Learning from Landon
A Brief Essay on Cumulative Sentences
When you write, do you sometimes think consciously about the rhythm of your sentences or about deliberately breaking the rhythm as you advance one sentence into its follower? I do this sometimes. Maybe I do this because I’m a musician.
Even if you’re not a musician, you may be in pursuit of the smooth flow of a sentence. Other times you may want to jerk it around a bit, like a train that can’t quite fully get started, starting, lurching, then braking, lurching and braking, until it finally pulls out of the station. This kind of manipulation might serve the meaning of your passage (as I tried to do in the second sentence of this paragraph).
Brooks Landon addresses these matters in his lectures on “Building Great Sentences” which I found in the Great Courses Series on Literature and Language. Listening to this DVD course, I’d never been so aware of the power of a sentence, short or long, and the many purposes it can serve.
In the Course, we move from the idea of the single-step sentence, or kernel, through a brief look at grammar and rhetoric, and on toward Landon’s adjectival steps and proposition. Yes “proposition” not “preposition.” Though each of these elements could shape its own chapter, in this essay I’m interested in the way we use propositions to move us toward cumulative syntax.
First, a proposition in Landon’s terminology, is “a kind of basic or elementary statement that can’t easily be broken down into constituent propositions.” We could say, “The pianist performed a flawless “Les Adieux.” From this we learn 1) it was a pianist who was performing, 2) the performance was flawless and 3) it was the Beethoven Sonata she performed. Landon understands the proposition to denote, not merely parts of a sentence, but the basic underlying unit of the sentence, sometimes implied, sometimes stated overtly.
“Only when we consider the emotional effect,” says Landon, “of the way we order and combine propositions that underlie the sentences we speak or write can we consider ourselves in control of our writing.” The emotional effect our sentences produce is most important to us as writers. The order in which we place the various elements of the sentence can enhance or diminish the emotional effect. We combine propositions in various ways, creating successful or less successful sentences.
Her daughter’s hands shook as she dropped the medicine into her mother’s mouth, drop by drop, knowing her mother had not much longer to live.
Knowing her mother had not long to live, she dropped the medicine into her mother’s mouth with shaking hands.
Depending on the passage’s purpose, we could argue that the first sentence leads to greater emotional effect, for it saves weighty information for last. Yet, if we are to be more focused on the daughter, the second sentence might play its part more effectively.
The cumulative sentence, in which the writer provides detail after detail, is the part of Landon’s lecture I liked best. This segment treats the question of how sentences grow and of how rhythm is used to great effect. “Cumulative sentences add texture,” says Landon. And “greater texture or density of information is one of the most important keys.
So I went searching for cumulative sentences and found a prize in “All the Pretty Horses.” It’s a 94-word sentence in which McCarthy carries us to the stars:
They heard somewhere in that tenantless night a bell that tolled and ceased where no bell was and they rode out on the round dais of the earth which alone was dark and no light to it and which carried their figures and bore them up into the swarming stars so that they rode not under but among them and they rode at once jaunty and circumspect, like thieves newly loosed in that dark electric, like young thieves in a glowing orchard, loosely jacketed against the cold and ten thousand worlds for the choosing.
Wow! How far we travel in that one sentence!
If you set out mining for other such sentences, you’ll find a rich lode in Conrad.Here’s one from his 1915 novel “Victory”:
On the nights of full moon the silence around Samburan—the “Round Island” of the charts—was dazzling; and in the flood of cold light Heyst could see his immediate surroundings, which had the aspect of an abandoned settlement surrounded by the jungle: vague roofs above low vegetation, broken shadows of bamboo fences in the sheen of long grass, something like an overgrown bit of road slanting among ragged thickets toward the shore only a couple of yards away, with a black jetty and a mound of some sort, quite inky on its unlighted side.
Do you realize the density of these passages so full of mood and image? Conrad hands us information upon information, like an artist lavishing paint stroke over paint stroke. Yet we are not overburdened. We can see the entire, and, as with McCarthy, we can almost feel the environment.
If you analyze the Conrad sentence you’ll see how the “vague roofs” add information to the foregoing word “jungle”, the “sheen of long grass” tells more about the vegetation, the “ragged thickets” about the overgrown road, and so on. Each step forward in the sentence gives new information about a previous word or clause, and before we know it, the information has accumulated into one fine whole. Professor Landon loves the cumulative sentence, an aspect of sentence structure he regards as relatively easy to develop. Do you agree with him?
Dickens and Hemingway also offer up kettles of gems. Perhaps you’ve found a few of your own favorites. In this playful example from Dickens, we find accumulation.
There, I found a virtuous boatswain in his Majesty’s service—a most excellent man, though I could have wished his trousers not quite so tight in some places and not quite so loose in others—who knocked all the little men’s hats over their eyes, though he was very generous and brave, and who wouldn’t hear of anybody’s paying taxes, though he was very patriotic. (from “Great Expectations”)
You may have noticed, the cumulative sentence sets up a fine rhythm and, when done well, keeps the train chugging forward, no matter how many boxcars you add to it.
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