Tag Archives: passive voice

“On the Greek island of Lesbos…”

My Early World Literature students generally love Sappho, at least what of hers we read in the course. And I think some of what they love is her unknowability, if I can call it that, and the fact that much of the work we have by her is fragmentary. Her works were collected into volumes by admiring Greek and then Roman poets and others, but only papyrus scraps have come down to us, through various unusual pathways. She was born around 615 B.C. to an aristocratic family and lived for a time in a community of young women on the island of Lesbos who wrote and sang poetry, danced to their songs…. the word “Lesbian” was attached to the female-to-female sexual attractions described in some of her work. The site The Poetry Foundation sums up what is known or at least seriously believed about her today: “In antiquity Sappho was regularly counted among the greatest of poets and was often referred to as ‘the Poetess,’ just as Homer was called ‘the Poet.’ Plato hailed her as ‘the tenth Muse,’ and she was honored on coins and with civic statuary.” Beyond that, most of what we “know” is custom, legend, speculation…or downright fiction. Readers tend to believe her first-person poems are autobiographical because of that “I” and the frank, intense description of deep emotions and suggestions of intimate experience—but we don’t know.

Anyway, as I said, her poems—what we have of them—are compelling. Poets of many centuries and cultures have translated them into their own languages, often padding them out to fit ideas of structure and poetics quite alien to the originals. (If that intrigues you, you ought to visit the site Bureau of Public Secrets, where “some of the many” translations of her “Poem of Jealousy” are collected.)

In my classes, attraction to a piece of writing pretty much means you’ll have to write about it; hence today’s horror. Through the murky sentences I think you will still feel the affection:

“On the Greek island of Lesbos Sappho’s works were written and compiled, into the classic poems they are today. Despite knowing not much about her, her poems speak volumes.”

Oh, the use of the passive voice, which denies Sappho agency in her own work (the poems were written on an island; who wrote them remains unspoken)! Oh, the strange notion that some “compilers” made them into classic poems—again, she doesn’t seem to have had anything to do with it! Were they immediately classic because they were written in the sixth century B.C.E., or are they classic now because they’re still around or because we call them so, or are they classic because someone compiled them “into…classic poems,” or what? The writer leaves us to ponder those questions. Perhaps the writer himself is unsure what “classic” means. They can certainly be referred to as “classical,” because they are writings from the long period of Greek and Roman civilization we call the “classical age.” Well, be that as it may. They’re classics today.

“Despite knowing not much about her,” besides being a remarkably awkward phrase, is a dangling modifier. Of course I knew what he meant to say: Despite the fact that we don’t know much about her…or despite our not knowing much about her. But the sentence as my student wrote it has no such nouns or pronouns to be described (modified) by the prepositional phrase: the only noun offered is “poems,” but surely he doesn’t mean to say her poems don’t know much about her. He goes on to say that the poems “speak volumes.” This in spite of not knowing much about their author, I guess.

Now, generally when we use the verb phrase “speak volumes” we mean “say a great deal (books’ worth, in fact) even without words.” As in “she said not a word when he said he loved her, but her quiet smile spoke volumes,” perhaps. Is that what my student means to say about the poems of Sappho—that the fragments we have still suggest books’ worth of thoughts? I’m not sure. In view of the introductory phrase about not knowing much about her, I have to consider that he may mean the poems suggest a lot about their author. What’s truly odd here is a coincidence of terminology, the juxtaposition of fragments and “volumes,” and the association of poems with books as well.

Most readers of Sappho feel that the fragments suggest deep and complex emotions, or evoke them in readers, although for many of the poems what we have is so small a piece of the probable original that we can’t be positive where the poem as a whole might have taken us. In fact, what we respond to for so many of what we call her “poems” is a single breathtaking image. And the trouble with that is the nagging fact that almost all of us are reading Sappho in a translation. Only the knowledge that her words have struck readers this way regardless of the passage of time and the vagaries of literary “style” and translation gives us the confidence to attribute our response to her artistry.

This isn’t a very funny post! My intention was to have a good time with my hapless student’s staggering couple of sentences and their inadequacies as praise of The Poetess. But it’s impossible to point out where my student went wrong, or at least limped through, without talking about the power and beauty of the words he was trying to respond to. Perhaps there’s a point at which we all become inarticulate.

