March 16, 1918. A critic has been mourning because good prose is not being written to-day. This surprised him, and he asked why it was that when poetry, which he pictured as "primroses and violets," found abundance of nourishment even in the unlikely compost these latter days provide yet prose, which he saw as "cabbages and potatoes," made but miserable growth.
It is hard to explain it, for I must own that the image of the potato confuses me. One has seen modern verse which was, florally, very spud-like. If those potatoes were meant for violets then they suggest more than anything else a simple penny guide-book for their gardeners. Here we see at least the danger of using flowers of speech, when violets and onions get muddled in the same posy, and how ill botany is likely to serve the writer who flies heedlessly to it for literary symbols. Figures of speech are pregnant with possibilities (I myself had better be very careful here), and those likely to show most distress over their progeny are the unlucky fathers. For the first thing expected of any literary expression is that it should be faithful to what is in the mind, and if for the idea of good prose writing the image of a potato is given, then it can but represent the features of the earthy lumps which are common to the stalls of the market-place. What is prose? Sodden and lumbering stuff, I suppose. And what is poetry? That fortunate lighting of an idea which delights us with the belief that we have surprised truth, and have seen that it is beautiful.
The difficulty with what the textbooks tell us is prose is that many of us make it, not naturally and unconsciously like the gentleman who discovered he had been doing it all his life, but professionally. Consider the immense output of novels--but no, do not let us consider anything so surprising and perplexing. The novel, that most exacting problem in the sublimation of the history of our kind, not to be solved with ease, it now appears may be handled by children as a profitable pastime. Children, of course, should be taught to express themselves in writing, and simply, lucidly, and with sincerity. Yet all editors know the delusion is common with beginners in journalism that the essay, a form in which perhaps only six writers have been successful in the history of English letters, is but a prelude to serious work, a holiday before the realities have begun. They all attempt it. Every editorial letter-box is loaded with essays every morning. Yet the love of learning, and wisdom and humour, are not usual, and the gods still more rarely give with these gifts the ability to express them in the written word; and how often may we count on learning, wisdom, and humour being not only reflected through a delightful and original character, but miraculously condensed into the controlled display of a bright and revealing beam? It is no wonder we have but six essayists
There is no doubt about it. If we mean by prose much more than the sincere and lucid written expression of our desires and opinions, it is because beyond that simplicity we know the thrill which is sometimes given by a revelation of beauty and significance in common words and tidings. The best writing must come of a gift for making magic out of what are but commodities to us, and that gift is not distributed by the generous gods from barrows which go the round of the neighbourhoods where many babies are born, as are faith, hope, and credulity, those virtues that cause the enormous circulations of the picture papers, and form the ready material for the careers of statesmen and the glory of famous soldiers. It is more unusual. We see it as often as we do comets and signs in the heavens, a John in the Wilderness again, pastors who would die for their lambs, women who contemn the ritual and splendour of man-slaying, and a politician never moved by the enticements of a successful career. It is therefore likely that when we see great prose for the first time we may not know it, and may not enjoy it. It can be so disrespectful to what we think is good. It may be even brightly innocent of it. And as in addition our smaller minds will be overborne by the startling activity and cool power of the prose of such a writer as Swift, its superiority will only enhance our complaining grief.