The Other Harmony of Sentences

Ben Downing

Vol. 23, No. 1, 1998


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 clause

On 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.

At the risks of tedium and pedantry, I’ve exhumed these tangled roots because they point up the complex, often contradictory demands that syntax heaps on us. To put a language in order is daunting enough; to do so sensually, feelingly, is downright formidable. Alas, we have no choice: Our quills must somehow keep their avian lightness even as they hand down stern verdicts. If we pass a sentence barbarically, like a gas, it will run afoul of technicalities and be overturned, whereas one murmured by timid rote may stand, but will hardly set admired precedents for later courts.

The phrase juste, then, is more difficult to turn than the mere mot—tougher even, perhaps, than the irreproachable metaphor. Unlike the trope or single word, the blameless sentence—one whose delicate suspension the slightest change would vitiate—has first to satisfy grammatical convention, then transcend it. A sentence usually needs to be correct before it can hope to be good, after all.

“We must take our sentences seriously, which means we must understand them philosophically,” counsels William H. Gass. While I’m far from being able to grasp them in the rigorous way he means and advocates, I would like roughly to echo his call. Beyond bringing to the individual sentence a whole bundle of alertnesses—to weight, speed, position, rest, balance, quantity, enchanting chimes vs. ugly rasps—and tools; in addition to cocking an animal ear to how each sentence hinges on its neighbors, both complementing and subverting them; and on top of sticking to, yet meanwhile bending, established rules, the writer should, I think, revere syntax in its sheer Platonic mystery, as an abstract, endlessly pliant form anterior to the words that flesh it out, but visible only when they do.

What about the poet, though? Does all this hold true for him? Or should his seriousness be elsewhere trained, his fiercest fealty sworn to other systems, other gods?


I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definition of prose and poetry; that is, prose = words in their best order; poetry = the best words in the best order.

Thus, famously, Coleridge. Judging from his emphasis, Coleridge’s main grouse here appears to be with the impoverishment of the upstarts’ lexicon rather than their skill in arranging it. Yet he also raises the question of just what constitutes “the best order.” Of course, we’re almost certain (and are perhaps meant) to balk at this sketchy, invidious gesture toward “bestness”—not, hopefully, because we find it elitist so to discriminate between orders, but because Coleridge exasperatingly refuses to divulge, as if they were plain as pike-staffs, his own criteria for ranking them.

Furthermore, the “best order” for prose surely isn’t identical, much of the time, to the one for poetry, which must always take into account the handicaps it has perversely brought on itself, none more awkward than lineation. Where prose can saunter insouciantly across the foolscap, secure in the knowledge that it will resurface unharmed at the left margin, poetry, a crazed lemming, hurls itself repeatedly into the white, whence it must pick its bruised self up and start over again. (Valery called poetry “a language within a language”; it’s also a page within a page.)

This isn’t to elevate the Sisyphean art above the sensible. Coleridge snubs prose by implying that it can subsist, like a weed, on words of the second water, and I have no wish to add insult to his injury. The decision-making process that goes into a paragraph is every bit as stringent as the one that generates a stanza. But these two procedures not only differ markedly, they may endorse, better than anything else, our accustomed segregation of the genres.

With Coleridge, then, I humbly disagree: Prose = words in one kind of order; poetry = words in another. As Saintsbury observes:

[B]etween the syntax-taking that word in its proper sense of the order of words-of prose and the syntax of verse; between the rhythm of prose and the rhythm of verse; between the sentenceand clause-architecture of prose and the sentence- and clause-architecture of verse, there has been since English literature took a durable form in the sixteenth century at least as strongly marked a difference in English as in other languages.

After all, word-sequence and sentence-length in prose are determined by the writer’s instinct for syntax alone; his basic quantity is the sentence, and beyond that the paragraph. In poetry, though, both sequence and length also can be swayed by other acoustic considerations: for meter, line-length and -shape, and placement of an end-rhyme, to list a few that are nameable and commonly shared; the obscurer reasons for poets putting words where they do are often baffling even to themselves.

If pressed, most poets probably would designate the line as their fundamental unit—beyond the level of the foot, that is—with the stanza coming next. Part of the reason for this, I suspect, is that the line and stanza are hefts unique to poetry, the totems or shibboleths of a jealous tribe. When we castigate a poem as hacked-up prose, it’s often less verbosity than the flaccid lack of specifically poetic pressures and concisions, forced by working in lines, that irks us; the would-be bard, we may carp in these cases, hasn’t subjected his language to the native austerities of the art he presumes to practice.

Although I’m not about to quarrel with lineation or the status we accord it, I do want to stress the obvious yet oft-forgotten fact that, while lines may enclose sentences, more frequently it’s the other way around. The sentence, no less than the line, is a rudimentary, non-elective measurement for poetry, just as for any kind of meaningful speech. Sculpting alabaster lines doesn’t free us from the responsibility of laying down, in the process, chiseled sentences as well.

In fact, it only adds to the chore, because verse, with its embrangling clutch of hothouse needs, complicates what was once clarified; syntax has its affairs primly worked out when some poet comes along and mucks them up. Lineation and stanzation admit into the sentence’s environment a competing system of stops and pauses. These two networks may reach, as in the Augustan mode, a euphonious and symbiotic concord. Or else they may brawl nastily, as witness the jarring effect of certain enjambments, which dictate a hitch in the voice where the syntax doesn’t demand one. A secondary meaning of the French enjamber is, fittingly, “to encroach upon”; a poet who chops and apportions his lines against the reasonable dictates of syntax is trespassing on its venerable authority.

