When I Read a Prose…

When we approach prose for purposes of working out a literal appreciation, our main concern is with the kind of language use matching the kind of thought content which it indents to convey through the medium. However, the problem becomes relative in the sense that the reader has first to decide what is it that distinguish prose from the other medium of communication in language—poetry.

It is so difficult to draw a line between prose and poetry in the exact sense of the term that some critics have even pleaded for the abolition of this distinction. However, prose for purposes of literary criticise is just another way of expressing our thoughts in the form language. When we view it as a question of literary appreciation our main attention is first to the thought-content, which may differ its nature. The nature of the thought-content will determine first the register of the language. A technical idea would require a technic register in the language whereas a literary piece would require in altogether different language. The prose of a journalist would 1 guided by the requirements of the public to which it is addressed to it would mostly be simple language which even an ordinary read can make sense of. A literary writer, who has a special audience mind, would try to convey the depth of his mind, or would use t nuances of the language to convey the subtlety of emotional comp! that he sets out to convey. A critic would set out constructing we composed, economical sentences, without any sense of wasted effort. Thus, the purpose of the use of language is also important. The kind of reading public to which it is addressed is the third factor in t evaluation of prose. Facility of expression is another criteria in the matter. If the writer tends to labour hard and overwork his expression with bombastic words, it is obviously not going to make any impression on the readers’ minds in any case. There can many more factors for the kind of prose that a writer sets out write. But the main thing that a student of literary criticism ca for is the nature of the thought-content of the passage, for language must convey, with a sense of economy, facility of expression s exactness of approach the thought-content of the writer. ‘I failure to meet these demands means that the writer has not achieved that much command over the language which is expected of a stand writer.

Coming to the problem of definition of prose, can we really find a suitable definition for this ? It may be very easy to state the varieties of English prose style, but to give an exact definition of prose itself is pretty difficult. We can lay many negative restrictions while we set out to define prose : that the rhythm of prose is never regular, and such as the rules against archaisms, inappropriate accent, metaphor, affectation, sentimentality, confusion, etc. From this definition which is negative in character we can attempt an evaluation of the present prose-writers with a view to finding who out of all these writers meets these conditions. Then there is the problem of consistency within a writer ; can we assume that a writer writes with a consistency that we can evaluate all his work on the same assumption. Even in writers like Swift there are occasional lapses, due to anger or weariness ; in Sterne the conversational ease is an instrument of limited range.
A good literary critic when he is practising his art. or committing his criticism to paper, is characteristically engaged in doing two things : he gives us, as completely and as clearly as he can, his considered response to a writer and his work, and so can help us to a fuller enjoyment and understanding of the experience in and behind the writing ; or he reveals, by examining a piece of writing in detail, the elements in the writing which combine to make its particular quality. In practice, of course, these two activities usually go together, a good critic knowing that his account and evaluation of an author must depend on the actual words written by the author, supports his fundamental remarks and judgements with pieces of examined text, the text out of which his judgements arise. When we come across a hazy account, in general terms, of an author or of a piece of work, we may conclude that a mediocre critic is at work, and that he is probably approaching his author with some degree of predisposition, perhaps with some admixture of prejudice or favouritism. A critic should be as fully conscious as possible of what he is doing.
If we lake a characteristic passage from a work and find it to be muddled in thought, then it is no use abstracting and trusting to the ideas in that work ; if a characteristic passage is emotionally false or feeble, then we know it will be no use going to the whole work to enhance our emotional experience. These are very elementary considerations ; but some people seem to think, in fact, they will affirm, that a book can be valuable as literature even it its actual writing is weak or bad. They will give contents and writing separate treatments. Comments like the one taken from a newspaper, “This is a book that is full of the wisdom of the English countryside of humanity and humour, and of writing that could scarcely be bettered.” It is plain that the critic who wrote this, isolating certain qualities that he claims for his author, separating them off from the actual writing, has an inadequate conception of literature ; his praise is in fact worthless, for if the writing were poor, the wisdom and so on would not be there. But from the way the whole sentence is worded it seems certain that he is claiming for his author the great and rare quality of wisdom along with the humanity a humour.
