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Martin Hill Ortiz

The Greatest Sentence

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.

The author Anne Dillard tells the story of a student who approached a writer and asked if he could 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.

For the writer, beyond the appreciation 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 sentences?

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.

Variants 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

Dorothy Parker 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 directions. Shakespeare's: "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.

Which 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 context. "He drew a short breath and said lightly but softly: 'My dear, I don't give a damn.'" Margaret Mitchell. This declaration would be forgotten if it had come from some pot-boiler novel. It is great because it served its purpose perfectly.

"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.

"Buddha laughed." There is no scriptural mention of Jesus laughing. Perhaps the contrasting combination, "Jesus wept; Bhudda 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, now it's mine. Although one's behavior shouldn't be viewed as a comment on the other's.

Another of my personal favorites requires context. It is from the film critic Todd Anthony's review of Oliver Stone's Nixon: "Two master liars locked in mortal combat."

I 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." CS Lewis

"Shut up, he explained." Ring Lardner

Others among the greatest sentences are bulky. Although it is hard to sustain intensity and focus over length, some styles don't require 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 Joyce's Ulysses runs thirty pages. Finally, Jonathan Coe's The Rotters Club has a sentence clocking in at 13,000 words. No one is quoting these, at least not at length.

There are long-winded sentences that are worth every ounce of breath. 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 discovery of truth through contradictions. "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. At 348 words, copyright privileges prevent me from quoting it in its entirety. It begins: "It is a light blue moonless summer evening," and continues, "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," and concludes, "and then again, within the white white distant alabaster thunderclouds beyond the mountains, the thunderless gold lightning in the blue evening...unearthly."

Which 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 Lincoln's first 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

©2005 by Martin Hill Ortiz

Martin Hill Ortiz is a PhD pharmacologist, poet, playwright, and crimefighter. His writings have appeared in Exquisite Corpse, Crescendo, Haunts, and San Gabriel Valley Poetry Quarterly, among others. He lives in Puerto Rico.

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