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· For the Mind's Ear: On the Harmonies of Style ·

This past week I've been something of a music teacher. I've been reminding students to use their ears more, and it's difficult work. Students are always inclined to use their eyes instead, reading left to right, as they've been taught, for key words at sentence starts — mostly sentence subjects, verbs, and connectors. Although these are all quite essential, I've in mind sentence ends rather, where the more subtle music of stylish prose resides.

In "The Harmony of Prose" from his book Style, F. L. Lucas focuses on the topic. He denotes it, musically speaking, in heard stresses. As Lucas claims, "the sound and rhythm of English prose seem to me matters where both writers and readers should trust not so much to rules as to their ears." He cites even Flaubert to the effect that "a good style must meet the needs of the respiration."

In illustrating as much, Lucas focuses on word order, "which concerns both rhythm and clarity alike. . . . Just as the art of war largely consists of deploying the strongest forces at the most important points, so the art of writing depends a good deal on putting the strongest words in the most important places." As Lucas claims, they are often at the end. To illustrate, he cites a short passage from Alexander Bain, revising it for better, more pointed stress. His improvements are marked in this F. L. Lucas, Style, New York: Collier, 1962, 212, 215, 231; 234 below.

Original
and
Revision

The Humour of Shakespeare has the richness of his genius, and follows his peculiarities. He did not lay himself out for pure Comedy, like Aristophanies; he was more nearly allied to the great tragedians of the classical world. . . . The genius of Rabalais supplies extravagant vituperation and ridicule in the wildest profusion; a moral purpose underlying. Coarse and brutal fun runs riot. . . . For Vituperation and Ridicule, Swift has few equals, and no superior. On rare occasion, he exemplifies Humour and, had his disposition been less savage and malignant, he would have done so much oftener.

The Humour of Shakespeare has the richness of his genius. He did not, like Arisophanes, lay himself out for pure Comedy; he was more nearly allied to the classic Tragedians. . . . The genius of Rabalais shows a wild extravagance of satire and ridicule, underlaid by moral purpose. His work is a riot of coarse and brutal fun. . . . In vituperation and ridicule none have surpasssed and few equalled Swift. But he rarely shows humour; he might indeed have done so oftener, had his temper been less savage and malignant.

Lucas's stresses give marked, italicized substance to Swift's famed dictum about "proper words in proper places," and with that in mind, consider an example I've just made, one adducing, on a separate page, the still subtler stresses of my own recent music teaching. Do enjoy.

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Well said, well taught! Thanks for the lesson!

Posted by Mary Lee on May 19, 2005 01:34 PM


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