Beauty, in a sentence, is as difficult to describe as beauty in a painting or a human face. If you are even thinking in these terms – that is, if you are even considering what might constitute strong vigorous, energetic, and clear sentences – you are already far in advance of wherever you were before you were conscious of the sentence as something deserving our deep respect and enraptured attention.
Consider the sentence that begins Samuel Johnson’s brief biography, The Life of Savage.
It has been observed in all ages that the advantages of nature or of fortune have contributed very little to the promotion of happiness; and that those whom the splendour of their rank, or the extent of their capacity, have placed upon the summits of human life, have not often given any just occasion to envy in those who look up to them from a lower station; whether it be that apparent superiority incites great designs, and great designs are naturally liable to fatal miscarriages; or that the general lot of mankind is misery, and the misfortunes of those whose eminence drew upon them an universal attention, have been more carefully recorded, because they were more generally observed, and have in reality only been more conspicuous than others, not more frequent, or more severe.
The quality that this sentence shares with all good sentences is clarity. Between its initial capital letter and its final period are 134 words, ten commas, and three semicolons, and yet the average reader, or at least the reader who has the patience to read and consider every word, will have no trouble understanding what Doctor Johnson is saying.
Despite its length, the sentence is economical. To remove even one word would make it less lucid and less complete, as Johnson takes an observation so common as to have become a cliché (money and fame don’t by themselves make us happy) and turns it, then turns it again, considering the possible explanations, the reasons why this perception may be true or merely appear to be true. The sentence combines a sort of magisterial authority with an almost offhand wit, in part because of the casual ease with which it tosses off sweeping philosophical generalizations (“great designs are naturally liable to fatal miscarriages”, “the general lot of mankind is misery”) compressed into subordinate clauses, as if the truth of these statements is so obvious to both the writer and the reader that there is no need to pause over these pronouncements, let alone give them sentences of their own.
Possibly the principal reason why the sentence so delights us is that to read it is to take part in the process – the successive qualifications and considerations – of thought itself, of a lively mind at work. Finally, the cadence and rhythm of the sentence are as measured and pleasing as those of poetry or music.
Excerpted from Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer, HarperCollins, 2006
Image from Word Rogues