Brief perigrination, with beautiful sentences

February 10, 2011 • 7:07 am

I’m off to Wisconsin today for Darwin Day.  If you’re anywhere near Whitewater this evening, do drop by for the talk.

There will be a brief hiatus in my posting,

but I’ve asked Greg and Matthew to fill the gap.

In the meantime, I’ve noticed that Stanley Fish has just published a new book, How to Write a Sentence.   I was surprised to see this, since his turgid productions in the New York Times didn’t give me a lot of confidence in his writing skills.  But maybe he wrote better when he was younger.  At any rate, I suggest that for our mutual edification and amusement we each contribute one of our favorite sentences from literature.

Here’s my contribution, which I’ve highlighted before. It’s the last sentence in The Dead, by James Joyce:

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.

Or you can suggest something from science, too (or both), like this familiar sentence:

It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.

103 thoughts on “Brief perigrination, with beautiful sentences

  1. “And, of course, that is what all of this is – all of this: the one song, ever changing, ever reincarnated, that speaks somehow from and to and for that which is ineffable within us and without us, that is both prayer and deliverance, folly and wisdom, that inspires us to dance or smile or simply to go on, senselessly, incomprehensibly, beatifically, in the face of mortality and the truth that our lives are more ill-writ, ill-rhymed and fleeting than any song, except perhaps those songs – that song, endlesly reincarnated – born of that truth, be it the moon and June of that truth, or the wordless blue moan, or the rotgut or the elegant poetry of it. That nameless black-hulled ship of Ulysses, that long black train, that Terraplane, that mystery train, that Rocket ’88’, that Buick 6 – same journey, same miracle, same end and endlessness.”
    Nick Tosches

    1. I just finished up my graduate program at Whitewater. Last year I had the pleasure of seeing Steven Pinker speak and now I get to see Jerry Coyne! Very exciting!

      My brother now attends Whitewater and has recently started up a secular student organization (which is believe is affiliated with the Secular Student Alliance) and Jerry is meeting up with the group before his talk. Why did I graduate and get a job?!

      Can’t wait to hear your talk tonight Jerry!

    1. “There’s night and day, brother, both sweet things; sun, moon, and stars, brother, all sweet things; there’s likewise a wind on the heath. Life is very sweet, brother; who would wish to die?”
      George Borrow – Lavengro

  2. The photograph is absurd. My advice to you, and your readers, is that if you’re going to dissect a cat you should use a standard laboratory dissecting tray, not a computer keyboard.

      1. I am sure there are wipeable ones – hospitals often have phones with such number pads or whatever they are called…! poor puddy-tat…

  3. Why are you going to Whitewater when you could come here to Madison? We’re 2 degrees warmer – it’s only -9 here.

  4. I gotta go with, “It was a dark and stormy night.”

    Or, “‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe: / All mimsy were the borogoves, / And the mome raths outgrabe.”

    One of the most striking: “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones.”

    Do equations count? I don’t think you can argue against the beauty of any of Newton’s laws of motion or Einstein’s famous matter / energy equivalency.



  5. “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me”. As opening lines go, that is a blinder

  6. “During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.”

    This is the opening sentence of Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and superbly sets the tone for the story.

  7. Recommended previously, the third sentence of Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned.

    As you first see him he wonders frequently whether he is not without honor and slightly mad, a shameful and obscene thinness glistening on the surface of the world like oil on a clean pond, these occasions being varied, of course, with those in which he thinks himself rather an exceptional young man, thoroughly sophisticated, well adjusted to his environment, and somewhat more significant than any one else he knows.

  8. Not that fair field
    Of Enna, where Proserpin gath’ring flow’rs
    Herself a fairer Flow’r by gloomy Dis
    Was gather’d, which cost Ceres all that pain
    To seek her through the world; nor that sweet Grove
    Of Daphne by Orontes, and th’ inspir’d
    Castalian Spring might with this Paradise
    Of Eden strive…

    Paradise Lost, Book IV

    Up from my cabin,
    My sea-gown scarf’d about me, in the dark
    Groped I to find out them; had my desire.
     Finger’d their packet, and in fine withdrew
    To mine own room again; making so bold,
    My fears forgetting manners, to unseal
      Their grand commission; where I found, Horatio—
    O royal knavery!—an exact command,
    Larded with many several sorts of reasons
    Importing Denmark’s health and England’s too,
    With, ho! such bugs and goblins in my life,
    That, on the supervise, no leisure bated,
    No, not to stay the grinding of the axe,
    My head should be struck off.

