Charles Moore reviews The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth (Icon Books)
An alternative title for this sparkling book, which would fit with its occasionally over-jocular tone, would be Locution. Locution. Locution. Such a title is an example of epizeuxis, I can now, thanks to this slim volume, inform you.
All of us use rhetoric, but few of us understand what it is we are doing, and therefore we don’t do it well. The only famous person in modern British public life who grasps what are called “the figures of rhetoric” is the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. He knows their mainly Greek terms, and he knows how to deploy them. There is a strong argument for saying that it is his mastery of the subject that has got him to the top.
The author, Mark Forsyth, starts with the assertion that rhetoric can be learnt by almost anybody. But our culture is afflicted by the false concept of “genius” and by the Romantic movement’s idea that truth resides in nature: “They [the Romantics] wanted to be natural, and the figures of rhetoric are not natural.” He denies that Shakespeare was a genius: he was just a hard-working fellow who learnt Latin composition, and the figures of rhetoric, at his grammar school. (That is why grammar schools were so called, one should add, and why they were so good.) This taught him how to write. When he started to write plays, he was not all that brilliant at first, but he stuck at it, until practice made him almost literally perfect.
Another person who was jolly good at it was St Paul. His epistles contains a classic epistrophe: “When I was a child … I thought as a child.” The same passage also contains a tricolon (“faith, hope and charity, these three”).
Forsyth argues that the figures of rhetoric are like recipes for a cook. No one would cook blindfold, yet that is how most of us write and speak, throwing in the ingredients without knowing what they are and what they can do. So this is a “how to” book. Indeed, its subtitle is “How to Turn the Perfect Phrase”. This is, as the meerkats and the author say, “simples” (which is an example of enallage, a deliberate grammatical mistake). Study these 39 short chapters, 38 of which are named after different figures of rhetoric, and you can be up there with the all-time greats, Forsyth claims.
Even if this is a false promise, the book offers many pleasures. Sometimes I laughed out loud at the examples chosen. “Transferred epithets” are so common that we hardly think about them: “disabled toilet”, for instance – though one does all too often meet a public lavatory which is, itself, disabled. And only PG Wodehouse could have taken the epithet “astonished” and transferred it to the word “toast”.
Rosamond Lehmann said of Ian Fleming: “The trouble with Ian is that he gets off with women because he can’t get on with them.” That is a syllepsis. I also learnt from this book that bdelygmia, which sounds like some fell venereal disease, is the correct rhetorical term for a heap of insults.
Other devices are seriously deep and beautiful. Take paradox. God’s remark that “Before Abraham was, I am” is the ultimate paradox, a clash not only of apparent sense but of tenses.
It is interesting that some figures come more readily to human speech than others. All of us, particularly politicians, love anaphora, which means starting each sentence with the same words. Once you get going, you find it difficult to stop, especially if you are at the podium or the dispatch box: “We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds.” Churchill did 11 of these in a row.
Zeugma, on the other hand, is tricky. It is when the verb governs more than one thing in the sentence e.g. “Dick likes whisky, Dick vodka, Harry crack cocaine.” In English, the device does not come naturally. Congreve originally wrote: “Heav’n has no rage, like love to hatred turned, / Nor hell a fury, like a woman scorned.” That is a zeugma. But because it is unnatural to say, the phrase is altered in common memory to: “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.’
Behind all these rules, and the light-hearted way they are set out, lies the author’s belief that rhetoric is little more than fun. He ends his last chapter – which, with rhetorical correctness, he calls his peroration – with the following: “For though we have nothing to say, we can at least say it well.”
If he is serious in saying this, he is mistaken. Actually, I suspect he is not serious, and this is just another figure of rhetoric (whose Greek name he does not disclose) designed to win us over.
I have real difficulty with Alexander Pope’s famous lines “True wit is nature to advantage dress’d,/ What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.” What, exactly, is a thought without the words? How is the expression to be distinguished absolutely from the content? Please give me an example. The analogy with nature being dressed to advantage does not work, because here we are talking about language, which has no “natural” state.
Still, we are entering into philosophical realms here, and Mark Forsyth is wise to steer clear of them. It would spoil the cheerful cynicism of his tone. His essential message is “Ask not what you can do for your language, but what your language can do for you.” (Which is an example of chiasmus.)
• Buy Mark Forsyth’s Elements of Eloquence at Telegraph Bookshop