The Greatest Passage Ever Written

fogtreesWhen it comes to appreciation of writing, I’m a believer that less is more. I prefer poetry and short stories to novels, and essays and short books over long books, and I’m prone to copy down prÈcis and favourite passages and quotes from great books and then give the books themselves away. When I find great ideas or expressions of emotion or word pictures that contain only the number of words they absolutely need and no more, I cherish them. So I got to wondering: What is the greatest single paragraph ever written?

Initially I had thought to separate this search into fiction and non-fiction, but as I pored through my favourites I realized that some of the best paragraphs in fiction summarize ideas or capture feelings or images that could have easily come from a book of philosophy, or a travelogue. Some of the best writing I’ve ever read is dialogue, however, and traditionally each piece of a dialogue is afforded its own paragraph. So I decided instead to look for the best maximum-200-word passage in any book or article I’ve read, regardless of how many paragraphs those words took up. That’s fewer words than I’ve already written in this article, so it’s pretty lean. And I decided to exclude poetry, because I thought that would be unfair to prose.

This isn’t a contest, and I’m sure we could never agree on a winner, but I’d be interested in knowing what you think is the greatest passage of prose you’ve ever read. A couple of years ago I reproduced two of my favourite passages, one by Frederick Barthelme (father of the brilliant advice to writers The 39 Steps), and the other by James Robison. Here are five more:

From The Spell of the Sensuous, by David Abram:

An alder leaf, loosened by wind, is drifting out with the tide. As it drifts, it bumps into the slender leg of a great blue heron staring intently through the rippled surface, then drifts on. The heron raises one leg out of the water and replaces it, a single step. As I watch, I, too, am drawn into the spread of silence. Slowly a bank of cloud approaches, slipping its bulged and billowing texture over the earth, folding the heron and the alder trees and my gazing body into the depths of a vast breathing being, enfolding us all within a common flesh, a common story now bursting with rain.

From Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott:

My young son Sam saw his first dead person last month. Two friends of ours had a baby who died, and we went to spend the morning with them and the body of their son. He was five months old and weighed eight pounds, down from the ten he weighed at birth. He wore a white baptismal gown, and lay in a big basket on top of his crib, covered with flower petals from the waist down, white as a rose. There were flowers and shrines everywhere, statues of the Buddha and pictures of his Holiness the Dalai Lama (because his mother is a Buddhist) and of Jesus (because his father is a Christian). Brice looked like a small, concerned angel from someplace snowy. None of us, including Sam, could take our eyes off him. He looked like God.

“You what? my relatives asked when I mentioned this. “you took Sam to see what?”, as in, What will you take him to see next? Brain surgery?

Sam brought the baby two presents that morning, which he laid in the basket. One was a ball, in case you get to play catch on the other side. The other was a small time-travel car, from Back to the Future. Brice’s parents and I are still scratching our heads over that one.

From Straw Dogs by John Gray:

For much of their history and all of prehistory, humans did not see themselves as being any different from the other animals among which they lived. Hunter-gatherers saw their prey as equals, if not superiors, and animals were worshipped as divinities in many traditional cultures. The humanist sense of a gulf between ourselves and other animals is an aberration. Feeble as it is today, the feeling of sharing a common destiny with other living things is embedded in the human psyche. Those who struggle to conserve what is left of the natural environment are moved by the love of living things, biophilia, the frail bond of feeling that ties humankind to the Earth.

The mass of mankind is ruled not by its own intermittent moral sensations, still less by self-interest, but by the needs of the moment. It seems fated to wreck the balance of life on Earth — and thereby to be the agent of its own destruction. What could be more hopeless than placing the Earth in the charge of this exceptionally destructive species? It is not of becoming the planet’s wise stewards that Earth-lovers dream, but of a time when humans have ceased to matter.

