They swarmed above the lonely elm, they circled a hundred feet above, until the leader, followed by ever greater numbers, in one broad spiral led the way down and so, as they descended through falling dusk in a soft roar, they made, as they had at dawn, a huge sea shell that stood proud to a moon which, flat sovereign red gold, was already poised full faced to a dying world.
—Henry Green, from Concluding
Poets think in lines, prose writers in sentences; the best of both work from sound to sense, with an ear for the music in their compositions. S for Sentence celebrates lyricism in prose, the play and craft at work in the artful sentence. We post a sentence a month along with comments by a guest writer on the craft that shapes it, on what makes it great. In one or two sentences.
—Pearl Abraham, Editor
The first clause of this sentence has 8 syllables, the second 9, though the extra clause coming from “circled” is not loud, it doesn't change the rhythm of the iambic feet, unstressed stressed, a recognizably English sound, but not Shakespeare's iambic pentameter. This is iambic tetrameter. The repetition of the preposition “above” serves as a clever signal: these clauses are meant to rhyme, a rhythmic iambic match, which are then quickly followed by a change up that lets us know this is all intentional. We are alerted to the change by the preposition, “until,” which is a trochee, stressed unstressed, the opposite of the iambic. “Leader” and “followed” are also trochees, the stress always on the first syllable. With “ever, greater,” and “numbers” we get three trochees in a row, and the unstressed second syllable of these trochees all echo the er in “leader.” The punchiness of the trochee rhythm, a change from the relaxed or loose iambic, is then followed by the stacatto of three stresses in a row: “one broad spiral.” And continues with "led the way down:" Single syllable words are useful for making a series of stresses, a marching rhythm. "And so" introduces a softening, another change. “Through falling dusk” and “in a soft roar” are 4 syllables apiece and the rhythm rhymes. The repeated "as they" and the d-sounds of "dawn" and "descended" alert us again to the doubling of the rhythms, but even more significantly to the d sound: early in the sentence it appears only at the end of words, as past tense, “swarmed, circled, hundred, broad” until we get to “down, descended, dusk, dawn,” then “stood, proud, red, gold, poised, faced,” all leading us toward the closing words, “a dying world,” a main theme of this novel titled Concluding. The rhyming “stood” and “moon,” the half rhyme “proud,” serve to heighten the emotion, the stakes, of where we are going. The return of the fricative f, with “flat, full,” and “faced,” indicate we are not going gently, as Dylan Thomas advises. This sentence stands in brilliantly for everything the book is about.
—Pearl Abraham is the author of, most recently, American Taliban and The Seventh Beggar