Sunday, January 30, 2011

Stanley Fish on Sentences

I see that Stanley Fish has inaugurated and concluded his contest (over at Slate, link, link) to select great sentences from the English language.  I didn't get around to entering partly because I couldn't think of a  slam-dunk entry but also because I began to suspect that Fish's own enterprise had undercut himself.  That is--of Fish's own five, I'd say that only two deserve the recognition he grants.  And they would be the first two--one, from John Bunyan (1678):
Now he had not run far from his own door, but his wife and children perceiving it, began crying after him to return, but the man put his fingers
And his second, only  26 years later, from Jonathan Swift (1704)
Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how  much it altered her appearance for the worse.
The other three, which I won't trouble to reprint here, are elegant pieces of work in their own right and on their own terms.  But  none of them has the bite, power and drive of the great originals.  By corollary, if we were really looking for sentences with the quality of these, I suspect we might go right back again to these originals--in particular Bunyan, the electricity and directness of whose prose has almost never been equalled.  Fish's own choice is fine.  But you could have done just as well with the very first sentence in the book:
As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a Den, and I laid me down in that place to sleep: and, as I slept, I dreamed a dream.
Or the second:
 I dreamed, and behold, I saw a man clothed with rags, standing in a certainplace, with his face from his own house, a book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back.
Or the third:
I looked, and saw him open the book, and read therein; and, as he read, he wept, and trembled; and, not being able longer to contain, he brake out with alamentable cry, saying, What shall I do?
Or if that is too  convoluted, a few sentences later, the short version:
Now, I saw, upon a time, when he was walking in the fields, that he was, as he was wont, reading in his book, and greatly distressed in his mind; and, as he read, he burst out, as he had done before, crying, What shall I do to be saved?
But forget about Bunyan per se.  I think it is no accident that his best examples comes from the relative youth of the language, before it had become as self-involved as it does in his later instances.

In this light, I'm a little surprised that Fish passed over his own guiding light, John Milton.  It may be that he intended to bypass poetry.  But Milton, in addition to being a great poet, was also our  greatest pamphleteer.  And how can you improve on:

Methinks I see in my mind a noble and puissant nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks; methinks I see her as an eagle mewinher mighty youth, and kindling her undazzled eyes at the full midday beam; purging and unscaling her long-abused sight at the fountain itself of heavenly radiance.
[If you think I am cheating and giving two sentences, divided it before the second "methinks" and use either half.]

Exclusion of poetry might explain why we cannot use Shakespeare's "Love's not time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks/Within his bending sickle's compass come" (The spondees!  The spondees!).   But Shakespeare too wrote prose also and here, there are almost too many choices.  "What a piece of work is a man!" is part of an electrifying paragraph, although as a sentence it might qualify in its own right.  Still if I had to choose just one, it might be:
There live not three good men unhanged in England; and one of them is fat and grows old.
Going on in the same vein, I see that at least one of Fish's winning entries comes from the Bible--more precisely the King James Version, another product of the language's raw youth.   And so it goes: it is the language fashioned by Bunyan and Swift, and Shakespeare and Milton and the Bible, that we speak today and  nothing in the later elaboration can really top the beginning.  The best one can do is to try to  match that beginning; then you may hope to come up with something like what may truly be the best single sentence in the English language:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

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