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Could you please explain why the syntax in the following stanza is wrong?

Surrounded
by that sturdy assertiveness
that walled England the din
of traffic in my mind quietens,

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2 Answers 2

There is nothing I can see wrong in the syntax of that stanza. In fact, unlike much poetry, there is no serious lexical ambiguity; and with a single comma it would render just fine as a prose sentence:

Surrounded by that sturdy assertiveness that walled England, the din of traffic in my mind quietens.

Take "that sturdy assertiveness that walled England" to mean "the trait that formed a wall around England, which I will call 'sturdy assertiveness'" ... and thus shielded [as I am from such assertiveness], the noise of traffic in my mind becomes still.

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So, there was a syntax issue; albeit, a very minor one. Without the comma, it sounds slightly awkward. With the comma it is perfect. –  Vincent McNabb Jul 2 '11 at 12:23
    
@Vincent: What is going on there is a technique called enjambment, which is "(in verse) the continuation of a sentence without a pause beyond the end of a line, couplet, or stanza." [NOAD] This is done to achieve an effect, usually to make the reader consider the line ending more closely or to give the first word(s) of the following line more emphasis. –  Robusto Jul 2 '11 at 12:42
    
I guess some might complain at the dangling participle - was it the "din of traffic" or "I" that was surrounded by the sturdy assertiveness? –  psmears Jul 2 '11 at 13:16
    
@Robusto The emjambment was splitting the phrase "the din of traffic..." onto the next line. Not having a comma after "England" is a separate technique enhancing the surprising effect. But that doesn't mean that it is correct syntax. –  Vincent McNabb Jul 2 '11 at 13:24
    
@Vincent: I don't see any syntactical errors. @psmears finds a dangling participle, but I think that is a matter of interpretation. Certainly the "sturdy assertiveness" can refer to "the din of traffic" and makes perfect sense in that context. –  Robusto Jul 2 '11 at 13:35
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There are two slightly different answers to your question. As a matter of formal grammar it is missing a comma.

Surrounded
by that sturdy assertiveness
that walled England **[COMMA]** the din
of traffic in my mind quietens, 

However, there is something else worth pointing out. One of the things that sets poetry apart from prose is that it uses the form of words to convey meaning besides the strict semantics. This is true of prose to some extent, but it is a more important part of poetry. In simply poetry for example, rhyming schemes give a cadence to the meaning that enhances the reading pleasure.

In the example you gave the structure is rather awkward. The third line contains an obvious semantic break that isn't reflected well in the structure. I'd suggest this would be better:

Surrounded
by that sturdy assertiveness
that walled England,
the din of traffic in my mind quietens, 

You might even break the fourth line into two, as a kind of ragged cadence seems to be the author's intent.

I'd also say it is an interesting sentence. I think it is unusual the way there is a huge pile of words before you hit the verb. As you are reading all the qualifiers you are thinking, and thinking "what is the point of this sentence." I suppose it builds a sense of anticipation.

Can the OP share the source?

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What you call "awkward" others call poetry. I'm not making any value judgments about this poem in particular, but some smart person once said you have to approach every piece of literature with the assumption that its author is at least as smart as you are and does things for a reason. It rather misses the point to edit someone else's poem to suit one's own prosaic notions of grammaticality. –  Robusto Jul 2 '11 at 18:06
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