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The Difference between Prose and Poetry

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Prose and Poetry are both forms of discourse, and may be treated together. The distinction betweet them has been much discussed. Definiteness of view on this subject is necessary to the comprehension of several principles of expression.

(1) Aristotle's Opinion.—Aristotle views poetry 18 consisting in imitation. * But nothing can be far¬ther from imitation than most poetry. "In the first place," says Professor Masson, "that it is verse at all is a huge deviation in itself from what is in any ordinary sense natural. Men do not talk in good literary prose, much less in blank verse or rhyme. Macbeth, in his utmost strait and horror—Lear, when the lightnings scathed his white head—did not actually talk in me¬ter." f Goethe declared that art is called art simply because it is not nature.

(2) Baoon's Opinion.—Bacon makes poetry to con¬sist in fiction, and says it is "nothing else but feigned history, which may be styled as well in prose as in verse. "t

(3) Coleriagee Opinion.—Ooleridge denies that the true antithesis is between prose and poetry, but asserts that it is between poetry and science.§

(4) Ituskin'e Opinion.—Ruskin, after much re¬flection, concludes that poetry is "The suggestion by the imagination of noble grounds for noble emotions. "f According to this, Carlyle's Essays and the eighth chapter of Paul's Epistle to the Romans would be poetry of the highest class.

(6) Dr. 'Whately's View.—Doctor Whately de¬fines his views thus : "Any composition in verse (and none that is not) is always called, whether good or bad, a poem, by all who have no favorite hypothesis to maintain."* Mr. De Quincey has invalidated the Archbishop's position by showing that, on a question not of fact but of opinion, those are cited as the best authority who professedly have no opinion.f

(6) The True Difference Based on Effects.—

Failing to find satisfaction from those who have dis¬cussed the subject, let us attempt an analysis. If prose and poetry are really distinguished by any difference, it does not lie wholly in the form, since that has changed from age to age. Again, since poetry is recognized by all civilized races, there must be something in man which makes the difference We find in man three classes of powers ; the intellect, the feelings, and the will. If we observe the effect of dis¬course upon the mind, we shall find that three distinct kinds of effect are produced, which lead men to dis¬tinguish common prose, poetry, and eloquence. When ideas are addressed chiefly to the intellect, we say they are prosaic ; when to the feelings, that they are poet¬ical; when to the will, that they are eloquent. Rus¬kin's prose is often poetical ; some of Pope's poetry is confessedly prosaic. Thus far for the distinction of prose and poetry as related to idea. There is another element, form. Strong emotions and eager passions spontaneously express themselves by a rhythmical movement. Love, death, and war move men to what in ordinary circumstances they would not attempt— the writing of verse. Meter, rhythm, and, in unin¬fleeted languages, rhyme, are the natural forms for theexpnession of pure feeling.* Pure thought is content with the irregular forms of prose, and, unless united with feeling in sentiment, seems awkward and absurd in verse. Poetry and prose differ, then, in idea and in form. Poetry is emotive ideas in emotive language ; prose is intellective ideas in intellective language. Both are forms of discourse, and may be treated together.

(7) The Difference Relative.—

This difference be¬tween prose and poetry is simply relative. There are compositions upon which a conclusive judgment could scarcely be passed, since they possess such a union of thought and feeling, and a form so rhyth¬mical without being verse as to defy classification. This, however, is no objection to our offering a defini¬tion, or insisting upon the one already given. We all agree that a. vegetable is not an animal, yet there are forms of life so closely uniting the characteristic', of each as to puzzle the most expert in classification. Of course, almost any specimen of prose contains some element of feeling. The most heartless, and, there¬fore, real prose is, A is B, 0 is A, therefore C is B. Even this formula has some emotive power when we descend from the airy region of pure abstraction, and make A B and C signify objects having human rela¬tions. To some minds there is a poetical element in the driest mathematical reasoning, especially when it lifts the veil from infinitude, and displays the harmony, order, and benevolence which the science of numbers reveals. So, on the other hand, true poetry is never wholly devoid of thought. It appeals to the sensibili¬ties through the intellect. What constitutes it poetry is, that, in both form and idea, it aims at and reaches the seat of emotion, and does not stop at the intellect, which translates it and unfolds it to the feelings. Every faculty of the intellect is thus addressed by poetry as well as by prose. Indeed, it is only as it ad¬dresses the feelings through the different faculties of the intellect, that poetry is capable of any philosoph¬ical classification.

(8) Versification a Part of Grammar.—

Although poetry is here regarded as a form of discourse, versifi¬cation is excluded from the province of Rhetoric, since it belongs properly to Grammar. Its rules are given in that science under the fourth division, or Prosody.

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