On Eloquence

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On Eloquence questions the common assumption that eloquence is merely a subset of rhetoric, a means toward a rhetorical end. Denis Donoghue, an eminent and prolific critic of the English language, holds that this assumption is erroneous. While rhetoric is the use of language to persuade people to do one thing rather than another, Donoghue maintains that eloquence is “gratuitous, ideally autonomous, in speech and writing an upsurge of creative vitality for its own sake.” He offers many instances of eloquence in words, and suggests the forms our appreciation of them should take.

Donoghue argues persuasively that eloquence matters, that we should indeed care about it. “Because we should care about any instances of freedom, independence, creative force, sprezzatura,” he says, “especially when we live—perhaps this is increasingly the case—in a culture of the same, featuring official attitudes, stereotypes of the officially enforced values, sedated language, a politics of pacification.” A noteworthy addition to Donoghue’s long-term project to reclaim a disinterested appreciation of literature as literature, this volume is a wise and pleasurable meditation on eloquence, its unique ability to move or give pleasure, and its intrinsic value.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

By eloquence, literary critic Donoghue (Speaking of Beauty) emphatically does not mean the Ciceronian model of well-turned phrases supporting weighty arguments and capable of swaying hearts along with minds; such is mere "rhetoric." In his estimation, eloquence is unencumbered by political aim or intent to persuade and requires no context or, perhaps, even meaning. It is language whose beauty has no agenda, and the author defends its gorgeous uselessness against both polemicists and moralists who frown on highfalutin departures from plain speaking. Donoghue's survey finds eloquence everywhere, from Dante and Shakespeare to Taxi Driverhero Travis Bickle's immortal "You talkin' to me?", and he elucidates its workings in dense readings of literary excerpts from many eras and several languages. The results are often incisive, as in his comparison of Melville's Bartleby the Scrivenerwith the Book of Job, but sometimes his readings are so subtle that they don't register. Worse, by exiling both moral and social import from his lit-for-lit's-sake framework, Donaghue can seem precious and do what eloquence never does: leave the reader unmoved. (Jan.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Donoghue (English, NYU; Speaking of Beauty ) has fashioned a well-written and engaging exploration of eloquence in literature. He defines eloquence and the role it plays in culture as follows: "The dancing of speech is eloquence....It is commonly assumed that eloquence is a form or a subset of rhetoric....That is not true....Hitler's Mein Kampf is a work of rhetoric." Donoghue attempts to pinpoint the nebulous, admittedly subjective quality of eloquence in various works (e.g., Macbeth and Bradley Robinson's "The Mill"). He describes the ironically eloquent quality of lacunae (what he calls the beauty and charged possibility of "something almost being said"), the special eloquence found in endings (Herman Melville's short story "Bartleby, the Scribner"), and the eloquence of insanity and things beyond reason (Dante's La Divina Commedia ), and he finally moves to the worth and moral purpose of eloquence itself. While there are a number of works that analyze the role of eloquence in politics and oratory, this book examines eloquence solely in a literary context. An enlightening read; recommended for academic libraries.-Felicity D. Walsh, Emory Univ., Decatur, GA

Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Denise Gigante
"Denis Donoghue brings a lifetime's devotion to linguistic eloquence to this book, an eloquent plea for the appreciation of literary beauty."—Denise Gigante, Stanford University
David Rosen
"In this book, Donoghue continues his case for reading for aesthetic pleasure rather than to have our political values endorsed or abused. This is an argument that needs to be made, and it is all the more crucial that a critic of Donoghue's stature make it."—David Rosen, Trinity College
Boston Sunday Globe - Amanda Heller
"Via Shakespeare, Melville, Dickinson, Woolf, and more, Donoghue sensitively instructs us in eloquence—how it is achieved and how it is remarked, in gesture and incantation, the dancer and the dance."—Amanda Heller, Boston Sunday Globe
New York Times Book Review - Peter Brooks
“Donoghue is a formidably gifted critic whose range of reference is truly impressive.”—Peter Brooks, New York Times Book Review
Christianity and Literature - Michael Vander Weele
". . . . A labor of love pressed out of a lifetime of remarkable reading and writing and aided by a prodigious memory that does not just generalize knowledge but preserves its sources."—Michael Vander Weele, Christianity and Literature
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300158397
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 1/26/2010
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Denis Donoghue is University Professor and Henry James Professor of English and American Letters, New York University. Among his many books are The Practice of Reading; Words Alone: The Poet T. S. Eliot; Speaking of Beauty (a New York Times Notable Book of the Year); and The American Classics: A Personal Essay, all published by Yale University Press.

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