Tag Archives: rhetoric

Rhetorical smoke and mirrors from George Herbert to Geoffrey Hill

“This figure consists in arranging words and thoughts out of the natural sequence, and is, as it were, the ttuest mark of vehement emotion. Just as people who are really angry or frightened or indignant, or are carried away by jealousy or some other feeling – there are countless emotions, no one can know how many – often put forward one point and then spring off to another with various illogical interpolations, and then whee round again to their original positions, while, under the stress of their encounter, like a ship before a veering wind, they lay their words first on one tack and then another and keep altering the natural order into innumerable variations – so, too, in the best prose writers the use of hyperbaton allows imitation to approach the effects of nature.”

The above is taken from ‘On the Sublime’ by the 1st century writer known as ‘Longinus’. I quote it at length because I’m about to have another dither in the George Herbert debate and I want to measure hyperbaton up against what Hill does to syntax. One of my more or less fixed views is that we would all benefit from greater expertise in rhetoric, that it’s too valuable and powerful tool to be left in the hands of lawyers and clerics and that poems that make effective use of rhetorical skills are usually good poems. As is usual, I’ve been of this view without having any more than an entirely superficial knowledge of what rhetoric might be able to do. This is more of a problem because I consider myself to be reasonably knowledgeable about the English Renaissance yet one of its key planks was the renewed interest in and teaching of rhetoric in grammar schools and universities.

So, I didn’t know that hyperbaton was a recognised feature of rhetoric and that the disordering of syntax to indicate extremes of feeling had been in use for many, many years. Now that I do know I’ve given a bit more thought to the degree of deliberation in George Herbert’s outbursts and have cast a slightly different light on his recurring pleas for plain speaking. In addition I’ve had another look at Hill’s use of rhetorical devices in ‘The Triumph of Love’.

The George Herbert problem is one of authentic outpouring vs cynical manipulation- how much of Herbert’s blurted incoherence is in fact a cynical attempt to promote similar feelings in his readers? I think this matters because it is these sudden interjections that set Herbert’s work apart from most things before or since. I also have a personal disdain for cynically manipulative poetry (Lowell, Plath, Eliot, Larkin etc etc) and I wouldn’t want to think of Herbert in the same way. Herbert may have been a country priest attending to his rural flock but he had been a star pupil and student at Westminster School and at Trinity College. He also became deputy and then Cambridge university orator so we can surmise that he had more than a passing knowledge of and practice in things rhetorical. Given his aristocratic background, biographers have had some difficulty explaining Herbert’s decision to become a country priest and this social difference can be seen in the patrician tone adopted in much of his ‘A Priest to the Temple’ which is a prose manual for aspiring vicars.

I’ve previously expressed some concern about the amount of feigned incoherence that might be going on but I’ve alos recently come across the intriguing ‘Jordan II’:

When first my lines of heav'nly joyes made mention,
Such was their lustre, they did so excell,
That I sought out quaint words, and trim invention:
My thoughts began to burnish, sprout, and swell,
Curling with a metaphors a plain intention,
Decking the sense, as if it were to sell.

Thousands of notions in my brain did runne,
Off'ring their service, if I were not sped:
I often blotted what I had begunne;
This was not quick enough, and that was dead.
Nothing could seem too rich to clothe the sunne,
Much less those joyes which trample on his head.

As flames do work and winde, when they ascend,
So did I weave my self into the sense.
But while I bustled, I might heare a friend
Whisper, How wide is all this long pretence?
There is in love a sweetnesse readie penn'd:
Copie out onely that, and save expense.

This is where the smoke and mirrors come into play. Herbert is advocating speaking and writing plainly in praise of God rather than using convoluted thoughts ‘curling with metaphors’ but he is using rhetoric to make this anti-rhetorical point. Herbert is of course aware of this and also knows that many of his readers will be able to locate Sidney’s “Foole said my muse to me, looke in the heart and write’ at the heart of the poem. He would of course argue that the writing out of this sweetness is something that his parishioners could relate to far more than the ornate devices of the chattering classes.

So, is this a further example of Herbert’s manipulative skills or a genuine and finely wrought renunciation of fine words? Let’s start outside of the poetry and the huge social and cultural gap between this priest and his parishioners. From this perspective it is very likely that excessive use of complex phrasing and metaphors would result in a degree of bewilderment and resentment, it is also likely that rural parishioners would be very suspicious of someone of such high status becoming their priest. So, in order to be effective, Herbert would need to speak plainly and demonstrate the strength of his zeal by the occasional cries of devotion. This would make sense if he then went on to produce ‘plain’ poems of praise because these would mean more to his flock. However, he doesn’t do this but carries on writing complex and sophisticated poems which extol the virtue of plainness.

The discovery of hyperbaton led me back to Geoffrey Hill and Lachlan Mackinnon’s charge of tortured syntax. Sadly I have to report that this endeavour has taken an unexpected turn. I started with the annoying reference to epanalepsis in poem X in ‘The Triumph of Love’ and from then on things rhetorical seemed to be everywhere in the sequence. Some of these (The Turing contradiction in poem XVI, the references to ‘Laus et vituperatio) seem merely portentous but some of the longer (and more serious poems) seem to follow various rhetorical schema in a way that I hadn’t noticed before. Poem CXXV has this:

I have been working towards this for some time,
<em?Vergine bella. I am not too far from the end
[of the sequence - ED]. It may indeed be my last
occasion for approaching you in modes
of rhetoric to which I have addressed myself
throughout the course of this discourse. Custom

So, one of Hill’s finest sequences turns out to be a ‘discourse’ which is expressed in modes of rhetoric and I’m now going to have to re-read this and the rest (including ‘Odi Barabare’) with a different pair of eyes….

