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THE PLAIN SPEAKER.
On the Prose Style of Poets. “ Do you read or sing? If you sing, you sing very ill.” I HAVE but an indifferent opinion of the prose-style of . poets : not that it is not sometimes good, nay, excellent; but it is never the better, and generally the worse, from the habit of writing verse. Poets are winged animals, and can cleave the air, like birds, with ease to themselves and delight to the beholders ; but like those “ feathered, twolegged things,” when they light upon the ground of prose and matter-of-fact, they seem not to have the same use of their feet.
What is a little extraordinary, there is a want of rhythmus and cadence in what they write without the help of metrical rules. Like persons who have been accustomed to sing to music, they are at a loss in the absence of the habitual accompaniment and guide to their judgment. Their style halts, totters, is loose, disjointed, and .without expressive pauses or rapid movements. The measured cadence and regular sing-song of rhyme or blank verse have destroyed, as it were, their natural ear for the
· The original MS. of this Essay is now before me, and exhibits occasional variations from the printed copy; the latter, however, may be presumed to contain the more authoritative text and the writer's latest corrections.--ED.
mere characteristic harmony which ought to subsist between the sound and the sense. I should almost guess the Author of Waverley to be a writer of ambling verses from the desultory vacillation and want of firmness in the march of his style. There is neither momentum nor elasticity in it; I mean as to the score, or effect upon the
He has improved since in his other works : to be sure, he has had practice enough. Poets either get into this incoherent, undetermined, shuffling style, made up of “unpleasing flats and sharps,” of unaccountable starts and pauses, of doubtful odds and ends, flirted about like straws in a gust of wind ; or, to avoid it and steady themselves, mount into a sustained and measured prose (like the translation of Ossian's Poems, or some parts of Shaftesbury's Characteristics) which is more odious still, and as bad as being at sea in a calm. Dr. Johnson's style (particularly in his Rambler) is not free from the last objection. There is a tune in it, a mechanical recurrence of the same rise and fall in the clauses of his sentences, independent of any reference to the meaning of the text, or progress or inflection of the sense. There is the alternate roll of his cumbrous cargo of words; his periods complete their revolutions at certain stated intervals, let the matter be longer or shorter, rough or smooth, round or square, different or the same. This monotonous and balanced mode of composition may be compared to that species of portrait-painting which prevailed about a century ago, in which each face was cast in a regular and preconceived mould. The eyebrows were arched mathematically as if with a pair of com
1 Is it not a collateral proof that Sir Walter Scott is the Author of Waverley, that ever since these novels began to appear, his Muse has been silent, till the publication of Halidon Hill ?
[On the back of the first leaf of this Essay, in the MS., are several loose jottings, as follow : Recondite style— Word mem.-Vacillation-Shambling-Instance out of Waverley.-Ev.]