In Search of a Better Country

A Sentence That Stretches Into Eternity

Stanley Fish

The tension (a weak word) between the temporality of sentences and the eternity that would render them and the strivings they portray superfluous is powerfully captured in my final example, a sentence from Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). Although I have read and taught this sentence hundreds of times, it never fails to knock my socks off. Bunyan’s hero, Christian, has become aware that there is a burden (original sin) on his back and he will do anything to rid himself of it. He is told that he must fly from the “wrath to come”—that is, from eternal damnation—and in response he begins to run:

Now he had not run far from his own door, but his wife and children perceiving it, began crying after him to return, but the man put his fingers in his ears, and ran on, crying, Life! life! eternal life.

The sentence is about two levels of “perceiving,” two kinds of crying, and two kinds of lives. Christian’s wife and children perceive the head of their household abandoning them. The obligations he pushes away with a “but” (you can feel it) are great; that is why he puts his fingers in his ears. But the pull of what he runs toward is even stronger, even though he does not yet see where it is to be found. (He just runs, we have been told, “towards the middle of the plain.”) His family’s crying has its source in all the human ties that bind; his crying has its source in Eternity’s severe requirements and the reward it holds out, however obscurely, to those who are faithful to them: “Life! life! eternal life.” The sentence names the reward, but cannot bestow it; it can, however, make us feel both its inestimable price and the price we, as mortal sentence makers. time-bound creatures, are asked to pay. And given a choice between eternity and some of the sentences we have lingered over together, who knows?

Stanley Fish, How to Write a Sentence (2011), 156–157.