Calliope (one of the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne) – the Muse of epic poetry and eloquence

By David Woods ([email protected])

When the body of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is brought before the Romans, does the bard have them say “Whodunnit?” No, he has Mark Antony deliver the eloquent “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech. And the Roman poet Horace showed his lyrical skill with: “Pick today’s fruits, not relying on the future in the slightest.” Carpe diem. He did not, you will note, say “Have a nice day.”

Not only has eloquence departed, but so it seems has simple direct speech. And is it any wonder when many university students can’t construct a coherent sentence, and ‘remedial English’ is a regular part of the college curriculum?

Allan Bloom, author of “The Closing of the American Mind,” thinks this is because students have lost the practice of reading; they want to be thought “authentic” by having few cultural pretensions and by refusing to make what they see as “hypocritical ritual bows to high culture.”

This, in turn, says Bloom, is because schools have failed to persuade students to read – let alone to like it. And this leads not only to loss of precision and colour in language, but also to a defensive posture that language doesn’t matter.

Thus, when I’m urged to observe the No Smoking sign or, worse still, to adhere to it… it sinks in that imprecise language occurs when people don’t think first about exactly what it is they want to say. Either that, or it’s a lack of vocabulary that can be papered over by such excrescences as the prevalent and ubiquitous “like,” as in “I’m not – like – into reading.”

Language is the most expressive and subtle instrument of communication that exists. Scientists, however, often sprinkle their language with jargon in trying to show that they’re doing something important. And politicians – who, heaven knows, should be masters of oratory – contribute to the decline of eloquence.

George Orwell, whose prose was eloquently clear and direct, believed that the great enemy of clear language is insincerity. He suggested that political language consists largely of euphemism, question begging and cloudiness.

He gives a wonderful example of the decline of eloquence, starting by quoting the well-known verse from Ecclesiastes: “I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

He translates this into modern English, as follows: “Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.”

Why this decline in eloquence? In part it’s the failure of schools to teach reading and language skills; it’s also the lowest common denominator language of television and, increasingly, of newspapers. I fear that it may also have to do with notions of egalitarianism: that to speak with clarity and verve is somehow elitist or effete.

Part of the solution might be a renewed respect for graceful speech and writing. This will be attained by proper and early teaching, wide and eclectic reading; and perhaps, in the interim, by ridiculing or satirising the sloppy language that is the product of sloppy thinking and that makes for mighty dull listening.

“Talking and eloquence are not the same,” said Ben Jonson. “To speak, and to speak well, are two things.”

nce, starting by quoting the well-known verse from Ecclesiastes: “I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

He translates this into modern English, as follows: “Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.”

Why this decline in eloquence? In part it’s the failure of schools to teach reading and language skills; it’s also the lowest common denominator language of television and, increasingly, of newspapers. I fear that it may also have to do with notions of egalitarianism: that to speak with clarity and verve is somehow elitist or effete.

Part of the solution might be a renewed respect for graceful speech and writing. This will be attained by proper and early teaching, wide and eclectic reading; and perhaps, in the interim, by ridiculing or satirising the sloppy language that is the product of sloppy thinking and that makes for mighty dull listening.

“Talking and eloquence are not the same,” said Ben Jonson. “To speak, and to speak well, are two things.”