To do so sometimes is blithely assumed, moreover, to be one of his inherited prerogatives. Dryden, who himself never misused it, defined poetic license as “the liberty which poets have assumed to themselves in all ages, of speaking things in verse, which are beyond the severity of prose.” But how are we to interpret that ambiguous “beyond”? If we take it as meaning a kind of diplomatic immunity to the laws of prose, it sounds like special pleading, and poets are no better than arrogantly Teflon ambassadors; many have acted up in just this way, disdainfully flouting such niceties as grammar and logic as beneath their visionary eminence. If, however, we read Dryden’s “beyond” as indicating a second (I hesitate to say higher) severity contiguous with that of prose, poets look much sharper: They can be seen, at this more flattering slant, as boldly yet scrupulously adapting the syntactical means of one mode to the arcane, sometimes fugitive ends of the other.

The abuse of poetic license, or more specifically of sentences behind its brazen aegis, is an outrage too common, dull, and gruesome to dwell profitably on. Instead, for the remainder of this essay, I’m going to consider the opposite: those poets who pay exquisite attention to syntax, and to how it helixes with a poem’s other determining strands. By “syntax” I understand not only the length, order, and design of sentences, but punctuation; the management of tense, mood, and parts of speech; certain types of repetition, omission, and grammatically otiose inclusion; and, more generally—more hazily—that which, along with meter, regulates the flow and pace of poems. In short, I intend to play fast and loose with the term, hypocritically granting myself the same carte blanche I’ve just lamented. My only defense is that most of us aren’t quite sure what, or rather exactly how much, we mean by “syntax.” Like “poetry,” it’s a slippery, elastic word whose full scope and resonance no O.ED. can circumscribe.

Apropos of hemming in, I neither aim nor am able to provide anything like an overview, let alone a comprehensive history, of English poetic syntax.* [FOOTENOTE: *Not even Donald Davie’s Articulate Energy (1955), the only book on the subject known to me, attempts such a history. This is a gap in our history that sorely needs filling.] What follows is merely a hodgepodge of passages—many of them already over-quoted chestnuts, for which my apologies—where I find some kind of syntactical merit. As for my chances of pinning down said merits, I can’t be optimistic. Pleasures belonging strictly to the sentence—as opposed to those of, say, diction—are among the trickiest to name, describe, or even single out. Paradoxically, the more sophisticated the poem, the less patly we can account for any given shudder it sets off in us. In such poems all matrices mesh, everything buttresses, compounds, and amplifies everything else, so that whatever goosebumps we may get are typically due to a happy convergence of effects.

Still, I hope here to indicate a few of the ways in which the art of writing in lines can heighten (where it can also undercut) the satisfactions of syntax. Dryden once referred to “the other harmony of prose”; the other harmony I want to tease out is that of sentences themselves: both the second harmony sentences acquire when they pass over into poems, and the extra music poems amass by letting sentences snake through them. To reverse Milton, my war is for the sentence.


Let’s start small. In my Webster’s, definition 2a of “syntax” reads: “Sentence structure, the due arrangement of word forms to show their mutual relations in the sentence.” The most basic syntactical choice made by a poet, as by any writer, is simply whether to plunk the words down in this order, or whether in this order the words should be downplunked.

At the literary level, “due arrangement” isn’t the issue, of course; the web of kinship or hierarchy governing a pack of words presumably comes clear as they fan out across the page. Where the poet gets to show off his or her light, masterful touch is at those places in the sentence where familiar rosters are subtly marred, scrambled, tampered with. For these procedures, the broad rhetorical term is hyperbaton (from the Greek for “a stepping over”).

Consider how many of the most celebrated openings in English poetry depend on hyperbaton of one sort or another. “Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit / Of that forbidden tree” and “About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters,” to take two with a similar warp (and a similar concern for human woe): What makes these lines immediately memorable isn’t so much the words themselves as the ear-catching inversion of their arrangement. Once heard, such expert wrenchings of idiomatic sequence are never forgotten; you cannot begin a poem “Of blah blah blah” without nodding, deliberately or no, toward Milton, or commence another “About this and that” without winking ostentatiously at Auden.

Frost has managed to lodge at least two first-line hyperbatons in our collective gray matter: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” and “Whose woods these are I think I know.” Curiously, the effect of the former, a mere anastrophe (Gr. “turning upside down”) of “There is” and “something,” feels more extreme than that of the latter, in which two whole, four-word grammatical units have been flipped as if across an invisible axis cleaving the line. But this is exactly as it should be. For “Stopping by Woods” is a poem of rustic quietude, and its rather antique hyperbaton helps establish both the poem’s own meditative atmosphere and its bond to pastoral tradition. “Mending Wall,” meanwhile, laments a man-made smudge on the same Arcadia; its inversion therefore conveys the sense of natural order violated, what with Frost’s vague, ungainly “Something” shoved rudely to the front of the line. That it also queers the meter a bit, bracing the first foot in stiff trochaic counterthrust to the rest, adds to the impression of struggle and chagrin.

A still more tumultuous inversion is Hopkins’ “Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee which seems to me an acutely psychological brand of hyperbaton, the syntax’s welter betokening its author’s spiritual meltdown. Like Frost in “Mending Wall,” Hopkins here launches a pre-emptive strike, only his is against not just meter but meaning itself: The line twice sputters its protest before bothering to identify what’s being protested against. Driven to the brink of ungrammaticality, the syntax perilously teeters, with Hopkins’ mind, between chaos and white-knuckled control.

In short, a good hyperbaton achieves more than rhetorical concinnity for its own sake; it should seem at once the outcome and the catalyst of a poem’s particular truth. Yet trying to nail down the just-so-ness of a given dislocation can be an exercise in futility. “Elegance also derives from the arrangement of words, but it is not an easy subject to discuss,” concedes Demetrius, who elsewhere distinguishes between no less than four types of periodic sentence without so much as breaking a sweat.

