• Distrust of eloquence has long been a chronic condition among Americans—or maybe it’s just that we’ve forgotten how to be eloquent. A land whose political leaders were capable once upon a time of unblinkingly uttering phrases like “the mystic chords of memory” and “a date which will live in infamy” can surely do better than Mike Huckabee. On the other hand, as Denis Donoghue, the author of On Eloquence (Yale, 199 pp., $27.50), points out, there are good reasons why we tend to distrust eloquent politicians: “The standard argument against eloquence is that it is morally indifferent, it shows one’s determination to speak vividly, whether what one is saying is true or false.” But Donoghue, whose new book is a brief in defense of literary eloquence, makes a further point worthy of careful consideration:
A speech or an essay may be eloquent, but if it is, the eloquence is incidental to its aim. Eloquence, as distinct from rhetoric, has no aim: it is a play of words or other expressive means. It is a gift to be enjoyed in appreciation and practice. The main attribute of eloquence is gratuitousness: its place in the world is to be without place or function, its mode is to be intrinsic. Like beauty, it claims only the privilege of being a grace note in the culture that permits it . . . . Eloquence therefore is exempt—or should be—from the imputations that hang over rhetorical acts and consequences. It puts rhetoric to shame—persuasion, propaganda, nudging, forcing—for its vulgarity of purpose, its forensic disgusts. Eloquence does not kill people.
Of such elegantly drawn distinctions is this fetchingly written essay made.
That it should be necessary to defend eloquence is, of course, a sign of the times. Though Donoghue is a professor of literature, he clearly despairs for his profession, having noted in recent years that most of his colleagues now care more for ideology (“The politics of Yeats’s last poems—was he a Fascist?”) than such lesser qualities as “aesthetic finesse, beauty, eloquence, style, form, imagination, fiction, the architecture of a sentence, the bearing of rhyme, pleasure.” In On Eloquence, by contrast, he revels in all these things, demonstrating how great literature acquires much of its force from the beauty of its expression.
Though Donoghue is an unabashed highbrow, he is quick to point out that eloquence does not inhere solely in aristocratic utterance. In a list of “eloquent moments” that have stuck permanently in his mind, he cites I coulda bin a contender and You talkin’ to me alongside Those are pearls that were his eyes and Thou art indeed just, Lord if I contend with thee. Eloquence, he further points out, is not merely a matter of honeyed words but of well-calculated silences, of crisply pointed understatement as well as operatic expansiveness.
In between these trenchant observations, Donoghue dishes up more than enough memorable passages from the masters to make us long for him to edit a dictionary of quotations. Rarely have I read a more charming teaser for an unwritten book than the end of the second chapter of On Eloquence:
Some years ago I thought of compiling an anthology, a commonplace book, in which every chosen item would drive readers into an altitudo of pleasure—to think that there could be such eloquence, sentences, cadences, in what seems otherwise an ordinary world . . . . Some of the items I quote with delight in the present book would have found a place in that one.
Get to it, man!