Pleasurable sentences

“Why should a sequence of words be anything but a pleasure?”
— Gertrude Stein

This quote was cited by Dr. Brooks Landon in the very first lecture of my new class, Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft. He conducted an interesting exploration of the quote and its possible meanings, and then assigned me homework: to list a few sentences that I find pleasurable. What a delightful idea! However, I quickly found that I had trouble separating my emotional response, or affinity for the sentiment expressed by a sentence, from the sentence itself giving me “pleasure” — but then I realized that that was one of his points in the lecture, that he feels you actually can’t separate a sentence’s form from its meaning, and the choice of phrasing does, in fact, alter the message being communicated.

After some musing, here’s what I came up with:

“I cannot read the fiery letters,” said Frodo in a quavering voice. — J.R.R. Tolkien
This sentence is so visually evocative for me that it can’t help being a pleasure. Frodo’s phrasing is also perfect (“cannot” instead of “can’t”, and I just love the term “fiery letters”).
Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. — William Butler Yeats
This sentiment really resonates with me, and I think Yeats hit on an eloquent pair of analogies to express it. I also like the parallel construction in the two clauses.
The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself. — Henry Miller
How true it is. And each time I read this sentence, I find myself briefly lost in imagining the world inside a blade of grass — a neat magic trick executed by Mr. Miller!
Letter writing is the only device for combining solitude with good company. — George Gordon Byron
I have many quotes on the merits of solitude. This is one of my favorites, and it evokes many happy memories of lounging on my porch, writing letters to distant friends, and feeling as if they were sitting with me, sharing deep conversation in person. I like this sentence for its juxtaposition of apparent antonyms, which yields insight into how they can, in fact, be combined.
Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: What! You, too? Thought I was the only one. — C.S. Lewis
Again, this one really resonates with me. But I also really like his phrasing, which ably captures the combined feelings of surprise and delight when you strike up a new friendship.
May serendipity enter your door without knocking (but also without using a crowbar). — Elizabeth Vaughan
This sentence was occasioned by a real experience with a real crowbar and my own real front door, but I think it stands quite well on its own even without that memory. The roughness of “crowbar” coming as it does at the end of an otherwise smooth and graceful sentence is like a sudden exhalation that always makes me chuckle.
And a sweet and powerful positive obsession blunts pain, diverts rage, and engages each of us in the greatest, the most intense of our chosen struggles. — Lauren Oya Olamina (Octavia Butler)
It’s always a pleasure when someone provides at least the appearance of a justification for our obsessions.

What sentences bring you pleasure?

Meanwhile, I’m eagerly anticipating the remaining 23 lectures in this series. Thank you, Teaching Company!

4 of 4 people learned something from this entry.

  1. Elizabeth said,

    February 23, 2009 at 1:06 pm

    (Learned something new!)

    Wow! I am so honored to have made your list!

    I had the same experience that you had with being unable to separate a beautiful thought or concept from its expression, but I don’t quite agree that they’re inseparable. Like a bad painting of a beautiful woman, I think a fine sentiment can be expressed badly. In fact, a large part of my work is un-burying fine sentiments and strong arguments, the better to persuade the audience. Similarly, some truly odious thoughts can be beautifully expressed — I’m thinking at the moment of Nabokov’s Lolita, as well as many a handsomely written political speech.

    Interestingly, when I got your letter about this, I immediately flew to my bookcase, assuming without thinking that the professor was thinking of sentences from literature. Your selection of sentences from a wider array of sources (including some rather humble ones — cough, cough) reminded me that pleasurable sentences are everywhere.

    This course sounds like a blast — I may just take it!

  2. Susan said,

    February 24, 2009 at 5:00 am

    (Learned something new!)

    What a lovely idea!

    Of course, now that you’re asking, I seem to be unable to come up with a concrete example of a pleasurable sentence, even though I notice and take pleasure in good sentences when I find them.

    I particularly enjoy alliteration, oxymoron, and poetry with rhyme scheme. Rhyme schemes aren’t very fashionable right now, but I think I am most awed when I find an instance where they’re used effectively. “The Raven” sends a shiver down my spine every time I hear or read it, and that’s been plenty of times now :).

  3. David said,

    March 1, 2009 at 9:30 am

    (Learned something new!)

    I certainly agree with the sentiment. There are some authors whose writing propels me through a book mostly by the beauty of their sentence constructions, even if the plot or subject matter are less appealing. I particularly enjoy sentences crafted by Steinbeck and Bertrand Russell. Another book which had that effect on me was “The Scarlet Letter”: I recall the feeling of beautifully constructed prose with a light undertone of irony (though it’s been 8 years).