Sometimes the best way to appreciate a hyperbaton is to undo it. For instance, Sidney’s “With how sad steps, Oh Moon, thou climbst the skies!” would more than squeak by—and metrically would survive intact—as “Thou climbs’t the skies, Oh Moon, with how sad steps!” As stands, however, you get a slow, modest acceleration in the line: that long—vowelled, lugubrious “how,” next the plodding spondee “sad steps,” then a pause for Sidney’s perfectly framed vocative, and, only at the end, a slight quickening with “climb’st the skies.” The line’s sequence has been tailored to track the moon’s melancholy progress.

If we inflict this kind of Duchampian mischief on the other abovequoted first lines, the results are increasingly pernicious. “Sing, Heavenly Muse, of man’s first disobience . . . ” would (leaving aside its metrical consequences) sound too sedulously classical; “The Old Masters were never wrong about suffering” and “There is something that doesn’t love a wall” would come out flat and undistinguished; far worse, “I think I know whose woods these are” would ring the hollow ring of fatuous doggerel. In all these cases, hyperbaton doesn’t just embellish the verse—it virtually makes it.

Another line graced by consonance of meaning and inversion is Wyatt’s “They flee from me, that sometime did me seek,” in which the resultant chiasmus—the approximate mirroring of the first half in the second—movingly captures the poet’s reversal of erotic fortune. Now compare with the opening stanza of Traherne’s “Wonder”:

How like an angel came I down!
How bright are all things here!
When first among his works I did appear,
O how their glory did me crown!
The world resembled his eternity,
In which my soul did walk,
And everything that I did see
Did with me talk.

To pick meanly on this poem, which has its virtues, its blitz of “did” constructions is, well, pretty obnoxious. Traherne’s hyperbatons, unlike Wyatt’s, occur not in point-for-point response to some organic need or stimulus burgeoning within the poem, but in a labored fashion. My hunch is that this stiltedness is exactly what Coleridge wants to dally with in, to lay out a third quote for comparison, his “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure dome decree.” Here the hyperbaton deliberately chimes quaint, a little arch, rather like the syntactical equivalent to commencing with “Once upon a time”; it contributes handsomely to the poem’s ambience of fairy tale or fable.

The reason I’ve been fussing over hyperbaton is that I believe it to be poetry’s most common, valuable, and characteristic syntactical figurethe prime means of attaining that separate, form-demanded and -inflected order I earlier proposed against Coleridge. Where, then, has it gone? It seems to me a funny paradox, or at least an irony, that as our verse putatively has gotten freer, our appetite for adventurous syntax has dwindled; with metrical manumission came certain kinds of syntactical guardedness and lassitude. When not blasted into shards altogether, our poetic constructions tend to be scarcely distinguishable from those of our prose. Here’s a telling fact: While Milton departs from normal subject-verb-object order about thirty percent of the time, and Pope even a tad more, there are, according to Otto Jespersen, only three hyperbatons in all of The Waste Land.

As for the impulses and pressures behind this phenomenon, I can only speculate. The weaning of English from—and, on the part of individual poets, the ignorance of or distaste for—Latin and the more flexible syntax it allows: These may be partially responsible. And then bad hyperbatons are creepy, odious. To bully Traherne again, his are the sort of hamfisted syntactical obtrusions, apparently insisted on to pay the rhyme and meter, that sully the device’s reputation, and that we’ve rightly grown to fear. The syntactical aspect of our current notion of what’s “poetic” in the negative sense—along with embarrassing frowzinesses like “thee” and “thy” and the syncopes “o’er” and “e’er”has a lot to do with such crude maneuvers.

Far be it from me, then, to advocate a renaissance of preciously “poetic” syntax. Many past customs of hyperbaton are best left buried, and poets, like all writers, should stick by and large to what Winston Churchill has called “the normal English sentence—which is a noble thing.” But to toss the figure outright with the perfumed bath water is a shame and a mistake. The minor yet persistent ruffling of expected order is a strategy no less gainful today than it ever was, and, I submit, one which it would behoove us to relearn.

To do so, we’d first have to liberate hyperbaton from its fogyish associations. This it every bit deserves. There’s nothing inherently atavistic or mannered, after all, about a poet tweaking his sentences into odd arrangements. Take, for example, the gimmick, as old as Chaucer but perfected by Milton, of sandwiching a noun between two adjectives: “temperate vapours bland,” to cite one from Paradise Lost, and, to name a more recent usage, Swinburne’s “lovely leaf-buds poisonous.” This encases the noun in a splendid nimbus of modification,* [FOOTNOTE *Although combining it with a verb hyperbaton, as in Gray’s “The generous spark extinct revive,” perhaps is overkill.] and I see no reason why it couldn’t be resuscitated.

The flip side of hyperbaton’s decay is that, when employed by those few modern poets alive to its unfashionable appeals, it can seem all the more robust by dint of going against the syntactical grain. Beginning as they do, poems like “Musee des Beaux Arts” and “Stopping by Woods” instantly tap into, and declare their (at least partial) affinity with, a rich poetic-rhetorical tradition.

I can think of no more poignant use of hyperbaton in our century than Larkin’s toward the end of “Church Going”: “A serious house on serious earth it is.” Those twin “seriouses” are so very much not to be trifled with that they’ve commandeered the line. Yet what makes the line great, for me, is the manifest Latinity of its word-order. Nostalgic, despite himself, for the old evaporated certitudes, Larkin confesses his respect for the Church in the normative syntax of its mother tongue. On several levels, including the syntactical, the line constitutes a focused ubi sunt.

Another fine, fairly recent, meat-and-potatoes hyperbaton is “There mounts in squalls a sort of rusty mire,” the first line of Lowell’s “The Exile’s Return.” In this case, the switch is less crucial than in certain others. “A sort of rusty mire mounts in squalls” would have been a spiffy line, too, and have obliged the meter just as well—yet far less tempestuously, dramatically. Lowell’s is just the kind of inversion we’d be wise more or less to emulate: one that heightens its poem without calling overmuch attention to itself, without seeming fusty or affected.

