Eloquence does not kill people," Denis Donoghue announces in the opening pages of this paradoxically meditative polemic, which will be of particular interest to those interested in formalist approaches to literature. At the core of the work is a profound distaste with developments in literary studies: on the one hand, the colonisation of literature departments by scholars who focus on political and cultural readings, often regardless of the material's aesthetic qualities; and, on the other, those critics who object to works (such as those of T.S. Eliot) on the grounds of the suspected ideologies of their creators.
Donoghue's beautifully written book raises a clarion cry for an appreciation of style to be reinstated at the heart of literary studies. It also, in chapter two, harks nostalgically back to a less professionalised time, when a well-read civil servant, imbued from his days as an altar boy with a love of Latin cadence, might be plucked off the Dublin streets by his ex-professor and appointed as assistant lecturer, teaching a syllabus set down according to the likes and whims of his departmental head.
Donoghue structures his highly personal book around a selection of "eloquent" passages, drawn from a variety of sources, cultures and languages, from classical poetry to 20th-century American film. What these eclectic extracts share is "an exuberance", when "a word, a phrase, a sentence, or a line of verse presents itself as if it had broken free from its setting and declared its independence": instants in a work that send shivers down your spine or make the scalp tingle. Donoghue's ideal reader, figured at the end of the work in Virginia Woolf's Mrs Ramsay (To the Lighthouse), transpires to be someone who is receptive to the beauty of a work - "sensitive to the local flourish of eloquence" - without feeling the need to understand the text as a whole; she reads for the pleasurable moment (in this case, a line of Shakespeare's sonnet 98) without feeling the need to "trouble herself to interpret the poem".
Donoghue's book - described on the flyleaf as a "meditation" - mirrors the impressionistic, fleeting nature of the literary effects he admires. The work, despite being polemical, does not so much argue coherently as give tasters of favourite excerpts, snippets of memorable phrases. Even the meaning of the titular word (and key subject) eloquence shifts from chapter to chapter: it is belatedly redefined as "style" towards the end of chapter one; it seems akin to beauty in chapter seven (derived from the Latin loquens, speaking, it is hard to see how "a shot in golf or tennis" can really qualify as eloquent); and in the final chapter it receives much more orthodox treatment as persuasive language.
On Eloquence raises provocative questions about the nature of literary studies: should works be taught at university, on a literature programme, purely because they are politically interesting or because they are well written? Yet in seeking to depoliticise literature ("the dancing of speech" that "is eloquent writing") Donoghue attempts to wrest eloquence away from its synonym, rhetoric.
In doing so, he strives to force a way out of the awful age-old dilemma about the power of language: that it can be used, as Cicero's De Inventione warns us, for good or ill; beautiful speech can corrupt, as Milton's Eve and all his fallen angels would testify.
Donoghue is right to object to the lionisation of bad writing for its political import; but to insist that good writing is beyond politics is disingenuous. It dangerously seeks to efface the responsibility of critics and authors alike to recognise that eloquence, including poetry, might indeed "kill".
By Denis Donoghue
Yale University Press
Published 1 April 2008