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Saturday, September 11, 2010

Paragraphing

These things help to produce - although they might not by themselves entirely suffice to produce it - a general flatness that is dully excruciating. Glover is seldom, if ever, bombastic, as most of the other blank-verse writers of this time are. His inversions are not violent; nor does he often overplay the cards of Miltonic omission of articles or of apposition. An absolutely absurd single verse or phrase is not very common with him. But the midwife (no doubt a descendant of Shadwell's, as prophetic and as laconic) had laid her hand on his head at his birth and said, "Be thou flat"; and except in Admiral Hosier's Ghost (under what special disenchanting influence one does not know) he never discredited the prophecy. His verse not only cannot soar; it can hardly flap its wings. It toddles along after what Johnson (in another context) calls "the manner of the heavier domestic fowls." When we look at its inanity; when we look, on the other hand, at the faults of the "tumid and gorgeous" school - it is not surprising that in the middle of the century the heroic for a time shook off its competitor, and blank verse hardly came into competition again till the deferred advent of Cowper.

Saintsbury, History of English Prosody


Here is an admirably constructed paragraph. It begins with a topic sentence: Glover is dull because of the reasons adduced in the previous paragraph. Then three sentences that tell of flaws Glover did not have (bombast, affectation). Then a few hyperbolic sentences about the dullness itself. Finally, a concluding sentence that brings us to the real point: if blank verse was mostly either Miltonically pretentious or dull as dishwater in the 18th century, then heroic verse (the rhymed heroic couplet) had little to fear from the rival form.

We wouldn't necessarily want to write sentences like Saintsbury's today. They are too verbose and heavy handed, the metaphors and conceits too drawn out, the diction too recondite, for current taste. All the same, there is wit and humor, along with confident vigor, in the writing. These are good sentences within the Victorian ethos; post-Hemingway, they seem excessive. In terms of the structure of the paragraph, however, GS is still a model to be followed. What I most like about it is that it is self-contained, beginning and ending very strongly. The seemingly irrelevant list of faults the poet did not have turns out to be relevant at the end.

See This post by blog collaborator Thomas for a related view of paragraphs.

1 comment:

Thomas said...

What a great example! I'd take issue with almost every sentence. Especially the first and last one, but you're right that as a paragraph it is nicely composed.

I'd rewrite the first either to leave out the m-dash parenthesis, or make it is less obtrusive by putting it at the start. And I'd leave off the "dully excruciating" at the end. I.e., either:

"These things help to produce a general flatness."

Or,

"Although they might not by themselves entirely suffice to produce it, These things help to produce a general flatness. Glover is dully excruciating, though seldom, if ever, bombastic, as most of the other blank-verse writers of this time are."

The last sentence is way to long, though you are right that it contains a strong point.

I'd probably try to end it with something like:

"It is not surprising, then, that in the middle of the century the heroic for a time easily outpaced blank verse."