Rhetoric: Auden and Larkin

Introduction

Rather than focus on meaning in poetry, we might ask why human beings use speech at all. What are their purposes and intentions? J.L. Austin's How to Do Things with Words was the seminal philosophical work, and his approach was extended and systematized by John Searle and others.  {1} The philosophy is technical, of course, but its relevance to poetry lies in rhetoric: how words and phrases are used to effect persuasion.

Rhetoric is still a vital element in any successful speech or piece of writing, whether a passing remark or heart-stopping poetry. Far from remaining a leftover from a superseded classical education, rhetoric is an expanding field of study, with fascinating insights into many aspects of language.

Introduction to Rhetoric

Rhetoric was formerly an indispensable aid to writing, and poets were among its most assiduous students. {2} Taxis, or the structure of argument, which shows how lines and phrases work on our affective understanding, usually had a simple shape. Attract attention by producing something of immediate personal interest. Develop an argument with a few more instances, but not too many, and keep them relevant. Lead to agreement with personal assurances, guarantees, claims on authority. Conclude by complimenting the audience on its humanity and common sense. Equally obvious and necessary was finding the appropriate words, tone and gestures: lexis.

Rhetoric organizes language to evoke emotion, persuade by argument, or to distract. Of course the last, distraction or entertainment, can be very complicated, but even the direct emotional appeal is no simple matter. Unconstrained outpouring is not art. At the very least we want to know that the emotion is appropriate, that our feelings are nor being cynically played upon. The wellsprings of individual emotions have to be tapped, and these, as any tabloid editor knows, are very obvious. Love in all its forms, the pain of death and separation, the joy of friendship and in the good things of life, the pride of home, family, status and country, loyalty, courage in adversity, simple modesty, service and kindliness — these and dozen others make the world go round. How are the emotions tapped? Not by direct appeal. Not even by showing rather than telling. The reader is a fastidious creature and dislikes being buttonholed.

Rather than clothe a sentiment with illustration, or tag a moral onto a story, the emotion must arise out of the very portrayal of the scene. Poets may seem at a disadvantage, since the greater compass of time, scenes and characters do not require the playwright or novelist to immediately hit the target. But, in compensation, the poet is allowed greater resources of language, since nothing very much in the arts is a raw slice of life. Dialogue in plays and novels may seem natural, but is very far from a transcription of a real-life performance, which indeed a radio listener realizes immediately. Even in the most realistic novel the dialogue is contrived, and has to be: to move the plot along, display the speaker's character and motivations, keep the reader wanting more. And if dialogue doesn't appear contrived (which it certainly must not) it is because dialogue very subtly uses the understandings and conventions lurking beneath the surface in all social interactions.

Such understandings and conventions constituted rhetoric, which could be an art form in its own right. A sophisticated audience saw through the devices but nonetheless applauded their cleverness. The New Criticism, which focused on the literary devices employed, was not a new phenomenon, therefore, any more than is Postmodernism, which denies a reality outside such devices. All is sophistry, a self- conscious form of amusement.

In entertainment the illustration (exemplum in rhetoric) can therefore become more important than the argument. The correlate is seen as vivid and engrossing in its own right, which enables the speaker or writer to smuggle in extraneous matter. Instead of the argument proceeding step by step, with each step illustrated, the illustrations introduce subsidiary themes, or distract from weaknesses in the central argument. Something similar happens in television adverts, where we enjoy the visual display without believing or even remembering the message. Poetry employing this technique becomes very oblique, if not somewhat rambling, but can produce surprising effects.

Importance of Rhetoric

A vast number of terms exist, and details with examples of their use can be found at several Internet sites. {3} Some devices will concern only Renaissance scholars, but many turn up surprisingly often in our everyday lives. Effective speech and writing is scarcely possible without them, which means that they may well enter into the very fabric of thought. We can't avoid them, only use them well or badly. Contemporary poetry may distrust the oratorical, or any fine flourishes of language, but the resulting flatness of language has then to look for other effects — novel experiences, taboo subjects, outré expressions. Poets tend not to have good stories to tell, moreover, being unadventurous souls, so that while we warm to authors who seem one of us, regular guys, we may tire in the end of their local reporting.

Comparative Rhetoric


George Kennedy has reviewed rhetoric across time and cultures. {4} Rhetoric is a form of mental and emotional energy that appears when an individual encounters a situation that offers or denies personal advancement. Some awareness of this energy seems to remain in description of rhetoric — as 'physical thought' and vital force' in Chinese, as 'energeia' in Aristotle and 'vivacity' by eighteenth-century British rhetoricians. Rhetoric can even be recognized in animals, and its most basic use by humans may serve a similar need: to strive for advancement without recourse to physical violence.

Rhetoric seems inherently conservative, seeking to retain past values. Thus Atticism in the Roman Empire continued to be used long after it became incomprehensible to those without special training. Latin remained in formal use in medieval Europe after vulgate languages replaced it in everyday use. And when Dante used a vulgate language for The Divine Comedy he felt impelled to create something that still had the formality of Latin.

