The Art of the Sentence: William Butler Yeats

Tom Grimes

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
—William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”

Nearly one hundred years after it was written, it describes America’s current political climate. As a sentence, its insight and construction are balanced perfectly. The sentence’s “fulcrum” is the word “while.” Before it you have “best,” after it you have “worst.” The opposites, “lack” and “full,” raise hope in the first clause, and lower it in the second. “Conviction” is three syllables, “passionate intensity” is seven, tilting the sentence’s weight, purposely, from observation to prophecy, and from resignation to terror. Form and content fuse. When they do so exquisitely, a sentence will survive a century, and, if necessary, longer.

Tom Grimes is the author of five novels, a play, and most recently, Mentor: A Memoir. He edited The Workshop: Seven Decades of Fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and currently directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Texas State University.