Monday, 29 March 2010

Guest Review: The Anatomy Of Prose, By Marjorie Boulton

The Anatomy of Prose is a rigorous 1950s analysis of prose, seeking to classify different elements of prose as you would classify insects or flowers. From the broad divisions of types of prose (narrative, argumentative, dramatic, informative, contemplative), Boulton proceeds to smaller divisions and sub-divisions, for example listing and defining 36 different rhetorical devices. Despite the intense detail, it was an easy read—the writing, as you’d expect from an anatomist of prose, was quite stylish and always very clear.

The part I found most interesting and useful was the chapter on prose rhythm. Boulton explains how to scan prose in the same way as poetry, breaking it down into “feet” and then analysing where the stress falls within each foot. For example “become” is an iambic foot, because the stress falls on the second syllable, whereas “outcome” is a spondee, because both syllables are stressed. There’s a great listing of all possible combinations up to the five-syllable dochmiac, and then examples of passages scanned for rhythm. For example in a Bible passage (Psalm 90, v1-9), she shows how the rhythm builds up to climaxes such as the molossus (three syllables, all stressed)—“Thou art God”. Important parts like this are surrounded by weaker stresses to highlight them. When the passage speaks of man’s weakness, the rhythm is faltering, using weaker paeons (four syllables with only one syllable stressed). The rhythm, in other words, reflects and amplifies the content.

I don’t think I’ll spend much time analysing the rhythm of my prose, or anyone else’s, in that much detail, but it’s wonderful to have that knowledge in the back of my head, as a way of understanding why a particular passage may or may not work.

The explanations throughout are clear and well illustrated with examples, mostly from older literature like the Bible and 18th century writers, but also some more contemporary (for 1954) writers like Hemingway, Steinbeck and Woolf. I’ve never seen writing analysed so scientifically before. I’ve noticed that a sentence can sound immeasurably better when the order is altered a little or a word is taken out, but never knew why. This book helped me to understand it much better, and I think it will make me a better writer and reader.

Andrew Blackman's debut novel, On The Holloway Road, won the Luke Bitmead Writer's Bursary and was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize. He recently moved back to the UK after living for six years in New York, where he worked as a staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal.


Imogen said...

This reminds me of reading the fascinating commmentaries by Dame Edith Sitwell in the collection "The Atlantic Book of British and American Poetry" which she edited in (I think) the 'fifties. She wrote illuminating little essays about euphonious rhythm and sound in poetry in her introductions to certain of the featured poets. I have never written a poem since without a dim back-of-the-mind echo of her wisdom helping me to sort out whether it "works" or not.

Paul Lamb said...

The analysis in that book sounds both terrific and terrifying. I know that many writers have an "ear" for writing effective sentences and that others work hard to revise theirs to finally sound right. I grant that there is a quantification of it all. But I dislike the fact that even creative writing can be reduced to rules and equations. A part of me wants to hang onto the fanciful notion that it is still an intuitive process that is best left mysterious. (I suppose it can be both.)

Queenie said...

This is interesting indeed. Although Stephen Fry focuses on poetry, and I write prose, I found 'The Ode Less Travelled' similarly useful in helping me understand how and why some passages worked better than others.