A Delicious Four Course Sentence

I lighted on this sentence in the November, 1963 edition of Horizon Magazine (which happens to be my birth month). Here is the very type of a long sentence that could not be shortened and still say the same thing.

Here is why I love and demand long sentences and why people who cannot read or write long sentences are suffering half-lives:

It was wholly natural that the visitor who approached the holy city of Constantinople from across the dolphin-torn silvery blue of the Sea of Marmara, and rounded the promontory to enter the Golden Horn, saw rising on the spacious platform of the headland–over the masts of the merchantmen and the roofs of the warehouses, over the Hippodrome and the Senate House and the Great Imperial Palace, over the public square of the Augustaeum with its armor-clad statue of the Emperor on his enormous column–the huge domed mass of Hagia Sophia.

My stylistic puritanism is a little distracted by the “dolphin-torn silvery blue,” but I suspect others will love that phrase and I confess that it carries apt information in a tight purse – so I’ll not criticise it much.

I’ll congratulate him for taking a risk that seems to have worked. Blue might have been enough. Silvery might be the word that worries me most. Dolphin-torn belongs, but maybe is just a little jealous of the attention silvery takes from it. But let it stand. Besides, if you take out silvery, the rhythm is broken.

Look at that marvelous structure and notice how the structure is the story.

He (Philip Sherrard) wanted the reader to see the glory of perhaps the greatest building of the middle ages, the largest building on earth for over 1000 years. But he can’t just tell us of its magnitude. A scientific, quantitative description would render the description vacuous. So he puts us there.

We are the visitor. We know the city we are drawing near to is the “holy city of Constantinople.” To get there we cross the silvery blue sea of Marmara, occasionally, perhaps even frequently, in any case, characteristically torn by the unforgettable grace of the dolphins.

We come round the promontory to approach and then enter the harbor of the Golden Horn and we see – “rising on the spacious platform of the headland” – ah but what we see is too great simply to mention. It is majesty. Entering our vision, it is preceded by its royal attendants – each more magnificent than the other.

First, the common people parade before us under their masts and on their warehouse roofs. But higher still is the object of our wonder.

Next, over the gathering place of  the empire, where games are played and emperors sit with their people – even over the 400,000 seat hippodrome, the splendour of our vision rises.

And still, the senate house, meeting-place of Lords, the Imperial palace, the “armour clad statue of the Emperor” towering atop an enormous ten-drum column of porphyry -a hundred feet high or more – all are dwarfed by the incomparable dome that draws our eyes, and with them our souls, to the “transcendent reality” it embodied.

Vividly, concisely, without a wasted syllable, Philip Sherrard brings us into the presence of a lost glory, through the structure of one glorious sentence.

The visitor approaches.

The visitor sees: over, over, over – the huge domed mass of Holy Wisdom.

Notice too the proportion of the three overs, the single conjunction in the first, the double in the second, the absence in the third.

OK, I can’t justify the adjectives in the “dolphin-torn silvery blue” passage. But I’m here to praise the structure of this magnificent edifice, not its color. By holding the dome to the last clause, and by preceding that final clause with a whole series of properly arranged details, he demonstrates the essential skill of the artist, who, as Wendell Berry so aptly expressed it, is one who “knows what to put where, and when to put it.”

Even our ability to enjoy beauty is diminished by the absence of long sentences.

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Time and the Priorities of the History Curriculum

A scholars most precious possession is his time. All that can profitably be known so exceeds our lifetimes that it takes only a few years of serious, eager study to realize that this beloved activity contains the daily temptation to despair.

Yet, the pleasure and the value of coming to understand, of seeing new relations, of gaining new insights, of grasping new patterns, of perceiving reality in a deeper and more precise way, of feeling one’s own powers of reasoning and listening and questing grow stronger, these and many other delights constantly draw the soul back into the realm of ideas to learn more and to explore more.

When I was a child, I learned about the ancient world because my family and my church studied the Bible a lot. I knew a little about Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, and, of course, Israel and the Hittites, Philistines, and Caananites.

I also knew something about the modern world after the Renaissance and the Reformation.

But it was not until late in my high school years that I began to get a glimpse of that era we write off as the middle ages. Empires make things so tidy for the historian. Tribal migrations and ceaseless bloody battles with a variety of stable kingdoms and a multitude of outliers make for a messy chaos.

So the period from the 4th to the 15th centuries was always hidden in those fabled mists of history.

Too bad. It’s really quite fascinating, and, to my surprise and to the surprise of most western Europeans and their heirs, there was an Empire that dominated and ordered the Middle Ages. To rub in the surprise, it was the same Roman Empire that dominated the classical world.

But it had a different form and moved in a different direction than the western world moved.

Yet, it seems questionable to me whether we can understand our place in the world if we fail to study the eastern Roman Empire any more than if we fail to study Renaissance Italy, which was reborn directly as a consequence of its contact with the eastern empire.

It was the eastern empire that interacted with and lived on the same streets as the medieval Arabs and their Caliphates. We could use their counsel right about now. As western European Imperialism continues its unwinding, as the lower, materialistic values of the west continue to spread, though without the higher, spiritual and aesthetic values of its past, I become increasingly convinced that our students need to learn more about the eastern empire than that Justinian tried to reunite it with the west in the 6th century.

The primary and secondary years do not offer enough time to allow a child to become deeply versed in any era of history, though they do need to learn how to read history and they need to gain a solid outline for their later historical reflections. So to try to teach them every teacher’s particular passion in history will only frustrate them, unless the focus is on the basic skills of historical research.

But standards for history need to be derived from the goals and commitments of the school and its faculty, not from the text book handed to the teacher so that she can administer its information to the students.

Among those standards are a minimum of knowledge that every graduate needs to know, certain ideas that each student needs to contemplate and understand to a recognized level, and, especially, specific skills that will enable them to conduct their own mature studies of history as they engage in the issues of the day later on in their lives.

Surely the eastern Roman Empire merits a level of knowledge beyond, say, ancient Egypt or the Mesopotamian kingdoms. Surely we are not culturally neutral on this selection.

But let me reiterate: you can’t graduate a historian from a high school. You can graduate a student with enough historical background and intellectual skill to consider the contemplation of history in the years to come.

And oh those skills! Reading at a high level, writing with reserve and inquiry, reasoning with maturity and nuance – gain these and who cares about the standardized tests!

Besides, the scholars most cherished possession is his time. How much I have had to “waste” as an adult because I was not educated well by my schools as a child.