Verse in Prose


THERE is an experience in reading which I dare say is very common, but don’t remember hearing anybody speak of. You are jogging along comfortably through some quiet prose country, enjoying the fine weather and good plain company, when you are brought up short by an unexpected obstacle in the road, — the noonday spectre of metre. As if it were n’t bad enough to write poetry of purpose, and with plain intent to kill, here we must have the thing doing itself, imposing its marshaled iambics or rearing its horrid front of anapests in the midst of the most humdrum surroundings.

Poets, it is interesting to note, are not likely to make this mistake; they have too much respect for both poetry and prose; they would as soon think of breaking into a two-step at a crowded reception, or going to market in ragtime. It is a pretty frequent slip among prose writers : witness the well-known passages in Lorna Doone, and in Dickens, passim ; or, to compare small things with great, the opening paragraphs in Mr. Seton-Thompson’s recent story of The Kootenay Ram : —

“ So in this land of long, long winter night,
Where Nature stints her joys for six hard months,
Then owns her debt and pays it all at once,
The spring is glorious compensation for
The past. Six months’ arrears of joy are paid
In one vast lavish outpour.”

And so on ; very decent blank verse, such as even a Markham might not be ashamed to sign to.

Now there is, of course, only one thing to be said of such sham prose as this : it is an affront to the ear and to the understanding. Whether he is conscious of it or not, the writer has been guilty of a “break.” Yet I must admit that for my part, without believing in metrical prose, or even in rhythmical prose as a set product, my skepticism has a proviso. For now and then in reading the soberest prose, I am conscious of a sudden exquisite thrill such as may follow the lone voice of a bird in the dark, or the discovery of a single pure blossom somewhere among the rocks above the snow line : I have stumbled, that is, on a fragment of pure poetry. And often when I come to examine the few little words which have moved me, I am not able to find much in them but music, and, as a rule, the formal music of metre. Perhaps the refrain echoes for days upon that inward ear which also has something to do with the bliss of solitude. Sometimes it slowly fades; and sometimes it abides, to develop into some fuller metrical form. And then it is I who must plead guilty.

Reading over FitzGerald’s letters not long ago, two such refrains took possession of me. Oddly enough, they both suggested the anapestic measure, with which I believe Old Fitz never meddled ; and both eventually shaped themselves into something a little like triolets, not at all like FitzGerald, and, I should say, not very much like me. Never mind: here they are, and the refrains, at least, worth reading: —


Grass will be green, if the tide should be out,
And a seat in the arbor for no one but you ;
There will be swallows and robins about:
Grass will be green, if the tide should be out. Pleasant to wing to the offing, no doubt,
Yet the nether but mimics the loftier blue,
And by sea or by land I have comfort for two :
Grass will be green, if the tide should be out.


I was looking for Keats and I stumbled on Browne,
Browne, the hydriotaphic : a whimsical turn,
I thought, of the die, from a seer to a clown,
“ What ! a pedant on urns for the Bard of The Urn ?
Nay, then, old Incinerability, burn! ”
Half a pace from the hearth I paused — faltered — sat down . . .
Thumbed a leaf — smiled — read on . . . and forgot to return :
I was looking for Keats and I stumbled on Browne.