I got a wonderful little book called The Elements of Eloquence for Christmas (from someone who thought I could use some help). Its premise is simple: there’s more to words than just their meaning, and a little bit of knowledge about how to write memorable poetry or prose can go a long way.
From the ancient Greeks through to the middle of the eighteenth century, pretty much every writer worth his salt would have been familiar with the figures of rhetoric. But, since then, the figures have fallen spectacularly out of fashion, to the extent that most writers today are, as the book’s author Mark Forsyth puts it, effectively ‘cooking blindfolded’. They may stumble across a choice phrase, but, when they do, it’s normally by accident.
The book is a whistle-stop tour through the figures of rhetoric (39 in total). Some are familiar – alliteration, paradox, hyperbole. Others less so, at least by name. (Ironically, most of the figures of rhetoric, the things that make writing memorable, have Greek names that are completely impossible to remember).
Now, I have to admit to being a bit of a philistine when it comes to poetry and basically the whole of English literature pre-1925 (the year The Great Gatsby was published). I remember having to read Shakespeare, Dickens and TS Eliot at school and being completely baffled: why on earth did they have to make their meaning so opaque all the time?
So I suppose I’ve always been more of a functionalist than an aesthete in my use and appreciation of language. I’ve never really understood people who talk about words being beautiful. Of course, there are poems that I like – poems that make me laugh, or cry even. But I’ve always assumed that what triggers this kind of emotional response is a combination of the sentiment behind the words and the connotations a particular piece has for me due to the context in which I got to know it.
A couple of days after I finished reading The Elements of Eloquence I was in the car, listening to one of my favourite pieces of music: the cantata Dies Natalis by Gerald Finzi (above). It’s a piece I’ve listened to dozens of times and, of course, I’ve always known that the words (which are by the seventeenth century English poet Thomas Traherne) are a key part of what makes it special. But suddenly, for the first time, I heard the words as being special, even beautiful, in their own right.
There’s a school of thought that says that too much technical knowledge lessens your appreciation of any art form. That somehow by demystifying the creative process you are diminishing the creation. This, dear reader, is utter bollocks. It’s no coincidence that people who know what a circle of fifths is are more likely to enjoy listening to Bach, or people who can taste the difference between cumin and thyme are more likely to appreciate gourmet food.
Understanding the tricks that Traherne was using when he wrote the words that Finzi borrowed for his cantata didn’t spoil my enjoyment of them. Rather, it had the exact opposite effect. So, in the spirit of sharing, I’m going to have a go at explaining why Traherne’s words are just so good…
Take the cantata’s second movement (the first that has words), ‘Rhapsody’. It opens like this:
Will you see the infancy of this sublime and celestial greatness? I was a stranger, which at my entrance into the world was saluted and surrounded with innumerable joys: my knowledge was divine.
Just look at all the sibilance in those first couple of lines: ‘see the infancy… sublime and celestial… stranger… saluted and surrounded…’ Sibilance is perhaps more commonly used to create a sinister, hissing effect (JK Rowling knew what she was doing when she dreamt up the name ‘Severus Snape of Slytherin’). But here, it is sweet and soothing.
And it helps draw attention to Traherne’s intriguing pairs of adjectives: ‘sublime and celestial… saluted and surrounded…’ He could have used ‘glorious and ethereal… greeted and encircled…’ without making any discernable difference to the meaning, but they wouldn’t stick in your mind in the same way.
Much the same could be said about all the Ws in the second sentence. Look closely and you see just how deliberate this alliteration is. Why ‘a stranger, which’ rather than ‘a stranger, who’? And why not say ‘surrounded by innumerable joys’? This Traherne fellow knew what he was doing and was rather fond of alliteration methinks.
He’s at it again in the next couple of lines. Just look at all the Ms piling up at the end of the second sentence:
I was entertained like an angel with the works of God in their splendour and glory. Heaven and Earth did sing my Creator’s praises, and could not make more melody to Adam than to me.
Up to this point, two seems to be the magic number. In the first stanza, we had two pairs of adjectives and, in the second stanza, two pairs of nouns similarly coupled together – ‘splendour and glory’, ‘heaven and earth’. But suddenly, in the next segment, he goes a bit adjective crazy. The use of the word ‘and’ five times in two sentences interrupts the calm decorum of the previous section, replacing it with the breathless over-excitement of a six-year-old:
Certainly Adam in Paradise had not more sweet and curious apprehensions of the world than I. All appeared new, and strange at first, inexpressibly rare and delightful and beautiful. All things were spotless and pure and glorious.
