’s famous phrase, “a dying technique.”
triumph comparable to that achieved by the ancients
in the arts; and insofar as science is associated with III. Collaborations between Verse and Prose. Though
prose—with, as Thomas Sprat puts in his History of often distinguished from one another, verse and prose
the Royal Society (), “a close, naked, natural way collaborate in several literary genres. Chief among
of speaking, positive expressions, clear senses, a native these is the *prosimetrum, an extended work of prose
easiness, bringing all things as near the Mathemati- into which, at more or less regular intervals, the author
cal plainness as they can”—prose comes to be seen inserts poems or passages of verse. First coined to des-
as more reliable and accurate than verse, which is ignate those mixed-mode Eur. med. works, of which
increasingly connected with *fancy, sentiment, and Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy and Dante’s Vita
caprice. nuova are the masterpieces, the term has since been
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distributed, posted, or reproduced in any form by digital or mechanical
means without prior written permission of the publisher.


expanded to include texts that, from other times and of the mixed mode also arises, in an oral context,
cultures, also feature prose with verse inserts. Within when poets, in public presentations of their work,
this enlarged category fall such ancient works as the pass back and forth between reading poems and sup-
Upanishads and Petronius’s Satyricon; such med. works plying anecdotal background about their genesis or
as the popular texts from the T’ang dynasty in China meaning.
that dramatize and illustrate Buddhist teachings ( pien-
wen), Sadi’s Rosegarden from Persia, and the Fr. folk tale IV. Transformations by Paraphrase or Translation. If
Aucassin et Nicollette (which its anonymous author calls prosimetric forms demonstrate that verse and prose can
a chantefable, a “song-story”); and such Ren. and mod. collaborate, paraphrase and trans. suggest that the bor-
works as François Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, der between the two media is open and permits free
the Arcadias of Jacopo Sannazaro and Sidney, the *hai- passage between them.
bun (prose-and-haiku style) writings of Basho-, H. D. In mod. parlance, paraphrase means restating, at
Thoreau’s Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, length and for purposes of clarity, a piece of writing
Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” books, Jean Toomer’s Cane, and that presents some difficulty of interpretation; but
Vladimir Nabokov’s The Gift. from antiquity through the Ren., paraphrasis entails
It is difficult to generalize about prosimetra since the more challenging exercise of turning verse passages
they run the gamut from the somber moralizing trea- and texts into prose and turning prose passages and
tises of Boethius and Sadi to the racy Menippean satires texts into verse. Paraphrase is part of the curricula of
of Petronius and Rabelais to the contemplative trav- the Roman schools of rhet., as it is in schools in the
elogues of Basho- and Thoreau. Also, while in some Middle Ages; and it contributes to literary practice in
instances (e.g., Sadi and Dante) the poetic inserts are a number of ways.
entirely by the author of the overarching prose text, Paraphrase in this sense has two basic forms. One
in others (e.g., Basho- and Thoreau) authors introduce involves a writer’s taking a source work from another
not only their own verse but also verse by friends or writer and turning it into verse if the source is in prose
by poets of the past. Nevertheless, one pattern recurs or prose if it is in verse. The second involves writers’
throughout the genre: the prose passages tend to be creating their own prototypes in verse or prose and
devoted to narrative or argument, whereas the verse then rewriting them in the other medium. An instance
is reserved for moments of lyric intensity or sum- of the first type of paraphrase occurs when Socrates,
mary reflection. This practice appears to confirm the awaiting execution in prison and wishing to make
widely held belief that prose is best suited to discursive poetry ( poiesanta poiemata) before he dies, versifies
modes and moods, whereas verse is better adapted to (enteinas) some of Aesop’s prose fables (Aisopou logous).
