Moving right along – prose rhythm

Not a single trick-or-treater (is that the technical term?) came by last night. On the whole, I don’t mind, as that means more candy for us.

I turned in my dissertation prospectus a few days ago, which means I can finally get this prose rhythm paper finished. I wonder how many times – in this blog alone – that I have claimed I was near finishing it. Lies, every one, pretty much. It’s amazingly difficult to find properly focused time to work on articles. But I’m so close!

The paper is superficially similiar to the paragraph article in CE, in that it’s an examination of a largely abandoned topic in composition/rhetoric – prose rhythm, which was a huge deal for the ancients and quite a few scholars around 1900-1940. There was, and occasionally still is, a desire to quantify it, and every such attempt has failed in some significant way. The reason for this seems to be that prose is expected to have rhythm, but not so much that it becomes poetry; thus good prose has just enough rhythm for us to tell that it flows better than some other piece of prose, but not enough to be systematized; it falls into an artistic gray area. If it was detectable, it would be poetry. As rhetoric should be hidden, obviously pleasing lines paradoxically become less persuasive; today we might say someone sounds too slick, too polished. Too much rhythm has an ethical price. Sometimes you have someone like MLK, though, where genre expectations allow him to escape that gray area – he has the rhetoric of speeches and preaching surrounding his words, and thus he has extra leeway to create obviously rhythmical structures.

Longinus’s method of adding and subtracting words to a line (more properly Cicero’s method) to see the effects on the rhythm would seem to be a way of getting around this problem, as it can show how subtle the structure of prose rhythm is, through looking at the whole of a sentence, paragraph, essay, or work under slightly altered circumstances. However, I’ve noticed that in English, prose rhythm is almost always tied to the teaching of literature, as it was in the classical period. I’d like to bring it into composition proper, though, and look at the rhythm in student essays. There have been some attempts in the past to do this, but they’re either regrettably obscure or overly pessimistic. Fred Newton Scott’s interest in the topic is particularly fascinating to me.

But anyway, I should be writing the damn paper, not babbling about it here.

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