One final illustration of how hyperbaton can be adapted to our modern needs is the opening of Crane’s “At Melville’s Tomb.” This time, I’m going to quote the entire first stanza:

Often beneath the wave, wide from this ledge
The dice of dead men’s bones he saw bequeath
An embassy. Their numbers as he watched,
Beat on the dusty shore and were obscured.

Although this is a far cry from the Mallarmean opacity of syntax in which Crane sometimes trafficks, it’s still a bit weird. For instance, where most poets would tuck that trivial, unprepossessing “often” within the poem, Crane stations it at point; Tennyson might begin a poem “Beneath the wave,” but Crane prefers it rockier. Superficially, the technique is not unlike that in “Mending Wall”: a sort of advance parrying, both of seemly diction and of metrical anticipation, the trochee asserting itself before the brawny iambs of “beneath the wave” can make their rising bid for supremacy. And, as in Frost again, these travesties are mutually reinforcing: The juddered meter backs the screwy syntax up, and vice versa.

Crane’s aim is different, though. My guess is that he’s instinctively after not so much a skewed as a roiled syntax, one to go with—and to intimate—the ocean’s turbulence. This could explain why “he saw” and “as he watched” are where they are. One might gingerly hypothesize that Crane’s syntactical burial of the observing “he,” smack in the troughs of its sentences, is meant to suggest a correlative immersion, a swampedness, of viewpoint. Or else you could call it simply a reflex of genius.* [FOOTNOTE *Toward Crane’s habits of punctuation I can’t be quite so adulatory. Note the illogical use of commas here.] Regardless of his mimetic intent, Crane here demonstrates that a series of natural-feeling variations can both make a poem singular and ally it with the topsy-turvy canon. “Skillful arrangement of words,” opines Dionysus of Halicarnassus, “is . . . what most distinguishes poet from poet”—and a knack all good ones share.


Staying small but looking toward larger syntactical constructs, I want next to investigate a broad, loosely defined class of strategies available to the poet, by which a seemingly minor block of syntax can, when shrewdly placed, alter, deflect, perpetuate, intensify, stop cold, or otherwise act impressively upon the entire course of a poem—as in “Ode on Solitude,” which Pope, who was fond of exaggerating his own precociousness, claimed to have written at the age of twelve. Sure:

Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,
In his own ground.

Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
In winter fire.

Blest, who can unconcernedly find
Hours, days, and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
Quiet by day,
Sound sleep by night; study and ease,
Together mixed; sweet recreation;
And innocence, which most does please,
With meditation.

Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me die;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lie.

Although there is a bounty of things to praise here, of neat concisions (“In winter fire”), felicitous parallel deployments (“Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread”), and verbs sagely planted (“supply”), I’ll reluctantly skip all except that lone word “Blest”—an improbable choice.

Pope reaches a point in his poem where the syntax has spent itself, where he needs either to embark on a new tack or rededicate himself to the existing one. In this case, it’s not a problem of an overworked sentence petering out, but of two snazzily turned ones coming to a close. Pope takes the latter route, deciding to stretch out a bit further the existing syntactical tendency.

Yet to have begun the next sentence with “And blest is he” would have been out of keeping with the poem’s fastidious economy of means and also with its frugal recipe for self-reliance; both the topic and the style of this poem are all about living well on just enough. Instead, Pope makes do with one mere word, “Blest.” In a less agile poet than Pope—and who isn ‘t oafish by comparison?—such shorthand might be illegible. Here, however, the syntax is so limpid and balanced that “Blest” assumes the authority of a main clause, and is immediately understood as an extension of “Happy the man.”* [FOOTENOTE *In itself a translation of the beginning of the third epode of Horace, which starts, “Beatus ille….”] The compact force of the word is such that the syntax is catapulted straight through the bottom of the third stanza and into the fourth. Only in the last, almost Keatsian stanza, as a kind of backward-looking coda, does Pope interrupt his flow to pivot slightly, although even here the syntax dovetails seamlessly into what’s come before.

Something along these lines also happens at the top of the third stanza in Geoffrey Hill’s “The Laurel Axe” (part nine of “An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England”):

Autumn resumes the land, ruffles the woods
with smoky wings, entangles them. Trees shine
out from their leaves, rocks mildew to moss-green;
the avenues are spread with brittle floods.

Platonic England, house of solitudes,
rests in its laurels and its injured stone,
replete with complex fortunes that are gone,
beset by dynasties of moods and clouds.

It stands, as though at ease with its own world,
the mannerly extortions, languid praise,
all that devotion long since bought and sold,
the rooms of cedar and soft-thudding baize,

tremulous boudoirs where the crystals kissed
in cabinets of amethyst and frost.

Once again, I’ll pass over a number of commendable moments—for example, “replete with complex fortunes that are gone,” which would seem clumsy and tortured in some contexts, but is perfect here—to get to the one I connect with Pope, the clause that fulfills the same function as his “Blest”: “It stands.”

In the first stanza, the syntax wisps gently and innocuously about, like the leaves it describes. The second sentence is longish, yet really consists of three short ones strung together. (In contrast, Pope inserts a period after the first stanza, thereby making the second technically a fragment. The payoff is that, when the third and fourth run together, it feels that much more cascading.)

But then, with that grave, gorgeous apposition “Platonic England, house of solitudes,” the poem suddenly rears up with nearly Shakespearean majesty. The second stanza of the octet is a hard act to follow; when Hill arrives at that critical spot in a sonnet, the sestet turn, he faces the same fork as Pope, and makes the same decision: to continue along the present path. And as in Pope, he does this with a tiny, recapitulating clause, fortified behind its comma, which propels the syntax through the final two stanzas.

“It stands” is appropriately the high point of the poem, a lonely, islanded pinnacle—expressive of both England’s greatness and its isolation—only briefly achieved before the poem slopes down into its final cataloguing run. You could almost graph these sentences, rustling about, flaring to a momentary peak, and then slanting off into a gradual, multi-tiered descent. To me, this is one of the few flawless poems of the twentieth century, in part because its syntax so thoroughly mines the resources, and hugs the contours, of the sonnet; the form’s familiarity is such that the ear brings to it a set of expectations, into and offofwhich Hill dextrously plays.

