John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Why not the worst?


You English majors and lovers of literature (not necessarily identical categories), a while back on the old blog I posed a question: What’s the worst writing you ever read?

Before you spring on us extracts from the poetry of William McGonagall or Julia A. Moore, the Sweet Singer of Michigan, or from your cousin’s child’s fifth-grade book report or the latest memo on benefits from your human resources department, or the latest winners of the Bulwer-Lytton contest, observe a couple of rules.

(1) It must be published writing.

(2)It must be of some literary standing, not the work of a misguided amateur but rather that of a misguided professional, a writer of some reputation.

(3)It must be limited to a single, discrete passage.

(4)It must be from literature, broadly defined, rather than from criticism or (save us) from newspaper journalism.  

(5) Dan Brown doesn’t count.

Some of my favorites:

Item:  From Richard Crashaw’s “Saint Mary Magdalene or The Weeper” (referring to Magdalene’s eyes):

And now wher’er he strays,
Among the Galilean mountains,
Or more unwelcome ways,
He’s followed by two faithful fountains;
Two walking baths, two weeping motions;
Portable and compendious oceans.

Item: From Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature”:

“Standing on the bare ground, my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball¾I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me¾I am part or particle of God.”

Item: From Pecy Bysshe Shelley’s Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude:

At length upon the lone Chorasmian shore
He paused, a wide and melancholy waste
Of putrid marshes.

Item:  From Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited:

So at sunset I took formal possession of her as her lover. It was no time for the sweets of luxury; they would come, in their season, with the swallow and the lime flowers. Now on the rough water, as I was made free of her narrow loins and, it seemed now, in assuaging that fierce appetite, cast a burden which I had borne all my life, toiled under, not knowing its nature ¾ now, while the waves still broke and thundered on the prow, the act of possession was a symbol, a rite of ancient origin and solemn meaning.

(Whew.) Have at it.