Jun 4, 2008

Eloquence Receives the Attention It's Due in a New Book

Professor and literary critic Denis Donoghue has come out with an engaging and important book, in which he endeavors to understand and foster the appreciation and study of eloquence. What he appears to mean by the concept of eloquence, in my judgment, is intrinsically beautiful writing of some sort, and the book makes a valiant attempt to define beauty in literature and illustrate the truly beautiful. I think the book, On Eloquence, is well worth study, for it not only presents an enlightening case for the importance of eloquence but also suggests ways forward in augmenting the literary ideas of Yvor Winters. I hope to find time for a deeper look at the book some time in the near future. (The photo is a shot of someone kissing Ireland’s Blarney Stone, the so-called “Stone of Eloquence.”)

To offer a few summary comments, Donoghue makes a nearly absolute distinction in the book -- questionably absolute, in my view -- between the practical, persuasive discipline of rhetoric and the elevated aesthetic value of eloquence. I think the distinction is useful, to a degree. But I don’t think Donoghue makes a sound case for setting a hard line between the two. In fact, I believe a hard line can lead to a lot of nonsense and the continuing marginalization of literature, especially poetry, and to the uncertainty and desperation about what literature actually accomplishes or can accomplish in our lives. Eloquence, for Donoghue, comes in our time not from the realm of what he calls public speech but from that of literary writing. But the difference between such speech -- what is often called “communication” nowadays -- and literature is not so great as Donoghue thinks. Literary writing, as Yvor Winters opined, is a form of communication. It is a making of statements that seek a deeper or broader understanding of vital human experiences. In Winters’s stronger conception, literature endeavors to employ all aspects of language to enrich our understanding and our emotional alignment to that understanding. Yet a detailed comparison of Donoghue’s theory of eloquence with that of Winters’s theory of literature will have to wait for another post.

In the opening section of the book, Donoghue summarizes the aspects of literature that he cares about as a reader and teacher: "aesthetic finesse, beauty, eloquence, style, form, imagination, fiction, the architecture of a sentence, the bearing of rhyme, pleasure, 'how to do things with words.'" As a professor, he says that it has become more difficult nowadays to get students to see that these aspects are interesting and valuable. Donoghue believes passionately that literature is too often read, and expected to be read, in our age as a reflection of writers’ prejudices and the historical and political currents of the world in which it was written. Something vital, something truly life-enhancing risks, being lost in this view, in Donoghue’s mind. The truly vital, the truly life-enhancing, are found, for Donoghue, in the idea that literary eloquence is like dancing:

The dancing of speech is eloquence: the aim of a dance is not to get from one part of the village green or the stage to another, it is to create and embody yet another form of life beyond the already known forms of it. In dancing, the dancers enjoy the certitude of being alive in their bodies. That is eloquence.

What does this analogy amount to? What is the literal activity involved with the making of literature that writers “enjoy”? And what do readers literally enjoy in reading literature? Donoghue doesn’t make this clear. As such, this clichéd analogy is inapt and pretentious (as common as it has become). Donoghue thinks that literature is eloquent when it is at its “most irreducible, when it is most utterly itself.” Unwilling to define such blather, it is at this point that Donoghue goes further and asserts an absolute distinction between the “merely” practical business of rhetoric and the aesthetic charm of eloquence:

Eloquence has no aim: it is a play of words or other expressive means. It is a gift to be enjoyed in appreciation and practice. The main attribute of eloquence is gratuitousness: its place in the world is to be without place or function, its mode is to be intrinsic. Like beauty, it claims only the privilege of being a grace note in the culture that permits it.

There is something distinctly unsettling, wrongheaded, and perhaps even dangerous to literature in the implications of that word “gratuitous.” The common fear of art having a purpose seems quite overblown, even paranoid, as I have written on this blog many times. Donoghue, impassioned on the point, even claims that eloquence isn't “even a distant cousin of rhetoric,” which

... comes from a different family and has different eyes, hair, and gait. Long thought to be a subset of rhetoric's devices, eloquence has declared its independence: It has no designs on readers or audiences. Its aim is pleasure; it thrives on freedom among the words. Unlike rhetoric, it has not sent any soldier to be killed in foreign countries.