    The first I love because of its extraordinary sadness, a sadness which is not indulged, however, because the language is so focussed. The second (from ‘Hamlet’) I love because of the grand – and focussed – energy of syntax: it is not mere orotund gesturing as, I am afraid, that sentence of Nick Tosches’ quoted above strikes me as being, and as a many modern attempts at writing in a ‘high style’ strike me as being.

  9. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar”, every “supreme leader”, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

    Pale Blue Dot is the only science book that ever made me cry. “…a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam” will echo in my head forever.

  10. I don’t have an acquisitive nature, excepting that picture, which I can never look at without wishing the cat was mine.

  11. O for a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention. A kingdom for a stage, princes to act, and monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

      1. Who then gloriously sent up classical actors ‘of the old school’ on an episode of frasier


        1. Oh, Derek Jacobi – an actor I have never liked(Sorry!). The trouble is, his real acting is not so far from the parody he presents in that clip… A year or so ago, he produced, with some actress whose name I can’t remember (Samantha Eggar, perhaps?), an appallingly bad CD of readings from Milton in Naxos’s Great Poets series – readings in which all the over-the-top indulgence he displays on that clip was on grand display – a CD which I savaged in the pages of PN Review.

          1. And again (Sorry!) I didn’t like Branagh’s film of Hamlet; but it had one really first-rate performance, to my mind: that of Charlton Heston as the First Player.

          2. Yes – and like YM, I like his H5, don’t like his Hamlet.

            I know what you mean about Jacobi, and had the same thought about the Frasier self-parody. But at his best he’s brilliant. Have you ever seen the BBC Hamlet? That’s our Derek, who had just done a very well-received stage version when the Beeb was putting together its Hamlet. There’s a lot of brilliant in there.

            And his Macbeth in Stratford in 1994.

          3. Well, I shall not say what I thought of DJ’s Hamlet, though it may be inferred… but the hreatest Hamlet I have seen, whether on stage or on screen, is Innokenty Smoktunovsky in Grigor Kozintsev’s film (in Russian, of course); it is really worth seeing, because, being all Russians (Smoktunovsky was, as I recall, gaoled under Stalin, who didn’t allow performances of Hamlet for obvious reasons) – being all Russians, they understood the public and poltical nature of the play, an understanding that does not deny Hamlet’s inwardness; so many Western European or American productions concern themselves cripplingly, it seems to me, with Hamlet’s psychology alone (and I definitely include Olivier in this). But do see Kozintsev’s Hamlet if you can; videos or DVDs are readily available. And there is Shostakovich’s wonderful score.

  12. “As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.”–Charles Dickens, Bleak house.

  13. “It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.”-Raymond Chandler, opening line to his 1938 story “Red Wind”

  14. One of my favorites is “She would of been a good woman,” the Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

    A violent scene in Flannery O’Connor’s story “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” but what an insight!

    1. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but thow away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him.

      The scary thing is there’s still a lot of people who think like that.

      1. If I were at a Q&A where someone asked the atheist speaker: “what’s to keep you from doing whatever you want – rape, theft, etc?”, I’d definitely leave the building by a different exit.

  15. He flung himself from the room, flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions. – Stephen Leacock, Nonsense Novels, “Gertrude the Governess”, 1911

  16. I had ever before me the old dark murky rooms – the gaunt suts of mail with their ghostly silent air – the faces all awry, grinning from wood and stone – the dust and rust and worm that lives in wood – and alone in the midst of all this lumber and decay and ugly age, the beautiful child in her gentle slumber, smiling through her light and sunny dreams.

    Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop

    I also love Nabokov and Fitzgerald – wonderful writers!

  17. Seeting aside recent endeavors on evolution, you just have to love Fodors quote on reductionism and the causal autonomy of mental processes:
    “If it isn’t literally true that my wanting is causally responsible for my
    reaching, and my itching is causally responsible for my scratching, and
    my believing is causally responsible for my saying. . . if none of that is
    literally true, then practically everything I believe about anything is false and it’s the end of the world.”

  18. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”

    -The Hobbit

  19. Cheating: two instead of one. Would like to do the whole para.

    “I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of. Better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf, that they might have seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labor in.”

    Thoreau. Walden.

  20. Cheating again. 3. I’m bad.

    The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.

    And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

    And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’ den.

    Isaiah 11; King James translation.

  21. “And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, a girl sitting on her own in a small cafe in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything.”

    – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

    1. My favorite exchange, only from Restaurant at the End of the Universe:

      “Because,” hissed Zaphod, “you were there when your planet did the big firework.”

      “We have this thing on Earth…” began Arthur.

      “Had,” corrected Zaphod.

