The Columbus Dispatch recently ran a feature on the area’s scholar-athletes who are about to graduate from high school. They all responded to a series of interview questions. I took particular notice of the question that asked them to name their least favorite class. More than a few said that English was their least favorite because “writing essays is hard.” This started me thinking about why well-crafted sentences can turn my head in a heartbeat and make me fall in love with the arrangement of words on the page.
Take this passage from The Great Gatsby, for example, that describes Nick Carraway’s first glimpse of his cousin Daisy and her friend Jordan Baker:
The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on a wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.
There’s a good deal of action in those sentences even though most of them are describing the stationary Daisy and Jordan. The “rippling and fluttering” dresses, the “whip and snap of the curtains,” “the groan of a picture on a wall,” and, finally, the boom from Tom shutting the windows, the only concrete action in the passage and one that literally takes the air out of the room. Notice the progressive tense of “rippling and fluttering” to give a sense of an ongoing motion, the hard “p” sounds at the end of “whip and snap” to evoke the sharp sounds of the curtains being blown by a hard wind. Finally, notice the compounds in the last sentence, each “and,” slowing the sentence down as “the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.” Such a vivid portrait made possible by the intricacies of language.
Or this passage from Nick as he opens the book:
When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart. Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction—Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.
Here we have a more abstract passage meant to make plain Nick’s state of mind on the other side of the events he’s about to describe, but even here in less precisely detailed sentences, Fitzgerald uses a metaphor—the world in uniform and standing “at some sort of moral attention”—to stylize, or literally dress up Nick’s reaction to this portion of his life. “I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart.” Notice the use of assonance—the repetition of the “s” sounds in “riotous,” “excursions,” “glimpses.” Also notice the alliteration of “human heart.” This stylized language gives what could have been a rather plain sentence more sizzle. Finally, notice the parallel structures in the last sentence that occur each time the name, “Gatsby,” is used and then amplified by first an appositive (“the man who give his name to this book”) and then an adjective clause (“who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn”). This parallelism, along with the repetition of the name, “Gatsby,” emphasizes Nick’s strong feelings for him. So a passage whose primary purpose is to give us information also has music at its heart.
It’s that music that we need, not just for the sake of the writing, but for our own sakes as well. So much of the world around us is chaotic and without reason. A well-crafted sentence is an antidote against this discord. A precise and beautifully constructed sentence holds the chaos of our lives at bay. It provides a structure that gives us the illusion that we can live forever even if our words are describing the moments that threaten to destroy us.
Some of those scholar-athletes didn’t like English class because they found it hard to write essays. Sure, it’s hard to write a beautiful sentence, and I’ll admit it’s harder for some than for others. Still, there’s something about a gorgeous sentence that makes me feel all is right in the world even if it isn’t. I labor nearly every day of my life to write such sentences. I gladly take on this work because it’s the only way I know to give some sort of integrity to the world around me. It’s the only way I know—at least for the time I spend immersed in word choice, and syntax, and structure—to shape the life I’m living, to rely on the music of language. Why shouldn’t writing a good and beautiful sentence be hard? It’s our attempt at salvation.