The Advantages of Balance

Balanced construction has several virtues. It is pleasing to our eyes and ears, and gives shape to the sentence, one of the essentials of good writing. It is memorable. And by playing key terms against each other, it opens up their implications. For example, the following sentence by Charles Dickens makes us consider the plight of those who lack the cash to turn their ideas to account:

Talent, Mr. Micawber has; capital, Mr. Micawber has not.

Anthony Hope implies a skeptical assessment of politicians and bureaucrats:

Ability we don't expect in a government office, but honesty one might hope for.

And here the movie critic Pauline Kael comments on the film Love Story:

In itself, a love idyll like this may seem harmless, but it won't be by itself very long.

Kael's complaint is that shlock films, if they are popular, usher in a host of even worse imitations. Notice how the sentence swings and advances on the phrases "in itself" and "by itself."

Beyond highlighting specific words and ideas, balance has a deeper significance. It expresses a way of looking at the world, just as freight-train or cumulative sentences express their own angles of vision. Implicit in the balanced style is a sense of objectivity, control, and proportion. In the following passage about Lord Chesterfield, the critic F. L. Lucas reinforces his argument by the reasonableness of his balanced sentences. The very style seems to confirm the fairness and lack of dogmatism suggested by such phrases as "seem to me" and "I think":

In fine, there are things about Chesterfield that seem to me rather repellant; things that it is an offense in critics to defend. He is typical of one side of the eighteenth what still seems to many its most typical side. But it does not seem to me the really good side of that century; and Chesterfield remains, think, less an example of things to pursue in life than of things to avoid.

Because the balanced style keeps a distance between writer and it works well for irony and comedy. For instance, the novelist Anthony Trollope implies humorous disapproval of a domineering female character in this way:

It is not my intention to breathe a word against Mrs. Proudie, but still cannot think that with all her virtues she adds much to her husband's happiness.

The balance suggests the objectivity of the author and increases the credibility of his criticism, while at the same time the second clause comically reveals him indulging in the very gossip he forswears in the first.

Comic, too, is the effect of this sentence from the autobiography of Edward Gibbon, the historian of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which describes an unhappy love affair of his youth, broken off at his father's insistence:

After a painful struggle I yielded to my fate: I sighed as a lover, I obeyed as a son; my wound was insensibly healed by time, absence, and the habits of a new life.

Writing from the calmer waters of age, when the tempests of twenty seem less catastrophic, Gibbon is smiling. The very parallelism and balance of this triadic sentence, as formal as a minuet, are a comment on the passions of youth.

Balance and parallelism do not communicate meaning by themselves. The primary units of meaning, of course, are words. But balanced and parallel constructions do reinforce and enrich meaning. Or, to be more exact, certain kinds of meaning. Not every sentence can be cast in this mold, or should be. Like every style, parallelism and balance have limitations as well as potentialities. Their very sanity, reasonableness, and control make them unsuitable for conveying the immediacy of raw experience or the intensity of strong emotion. Moreover, their formality is likely to seem too elaborate to modern readers, a less "natural" way of writing than the segregating style or the freight-train or cumulative sentences.

However, we ought not to equate formality with ality or to think naturalness the only ideal. All well-constructed sentences result from art, even especially Hemingway's that create the illusion of naturalness. Remember, too, that natural is a tricky word. To men and women of the eighteenth century, parallelism and balance reflected nature, which they understood as a vast but comprehensible structure of ordered parts.

Perhaps the best lesson a modern writer can learn from the parallel and balanced styles is the necessity of giving shape to what he or she thinks and feels. The shape congenial to the eighteenth century seems unnatural to us. But while we no longer write like Thomas Jefferson or Samuel Johnson, we can still use parallelism and balance as ways of organizing some aspects of experience and knowledge, and as means of attaining economy, emphasis, and variety in our sentences.

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