A critic has to be careful not to use the jargon of criticism thoughtlessly. The student attempting practical criticism may enamoured of certain words and use them without any proper sense of discrimination. It is easy to collect a few words like “sensibility “awareness”, “consciousness” and to make a show of adequacy with them. And yet we must have some such terms for practical use, make the discussion possible. The good student will use them ca fully and honestly. It will not be out of place to refer here to one two of the current critical terms, especially as their meanings differ some cases considerably from that which the same word bears common use. “Subtle” for instance has not in criticism the commit understood meaning of “consciously calculating”, but implies son thing sensitively delicate in the sense of the opposition of crude ; the word “precise” which in everyday use tends to be connected of derogatorily, with a formal exactitude, is in criticism used as approving term for shades of emotion as well as for clarity thought ; “profound” is the antithesis of shallow as applied to emotion or intellect or to both working together ; “sophisticated” is r knowing up-to-date but implies in criticism the antithesis of native. The critic, then, especially when he is being explicitly educative, has to have recourse to some set of terms ; jargon cannot be avoided. But he will see to it, when he uses some of the accepted words that he has before him, the occasion for its use in the writing of the anti whom he is helping to reveal ; the critical word mates only because it helps to reveal the author. It may be useful, valuable for so purpose and in some cases it may not need any explanation elaboration in certain contexts. But the essential task of the critic is to discover, to uncover for us, those particular qualities and that particular working of the mind which justify the use of a particular kind language. He must show the “sophisticated” mind in all its interesting activity.
As the prose’s component consists of paragraphs, sentences and words in that descending order, it is very essential to understand basic nature of these linguistic units and the way in which these combined to create a unified impression. The art of writing prose may be studied from two points of view. The first, of these concerned with the objective use of language and may properly be called the composition ; the second or subjective use of language is persuasive in intention and may properly be called Rhetoric. By the art of composition alone a certain negative style may be attained, which is remarkable only for its sustained avoidance of the pitfalls of common speech ; for a positive style it is necessary to infuse the composition with those personal elements belonging to the art of rhetoric.
Words, the lowest in order of linguistic composition, a difinite, initial pointer to the bad style or the good style of the writer under consideration. We may treat words under their qualitative use. If the words are onomatopoeic indicating the sound like murmur, clatter, cuckoo, grunt and hiss, these indicate the imitation of natural sounds and of the sounds associated with things. They are primarily used to add vitality to the expression and thus become an element of style. The marked use of such words is not generally possible, for they stand not only for a limited group of direct sense perceptions, and do not reflect all the varieties of thought and feeling involved in even the simplest forms of expression. The use of work is some-times determined as to their vocal quality, not singly but in a se­quence ; this is where the use of the term ‘alliteration’ comes in. Here the choice of a particular work will depend on its containing the same letter or sound as its neighbours. Yet another test or criterion is the usage or the currency and congruity of the words. The state of a language is never constant and almost every year words lose their life and new words are formed adding to the lexical stock of a language. The study of the growth of a language requires finest sensibility and is perhaps peculiarly difficult for those who confine themselves to the reading of classical models. It is the changes in culture, modes of living that the language reflects and in order to perform this job he has to take in a new set of terms and a new set of grammatical conventions. We might come to find the use of archaic expression in a passage given to us for purposes of literary evaluation and it would become our duty to point out that the language belongs to an older period when this kind of usage was in vogue. Modern English prose demands simplicity of expression in case of subtlety of thought for language should not add to the complexity created by the current thought-content. Jargon is another way leading to the abuse of words in the language. The writer tends to feel a bit verbose and technical by making use of such terms, but does at the same time an avoidable harm to the language usage. A pseudo-scientific profundity is given to simple or even obvious statements by translating them into technical phraseology, or Merely by latinizing English words. The vulgarization of science, the limitations of technological education, and the practise of foreign-born American writers, are all influences that encourage this tendency. One may even make use of affected words which are generally associated with the affected personality. The style becomes coloured in this case by the particular affectation. This resides in the use of bombastic expression, pomposity, slang and euphuism. However, it must be pointed out that we cannot evaluate words in isolation, they have to be judged in the largest context of their occurrence and the purpose to which they are directed to.