Rhetoric of some sort is found in all cultures, but the disputatious nature of Greek democracy led to its greatest development, which was continued in Roman and Renaissance oratory. Only the west recognized the distinction between tropes, figures of speech and figures of thought. Classical poetry was written for the speaking voice, and Hermogenes' {5} instructions would have applied to literary work, law suits and speeches in the Roman senate. There were seven types of style — clarity, grandeur, beauty, rapidity, character, sincerity and force — and for each of these Hermogenes specified the appropriate choice of words, figures of speech, construction of sentences and rhythmic productions.

Language as Narrative


How did language arise? To tell a story, or, more exactly, a parable. Mark Johnson has extended the notion of metaphor to parables: not a word standing for something else, but a whole story standing for a particular description of the world. Narrative imagining — parables, he calls them {6} — allow us to shape and organize experience. We project one story onto another, and humankind may well have developed language to facilitate this process.

The evidence for this intriguing notion? None comes from the origins of language, about which little is certain, {7} and even less from the origins of writing, which arose for accounting purposes. {8} Johnson's theory in fact draws on cognitive science, and advances in psychology, computer science, linguistics and neuroscience. {9}

Human beings use imaginative narratives: they construct stories, and project these stories to give meaning to new encounters. Out of the flux of experience, the human mind learns to distinguish events that can be organized in this way, and then to deploy and modify them. We climb a wall; project the effort into surmounting an intellectual obstacle; talk about long-term objectives. The trial and error process is not smooth, and there are social and cultural skills to be learned. Turner accepts the Poststructuralist view that meanings are not stable, fixed and bounded, but also believes there is no point in dwelling exclusively on the problems. Whatever theory asserts, we generally do make ourselves understood, fill in our tax returns, and go about our normal business. Moreover, contra Chomsky, the primary feature of human speech may not be grammar, which would have conferred little evolutionary advantage, but the propensity to find such patterns in sensory inputs, to make models in consciousness and to react appropriately.

Meanings in fact are made through a complex process of projection, binding, linking, blending and integration over mental spaces. Blending is particularly important in cartoons and parables, producing a mental space differing from its constituents. Proust's description of the sound of the bell announcing Swann's arrival at Combray — two shy peals — seems perfectly acceptable, though is clearly an amalgam of words employed in an unusual way. We adopt different points of view in reading fiction, and each of these views projects narrative imaginings developed in everyday experience. The literary mind is not peripheral to human activity, but our instinctive way of organizing thought and experience.

W.H. Auden

W.H. Auden (1907-19) was prodigiously gifted, turning out a great mass of poetry, plays, essays and journalism throughout the thirties. {10-11} Three things struck contemporaries: his abilities to simply accept the modern world and use it in his poetry, to write fluently in a wide variety of voices and forms, and to create striking lines/phrases/images that were intriguing, apt and telling. {12} Examples of the last, which appears simple, but is difficult to do:

I'll love you until the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry

In the nightmare of dark
All the dogs of Europe bark

Concerning rhetoric, the example I look at is Section Two from In Memory of W.B. Yeats {13} It is written in a loose syllable-stress metre, perhaps best called stress-metre, generally with six stresses to the line:

You were silly like us;|your gift survived it all:| (6)
The parish of rich women,| physical decay,| (6)
Yourself.| Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry. | (6)
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still, | (6)
For poetry makes nothing happen:| it survives | (6)
In the valley of its making | where executives (6)
Would never want to tamper, |flows on south | (5)
From ranches of isolation | and the busy griefs, | (6)
Raw towns that we believe and die in; |it survives, | (6)
A way of happening,| a mouth. | (4)

Generally stress-metre because we can phrase the lines differently:

Raw towns that we believe and die in; | it survives, | (7)

The English hexameter is a difficult line to handle, tending to constantly break into 3 | 3 divisions, a failing Auden prevents by skillfully varying the caesuras (|).

Next note the rhyme and pararhyme, also shown above, shaping by a a b b a c d e d c e scheme. Then the alliteration and assonance:

You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

This is not some casually-constructed piece, though it runs easily enough as prose:

You were silly like us; your gift survived it all: the parish of rich women, physical decay, yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry. Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still, for poetry makes nothing happen: it survives in the valley of its making where executives would never want to tamper, flows on south from ranches of isolation and the busy griefs, raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives, a way of happening, a mouth.

A conclusion emphasized if we note:

    the lexis or word choice: consistently everyday, not calling attention to itself, and

    the taxis: word order or syntax is quite normal.

    Taxis: the structure of the argument follows the classical tradition, and makes very full use of its tropes:

exordium or introduction:

You were silly like us

confirmatio (supporting examples)

The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself.

refutatio (anticipating objections)

your gift survived it all.

antanaclasis (repetition of a word in an altered sense)

Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still

epanorthesis (recall of a word to suggest more appropriate expression)

For poetry makes nothing happen:

confirmatio (supporting examples, precedents, etc.)

