In his new book, How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One, literary critic, legal scholar, and New York Times online columnist Stanley Fish offers readers a guided tour through some of the most beautiful, arresting sentences in the English language. As an introduction to both sentence craft and sentence appreciation, it is—in novelist Adam Haslett's words—"both deeper and more democratic" than Strunk & White's Elements of Style, celebrating everything from brief epigrams to twisty, rambling digressions. Fish describes how he carries sentences with him "as others might carry a precious gem or a fine Swiss watch." Accordingly, Brow Beat asked Professor Fish for some of his favorite accoutrements, and he offered five from across three centuries:
John Bunyan (from The Pilgrim's Progress, 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 in his ears, and ran on, crying, Life! Life! eternal life."
Bunyan makes us feel the cost paid by someone (anyone) who turns his back on the human ties that bind and surrenders to the pull of a glory he cannot even see.
Jonathan Swift (from A Tale of a Tub, 1704): "Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her appearance for the worse."
Swift forces us into a momentary fellowship ("you will hardly believe") with a moral blindness we must finally reject.
Walter Pater (from The Renaissance, 1873): "To such a tremulous wisp constantly re-forming itself on the stream, to a single sharp impression, with a sense in it, a relic more or less fleeting, of such moments gone by, what is real in our lives fines itself down."
The prose enacts Pater's lesson, teasing us repeatedly with the promise of clarity and stability of perception before depositing us on a last word ("down") that points to further dissolution and fragmentation.
Ford Madox Ford (from The Good Soldier, 1915): "And I shall go on talking in a low voice while the sea sounds in the distance and overhead the great black flood of wind polishes the bright stars."
In this sentence, the personal voice of the narrator is absorbed by the sea sounds (a deliberate pun) that began as background and end by taking over the scene of writing.
Gertrude Stein (from Lectures in America, 1935): "When I first began writing I felt that writing should go on I still do feel that it should go on but when I first began writing I was completely possessed by the necessity that writing should go on and if writing should go on what had commas and semi-colons to do with it what had commas to do with it what had periods to do with it what had small letters and capitals to do with writing going on which was at the time the most profound need I had in connection with writing."
Stein manages to defeat linear time by a circular pattern of repetition that arrests movement even as it moves forward.
DISCLAIMER - I'm not sure I like/agree with the summaries at the end of those sentences. They're a bit wordy and tend to the obfuscatory. And that last one misses the point entirely, I mean, "defeat linear time"? Humbuggery.
ps - if I had to pick a favourite from those, it would be the one by Ford Madox Ford. (Via Slate)