Metaphor, which stands for the synthesis of several units of observation into one commanding image, is another single unit or device in language that helps to brighten the expression of a writer. It is the expression of a complex idea, but by analysis not by abstract statement but by a sudden perception of an objective relation. The complex idea is translated into a simple concrete equivalent. Aristotle defined it as : “…much the most important point is to be able to use metaphors, for this is the one thing that cannot be learned from others ; and it is also a mark of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars.” However, the ability to use metaphors or to create these is the job of a poetic mind. Thus its use gets directed to poetry, for prose by its very nature is essentially the art of analytical description, it may obscure the essential nature of prose, because it substitutes a poetic equivalent for a direct statement. Simile and metaphor differ only in degree of stylistic refinement. The simile, in which a comparison is made directly between two objects, belongs to an earlier stage of literary expression ; it is the deliberate elaboration of a correspondence, often pursued for its own sake. But a metaphor is the swift illumi­nation of an equivalence. Two images, or an idea and an image, stand equal and opposite ; clash together and respond significantly, surprising the reader with a sudden light. The main functions of the use of metaphor being illuminative and decorative, the first function is found appropriate in pure prose style. Whenever abstract language is inadequate to express a meaning clearly, and the metaphor if used can help a clearer understanding of the subject, it becomes an added asset to the prose style of a writer. The language of the scientific disciplines is an example for the point.
The sentence, next important unit in the hierarchy of linguistic components, is a single cry and a unit of expression with its various qualities as reflected in length, rhythm and structure are determined by a right sense of unity of these qualities. A series of short sentences will convey an impression of speed and are therefore suited to the narration of action or historical events ; while longer sentences give an air of solemnity and deliberation to writing. The danger with the long and complex sentences is that they may lack balance. The sense may be logically clear, the rhythm may be easy, but still they try out our patience or offend our sensibilities. There may be a want of proportion between the subject and the predicate or between either of these and the verb—not so much a proportion of sense, which would result in humour, but a proportion of structure, the simple against the complicated, the devious against the direct. The use of complex sentences involves a correct usage of punctuations as well.
The paragraph, which marks in itself a unit of thought as represented in the essay or the book, has been a subject of great linguistic discussion as to whether it is a complete unit in itself representing a thought or is just a sub-unit. If it were to be treated as a complete unit, then the whole essay should run into one paragraph, and if it were to be treated as a sub-unit within a unit, it fits’ into the present scheme of granting independence within the larger framework of a thought-content complete in itself and showing logical development of the thought-content. The rhythmical unity of the paragraph may be a unity of actual composition : compare Gibbon’s conscious practise, the conscious practise of many writers but perhaps more often an unconcious instinct. It is in this manner that the arrangement of paragraphs within a larger unit of composition become a question of rhetoric, and should actually be dealt under the aspect of rhetoric. Arrangement of paragraphs is either intuitive or constructive. Intuitively the writer feels that his theme has a certain broad rhythm, and that the rhythm of his paragraphs is subordinate to this broader effect. We speak of the course of exposition, of the speed of narrative, the flow of eloquence, the flight of imagination and all these dead metaphors originally expressed the qualities of different methods of composition. Intuitive arrangement is appropriate to the short composition such as the essay and short story.
It is by looking at these elements and other terms which have been explained in an earlier chapter that the student of literary appreciation of a prose passage can comment. It is however essential to keep in mind certain basic guidelines not more in the nature of literary guidelines but rather in the sense of general observations that the student of literary criticism should keep in mind. It is also essential that be should have in his mind the framework of a plan to be able to start his work in his examination hall with a sense of progression in this attempt.
Plan for Practical Criticism of Prose :
Try to work out the thought-content in simple statement form ;
Try to determine the nature of the thought content and give an idea of the kind of language it will require for a clear expression;
Test the expression as found in the given passage and see if it meets the requirements that you have set out, in your earlier part of the answer ;
In case there is divergence in the use of language and the requirements of language expression set out by you, it is quite possible that you have been able to evaluate the nature of the thought-content in a liquid manner and requires a reconsideration. It is also possible that the writer has a particular habit of understatement or overstate­ment to press his point, or may be that the writer has an illustrative and decorative bent of mind which would either lead to a superficial use of language or a powerful use of language ;
Try to look up if there is any use of critical terminology which tends to verge on the border of being a jargon use. Some writers have the habit of loading their prose with too many technical terms and it tends to hurt the understanding of the written passage in an unneces­sary manner;
Find out how far the language succeeds in conveying the unified impression of thought-content and logical development of the thought-content. It is quite possible that there may be an abrupt use of language without paying any attention to the exemplificatory aspect of the complex thought content unit ;
If there are many complex sentences within the passage, see if they clearly stand to represent sub-units of the thought-content or they tend to confuse or burden the reader with too many complexities. In case of complex idea is to be conveyed, it is better to be short in the use of sentences which would help a reader to progress at a satisfactory place in his attempt at understanding ;
Try to look up if there are any onomatopoeic works––words denoting the sound qualities of certain objects. Also check up if there is any alliteration within a sentence or a paragraph as a whole ; this tends to aid to the musical quality of the language which may or may not be suitable to the requirements of the thought-content under consideration.
