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Prose

Prose is written or spoken language that typically follows the natural flow of speech. Understanding prose is important because it helps us analyse how authors use and depart from the conventions of prose in their writing to create meaning. In literature, prose is an important building block of a narrative and a literary device.

Prose writing

Prose, image of a woman weaving colourful fabric, StudySmarterProse is the fabric of storytelling, and it is woven together by threads of words.

Most writing that you encounter on a daily basis is prose.

Types of prose

  • Non-fictional prose: news articles, biographies, essays.
  • Fictional prose: novels, short stories, screenplays.
  • Heroic prose: legends and fables.

Both fictional and non-fictional can also be poetic prose. This is more a quality of prose rather than a type. If the writer or speaker employs poetic qualities such as vivid imagery and musical qualities, we call this poetic prose.

A brief literary history of prose

In literature, poetry and verse came before prose. Homer’s Odyssey is a 24-book-long epic poem written circa 725–675 BCE.

Up until the 18th century, literature was dominated by verse, as fictional prose was seen as more low-brow and artless. This is evident in Shakespeare’s plays, where his upper-class characters often speak in verse, and the lower-class characters often speak in prose. In Shakespeare, prose was also used for casual conversations, while verse was reserved for more lofty utterances.

Twelfth Night (1602) opens with lines in verse about love from Duke Orsino:

ORSINO

If music be the food of love, play on.

Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,

The appetite may sicken and so die.

(Shakespeare, Act One, Scene One, Twelfth Night, 1602).

Sir Toby, on the other hand, defends his sloppy drunken ways in prose:

TOBY

Confine? I’ll confine myself no finer than I am. These clothes are good enough to drink in, and so be these boots too. And they be not, let them hang themselves in their own straps!

(Shakespeare, Act One, Scene Three, Twelfth Night, 1602).

The 18th century saw the rise of the novel and, with it, a shift in how literary prose was regarded, leading more and more writers to use prose instead of verse. Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela (1740) was a highly successful work of prose, which popularised prose literature and attested to its artistic value.

Today, prose literature fictional words like novels and non-fictional texts like feature articles and biographies continue to dominate popular literature.

Differences between prose and poetry

The differences between traditional prose and poetry jump out at us from their formatting alone: prose looks like big chunks of text on a page, while poetry looks like a sequence of broken-up lines.

Let’s look at the conventional differences between prose and poetry.

Conventions of prose

Conventions of poetry

Prose is written in the natural patterns of everyday speech. Prose is often straightforward and unrefined, and facts are communicated in plain language.

Poetry is more carefully constructed and refined. Vivid imagery and wordplay are key defining features of poetry.

Sentences should follow the correct syntax and be clear and easy to understand.

Poets manipulate syntax, arranging words in unconventional orders to emphasise and/or connect certain words and/or imagery.

Prose is loosely organised into words, clauses, sentences, paragraphs, headings or chapters.

Poetry is more strictly organised by syllables, words, feet, lines, stanzas, and cantos.

Clauses and sentences are structured logically and naturally follow on from one another. Prose is narrative-focused.

Poems can tell a narrative, but this is often secondary to the expression of emotions and associations between images.

Prose doesn’t follow patterns of sound such as metre, rhyme, or rhythm.

Poetry places emphasis on the musical qualities of the words: patterns of sound such as metre, rhythm, and rhyme are used. Sound techniques such as assonance, sibilance, and alliteration are also employed.

Prose writing often goes into a lot of detail. This makes prose writing quite long.

Poetry is about compressing and condensing: poets squeeze as much meaning as possible out of every word. As such, poems or at least stanzas, are usually quite short.

There are no line breaks.

Poems have deliberate line breaks.

Prose-poetry spectrum

Prose and poetry are not fixed categories and can overlap a lot. So, it is more helpful to think of prose and poetry as being on a spectrum rather than as opposites:

Prose, Diagram showing prose and poetry on a spectrum rather than as opposites ,StudySmarterDiagram: Prose and poetry on a spectrum.

On the far left is the most run-of-the-mill prose you can imagine. On the far right, you have conventional poetry, written with line breaks, meter, rhyme, and imagery.

