Balanced and Parallel

There is a fine example of a balanced, parallel sentence in Oscar Wilde’s short story The Selfish Giant, and it would be worth a few minutes to consider its construction and force. The story is a tale of contrition, or if we are apt to find a deeper message, perhaps even of what the theologians call divine immanence. Its simplicity belies its profundity, but we should be on our guard not to dismiss it too quickly when the author commands his language so well.

A peevish old giant has chased the neighborhood children out of his garden, and in consequence, of course, spring is late in coming the following year. He awakes one morning to the unexpected song of a bird, a linnet singing on his windowsill, and looks out to find that the garden is alive once again; the children he had earlier banished have managed to find their way back in through a hole in the fence, bringing with them life and spring. Describing the scene, Wilde writes: “The birds were flying about and twittering with delight, and the flowers were looking up through the green grass and laughing.” (I quote the sentence here from James Daley’s 100 Great Short Stories, Dover, 2015).

First let’s note the balance of the sentence. Say it aloud and you will hear its rhythm, its music. Right there we are alerted to the presence of a compositional balance, for a balanced sentence has a central pause, a point on either side of which are built phrases and clauses of equal length and determination. It is this measure that gives such a statement its musicality. In Wilde’s sentence, the comma after the noun delight establishes the fulcrum, the point of central balance. Before that comma, there is one independent clause with a compound predicate (flying about and twittering), and after the comma there is another independent clause with a compound predicate (looking up…and laughing). The word length of each half is roughly the same (nine and twelve), and so when we speak the sentence or read it silently, attending closely to our subliminal voice, we can hear and even feel audibly its steady, controlled weight.

But it is, I would judge, the parallelism of the construction that gives Wilde’s balanced sentence its power and presence. Balance refers to the weight of a statement, its heft in both the number of words that make up its halves and in the meaning of those roughly equal parts. Weight can be gained in many ways, but if we can identify a similarity, if not actual identity, of grammatical construction in the halves, the sentence can be described as parallel as well. To see, as we have done, that each half of the sentence comprises an independent clause with a compound predicate, is to note evidence of parallelism. But we can see more. The first verbs of each clause (were flying and were looking up) have been written in the progressive aspect (the auxiliary verb be in combination with the present participle of the principal verb), and the second verbs of both compound predicates have elided the auxiliary be—unmistakable evidence of grammatical parallelism. It is only the addition of the prepositional phrase through the green grass in the second clause that breaks a literal structural equality, and that phrase is complementarily necessary to the meaning of looking up. Form cannot ultimately trump meaning.

An understanding of sentence design and structure like this can only heighten the pleasure of our reading. Too much such analysis, of course, will make us miss the forest for the trees, but asking every once in a while just how it is that we feel the way we do when we read a certain sentence, will open upon us another vista from which to appreciate a writer’s work. And the very purpose of art, after all, is to bring fresh sight in.


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