The Best Sentences in English Literature

atkins-bookshelf-literatureMost writers will confess to having a love affair with words; English, of course, has a word for that: logophile. Some writers are in love with sentences. Scott Rice, creator of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, loves the worst sentences ever written. This year’s winner was Chris Wieloch, an engineer by trade and a bad sentence writer by choice. He submitted this winning wretched sentence: “She strutted into my office wearing a dress that clung to her like Saran Wrap to a sloppily butchered pork knuckle, bone and sinew jutting and lurching asymmetrically beneath its folds, the tightness exaggerating the granularity of the suet and causing what little palatable meat there was to sweat, its transparency the thief of imagination.”

On the other side of the sentence spectrum is Stanley Fish, a literary critic, English and law professor, and New York Times columnist, who loves great sentences. Fish collects and treasures finely crafted sentences as others might treasure fine jewelry or exquisitely engineered watches. Fish has poured his passion for and expertise about crafting great sentences into a book, How to Write A Sentence and How to Read One. To paraphrase Joanne Wilkinson’s praise for this book: “Language lovers will be hooked by Fish’s homage to great writing.”

Perhaps one of the best-known sentences in the English language was written by Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Stephen Lucas, a professor of Communication Arts and author of Words of a Century: The top 100 American Speeches, argues that these are “the most potent and consequential words in American history.”

For samples of the best sentence in the English language, Fish casts his net in the ocean of literary giants like Shakespeare, Milton, Conrad, James, Swift, and Sterne. In an interview with Slate magazine, Fish shared five of the best sentences from the last 300 years of English literature (his notes appear after each sentence):

John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678):
“Now he had not run far from his owndoor, 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.”
Fish notes: “Bunyan makes us feel the cost paid by someone who turns his back on the human ties that bind and surrenders to the pull of a glory he cannot even see. “

JonathanSwift, 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.” 
Fish notes: “Swift forces us into a momentary fellowship (“you will hardly believe”) with a moral blindness we must finally reject.

Walter Pater, 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.”
Fish notes: “
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, 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.” 
Fish notes: “T
he 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,  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.”
Fish notes: “Stein manages to defeat linear time by a circular pattern of repetition that arrests movement even as it moves forward.”

Read related posts: The Worst Sentence Ever Written
Best Books for Word Lovers
Best Books for Writers
Most Famous Quotations in British Literature

For further reading: Stephen Lucas, “Justifying America: The Declaration of Independence as a Rhetorical Document” in American Rhetoric: Context and Criticism by Thomas W. Benson, Southern Illinois University Press (1989)
Words of a Century: The Top 100 American Speeches by Stephen Lucas, Oxford University Press (2008)
slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2011/01/24/stanley_fish_s_top_five_sentences.html

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