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Literature and Ideas

Straight and Bent

Do you know where the words “prose” and “verse” come from? It’s quite interesting, I think.

Both terms derive from ancient Rome, where agriculture was the primary mode of production: in other words, almost everyone except the elite was employed in farming, either as slaves or as wage-earners — and the upper classes were farmers, too, to the extent that they owned the land and would expect to receive a steady financial return from it.

Fields by Marzia Colonna (1951–).

In Latin, the word versus could refer to a field’s “furrow”, the trench made in the ground to prepare it before the seeds were sown. That word, in turn, came from the verb vertere, which simply meant “to turn” (think of the English “reverse”, which can be interpreted etymologically as an act of “turning back”), because the plough would be dragged in a straight line along the soil and would then be turned around to be dragged over — or, indeed, to turn over — the next line of earth. By analogy, the term came to be applied to poetry, where line would follow line in strict metrical rhythm (“free verse” hadn’t yet been invented).

If you add the prefix pro- to the original verb, you get provertere, which first meant “to turn ahead” and later came to mean something like “to move forwards”. So the adjective prorsus meant both “straight ahead” as a direction of travel and also “straightforward” in the sense of something uncomplicated. In everyday speech, prorsus became shortened to prosus, since the shorter word was easier to fit in the mouth, and from there came English “prose”, the type of text that goes on without being broken up into regular lines.

So the two English words are related through the twists and turns of linguistic history. And if we think back to the origin of “verse”, it provides a nice metaphor, the poet as ploughman, as labourer and farmhand, working steadily on hostile ground and with little certainty of success. But working the earth nonetheless. This connection was explored by Seamus Heaney in his poem Digging, where he reconciles his guilt at not working with his hands, as his ancestors had, with the hard, heady labour involved in building order out of words. So I’m going off now to reread that poem: you’re welcome to join me…

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