From Cooker by Frederick Barthelme:

I’m left there in the tent with my wife. I say “I’m acting up, I guess”.
“A little.”
“But that’s acceptable, right? Now and then?”
“It’s fine,” she says.
“It’s by way of complaint, huh? So we’re back where we started from.”
“It’s not a vague complaint in my head,” I say. “It’s just that it covers everything. There are too many things to list. You start listing things that are wrong, and you either make them smaller and sort of less wrong, or you go on forever. You got forever?”
She gets up on her knees and twists around so she can lie down on her back alongside me. She takes my right hand in my left. “See there? We’re not completely gone. We’re OK. We’ve just got to take it one thing at a time. We’ve got to go binary on this.”

From Spots by Frederick Barthelme:

I waited another couple of minutes, then started on a walk toward the highway and the beach. The air was peculiar, the way it just hung, motionless, drifting off the water, and the only sound was the faint hiss of little breakers running over rock jetties. There weren’t any cars on Highway 90, and only one streetlamp burned about 150 yards down the road. I stood on the corner in front of the condos and looked up at our place, the dark bedroom where Cheryl was sleeping, then walked out into the middle of the empty highway and crossed to the beach side where the sand was gritty under my shoes, then came back, looking all around, soaking up everything. With the lights out things seemed to have lost their power. It was like nothing was holding anything, the resistance was gone, that little pressure that’s always against you, obliging you, keeping you in place.

What do great literary passages have in common? They provoke — your senses, your mind, your emotions. They transport you, engage you, teach you. They resonate with things that are rattling around in your head or your heart. They make you say “Damn I wish I had written that, that I could write like that”. They mean something to you, make you want to call up the author and say I get that. They move you, change you, the way you see or think or feel about the world.

They are crafted when the head and the heart and the senses of the writer are working as one, when the writer’s heart is open and her senses are open and her mind is aware of and painstakingly and articulately transcribing exactly what she feels and senses and thinks, what her characters are telling her. The mental state that enables this can be hard to achieve, and it’s draining work. It doesn’t come from waiting for inspiration or one’s muse, but from practice and from openness and from great mental self-discipline. And from paying attention.

The other day artist Andrew Campbell sent me a passage from a novel called The Strandloper by Alan Garner. I’ve ordered the book, but I already sense that it has some of the magical qualities listed above that produce great literature. The passage is a lot more than 200 words, but even without knowing what the novel is about the prose is irresistible:

He looked up through the empty crown. Above it a kestrel fluttered, its wings blurred, its tail curved. He pursed his lips and made clicking sounds.  ìWhatís to do? said Esther.
ìCush, cush; cush a cush.î
ìWhat is it?î
ìA windhover. Cush-a-cush.î

ìItís nobbut a brid,î said Esther. The kestrel swerved out of sight. William stood up, and pulled Esther to her feet, and they left the oak. He took her by the hand, and they walked down to the mere, the dog close behind. The shower was passing: a drizzle so fine that the drops hung in the sun.

ìSee at the rainbow!î An alder grew from the bank, its trunk lying in the mere, and the rainbow plunged into the branches of its head, snared in a willow.
ìIíve never been so near,î said Esther. She was whispering. ìSee at it.î
ìEh up. Cush-a-cush.î The kestrel was above the rainbow. It shut its wings and stooped into the alder, but they did not see it rise again. It was lost in the dazzle of colour.
ìIíve never been so near.î Said Esther. She went along the willow.
ìItíll shift,î said William. ìIt will. As good as goose skins.î But he went to her, by the alder. The dog tested each step of the trunk. They sat in the branches.