On the left, we also have creative prose and poetic prose, which is still prose while also possessing poetic qualities that push it out of the conventional prose zone. We can say that creative prose is any prose that is written imaginatively and aims to persuade rather than just report facts. Poetic prose is any prose that has distinctly poetic qualities, such as vivid imagery, and distinctly musical qualities.

On the right, we have prose poetry poetry written in prose instead of verse and free verse, poetry without rhyme or rhythm. These count as poetry but are a bit more prose-y because they dont really adhere to the rules of verse.

A plain, factual weather report: Tonight there will be strong winds and heavy showers.’

A creative description of the weather: ‘Only wind in the trees which blew the wires and made the lights go off and on again as if the house had winked into the darkness.’

(F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chapter Five, The Great Gatsby, 1925).

Verse

As writers are always innovating the forms they work with, prose and poetry can’t be broken up into two neat categories. It is more useful to compare the differences between writing that is prose and writing that is in verse.

Verse is writing with a metrical rhythm.

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,

In the forests of the night;

What immortal hand or eye,

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

(William Blake, ‘The Tyger’, 1794).

This poem is written in verse. The metre is trochaic tetrameter (four feet of trochees, which is one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable), and the rhyme scheme is in rhyming couplets (two consecutive lines that rhyme).

  • Prose is any writing that does not follow a metrical rhythm.
  • Poetry is often written in verse.
  • Verse is writing that follows a metrical rhythm.

Examples of different types of prose in literature

Let’s take a look at some examples of prose along the prose-poetry spectrum.

Poetic prose

Many authors of fiction can be said to have a poetic writing style. Virginia Woolf’s style, for example, has poetic qualities:

All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others (Virginia Woolf, Chapter Eleven, To the Lighthouse, 1927).

In this sentence, the first clause builds a quick pace with the harder consonants ‘p’, ‘g’, ‘t’, ‘c’, and ‘d’. After the semi-colon, the sentence deflates with soft assonant sounds ‘sense’, ‘solemnity’, ‘oneself’, ‘invisible’, ‘others’ being broken up by the vivid imagery of ‘a wedge-shaped core of darkness’, which sticks out of the sentence like a wedge driven through it.

Virginia Woolf’s prose novels benefit from being read aloud like poetry, and like poetry, they command the reader to pay close attention to and delight in every word.

Prose poetry

Prose poetry is a good example of why we can’t just say prose and poetry are opposites.

Prose poetry is poetry written in sentences and paragraphs, instead of verse, without line breaks. Like conventional poetry, prose poetry is centred around vivid imagery and wordplay rather than narrative.

Prose poetry resists straightforward categorisation. Take a look at this excerpt from a prose poem:

The day is fresh-washed and fair, and there is a smell of tulips and narcissus in the air.

The sunshine pours in at the bath-room window and bores through the water in the bath-tub in lathes and planes of greenish-white. It cleaves the water into flaws like a jewel, and cracks it to bright light.

Little spots of sunshine lie on the surface of the water and dance, dance, and their reflections wobble deliciously over the ceiling; a stir of my finger sets them whirring, reeling.

(Amy Lowell, Spring Day, 18741925).

In the excerpt from The Tyger above, you can immediately tell that its a poem just by looking at it. But this extract from Spring Day looks like it could have been taken out of a novel. Maybe what makes it a poem is its length; it is just 172 words. This prose poem is centred around vivid imagery of a bath in the sunlight, and it sounds pleasant when read aloud.

Prose - Key takeaways

  • Prose is written or spoken language that typically follows the natural flow of speech.

  • The use of poetry and verse in literature predated the use of prose, but prose took over as a popular writing form in the 18th century.

  • Prose and poetry are not two distinct categories but can instead be understood as being on a spectrum. On one end, there are prose conventions, while on the other, there are poetry conventions.

  • The extent to which prose and poetry texts adhere to conventions places them along the scale of prose and poetry. Prose writers such as Virginia Woolf write poetic prose, while poets like Amy Lowell write prose poetry that disturbs the false dichotomy of prose and poetry.

  • It is more helpful to compare prose against verse than against poetry. Verse is writing with a metrical rhythm.

  • Writers use and break prose and poetry conventions to create meaning.