      “…called tact. Oh, never mind…”

  22. Okay, since others (at least Ophelia) are cheating:

    “It was not an accidental gurk, the minute breach of good manners that we are all liable to at times. This was a premeditated, rich and prolonged belch, with all the fervour of the Orient in it.”

    – Gerald Durrell, The Whispering Land, on his face-to-face encounter with a wild guanaco.

  23. As the first sentence of an autobiography this is pretty good:
    I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider’d how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost;—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that in which the reader is likely to see me.

    The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy,
    Gentleman, by Laurence Sterne

      1. Good G..! cried my father, making an exclamation, but taking care to moderate his voice at the same time,—Did ever woman, since the creation of the world, interrupt a man with such a silly question? Pray, what was your father saying?—Nothing.

        sorry had to have the punch line

  24. Stanley Fish is one of those Duke creatures who promoted deconstructionism so rigorously that when in high dudgeon I expatiated upon this destructive “movement” to my old friend Dave Van Ronk, Van Ronk nodded sagely (as he was wont to do) and said, “Ah, I wondered where those old Stalinists went.”

        1. We can cheat?…Well, then… *somebody* has to put some Jane Austen in here–

          “I take no leave of you, Miss Bennett. I send no compliments to your mother. You deserve no such attention…”

          I’m still waiting for an opportunity to actually use that insult… 😉

          1. “IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

            Which actually turns out to not be true on the same page. The whole book is about (among many things) what’s true and what’s just (sense) impressions.

  25. I threw down my enemy, and he fell from the high place and broke the mountainside where he smote it in his ruin.

    –Tolkien (The Two Towers)

  26. This is probably cliche, but I consider the end of Darwin’s The Origin of Species to be one of the most beautifully written science sentences of all time.

    “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

    1. Yes, I agree – this is one of the most beautiful sentences ever written! I appreciate you quoting from the first edition of ‘On the Origin of Species’ (and not from the following editions, where Darwin introduced the ‘Creator’).

  27. I’ve always felt the first sentence in The Gunslinger, by Stephen King, is one of the best lines.

    “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

    Not only is it the first sentence in The Gunslinger, but it opens the entire The Dark Tower series.

  28. He liked to open cans.

    Hemingway, “Big Two-Hearted River”

    My mother is a fish.

    Faulkner, “As I Lay Dying”

    Sometimes the simple packs the most punch.

  29. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”, from Ecclesiastes, King James Version.

    “Neither being nor non-being was then,
    There was neither air nor the sky beyond,
    What was it wrapped into? In whose protection was it?
    Was there a watery abyss, dark and deep”?
    –The first verse in the Nasadiya Sukta one of the creation hymns in the Rigveda. I like the last two verses more though:

    “Who really knows? Who can presume to tell?,
    Whence was it born? Whence issued this creation?
    Even the gods came after its emergence,
    Then who can tell whence it came?”

    “That out of which creation has arisen,
    Whether it held firm or it did not,
    He who surveys it from the highest heaven,
    He perhaps knows, or maybe He does not”

    In spite of all the religious undertones, I find the honest acceptance of ignorance quite refreshing.

    The Nasadiya Sukta translations are from

    1. …I find the honest acceptance of ignorance quite refreshing.

      Yes. Which makes it all the more dumbfounding that such admonitions to acknowledge ignorance can be found right smack in the middle of religious “manuals.” Those passages certainly don’t get taken to heart by the faithful – the certain!

  30. “The ships hung in the sky much the same way that bricks don’t.”

    From the moment I first read this from Douglas Adams it has been one of my favorites.

        1. Yeah–*is* there a name? It’s a thing that Adams did a lot as a comic device, and that nobody does better than he did…I’d use either of the two words you’ve made up there, though–they sound good to me!

  31. Talking of sentences by scientists, one of my favourites is the famous exhortation by David Hilbert: “We must know. We will know!”

  32. We seem to have got beyond mere sentences, but no felines so far –
    ‘Tobermory’ is a very short story by Saki about the dire consequences of teaching a cat to speak:

    “What do you think of human intelligence?” asked Mavis Pellington lamely.

    “Of whose intelligence in particular?” asked Tobermory coldly.

    “Oh, well, mine for instance,” said Mavis, with a feeble laugh.

    “You put me in an embarrassing position,” said Tobermory, whose tone and attitude certainly did not suggest a shred of embarrassment. “When your inclusion in this house-party was suggested Sir Wilfrid protested that you were the most brainless woman of his acquaintance, and that there was a wide distinction between hospitality and the care of the feeble-minded. Lady Blemley replied that your lack of brain-power was the precise quality which had earned you your invitation, as you were the only person she could think of who might be idiotic enough to buy their old car. You know, the one they call ‘The Envy of Sisyphus,’ because it goes quite nicely up-hill if you push it.”