ìI told you.î The rainbow was out on the water.
ìBut it was here,î said Esther. ìHereís where it was.î They held each other.
ìEh, but Shick-Shack. Me?î
ìWhatís all this reading for?î she said.
ìItís Yedart.î
ìI know that.î
ìHeís learning me.î
ìBut whatís it for?î
ìIt betters you.î
He shrugged, ìYedart says.î
ìYedart saysí! Ay,. And Yedart does. Youíve been all nowtiness and discontent since you started this caper.î
ìI like it.î
ìBut what does it mean? What you were reading back there.î
ìAnyone can do it.î
ìWell, I canít.î
ìYay. But you can.î

He caught hold of her wrist, and wrote with her hand in the water. I. Do. Love. Thee. She pulled her hand clear. The water shimmered, and was stilled.
ìI do love thee,î he said.
ìAnd I do love thee,î she said. ìBut youíll get that slutch off first. Iím not sitting up with any crow trod gowf tonight.î
He tried to kiss her. ìNo. Not while you get that slutch off.î
ìI do love you, Het.î She laughed, and splashed water at him. She reached down to scoop more, but her fingers caught in the hardness of the mud. She took it, and put it into his hand.
ìThere. Donít say I never give you nothing.î It was a stone; a black stone, flecked with red, part bubbled as a brain, part rough as frost; and all stuck about with clear crystals that winked in the light. He held it in his palm.
ìItís a swaddledidaff,î she said.
ìFrom the end of the rainbow.î
ìOur swaddledidaff, From me to thee.î The rainbow was gone.

And the East sent a rainbow to the mere of the font. He danced in the rainbow, and about the trees, in the drums and the song and he danced at the font for the Man in the Oak and the Crown of Glory, but the eyes were blind. He left the drumming and the song and danced into Silence. The paint and bright sweat melted to air.

Through the Silence came the voice of Tundun, and he danced, beyond mulla-mullung. He danced the Evening Star. His step was with the voice of Tundun. He danced the Evening Star to bring the warriors home, and made the path of Murrangurkís five ways. He danced the Evening Star for the blind eyes in the crown; and the eyes of the glass opened, and Nullamboin looked at him.

The church was light and the scent of oak and the scent of bwal. From the South door lay the bush of Beangala to the sea. Tundun and the Silence were All and One. Strandloper entered into his bone country. The wave bore his right foot and the earth his left. He walked with Binbeal, son of Bunjil. There came an eagle.

Here is the start of the Dream,
And how the sweet sorrow is sung.

So what’s your nomination for the greatest passage ever written?

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15 Responses to The Greatest Passage Ever Written

  1. Scott Smith says:

    The last paragraph of “The Dead”:A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.Also, the last graf of Gatsby is beautiful.

  2. You know, mine is one line, by Lorca from a Poet in New York. Translated into English it goes like this:”There are spaces that ache in the uninhabited air.”Amazing image.

  3. Judith says:

    In the beginning, there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry.In the land of beginnings spirits mingled with the unborn. We could assume numerous forms. Many of us were birds. We knew no boundaries. There was much feasting, playing and sorrowing. We feasted much because of the beautiful terrors of eternity. We played much because we were free. And we sorrowed much because there were always those amongst us who had just returned from the world of the Living. They returned inconsolable for all the love they had left behind, all the suffering they hadn

  4. Dave, how is it possible to respond adequately to this call? For me, it isn

  5. cindy says:

    I have stopped reading seriouly for a long time. These days I spent time reading technical books and blogs! What can I say? And passages that I like many of them are not in English. Perhaps this paragraph would sum up my thoughts of good passages, good books. My love of reading. From ‘My Fater’s Library ‘ by Finn-Olaf Jonese. Appeared on 2005. A lifetime of written wisdom has gently settled like silt on some distant ocean bed, and somewhere within, the long conversation between man and books continues, though ever quieter. Love disappears, wealth disappears, desire disappears. But good books stay absorbed in the soul, and a soul, if educated, endures. Or at least that’s what some pretty good books say.

  6. Mariella says:

    El mar es un alma que tuvimos, que no sabemos donde esta y que apenas recordamos nuestra… El mar es un alma que siempre es otra, en cada uno de nuestros malecones … “La Casa de Cartón” Martín Adán——A translated approach: The sea is a soul we once had, that we know not where it is, that we slightly remember ours….The sea is a soul that is always another in each one of our sea shore walks.————There are so many magical passages in this “real/wonder” latin american literature: I mean garcia Marquez, Alejo Carpentier.etc…. I don´t know if reading them in english would mean the same….. How do we meet, relate, interpretate this kind of cultural magical expressions from other cultures? I had this experience while reading Tolkien in my school days….all the Elfish songs made no sense in spanish(at least not to me).

