Rosebuds Bow Courteously

E. B. White and the unruffled but prickly surface of a pasture pond. Exemplary writing, and what makes it so.

Roses bowing for love

Quote: The pasture pond was unruffled but had the prickly surface caused by raindrops, and it seemed bereft without geese. The sky was a gloomy grey. Two rosebuds bowed courteously to each other on the terrace.

A vivid few sentences by E. B. White in his essay, Eye of the Edna, from the book Essays of E. B. White. He is describing his farmyard before Hurricane Edna struck New England in 1954.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Vividness, word choice, and economy.

 How fortunate that unruffled relates to both flat, placid water surfaces, and an orderly arrangement of (goose) feathers, and that a surface pricked by raindrops resembles (inverted?) goosebumps. How fortunate that pasture pond and prickly alliterate, as do geese and gloomy grey. And that courteously — an adverb of all things! — to push an image from pretty to exquisite and precise.

(In case you do not know by heart all of Strunk & White, in the section An Approach to Style, item number 4 is Write with nouns and verbs. It starts with: “Write with nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs”, and yet: courteously. Of course, three sentences later, it says: “Occasionally [adjectives and adverbs] surprise us with their power.” Indeed.)

Also notice the flavourful word bereft. Not empty, not forlorn, but bereft.

What about the words: unruffled, surface and bereft? What do they have in common? (See below for answer.)

The verb to be is much maligned in instruction manuals for aspiring writers. Often you’ll find general advice such as: use active verbs or punch up your prose with verbs that convey the specific action. But to be has its place, such as in this Quote, where its simplicity brings out the beauty of the surrounding sentence structure.

What is at the core of the Quote?

Word choice, consonance, simile and personification.

Word choice we saw above, and it is essential: E. B. White, the master that he was, picked his words with care.

Consonance, the repetition of a similarly sounding consonants — that’s what unruffled, surface and bereft have in common. (A repeating rf cluster.)

The simile of what the pond looked like, how it seemed, brought out the best in unruffled and prickly by mentioning geese.

Lastly, the personification of the roses, with their courteous bow, almost making them into bowing courtiers, brought interest to the description, interest we humans only show for the affairs of other humans.

 Ridpath's history of the world; being an account of the ethnic origin, primitive estate, early migrations, social conditions and present promise of the principal families of men ..
More than just a little prickly (click on the picture to see what it’s meant to depict)

P.S. Their courteous bows almost made them into bowing courtiers, is an example of an extended chiasmus.

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of

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