The Greatest Sentence
(originally published in Slow Trains, revised August 2013)
I move my lips when I read a
well-written sentence. It surprises me that this is considered a
hallmark of stupidity, as though I were still trapped in a regressive
state where I had to sound out syllables to discover meaning. I am
mouthing the words as I consume them so I can assimilate them, to make
them my own. I am relishing the taste of good words.
tells the story of a student who approached an author and asked if he
could himself ever be a writer. He is then challenged with the
question, "Do you like sentences?" I can not think of a better means to
divide writers from non-writers. A writer will immediately tremble and
then recount favorite sentences. A non-writer will be confused.
"Sentences? I like books. I like stories well-told. But sentences?"
This latter group stands in awe at the dimensions of a cathedral. The
former group is thrilled by how the stacking of each brick transgresses
gravity as buttresses fly, defying the heavens to create the heavenly.
Being both the architect and bricklayer, the author takes delight from
both forms of approval.
For the writer, beyond the enjoyment
of reading a well-crafted sentence, is the desire to create the
sentence that will make the angels laugh or cry, invoke a synchronous
nod from the gods of literature, and curl a Grinch-sized smile on the
lips of the constant reader. Do you like sentences? Do you love
What is the greatest sentence? To begin this quest, I
must address the question: What makes a sentence great? That depends on
its mission. It can be great because it conveys a timeless truth or a
sums up a great aspiration. This variety often fills books of quotes.
Along with exemplary construction is the "uh-huh" factor, the
recognition of its wisdom.
"Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth." Muhammad Ali.
"I am not young enough to know everything." Oscar Wilde.
of these are those that owe their existence to other well-known quotes.
They are equally quotable, even if they often devolve into cynicism.
"The lion and the calf shall lie down together but the calf won't get much sleep." Woody Allen.
"Nowadays men lead lives of noisy desperation." James Thurber.
"East is east and west is San Francisco." O. Henry.
summarized the distinction between these forms: "Wit has truth in it;
wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words." Still, don't
underestimate calisthenics. This includes the powerful form of
construction known as chiasmus. Here a set of words are introduced and
then their order is reversed. This can reiterate a point, provide
contrast through counterpoint, or twist the thought in unexpected
"Fair is foul, and foul is fair, hover through the fog and filthy air."
Or the comment in regards to the chance of finding a man in Alaska
where single men greatly outnumber women: "The odds are good, but the
goods are odd." Anonymous.
leads to the next observation. Many sentences are great because of
their context. Most sentences are servants, not masters. Their purpose
is to help support the larger structure. Even when the sentence becomes
a grand summary of all that was before it, it is diminished out of
"These are the times that try men's souls." Thomas Payne. An elegant, simple construction. Poetic. And yet it helps to know the times to which Payne refers.
"Jesus wept." A thrilling sentence of minimalist simplicity. But its beauty is completed by knowing the gospel story.
laughed." There is no scriptural mention of Jesus laughing. Perhaps the
contrasting combination, "Jesus wept; Buddha laughed," is an all time
great sentence. Checking Google, I find that a Reverend John Morehouse
has used this as the title for a sermon. I hope his sermon did it
justice. "Buddha laughed, Jesus wept." There, I reversed it, now it's
mine. Although one's behavior shouldn't be viewed as a comment on the
Another of my personal favorites requires context. It is a bit of snark from the film critic Todd Anthony's review of Oliver Stone's Nixon: "Two master liars locked in mortal combat."
would argue that the greatest sentences ever are those that can stand
alone. They do not require context or gymnastics for resonance. It is
not the wisdom they contain that elevates them. It is their elegant
construction. The word choices are unexpected and yet perfect. They
have song and the voice to sing it. Often they are short, simple, and
precise. Several examples, in reverse order of length:
"Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me." Psalm 42, NIV
"For a steep second she thought his gaze hummed; but it was only her blood she heard." Thomas Harris.
"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." George Orwell.
"There once was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he deserved it." C.S. Lewis.
"Shut up, he explained." Ring Lardner.
among the greatest sentences are bulky. Although it is hard to sustain
intensity and focus over length, some styles don't seek these
attributes. Beat poetry and stream-of-conscious can invoke great
rambling rants. Nonetheless, one can't help but feel that even great
authors succumb to the self-indulgent audacity of the hopelessly long
sentence. Victor Hugo had a sentence of 823 words in Les Miserables,
while Faulkner in Absalom, Absalom had a sentence of 1,300 words. Molly
Bloom's soliloquy in James Joyce's
Ulysses runs thirty pages. It ends, "...when I put the rose in my hair
like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he
kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as
another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he
asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my
arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts
all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I
There are long-winded sentences that are worth every ounce of breath. Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" is 2031 words, crammed with kaleidoscopic discomforting imagery. The opening to The Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens,
clocking in at 119 words, is brilliant in its construction, its word
choice and its insistence on truth through contradiction. "It was the
best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it
was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the
epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of
Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we
had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going
direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way -- in short,
the period was so far like the present period, that some of the
noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for
evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."