concentrated expressions of thought and feeling. Fur- Anticipating the theme that Aristotle will develop in
ther, because prosimetra appear in so many times and the Poetics, Socrates explains that he believes that writ-
places and in such a variety of literary trads., it seems ing poetry entails not only versification but compos-
reasonable to infer that the genre expresses an almost ing stories ( poiein mythous); and because he is not a
universal curiosity, among people who relish lang., maker of stories (mythologikos), he avails himself of
about the different tonal qualities of verse and prose Aesop’s (Phaedo D–B). Another example of this
and about the ways these qualities can be brought into type of paraphrase is provided by Chaucer’s “Clerk’s
effective contrast or balance. Tale”: this presents, in elegant ME *rhyme royal
Other works that mix verse and prose include cer- verse, the tale of Patient Griselda, closely tracking in
tain Elizabethan and Jacobean dramas, in which the the process Petrarch’s Lat. prose version of the story
different media signal the social or political status of (which, in turn, is an adaptation of the final novella
the dramatis personae. In his “Renaissance in En- of Giovanni Boccaccio’s It. prose Decameron). Shake-
gland,” J. V. Cunningham observes, “In A Midsummer speare not only adopts plots from prose sources but
Night’s Dream . . . the heads of state speak a dignified on occasion metrifies passages from them. A case in
blank verse, the wellborn lovers blank verse and cou- point is Enobarbus’s description (Antony and Cleopa-
plets; the rude mechanicals speak rudely in prose; and tra ..ff.) of the sensational appearance Cleopatra
the extra-human characters have their class distinct- makes on her barge when she arrives in Cicilia and first
ion: they may use lyric measures.” The mixed mode meets Antony: Shakespeare skillfully cuts, pastes, and
also occurs when a prose commentary is attached to a compresses, into iambic pentameter, much of Thomas
poem. Since this process usually involves two writers North’s trans. of Plutarch’s account of the scene. Many
working separately—a poet composing the poem first poems of the Christian church are verse paraphrases of
and a scholar composing the commentary afterward— biblical prose. This trad. extends from the late-ancient
the result is, as a rule, not truly or uniformly prosimet- paraphrases into Lat. hexameters of various OT and
ric. However, in Nabokov’s Pale Fire, a single author NT texts down to hymn collections like the Scottish
creates both the verse text and prose commentary and church’s Translations and Paraphrases in Verse of Several
does so in such a way that the two run parallel to each Passages of Sacred Scripture (). Well-known in-
other and tell intertwining stories. An analogous situa- stances in Am. lit. of verse-to-prose paraphrases appear
tion transpires when a writer plays the dual role of poet in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Wonder Book, some of the
and scholiast, as S. T. Coleridge does in his The Rime of stories of which retell, in prose for young readers, verse
the Ancient Mariner, writing both the verses of his tales from antiquity, such as Ovid’s account of Midas
poem and the marginal prose glosses on it. A version and the golden touch.
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distributed, posted, or reproduced in any form by digital or mechanical
means without prior written permission of the publisher.


Of those paraphrasers who work from their own largely free-verse epic The Cantos, by rendering into
prototypes, Virgil is the best known. Having learned Eng. a passage from just such a trans., Andreas Divus’s
to paraphrase during his studies of law and rhet., he  Lat. trot of the Odyssey. As the poet and trans.
writes the Aeneid in prose before turning it into meter Robert Wells once observed in conversation, Divus’s
(Donatus, Life of Virgil, ). (He uses the prose ver- stripped-down, lineated Lat. prose version of Homer
sion chiefly to keep in mind the epic’s general structure appears to anticipate Pound’s technique—evident in
while pursuing his unusual compositional technique of his earlier poems and trans., but esp. striking in The
working, as the mood strikes him, on bk.  one day, bk. Cantos—of breaking up traditional verse rhythm and
 the next, bk.  the day after that, and so on.) Ironi- cutting away poetic ornament to drive directly at his
cally, the Aeneid becomes upon publication an instant subjects. (Pound, in his essay “ Translations of Greek:
classic, and generations of students are set the exercise Early Translators of Homer,” praises Divus’s Lat. for its
of paraphrasing it back into prose; Augustine informs “constant suggestions of the poetic motion.”)
