Friday, February 15, 2019

Splendid Sentences, Part 11: John Donne on Mortality


English poet John Donne (1572-1631) is probably best known for his widely quoted prose work, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, which he published in 1624. Donne wrote Devotions to document his reflections while enduring a near-death illness. Devotions artistically validates the expression "our whole life flashes before our eyes when we're about to die." He divided the book into 23 parts, each representing a day of his illness, from his first symptoms to the depths of sickness, to his ultimate recovery. 

The book is at once a spiritual self-examination, a conversation with humanity, and an appeal to God. The 23 parts are subdivided into 3 parts: Meditation, a representation of his experience while ill; Expostulation, his metaphysical reaction to it; and Prayer, his coming to terms with it. 

In the meditation section of Part 17, Donne faces the specter of death with this admission: "Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he know not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that." Later in this passage comes Donne's arguably most famous sentence, in 81 words: 
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Does a chill run down your spine as you absorb the existential quality of that remarkable sentence? The sheer moral responsibility that Donne holds us to simultaneously overwhelms and inspires.

Read previous installments of "Splendid Sentences" on Words on the Line:

Friday, February 08, 2019

Splendid Sentences, Part 10: Edward Albee on Carson McCullers

In 1963, playwright Edward Albee wrote a 6 paragraph, 7 sentence, 186-word tribute to Carson McCullers, which includes the embellishments cotillion and legerdemain; the capitalization of four common nouns in a sentence (Child, Sage, Pain, and Joy); and an exclamation point, three dashes, and four colons in imperative sentences all followed by the opener Examine this. Here is one them, in 39 of those words, not the longest sentence in the piece but a fifth of its entirety:
Examine this: She is a lady who, as a girl, trained as a concert pianist, until she discovered that the keyboard of the typewriter, when played with magic, produced a music wilder and more beautiful than any other instrument.  
Now there's a sweet thought, fraught with subjectivity and imprecision for sure, but imaginative and thought-provoking. What is wonderful about Albee's short essay is that its five repetitious, hyperbolic sentences in the middle are sandwiched by two brief ones: the opener Carson McCullers is indeed a curious magician and closer She is kind enough to call me her friend. To understand such heartfelt praise for an extraordinary writer, read The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, McCullers's first novel, completed when she was only 23. If you already have, read it again.

More of Albee's reflections appear in Stretching My Mind.

Friday, February 01, 2019

Splendid Sentences, Part 9: T. S. Eliot on Dante

T. S, Eliot writes in his 1929 essay titled simply "Dante":
For the science and art of writing verse, one has learned from the Inferno that the greatest poetry can be written with the greatest economy of words, and with the greatest austerity in the use of metaphor, simile, verbal beauty, and elegance.
How about that for a statement ahead of it's time! No doubt, Eliot's insistence that Dante was a master of simplicity influenced later instructive books on poetry by Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, Babette Deutsch, and John Ciardi, which universities across America used for years.

Let's look for a moment at Eliot's 42-word sentence, not for what he means but as a semantic and syntactic collection that comprises the writer's style. He suspends his subject with two introductory prepositional phrases (For the science and art and of writing), uses the now-stodgy one as a pronoun, prefers the passive voice (can be written), repeats greatest twice, chooses austerity in the use of where a more concise limits would do, breaks parallelism of a noun series with the adjective verbal, and creates ambiguity by not delineating beauty and elegance. If college composition students were to employ merely one of these seven devices throughout a writing assignment, an uniformed, pedantic teacher would downgrade their essay for committing what he considers an unforgivable rhetorical sin. Yet the sentence stands as a grammatically correct, complex construction that conveys a fresh, intriguing, bold proposition, which should delight any wide-awake writing instructor.   

You can read this and other Eliot essays in Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot