Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric
By Ward Farnsworth
(David R. Godine, 254 pages, $26.95)
“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”
That’s Humphrey Bogart (Rick) in Casablanca, reacting to Ingrid Bergman’s (Ilsa) appearance in his café, providing a good one-sentence summary of the movie’s plot line, and demonstrating what Ward Farnsworth, professor of law at Boston University and an elegant writer, calls a rhetorical figure, in this case the technique of repetition — also involving conduplicatio and diacope, terms explained by Farnsworth as references to the number of words between the repeated ones — used to heighten mood and atmosphere.
Or this: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
Again, the rhetorical figure of repetition, used to extraordinary effect by Winston Churchill, in his speech immortalizing the outgunned RAF pilots who drove the Luftwaffe from the English skies.
However, the Churchillian rhetoric, always inspiring, has its downside. Rhetoric today tends to be the province of lawyers and politicians. And most politicians, even the dimmest, understand just what a powerful tool it can be — as do their put-upon speechwriters, who are often expected to make their bosses sound Churchillian (“Make me eloquent, Smedley”), even though, say, a battle over federal funding for fig growers is something less than the Battle of Britain.
“Rhetorical figures,” writes Farnsworth, “show up often…in a lot of bad speech and writing. When used in contemporary political speeches…figures often sound tinny — like clichés, or strained efforts to make dull claims sound snappy. This is partly because today’s politician tends to be a creature of very modest literacy and wit who spoils what he touches.”
Farnsworth, whose profession is one of the few that still relies on rhetoric to accomplish its ends, is intent on passing on some of the best rhetorical techniques as used by literary master craftsmen — repetition and variety, suspense and relief, concealment and surprise, expectation and satisfaction or frustration.
In large part, he believes, we can learn from these craftsmen by immersion in examples of their use of rhetorical figures. To this end, he’s chosen writers and orators like Churchill and Burke, Dickens and Melville, our founding fathers, Conan Doyle, Shaw and Chesterton, to whom he’s especially partial (in fact, the Chesterton Society might consider electing Farnsworth its president by acclamation), as well as nearly forgotten figures such as the Irish orators Henry Grattan and Richard Lalor Sheil.
A few examples, in no particular order, of the rhetorical techniques Farnsworth selects. “Metanoia” is correcting oneself, with the speaker seeming to change his mind about whatever has just been said. Here’s Conan Doyle, in The Engineer’s Thumb (1855): “And now, Doctor, perhaps you would kindly attend to my thumb, or rather to the place where my thumb used to be.”
Another figure, “Praeteritio,” writes Farnsworth, occurs when the speaker describes what he will not say, then says it. This is Chesterton, from Manalive (1912): “The proceedings opened with a speech from my colleague, of which I will say nothing. It was deplorable.”
Or this from a speech by Abraham Lincoln, in 1858: “I will not affirm that the Democratic party consider slavery morally, socially and politically right, though their tendency to that view has, in my opinion, been constant and unmistakable for the past five years.”
“Chiasmus” occurs, Farnsworth writes, when “words or other elements are repeated with their order reversed. A well known and relatively modern example…is from John Kennedy: ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country, a saying which apparently evolved from the earlier appeal by Kennedy’s boarding school headmaster to consider not what Choate does for you, but what you can do for Choate.”
“Every chiasmus amounts to an ABBA pattern. In this example often attributed to Churchill, war fills the A role and dishonor the B role: ‘You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have war.'”
And here’s Mark Twain, in Following the Equator (1897), using “Litotes,” that is, not making an affirmative claim directly but denying its opposite: “She was not quite what you would call refined. She was not quite what you would call unrefined. She was the kind of person that keeps a parrot.”
MOST OF THE EXAMPLES Farnsworth uses come from English prose. “They start around 1600, the age of Shakespeare and the King James Bible, and end around 1950. The largest share are from the nineteenth century and the latter part of the eighteenth.… The better authors and statesmen of those earlier periods studied rhetoric more closely than it tends to be studied today. We may not want to talk now quite as people did in earlier times.… But the ablest of the earlier writers still make the best teachers of rhetoric.”
Given the dates and periods from which he picks his rhetoricians, there’s an unhappy truth implicit in Farnsworth’s selections. It was around 1600 that English became English, and it was in the 18th, 19th, and the early 20th centuries that it was perfected. By Farnsworth’s cut-off date, the 1950s, the overarching structure of the language was largely completed, its elements taken for granted, and from then on it increasingly became in universities and other centers of learning a matter of trying to maintain the structure, fight off decay, and attempt to restore what was inevitably being lost.
English, we’re frequently told, is a living, evolving language, and as evidence we’re shown various popular vulgarisms periodically allowed into the language. But they are what they are, and the language pretty much remains what it was in the 1950s and into the 1960s, when teachers of English largely abandoned their efforts to teach basic composition, grammarians threw in their towels, and rhetoricians, like classicists, teetered on the edge of extinction.
It may not be possible to reverse the process. But Farnsworth is on a scholarly rescue mission. “Rhetoric is a vast, old and honorable discipline. It may be defined most broadly and simply as the use of language to persuade or otherwise affect an audience. The decline of rhetoric in our times is thus a much broader phenomenon than any decline in familiarity with figures of speech.”
“This selection,” he writes, “reflects one of the chief purposes of the book, which is to help recover a rhetorical tradition in English…that is fast becoming more distant as a cultural and stylistic matter.”
Webster’s Third defines rhetoric as “the art of expressive speech or discourse” or “the study of principles and rules of composition formulated by ancient critics… and interpreted by classical scholars for application to discourse in the vernacular.”
Most of us who make our living with words and have at one time or another taught courses in English composition probably wouldn’t think of ourselves as classical scholars. But we’ve all wrestled with applying those principles and rules to “discourse in the vernacular.” And one of the central problems in American education today is the widespread failure to make that application successfully — or, in many cases, even to try.
For our colleges and universities, where things like rhetoric were once taken seriously, the assignment of Mr. Farnsworth’s book as required reading might just awaken some echoes of what used to be a primary mission.
And who knows? In all this country, on all those campuses, in all those college towns, where all those gin joints will never close, there just might be a revival of interest in Farnsworth’s “old and honorable discipline.”