us (Confessions ..) that he won a prize at school During the second half of the th c., trans. at times
for turning into prose (solutis verbis) those verses (versi- not only blurs the boundary between verse and prose
bus) in bk.  in which Juno rages about her inability to but obscures the role verse has played in lit. hist. Fewer
exterminate the small band of Aeneus-led Trojans who and fewer translators have the inclination or training
escaped the sack of their city. to render earlier foreign-lang. poetry into native meter,
Other paraphrasers working from their own proto- and free trans. of metrical poems of the past become
types include Bede, who writes his Life of Cuthbert in very common. Unlike earlier nonmetered trans., which
verse in  and then produces an expanded prose ver- usually present themselves simply as aids to study (or as
sion five years later, and Ben Jonson, who tells William prose), these later trans. often make claims to indepen-
Drummond (Conversations, ) that “he wrote all his dent poetic merit. In many respects, these claims are
[verses] first in prose, for so his master Camden [i.e., justified. However, collectively such trans. leave some
William Camden, the great scholar and antiquarian readers—esp. those who experience foreign lang. and
who was Jonson’s teacher at Westminster School] had lit. mainly or only through trans.—with a version of
learned him.” It is also interesting that E. A. Robin- lit. hist. in which authors like Homer, Virgil, Horace,
son’s “Captain Craig,” a poem about a down-and-out and Dante cease to write conventional verse and appear
philosopher manqué, derives from an earlier prose instead as practitioners of the looser rhythmical styles
sketch of its subject, while John Updike first creates of mod. poetry. Such trans. tend, that is, to diminish
and examines, in a poem titled “Ex-Basketball Player,” the sense that verse is a medium with a long trad. dis-
a figure who in time will morph, after a brief stop as a tinguishable from other media and trads.
character in the short story “Ace in the Hole,” into the
protagonist of his Rabbit novels. V. Free Verse and Prose Poetry. In addition to pro-
As different as these examples are, they all suggest simetric forms—and in addition to paraphrastic or
that verse and prose can be related interchangeably and trans. works that transpose verse to prose or prose to
that subjects and ideas expressed in one medium can verse—certain types of composition blend or fuse the
sometimes be usefully transferred to the other. Not two media.
for nothing do Cleanth Brooks and the New Critics Free verse is probably the preeminent form in this
condemn paraphrase as “heresy.” Form and content are category. Because so many kinds of free verse exist, it
always, in fine writing, vitally connected and mutually is impossible to summarize it neatly. But many of its
supportive; but effective paraphrase would seem to dis- varieties occupy the area that lies, as Ford notes in his
pute the New Critical doctrine that they are insepa- defense of *vers libre in Thus to Revisit, “between the
rable (see new criticism). entrenched lines of Prosaists and Versificators . . . the
Like paraphrase, trans. sometimes has the effect of territory of Neither-Prose-Nor-Verse.” In certain esp.
placing verse and prose in interchangeable relation impressive free-verse poems, such as Wallace Stevens’s
rather than setting them in opposition to one another. gravely cadenced “The Snow Man” and Williams’s
This is esp. true of trans., in the Ren. and after, in haunting “Widow’s Lament in Springtime,” one feels
which a poetic text from cl. Gr. or Lat. appears on one that the poet is exploring rhythms beyond the register
page while the facing page features a trans. version in of traditional meter, while at the same time retaining—
a vernacular lang. (or sometimes in Lat. if the original mainly by means of repetitions of phrases and syntacti-
is Gr.). Often, the trans. versions are in prose, with the cal patterns—a feeling of the structural concentration
result that the parallel texts and media seem equivalent. of verse. In less sensitively organized forms, such as we
An important and related case involves trans. that find in the poetry of Edgar Lee Masters and Carl Sand-
do not feature the original text but lay out on the burg, vers libre appears closer to prose than to verse,
page a literal line-by-line trans. of it, with line num- though it retains a connection to the latter, thanks to
bers given in the margin so that the reader can refer the mod. typographer’s configuring its lines on the
back and forth between it and a copy of the original page in ways that visually suggest metrical or stanzaic
text with an ease that would not be possible were the arrangement.
trans. written out as prose. Corresponding literally If certain sorts of free verse achieve their effects by
and linearly to the original poem but lacking its meter, moving verse in the direction of prose, the mod. *prose
such trans. produce an impression of free verse several poem accomplishes something comparable by moving
centuries before its time; and in fact Pound begins his prose in the direction of verse. The idea of prose poetry
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distributed, posted, or reproduced in any form by digital or mechanical
means without prior written permission of the publisher.


