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The Elements of Eloquence

Shakespeare was not a genius. He was, without the distant shadow of a doubt, the most wonderful writer who ever breathed. But not a genius. No angels handed him his lines, no fairies proofread for him. Instead, he learnt techniques, he learnt tricks, and he learnt them well.

This is how Mark Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence begins and yet it doesn’t stop; every moment of this book about rhetoric and the English language is packed to the rafters with smarts. Mark gives us a whirlwind tour of the so-called “flowers of rherotic”—devices such as alliteration, metonymy, prolepsis and merism—that have been used by poets, writers and bards to make their writing both hypnotic and beautiful.

Here’s another section from the opening chapter:

English teaching at school is unfortunately, obsessed with what a poet thought, as though that were of any interest to anyone. Rather than being taught about how a poem is phrased, schoolchildren are asked to write essays on what William Blake thought about the Tiger; despite the fact that William Blake was a nutjob whose opinions, in a civilised society, would be of no interest to anybody apart from his parole officer. A poet is not somebody who has great thoughts. That is the menial duty of the philosopher. A poet is somebody who expresses his thoughts, however commonplace they may be, exquisitely. That is the one and only difference between the poet and everybody else.