Another sonnet that devastatingly exploits the tension between its form and its sentences is Hardy’s “Hap”:

If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!”

Then would I bear it, clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased in that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.

But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
—Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan….
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.

The two quatrains purvey an almost reassuring syllogistic air-tightness: “if’ this, “then” that, with one four-line sentence accorded to the conditions, another to the consequences. Although far from sanguine in tone, the octet at least entertains the hope that a grim, pious Stoicism just might be tenable; that feeble hope is conveyed—even slightly kindled, perhaps—by the poise and reasoned arithmetic of the two sentences. Except, of course, the whole proposition taints itself at the outset with that fatal “but,” which promises trouble, a snag in the logic.

Sure enough, when we drop into the sestet, it boomerangs with a vengeance: “But not so.” This must be one of the most compressed voicings of despair in English literature. Three tiny words, the stubbiest of sentences, and yet in a trice it obliterates the bulwark of consolation and wary optimism that the previous eight lines so painstakingly built up, quashing the poem’s argument as effectively as “Blest” and “It stands” sponsored the continuance of their own.

It is a sentence in the harshest judicial sense as well, a blunt, irrevocable verdict compared with which Yahweh’s spiteful meting-out of tears is relatively clement. If sonnets often swivel on the word “but,” this one nearly pulls a U-turn. Look what happens to the rhetoric: Right after “But not so,” Hardy darkens from the measured hypothesis of “if / then” into bitter interrogation, and from there, finally, into irate declaratives.

Hardy is also expert at another technique for investing a small chunk of a poem with disproportionate power: introducing it in one key position, and then repeating it in a second. For example, the first stanza of “A Broken Appointment”:

You did not come,
And marching Time drew on, and wore me numb.
Yet less for loss of your dear presence there
Than that I thus found lacking in your make
That high compassion which can overbear
Reluctance for pure lovingkindness’ sake
Grieved I, when, as the hope-hour stroked its sum,
You did not come.

Even more than with “Hap,” we guess straight off that this isn’t going to be a cheerful poem. There’s no suspense, no hope to pulverize, since Hardy gets himself stood up in the very first line.

Given these sorry facts, it might seem redundant at best, and aesthetically foolhardy at worst, to reiterate, at stanza’s end, the jiltee’s drab complaint, “You did not come.” Which is why its accumulated poignancy, by the time it surfaces again, so startles me. Despite knowing full well from the outset that Hardy’s been blown off, I’m appalled to be reminded of it. Naturally, this is attributable in part to the mournful indictment handed down between the first “You did not come” and the second; the poem has gained moral weight in the interim.

But it also has something to do with syntax. Because the second accusation isn’t just stapled on; rather, it evolves out of an elaborate sentence whose final clause, both climactic and fizzling, it also represents. Not that this alone explains much. The real feat here is the way in which Hardy marches us through four uncaesuraed, syntactically on-hold (for want of an active verb) lines, and then, all at once, gives us both the punishing verb (“Grieved”) and a thick flurry of pauses.

Once again, so what? The point of these manipulations in the penultimate line is to prepare for the last. Hardy lets time speed up in lines three through six; in seven, he applies the brakes through a series of beautifully graduated pauses. As a result, not only can we almost hear, almost feel, the plangent reverberations of the tolling bell, but they induce a Beckett-like sensation of hours having passed in fruitless expectation; they snap us back into the present, where poor Hardy is still waiting. And when, finally, we sink to the last line, its sadness seems intolerable. For shrivelled into those four puny, piteous words is a raw universe of disappointment.

A more peevish, combative variety of amorous frustration gets aired in the first stanza of Donne’s “The Canonization,” and then filtered through a roughly similar mesh:

For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love,
Or chide my palsy, or my gout,
My five grey hairs, or ruin’d fortune flout,
With wealth your state, your mind with arts improve,
Take you a course, get you a place,
Observe his Honour, or his Grace,
Or the King’s real, or his stamped face
Contemplate, what you will, approve,
So you will let me love.

As with Hardy, Donne wedges his stanza between the bookends of a short yet emphatic protest: “let me love.” True, the stanza doesn’t quite describe a perfect loop, as Hardy’s does, but it can boast instead the shapeliness of venting itself within the confines of a single sentence. (With Donne, the stanza and the sentence are often coterminous.) Moreover, it is a sentence with a great deal of business to transact. It means, first of all, either to silence Donne’s critic or to derail him into less harmful recriminations (“Or chide my palsy,” etc.).

The irony, of course, is that Donne foxily seeks to check the naysayer’s tongue by overwhelming it with his own. To do so, he resorts to the time-honored means of extending one’s speech ad infinitum: the list. With its compartments neatly stacked like an apothecary’s cabinet poetry is especially well-suited to inventories, and “The Canonization,” to a still greater degree than “Ode on Solitude” and “The Laurel Axe,” is a prime example. Donne being Donne, he doesn’t just itemize. Rather, he primps the list by constantly varying its syntactical order, shuffling the verbs and their objects around. Note especially the outstanding chiasmus “with wealth your state, your mind with arts,” which warrants comparison, as an elegant pattern of distribution, with Pope’s “whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread.”

To what end, though? The sinuous tracery of these lines is, on some level, meant—I’m coming back to the business side of things now—to prepare for the repetition, which is thereby sharpened and enriched; as in a villanelle, the poem must find a way to render its doubling an entertainment, not a bore. But where Hardy brought crushing weight to bear on his repetition, Donne might almost be said to alleviate his own. The diversionary gleam of the intermediate lines allows Donne to smuggle “let me love” back in, hidden behind them at the very tail of the sentence. Only this time around, instead of storming the main gate with a querulous imperative (“hold your tongue, and let me love”), he bluffs, poker-facedly presenting his swain’s permission as a fait accompli: “So you will me love.”

