On Beautiful Sentences, Again

One of the most popular search terms used to access this blog is "beautiful sentences." I mentioned the term in an entry that was really more about Stanley Fish, one of the leading literary theorists of the 1980s and 1990s, than it was about beautiful sentences themselves.  But all of these visitors looking for information on beautiful sentences — I must get five or six a day — got me to thinking about what constitutes a beautiful sentence, and why so many people are interested in them in the first place.

What, exactly, is a beautiful sentence? Is a sentence beautiful because it expresses a fine sentiment? Does it make us see something as beautiful? Can we say a sentence is beautiful in the same way a passage of music is beautiful? Fine writing, of course, has always been an enduring feature of literature, but there is a limit. In 1605 Francis Bacon warned against those who pushed "an affectionate studie of eloquence" to extremes, leading them "to hunt more after words than matter." Bacon’s fellow Royal Society member Thomas Sprat was more forceful in denouncing the "vicious abundance of Phrase, this trick of Metaphors, this volubility of Tongue, which makes so great a noise in the World."

The idea that sentences should be beautiful is a relatively recent invention, dating back to Mallarmé (the beautiful sentence, like music, is a language without a speaker) and, further back, to the Romantic poets. The Romantics believed that a mystical balance could be struck between appearance (words) and idea (meaning) and that this balance was most effectively achieved by those blessed beings endowed with schöne Seele, or beautiful soul. Certain people had a sort of inner glow that illuminated everything around them. Rousseau saw it in Julie, la nouvelle Héloïse. Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister has schöne Seele.

Voltaire had already sniffed out the problem of the beautiful soul before the concept was fully formed. Even the most luminous being, he realized, couldn’t make everything beautiful. Confronted with the stinking mess that was London in 1802, Wordsworth had to call for help from Milton, who was thoroughly dead by that point.  Stendhal, Flaubert, and Proust steadily chipped away at the Romantic myth of the schöne Seele. But this demystification wasn’t without its excesses, too. The wane Romantic with his finely wrought sentences became a straw man for the vigorous, lucid Victorian until we get to sentences getting churned out like so many pork sausages in George Gissing’s New Grub Street. Finally, it took Wittgenstein to demonstrate that language doesn’t really illuminate anything (what idea pops into your head when you hear the word "and" or "yet"?), so why bother with the whole question of language and representation.

Looking for beautiful sentences is a quixotic mission. A stray sentence that strikes us as elegant and pleasing also calls attention to the dull informative sentences around it. We look for a glimpse of truth in language that is distant from the workaday talk that forms our social, which is to say our real, lives. The more earnestly we look for beautiful sentences, the more we admit our reality is bereft of truth.

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