Do you have rhythm?
The flow of prose.
The other day, just before the end of my lesson, one of my students said, ‘Gill, can you just run through spondees again for us?’ I froze. I’m not particularly musical, and, to be honest the whole subject of poetic metre is one I struggle with. I usually refer my students to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Metrical Feet: Lesson for a Boy,’ in which the poet rather sweetly sets out the main poetic metres in a poem which illustrates them, in order to help his nephew understand these concepts. We were studying John Donne, and I was able to say to the student, quite legitimately, that meaning is much more important than scansion to Donne – in fact he will sometimes run roughshod over metre in order to communicate his message.
But it set me wondering about metre in prose. Do novels have rhythm? Virginia Woolf thought so. In a letter to Vita Sackville-West of 1926 she wrote: As for the mot juste, you are quite wrong. Style is a very simple matter: It is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words.
Prose doesn’t use regular metres, otherwise it would be poetry, but writing still has rhythm. The juxtaposition of long and short sentences; the placing of monosyllabic and polysyllabic words and the use of conjunctions (see blog article on Polysyndeton) all help to create an ebb and flow of movement in a line. Try reading your work out loud to see how this works in practice. Finally, here is a passage from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which wonderfully illustrates how powerful prose rhythm can be:
Out on the roads the pilgrims sank down and fell over and died
and the bleak and shrouded earth went trundling past the sun
and returned again as trackless and as unremarked as the path of
any nameless sisterworld in the ancient dark beyond.