With so many syntactically posh, attractive options at his disposal how can Donne’s censor help being lured away to let him love in peace? Unlike Hardy, Donne causes something to give, a stalemate to be broken, in the sentence’s frenetic meantime—or at least he pretends to. Like Hardy, however, he cobbles together his evidence until it reaches a critical mass of irrefutable persuasiveness. Both stanzas are lawyerly in their marshalling, and then their slick syntactical packaging, of proof. “You did not come,” “So you will let me love”: QED.


In Ernest Fenollosa, the English verb found a valiant champion. Or more precisely, the transitive verb did—its intransitive cousin (and especially the imposter copula) fell, meanwhile, beneath a scorn than which only that heaped on loathsome adjectives was more withering. For Fenollosa, in his Pound-plugged tract The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, argues that the verb “must be the primary fact of nature”; only in the transitive variety, though, does the stormy, convectional might of natural processes, the “very stroke of the act,” get replicated.

Transitive verbs are strong and primary because they denote the charge, the lightning flash, the life, that leaps between an agent and its receptor. This inherent voltage accruing to the transitive verb, Fenollosa argues, has largely been frittered away by Sanskrit-derived languages, which have tended to siphon the original vigor of verbs into effete parts of speech like adjectives. Such desuetude he compares to Chinese, in whose ideograms Fenollosa claimed to find the primeval facts of nature not obscured but beaming ruddily forth.

Just because Fenollosa has been pooh-poohed by later Sinologists, and just because, under a strict application of his criteria, we should cede the laurels to Dick and Jane over James and Proust, doesn’t mean that his ideas aren’t worth briefly conjuring with. However half-baked Fenollosa’s theories about Chinese, his insistence on verbal action and movement in poetry deserves a hearing. “We need in poetry thousands of active words, each doing its utmost to show forth the motive and vital forces,” Fenollosa wrote, and I in principle agree with him.

So with Fenollosa,s injunctions in mind, I’d like to explore how syntax deals with action, and controls our awareness of it. These phenomena can be best observed, I think, in poems whose syntax is prominent, compacted, and intense. Therefore, of the four poems I’ve chosen, two consist of just one sentence and two easily could have, had their authors decided so to punctuate them.

First, this gossamer Robert Hayden poem, whose predicate aptly drops from the subject that serves as its title:


Smooths and burdens,
endangers, hardens.

Erases, revises.

Vistas of lunar solitude,
Builds, embellishes a mood.

What would Fenollosa’s verdict be? On the plus side, the poem is made almost entirely of verbs, the alpha units of speech, and treats a kinetic event in nature; on the minus, there’s nary a direct object until the last third of the poem. And yet Hayden’s verbs areall transitive. The lulled atmosphere of the poem partially depends, moreover, on there being seven verbs here in search of an object; the things effected by the action have been whitened out.

Until the fifth line, that is, where the unexpected introduction of an object, “Vistas of lunar solitude,” allows us for the first time actually to glimpse the snow’s impact on the landscape—a clearness correlative to those brief dyings—down in a blizzard when we suddenly can see. By the time the sixth line rolls around, though, the aperture has already started to close; we’re back to an objectless verb, and then one with only an abstract object (“mood”). But that ephemeral shift into the visible transitive was enough to endow the poem, in the midst of its blanketing sameness, with a welcome respite of clarity.

Notice, too, how subtly Hayden obviates the potential monotony of his syntax. Instead of writing the poem as a single sentence, as he might have, he positions full stops at irregular intervals, thereby modulating the tempo; fluctuations in word- and line-length have a similarly enlivening effect. Finally, that “and” is allowed only once strikes me as vital. To have banished the conjunction altogether would have been inconsistent with Hayden’s improvisational flexibility, while to have used it twice would have thrown the poem off kilter. In fact, the syntactical delicacy of this ecosystem perhaps can be best appreciated by imagining the disastrous consequences of an “and” in the last line: “and embellishes a mood” would spoil the scene as irreparably as a shoeprint in fresh-fallen powder.

This modest poem, one might say, consists of nothing more than a verbal mood—the present indicative, to be schoolmarmish—lightly prinked. But it also intimates a lovely equivalence between weather and writing, the poet’s hand erasing, revising, and extemporizing his slender column of words as naturally, yet also as sculpturally, as the dumb, tumbling flakes.

Second, Herbert’s “Prayer (I)”:

Prayer the Church’s banquet, angels’ age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;
Engine against th’Almighty, sinners’ tower,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days’ world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well dressed,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

At first glance, this poem, which must have electrified Hopkins like few others, looks calculated to tip Fenollosa into apoplexy. No active verbs at all! Even the copula (“Prayer is“) has been elided, rendering the poem technically a fragment.

Given this situation, what’s remarkable is how much exuberant energy “Prayer (I)” radiates, and how cohesive and sentencelike it sounds. This closely suits the subject of the poem: the special—although, lines 4-5 intimate, also sometimes fraught—communion between man and God, God and man; as “soul’s blood” suggests, a circulating ichor joins the two. To express all this formally, Herbert chooses to uncork the poem in a single paratactic rush from which active verbs have been systematically bled. It’s almost as if (cf. “Snow”) no sentence-stopping period could survive this torrent of relation, and as if no verbs were needed to grease the instantaneous exchange we call prayer.

Yet the sonnet isn’t quite homogeneous. To begin, Herbert does sly things with caesurae, sliding his pauses around, alternating straightthrough lines with bicameral ones. And his punctuation is more complex than might first appear. Through the octet, we can assume that semicolons serve merely to separate rhyme-units-quatrains, in this case from each other, but then that surprise semi-colon quarantining “something understood” (a much more benign “something” than Frost’s, incidentally) from the rest of the poem forces us to reevaluate. By imposing a uniform syntax, Herbert, like Hayden, directs our attention to the profound effects that punctuation marks, which some sprinkle carelessly as jimmies on the icing of their sentences, can have on a poem.

