on On Eloquence, by Denis Donoghue (Yale University Press)

The term “eloquence” doesn’t offer much utility to literary critics these days. We think of eloquent orators – and almost reflexively we become guarded, following Bertrand Russell’s advice that “to acquire immunity to eloquence is of the utmost importance to the citizens of a democracy.” Perhaps with this habitual recoil in mind, Denis Donoghue begins On Eloquence, his delightfully wise book of seven allusive essays, by detaching eloquence from rhetoric. “The dancing of speech is eloquence: the aim of the dance is not to get from one part of the village green to another, it is to create and embody yet another form of life beyond the already known forms of it,” he writes. “It is commonly assumed that eloquence is a form or a subset of rhetoric, a means to rhetorical ends. That is not true. Rhetoric has an aim, to move people to do one thing rather than another … 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.”

donoghue.jpgThe fourth chapter of the book is titled “Like Something Almost Being Said.” This phrase sums up the quality of eloquence most enjoyed and celebrated here by Donoghue, who takes many opportunities throughout the essays to state and reiterate the primal qualities and purposes of his subject. In the process, eloquence moves forward as a force that seemingly obeys its own rules and impulses. Here are a few samples:

“If eloquence is a factor added to life, what it mainly says is that nothing necessarily coincides with itself: in passing from existence to expression, there is always the possibility of enhancement.”

“Eloquence does not allow anything to be merely itself; it enhances it, or condemns it, but in any case changes it, bringing a larger perspective to bear. According to eloquence, nothing is what it merely or ostensibly is; it is larger or smaller than that.”

“Eloquence does not represent the real, it replaces it with its own voice, complacently narcissistic. It is the charisma of speech, claiming to transcend the properties of law, custom, and reference: an inspired grace, a favor, like the gift of tongues.”

eloquence.jpgThis is the sort of book that inspires marginalia. Writer and reader alike may recoup a deeper perspective of eloquence, both historical and aesthetic, through Donoghue’s thoughtful handling of a vast range of output. He applies the near ineffability of eloquence in a broadminded way that accommodates a wide span of literary intentions, styles, and tastes, in poetry and fiction. If eloquence doesn’t allow anything to be merely itself, then Donoghue, writing eloquently, allows his essays to range about, illuminating the allure and achievement of eloquence with timely doses of suggestion. Although he segregates eloquence and rhetoric, his own eloquence has a rhetorical aim, amounting to the rehabilitation of the term itself as an inspiring tool for the critic. His enthusiasm sometimes makes it seem that just about anything that can go right in a poem or play owes its success to eloquence. Furthermore, some parts of his discussion point specifically to rhetorical aspects of eloquence. This isn’t to say the book is weakened by an inconsistent thesis. On the contrary, defined in a highly suggestive manner, eloquence here becomes multifaceted, wears many cloaks, and generates many effects. Donoghue is also trying to erode the influence of teaching modes that fulfill a demand (here he quotes Geoffrey Hartman) “for a didactic approach, for advocacy teaching that uses art in a cause.” His interest is the causeless cause of art.

In Donoghue’s hands, eloquence emerges as such a pervasive presence in a great work that one cannot understand the poem or novel at hand without recognizing its critical eloquent moments. In three or four pages, he discusses a brief scene in Madame Bovary in terms of eloquence as a “song without words,” something apparently apart from or suggested by Flaubert’s language. In an earlier passage about Whitman, Donoghue quotes Angus Wilson’s description of the poet’s style which aims “to produce a language that, instead of communicating something, reveals its own elemental laws and rhythms.” Just what is that mysterious component in the language? How does it unfold and why do we memorize its lines? Listening to Donoghue’s responses to these implied questions is one of the great pleasures of his book.

Donoghue begins his fourth chapter with a faux disclaimer: “This chapter is likely to be irritating, because I try in it to say something more about a kind of eloquence that seems to issue from under the words and nearly apart from them and yet in the event is helplessly verbal.” That neatly sums up everything he has covered to this point (we’ve come this far, so we’re not irritated, and he knows it). Eloquence is both an occasion and a provocation because it points away from the language to something strange that continues after the words. What triggers eloquence? To answer, he quotes R. P. Blackmur: “Half the labor of writing is to exclude the wrong meanings from our words; the other half is to draw on the riches which have already been put into the words of our choice; and neither labor is effective unless the third thing is done – unless we put into the arrangement, the ordinance of our words, our own vital movement – ‘agile with temporal intervals.’” The last four words come from Augustine in De Musica, describing something like a numinous caesura, or the resonant space between words, or a minor action between the major actions of a novel or play. Donoghue continues, “It appears that ‘our own vital movement’ is what Blackmur elsewhere calls gesture, one’s force beneath and prior to the words with which we try to express it.” It occurs to me that this may be why poets generally are wary when discussing “voice”: best not to probe too deeply into our own vital movement, to tamper with the goods.

