Parts of Syntax
A clause is a verbal unit that may look like, may even be, a sentence because both contain subjects and predicates. Jill runs home is both a clause
*Line 1: subject + predicate complement (Nouns / were clustered).and a sentence. But we understand the sentence to be the larger or "containing" unit and a clause to be the smaller or "component" unit. This is because a sentence may contain more than one clause. The "periodic" sentence, mentioned above, has one main (or independent) clause and any number of subordinate clauses (When she remembered the time, which she did when the bell rang, Jill ran home). Some sentences have two (or more) main clauses, although in such cases, the term main (again, or independent) loses some of its conventional meaning. Clauses in such sentences are coordinate and therefore, in truth, only semi-independent. They are sometimes connected by certain punctuation marks other than the period; today, independent clauses are usually yoked by the semicolon, but in older writing, the colon often connects clauses that are independent but nonetheless closely related. Alternatively, such clauses may be connected by coordinating conjunctions such as and, but, so, for. An example of such a conjunction occurs in Denise Levertov's poem "The Closed World":
Line 2: subject + intransitive verb (Adjective / walked by).
Line 3: subject + predicate complement (Nouns / were struck, moved, changed).
Line 4: subject + intransitive verb (Verb / drove up) and subject + transitive verb + direct object (Verb . . . / created / the Sentence).
The house-snake dwells here stillA subordinate clause has a subject and a predicate, but cannot stand alone in (or as) a sentence. Such clauses appear in various positions in complex sentences-some precede, others follow, a main clause, and some are embedded in main clauses in ways that blur the grammatical and conceptual distinction between independence and dependence. Subordinate clauses often elaborate, qualify, or even undermine an idea or image in the main clause. In many English poems, clauses are building blocks of thought that invite the reader to look back at the beginning of the sentence, to do a mental double take, in order to grasp the logical relations among a sentence's multiple parts.
under the threshold
but for months I have not seen it. . . .
Subordinate clauses play syntactic roles similar to those played by three parts of speech: the noun, the adverb, and the adjective. Modern handbooks of grammar will give you full lists of the "joining words" that typically introduce the different kinds of subordinate clauses; adverbial clauses, for instance, usually follow subordinating conjunctions such as after, although, as, as if, because, whether, while. Shakespeare's Sonnet 106 (p. 265) begins with such an adverbial clause: "When in the chronicle of wasted time / I see descriptions of the fairest wights. . . ." Adjectival clauses, modifying a noun or pronoun, are typically introduced by relative pronouns (that, which, who, whom, whose) or by relative adverbs (when, where, why). Shakespeare's Sonnet 116 ("Let me not to the marriage of true minds"; p. 266) uses an adjectival clause in its second main clause: "Love is not love," Shakespeare writes, "which alters when it alteration finds." Here, the subordinate clause follows and explains the contradictory proposition of the main clause (a good example, by the way, of the kind of predicate complement clause that Fenellosa thought poets should avoid).
The lines illustrate not only an adjectival clause at work but also the complex relation that can exist between main and subordinate clauses. When we read Shakespeare's lines carefully, we mentally reorder the syntactic elements to place the subordinate, or "dependent" (from the Latin pendere, hanging), clause between, rather than after, the subject and its predicate complement, which is of course also "love": the same word but different in syntactic function. If we visualize this main clause and its dependent one (only part of a much longer sentence in the sonnet), we could diagram the relationship this way:
Love is not love
which alters when it alteration finds
Such diagramming, which reminds us that in Latin, sub means "beneath," can often be a useful tool for sorting out relations among syntactic parts of poems. (For a fine example of such diagramming, see James Winn's rendering of the opening sentence of Milton's Paradise Lost, which Linda Gregerson reproduces and trenchantly discusses in "Anatomizing Death," 105.)
Adjectival and adverbial clauses are fairly easy to discern because they modify a noun, pronoun, or verb in the main clause and can be diagrammed as hanging from (depending on) a word in the main clause. Noun clauses are harder to spot. They can be introduced by relative pronouns and also by other pronouns such as whoever, whomever, what, whatever, whichever. Moreover, noun clauses can follow many of the same subordinating conjunctions that signal adverbial clauses. The key to identifying noun clauses is to understand their syntactic functions in the poetic sentences with which we are working. Noun clauses may be subjects, direct objects, objects of prepositions, or predicate complements; but they always appear in statements that cannot stand alone. Sometimes, however, we have to excavate these clauses because the poet has omitted the joining or articulating words that would help us see the poem's syntactic skeleton clearly. If we know how the clauses are working syntactically, however, we can catch them; there are many rewards to doing so.
Let's consider Shakespeare's Sonnet 106 (p. 265) as an illustration of how a poet uses interplay among clauses to make meaning. In the version below, to clarify the poem's structure, we have put the beginnings of main clauses (introductory words followed by subjects and verbs) in bold; we have put the beginnings of subordinate clauses in italic.
When in the chronicle of wasted timeFinding the main clause or clauses is the first step in analyzing this or any poem. Having found the poem's head and torso, as it were, we can proceed to finding the subordinate clauses, which can be compared to the poem's limbs. Whether the body arises into (new) life depends in part on who is reading it, how. In this sonnet, we have to wait patiently for a main clause to appear ("I see," in line 7); and when it does, we may not recognize it, for its thought as well as its syntax seem, paradoxically, to depend on those of the initial dependent clause. Although the "when . . . then" structure embodies a careful balance of ideas (each clause gets exactly four lines), the second clause is the main clause: "When" sets up expectations for the thought to be completed, and it is completed, albeit in a way that the rest of the sonnet elaborates and qualifies.
