Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder they say. This must be true as I recently attended a webinar entitled Beautiful Sentences and although I was presented with many interesting, evocative, emotion-arousing, not to say rousing sentences few were what I would have called beautiful. This may just be because I’m overly picky and the webinar did encourage me to think about what actually makes a sentence a thing of beauty.
Surely it must have something to do with the actual structure of the sentence itself as well as its meaning within the passage it comes from. And it must be, you would think, much easier to write a beautiful sentence if you are describing a beautiful scene. Examples of these were given in the webinar, descriptions of things which have great resonance within the human psyche: water, mountains, greenery, flushed skies et cetera, and while the words alone did not make the sentences beautiful their being apposite and put together in a musical way with alliteration and rhythm, did so. However, many of the sentences included were not beautiful in that sense.
Several were taken from work by Annie Proulx who is master of the lean, taut prose style where just a few words convey exactly to the reader the mental image intended by the author. One of the examples given was from Brokeback Mountain:
Ennis possessed a muscular and supple body made for the horse and fighting.
That certainly tells us a lot about Ennis in a few words. It’s effective and impactful, but is it beautiful?
As I was brooding on this question I came across a sentence from Gilbert White’s The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, quoted by his illustrator Eric Ravilious:
There are buzzards on the wide downs near Brighthelmstone
Ravilious created masterful images of country life himself and admired White’s poetic turn of phrase, saying that he thought this was a beautiful sentence. And the more I read it the more I agreed. The prose is balanced and rhythmic and the unusual use of wide in wide downs gives us a panoramic view of the English countryside. We have hints of bright helmets in the name of the village, the word stone folds it into the natural landscape and I could see sun glinting off the buzzards wings.
So, okay, a beautiful sentence.
But wait. It starts with the words There are, an absolute no-no from the creative writing class point of view, where all such constructions are seen as irrelevant, undermining the impact of the sentence. That which we wish to highlight, they say, must be made prominent, either at the beginning or the end of the sentence, so we can do away with there is and there are altogether. They are wasted words.
Now It’s true, we could craft this sentence so that it works perfectly well without them, redrafting it as:
Buzzards are circling over the wide downs near Brighthelmstone.
This says all that the original sentence said without the ‘There are’, and is equally beautiful.
But what about the context? What was Gilbert White doing here? The Natural History consists of a series of letters he wrote to friends and fellow naturalists. His style is conversational, friendly, enthusiast to enthusiast, writing here to his friend Daines Barrington. He's telling him there are buzzards flying over the downs near Brighthelmstone. That surely is the natural way he would have spoken and so context is critical. Spare and muscular prose, then, versus intimate, kind and friendly - let the context decide.
Those styles combine in a favourite sentence of mine, the ending to Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. As they are driving home the protagonist and her husband see in the distance the flames of their magnificent home, Manderley, burning down. The woman has discovered that her husband is not the man she thought he was but loves him nonetheless and grieves. The book concludes:
And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea.
The use of ashes and the alliterative salt evokes tears for the loss of innocence and the ashes of regret - truly beautiful.
Having said all that, there is, alas, a sad coda to this blog. In the interests of accuracy I looked up the Brighthelmstone quote and what Gilbert White actually said was:
There are bustards on the wide downs near Brighthelmstone.
Bustards! They’re like a cross between a goose and an overweight pheasant, aren’t they? So instead of my buzzards drifting I have bustards waddling on the wide downs - not to my mind nearly such a beautiful image, albeit more alliterative. But then, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it?
Stand up, all you bustard lovers.