Donoghue2_0.jpgThe fifth essay, “To Make An End,” deals with “a particular form of eloquence that coincides with endings, moments in which a new direction is offered, if only as a relief from the old one, or a blessed release is provided in the feeling that the novel, poem, story, play, film is at last coming to an end.” Under consideration are “Bartleby the Scrivener,” the second part of “The Waste Land,” Hamlet, Kenneth Burke, Wallace Stevens’ “The Course of a Particular,” and Woolf’s The Waves. Still gamely attempting to get at the essence of “our own vital movement,” the trigger of eloquence, he suggests that with writers “it is as if the words came first and the thoughts, ideas, or imaginings a split second later.” Furthermore, some writers have a predisposition and talent for certain manners of expression, pitches and tones, “biases of language: the something to be said seems to come later, and is chosen because it enables the particular style to be fulfilled.” In other words, some writers will walk away from certain subject matter, modes of address, or forms because they simply won’t let him use the style that wants to be fulfilled in his work. Style and gesture precede story and message, the pre-verbal rules the roost. When we feel we are writing “dishonestly,” is it because of the statements we make, or the abandonment of a native, rooted, pre-moral impulse?

The seventh and final chapter, “For and Against,” returns to the face-off between eloquence and the temptations of rhetoric. The defense of eloquence includes additional defining statements, even here at the end. “Eloquence is a promise of another kind of happiness,” Donoghue says, “not an acquisition in the world but a token of other ways of being alive, in passing. It does this when it discloses a pitch of language – and therefore a flair of feeling and perception – in addition to, or even instead if, its standard referential duty.” This makes way for every poetic style – but also, it suggests what a poor performance looks and sounds like in any poetic style. The formal poem, lacking those agile temporal intervals and vital movements, fails beneath its perfect shape. The so-called post-avant poem, preceded too strictly by the theory of its school, is merely a rhetorical argument for affiliation. Eloquence is positioned “against dullness, dryness, routine, habit, ‘the malady of the quotidian,’ the oppressiveness of one-damn-thing-after-another. It flourishes in a language and wants to have a more abundant life there.”

There's a late poem by Stevens, "Presence of an External Master of Knowledge," featuring Ulysses orating on eloquence (the rhetoric of Stevens' habitual philosophizing). Ulysses defines knowledge as "the world and fate, / The right within me and about me, / Joined in triumphant vigor." Then, in the next to last (third) stanza, he says:

A longer, deeper breath sustains
This eloquence of right, since knowing
And being are one -- the right to know
Is equal to the right to be.
The great Omnium descends on me,
Like an absolute out of this eloquence.

Would Donoghue accept that these lines have no eloquence, since their aim is so obvious, the poem reading as a mini-treatise? The lines explain, but perhaps don't illustrate, the suggestive powers of eloquence.

John Stuart Mill is famous for saying that eloquence is heard and poetry is overheard, that eloquence supposes an audience and poetry couldn’t care less who if anyone is listening much less following along. He said in “Thoughts on Poetry and Its Varieties,” “Eloquence is feeling pouring itself to other minds, courting their sympathy, or endeavoring to influence their belief or to move them to passion or to action.” So for at least 150 years, eloquence has largely been banished to the dark side, associated with politicians and salesmen. Writing with more insight, Emerson saw the role of eloquence in poetry and offered an antidote: “Eloquence must be grounded on the plainest narrative. Afterwards, it may warm itself until it exhales symbols of every kind and color, speaks only through the most poetic forms; but first and last, it must still be at bottom a biblical statement of fact.” Following Donoghue through this reconsideration of eloquence, we not only participate in the revival of the term itself, but also learn to recognize the quality in our reading, and to sense the almost comprehensible and barely attainable potential for eloquence in ourselves.

[Published 1/28/08, 208 pp., $27.50]