  7. Like Pete, I can offer no “greatest ever” passage, but I’ve never been able to help thinking every passage I read by Annie Dillard is the best I’ve read yet, as I read it. So, from her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek</em, a long passage (I’m sorely tempted to type the entire book) from Chapter 14: Northing:The woods were as restless as birds.I stood under tulips and ashes, maples, sourwood, sassafras, locusts, catalpas, and oaks. I let my eyes spread and unfix, screening out all that was not vertical motion, and I saw only leaves in the air—or rather, since my mind was also unfixed, vertical trails of yellow color-patches falling from nowhere to nowhere. Mysterious streamers of color unrolled silently all about me, distant and near. Some color chips made the descent violently; they wrenched from side to side in a series of diminishing swings, as if willfully fighting the fall with all the tricks of keel and glide they could muster. Others spun straight down in tight, suicidal circles.Tulips had cast their leaves on my path, flat and bright as doubloons. I passed under a sugar maple that stunned me by its elegant unself-consciousness: it was as if a man on fire were to continue calmly sipping tea.In the deepest part of the woods was a stand of ferns. I had just been reading in Donald Culross Peattie that the so-called “seed” of ferns was formerly thought to bestow the gift of invisibility on its bearer, and that Genghis Khan wore such a seed in his ring, “and by it understood the speech of birds.” If I were invisible, might I also be small, so that I could be borne by winds, spreading my body like a sail, like a vaulted leaf, to anyplace at all? Mushrooms erupted through the forest mold, the fly amanita in various stages of thrust and spread, some big brown mushrooms rounded and smooth as loaves, some eerie purple ones I’d never noticed before, the color of Portuguese men-of-war, murex, a deep-sea, pressurized color, as if the earth heavy with trees and rocks had pressed and leached all other hues away.

  8. Cristosova says:

    The first and the last passage of the first two pages of “The Bone People” by Keri Hulme – and it´s not a nomination but a recommendation, and I cannot even quote it because I don´t have it in English – which suits me fine: I think the mountain´s peak is tied to its base.

  9. Thought provoking or social commentary? I can think of two short passages that have captured my attention for what they say. Both by Ernest K. Gann1) They must never, for fear of official ridicule, admit other than to themselves that some totally unrecognizable genie has once again unbuttoned his pants and urinated on the pillar of science.2) For loneliness, I thought, is an opportunity. Only in such a state may ordinary minds, spared comparison with superior minds, emerge victorious from thoughts that might prove perilous to explore in company. Loneliness is not deadening, even for dullards who contrive against the condition because it forces them to think. Unless men are transformed into true imbeciles and simply stare at nothing, or play with their physical toys, then loneliness can form a magic platform which may transport the meek to thoughts of courage, or even cause a scoundrel to examine the benefits of honesty. Yet to be lonely is to be pitied, which is an insult, since pity is most loudly offered by the patronizing and hypocritical. Pity for the lonely speaks of uncleanness and rejection; thoughts so often nursed by those terrified of separation from the masses.

  10. Marty says:

    Our generation of scanners might not appreciate poetry instead of prose, still my vote goes to the poets.One of my favorites Emily Dickinson: I felt a Funeral, in my Brain, And Mourners, to and fro Kept treading–treading–till it seemed That Sense was breaking through–And when they all were seated,A Service like a Drum–Kept beating–beating– till I thoughtMy mind was going numb–And then I heard them lift a BoxAnd creak across my SoulWith those same Boots of Lead, again,Then Space– began to toll,As all the Heavens were a Bell,And Being but an Ear,And I and Silence some strange Race,Wrecked, solitary, here.And then a Plank in Reason broke, And I fell down, and down–And hit a World at every plungeAnd Finished knowing then–Too often I hear the treading, feel a plank break and the tumble.M