Also like Hayden, Herbert observes a rigorous asyndeton (the omission of conjunctions) with one notable exception: the black-sheep ninth line. But to appreciate the strategic value of that line, you first have to listen to the development of the previous eight, which have worked themselves up into a fine tarantellic tizzy. Boosted by a mix of relentless syntax and a diction spiked with vigorous verbs in thin disguise—”plummet,” “Reversed,” “piercing”-the sonnet becomes thrusting, torqued, a-crackle with current. And, as “The six-days’ world transposing in an hour” emphasizes, it also starts going dangerously fast. By the end of the octet, Herbert nearly hyperventilates.

Then, all at once, comes an abrupt transition: from “fear” to “Softness.” Signalling and underscoring that shift into a calmer, more peaceable vocabulary, line 9 slows things way, way down through its extended polysyndeton; with those four “ands,” you almost can hear Herbert exhale, inhale, exhale, and relax. Consequences? Although Herbert reverts, in the very next line, to his barrelling asyndeton manner, this single line of deep-breathing intermission—one filled out, moreover, with soothingly bland, cherubic words—was enough, we soon discover, to alter the poem irrevocably; from that point on, it feels less pell-mell and precipitous. (A good illustration, this, of how the same syntax stuffed with different words itself can feel different.)

To get back to Fenollosa, it pleases me to think that he either did or would have loved “Prayer (I)” for both its syntax and the high-watt conductivity it praises. “The very stroke of the act”: That’s what Herbert too records, bows down before. The whole subject of the poem, you might say, is transitiveness; it testifies to the direct, causal link, even the mutual vulnerability, that pertains between Earth and Heaven. Where “Snow” only descended, “Prayer (I)” both plunges and soars. Shuttling along its vertical axis, language (as prayer, as poetry) takes on the status of a swift-winged paraclete.

In order to convey the sensation of this courier’s speed, Herbert squeezes his syntax down to a paratactic minimum; this is a much more bare-bones list than Donne’s. If Herbert had written something along the lines of “Prayer is rich as the Church’s banquet, long as the angels’ age, etc.,” the poem would have been ruined. As stands, what’s left behind feels that much more juiced up, and all parts of it equally so. Because parataxis refuses to distinguish between or subordinate things, it befits a poet who wishes not to grovel and whimper before his God, but to hail the mutually ennobling exchange—the action—between them.

Third, Shelley’s “Sonnet: England in 1819”:

An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King;
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through the public scorn,—mud from a muddy spring;
Rulers who neither see nor feel nor know,
But leechlike to their fainting country cling
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow;
A people starved and stabbed in th’untilled fields;
An army, whom liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield;
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless-a book sealed;
A senate,—Time’s worst statute, unrepealed
Are graves from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.

Although there are plenty of verbs here, and plenty more participial adjectives, the main verb is rather anxiously delayed until the penultimate line. And when we at long last reach it, it turns out to be the dreaded copula. On the surface, then, the first thirteen lines of this sonnet almost seem designed, like “Prayer (I),” impishly to provoke Fenollosa’s spleen. But underneath, these thirteen lines jibe perfectly and quite deliberately with the good professor’s point about skimping on verbs, while the fourteenth illustrates, just as well and consciously, the power of unleashing them.

Needless to observe, Shelley’s true concerns here are neither syntax in general nor, in particular, the relative role of the parts of speech; those are just the means whereby he rather melodramatically bodies forth the pent-up, simmering grudges and frictions of his country in a volatile year. The socio-political brackishness of England in 1819, in short, finds its syntactical equivalent in the verbless stagnation that dominates and poisons the poem. Like civil liberties in England, the syntax has been suspended, detained in ambiguity. The longer the sentence drags on untethered to a verb, the more the pressure builds, until finally the copula and its predicate noun come along to relieve it.

But that abatement—”Are graves”—however grammatically adequate, turns out to be brusque, weak, and altogether unsatisfactory as a metaphor; “graves” can hardly encompass or resolve the complex subject that precedes it. Bad writing? Not in this context. The perfunctory anticlimax of “are graves” (cf. Hardy’s “But not so.”) is meant to convey the hopeless moribundity of present-tense England, and to dispose of it in preparation for tomorrow’s blazing phoenix; Shelley hastily dumps the way things are to provide compost for the way they may become.

And so the real action of the poem occurs only in the last line. The limp copula “Are,” we soon find out, represented merely a crack in the poem’s status quo of verblessness. With “Burst,” Shelley lands his knock-out punch to the old order; bolstered by its position at the front of its line (cf. Crane’s “Beat on the dusty shore”), the verb, too long muzzled, explodes off the page with a nearly orgasmic ferocity which “illumine” then brightens and draws out. The effect is ofa thunderstorm followed by brilliant sun-therefore “our tempestuous day.”

That this last recalls Hill’s “beset by dynasties of moods and clouds” points up other intriguing similarities and differences between the two poems. They both concern English history, but from opposite vantages: “England in 1819” peers expectantly forward, “The Laurel Axe” broodingly backward from the end of empire. Appropriately, Hill’s sentences are loose-grammatically complete early on—whereas Shelley’s periodic one nerve-wrackingly hangs fire. Hill’s might be described as an autumnal syntax of historical decline, from “brittle floods” to frost, where Shelley’s builds to the cloudburst days of summer.

What more could Fenollosa ask for? Never mind that “Burst” is, in this case, technically intransitive. The musty sepulchers of spent, noun-and-adjective-cancered language have been hexed open, and from them have ascended the verbs triumphant.

