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The sentence below is from Melville's Moby Dick. The main portion of the sentence--that is to say, the part of the sentence that conveys the main message--is "As I sat there in that now lonely room, I began to be sensible of strange feelings." Everything in between is extra information.

"As I sat there in that now lonely room; the fire burning low, in that mild stage when, after its first intensity has warmed the air, it then only glows to be looked at; the evening shades and phantoms gathering round the casements, and peering in upon us silent, solitary twain; the storm booming without in solemn swells; I began to be sensible of strange feelings."

My question is why would Melville construct the sentence as he did. It does not seem to be grammatically correct. Not to attempt to push myself above Melville, but I would have written the sentence like this:

"As I sat there in that now lonely room--the fire burning low, in that mild stage when, after its first intensity has warmed the air, it then only glows to be looked at; the evening shades and phantoms gathering round the casements, and peering in upon us silent, solitary twain; the storm booming without in solemn swells--I began to be sensible of strange feelings."

Any explanations pertaining to Melville's choice?

Thanks

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    Punctuation conventions have varied over time and place. Treat these semi-colons as markers of pauses that correlate with clause boundaries. This is a grammatical sentence. The part not in bold is a sequence of partlciple clauses. Oct 18, 2017 at 11:45

2 Answers 2

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A quick googling on the use of semicolons gave this as the top result:

There is one special circumstance in which a semicolon may be used to separate sequences which are not complete sentences. This occurs when a sentence has become so long and so full of commas that the reader can hardly be expected to follow it without some special marking. In this case, we sometimes find semicolons used instead of commas to mark the most important breaks in the sentence: such semicolons are effectively being used to mark places where the reader can pause to catch his breath.

I'd say that pretty well explains it. I don't think substituting those couple of semicolons with n-dash or m-dash really works with all the other semicolons left in the text, and changing all of them loses the flow. Here the use of semicolons is simply more elegant.

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Because Melville and the other New Englanders were really, really into commas. And overly long sentences. They were, in short, pretty bad writers.

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    Aug 13, 2021 at 19:28

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