Tag Archives: longinus

Rhetorical smoke and mirrors from George Herbert to Geoffrey Hill

“This figure consists in arranging words and thoughts out of the natural sequence, and is, as it were, the ttuest mark of vehement emotion. Just as people who are really angry or frightened or indignant, or are carried away by jealousy or some other feeling – there are countless emotions, no one can know how many – often put forward one point and then spring off to another with various illogical interpolations, and then whee round again to their original positions, while, under the stress of their encounter, like a ship before a veering wind, they lay their words first on one tack and then another and keep altering the natural order into innumerable variations – so, too, in the best prose writers the use of hyperbaton allows imitation to approach the effects of nature.”

The above is taken from ‘On the Sublime’ by the 1st century writer known as ‘Longinus’. I quote it at length because I’m about to have another dither in the George Herbert debate and I want to measure hyperbaton up against what Hill does to syntax. One of my more or less fixed views is that we would all benefit from greater expertise in rhetoric, that it’s too valuable and powerful tool to be left in the hands of lawyers and clerics and that poems that make effective use of rhetorical skills are usually good poems. As is usual, I’ve been of this view without having any more than an entirely superficial knowledge of what rhetoric might be able to do. This is more of a problem because I consider myself to be reasonably knowledgeable about the English Renaissance yet one of its key planks was the renewed interest in and teaching of rhetoric in grammar schools and universities.

So, I didn’t know that hyperbaton was a recognised feature of rhetoric and that the disordering of syntax to indicate extremes of feeling had been in use for many, many years. Now that I do know I’ve given a bit more thought to the degree of deliberation in George Herbert’s outbursts and have cast a slightly different light on his recurring pleas for plain speaking. In addition I’ve had another look at Hill’s use of rhetorical devices in ‘The Triumph of Love’.

The George Herbert problem is one of authentic outpouring vs cynical manipulation- how much of Herbert’s blurted incoherence is in fact a cynical attempt to promote similar feelings in his readers? I think this matters because it is these sudden interjections that set Herbert’s work apart from most things before or since. I also have a personal disdain for cynically manipulative poetry (Lowell, Plath, Eliot, Larkin etc etc) and I wouldn’t want to think of Herbert in the same way. Herbert may have been a country priest attending to his rural flock but he had been a star pupil and student at Westminster School and at Trinity College. He also became deputy and then Cambridge university orator so we can surmise that he had more than a passing knowledge of and practice in things rhetorical. Given his aristocratic background, biographers have had some difficulty explaining Herbert’s decision to become a country priest and this social difference can be seen in the patrician tone adopted in much of his ‘A Priest to the Temple’ which is a prose manual for aspiring vicars.

I’ve previously expressed some concern about the amount of feigned incoherence that might be going on but I’ve alos recently come across the intriguing ‘Jordan II':

When first my lines of heav'nly joyes made mention,
Such was their lustre, they did so excell,
That I sought out quaint words, and trim invention:
My thoughts began to burnish, sprout, and swell,
Curling with a metaphors a plain intention,
Decking the sense, as if it were to sell.

Thousands of notions in my brain did runne,
Off'ring their service, if I were not sped:
I often blotted what I had begunne;
This was not quick enough, and that was dead.
Nothing could seem too rich to clothe the sunne,
Much less those joyes which trample on his head.

As flames do work and winde, when they ascend,
So did I weave my self into the sense.
But while I bustled, I might heare a friend
Whisper, How wide is all this long pretence?
There is in love a sweetnesse readie penn'd:
Copie out onely that, and save expense.

This is where the smoke and mirrors come into play. Herbert is advocating speaking and writing plainly in praise of God rather than using convoluted thoughts ‘curling with metaphors’ but he is using rhetoric to make this anti-rhetorical point. Herbert is of course aware of this and also knows that many of his readers will be able to locate Sidney’s “Foole said my muse to me, looke in the heart and write’ at the heart of the poem. He would of course argue that the writing out of this sweetness is something that his parishioners could relate to far more than the ornate devices of the chattering classes.

So, is this a further example of Herbert’s manipulative skills or a genuine and finely wrought renunciation of fine words? Let’s start outside of the poetry and the huge social and cultural gap between this priest and his parishioners. From this perspective it is very likely that excessive use of complex phrasing and metaphors would result in a degree of bewilderment and resentment, it is also likely that rural parishioners would be very suspicious of someone of such high status becoming their priest. So, in order to be effective, Herbert would need to speak plainly and demonstrate the strength of his zeal by the occasional cries of devotion. This would make sense if he then went on to produce ‘plain’ poems of praise because these would mean more to his flock. However, he doesn’t do this but carries on writing complex and sophisticated poems which extol the virtue of plainness.

The discovery of hyperbaton led me back to Geoffrey Hill and Lachlan Mackinnon’s charge of tortured syntax. Sadly I have to report that this endeavour has taken an unexpected turn. I started with the annoying reference to epanalepsis in poem X in ‘The Triumph of Love’ and from then on things rhetorical seemed to be everywhere in the sequence. Some of these (The Turing contradiction in poem XVI, the references to ‘Laus et vituperatio) seem merely portentous but some of the longer (and more serious poems) seem to follow various rhetorical schema in a way that I hadn’t noticed before. Poem CXXV has this:

I have been working towards this for some time,
<em?Vergine bella. I am not too far from the end
[of the sequence - ED]. It may indeed be my last
occasion for approaching you in modes
of rhetoric to which I have addressed myself
throughout the course of this discourse. Custom

So, one of Hill’s finest sequences turns out to be a ‘discourse’ which is expressed in modes of rhetoric and I’m now going to have to re-read this and the rest (including ‘Odi Barabare’) with a different pair of eyes….