I enoy the literary discussions on Ricochet. Each time we have one my reading list gets that much longer. In the past week or so we’ve talked about the most moving scenes in literature, the funniest scenes, and the books that have been turned into great movies -- and those are the ones I remember.
For years, I’ve been a collector of sentences.
Tom Clancy could put together a great plot, but his sentences were mostly leaden. D H. Lawrence’s novels are filled with animal passion, but the prose is horrid. Vince Flynn is a master of the well-written action scene, but we don’t read him for the beautiful prose (don’t get me wrong, he can really write).
Other writers are poetic, writing the occasional great sentence or paragraph, but their books just don’t hold together as stories.
The best writers combine plot, characterization, scene, dialogue, humor, and “felicitous” sentences. (Random House: “Felicitous: well-suited for the occasion, as an action, manner, or expression; apt . . . .”). Jane Austen may be the best at combining all the elements.
For the most part the great sentences I’ll quote below come from great pieces of literature, but a great sentence can exist in an inferior piece of writing.
What do I mean by a “great sentence”? They come in many varieties. Some perfectly describe an event or scene. Some are pure poetry. Some state with clarity a beautiful truth. Others are perfectly hilarious.
The opening line of Pride and Prejudice is “all the above”: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
In political writing, Mark Steyn and Jonah Goldberg create memorable, telling sentences.
The Bible is filled with great sentences. How about these three from just the first chapter of Ecclesiastes?:
“One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth forever.” [KJV Ecclesiastes 1:4]
“All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.” [KJV Ecclesiastes 1:7]
“For in much wisdom is much grief; and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” [KJV Ecclesiastes 1:18]
Great sentences can transform even the simplest scene into a spiritual moment. In Willa Cather’s My Antonia, Jim, the young narrator, and his friend Antonia visit two Russian bachelors eking out a living on poor, remote farmland. As they sit in the Russians’ ramshackle cabin, Jim, the young narrator, describes the sound of the wind (to be fair, there are three sentences here, but the first two lead in to the last one, which is perfect):
“The wind shook the doors and windows impatiently, then swept on again, singing through the big spaces. Each gust, as it bore down, rattled the panes, and swelled off like the others. They made me think of defeated armies, retreating; or of ghosts, who were trying desperately to get in for shelter, and then went moaning on.”
With its two similes and powerful verbs, Cather in this sentence creates an unforgettable image of the wind rolling across open prairie.
Consider a single sentence from the “The Martyr,” a short story by the Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutogawa. In 18 simple words, the author captures the essence of the passage of time:
“A year passed like a snowflake that falls into the river, a moment white and then gone forever.”
For the young, time is glacial. But for people like me, who long ago passed life’s mid-point, this sentence describes time as we now experience it: a brief white moment, then forever gone.
Or this very long sentence from the Robert Fagles translation of the Iliad, where Homer uses the advancing sea as a metaphor for the attacking Achean (Greek) army:
“As a heavy surf assaults some roaring coast,
piling breaker on breaker whipped by the West Wind,
and out on the open sea a crest first rears its head
then pounds down on the shore with hoarse,
rumbling thunder against some rocky spit, exploding salt foam to the skies—
so wave on wave they came, Achean battalions ceaseless surging on to war.”
Because the sea was a constant presence to the Acheans (they fought with their backs to the sea throughout the decade-long Trojan War), it is a perfect metaphor for inexorable Achean battalions surging forward to destroy Troy.
Finally, consider this sentence from Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. Ada and Inman, now reunited, contemplate their future together. A lesser writer might have written: “The prospect of long happy lives together stretched out before them.” Instead, Frazier found a vivid, beautiful way of saying much the same thing:
“They would grow old together measuring time by the life spans of a succession of speckled bird dogs.”
It's quite easy to tell a great sentence: after you read one, you think, "Wow! I could die happy if I'd written that."
The floor is yours. Who writes great sentences? Give us examples. What makes them great? [Note: Jane Austen sentences gratefully accepted in this thread].