Finally, try to work out what is the general quality or bent of the writer’s mind as reflected in the passage under consideration ; remember that it will only be a tentative opinion as you have not had access to the other writing of the writer. You can never expect a writer to be consistent in his use of the language or in his style.
AIai, Warner has given below the following clear-cut suggestions or practical criticism in prose :
(i) Please do not spit: If you adopt the style of ‘please do not spit’, and avoid the style of ‘expectoration is forbidden’, you will go a long way towards writing clear English. You may think that this is so easy as to be not worth mentioning. It might never have occurred to you to write in the style of the first notice. But language of that kind is still common enough in official letters and documents, and is not always easy to escape from its influence without making a conscious effort. It is easy enough to write ‘please do not spit’, but it is only by hard and clear thinking that we can make all our statements and directions as clean and simple and pointed as this one.
(ii) Cat the cackle : There is an old English saying ‘Cut the cackle’ and come to the ‘oases (horses). It means, ‘Cut out your silly chatter, or your introductory flourishes, and come to the point.’ This is sound advice, both for the whole of what you are writing whether essay, article, or report, and for the separate sentences that make it up. Avoid vague introductions ; come to your point ; keep your writing taut : free of unnecessary words and circumlocutions ; be as concrete and definite as you can. All this means harder and straighter thinking, and may take more time, but you will be rewarded by a firmer grip on your own thoughts and a sharper point to your pen.
(iii) Call a spade a spade : To ask you to calla spade a spade is just another way of asking you to be concrete and definite. But there is one particular weakness in writing that I want to call your attention to in this section, the habit of using euphemisms instead of plain words. A euphemism is ‘the substitution of a mild or vague expression for a harsh or blunt one’ (Flowers). The word is derived from a Greek word meaning ‘to speak favourably’. The Greek prefix ‘eu’ means ‘well’, and we find it in other English words, such as ‘eulogy’, which means ‘praise’, ‘a speaking well’ of someone or something, and ‘euphony’, the quality having a pleasant sound. Don’t confuse ‘euphemism’ with ‘Euphuism’, a word used to describe a certain style of English that had a vogue in Elizabethan England, and was started by John Lyly’s Euphues. Euphemism and soft-pedalling not only lead to a distorted and muddy style, but they serve to muffle and hide reality from us. Words are used to conceal things rather than to express them. In Ezra Pound’s phrase ‘the application of word to a thing becomes slushy and inexact’.
(iv) Keep your ears open: In addition to being clear and accurate, and as concrete, as possible, really good clean English should have a pleasing sound. It may seem strange to suggest that the sound of written English is important, but we do in fact read with our ears as well as our eyes. You can sometimes sea an unpractised reader voicing. the words to himself as he reads. Most of us soon leave this stage behind but we never cease to be aware of the sound of the words we read. ‘A cluster of clumsy ‘s’ sounds, for example, will jar the ear even though it is read silently :
King James’s countiers’ cloaks were worn short.
This is clumsy : it offends the ear and does not flow cleanly. It is much better to turn it round and avoid ‘James’s countiers’ cloaks :
The courtiers of King James wore their cloaks short.
Nearly all writing has some kind of pattern that we can rhythm. In poetry this is clearly marked, by rhyme, mere allitera­tion and other literary devices. In the two lines being from Alexander Pope, the pattern is very clear. He is specialist of a timid but jealous critic, who is afraid to attack openly but slyly hints his disapproval :
Willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike,
Just hint a fault, and hesitate dislike.
In prose the rhythmic pattern is much less marked. Rhyme and metre are not used, though alliteration frequently is, but rhythm is present to a greater or lesser degree. Alfred. Doolittle, the dustman in Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion, says to Higgins : ‘I’m willing to tell you. I’m wanting to tell you, I’m waiting to tell you.’ Here a marked rhythmic pattern is created by the reception and alliteration, and the grouping of the statement into three equal units. The great English prose-writers make effective and significant use of rhythm, sometimes consciously and sometime unconsciously. There should be less deliberate use of rhythm for effect than with the avoidance of awkwardness in sound and pattern. Such awkwardness may be caused by accidental use of literary devices, such as repetition and rhyme, or it may be due to simple clumsiness in handling words and constructing sentences, so that there is a halting, tangled movement in the writing, instead of an easy, agreeable flow.
