Complex Sentences in the Style of Herman Melville

A little while ago, three months to be exact, I finished reading Moby Dick; and I have to say that Herman Melville must have gotten paid by the semi-colon; but his pay must have also thus, as pay was sometimes done at that time from what I gather, been subtracted from each period that he used, since there seem to be sentences that go on forever.

That was a snarky nod towards Melville, but that seems, to me, how a lot of people in the 19th century wrote. If you do not believe me, I just opened up my book and found this whopper after only about a minute:

"And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues – every stately or lovely emblazoning – the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of the butterflies and the butterfly cheeks of the young girls; all these are but subtle deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all defied Nature absolutely paints like the harlot whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further , and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colorless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge – pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like willful travelers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. "

That is a monster of a 175 word sentence right there!

Now what can we learn from this? First we can tell by reading it that it's hard to read. Granted the sentence is technically not a run-on, even though it violates the 'single breath rule' that some people use to determine if a sentence is a run-on. In fact, a sentence can be infinitely long, as long as it's punctuated properly. So it's not a run-on, but wow is it complex and hard to read. So we do not want to imitate this, but why study it?

Like a batter in baseball puts a weight on his bat to take practice swings before coming to the plate, learning how to write a sentence like Melville's will make you more comfortable using more complex sentences in your writing. Again, I'm not advocating filling your work up with 100+ word sentences, but there is value in learning how to construct them.

So lets start de-constructing that sentence. First I'll break the sentence apart into all the independent clauses.

"And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues – every stately or lovely emblazoning – the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of the butterflies and the butterfly cheeks of the young girls; all these are but subtle deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without;

so that all defied Nature absolutely paints like the harlot whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within;

and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colorless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge–

pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like willful travelers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. "

So as you can see there are 4 of them there. If you read each one, you will notice that it is a single complete thought. You'll also notice that two of them end with a semi-colon, one ends with a dash, and the final one obviously ends with a period.

Why are not commas used? Well a comma would normally be used in a more basic complex sentence. "I went to the store, and I picked up a gallon of milk." There are two independent clauses there: "I went to the store" and "I picked up a gallon of milk." In that case a comma joins them well, so why did Melville use semi-colons and a dash?

He did that because the general rule of thumb is to use a semi-colon in place of a comma to join two independent clauses when commas have already been used in the independent thought. (And a dash can take the place of a semi-colon and is nothing more than a stylistic choice).

So that is an extreme example of a complex sentence, broken down into the main thoughts; and having read that, I hope that you feel confident in ratcheting up the complexity in some of the sentences in your work that feel could use it.

Source by Michael A Tate

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