“I had to discover for myself,” writes Fenollosa, “why Shakespeare’s English was so immeasurably superior to all others. I found that it was his persistent, natural, and magnificent use of hundreds of transitive verbs. Rarely will you find an ‘is’ in his sentences.” With these compliments in mind, let’s examine the most syntactically peculiar of the sonnets, 129:

Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight:
Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad:
Mad in pursuit, and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

Uh-oh. Not only are there two copulas in the first three lines, they’ve conspicuously been dribbled down the left margin; to make matters still worse, that second “is” presides over the rest of the poem up to the couplet.

I’m being unfair to Fenollosa, of course. Most of Shakespeare does meet his description. So why Shakespeare’s almost perverse departure from his verb-infused norm? His aim, I suppose, is not far from Shelley’s: to dramatize through a long, dense sentence the insalubrious consequences of frustrating the will. Like “England in 1819,” the sonnet largely takes place within the temporal confines of stymied desire; of the poem’s fourteen lines, a good half describe the antsy, blackguard behavior of lust “till action.” Nor can Shakespeare’s sentence, being loose, hope, as Shelley’s could, for a deus ex machina verbal salvation; we know from the start what the main verb is, and that it’s nugatory, impotent. As if to emphasize this fecklessness, a swarm of adjectives invades the next two lines.

Then Shakespeare launches into a series of wizardly parallelisms, chiasmi, and antitheses. As in “The Canonization,” however, one doesn’t detect much pleasure in the performance; Shakespeare has in common with Donne a kind of irked, impatient syntactical brilliance. But where Donne executed his winsome little jig to distract an audience, Shakespeare’s is danced, so to speak, before a mirror—he argues only with himself.* [FOOTENOTE *I’m reminded here of Yeats’s famous comment about poetry being a sort of auto-quarrel.] Nor, unlike in Donne, does there seem to be any prospect of success; there is, as in Herbert, “something understood,” but in Shakespeare’s case not acted upon. In the sour futility of its blame, 129 perhaps more resembles “A Broken Appointment.” Hardy’s date did not come, and neither will relief, for Shakespeare, from his intransigent horniness. This he “well knows.”

Yet knowledge doesn’t always equal power, an annoying fact which the sonnet sets out to illustrate in its very syntax. The poem’s main sentence advances with eristic precision and a hopscotch nimbleness, often dividing around medial caesurae. If in form this tic-tac is fiendishly clever, though, in substance it’s self-cancelling; the poem keeps yanking the rug from beneath itself, returning to zero, chasing its own tail.

In other words, the confidence and ingenuity of Shakespeare’s syntax are glaringly at odds with his lame stabs at asceticism, and the dialectic which results, between the cool balance of the pure sentence shape and the sordid feelings it encrucibles, is what drives the poem—and also stalls it. The sound of the sentence is of an overly discriminant, casuistical, even pettifogging mind at feud with itself; its black irony is that, for all the brain’s erudite contortions, the stupid heart and dingus never learn.

About lust, we might reasonably gather, Shakespeare has thus bickered with and badgered himself many times—hence the testiness, hence the polish. As I’ve already suggested, this dead-end disputation takes the syntactical form of an all-too-familiar (to Shakespeare, that is) zig-zag course of reasoning or sophistry, or syllogism (“a bliss in proof’), or litany, or maybe even catechistic muttering. Still another way to think of it, perhaps, is as a sort of language game, exercise, or riddle.

I’m floundering here. What strikes me is how constantly the poem shifts tense, mimicking the inability of lust to settle and fulfill itself. Before, during, after: The sentence stalks in and out of time frames with Rilkean restlessness. In particular, “Had, having, and in quest to have” sounds almost like a memorized conjugation (in both the grammatical and sexual senses of that word). The first line of the couplet, meanwhile, might be read as a syntactical synecdoche for the whole: The upending of “well knows” into “knows well” concisely summarizes both the poem’s craftiness and its fidgety swings, not to mention its jaundiced epistemology.

As with “England in 1819,” 129’s last line kicks off with a compact, feisty verb. But if “To shun” has been as carefully led up to as “Burst,” and by a similar process of verbal scotching or etiolation, its force here goes quite squandered, since to eschew the siren call of lust, Shakespeare gloomily concludes, is beyond us. And yet his valedictory verb is just as potent as Shelley’s. Into that infinitive has been crammed a formidable amount of thwarted energy, only we (unlike Shelley’s glorious Zeitgeist) lack the resolve to harness it.

Fenollosa must have smiled ruefully at this predicament. In his terms, the sonnet might be understood as an allegory of hindered language: “Th’expense of English in a waste of adjectives,” in which “none knows well” to choose the transitive verb that, by spiriting him away from his stagnant self, would set him free. Arriving as it does at the very close, “to shun” stands painfully for all those courses of decisive action, both verbal and otherwise, that we do not take, but should. It’s as if changing one’s life were a mere matter of letting the verb steer you from the false heaven that is carnal love.

In my own terms, I prefer to construe the poem as being about, for one, “Th’expense of syntax in a waste of virtuosity.” Part of Shakespeare’s point in using a twelve-line, labyrinthine sentence, I suspect, is to show how little can be accomplished by it; even after negotiating all its switchbacks, the speaker finds that he’s gotten nowhere. The poem’s syntax prowls and paces with the same caged, self-dissipating jumpiness, and just as uselessly, as lust itself.

Where Hayden found an apt syntax for nature in communion with itself; Herbert, for creature and deity in talkative balance; and Shelley, for the rulers’ deafness to the fed-up ruled, Shakespeare discovers one to suit a man having an articulate tiff with himself. If “Snow” came swirlingly down, “Prayer (I)” both rocketed and dove, and “England in 1819” festered only to erupt, 129 just runs in circles. Fenollosa recommends that our language expand, grope for, ferry, influence, transmigrate, relate one thing to another; Shakespeare’s implodes.



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Publisher & Editor: Herbert LEIBOWITZ
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