Good prose always has a harmony of its own. Its rhythm plays an important part in its meaning. If you re-read the passages from Jane Austen and Dickens you will see that each has a characteristic rhythm of its own. But this is to go beyond the limits of clean English. Only the best writers can achieve a true harmony in their style, but all of us, even in the most workaday and ordinary writing, can avoid disharmony and cacophony (an ugly displeasing sound). Keep your ears open when you are writing. Reread what you have written, aloud if possible, and do not always be content with the first words that come into your head.
(v) Don’t Mix your Drinks : If you wish to keep a clear head at a party and to avoid a hang. over next morning, don’t mix beer with sherry, or gin with whisky. If you wish to keep a clear and clean English style, don’t mix poetic devices with business jargon, or slangy colloquialisms with formal standard English. With reasonable limits, keep to the same style.
(vi) Suit the Word to the Occasion : Although it is unwise to mix drinks or styles, this does not mean that we must always drink the same drink or write in the same style. Certain drinks are appro­priate to certain occasions. Beer goes with bread and cheese for lunch: champagne is suitable for a wedding ; rum is good drink for a bitterly cold night. In advising you to be clear and concrete in your writing, to cut the cackle and call a spade a spade, I have not yet considered the different uses to which your pen may be put. I stand by my advice in general, but in particular cases it may need modification.
(vii) Hit the Nail on the Head : Have you ever watched a clumsy man hammering a nail into a box. He hits it first to one side, then to another, perhaps knocking it over completely, so that in the end he only got half of it into the wood. A skilful carpenter, on the other hand, will drive home the nail with a few firm, deft blows, hitting it each time squarely on the head. So with language ; the good craftsman will choose words that drive home his point firmly and exactly. A word that is more or less right, a loose phrase, an ambiguous expression, a vague adjective, will not satisfy a writer who aims at clean English. He will try always to get the word that is completely right for his purpose. A good carpenter is not distinguished by the number of his tools, but by the craftsmanship with which he uses them. So a good writer is not measured by the extent of his vocablulary but by his skill in finding the ‘most juste’, the word that will hit the nail cleanly on the head.
(viii) Some Pitfalls in Journalism : The journalist earns his living by his pen. His has to write a great deal and he has to write quickly. He wants his articles and reports to be as readable and interesting as he can make them. It is an excellent thing to aim at being readable and interesting, and I wish all writers of books would keep this aim in sight, but the journalist is often tempted to be merely popular and showy. Hence the journalist’s trade has fallen into disrepute, in spite of the fact that many journalists still write clean and vigorous English. The term ‘journalise’ is use in a derogatory sense to suggest a bad style. Webster’s Dictionary describes it as : “English of a style featured by use of collquialisms, superficiality of thought or reasoning, clever or sensational presentation of material, and evidences of haste in composition, considered characteristic of newspaper writing”. But it should not be thought that journalism always leads to bad writing or that all journalists are guilty of slang, sensationalism, and vulgarity. On the contrary, some of the best English today is written by journalists. Many newspaper reports and articles contain clean and vigorous English, and the more serious English dailies would not admit writing of the sort.
(ix) Too Little or too Much: Between understatement and overstatement there are innumerable variations. It is not wrong to be extravagant with words ; you need not make a mode! of English caution ; but you must be guided by your feelings and intelligence, your sense of the fitness of your words to their purposes.
(x) Place yourself the background : Write in a way that draws the reader’s attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than to the mood and temper of the author. If the writing is solid and good, the mood and temper of the writer will become revealed finally, and not at the expense of the work. Therefore, the first piece of advice is this : to achieve style, begin by affecting none—that is, place yourself in the background. A careful and honest writer does not need to worry about style. As he becomes proficient in the use of the language, his style will emerge, because he himself will emerge, and when this happens, he will find it increasingly easy to break through the barriers that separate hilt) from other minds, other hearts- which is, of course, the purpose & writing, as well as its principal reward. Fortunately, the act of composition, or creation, disciplines the mind ; writing is one way to go about thinking and the practice and habit of writing not only drain the mind but supply it, too.
(xi) Write in a way that comes naturally : Write in a way that comes easily and, naturally to you, using words and phrases that come readily to hand. But do not assume that because you have acted naturally, your product is without flaw. The use of language begins with imitation. The infant imitates the sounds made by its parents ; the child imitates first spoken language, then the stuff of’ books. The imitative life continues long after the writer is on his own in the language, for it is almost impossible to avoid imitating what one admires. Never imitate consciously, but do not worry about being an imitatory: take pains instead to admire what is good. Then, when you write in a way that comes naturally, you will echo the halloos that bear repeating.

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