is ancient. The Elder Seneca describes (Controversiae breaks awkwardly in the middle of a word—indeed,
..) Ovid’s student exercises in declamation as solu- the enjambment it produces suggests a parody of John
tum carmen, which means “loose song” or “loose poem” Milton’s use of that device—but the iambic tread of
but which also echoes the common phrase for prose, the passage is unmistakable. (If the passage were an ac-
oratio soluta. (Seneca suggests that Ovid’s speeches tual poem, we would call its final syllable “a feminine
were, in their stylistic panache, poetry made of prose; ending.”)
and Ovid himself relates, in Tristia, ..–, that
even when, as a young man, he tried to write prose, it O Agnes, O my soul, so may thy face
came out as verse.) Lucian, too, speaks (How to Write be by me when I close my life indeed;
History ) of “prosaic poetry” ( peze poietike) when he so may I, when realities are melt-
discusses hist. and notes that it has a story-telling affin- ing from me, like the shadows which I now
ity to poetry without, however, employing the meters, dismiss, still find thee near me, pointing upward!
fictions, and figurative ornaments that poets use. Yet
the mod. prose poem, as it emerges in France in the VI. Conclusions. Because verse plays such a dimin-
th c., has a more specific character and aim than any- ished role, vis-à-vis prose, in imaginative lit. in recent
thing the ancients discuss. The mod. prose poem at- centuries, we might well concur with Wilson’s assess-
tempts to bring into prose the memorable rhythm and ment that it is a dying technique. Since human com-
sensitivity of verse. This objective is well articulated by munities most notably embrace verse in their earlier
Charles Baudelaire when he writes in the preface to his stages and turn increasingly to prose as their technolo-
own Little Poems in Prose, “Who among us has not, gies and institutions grow more complex, perhaps it is
in his ambitious moments, dreamed of the miracle of only natural that verse should have declined and per-
a poetic prose, musical without rhythm and without haps it is inevitable that it will die. In “The Nature of
rhyme, sufficiently subtle and sufficiently abrupt, to Verse and Its Consequences for the Mixed Form,” Kris-
adapt to the lyrical movements of the soul, to the waves tin Hanson and Paul Kiparsky, discussing the manner
of reverie, to the tremblings of consciousness?” in which prose narrative has replaced verse narrative
Related mod. efforts to create a poetic prose in- in Eur. lit., comment generally, “Once the shift has
clude Amy Lowell’s experiments with “polyphonic taken place [in a tradition of writing], verse is never
prose” and some of Gertrude Stein’s work. (Wyndham restored to the function of narrative within that trad.,
Lewis, in Time and Western Man, characterizes Stein’s and may even be eventually eclipsed in all its functions
Three Lives with a phrase—“prose-song”—very like by prose.”
that which the Elder Seneca applies to Ovid’s declama- Nevertheless, even in a technological age, memory
tions.) James Joyce also sometimes cultivates a species remains crucial to our species. It preserves us from the
of prose poetry, as when he begins the Sirens episode in brutal and brutalizing conception of existence as an
Ulysses with a burst of disjointed phrases rich in rhyme irreversible succession of moments with no depth be-
and alliteration. neath them and no dimension beyond them. Verse is an
Free verse and prose poetry remind us that, though art of memory. More than any other literary form, we
verse and prose may be distinct, a continuous spectrum can take it into mind and heart. Lines of verse can re-
of rhythm connects the two. Just as we can slide around turn to us unbidden in times of grief to illuminate and
a color wheel from red to green by way of shades of make them bearable; and it is often with verse that we
orange and yellow and then back to red via shades of celebrate the joys of friendship and love and mark the
blue and violet, so we can pass by degrees from the occasion of a marriage or a birth. It is not just the ear
loosest prose through increasingly organized speech or eye that pauses and turns back at the end of the line.
to metrical arrangement and back again to prose. This The psyche, too, turns back, recovering and renewing
continuity of rhythm is perhaps most strongly borne a measure of being larger than itself and, at the same
home to us when we hear speakers or writers of prose time, moving forward into its own mysterious future.