    Unfortunately, I don’t take notes nearly often enough, so as far as concrete sentences, I can only offer up very few:
    1. “It seems to me that if you or I must choose between two courses of thought or action, we should remember our dying and try so to live that our death brings no pleasure to the world.” (Steinbeck, East of Eden)

    Going back and analyzing why I like this construction: drawing the reader in with “you or I” (instead of, say, “we”). The parallel construction of “you or I”, “thought or action” (and the choice of including “thought” explicitly”). The humility implied in “It seems to me”. The unexpected modesty of the goal. And finally, the feeling of the construction “so to live that”, which just sounds neat.

    2. “You can boast about anything if it’s all you have. Maybe the less you have, the more you are required to boast.” (ibid.)

    A very simple construction. But the first sentence has a certain wistfulness to it. And the second one surprises the reader with an initially counter-intuitive parallel.

    And another one, this one by Samuel Butler (though I don’t remember if it’s from “Erewhon” or from “The Way of All Flesh”):

    3. “For they know that they will sooner gain their end by appealing to
    men’s pockets, in which they have generally something of their own,
    than to their heads, which contain for the most part little but
    borrowed or stolen property.”

    Another very surprising juxtaposition, obviously being perceived as very sarcastic, but also oddly apt. I also like sentences beginning with the word “For”. I like the use of the word “sooner”.

    While we’re on the topic: this is actually very similar to music/piano playing. There are pieces which in addition to sounding nice make you move and stretch your hands in certain ways that it is physically pleasurable. I particularly recall that effect from some passages in Ravel’s Piano Trio.

  4. Terran said,

    March 2, 2009 at 7:10 am

    (Learned something new!)

    I’m not quite sure I understand the distinction that the lecturer was drawing. It seems to me that “meaning” is a many-layered construct, and a sentence can communicate on many or all of those layers simultaneously (though many do not). But the emotional, aesthetic, metaphorical, etc. layers of meaning are at least as important as the denotational layer. In very well crafted sentences, all of these can be active simultaneously and deliberately, conveying a great deal more richness than a superficial reading would suggest. Indeed, a lot of what I find compelling in poetry is this effect, and some of my favorite prose is very poetic in feel. For example, William Carlos William’s poem “This is Just to Say”:

    I have eaten
    the plums
    that were in
    the icebox

    and which
    you were probably
    for breakfast.

    Forgive me
    they were delicious
    so sweet
    and so cold.

    There’s a lot implied here that isn’t made explicit in the text. I think that the ultimate extension of this is haiku, which is possibly one of the most highly compressed forms of communication I know of. I would like to learn Japanese just to be able to properly read it, because there’s clearly a lot going on, much or most of it in the structure, aesthetics, mood, and emotional content, not to mention the layers of literal meanings depending on different interpretations of the homonyms.

    But to answer your question, there are many sentences and bits of poetry that I enjoy on many levels. Unfortunately, I don’t have my library to hand, and most of them I don’t remember literally or well enough to do the author justice. But I’ll try with a few here. All misquotes the fault of fallible human memory.

    Only in silence the word
    Only in darkness light
    Only in dying life
    Bright, the hawk’s flight, on the empty sky.
    – Ursula K. LeGuin, A Wizard of Earthsea

    Once he had stood in this courtyard, by this fountain, and felt himself a word spoken by sunlight. Now the darkness had spoken as well.
    – ibid.

    I have, of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth.
    – Shakespeare, Hamlet

    What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
    how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
    express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
    in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
    world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
    what is this quintessence of dust?
    – ibid.

    It had the beauty, possessed by only the highest order of weapons, that awaits only use to be complete.
    – Roger Zelazny, Lord of Light

    Up from the Earth’s center, through the Seventh Gate I rose,
    And on the Throne of Saturn sate;
    Many a knot unravelled by the road,
    But not the master knot of human fate.

    There was a door to which I found no key,
    There was a veil through which I might not see;
    Some little talk a while of me and thee there was
    And then no more of me and thee.
    – Omar Khayyam, The Rubaiyat (Roughly after Fitzgerald’s third translation, as best my memory serves.)

    I beheld a vast checkerboard of nights and days
    On which Fate with men for pieces plays;
    Hither and thither moves and mates and slays;
    And one by one, back in the closet lays.
    – ibid.

    Imagine a snowflake floating down an infinite well. Now remove the snowflake and the well, and leave only the floating.
    – Roger Zelazny, Creatures of Light and Darkness

    The sky was the color of television tuned to a dead channel.
    – William Gibson, Neuromancer (Oft quoted and parodied, but still one of the best lines in SF. It’s incredibly effective at plunging you immediately into a mood and a world.)

    The dove descending breaks the air
    With flame of incandescent terror
    Of which the tongues declare
    The one discharge from sin and error.
    – T. S. Eliot, The Four Quartets

    We shall not cease from exploration,
    And the end of all our exploring
    Shall be to return to where we began
    And know the place for the first time.
    – ibid.

    What’s the name of the word for the precise moment when you realize that
    you’ve actually forgotten how it felt to make love to somebody you really liked
    a long time ago?
    – Neal Gaiman, Sandman

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