    1. Bric – Shandy and Saki? Eeexcellent… I see your Tobermory and raise you a Sredni Vashtar “And while the maid went to summon her mistress to tea, Conradin fished a toasting-fork out of the sideboard drawer and proceeded to toast himself a piece of bread. And during the toasting of it and the buttering of it with much butter and the slow enjoyment of eating it, Conradin listened to the noises and silences which fell in quick spasms beyond the dining-room door. The loud foolish screaming of the maid, the answering chorus of wondering ejaculations from the kitchen region, the scuttering footsteps and hurried embassies for outside help, and then, after a lull, the scared sobbings and the shuffling tread of those who bore a heavy burden into the house.

      “Whoever will break it to the poor child? I couldn’t for the life of me!” exclaimed a shrill voice. And while they debated the matter among themselves, Conradin made himself another piece of toast.”

  33. “Those people, and I am one of them, who find an ordinary little mole already quite disgusting, would probably have died from disgust if they had seen the giant mole that was observed some years ago in the neighborhood of a small village, which had gained a certain transient fame because of it.”


  34. “Child, child, have patience and belief, for life is many days, and each present hour will pass away. Son, son, you have been mad and drunken, furious and wild, filled with hatred and despair, and all the dark confusions of the soul – but so have we. You found the earth too great for your one life, you found your brain and sinew smaller than the hunger and desire that fed on them – but it has been this way with all men. You have stumbled on in darkness, you have been pulled in opposite directions, you have faltered, you have missed the way, but, child, this is the chronicle of the earth. And now, because you have known madness and despair, and because you will grow desperate again before you come to evening, we who have stormed the ramparts of the furious earth and been hurled back, we who have been maddened by the unknowable and bitter mystery of love, we who have hungered after fame and savored all of life, the tumult, pain, and frenzy, and now sit quietly by our windows watching all that henceforth never more shall touch us – we call upon you to take heart, for we can swear to you that these things pass.”
    — Thomas Wolfe (You Can’t Go Home Again)

  35. “When the stars threw down their spears,
    And watered heaven with their tears,
    Did he smile his work to see?
    Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

    Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
    In the forests of the night,
    What immortal hand or eye
    Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?”

    Not a sentence at all really, but those verses, the entire poem actually, really struck me when I first read them as a youngster and their impact has not faded much since then.

    1. “Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;
      Man got to sit and wonder ‘why, why, why?’
      Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;
      Man got to tell himself he understand.” – Cat’s Cradle

    1. ‘We are such stuff/ As dreams are made on, and our little life/ Is rounded with a sleep.’ Prospero, in Shakespeare’s Tempest.

  36. “One last kiss, rushed and clumsy so that they banged cheekbones, and a tear from her eye was transferred to his face; their two daemons kissed farewell, and Pantalaimon flowed over the threshold and up into Lyra’s arms; and then Will began to close the window and it was done, the way closed, Lyra was gone.”

    The Amber Spyglass-Philip Pullman

  37. Too late for the pompous St. Carl of course, but a tip for the hordes of Sagan copyists who believe more is more:

    “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it” Elmore Leonard


  38. And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas.
    Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

    I am surprised none of you feral heathens cited him yet.

    The sentence in context:

    “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like ‘I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive . . .’ And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas.
    And a voice was screaming, ‘Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?'”

  39. From Nabokov’s “Speak, Memory” which, to my eye, contains more great English prose than any other book I’ve read. There are sentences at least as good as this one (about a sunset) on every page.

    “Overhead, above the black music of telegraph wires, a number of long, dark-violet clouds lined with flamingo pink hung motionless in a fan-shaped arrangement; the whole thing was like some prodigious ovation in terms of color and form!”

  40. Ha! When Fish was on Talk of the Nation, I tried calling in so I could be one of the few to suggest a sentence that was not from a fictional source. You picked the exact quote I was going to use! I love how that quote from Crick and Watson’s paper is one of the most understated things ever said, and you can sense the smugness just oozing from it. I love it!

  41. Inspirational science quotes from 4chan /sci/…

    It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as herp and as derp as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of durr. — A. Einstein, “On the Method of Theoretical Physics,” The Herbert Spencer Lecture, delivered at Oxford June 10, 1933.

    I believe that a scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy. — Richard Feynman

    Without polio, Salk is a putz. — Lenny Bruce

  42. The opening sentence of ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ by Gabriel Gárcia Márquez:

    “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, General Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

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