Periodic Before Dawn

Dawn. The Greeks gave us rhetoric and the figures of speech.

You have settled down next to a window, a night lamp, or a tablet. You have turned to the first page of a book, and …

 Quote: Of the things we fashioned for them that they might be comforted, dawn is the one that works.

This is the opening sentence of John Banville’s The Infinities (2009). Even though the blurb, the book cover, the book reviews, the comments from friends and social media sites and the kitchen sink may have had their say by the time the poor reader reaches this sentence, it is still the starting point of the author’s tale. And what a starting point!

What makes the Quote quiver?

Curiosity and elegance.

Title: The beggar's vision Year: 1921 (1920s); Authors: More, Brookes, 1859-1942 Braithwaite, William Stanley, 1878-1962

The Last of Lost Eden … Where winter winds never have wailed on Their chilling wings willing for killing! …   (Examples of alliteration and assonance.)

Who is this about? The reader takes a slalom through a long phrase, filled with we and them and they marker poles, without knowing who these poles refer to, and without knowing what essential statement they’ll find at the bottom of the ride — dawn is the one that works. 

What is this about? Beginning a sentence with Of the things, immediately brings up the question: What things? The remainder of the phrase before the comma is spent answering that question, while asking new ones with the unexplained pronouns.

To see the elegance, try rephrasing the sentence while preserving as much of its meaning as possible. Here are a few options.

  1. Dawn is the one thing that works of the things we fashioned for them that they might be comforted.
  2. Dawn is the one thing that works, that we fashioned for them that they might be comforted.
  3. Dawn is the one thing that we fashioned for them that they might comforted, that works.
  4. We fashioned things for them that they might be comforted; dawn is the one that works.

They’re awful, aren’t they? (If you came up with one that you thought was equally elegant as the original, please post it below—I’m curious.) We could analyse why options 1-4 don’t work as well, but instead, let’s ask what makes the first quote so good from a structural viewpoint.

What is at the core of the Quote?

The Quote is an example of a periodic sentence. For a periodic sentence to feel complete in sense&syntax, you have to read it through to the end. (Indeed, the previous sentence was periodic, as was the one with the kitchen sink above.) In our Quote today, there is a single subordinate phrase, but there can be many.

A popular example comes from the opening of Milton’s Paradise Lost:

“Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse, …

Examples from Shakespeare and many other immortals abound, too.

Conclusion

Banville’s periodic sentence echoes illustrious poets, the same way they before him echoed the Romans in their eloquent speeches. It sounds formal, grand, pompous. And with good reason! Banville’s book is written from the point of view of a Greek god.

Did you not feel divinity speaking its mind through the Quote?

Title: St. Nicholas [serial] Year: 1873 (1870s) Authors: Dodge, Mary Mapes, 1830-1905

The little girl applies alliteration (fire from flames), anaphora (why, why, why), enallage (apples does? possibly dialect and not deliberate), while asking some mighty tough questions.

Questions? Comments? Reading recommendations? Let me know.

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