The Poet’s Almanac ❧ Poetry’s Lumber Yard

The Poet’s Almanac: 365 Days of Poetry

Week Two
Artful Language

Whenever a builder wants to build a house, the first thing he or she does is to visit the lumber yard. This is where we buy the raw goods to build with: the 2×4’s and 2×6’s, sheet rock, joint compound, electrical and plumbing supplies. During

Aristotle's Art of Rhetoric

the medieval  and Renaissance period, the field of rhetoric was the lumber yard of the practicing poet, pamphleteer, writer and orator. Before they put pen to paper, they drew on their education in rhetoric to organize their thoughts.

These days, only devoted scholars and academics study rhetoric.

The result is that modern poets never truly understand or appreciate how great poets did what they did. They blindly use rhetorical figures without the faintest knowledge they are doing so. They argue that they use rhetoric every day, why should they study it? But they use language the way an unexperienced fisherman casts a line. The beginner will go to the pond, brook or lake without thought to where the fish might be. The adept fisherman will consider the time of day, the season, the depth of the water, the temperature, whether it rains or shines. The adept fisherman will consider bait and lure. The adept fisherman will catch the fish he’s fishing for.

The study of rhetoric, up until the 19th century, was part and parcel of a child’s and young adult’s education. The intent was to treat children how to present and develop their thoughts persuasively and clearly. The study of rhetoric, after all, sprang from Greek oratory and debate. This was rhetoric’s purview, not philosophy’s. The closest modern school children come to rhetoric is the five paragraph essay, and even that has fallen by the wayside.

But if you truly want to understand what makes the poetry of Shakespeare, Milton, Keats and even Robert Frost and other modernist poets, great, then understanding rhetoric will go some way toward teaching you. If you want to absorb their art into your own poetry, then consider a passable familiarity with rhetoric a flashlight in a dark room.

As far as English poetry and rhetoric are concerned, the sixteenth century represents the flowering of both. The favored classical rhetorician was  Cicero. Other rhetoricians included Quintilian, Trapezuntius, Erasmus, Melancthon, and Diomedes. The effort of 16th Century rhetoricians wasn’t so much reinventing the wheel, but organizing, categorizing and expanding on the work already done. The most influential of  these was George Puttenham, who wrote The Arte of English Poesie. Most importantly, Puttenham’s book is a defense of the English language (the vernacular) and of poetry written in the English language (as opposed to Latin or French). He writes:

And if the art of Poesy be but skill appertaining to utterance why may not the same be with us as well as with them [classical poets], our language being no less copious pithy and significative than theirs, our conceits the same, and our wits no less apt to devise and imitate than theirs were? If again Art be but a certain order of rules prescribed by reason and gathered by experience, why should Poesy be a vulgar Art with us as well as with the Greeks and Latins, our language admitting no fewer rules and nice diversities than theirs?

This was the spirit in which Shakespeare came of age – when a poem was an act of linguistic patriotism. Inventiveness and wit in language were  valued not just in respect to the speaker or poet, but the language itself. When the Elizabethans established Iambic Pentameter as the meter of the English Language, they did so with a sense of pride. When Elizabethan poets sported their knowledge of rhetoric in poetry and drama, they were simultaneously asserting their pride in their nation. Of all our great poets, no reader can truly understand or appreciate Shakespeare’s art without appreciating his knowledge of rhetoric. The ease with which Shakespeare drew on this knowledge and displayed it in his poetry and drama is fully comparable to Johann Sebastian Bach’s profound knowledge and ease with the “rhetoric” of counterpoint. Just as counterpoint was considered the non plus ultra of baroque musical knowledge, a 16th century poet’s use of rhetoric was considered the highest statement of his art.

