The Mystery Of Great Prose, Ctd

by Patrick Appel

A reader writes:

"These are the times that try men's souls" is essentially a traditional poetic line. It scans. As in, it's iambic. "These," "the," and "that" also act as an assonant triangle, creating balance, room, and rhythm in the sentence. And rhythm, or poetic meter, is about the interplay between what's strong (stressed) and what's weak (unstressed). The sentence alludes to strength and weakness -- the soul is tried, not overcome, by the force of the times -- and requires this syntactic manifestation in order to be something really special.

"Times like these try men's souls" doesn't scan iambic. Every word is a stressed syllable, which creates a sprint effect, one that hurries past the burden, the struggle, the rumination of the sentiment. The sentence has no syntactic relationship to its content. That's why you're just not feeling it. And that, dear Strunk & White (& Sullivan) readers, is the operative buried treasure in great poetry -- and great prose.

Another reader adds:

It's a trivial observation, but the rhythm is different.

You can divide "These are the times that try men's souls" into two parts. "These are the times" is said more quickly than "that try men's souls." The most dramatic pat of the phrase is highlighted by the slowness. Another way of putting it is that the way the phrase sounds fits the meaning. And it's got 8 beats, which is a good number of beats to have. When you've got 8 beats, you don't feel like you're missing something.

"Times like these try men's souls" is like two triplets. It's not interesting, it's six beats long, (two are missing!) and it's monotonous. It doesn't stress the important part -- the trying of men's souls. It's all the same -- click clack clack, click clack clack. A lame, tinny waltz.