Technical Prowess in ‘The Anathemata’

This is in response to Michael Peverell’s recent comment on the ‘Dead End’ post. Initially I was going to make some pithy observation in the thread but then I got to thinking that my idea of technical worth might require a bit of explanation.

I don’t think what Geoffrey Hill describes as technical efficiency should be confined to rhyme and meter but should also include a range of techniques, foibles and slights of hand. These can vary from word choice, phrasing, cadence, enjambment through to subject matter and ‘message’.

In the technical department extra marks are given for disguising the means by which effects are achieved and additional points are awarded when these effects carry important or profound material. Elizabeth Bishop is a good example of a great poet who put enormous effort in to achieving technical perfection so that the reader wouldn’t notice the devices used along the way. John Matthias’ ‘Kedging in Time’ has the same effect on me in that I know what effect the poem has but I don’t know how this effect is achieved.

David Jones is not as technically accomplished as Bishop but ‘The Anathemata’ is full of little flurries of technique that assist the reader in getting to grips with this incredibly ambitious work. Auden called it the best long poem of the 20th century and confessed that he had been reading it for ten years and still didn’t grasp all its levels of meaning so readers of this might understand when I say that after 18 months of paying attention I’m still on the nursery slopes in terms of understanding but I think I can recognise skilled verse even when I don’t fully understand it.

I find ‘The Lady of the Pool’ to be the most amenable section of the poem because I’m reasonably familiar with one of its themes (the history of London) and because it uses a number of established techniques to good effect. I make no apology whatsoever for the length of what follows because it really does illustrate why more people should pay this poem some attention;

              From the two sticks an' a' Apple to Bride o'
the Shandies' Well over the Fleet; from Hallows-on-Wall to
the keel-haws; from the ditch without the Vicinal Gate to
Lud's hill; within and extra the fending circuit both banks
the wide and demarking middle-brook that waters, from the
midst of the street of it, our twin-hilled Urbs. At Martin
miles in the Pomarary (where the Roman pippins grow) at
winged Marmor miles, gilt-lorica'd on his wheat hill stick-
ing the Laidly Worm as threats to coil us all.
At the Lady-at-Hill
above Romeland's wharf-lanes
at the Great Mother's newer chapelle
at New Heva's Old Crepel.
(Chthonic matres under the croft:
springan a Maye's Aves to clerestories.
Delphi in sub-crypt:
luce flowers to steeple.)
At Paul's
and faith under Paul
where
so Iuppiter me succour!
they do garland them with Roman roses and do have stitched
on their zoomorphic apparels and vest 'em gay for Artemis.
When is brought in her stag to be pierced,
when is bowed his meek head between the porch and the
altar, when is blowed his sweet death at the great door, on the
day before the calends o' Quintilis.
At the tunicled martyr's
from where prills the seeding under-stream. At Mary of the Birth
by her long bourn of sweet water.
In where she mothers
her painters an' limners.
In Pellipar's
where she's virgo inter virgines for the skinner's boys an budge-dressers.
In all the memorials
of her buxom will
(what brought us ransom, captain!)
as do renown our city.

Michael will be pleased to know that I have proof-read this with some care from the Faber 2010 edition (I don’t have access to the original) and that I have preserved the line breaks in the prose sections as they occur in that edition.

The other good news is that this is one of the most densely annotated passages in the poem but I’ve chosen it for the way that it throws the reader into a specific place (London) whilst moving across a number of different time-frames. I’d like to point out the use of repetition in a complex act of invocation, the rhetorical tropes involved in situating both the work and the person reading / participating in it. There’s also the supreme skill involved in making a list both poetic and the point of what is being listed. Those of us who love long poems know that even the best of these will occasionally resort to the list, Milton’s description of the fallen angels in hell is gloriously digressive but it is still a list, as is his initial description of Eden, Spenser’s chronology and rivers are both examples of lists getting in the way of the poem but here the poem is in part about what you do with this cultural clutter, this conglomeration of signs and symbols. I would argue for a very long time that the above is the one of the most accomplished examples of modernist technique which is deeply rooted in the classical tradition.

In his introduction Jones refers to the difficulties he encountered in gaining some control over his material but his success is demonstrated by the fact that on the page the struggle is transformed into something both elegant and effortlessly profound.

I’m of the view that Ezra Pound was technically brilliant well before 1920 and that ‘The Cantos’ are a fascinating and gloriously erratic use of that brilliance to extremely ambitious ends (‘the whole shooting match’) but he couldn’t thrust the reader into a place or a time as effectively as Jones although it is possible to read the development of a variety of techniques from Pound to Jones – the use of the demotic to say complex things being the most obvious.

So, Jones’ prowess lies not so much in meter or rhyme but in the ability to use repetition and a range of rhetorical devices to thrust the reader into the cultural detritus that we all carry with us. We can argue with the components of Jones’ clutter (Catholicism, Wales, London, the Roman Empire etc) but we do have to acknowledge the skill with which he brings these to our attention.