  11. theresa says: Baldwin, Notes of a Native SonWell this is easy. The first thing that came to mind was the last passage from an essay in James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son. The author begins the essay in 1943 with an account of driving to his father’s funeral through what he calls a “wilderness of smashed plate glass”. He then deftly walks us through the history of Harlem race riots, while at the same time, attempts to come to grips with his own experience of being alienated from both his father and his country. By the end of the essay, he emerges victorious over both the bitterness that engulfed his father’s life and the racial hatred that threatens his own. “hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated…” He then concludes with this passage: “It began to seem that one woud have to hold in mind two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never in one’s own life accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength. This fight begins however, in the heart and it had now been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair. This intimation made my heart heavy and, now that my father was irrecoverable, I wished that he had been beside me so that I could have searched his face for the answers that only the future would give me now.”The second idea that came to mind was an idea I came across while reading Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams. He puts forth the idea that “the wilderness is an antidote for the alienation experienced by urban people” it was more the idea that resonated with me than the prose. It reminds me that a wilderness is not a national park or a protected space but a place completely wild and hostile that has a healing effect. It’s in the book somewhere but I haven’t got all day to look for it. The third idea that came to mind can’t be included here because it has not yet stood the test of time. I only just read it yesterday: your “Aplolgy without Apology” post of March 5. Words fail me. Do you know how often words fail me? .

  12. Dave Pollard says:

    Wow. Wow. Wow. What an amazing selection! I’m going to do a ‘Part 2’ of this, with the passages above (with attribution to you) leading it off, and a few others I’ve discovered recently. In the meantime, this comments thread is posted up on my refrigerator. Thank you all so much!

  13. Patrick L. says:

    Delighted to see you’ve discovered Alan Garner, who is a great and under-recognised writer. There’s a very good website devoted to his work: is from Samuel Beckett, a writer much admired by Alan Garner:”And having heard, or no doubt read somewhere, in the days when I thought I would be well-advised to educate myself, or amuse myself, or stupefy myself, or kill time, that when a man in a forest thinks he is going forward in straight line, in reality he is going in a circle, I did my best to go in a circle, hoping in this way to go in a straight line. And by going on doing this, day after day and night after night, I hoped to get out of this forest, some day.”(from Molloy)

  14. Patrick L. says:

    Past midnight. Never knew such silence. The earth might be uninhabited.[Pause.]Here I end–[Krapp switches off, winds tape back, switches on again.]–upper lake, with the punt, bathed off the bank, then pushed out into the stream and drifted. She lay streched out on the floorboards with her hands under her head and her eyes closed. Sun blazing down, bit of a breeze, water nice and lively. I noticed a scratch on her thigh and asked her how she came by it. Picking gooseberries, she said. I said again I thought it was hopeless and no good going on, and she agreed, without opening her eyes. (Pause.) I asked her to look at me and after a few moments–(pause)–after a few moments she did, but the eyes just slits, because of the glare. I bent over her to get them in the shadow and they opened. (Pause. Low.) Let me in. (Pause.) We drifted in among the flags and stuck. The way they went down, sighing, before the stem! (Pause.) I lay down across her with my face in her breasts and my hand on her. We lay there without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side.[Pause.]Past midnight. Never knew–[Krapp switches off, broods.]— from Krapp’s Last Tape, by Beckett.

  15. Sondra says:

    I’m constantly amazed by the perfection of her words. Jeanette Winterson has the ability to “say” what is most often only “felt”. From “Written on the Body” … “Written on the body is a secret code only visible in certain lights; the accumulations of a lifetime gather there. In places the palimpsest is so heavily worked that the letters feel like Braille. I like to keep my body rolled up away from prying eyes. Never unfold too much, tell the whole story. I didn’t know that Louise would have reading hands. She has translated me into her own book.”

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