A thing of beauty: turning your sentences into art

Keats said it famously, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” But just what is beauty anyway? Asking this question, as so many have, implies we can reduce beauty to formula. I don’t think we can, at least I hope this is so, for I suspect the best part of beauty lies in its infinitude, or variation, providing a brew sure to meet all palates.

I see beauty as something creatively special, or set apart, often complex in its composite underpinnings, yet rendered with simplicity, observing that best maxim that good art conceals itself.

Having said that, I retain my own credos, while humbly aware they don’t exclude others. Take writing for an example.

I taught the how of it for a good many years and I think I know the good from the bad, the one able to convey, the other to obscure; the one saturated in the sensory; the other, vague, encumbered in the web of abstraction, generalization, platitude and cliche .

Good writing possesses a clarity about it, achieved through economy, a phrase for a sentence, a word replacing a phrase.

Good writing exhibits creativity: what’s been said often perhaps, but in a new way, making us stop, look, and listen again: the sparking word, unanticipated metaphor, the phrase that gets it just right.

Yet without style, it’s still not beauty and lacks artistry if it’s not bathed in rhythm or swathed in cadence. Good sentences start like seeds, followed by shoots, stems, nodes, leaves, then–bang!–you’ve got bloom. Good sentences don’t just happen. Each is a bonsai waiting its shaping.

I love you

more than words can say,

more like a cool mountain stream,


by day or by night.

Again, notice the simplicity of it.   Let’s try another:

You bring me joy,

like opening a gift,


wondering how you knew,

  this and not that,

but it’s

what I like best

about love,

that intimacy which knows.

You can learn the crafting of the masterful sentence by imitating successful writers. Let me resort to Hemingway, one of the best, and his opening sentence to A Farewell to Arms:

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.

Can you find the kernel (the subject-verb of a main clause), or seed element, germinating the sentence’s embellishments? It’s important for it’s here artists commence their tapestry. It’s so tiny you might miss it.

If you selected “we lived” you got it right.

Can you identify Hemingway’s principal method, or syntactical embellishment, one for which he’s renowned?

If you answered, prepositional phrase, then you’re right once more and on your way!

Let’s try leveling again, this time using numbers to separate out different grammatical structures, with 1 representing the sentence seed or kernel; 2, the prepositional phrases; and 3, the sentence’s lone relative clause:

2 In the late summer

2 of that year

1 we lived

2 in a house

2 in a village

3 that looked

2 across the river and the plain

2 to the mountains

Hemingway wrote this way not simply for the allure of its rhythm, but to achieve a panning effect like that of a cameraman wanting a panoramic view. An outdoorsman, he loved nature, all of it, and the pauses created by each prepositional phrase reveal his sweeping, sensate passion for it. It’s artistry at its best: creative, sensory, rhythmic.

It’s dawn’s first light outside my bedroom window, as I’ve been laboring in the atier of the night’s tranquil solace.

I am

like a warbler,

filled with song,

sounding reveille

for a new day,

abundant in sun and seed and shade.

Be well,


Author: RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.

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