Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

The Other Harmony of Sentences

Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

The Other Harmony of Sentences

Article excerpt

In his biography of Edith Wharton, R. W. B. Lewis repeats the following anecdote. Wharton and Henry James were in Wharton's car, on their way to visit a friend, when they got lost. The chauffeur pulled over, and, writes Lewis, James beckoned to "an ancient doddering man" who was staring at them in the rain and darkness, and in the most ornate Jamesian style, full of interpolations and asides, sought to ask his advice. The old man merely looked dazed, and James continued his labyrinthine interrogation until Edith, unable to stand it, said, "Oh, please, do ask him where the King's Road is." "Ah-? The King's Road? Just so! Can you, as a matter of fact, tell us where, in relation to our present position, the King's Road exactly is?"

"Ye're in it," said the aged face at the window. Aside from genteel mirth, what this droll little tale affords us is an object lesson in polarized syntax. Between the dizzying efflorescences of James and a gaffer's terse, pragmatic grunts, most human utterance somewhere falls. Whether we choose to speak plainly or through intricate volutes, like Dick and Jane or Henry and Marcel, syntax has its way with us. As the "ancient doddering man" eloquently states, "Ye're in it": For better or worse, syntax is the King's Road (grammar being only the cobblestones) linking one mind with another, and, at our more lucid moments, with its own provinces.

If the above seems self-evident, so will much of the below. But syntax's importance is, to mooch from Dr. Johnson his useful distinction, a truth of which we need to be naggingly reminded, not told. In fact, the very ineluctability of syntax-ye're in it even now-may help explain why writers rarely address it as such; like many givens, syntax suffers from casual neglect. It tends to bleed into, or be subsumed by, vaguer, more evocative rubrics: "tone," "style," "rhythm." And yet what could be less safely ignored? Without passionate vigilance to his sentences as sentences, the writer simply isn't one. According to J. A. K. Thompson, "The Greeks never had any doubt that the structure of the sentence was far more important than any ornament"; rather more recently, Frederick Exley admitted that "Sometimes I lingered for an hour over a single sentence, marveling at the intricate and various combinations words could take." In so dawdling Exley, like the Greeks, merely met one of the basic demands of his vocation. For it's the author's chosen duty to calibrate each burst of data: Between that inaugurating majuscule and the terminal dot, how much will be allowed to happen? How will the captive words therein comport themselves? These are hard matters to decide, and harder still to talk unstodgily about.

Perhaps the best place to start is with etymology. "Syntax" derives from the Greek syntassein, "to put in order," while "sentence" wends down to us from the Latin sentire, "to discern by the senses and mind, to feel, to think." Curiously, the grammatical meaning of the latter word comes only eighth in my big Webster's; shades of judicial righteousness dominate the list, although the lone citation appears courtesy of Milton: "My sentence is for open war." (Now there's poetic justice for you.)

These arbitral values are not irrelevant, for he who writes sentences also, on some level, passes them-a slap-on-the-wrist five-word term for this defendant; sixty of grueling subordinate clauses for that-and should therefore undertake the job in a spirit of prudence, fairness, and sober accountability. Dickinson agrees: I read my sentence-steadily Reviewed it with my eyes, To see that I made no mistake In its extremist clauseOn the other hand, the etymology commands the sentencer to "discern by the senses" and "feel"; instinct, and even emotion, must enter into the calculus of his dolings-out. But then, back on the former hand, the sentencing scribe remains bound, in his larger capacity as syntactician (the word's Napoleonic profile glints in this light), "to put in order"; his task is not to compose sweet music, but to uphold the iron law. …

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