Extraordinary Language

Screen Shot 2014-03-03 at 18.00.46 What makes poetry poetic? It’s a question as old as criticism itself, which probably got its start during the recitation of the world’s first poem. What makes its language different from any other?

It’s not rhyme, because unrhymed blank verse seems poetic enough. What about form? Or meter — the limited number of syllables before a line breaks? Or the pattern of those syllables? Maybe, but there are plenty of prose passages in Shakespeare that seem to qualify as poetry. “What a piece of work is a man,” Hamlet says in prose, but not prosaically: “how noble in reason; how infinite in faculties, in form and moving; how express and admirable in action,” and so on.

What’s poetic about a sentence like that? Consider its repetitions: like a list, each main clause begins with the same word: “how…how…how.” Hamlet’s using a rhetorical figure called anaphora to list man’s capabilities, and another called isocolon to give the items in that list a parallel structure: “how ___ in ___.”

So rhetorical figures make ordinary language into poetic language? In a word, maybe.

I was prepared to answer “yes” to that proposition until last Thursday, when I presented this argument to my Elizabethan Poetry and Prose (English 410) students. They objected that we have no baseline for comparison without evidence of what “ordinary language” is. Where would we even find it? How would we recognize it? I resisted arguing that ordinary language is just un-rhetorical language, because that would commit the logical fallacy of proving your premises via your conclusion. Is Socrates mortal because he is not immortal, or because he is a man?

Anyway. My argument was based on George Puttenham’s Arte of English Poesy (1589), which claims that “Figurative speech is a novelty of language evidently … estranged from the ordinary habit and manner of our daily talk and writing.”1 Further, he defines the purpose of figurative speech: “as it may delight and allure as well the mind as the ear of the hearers with a certain novelty and strange manner of conveyance, disguising it…from the ordinary and accustomed” usage.2 Figurative language dresses itself in vibrant “colours, such as may convey them somewhat out of sight, that is, from the common course of ordinary speech.3 Puttenham never defines “ordinary speech”; he’s not writing literary criticism, but a manual for writers of poetry.

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So why is the Zeugmatic looking for figures of repetition? The easiest answer is that it’s because they’re the low-hanging fruit we identified as the best place to start. Puttenham writes that figures of repetition “much alter and affect the ear and also the mind of the hearer,” before enumerating seven of them — anaphora, antistrophe, symploce, anadiplosis, epanalepsis, epizeuxis, and ploce.4

But that’s just not good enough, really. That’s saying that because we can find them, we should find them. What’s the interpretive payoff?

Puttenham claims that small changes reverberate through texts, from individual letters to much broader effects. And “therefore, as the members of language at large are whole sentences, and sentences are compact of clauses, and clauses of words, and every word of letters and syllables, so is the alteration [of these smaller units]… material to the sound and sweetness of utterance.”5

Don’t take Puttenham’s word for it. Consider this example, which my students are reading this week:

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,

That she (dear she) might take some pleasure of my pain;

Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know;

Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain;

I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe…

~ Sir Philip Sidney, “Astrophil and Stella,” Sonnet 1

These are the first lines of the first sonnet of “Astrophil and Stella,” Sidney’s sonnet sequence about his love for a woman named Penelope Devereux.

Did Sidney, the historical man, write this before the other sonnets that follow in narrative order? Maybe not, but his fictional persona did; he set out to write a sonnet sequence, only to grapple with false starts (“words came halting forth”) and self-hatred (“Biting my truant pen”). Finally his muse tells him to stop imitating other people’s sonnets and to speak — forgive the clichée — from the heart: “look in thy heart, and write.”

That must be where sonnets come from. Poets scratch out their innermost feelings and send them into the world, right? Spontaneous overflows of natural feeling, and all that?

No. That’s as much a post-Romantic clichée as burning tygers and dancing daffodils. Just look again at Sidney’s opening four lines. Of their 40 words, more than half (22) are repetitions of words or their cognates: loving/love; in/in; my/my; she/she, might/might/might/might; pleasure/pleasure; her/her; read/reading; know/knowledge; pity/pity. “Words came halting forth,” indeed. But we can allow Sidney this artful style; his subject is the difficult artificial inventions that “fled … study’s blows” and elude him, “helpless in my throes.” Not until the last line does the muse tell him to stop being so artificial about it all.

But imagine if he hadn’t. Imagine that opening line without the isocolon (phrases of equal length and corresponding structure) “Loving in truth, and fain in verse.” Or without the polyptoton (repetition of words from the same root but with different endings) “Loving…love,” or those that follow below: “know | Knowledge” and “read, reading.”6 Or the whole passage without that gradatio or climax linking the clauses in a mounting sequence, ascending the argumentative staircase from “Pleasure…pleasure,” to “read, reading,” to “know | Knowledge,” to “pity…pity.”

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Imagine away these rhetorical figures, if you like. Imagine Sidney writing a simplified version of his argument (“if I write about my pain, Stella might love me in return”) and then layering in these figures with a metaphorical thesaurus at his elbow (“love ≃ pity; grace”).

Now forget that image. Because the minute you take away the figures, you take away not just the lines, but also the thinking poet who wrote them. Rhetoric is a map of cognition, writes Raphael Lyne; they are the “strains and stretches of language” that correspond to “mental strains and stretches.”7 Sidney may strain credulity with his hope that “Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,” but he is leaving linguistic traces of a mental strain.

So if we, with Sir William Alexander (1635), “value language as a conduit” that shapes “adorned truth and witty inventions” into suitable words, it’s a conduit connecting the writer’s cognitive patterns to our own. We may have to learn some Greek terms to identify them, but we recognize them instinctively.



  1. p.148; emphasis mine. All Puttenham citations are from Gavin Alexander’s 2004 anthology, Sidney’s ‘The Defence of Poesy’ and Selected Renaissance Literary Criticism. []
  2. p.133. []
  3. p.134. []
  4. pp.167-69. []
  5. p. 150. Puttenham uses a beautiful gradatio to make this argument. Bear with me, I’ll define that term in a minute. []
  6. These definitions adapted from Richard Lanham, A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms, 1991. []
  7. Shakespeare, Rhetoric, and Cognition, p.9 []