The decline of eloquence

One of my favorite lines from Shakespeare’s Hamlet is understandably overlooked. Like a tiny ship, those five words are swamped by such iconic leviathans as:

“To be, or not to be: that is the question”

“This above all: to thine own self be true.”

Neither a borrower nor a lender be; For loan oft loses both itself and friend.

And, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.”

The line comes from Polonius — an obsequious, windbag of a man who has been sent to spy on Hamlet by the King.  According to scholars, in the first quarto Polonius was  called “Corambis’ — which is derived from Latin and can be roughly translated as “reheated cabbage.”

Polonius speaks a numbing eleven lines including “brevity is the soul of wit.” The wonderful  irony is that there isn’t even the hint of brevity coming from him. He doesn’t talk, he spouts.  Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, finally interrupts him with the words, “More matter, with less art.”

Ay, there’s the rub.

Most of my writing career has been an attempt to find that delicate balance of matter and art.

No, eloquence is not dead. You can find it in the works of people like David Quammen — who writes elegantly and perceptively on nature.  Or in the ruminations of Nicholson Baker — who writes extraordinary things about the ordinary. Or in virtually everything Joan Didion puts on paper.

But in its apparent rareness, I see the slow and precipitous decline.  Can you imagine the Declaration of Independence being crafted by today’s congress?  Would the brevity and brilliance of the Gettysburg Address seem unfit for such an august and solemn occasion today?

Over time, eloquence has been elevated out of the expected. It almost feels baroque and suspect when it finds its way into print, into a speech, or worse, into ordinary conversation.

Eloquence feels like we are continually gilding the lily.

I don’t believe eloquence is about verbal virtuosity.  To me, true eloquence is about hitting the right chord of context, insight and artistry.

Eloquence can be found in sublime brevity.  Hemingway, who raised simplicity to an art, demonstrates eloquence in the last six words of his novel , The Sun Also Rises.

Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”

Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.

“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

You can only appreciate this line in the context of the novel’s long journey. This cynical and slighter bitter line also surprisingly poignant because it reveals the truth of a relationship that is more dream than reality.  It is the recognition of the impossible.

Norman Maclean’s opening line of his story, A River Runs Through It, may be one of the most eloquent beginnings of a story I have ever read.  “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.”

In Neuromancer, William Gibson opens his novel with “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

And in the screenplay of Doctor Zhivago, Robert Bolt puts a surprisingly eloquent line into the mouth of the antagonist Komarovsky.  Outside an upscale restaurant, a crowd of demonstrators and revolutionaries sing The International.

Inside the restaurant,  there awkward silence falls over the diners.  Then Komarovsky comments, “No doubt they’ll sing in tune after the revolution.”  The crowd laughs and for the briefest of moments, the revolution doesn’t seem so inevitable.

E.B. White, once wrote eloquently about Spring.

“One never knows what images one is going to hold in memory, returning to the city after a brief orgy in the country.  I find this morning that what I  most vividly and longingly recall is the sight of my grandson and his little sunburnt sister returning to their kitchen door from an excursion, with trophies of the meadow clutched in their hands — she with a couple of of violets, and smiling, he serious and holding dandelions, strangling them in a responsible grip.

Children hold spring so tightly in their brown fists — just as grownups, who are less sure of it, hold it in their hearts.”

There is eloquence in the spare prose of Cormac McCarthy.  In Joyce Carol Oates’ insightful book on boxing.   And in the sports writing of the late and irreplaceable Jim Murray.

This is not a plea for more eloquence or even a desire for it to permeate our daily communications.  But it is a small wish.  Please don’t let eloquence become so extraordinary that it becomes the pejorative.  Find the art in the matter.

When in doubt, err on the side of eloquence.