How can my Muse want subject to invent,
While thou dost breathe, that pour’st into my verse
Thine own sweet argument, too excellent
For every vulgar paper to rehearse?
O, give thyself the thanks, if aught in me
Worthy perusal stand against thy sight;
For who’s so dumb that cannot write to thee,
When thou thyself dost give invention light?
Be thou the tenth Muse, ten times more in worth
Than those old nine which rhymers invocate;
And he that calls on thee, let him bring forth
Eternal numbers to outlive long date.
· If my slight Muse do please these curious days,
· The pain be mine, but thine shall be the praise.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 38

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 38 is a playful and artful display of Ironia (the Greek term) or Illusio (the Latin term). In the sixteenth century Irony was more strictly defined as saying one thing while meaning another. While proclaiming the poverty of his sonnet’s rhetorical inventiveness he simultaneously promises that his efforts will “outlive long date” – that is, contrary to his assertions, his verse is in fact very clever and rhetorically inventive!

Shakespeare complains that his Muse wants subject to “invent“. Cicero’s most famous discourse on Rhetoric was called De Inventione. Invention, as Cicero defined it, was ‘the discovery of valid or seemingly valid arguments to render one’s case plausible’. From invention (the assertion of an idea) follows the argument (it’s working out). The phrase ‘eternal numbers’ is figurative (rhetorical) language for verse and meter (numbers eventually came to refer to meter). Shakespeare returns to this theme in Sonnet 76, when he writes:

Why is my verse so barren of new pride,
So far from variation or quick change?
Why with the time do  I not glance aside
To new-found methods and to compounds strange?
Why write I still all one, ever the same,
And keep invention in a noted weed[?]

Invention, once again, refers to the rhetorical creativity of his ideas. The phrase noted weed refers the manner (in this case the sonnet) in which he clothes his ideas. (Weeds, in Elizabethan times, was another word for clothes.)

Elizabethan Dramatists and Poets assumed their audiences were equally familiar with rhetoric, all educated Elizabethans having been trained in the same grammar schools. Here’s Ben Jonson in the The Alchemist:

O, this’s no true Grammar,
And as ill Logick! You must render causes, child,
Your first, and second Intentions, know your canons,
And your divisions, moodes, degrees, and differences,
Your praedicaments, substance, and accident,
Series externe, and interne, with their causes
Efficient, materiall, formall, finall,
And ha’ your elements perfect. (4.2.21)

Each one of the italicized words refers to a figure of rhetoric which most educated Elizabethans would have recognized. It’s all but opaque to modern poets, let alone audiences.

Fortunately, if you’re curious and want to learn more, you don’t have to read Puttenham or Cicero, below are several of the best books on Rhetoric from the most general to the more detailed:

A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms

  • An alphabetical list of rhetorical figures with modern definitions.

A Handbook of Sixteenth Century Rhetoric

  • The above can be a hard to find book. It offers an alphabetical list of rhetorical figures but with examples and definitions from 16th Century rhetoricians.

Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language

  • A thorough book by Sister Miriam-Joseph. She gives examples of nearly every rhetorical figure as exploited by Shakespeare.


The Classical Rhetoric of English Poetry

  • This book isn’t a catalog of figures like the others. Vickers discusses the importance of classical rhetoric to English Poetry.

Renaissance Figures of Speech

  • A recent publication (2008). A thorough and categorical overview and discussion of rhetoric then and its abiding influence now.

Shakespeare’s Wordcraft

  • This last book may be, in some ways, the most easily enjoyed. The author, Scott Kaiser deliberately eschews the Latin and Greek terms historically used to classify figures of rhetoric. This is both good and bad. It’s good if you just want an  overview of rhetorical techniques (with examples from Shakespeare) and don’t need to know the names. It’s bad if you need to know the names. Maybe you want to look them up to find out how other poets used the same techniques? Kaiser’s book is useless in this regard.

5 responses

  1. Thanks again, Patrick! This post is like a splash of cold water on my narcoleptic spirit–it drowses through rules and disciplines and works on poetry like somnambulist.

    When I realize how I’ve tried to take short cuts by brushing off ‘rhetorics’, I can imagine the unease of my professors wherever they are in the afterlife. But college courses and classes while they break students in only help the retain fractured memories of what had been studied of the poets and their works–we even had a full course on Shakespeare but all I recall are the lines and the storylines, at least. How we develop our own craft in writing is a free fall from then on.

    But some of us do get lucky–perhaps out of openness–like me meeting new mentors as I did, meeting you here.

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