More James

Henry James has plenty of explicit classical references, but his ties to the classical world go beyond that for me. It’s an autobiographical fact that, although a heavy consumer off early and mid period James, the later novels were hard for me to access until I had learned Latin well. English isn’t an inflected language and Latin very much is.  James’ syntax grew ever more daringly Latinate and complex over his career and by the time I hit about Wings of the Dove in the James chronology I needed some help.

Latin’s inflections meant that more literary minded Romans could exploit the fact that, while there were some more standard approaches to word order,  you could also choose to play fast and loose with it and set up some extra layers of connection and meaning.   When word order doesn’t need to be strictly hewn to for bare-essential, base-level meaning conveyance, it can be used for more subtle business.

A related issue: Inflected languages also lead to appositional types of communication, I tend to think, with a range of same-case nouns, subject clauses, gerunds, and other noun-like substances running in near but intriguingly not quite perfect parallel.   I’m struggling a bit here to explain further, though to some extent thinking about the always popular three part rhetorical structures, and how they work, and why they appeal may be helpful.

Under these conditions Latin provides, your sentences can unfold in very complex ways indeed.  Hyper-logical while at your discretion rather non-linear.

James sets up similarly complex, startling, or intentionally ambiguous structures and contiguities using much more intrinsically linear English.

He’s somewhat infamous for having very long sentences (here amid discussion of Proust’s longest sentence is a bit on a sentence one guy claims to have identified as James’s longest sentence.)  Sentence length certainly adds room for complexity, but here’s one, not long at all, not about a complex welter of emotional states and interpersonal relationships, but about a hat.  I, at any rate, get startled at that “handled it” and need to read it twice.

Summer, blissfully, was with them yet, and the low sun made a splash of light where it pierced the looser shade; Maggie, coming down to go out, had brought a parasol, which, as, over her charming bare head, she now handled it, gave, with the big straw hat that her father in these days always wore a good deal tipped back, definite intention to their walk.

Just a few words about a hat, but it trips down stairs with an odd little pattern that ends up a tease to follow rather than going in a chain of simple clauses (Maggie had a parasol which she was now toying with and this made the observer realize she was heading for a walk)

And another Golden Bowl quote.  Not the most convoluted syntax, though the appositional structures are still quite apparent.  I’m sticking it here mostly because, beyond syntax, there’s something about the interplay of abstractions, the fine distinctions between them, that’s very classical as well: some precise  triangulation of law, philosophy, belles lettres. The measure of merits; the levels of worth…

Shocks, however, from these quite different depths, were not what he saw reason to apprehend; what he rather seemed to himself not yet to have measured was something that, seeking a name for it, he would have called the quantity of confidence reposed in him. He had stood still, at many a moment of the previous month, with the thought, freshly determined or renewed, of the general expectation—to define it roughly—of which he was the subject. What was singular was that it seemed not so much an expectation of anything in particular as a large, bland, blank assumption of merits almost beyond notation, of essential quality and value. It was as if he had been some old embossed coin, of a purity of gold no longer used, stamped with glorious arms, mediaeval, wonderful, of which the “worth” in mere modern change, sovereigns and half crowns, would be great enough, but as to which, since there were finer ways of using it, such taking to pieces was superfluous. 

There is no one single perfect Roman parallel; it’s  a constellation of stuff.    Here’s some Horace at any rate ( Ode 2.3, translation via )

Keep this in mind: a steady head on a steep
path; the same holds true when the going is good:
don’t let happiness go to your head,
friend Dellius, for you must die someday,

whether you spend all your time in sorrowing,
or keep yourself happy on festival days
stretched out on the grass in seclusion
with a jar of your best Falernian wine.

Why do the towering pine and white poplar
love to weave shady welcome by lacing their
branches? Why do the rushing waters
hurry on against the winding river?

Tell them to bring the wines and the perfumes and
sweet rose blossoms that live such a little while,
here, while it still is allowed by luck and
youth, and the dark threads of the three Sisters.

You will leave the pastures you bought and your home
and your country place washed by the tawny Tiber,
you will leave, and into the hands of
an heir will go the riches you piled so high.

Rich, and descended from ancient Inachus,
or poor and from the lowest class, loitering
out in the open, it is all one:
an offering to Death, who has no tears.

All of us are being herded there, for all
lots are tossing in an urn: sooner, later,
out they will come and book our passage
on the boat for everlasting exile.

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