1. A very quiet night. 2. When the moon shines very brilliantly, a solitude and stillness seem to proceed from her, that influence even crowded places full of life. 3. Not only is it a still night on dusty high roads and on hill-summits, whence a wide expanse of country may be seen in repose, quieter and quieter as it spreads away into a fringe of trees against the sky, with the grey ghost of a bloom upon them; not only is it a still night in gardens and in woods, and on the river where the water-meadows are fresh and green, and the stream sparkles on among pleasant islands, murmuring weirs, and whispering rushes; not only does the stillness attend it as it flows where houses cluster thick, where many bridges are reflected in it, where wharves and shipping make it black and awful, where it winds from these disfigurements through marshes whose grim beacons stand like skeletons washed ashore, where it expands through the bolder region of rising grounds, rich in cornfield, wind-mill and steeple, and where it mingles with the ever-heaving sea; not only is it a still night on the deep, and on the shore where the watcher stands to see the ship with her spread wings cross the path of light that appears to be presented to only him; but even on this stranger’s wilderness of London there is some rest. 4.Its steeples and towers, and its one great dome, grow more ethereal; its smoky house-tops lose their grossness, in the pale effulgence; the noises that arise from the streets are fewer and are softened, and the footsteps on the pavements pass more tranquilly away. 5. In these fields of Mr Tulkinghorn’s inhabiting, where the shepherds play on Chancery pipes that have no stop, and keep their sheep in the fold by hook and by crook until they have shorn them exceeding close, every noise is merged, this moonlight night, into a distant ringing hum, as if the city were a vast glass, vibrating.
The above passage is from Chapter 48 of Charles Dicken’s Bleak House, published in serial form throughout 1852 into 1853. The point of this post is not to discuss the novel per se since I can barely keep track of the characters who appear, disappear, and reappear throughout the hundred pages. Sometimes you just read Dickens like you read Raymond Chandler — hell with the plot and just enjoy the language.
In five sentences Dickens has made a universe. I’ve numbered the sentences, put repetitions in bold and italicized some of the sensory phrases. If I had intended a real eyesore I would have underlined the twenty-eight prepositional phrases in sentences 3. Go, find them. I dare you. Did you notice all the parallelisms is sentence 3, the rhythms of long and short phrases or breath units in reading the sentences, the grotesque images in sentence 4, and the legal metaphor in sentence 5? After all, this is a Dickens novel and social injustice is always his theme while he entertains the reader. In BH, he critiques the convoluted legal system and how lawyers victimize their clients, the sheep, shearing them of their dignity and their money against the backdrop of the dome of the famous St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Now, the point of this posting is, “How would today’s editors have edited these sentences? The one criticism might be that the sentence is too long, exhausts the reader’s eye, too wrought, and showy. ” For one thing, I think that most editors would have struck a red line through: “sheep in the fold by hook and by crook,” saying it is a cliché. True, but there goes the whole momentum of the preceding sentences and Charles’s metaphor. I’d rather review some of the choice of names since many of his characters sound too allegorical.
The five sentences might be baroque, perhaps Ciceronian, or even Jamesian, but it is an excellent example of grammar, prosodic if not poetic rhythm, and correct syntax.
I leave you with another exemplary five sentences, from what I consider to be among the best endings in English literature:
The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
Let the MFA profs dare edit Mr. Joyce’s five sentences above from “The Dead.” I can picture Mr. Joyce, old, near complete blindness, in a Parisian bar with the young Ernest Hemingway and yelling out: “Get them, Hemingway,” as he was wont to do when annoyed. Hemingway always seemed to enjoy a good fight and, though he was short on his own sentences, was generous with his fists.
There are times when editors today should go back to the authors of old to see WHY certain sentences were as long as they were; WHY certain repetitions DID occur as they did. Joyce’s The Dead continues to be considered one of the best pieces of writing in the English language. Those writers were extremely conscious of how they constructed their prose. Granted, in the days of the serials, writers were paid by the word, so more words meant more money. True, reading tastes change, literary styles come and go, but the heart of it is a good story and a command of language. It has been said that when Dickens serialized pieces were published in single volumes, they should have been heavily edited first. Perhaps, but what would have been lost in the process? Editing is a tricky business, but when a skilled practitioner is at the helm, a writer is sure to shine.