OK, admittedly I don’t know many six-year-olds who use the word “inexpressibly”, but you get the point. It’s also worth noting the significance of the words Traherne – clearly not a man of limited vocabulary – chooses to repeat: strange/stranger, glory/glorious, sweet/sweetness, beauty/beautiful, immortal. They’re the words he really wants you to remember.
By the next stanza, the poet seems to have regained control of himself, because we’re back to pairs: ‘orient and immortal’, ‘transported and ravished’, ‘strange and wonderful’…
The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. The green trees, when I saw them first, transported and ravished me. Their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy. They were such strange and wonderful things.
The most intriguing of the lot is the phrase ‘from everlasting to everlasting’. This is, arguably, an example of at least four different figures of rhetoric:
- A merism: when you break something down into its constituent parts for no reason other than because it sounds good. The example Forsyth uses to illustrate this is the traditional Christian marriage ceremony, in which couples promise to stay faithful to each other ‘for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health’. In other words, ‘in any circumstances’. In this sense, ‘from everlasting to everlasting’ is simply an alternative for ‘forever’.
- Diacope: when a word or phrase is repeated with one or two words in between.
- A paradox: the phrase ‘from everlasting to everlasting’ is, in a literal sense, unfathomable.
- Catachresis: according to Forsyth, this is when ‘a sentence is so startlingly wrong that it’s right.’
Elsewhere in this stanza there’s some synaesthesia, which is essentially when you get your senses mixed up, as Gerontius does in Cardinal Newman’s epic poem (‘I cannot of that music rightly say, whether I hear, or touch, or taste the tones.’). In this instance, Traherne is ‘transported and ravished’ by the sight of some green trees. In other words, he experiences something visual as something tactile.
And, for good measure, the same sentence also contains an example of hyperbaton (putting words in an odd order): ‘when I saw them first’ as opposed to the more normal ‘when I first saw them’. Note that, coincidentally, Newman does the exact same thing in the line quoted above: it would seem that synaesthesia and hyperbaton make quite a good pair.
Meanwhile, the following sentence – ‘made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy’ – is an example of Zeugma – ‘a funny little rhetorical figure that doesn’t work awfully well in English,’ according to Forsyth. It basically means that a verb (and in this case also its object) isn’t repeated when, if you were being pedantic about the logic of the sentence, it should be.
The thing about figures of rhetoric is that, once you start looking for them, you can spot them pretty much everywhere. Whether they work or not depends mostly on context and fashion. For example, both parataxis (short, single-clause sentences) and hypotaxis (long, labyrinthine, multi-clausal sentences) are figures of rhetoric. It just so happens that today hypotaxis is deeply unfashionable. But when Charles Dickens first started writing, hypotaxis was the gold standard.
Some of the figures are good for humour; others, like anaphora (which makes a fleeting appearance in the final stanza below), are good for profundity. Anaphora is when you start two or more sentences in a row with the same words. Forsyth calls it ‘the king of rhetorical figures.’ It’s what Martin Luther King Jr used in his “I have a dream” speech and what Churchill used in his “We shall fight them on the beaches” address in 1940. Here, Traherne uses it to emphasise the unknown, and ultimately unknowable, nature of eternity:
O what venerable creatures did the aged seem! Immortal cherubims! And the young men glittering and sparkling angels, and maids, strange seraphic pieces of life and beauty! I knew not that they were born or should die; but all things abided eternally. I knew not that there were sins or complaints or laws. I dreamed not of poverties, contentions or vices. All tears and quarrels were hidden from mine eyes. I saw all in the peace of Eden. Everything was at rest, free and immortal.
You see, in Forsyth’s cooking metaphor, the figures are the ingredients not the recipe. What he doesn’t tell us in his book is that there are just as many examples of the figures being used cack-handedly to create completely unmemorable prose or poetry. You can only go so far in the process of demystifying the writer’s craft, because there’s still an awful lot of alchemy involved in producing truly great art. So I’m not convinced that The Elements of Eloquence will actually help me become the next Shakespeare, but it might at least teach me to appreciate the last Shakespeare.
As for Dies Natalis, I could write a whole separate essay on what makes Gerald Finzi’s setting of the words so magical: the fluidity, the way the vocal line truly mirrors the rhythm of the words, the endless interweaving of melody after melody after melody…
But instead, why don’t you just have a listen for yourself: