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