Frequently Asked Questions about Prose

Prose is written or spoken language that typically follows the natural flow of speech. Prose can come in different types: non-fictional prose, fictional prose, and heroic prose. Prose can be poetic, and it can also be used to write poetry. This is known as prose poetry.

The differences between prose and poetry lie in differences of convention. For example, prose is usually written in sentences that make up paragraphs, and it follows the rules of syntax. Poetry is often written as broken-up lines that may not make syntactical sense, as poetry is image-based, whereas prose writing is narrative-based. However, prose and poetry are not opposites but can instead be seen as being on a spectrum.

A prose poem is poetry written in sentences and paragraphs instead of verse, without line breaks. Like conventional poetry, prose poetry is centred around vivid imagery and wordplay rather than narrative.

All poetry is art, but not all prose is. Poetry is by its very nature considered an art form. However, as prose is defined as written or spoken language that follows the natural flow of speech, this does not make prose automatically an art form. For prose to be an art form, it needs to be creative prose, such as fictional prose.

Writing prose is as simple as speaking it: you write prose in sentences and lay them out as paragraphs. You write good prose by being clear and concise and by using the best and smallest amount of words possible to convey your meaning.

Final Prose Quiz

Question

What is prose?

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Answer

Prose is written or spoken language that typically follows the natural flow of speech.

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Question

What are the types of prose?

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Answer

  • Non-fictional prose
  • Fictional prose
  • Heroic prose

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Question

What is poetic prose?

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Answer

We can say that prose is poetic when the author employs poetic qualities such as vivid imagery.

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Question

Why did writers begin writing more in prose in the 18th century?

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Answer

  • The rise of the novel
  • Popular novels like Samuel Richardson's Pamela popularised the novel form, and therefore prose

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Question

If prose is written in the natural patterns of everyday speech, then how is poetry written?

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Answer

Poetry does not always follow the natural patterns of speech, it is more carefully constructed and refined.

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Question

Prose is organised into words, clauses, sentences, paragraphs, headings/chapters. How is poetry organised?

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Answer

Syllables, words, feet, lines, stanzas, cantos.

Show question

Question

Prose sentences should follow the correct syntax and be clear, and easy to understand. Is poetry any different?

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Answer

Yes, in poetry, syntax is often manipulated and words are arranged in an unconventional order.


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Question

Prose doesn't follow patterns of sound such as metre, rhyme or rhythm. Do sound qualities play an important role in poetry?

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Answer

Yes. The emphasis placed on the musical qualities of words in poetry is one of poetry's defining characteristics. Metre, rhythm and rhyme are important in poetry.

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Question

Prose writing is often long and heavily detailed. Poems are...?

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Answer

... often short. Poetry is all about packing as much meaning as possible into every word.

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Question

In prose, clauses and sentences are structured logically and naturally follow on from one another. Prose is narrative-focused, whereas...

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Answer

Poetry can tell a narrative but what is really given centre stage in poems is the expression of emotions and vivid imagery.

Show question

Question

Prose doesn't have line breaks...

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Answer

Poems do!

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Question

If prose and poetry are not fixed categories, what is a helpful way to think about them?

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Answer

  • As being on a spectrum!
  • On the far left side is the most run-of-the-mill prose you can imagine, plain, just facts. On the far right side is conventional poetry, written very neatly, with all its images and rhymes.
  • On the left side, we have creative prose, poetic prose which still fall under the ball park of prose, while possessing poetic quaities.
  • On the right side, we have prose poetry and free verse which count as poetry but are more a bit more prose-y.

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Question

Instead of comparing prose with poetry, it is more useful to compare it with...?

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Answer

Verse. Verse is writing with a metrical rhythm.

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Question

Why is it more useful to compare prose against verse and not against poetry?

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Answer

Because verse is more of a direct opposite to prose.

  • Prose is just any writing that does not follow a metrical rhythm.
  • Poetry is often written in verse (lines with a metrical rhythm)
  • But poetry can also be written in prose form (prose poetry).

Show question

Question

What is prose poetry?

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Answer

Prose poetry is poetry written in sentences and paragraphs, instead of verse, without line breaks.

Like conventional poetry, prose poetry is centred around vivid imagery and wordplay, rather than narrative.

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