My pick for the greatest long sentence is from Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano, 348 words. Here, to feast on:
is a light blue moonless summer evening, but late, perhaps ten o'clock,
with Venus burning hard in daylight, so we are certainly somewhere far
north, and standing on this balcony, when from beyond along the coast
comes the gathering thunder of a long many-engined train, thunder
because though we are separated by this wide strip of water from it,
the train is rolling eastward and the changing of the wind veers for
the moment from an easterly quarter, and we face east, like
Swedenborg's angels, under a sky clear save where far to the northeast
over distant mountains whose purple has faded, lies a mass of almost
pure white clouds, suddenly, as by a light in an alabaster lamp,
illumined from within by gold lightning, yet you can hear no thunder,
only the roar of the great train with its engines and its wide shunting
echoes as it advances from the hills into the mountains: and then all
at once a fishing boat with tall gear comes running round the point
like a white giraffe, very swift and stately, leaving directly behind
it a long silver scalloped rim of wake, not visibly moving inshore, but
now stealing ponderously beachward toward us, this scrolled silver rim
of wash striking the shore first in the distance, then spreading all
along the curve of beach, its growing thunder and commotion now joined
to the diminishing thunder of the train, and now breaking reboant on
our beach, while the floats, for there are timber diving floats, are
swayed together, everything jostled and beautifully ruffled and stirred
and tormented in this rolling sleeked silver, then little by little
calm again, and you see the reflection of the remote white
thunderclouds in the water, and now the lightning within the white
clouds in deep water, as the fishing-boat itself with a golden scroll
of travelling light in its silver wake beside it reflected from the
cabin vanishes round the headland, silence, and then again, within the
white white distant alabaster thunderclouds beyond the mountains, the
thunderless gold lightning in the blue evening. . . unearthly.
leaves my choice for the greatest sentence ever. It has all of the best
qualities of the previous choices: lightness and weight, music and
voice. It has a startling poetry and a resonant vision. At 46 words, it
seems brief. From Abraham Lincoln's
second inaugural address: "The mystic chords of memory, stretching from
every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and
hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the
Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels
of our nature."
"The rest is silence." Shakespeare
Additional wonderful sentences.
that love night love not such nights as these; the wrathful skies
gallow the very wanderers of the dark, and make them keep their caves:
since I was man, such sheets of fire, such bursts of horrid thunder,
such groans of roaring wind and rain, I never remember to have heard:
man's nature cannot carry the affliction nor the fear. (King Lear,
in Just-spring when the world is mud-luscious the
little lame balloonman whistles far and wee and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and piracies and it's spring when the world is
puddle-wonderful the queer old balloonman whistles far and wee and
bettyandisbel come dancing from hop-scotch and jump-rope and it's
spring and the goat-footed balloonMan whistles far and wee (ee cummings)
like to feel the spine of your body and its bones, and the
trembling–firm–smooth ness and which i will again and again and again
kiss, i like kissing this and that of you, i like, slowly stroking the,
shocking fuzz of your electric fur, and what–is–it comes over parting
flesh....And eyes big love–crumbs, and possibly i like the thrill of
under me you quite so new (ee cummings)
If you want to see the girl next door, go next door. (Joan Crawford)
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. (closing sentence, F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby)
Science fiction / satireDr. Asquith's Intelligent Teeth in Bewildering StoriesTwo Wise Men in AntipodeanLittle Dog in Bewildering StoriesThriller, other sci-fiA Remoteness from All Things Human in Bewildering StoriesThe Diaphanoid in Bewildering StoriesWestern-themedThe Horse Whistle in Frontier TalesThe Ballad of Preacher Paul in Somos en EscritoThe Nod in Rope and WireShort stories in print journals and anthologies.A Hangar Nade in Miami Accent Magazine.Alternative Endings in Haunts Magazine.Also It! The Other Thing from Another World! in Monsterthology, Anthology, ZombieWorks Publications.Nutmeat in Whispers from the Abyss, Anthology, 01 Publishing.Jenny in RomComZom Anthology, Fringeworks Publishing.
A Predatory Novel