Who Is The Best Stylist?
Shakespeare writes as if the English language itself is writing: His tears run down his beard like winter’s drops from eaves of reeds. Tolstoy writes with the voice of the earth. I was first really hooked by the beginning of Sevastopol Stories, actually. Borges, in Spanish or English, is like bathing in a sunset.
Bruma de oro, el Occidente alumbra
la ventana. El asiduo manuscrito
aguarda, ya cargado de infinito.
Alguien construye a Dios en la penumbra.
And when Flaubert describes the color of Emma Bovary’s eyes, I don’t just see them, I am them. Madame Bovary c’est moi! Borges said that Joyce had written lines that were not unworthy of Shakespeare—
He watched her pour into the measure and thence into the jug rich white milk, not hers. Old shrunken paps. She poured again a measureful and a tilly. Old and secret she had entered from a morning world, maybe a messenger. She praised the goodness of the milk, pouring it out. Crouching by a patient cow at daybreak in the lush field, a witch on her toadstool, her wrinkled fingers quick at the squirting dugs. They lowed about her whom they knew, dewsilky cattle. Silk of the kine and poor old woman, names given her in old times. A wandering crone, lowly form of an immortal serving her conqueror and her gay betrayer, their common cuckquean, a messenger from the secret morning. To serve or to upbraid, whether he could not tell: but scorned to beg her favour.
Nabokov, too, can enchant even the staunchest philistines with the opening lines of Lolita, while Melville was quoted by Captain Picard!
All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.
Joseph Conrad cannot not be mentioned—
In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished sprits. A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.
While you should also have a look at Homer in the original Greek, and read it aloud, because his poetry is actually music, and rhymes not just at the ends of lines, but within the lines themselves:
tis t’ ar sphōe theōn eridi xuneēke makhesthai;
Lētous kai Dios huios
(http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0133 (display the text in Latin transliteration, every word is clickable!, I can read Greek but I don’t understand it)).
While Ovid is more playful and classical than Charles Boer’s amazing Imagist translation—
: old woods, never cut, cave in middle,
low rock-sided arch, lots of sedge
& willow, spring streaming forth: hideout
of the Snake of Mars! gold-scaled & fire-eyed,
body bloats poison: three tongues buzz
through three tooth-rows
a bad day, Cadmians, to set foot there!