Here’s someone else’s tribute to her. It’s described as “red-figure vase (hydria, or kalpis) by the Group of Polygnotos, ca. 440–430 BC. Seated, Sappho is reading one of her poems to a group of three student-friends. National Archaeological Museum in Athens….” This photographic image of the hydria is “by Μαρσύας (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.” She’s writing so intently, and the other women form a group around and above her that seems simultaneously loving and blessing. Beautiful, isn’t it?

You'll notice that, like Sappho's poems, this jar was once broken in pieces. How fortunate we are that unlike so many of her poems, all the pieces were found and carefully reassembled. We respond to its original beauty.

You’ll notice that, like Sappho’s poems, this jar seems to have once been broken. How fortunate we are that all the pieces are here, carefully reassembled, so we can be sure we’re responding to its original beauty.

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“John the carpenter has had a fool made out of him.”

This is a reference to the gullible and jealous husband in Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale.” My student is right: the point of the Tale is the cleverness with which his young wife Alisoun and Alisoun’s inamorato, “hende [clever, courteous] Nicholas,” trick John into not only ignoring but also actually facilitating their tryst. There’s a lot more to the tale, some comic moments that amaze modern students (who assume scatological jokes were invented shortly after their own birth), but the subplots involve making fools out of others—the vain and randy cleric Absolom and then Nicholas himself.

If you haven’t read “The Miller’s Tale” lately, you should. If Middle English scares you, just read it with a German accent and you’ll understand almost every word. Otherwise, there are numerous modern-English translations online of this great and witty tale.

Anyway, the meaning of my student’s sentence is accurate.

But some verbs play better in the active voice: to make a fool of would be one of those. And the intrusion of “out” into the proper phrase “to make a fool of” makes the sentence even odder, because when you make something out of something else you are usually constructing it using something else that already exists. My student’s sentence would then imply that John isn’t actually a fool: Alisoun used John as raw material to make something new, a fool, out of.

Okay, to begin: Alisoun made a fool of John. But my student says Alisoun made a fool out of John.

So, similarly, thus: I am making a braided rug out of old blue jeans.

The blanket was made out of yarn she spun out of her dog’s shed undercoat.

Scarlett O’Hara made an impressive visiting gown out of the old velvet drapes.

He’s trying to make something out of nothing.

Now, if we grant my student permission to use the “out” and make John into something else, we run into more problems, because the other sentences above, similarly constructed, really cannot be made passive:

The old blue jeans have had a braided rug made out of them.

The dog’s shed undercoat has had yarn spun out of it, and the yarn has had a blanket made out of it.

The old velvet drapes have had an impressive visiting gown made out of them by Scarlett O’Hara.

Nothing has been tried to be made something out of.

These sentences are absurd because, for one thing, the raw material has no agency. A sentence such as “I have had a rug made for me out of old blue jeans” works because when I had this done, I had it done by somebody at my behest. John was made a fool of by somebody, but not at his behest, and so the “has had” works in a completely different manner because “has” means something else.

The only way my student’s statement can stand, I’m afraid, is if it means that John the carpenter hired someone to make a fool using him as raw material.

But, dupe though he was, facilitator though he proved, it was all without his intent; in fact, it was completely contrary to his intent, the jealous old cuckold.

Alisoun and Nicholas made a fool of him, sure enough. But my student has made a fool of himself with a sentence that should have adjusted its garb before venturing into the light of day.


“Eventually with this new technique melodies were better heard by the ears of the listener.”

And THIS, my children, is why we English teachers say AVOID THE PASSIVE VOICE!

My student is writing about the piano, as an advance over the harpsichord. “Technology” would probably have been a better choice than “technique,” since she was referring to the piano’s hammer-on-string mechanism, a change from the harpsichord’s plucked-string operation. And yes, the hammer (as well as the changed “box” of the instrument) did produce more volume. The volume was also variable, so the performer could emphasize melody over harmony by striking those keys harder.

Nothing really wrong with the contents of the sentence, then. Nothing wrong, either, with using the passive voice, although in most cases an active-voice sentence is more direct, smoother, more efficient. The passive frequently makes an awkward sentence.

And my my my, does the precision in this clause turn an awkward passive-voice sentence into something truly bizarre. The act of hearing generally involves ears, and ears are, more likely than not, attached to listeners. Specifying this is really not necessary: in fact, in this sentence the writer can assume the agent rather than specifying: “With this new technology, the performer could play louder.”

Aha! Maybe I’m wrong, and the agent for the verb does have to be expressed. Maybe that’s why students haven’t gotten the message yet! Okay, from now on I will say:

“Students, in order to listen to me, please turn your ears towards me. All right, now: “AVOID THE PASSIVE VOICE!”