The things they should have taught us in school
When I read the preface of Mark Forsyth’s book The Elements of Eloquence I got mad. Really, really mad. All this time, all this knowledge, existed and we were not even aware of it. Not only that, there was an unashamed attempt to hide it, ban it from teaching in schools.
Today’s post is inspired by the Preface of Mark Forsyth’s book “The Elements of Eloquence”
Shakespeare was not a genius. He was, without a shadow of a doubt, the most writer who ever lived. But he was not gifted. No angels handed him the words and no fairies proofread for him. Instead, he learned techniques, he learned tricks and he learned them well.
I bet not many people know of Shakespeare’s earlier plays. Nobody is sure of which one is his first play but Love’s Labour’s Lost, Titus Andronicus and Henry VI Part 1. The reason not many people haven’t even heard of them is that they were not very good. There isn’t a single memorable line in any of them and Shakespeare is known for his memorable lines.
His first memorable line that everybody knows is from Henry VI Part 2.
“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”
Then the other one came from Henry VI Part 3.
“I can smile, and murder while I smile.”
Later on, each successive play had more and more great lines. By the time he wrote Much Ado and Julius Caesar and Hamlet and King Lear, he was a master at work we all know of.
Because he learned. He got better and better because he started badly as most people do when they start a new job. Like a doctor, or a teacher or an accountant at the start of their professional career. Everybody gets better as they progress, so did Shakespeare. He did that by mastering the techniques of good writing he learned at school.
Luckily for him, at his time, English was taught in a proper way in schools. The composition was an integral part of Elizabethan education. And they were teaching the ‘figures of rhetoric.’
Have you heard of figures of rhetoric? I admit I haven’t. And I was taught English from grade one. I have been reading grammar, composition and a mountain of books on how to write better English. But never before I came across the figures of rhetoric.
Why is that? I am beginning to smell something fishy here.
Elizabethan London was crazy about rhetoric figures. George Puttenhan wrote a bestseller on them in 1589 (a year before Shakespeare’s first play). A decade before that Henry Peachman wrote The Garden of Eloquence. Books after books were published about the figures of rhetoric. Shakespeare learned and used them extensively in his writings.
What are figures of rhetoric and why we haven’t heard of them?
Forsyth writes, “Rhetoric is a big subject, consisting of the whole art of persuasion. It includes logic, it includes speaking loudly and clearly, and it includes working out what topics to talk about. Anything to do with persuasion is rhetoric, right down to the argumentum ad baculum, which means threatening somebody with a stick until they agree with you.
One minuscule part of this massive subject is the ‘figure of rhetoric’, which are the techniques for making a single phrase striking and memorable just by altering the words. Not by saying something different, but by saying something in a different way. They are the formulas for producing great lines.
These formulas were thought up by the Ancient Greeks and then added to by the Romans. At Shakespeare’s time, the classical work on rhetoric was dug out, translated and adapted for use in English. England was a century behind than Greeks and Romans.
So Shakespeare learned and learned and got better and better and his lines became more and more striking and more and more memorable.”
So if they were so good, then why weren’t we taught those in school?
Forsyth gives three reasons:
1) England needed woodworkers.
2) People were always suspicious of rhetoric in general and figures in particular. If somebody learns how to phrase things beautifully, they might be able to persuade you of something that isn’t true. Stern people dislike rhetoric, and unfortunately, it is usually the stern people who are in charge.
3) The Romantic Movement came along at the end of the eighteenth century. The Romantics like to believe that you could learn everything worth learning by gazing at a babbling mountain brook, or running barefoot through the fields, or contemplating a Grecian urn. They wanted to be natural and figures of rhetoric are not natural. They are formulas, formulas that you can learn from a book.
All that the Greeks were doing was noting down the best and most memorable phrases they heard, and working out what the structures were, in much the same way that when you and I eat a particularly delicious meal, we might ask for the recipe.
So with the dislike of beauty and books, the figures of rhetoric were largely forgotten. But that didn’t mean they ceased to be used. The figures are, to some extent, are alive and well. We still use them, but haphazardly. While Shakespeare had them beaten into him at school, we might occasionally, use it by accident and without realizing it.
The best way of knowing that the figures are alive and thriving is that one line from a movie you can’t seem to forget. It is most likely a figure of rhetoric. The songs you sing you can’t get out of your head, the poems you love, the dialogues you repeat are all rhetoric growing wild.
Rather than being taught about how a poem is phrased, we were asked to write an essay on what William Blake thought about Tiger.
A poet is not somebody who has great thoughts. That is the menial duty of the philosopher. A poet is somebody who expresses his thoughts however commonplace they may be, exquisitely. That is one and the only difference between the poet and everybody else.Mark Forsyth
Mark Forsyth explains the ‘figures of rhetoric’ devoting one chapter to each in The Elements of Eloquence and I intend to learn them and use them in my writing if possible. The study of rhetoric did not entirely disappear with Romantics but it is a complete mess.
There are still scholarly articles written about them but it is usually to debate the definitions rather than how to use them in everyday language. I think it is up to us, the writers of the twenty-first century, to revive this ancient art and benefit from the work of our predecessors.
Forsyth ends the preface of his book with a great paragraph which I would use to end this post as well. A point to note is Forsyth is not attacking or debunking Shakespeare in any way, he considers him the greatest craftsman ever lived. Insulting him would be insulting Wright Brothers for explaining the principles of aerodynamics or Neil Armstrong for walking on the moon.
Shakespeare did not consider himself sacred. He would often just steal content from other people. However, whatever he stole he improved, and he improved it using the formulas, flowers, and figures of rhetoric.