I see descriptions of the fairest wights,
And beauty making beautiful old rhyme
In praise of ladies dead and lovely knights,
Then, in the blazon of sweet beauty's best,
Of hand, of foot, of lip, of eye, of brow,
I see their antique pen would have expressed
Even such a beauty as you master now.
So all their praises are but prophecies
Of this our time, all you prefiguring;
And, for they looked but with divining eyes,
They had not skill enough your worth to sing:
For we, which now behold these present days,
Have eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise.
We've found the main subject and verb, and we may well expect to find a direct object too. We do, momentarily, in the phrase "their antique pen." But the syntax soon asks us to correct that idea, for the image of the pen is followed by a verb phrase that makes the pen the subject of a new little story: "I see [that] their antique pen would have expressed / Even such a beauty . . ." Experienced readers will add that (the missing relative pronoun) automatically, but even they will have to engage in some subliminal revision, reversing the usual forward motion of reading (left to right, on the page of a text in English).
What advantage is there to recognizing the first main clause's direct object as a subordinate (noun) clause? Doing so helps us see that the "object" the poet finally sees in his main clause is not really an object, a thing, at all; instead, what the Shakespearean speaker sees (here and elsewhere in his sonnets) is an amazing blending of past and present, of certainty and supposition: a constructed object rather than a natural one. The main clause and its exfoliating direct object thus work to tell us something about the speaker's way of seeing as well as about what he sees. This may interest us as readers, because what the speaker is seeing arises from his interpretation of meanings located in old books (they are to him as he is to us) considered in relation to his present and, by implication, his future.
In line 8, we need to excavate or cocreate another subordinate clause to make sense of the sonnet. As we needed to supply that to see the noun clause serving as the direct object of "I see," so we also need to supply missing words to line 8 to make it work: "Even such a beauty as [the one that] you master now." This subordinate clause, functioning both to rename and to describe the "beauty" that is the direct object of the noun clause functioning as a direct object of "I see," blurs the traditional distinction between adjectival and noun clause. Thus the syntax, particularly the interplay of main and subordinate clauses, contributes to the poem's larger meditation on themes of mastery, competition, and relations of interdependence between past and present, lover and beloved, writer and reader, subject and object of seeing.
In the last six lines, we have more main clauses than in the first eight, and they come more rapidly (and briefly) in the final couplet. They are introduced by coordinating conjunctions that, when singled out, help us see the logical skeleton of the poet's thought: "So," "And," "For." Note, finally, that the embedded subordinate clause in line 11 may fool us into thinking it a main clause ("for," after all, introduces a main clause just two lines later). Upon close analysis, however, we see that the group of words introduced by the first "for" works adverbially, to modify the verb phrase that comes in the next line. "For" is therefore glossed (translated as) "because" by this anthology's editors, not because they have access to some mysterious dictionary unavailable to readers but rather because they have decoded the poem's syntax and come to the conclusion-as you can too-that line 11, after "And," both interrupts and helps explain the poet's claim that his predecessors lacked the skill to praise the speaker's beloved because they could see him or her only by "divining," or imagining, him or her.
Distinguishing between main and subordinate clauses is not always easy; but it is an important skill for players of the syntax game. Equipped with terms for describing syntactic elements precisely, we turn now to other moves poets make with sentences-and with readers' expectations about them.
Syntax operates as a kind of promise or contract of expectation between poet and reader, so the use of subordinate clauses to delay a main verb can function as a kind of tease. Milton, for instance, at the opening of Paradise Lost (p. 421), and William Collins, at the opening of "Ode to Evening" (p. 675), give us many lines of complexly interrelated subordinate clauses to ponder-and remember-before we reach the main verb of the first poetic sentence. In Milton's epic, the imperative verb "sing" arrives after five lines; in Collins's ode, the imperative verb phrase "now teach me" arrives only in line 15, after a many-stranded subordinate clause (beginning "If aught . . .") in which the poet seems to attempt to prove to his addressee-the "Evening" personified as "Eve"-that his own "pastoral song" has the power "to soothe thy modest ear."
Poets' relations to their readers are often figured in terms of pleas and commands addressed to a muse, a source of inspiration traditionally gendered female and often addressed as thou. In both Milton's and Collins's poems, the exquisitely delayed arrival of the main verb challenges the reader to participate in the poet's game of call-and-response over a space of time epitomized by the sentence's prolonged unfolding. Milton's opening sentence points back to Genesis and forward to Christ's Second Coming; Collins's opening sentence points back to Milton while also mimicking the gradual coming of evening in a northern, English latitude. The Romantic poet Hannah More, meanwhile, provides an interesting variant on the syntactic pattern of the Miltonic invocation (the poem's opening address to a muse) by addressing an ungendered and plural set of muses ("Airy spirits") in line 1 of her "Inscription in a Beautiful Retreat Called Fairy Bower" (p. 707) while delaying her main verb ("come") to line 7. In other poems, the verb doesn't come at all.