I disagree with these comments almost entirely, and the last comment is downright silly. Donoghue fails to make his case -– actually, he doesn’t even try to make a case. He simply states and restates and restates yet again that rhetoric and eloquence are unrelated (whatever that might mean). You can accept the idea, but Donoghue gives no sound reason for doing do so, and nothing Donoghue says persuades me. He doesn’t seem to realize how long eloquence (“beautiful” writing and speaking) and killing have strode together through history. Consider Caesar and his masterly chronicle of Rome's Gallic Wars. The dictator’s iron-sharp eloquence has inspired the military-minded for millennia. Consider Lincoln and his "Gettysburg Address." His exhortation for the nation to give “the last full measure” was an unmistakably direct reference to killing and dying on behalf of the ideals Lincoln and millions more believed were at stake in the American Civil War. Also, there’s Lincoln dizzyingly eloquent "Second Inaugural," in which he sees the myriad deaths in the war as payment for sins. Consider Churchill during the blitz saying that his country shall not yield. Consider FDR’s eloquence, too, upon the attack at Pearl Harbor. Consider Kennedy’s eloquence in 1961, asking us not to ask what we can do for ourselves, but what we can do for our country. Did this eloquent call to devotion not include, in Kennedy’s mind, military conflicts like tha one he would soon expand step by step, the low-level military conflict we came to call the Vietnam War? Was Kennedy’s stirring line any less eloquent because it was intended to -- and almost surely did -- contribute to killing and to many being killed? Donoghue doesn’t seem well suited to deep reasoning, at least not on this direly crucial point. But I can’t overlook such a large blunder. Nonetheless, as I say, a deeper look at Donoghue’s rigid distinction between rhetoric and eloquence will have to wait.

Turning from definitions to illustrations, Donoghue finds eloquence in small lines and phrases, just as Yvor Winters did (though Winters was tiresomely and wrongly vilified for the practice again and again and again by critics of all stripes and colors). In discussing these one-liners, one reviewer has written that Donoghue looks “where others might never think to look.” But that’s hardly so. It is a regular practice among professors and critics to offer opinions about both eloquent and poorly turned or garbled lines and sentences and short passages in books and writings of all sorts. Take John Updike for just one example. I have read hundreds of his reviews, and hundreds are the one-liners or short passages that he has singled out as beautiful writing in one way or another.

But back to Donoghue’s examples. He lays out many bits and pieces of literature that he considers eloquent. For example, he points to a sudden switch by Dante into Provençal in the Divine Comedy. Not bad. Later, he claims that the knocking at the gate in "Macbeth" is particularly eloquent. I’d have little trouble agreeing with that. Yet later, he says he likes the eloquence of the ambiguities in Donne's poem "The Extasie." Here I begin to part ways. But like Winters, Donoghue even draws attention to single words, such as the word "indignant" from Yeats’s famous and over-praised poem "The Second Coming." I have my doubts about any of these samples being especially eloquent, no matter the definition settled upon.

Donoghue even says that for him the contexts of eloquent writings often recede, that he is content even to ignore contexts, in favor of their isolated eloquence. For example, he claims that George Herbert’s line "Then shall the fall further the flight in me" is truly eloquent, even though he can’t name or describe the context of the poem it stands in. He thinks Milton’s line "Love without end, and without measure Grace," found somewhere in Paradise Lost, is very fine. Yet out of context, I can’t see either line as particularly eloquent. "That mine own precipice I go" is Donoghue’s choice of an eloquent line from Marvell, but he admits that he has entirely forgotten the poem. That’s downright sad. In one early passage in the book, Donoghue goes on at length with examples of eloquence:

"Christ, that my love were in my arms, / And I in my bed again" is perennial poetry, exempt from contextual limitation. "The words of the Lord are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times" is from a psalm, which one I forget. "Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke; the ashes shame and scorns" is the only line I recall from Southwell's "The Burning Babe." "From you have I been absent in the spring" is from a minor sonnet of Shakespeare's, not minor to me. "There is in God (some say) / A deep, but dazzling darkness" is from Vaughan's "The Night," which I can't further recite.

