04 March 2013

The Menace of Syntactic Order

...when I say "I am at home" I seem to be saying more than "I am at a certain address, though I might be at some other."  "Home" is one of the most resonant of English words; your home is your own safe and sheltered place, your rooted abode, the place of your sacred things: what the Romans meant when they invoked the lares et penates, the gods of one's home and hearth.  But note that such feelings can not survive a demand that we define our terms; note too that order syntax detracts from feeling, insisting as it does on what Swift, defining "style," called "proper words in proper places.  We're aware, as we encounter "proper words," that they're not the improper words they might have been; so the mind drifts away from them to their surrogates.  And for that very reason a display of orderly syntax, in celebrating the exactness of each word's placement, can drain off the potential of any word to evoke feeling.  If verse does not drain off that potential, it is because verse foregrounds its rhythmic schemes instead of its syntax.  When rhythmic scheme and syntax mapped one another, as in the eighteenth century couplet, then feeling was notably schematized, attenuated.  There is something menacing about syntactic order... (97)

-Hugh Kenner, The Mechanic Muse (1987)

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