Say It, I Say—Say It!

Imagine a young person today applying for a writing job. She informs the hiring editor that she’s good at epizeuxis, not bad at epanalepsis, okay at anaphora. In fact, she adds, if the editor parses her letter, he’ll notice some pretty swift epistrophe, anadiplosis and polyptoton.

Alas, one more young body on the unemployment pile.

We don’t talk like that anymore, if we ever did. Ward Farnsworth knows that. He understands that the grand rhetoric of rhetoric enjoys little place in English today. But in Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric, his decorously delightful volume just out from David R. Godine, this Boston University law professor organizes his sterling material by the old categories. No matter that he’s really just talking about things like repeating words, putting them in odd order, asking questions that needn’t be answered, and so on.

“Everyone speaks and writes in patterns,” Farnsworth begins, arguing that our choices among patterns still make a powerful difference in whether words work for us or not. Such rhetorical figures “tend to show up often in utterances that are long remembered” he notes—the Rev. Martin Luther King’s eightfold “I have a dream” repetition was pure anaphora, and JFK’s “Ask not… ” a case of pure chiasmus—so it’s worth identifying them.

At the same time, Farnsworth recognizes that rhetorical figures often fail because, in the hands of politicians, they‘re “strained efforts to make dull claims sound snappy,” or they don’t sound “spontaneous,” or a speaker simply overdoes it.

How, he wisely asks, “does one study techniques that succeed only when they seem unstudied?”

His answer: by piling on examples until any idiot can separate the spellbinding from the spectacularly flat.

And so it comes to pass. Beginning with Farnsworth’s chapter on figures of repetition (all the terms in our imaginary young writer’s letter describe such devices),  a rhetorical miracle takes place. As Farnsworth analyzes and explains his examples, you start reading them aloud because, well—they just sound so good.

For a moment, in the privacy of your office, you’re Churchill in the House of Commons, 1940: “We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air….we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender….”

On another page, you’re Frederick Douglass in My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), as dignified as you are ironic : “To ensure good behavior, the slaveholder relies on the whip; to induce proper humility, he relies on the whip; to rebuke what he is pleased to term insolence, he relies on the whip; to supply the place of wages as an incentive to toil, he relies on the whip; to bind down the spirit of the slave, to imbrute and to destroy his manhood, he relies on the whip….”

And in yet another section of Farnsworth’s feast, you are, more happily, Dickens, knocking out some good old-fashioned “symploce” (look it up) in Our Mutual Friend (1865): “Everything about the Veneerings was spick and span new. All their furniture was new, all their friends were new, all their servants were new, their plate was new, their carriage was new, their harness was new, their horses were new, their pictures were new, they were as newly married as was lawfully compatible with their having a bran-new baby….”

Churchill, Farnsworth observes, could have made his point “concisely, and forgettably, in seven or eight words.”

Indeed, Farnsworth’s exactly right in his introduction that “the ablest of the older writers still make the best teachers of rhetoric.”  He supplies us with Shakespeare and Milton and Burke and Mill and Lincoln and Shaw and Wilde and….all those conjunctions, why that’s polysyndeton!

So, dear reader, I say it even if I say it myself—get this book! No, really, get this book! Read clever Farnsworth, and read him again, and you may become more clever yourself.—Carlin Romano, Critic-at-Large

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