The Magazine

Lincoln the Rhetor

As he saved the Union, he savored the English language.

Feb 16, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 21 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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"Engineering," the correspondent suggested, "is a crude analogy, since [it] involves scientific and mechanical principles and writing is basically an art." Lincoln's prose, she insisted, "was an exercise of the ear, not a bag of tricks."
Quite right, broadly speaking. Yet as I noted in response there were in the Gettysburg Address such detectable formal rhetorical devices as antithesis ("The world will little note nor long remember what we say here; but it can never forget what they did here") and the tricolon ("We cannot dedicate, we cannot hallow, we cannot consecrate this ground").

In the background was a book by C.S. Lewis that is undeservedly less familiar than his religious apologetics or the Narnia stories--a volume with a deceptively arid title: English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama. For anyone with an interest in the "engineering of English," Lewis offers a shrewd analysis of the formal devices of such masterpieces as the Book of Common Prayer and the plays of Shakespeare. For instance, the cursus, "certain regular distributions of accent" (as in "written for our learning" and "them that be penitent") and the idem in alio, "the same in another form" (as in Lady Macbeth's anguished description of her indelibly bloodstained hand: "It would the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red").

Lincoln, an assiduous reader of Shakespeare and special fan of Macbeth, had surely noted, and perhaps absorbed, these technical points. Certainly he had them in his aural memory bank.

So again, we aren't speaking merely of Lincoln the good-enough writer, the subject of several recent books, but something, or someone, deeper and more elusive. What is missing is the thread that links Lincoln's prose, formal and informal, to classic rhetorical tricks whose analysis began (and perhaps ended) with Aristotle's Rhetoric.

There is always something mysterious--a je ne sais quoi--about verbal genius. Adlai Stevenson, who knew what he was talking about, conceded the force of John F. Kennedy with a story about the Greeks. When an ordinary orator spoke, they would say "how well he speaks." When Pericles spoke, they said, "Let us march." The let-us-march note marks the difference between competence and genius.

The traditional explanation is that Lincoln's style--inadequate term, since in no case was it ever truer that "the style is the man himself"--evolved from his diligent reading of the King James Bible, Shakespeare, Bunyan, other poetic sources. Such a background may be necessary but it isn't sufficient to explain prose of the Lincoln caliber. Many of us read classics closely but never write anything beyond journeyman English.

We may guess at other factors--for instance, Lincoln's trial practice in Illinois courtrooms, the art of persuading plainsmen in homespun in scores of jury boxes. It would quickly have whittled away any tendencies to rhetorical flabbiness. And there was, in his time, the advent of the telegraph, albeit a business of dots and dashes. We use the term "telegraphic" to describe not only the world's first instant analogue messaging but brevity itself. Lincoln, for urgent reasons, haunted the War Department telegraph office, where he would sit patiently, awaiting the decoding of battlefront bulletins. No doubt his native pithiness was made the pithier by the economies of laconic telegraphers.

For the rest, however, not even these factors entirely explain Lincoln's way with words. To say that the style is the man is to concede the underlying factors of native intellect and musical talent, hard as it is, given our egalitarian obsessions, to allow for any form of intrinsic superiority.

It is odd to reflect on these things when the Lincoln bicentennial coincides with the age of text messaging, where too few distinctions are drawn between brevity and banality. No doubt there are scores and thousands of messengers in the blogosphere today who never heard of the cursus or the idem in alio. More's the pity. Something to think about as Mr. Lincoln reaches 200.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is a former editor and columnist in Washington. His full discussion of Lincoln's rhetoric may be found in The Night of the Old South Ball (Yoknapatawpha Press, 1984).