English 270/370: Stylistics Support

The final for this course will include two passages and ask you to give your best stylistic reading of one of them. That will involve doing what we will have done over the quarter: extend and apply to specific written texts the knowledge you've been developing all quarter long.

To help you prepare you have several resources, beginning with your own notes from class. But you also have the explanations given in The Speaker in the Text on the Blackboard.

Moreover, here I supplement those resources with my own Review Notes on passages we looked at over the past weeks. These notes don't cover everything we talked about in class, but they make a start. I first post the passages, then follow that passage with my paragraphs summarizing my own view of these particular speakers.

Ecclesiastes, from the Bible, King James Version

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth forever. The sun also riseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again to his circuits. All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again. All things are full of labor; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. The thing which hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

Comments on the opening of the King James version of Ecclesiastes

“Ecclesiastes” means “preacher,” or “minister.” This is thus the speaking of a preacher—as such a sermon—and it has what could be called a “vatic” air [vates is Latin for “prophet”] —a knowingness, a kind of indirect assertion of wisdom about the heavens and the earth and human life that transcends that held by ordinary mortals like you and me. It gets that through a series of stylistic choices. First its diction is actually pretty much Anglo-Saxon (AS)—which normally connotes a common person, a down to earth, no nonsense sort. Here, though, that very ordinariness (“sun” “rivers” “wind”) grows mystical as the loose sentences set simple truths out along with simple but not fully explained semi-contradictions of them. “All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.” Well, but the sea is already full, even if in real life we don’t actually ever imagine the sea as “full” or “not full”—for most of us, whatever the sea is, it is! We can understand the water cycle, but it doesn’t feel as though that’s what he’s actually talking about with the rivers returning from “whence they come.” Because what he says in some sentences is too simple to need saying, we are made to wonder what his real purpose is in saying them. As for the syntax, it is loose, not periodic, and the sentences, though not complicated, have lots of parallel construction. That gives it a formal feel even as the language itself is what one could call elemental, or drawn for the most part from nature: wind, sea, rivers, sun, moon. The diction is archaic, reflecting the Bible’s early 17th century translators, and the parallel constructions which seem almost confusingly repetitious connote fullness of thought even though the meaning of the phrases each by themselves seems almost too simple to be uttered.

All of this is pushed to a stylistic extreme in the last sentence which is like the others in repeating bits, in being loose and compound, but replaces even the common specific words like “sun” and “rivers” with pronouns and the very general word “thing”: “The thing which hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” Overall, the passage offers a sense of paradox, of a speaker who is in touch with wisdoms beyond the ordinary, who sees in ordinary natural things meanings of a more complex and life-informing nature than the rest of us do. Like, in short, at least some sorts of preachers!


Ernest Hemingway, from “Big Two-Hearted River” (A short story about a war veteran in the time immediately following World War I (in Europe often called "The Great War"—and not because it was really cool, but because it was the largest and deadliest conflict the world to that point had ever seen.

Nick looked at the burned-over stretch of hillside, where he had expected to find the scattered houses of the town and then walked down the railroad track to the bridge over the river. The river was there. It swirled against the log piles of the bridge. Nick looked down into the clear, brown water, colored from the pebbly bottom, and watched the trout keeping themselves steady in the current with wavering fins. As he watched them they changed their positions by quick angles, only to hold steady in the fast water again. Nick watched them a long time.

He watched them holding themselves with their noses into the current, many trout in deep, fast moving water, slightly distorted as he watched far down through the glassy convex surface of the pool, its surface pushing and swelling smooth against the resistance of the log-driven piles of the bridge. At the bottom of the pool were the big trout. Nick did not see them at first. Then he saw them at the bottom of the pool, big trout looking to hold themselves on the gravel bottom in a varying mist of gravel and sand, raised in spurts by the current.

Comments on the opening paragraphs of Ernest Hemingway's "Big Two-Hearted River"

The Hemingway passage bears strong stylistic parallels to Ecclesiastes, though without the sense of “preacher” about it. The repetitions, the parallel constructions, the generally loose syntax, the common and elemental vocabulary—these all suggest some sense of the Biblical antecedent.

The syntax here is again loose and (mainly) not periodic; it has some long sentences, but they built of compounds, not subordination—just as is Ecclesiastes. Some sentences seem bizarrely redundant: “The river was there.” As in Ecclesiastes, the vocabulary focuses on the natural: river, water, fish. Diction is primarily Anglo-Saxon, with some Latinates. A good deal of repetition of phrases, and as in Ecc, it isn’t always at all obvious why he needs to repeat, so we are likely to read it either as a silly way of writing (some readers can't stand Hemingway for precisely this reason—to them his style seems “precious,” or overly manipulated), or it holds meaning we don’t immediately see—just as Nick looks down into the brown water, which is completely ordinary, and can't immediately see the big fish down below. The verbs used to describe Nick are mostly either “look,” “watch,” or “see.” Indeed, the only other verb used for him is “walked.” But those verbs are all about observation and not about thinking, reflecting, intending, or planning. He is just an observer so far, just as we are as well: as we read we are observing Nick who is himself observing his natural surroundings. And as I say, in paragraph two we see him first unable to “see”—but after a bit then finally able to see—the big trout, the goal (it will turn out, since he has come to this part of the country to fish) of his journey, “holding themselves steady in the current,” a point of constancy amidst movement of sand eddying up around them. So lots of movement, lots of motion of fins, yet the fish, like nature itself, one might think, are unchanging, their fins holding them steady even as the current rushes past them.

So, it's a kind of restrained, elemental narrative voice, very even-toned, reportorial, sparse (by which I mean it leaves out detail that another writer [Dickens or Salinger, for example] might include), and using loose, predominantly AS diction, almost circling around the facts of the scene, slowly circling and moving deeper until it reports Nick seeing what he could not see upon his arrival in sentence one. The meaning, too, of “The river was there” is obscure to begin with, no matter how simple the syntax and diction, because it is (like some of the phrases in Ecclesiastes) TOO easy to understand. That invites a reader to look again. It is not itself a metaphor literally, but to a figurative eye the whole passage is something of a metaphor—the river with the man looking into it, the gradual refinement of his vision as he sees deeper, the almost mystical calm along with the implicit sense that this should need no further explanation—all this suggests the idea of human kind in general looking to nature for insight and understanding. Here Nick, burned out mentally (just as are both Europe after the Great War of 1914-1918 and the landscape he has entered as the story opens), is looking for something that can bring him a new sense of life and meaning—something constant and reliable after his experience as a soldier, and the style matches nature itself in being restrained, ordered, and calm. Like the style of Ecclesiastes, the style here helps the story offer an answer to the trouble and pain of human life by conjuring up images of nature: simple, stable, elemental—and able to survive when all that is human around it seems to be either dead or dying.