ascend unconsciously, because of strong feeling or Finally, though the world seems always and con-
pressing circumstances, into highly rhythmical utter- fusingly in flux, human evolution occurs slowly, and
ance. George Bernard Shaw captures this phenomenon we mod. peoples differ little, in our genetic and bio-
in that early scene in Pygmalion when Higgins demands chemical constitution, from our ancestors who, in
to know why Doolittle has called on him but so bullies Sumer, Egypt, China, Greece, and India, first started
the dustman that he cannot get a word of explanation composing verse. Just as they responded to lang. and
in edgewise until he forcibly asserts, “I’m willing to tell to its rhythms, symmetries, and surprises, so do we.
you. I’m wanting to tell you. I’m waiting to tell you.” For this reason alone, verse will likely endure in
Another instance is supplied by Charles Dickens, who our culture, alongside of prose and among all the
often drifts into blank verse when stirred by thoughts other media of imaginative lit. that serve and honor
about death or love. Below, for instance, lineated as poetry.
unrhymed iambic pentameter, is the final paragraph See chante-fable, rhyme-prose, scansion,
of David Copperfield, in which the hero, alone at his versification.
writing table late at night, apostrophizes his second  Historical Works: G. Saintsbury, A History of En-
wife and speaks of the inspiration she has given him to glish Prose Rhythm (); F. M. Ford, Thus to Revisit
compose the book he has just finished. The third line (); P. F. Baum, The Other Harmony of Prose ();
© Copyright, Princeton University Press. No part of this book may be
distributed, posted, or reproduced in any form by digital or mechanical
means without prior written permission of the publisher.


Abrams; Auerbach; Curtius; G. F. Else, Aristotle’s employing common *diction, personal details, and
“Poetics” (); I. Watt, The Rise of the Novel (); a *plain style to lend familiarity to his philosophical
J. Greenway, Literature among the Primitives (); subjects. His letters to the Lucius Calpurnius Piso and
H. N. Schneidau, “Imagism as Discipline: Hueffer his sons (ca.  bce) on the art of poetry, known since
and the Prose Tradition,” Ezra Pound (); H. Ken- Quintilian as the Ars poetica, became a standard genre
ner, The Pound Era (); J. V. Cunningham, The Col- of the Middle Ages and after. Ovid used the same style
lected Essays of J. V. Cunningham (); West; Norden; for his Tristia and Ex Ponto but developed the senti-
W. Trimpi, Muses of One Mind (); M. Rob- mental epistle in his Heroides, which are fictional letters
erts, Biblical Epic and Rhetorical Paraphrase in Late from the legendary women of antiquity—e.g., Helen,
Antiquity (); P. O. Kristeller, “The Modern Medea, Dido—to their lovers. Throughout the Middle
System of the Arts” and “Afterword, ‘Creativity’ Ages, the latter seems to have been the more popular
and ‘Tradition,’ ” Renaissance Thought and the Arts, type, for it had an influence on the poets of *courtly
exp. ed. (); T. Steele, Missing Measures (); love and subsequently inspired Samuel Daniel to intro-
M. Kinzie, The Cure of Poetry in an Age of Prose (); duce the form into Eng., e.g., his “Letter from Octavia
A. Finch, The Ghost of Meter (); P. Dronke, Verse to Marcus Antonius.” Such also was the source for John
with Prose from Petronius to Dante (); G. A. Ken- Donne’s large body of memorable verse epistles (“Sir,
nedy, A New History of Classical Rhetoric (); more than Kisses, letters mingle souls”) and Alexander
H. Bloom, Shakespeare (); M. E. Fassler, “Se- Pope’s “Eloisa to Abelard.”
quence,” The Harvard Dictionary of Music, th ed. But it was the Horatian epistle that had the greater
(); R. B. Shaw, Blank Verse (). effect on Ren. and mod. poetry. Petrarch, the first hu-
 Criticism: A. Quiller-Couch, “On the Difference manist to know Horace, wrote his influential Epistu-
between Verse and Prose,” On the Art of Writing (); lae metricae in Lat. Subsequently, Ludovico Ariosto’s
A. E. Housman, The Name and Nature of Poetry (); Satires in *terza rima employed the form in vernacular
E. Wilson, “Is Verse a Dying Technique?” The Triple It. In all these epistles, Christian sentiment made itself
Thinkers (); Brooks; Y. Winters, “The Influence felt. In Spain, Garcilaso de la Vega’s “Epístola a Boscán”
of Meter on Poetic Convention,” In Defense of Reason () in *blank verse and the “Epístola moral a Fabio”
(); E. Pound, Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. in terza rima introduced and perfected the form. Fr.
