Prof. Brooks Landon, U. Iowa, Ph.D. U. Texas at Austin. Building Great Sentences: How to Write the Kinds of Sentences You Love to Read (Great Courses) (2013). p. 142

        And here are two very different-sounding sentences from two of Thomas Berger’s novels. The first is from his classic Little Big Man and is in the inimitable voice of Jack Crabb:

As I say, none of us understood the situation, but me and Caroline was considerably better off than the chief, because we only looked to him for our upkeep in the foreseeable future, whereas he at last decided we was demons and only waiting for dark to steal the wits from his head; and while riding along he muttered prayers and incantations to bring us bad medicine, but so ran his luck that he never saw any of the animal brothers that assisted his magic—such as Rattlesnake or Prairie Dog—but rather only Jackrabbit, who had a grudge against him of long standing because he once had kept a prairie fire off his camp by exhorting it to burn the hares’ home instead.

        The second example is from Berger’s retelling of the “matter of Britain” in his Arthur Rex and sounds more than a bit like Sir Thomas Malory—but like a Malory who has just mastered the cumulative sentence:

Now the abominable Sir Meliagrant took Guinevere to a kingdom that was not very distant from Britain but was cunningly concealed, tucked into a valley amongst mountains, entrance to which could be gained only by one pass not easily found, and before this pass was a rushing river over which was but one

p. 143

bridge, the narrowest in the world, for it was made of one long sword, the weapon of a giant, the which was mounted horizontally, keen edge upwards.
        I’ve chosen these particular passages to share with you to suggest the range of prose rhythms we can hear in Woolf’s finely architected prose, Berger’s mastery of American vernacular prose rhythms, and Berger’s ability to invoke the sound of Sir Thomas Malory’s prose, but in a book whose prose is also thoroughgoingly modern. Notice that these passages are rhythmical, but not musical or even metrical—the result of the way each proceeds forward in steps rather than the result of syllable count or meter. As Ursula K. Le Guin reminds us in her delightful writing text, Steering the Craft, “The sound of language is where it all begins and what it all comes back to. The basic elements of language are physical; the noise words make and the rhythm of their relationships. This is just as true of written prose as it is of poetry.”

What does Landon mean by ‘musical’? How can prose be 'musical'?

  • Is it possible that Landon is saying that prose cannot be musical?
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Feb 2, 2019 at 18:54
  • "How can prose be musical?" Try reading some James Thurber stories.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Feb 18, 2019 at 17:42


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