Friday 3 November 2017

The trees wave, the clouds pass.(1931)

HERE is the second in a series of eight pieces in The Paris Review by Jeff Dolven, in which he, "will take apart and put back together one beloved or bedeviling sentence every week". This week it is a sentence from Virginia Woolf’s book The Waves (1931): The trees wave, the clouds pass.

Which is not to say that there is any law against reversing them. “The clouds pass, the trees wave.” This is a different sentence, but not an illegal one, not the way the intransitive “wave the trees” would be. We have come to the limits of what grammar will dictate, and other laws, less scrutable and less fair, take over. In Louis’s sentence there is a bare appeal to grammar-as-nature, compliance with the rules of construction at their minimum. But his sighing comma is not grammatical, really, since it puts two clauses together that could just as well be parsed by two periods, and whatever relation obtains between two sentences is beyond grammar’s reach. Enter logic, rhetoric, poetics. With that comma, Woolf releases the sentence into the hazards of choice, of constructions that might be otherwise. The shimmer of alternatives is a basic property of a literary sentence, and all the pathos, and beauty, of this one—in its poignant minimalism—lies in the possibility that it might have run the other way and the fact that it does not. All our soliloquies share grammar, but from there they must diverge.