Monday, May 2, 2011

"To fill all penuries"

img from Wikipedia

George Saintsbury, in his History of English Prose Rhythm, cites this sentence from one of Donne's sermons -- the ending of which is very famous -- as one of the greatest examples of English rhythmical prose:
If some King of the earth have so large an extent of Dominion, in North, and South, as that he hath Winter and Summer together in his Dominions, so large an extent East and West, as that he hath day and night together in his Dominions, much more hath God mercy and judgement together: He brought light out of darknesse, not out of a lesser light; he can bring thy Summer out of Winter, though thou have no Spring; though in the wayes of fortune, or understanding, or conscience, thou have been benighted till now, wintred and frozen, clouded and eclypsed, damped and benummed, smothered and stupefied till now, now God comes to thee, not as in the dawning of the day, not as in the bud of the spring, but as the Sun at noon to illustrate all shadowes, as the sheaves in harvest, to fill all penuries, all occasions invite his mercies, and all times are his seasons.
It is a magnificent bit of writing, I think, but shows how hard it is to assess prose primarily for its rhythm; if it weren't for the opulence of the language, this would not be an especially notable passage; and yet the opulence is in fact part of the rhythm -- the quantity of a word is not separable from the degree of its unexpectedness; "illustrate," for instance, is dwelt on here as it would not be in other uses.

As usual Saintsbury has a lot of good observations to make -- on Milton's tendency to spoil his sentences by tacking on afterthoughts, on the effects one can get out of alternating short and long sentences (the "undulating" quality of good 16th century prose), on the value of slightly avoided isocolon (see Donne above), on the absolute necessity of avoiding strings of anapests and the relative permissibility of strings of choriambs -- and one enjoys his occasional sarcasms, but the book comes off, on the whole, as the work of a crank. His principles for foot-division are entirely unsystematic as far as I can make out; the quoted passages are usually foot-divided, even when he has nothing to say about the foot-divisions; so you have to read through "to fill | all penuries; | all occasions | invite | his mercies" etc., which is painful and distracting. (It must be admitted, however, that Saintsbury's book has enormous historical value as a guide to stress patterns in RP circa 1900.) The quoted passages are often a little mystifying, being drawn from longer works, like Hooker's Ecclesiastical Polity, that are about something and that one is unlikely to have read. And the decision to annotate the entire last chapter of Urn-Burial with foot-divisions and (in many places) accent markers was evidently not that of a sane person.

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