T. S. Eliot (); The Selected Letters of William writers esp. cultivated it for its “graceful precision and
Carlos Williams, ed. J. C. Thirlwall (); P. Valéry, dignified familiarity”; Nicolas Boileau’s  epistles in
“Concerning Adonis,” The Art of Poetry, trans. couplets (–) are considered the finest examples.
J. Mathews (); W. C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fic- Ben Jonson began the Eng. use of the Horatian form
tion (); T. S. Eliot, “Reflections on Vers Libre,” (The Forest, ) and was followed by others, e.g.
To Criticize the Critic (); C. Baudelaire, Oeuvres Henry Vaughan, John Dryden, and William Congreve.
Complètes, ed. C. Pichois (); I. A. Richards, But the finest examples in Eng. are Pope’s Moral Essays
Verse versus Prose (); C. O. Hartman, Free Verse and the “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot” in *heroic couplets.
(); The Letters of Gustave Flaubert: –, The romantics did not value the verse epistle, though
trans. F. Steegmuller (); S. Cushman, Wil- P. B. Shelley, John Keats, and W. S. Landor on occa-
liam Carlos Williams and the Meanings of Measure sion wrote them. Examples in the th c. incl. W. H.
(); Hollander; P. Levi, “Rhyming on the Coun- Auden’s New Year Letter and Auden and Louis Mac-
terattack,” The Mirror Maker, trans. R. Rosenthal Neice’s Letters from Iceland.
(); K. Hanson and P. Kiparsky, “The Nature of  H. Peter, Der Brief in der römische Litteratur ();
Verse and Its Consequences for the Mixed Form,” J. Vianey, Les Epéîtres de Marot (); W. Grenz-
Prosimetrum, ed. J. Harris and K. Reichl (); mann, “Briefgedicht,” Reallexikon II; J. A. Levine, “The
D. Davis, “All My Soul Is There: Verse Translation Status of the Verse Epistle before Pope,” SP  ();
and the Rhetoric of English Poetry,” Yale Review  W. Trimpi, Ben Jonson’s Poems (); J. Norton-
(); A. Bradley, Book of Rhymes (). Smith, “Chaucer’s Epistolary Style,” Essays on Style and
T. Steele Language, ed. R. Fowler (); John Donne: The Sat-
ires, Epigrams and Verse Letters, ed. W. Milgate ();
N. C. de Nagy, Michael Drayton’s “England’s Heroical
VERSE DRAMA. See dramatic poetry. Epistles ” (); R. S. Matteson, “English Verse Epis-
tles, –,” DAI  (); D. J. Palmer, “The
VERSE EPISTLE (Gr. epistole, Lat. epistula). A poem Verse Epistle,” Metaphysical Poetry, ed. M. Bradbury
addressed to a friend, lover, or patron, written in famil- and D. Palmer (); M. Motsch, Die poetische Epistel
iar style and in *hexameters (cl.) or their mod. equiva- (); A. B. Cameron, “Donne’s Deliberative Verse
lents. Two types of verse epistles exist: the one on moral Epistles,” English Literary Renaissance  (); M. R.
and philosophical subjects, which stems from Horace’s Sperberg-McQueen, “Martin Opitz and the Tradition
Epistles, and the other on romantic and sentimental of the Renaissance Poetic Epistle,” Daphnis  ();
subjects, which stems from Ovid’s Heroides. Though J. E. Brown, “The Verse Epistles of A. S. Pushkin,”
the verse epistle may be found as early as  bce (L. DAI  (); C. Guillén, “Notes toward the Study
Mummius Achaicus’s letters from Corinth and some of the Renaissance Letter,” Renaissance Genres, ed. B.
of the satires of Lucullus), Horace perfected the form, K. Lewalski (); M. Camargo, The Middle English