                                              it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in;

peroratio (graceful withdrawal)

                                   it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

In many ways, for all his arresting imagery, Auden was a classical poet, which may explain his reaction to the High Modernism of Eliot, and his more ready acceptance by the reading public.

Philip Larkin


Larkin used a hybrid style between verse and prose, sometimes putting commonplace thoughts in commonplace language, and then slipping into an iambic verse for more serious reflections. Here are the first and last stanzas of one his best-known poems: {14}

From Church Going

Once I am sure there's nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence.

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

The opening lines can be read:

Once I am sure | there's nothing going on
I step inside || letting the door thud shut.

But the stresses are not clearly marked, the speech rhythms imposing something more like:

Once I am sure there's nothing going on
I step inside | letting the door thud shut.

Making its very ordinariness seem sincerity:

Once I am sure there's nothing going on, I step inside, letting the door thud shut.

Another church: matting, seats, and stone and little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut for Sunday, brownish now. Some brass and stuff up at the holy end; the small neat organ; and a tense, musty, unignorable silence, brewed God knows how long.

Hatless, I take off my cycle-clips in awkward reverence.

Ordinary prose, or almost so, since awkward reverence is preparing us for the third stanza, which starts:

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,

And by the final stanza the language is much more elevated — blent, robed in destinies, hunger in himself, gravitating. . . ground, . wise in, dead lie round — and the assiduous student of rhetoric could identify: {15}

Parenthesis: he once heard
Parallelism: In whose blent air all our compulsions meet
Anaphora : A serious house on serious earth
Anadiplosis: to be more serious
Procatalepsis: Are recognized
Litotes: proper to grow wise in
Metabasis: And that much never can be obsolete
Amplification: Since someone will forever . .
Metanoia: If only that so many dead lie round
Metaphor: robed as destinies.
Personification: A hunger in himself to be more serious
Hyperbaton: earth it is
Pleonasm: gravitating with it to this ground
Alliteration: And gravitating with it to this ground
Parataxis: If only that so many dead lie round.
Climax: If only that so many dead lie round

From an everyday beginning — though with some rhetoric {16} — the poem moves to studied exactness, the more striking because of the 'artless' flatlands from which it rises. Only they're not artless, but a strategy, though probably not consciously so.

References


1. Holcombe, C.J. (2016) A Background to Critical Theory. Ocaso Press. Chapter 28.
2. Nash, W. (1989) Rhetoric: The Wit of Persuasion; Brooks C. and Warren, R. P. (1958) Modern Rhetoric (1958); Booth, W. C. (1961) The Rhetoric of Fiction; Leech, G. and M.H. (1981) Short's Style in Fiction; Quirk, R. (1987) Words at Work: Lectures on Textural Structure; Corbett, E.P.J. (1965) Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student; Dixon, P. (1971); and Vickers, B. (1970) Classical Rhetoric in English Poetry.
3. E.g. Nichol, M. (2011) 50 Rhetorical Devices for Rational Writing. Daily Writing Tips. https://www.dailywritingtips.com/50-rhetorical-devices-for-rational-writing/ and Chrisomalis, S. (2014) Rhetorical Devices. http://phrontistery.info/rhetoric.html
4. Kennedy. G.(1998)  Comparative Rhetoric: An Historical and Cross-Cultural Introduction (1998).
5. CCCC writers. Position Statement: Scholarship in Rhetoric, Writing, and Composition: Guidelines for Faculty, Deans, and Chairs. http://cccc.ncte.org/cccc/resources/positions/scholarshipincomp
6. Turner, M. (1996)  The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language (1996).
7. Crystal, D. (1991) The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language.
8. Jean', G. (1992) Writing: The Story of Alphabets and Scripts (1992) and Hooker, J.T. editor (1996) Reading the Past: Ancient Writing from Cuneiform to the Alphabet.
9. Hari, R., Henriksson L, Malinen, S and Parkkonen, L (2015) Centrality of Social Interaction in Human Brain Function. Neuron 88, Issue 1, 181-83. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0896627315007795
10. See article on this site. w-h-auden.html
11. Mendelson, E. (1999) Auden's poetry and his last years Later Auden. Farrer, Strauss and Giroux, New York. Rees, M. (1999) World Socialist Website book review http://www.wsws.org/articles/1999/nov1999/aud-n20.shtml.
12. Perkins, D. (1987) A History of Modern Poetry: Modernism and After. Belknap Press,  148-69.
13. From Auden, W.H. (1940) In Memory of W.B. Yeats in Another Time by W. H. Auden. Random House. http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15544
14. Larkin, P.  Church Going. http://www.artofeurope.com/larkin/lar5.htm.
15. Harris, R. (2013) Handbook of Rhetoric. https://www.virtualsalt.com/rhetoric.htm
16. Wales, K. (1993) Teach yourself 'rhetoric': an analysis of Philip Larkin's 'Church Going', in Peter Verdonl, P. editor. Twentieth-Century Poetry: From Text to Context. Routledge. 87-99.