Knowing the Why

It is not unusual for us to say about a picture we see or a song we hear, I like that. It is unusual, though, to go on then to say exactly why. If we ask why it is that a picture or song or anything else moves us, we are in pursuit of the cause of the reaction we are having. What, for example, did the writer do to produce my reaction, good or bad? Knowing why both deepens our experience and teaches us to be able to do the same.

Here, for example, is a wonderfully crafted sentence by the Irish author W. B. Yeats. It appears in his short story The Tables of the Law (I quote it here from James Daley’s 100 Great Short Stories, Dover, 2016):

I did not reason with him that night, because his excitement was great and I feared to make him angry; and when I called at his house a few days later, he was gone and his house was locked up and empty.

If we read this sentence with some attention, keeping out what distractions we can to focus closely on both its sense and sound, we are likely to be affected by its balanced weight; it seems to stand up straight, we might say, sure of itself, poised, composed. We might perceive a rhythm or cadence to this one sentence, and we might likely conclude that it doesn’t sound the way we talk. Whether that is good or bad is not the question to ask, because matters of style don’t answer to the question of right or wrong. Content does answer that question, what we are saying can certainly be right or wrong, but the manner, the style, the design by which we are saying something can only be judged by how effectively that content, right or wrong, was presented for the circumstances. What we are after here is first to know the why, the cause, of what we sensed in reading the sentence.

Begin by trying to notice the largest features of the statement as a whole. Here we find that a semicolon stands just about midway in this sentence, 20 words before it and 22 words after it. That fairly strong punctuation device is meant to stabilize and balance the weight of the two halves, and that weight is appreciable: each half of the sentence comprises three clauses, which means three assertions of thought, which the reader is meant to comprehend and relate one to another—all in one sentence. A sentence of such a design—a center point with roughly equal word length on each side—is called, appropriately enough, a balanced sentence.

If from this larger view we next look into the composition of the clauses on either side of the semicolon, the fulcrum of the balance, we are well served first to determine the structure of each clause, independent or subordinate. The sentence begins with an independent clause (I did not reason), and continues to the midway point with two complex clauses (because his excitement was great and [because] I feared to make him angry). For the sake of easier analysis, let’s assign the letter A to independent clauses and the letter B to subordinate clauses; hence, the compositional layout of the first half is A, B, B. If we then turn to the second half of the sentence and analyze it in a similar way, we again find three clauses; this time, however, the first clause is subordinate (when I called at his house), followed by two independent clauses (he was gone and his house was locked up). This second half of the sentence, we discover, has a compositional layout of B, A, A, the exact reverse design of the first half. The fancy word for this kind of compositional design is chiasmus, or reverse parallelism.

It is self-evident that when things (whether objects or words) run in parallel, conflict and misunderstanding is less likely. Parallelism suggests order, control, steadiness, and parallelism in reverse develops the complexity of a statement without losing control over the progression and relationship of ideas. To compose a sentence of six clauses across 42 words means to be presenting the reader with six thoughts that are related to one another; were they not, they would not be in the same sentence. That’s a lot of thinking, and to assure that the attentive reader both comprehend and enjoy the complexity (for the simpler is not always the better), the author has, consciously or not, constructed a plan, an architecture, to communicate all that thinking intelligibly. It is the parallel structure here that creates this stately sentence, and it is the discovery of that structure that intensifies our reading.




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