cover image On Eloquence

On Eloquence

Denis Donoghue, . . Yale Univ., $27.50 (199pp) ISBN 978-0-300-12541-2

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 Driver hero 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 Scrivener with 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.)