Why is it so great? The writing in this famous passage is so good that George Orwell wrote a parody of it designed to ridicule the bloated writing of his day:
“Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.”
Orwell’s parody is based on an X-ray reading of what makes the original so good. Of the 49 words in the biblical original, 41 are of one syllable, including sturdy Anglo-Saxon words such as sun, race, swift, strong, bread, wise, skill and time. In an early sequence, 12 consecutive words have one beat.
That might create a tedious staccato rhythm were it not for the inclusion of parallel patterns: race to the swift, battle to the strong, bread to the wise and so forth.
The sentence begins with subject and verbs: I returned … and saw. But the real bolt strikes at the end, when the meaning of the sentence moves from the power of human beings to the things they cannot control. Time and chance.
What the heck were they drinking back in Elizabethan and Jacobean England? I would love a sip of that writer’s brew.
(Editor’s note: This is excerpted from Roy Peter Clark’s book, “The Art of X-Ray Reading: How the Secrets of 25 Great Works of Literature Will Improve Your Writing.”)