Donoghue is proud of remembering bits and pieces. Winters, too, paid very close attention to other bits and pieces in like manner. But in the classical, Wintersian view, it is the total poem that engenders the greatest eloquence in individual lines and sentences. My case for that view will have to wait for later, though Donoghue’s book gives us many useful concepts and illustrations to work from in making and refining such a case. Overall, I find many of his examples witty, but not especially eloquent.

For Donoghue’s judgment becomes suspicious at times. For instance, he discusses with rapturous praise a rather mediocre passage from Walt Whitman on death. I find the passage less than eloquent and not a match for, say, Frederick Godard Tuckerman in “The Cricket.” Can we trust Donoghue? The passage from Whitman includes not one, but two lines repeating a single word: “death, death, death, death.” Donoghue sees such pretensions, such obvious weaknesses, as examples of supreme eloquence. All too often, his take on the bits and pieces he finds so eloquent can seem jejune, in my judgment.

But such comments raise the central and thorny issues of what beautiful writing actually is and who gets to decide. Taste, it would seem. But who decides what is truly tasteful? That obvious, weighty, problematic question is left hanging. Donoghue, as far as I have studied his book so far, seems to have no clear notion of what taste is or how it is acquired or judged. He seems to think that we all know what beautiful writing is already -- and if we don’t, all we need do is trust to him or the group of professors he approves of. But classical Wintersians have distinct problems with the tastes of modern writers and critics, even ones as solid as Denis Donoghue. Our classical tastes are very different, and we can and do defend them, as few as we are. But Donoghue must see that the matter comes down to taste, as Janet Lewis once said to her own husband. I forget where I read this, but Lewis said to Winters that his sharp and profound disagreements with modern literary critics and poets came down to matters of taste. Winters gruffly agreed. For taste is a powerful, underlying aspect of Winters’s ideas. He sought a revolution in taste, a revolution that would bring us back to the classical spirit. (It has brought some few of us back, and this blog is intended to invite others back.)

In light of Donoghue’s illustrations, I should spend more time on this blog putting on display and letting my readers put on display the truly great, truly eloquent lines from the classical tradition that gather dust in almost complete obscurity in our time. Quickly, here’s one off the top of the head, Winters’s own opening lines from “Time and the Garden”:

The spring has darkened with activity,
The future gathers in vine, bush, and tree.

There is true, if unrecognized, eloquence -- in context (of necessity, contra Donoghue). There are many, many other examples of supreme eloquence throughout the Winters Canon and in other poems of the poets he championed. But acknowledging this raises many difficult questions. Is Adelaide Crapsey, whose work appears in the Winters Canon, more eloquent than Walt Whitman, whose work does not so appear? How about Frederick Godard Tuckerman than Thomas Gray -- or, say, Tennyson? Was that line of Wordsworth’s that Winters put down in Forms of Discovery truly ineloquent? I say, Yes, to all these questions and many similar ones. Yes, we need to focus on eloquence. The problem is that Denis Donoghue doesn’t appear to know what truly great eloquence is in many, many cases.

As a last classical example, let me put before you one of the supremely eloquent poems of the English language, J.V. Cunningham’s modern epigram “In whose will.” It is truly eloquent, however much its eloquence remains veiled in obscurity:

In whose will is our peace? Thou happiness,
Thou ghostly promise, to thee I confess,
Neither in thine nor love’s nor in that form
Disquiet hints at have I yet been warm.
And if I rest not till I rest in thee,
Cold as thy grace, whose hand shall comfort me?

Yes, we need to herald more writing of such inestimable eloquence on this blog. Send me your examples, and I will post them.

I hope to come back to Denis Donoghue’s On Eloquence some time for a deeper examination of its insights and arguments.