05 February 2011

What Was So Great About It?

On January 29, I quoted what I called a "great sentence from Dylan Thomas." I will wait now while you look it over again.

What, you might ask, was so great about it?

It clocks in at 100 words, by my counts. That by itself doesn't make for a great sentence, but it can certainly be an attention-getting way to start a story or essay.

Length, though, won't do the job if one simply writes a run on. This sentence is not a run-on. It is a perfectly self-contained, well-constructed, unit of thought. There are numerous places where Thomas could have put a period -- where a lesser writer would have put a period -- buit in each case we can see the logic of continuing.

"I was born in a large Welsh industrial town at the beginning of the Great War." That would be almost journalism. Start your story, they say, with a sentence that answers the four Ws: who, what, where, when.

Yet Thomas isn't writing for a newspaper, and he follows that simple statement with a colon and a striking paradox about the "ugly, lovely town." What he means by those apparently contradictory adjectives is what is to become clear as the sentence unfolds.

What are we to make of an adjective like "jerry-villa'd"? Jerry-built is the more common compound. Or jerry-rigged. We recognize that at first read, and we may even think that "jerry-villa'd" is a misprint. But, no ... that is how Thomas wanted it. Andit has an obvious connection with the "ugly, lovely" conjunction.

Not only is this sentence a great work of art in itself, it is endlessly fascinating in its parts.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.