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The Living Stream

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Warwick Gould

Reviews

Denis Donoghue, On Eloquence (Yale University Press: New Haven and London, 2008), 199 + vii pp.

Sandra Clark

Texte intégral

1This short and beautiful book savours of a past age. It appears to originate from a discontent with the emphases current in the teaching of literature in universities, in particular with the ideological approaches which privilege the didactic over the aesthetic, and accordingly result in an indifference to eloquence, defined at one point (though there are many definitions) as ‘saying the right, beautiful thing, regardless of consequences’. It consists of seven essays, all very personal in tone, opening windows into Donoghue’s own reading practices and his well-stocked mind, with many passages illustrating the ways he likes to teach literature and the kind of close readings he employs to do this. He is eager from the start to distinguish eloquence from its ambitious relations, rhetoric and grandiloquence: the former is essentially persuasive, aimed at saying the right thing ‘at the right time to the right person or people’, the latter a more delicate matter of choosing the right words in the right order.

2But how can one make such a choice? Donoghue allows that eloquence can be hard to achieve, a sign of freedom like hang-gliding (his own comparison), which can easily be mismanaged (though the result of this is not fatal). His own Church Latin education and the influence of various mentors helped him to recognise eloquence and understand something of what goes into its creation. These factors also bear on his concern with the resources of the English language, its ability to manage phrases and idioms from foreign languages; although Donoghue quotes frequently from non-English sources—Virgil, Dante, Flaubert—it is essentially eloquence achieved in English that is his focus. This is not to deny the wide range and diversity of texts covered in his meditations, and one of the pleasures of this book is the discovery (or for many, rediscovery) of those lines and phrases, eloquent moments, which, as Donoghue says, break free of their contexts: ‘She should have died hereafter’, ‘... the seal’s wide spindrift gaze toward paradise’, ‘The troubled midnight and the noon’s repose’, ‘In the mountains, there you feel free’, ‘Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle; she died young’, ‘And sweet, reluctant, amorous delay’, ‘J’ai tout lu, se disait-elle’, ‘I coulda bin a contender’, ‘Blown hair is sweet, brown hair over the mouth blown’, ‘agnosco veteris vestigia flammae’. But it not only for these evocative snippets that one can savour this book; there also more sustained pieces of closereading, of Melville’s ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’, for instance, of Ophelia’s soliloquy about Hamlet’s madness, of two passages from To the Lighthouse that make one return to the original with new eyes. Donoghue is a subtle and patient reader, with an acute ear for echoes and allusions, and his readings refresh the unfashionable idea that pleasure of a literary work is its real reason for existing.

3On Eloquence is the work of someone who has spent a lifetime reading and thinking about words. He is sometimes impatient with the dissatisfaction with words as a tool expressed by some writers, Eliot for example; but some of his most interesting and suggestive discussions are of effects achieved as it were against the odds, of ‘local acts of violence’ in language, of ‘the wrenching of language from the propriety of its normal reference’, of eloquent endings ‘achieved . . . in zeal for a last-minute recovery’ as at the end of The Waves or in King Lear’s last address to Cordelia, or in the ‘blind mouths’ passage in ‘Lycidas’, where eloquence takes a form ‘available somewhat desperately and nailbitingly at the outer limit of a language’. This book is short, rich, and inspiring; Donoghue writes beautifully, and although he separates eloquence from persuasion his writing makes its own case for eloquence.

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