Review: Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric

Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric, by Ward Farnsworth. Boston: David R. Godine, 2010. 256 pp. $27.95 (hardcover).


Although many teachers make the subject of rhetoric boring and seemingly useless, in Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric, Ward Farnsworth makes it fascinating and fruitful.

Rhetoric, the art of speaking and writing effectively, is, as Farnsworth explains, about “practical ways of working with large aesthetic principles—repetition and variety, suspense and relief, concealment and surprise, the creation of expectations and then the satisfaction or frustration of them—all as they apply to the composition of a simple sentence or paragraph” (p. vii).

The study of rhetoric reveals why we love certain parts of books or speeches, why we underline and read them aloud to friends, and why we wish we had written or spoken them ourselves.

Farnsworth divides Rhetoric into three parts, dealing first with the repetition of words and phrases, then with structural matters, and finally with dramatic devices. In each part, he limits his focus to the patterns that, in his judgment, “are of most practical value,” and he provides a plethora of examples from classical works, many of which are a joy to read.

On the use of repetition, for example, Farnsworth quotes Henry David Thoreau: “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!”; and Shakespeare: “O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?” (pp. 4, 5). On the use of the rhetorical device known as anaphora, the repetition of a word or sequence of words at the beginnings of successive clauses, he quotes Edmund Burke: “There is nothing simple, nothing manly; nothing ingenuous, open, decisive, or steady, in [this] proceeding” (p. 25). And on the technique of epistrophe, the repetition of a word at the end of successive clauses, he quotes Frederick Douglass:

To ensure good behavior, the slaveholder relies on the whip; to induce proper humility, he relies on the whip; to rebuke what he is pleased to term insolence, he relies on the whip; to supply the place of wages, as an incentive to toil, he relies on the whip; to bind down the spirit of the slave, to imbrute and destroy his manhood, he relies on the whip. (p. 40)

In Rhetoric, Farnsworth discusses a deluge of such devices, each with examples, many of which are zingers. Take this one, by William James: “He had incurred the ridicule of having to have his explanation explained” (p. 72). That, Farnsworth explains, is an example of polypton, the repetition of words derived from the same root, and he adds that James employs it memorably in this case by using the related words side by side. . . .

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