A Logos No One Can Agree On (Part 1 of “Groundwork: Tracing the Tradition of Rhetoric in Poetry”)

Part one


It's been about 100 years since a coterie of Modernist poets exiled rhetoric from poetics. There have been outsiders and outliers, of course, but for the most part, the Modernists have been so successful that the mere hint of rhetoric in a poem is enough for it to be castigated as non-literary. Poetic discourse has become increasingly framed in terms of theme and musicality, as opposed to statement and eloquence. If your poem contains an opinion, it should be veiled in shadowy metaphor, encrypted in elevated diction. Or even better, it should transcend meaning-making altogether and have no point at all, other than, perhaps, how meaning itself remains uncapturable by language.

The Romantic poets from Wordsworth to Keats had identified rhetoric as the enemy and the image as poetry's saviour, but it was only the Modernists, led by Ezra Pound, who were successful in driving a permanent wedge between rhetoric (in its somewhat decayed classical form) and poetics. Now that we approach the centennial of rhetoric's exile, it's worth revisiting not only how they pulled it off, but also how the rich tradition of classical rhetoric in poetics preceded this century of exile.

But who else made up Ezra Pound's Modernist cabal? Here's a snapshot:

1917. Archibald MacLeish publishes “Ars Poetica,” a very argumentative poem about how poems should never have a point. William Butler Yeats frames the dichotomy in his influential treatise, Anima Hominis, writing: “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” Harriet Monroe reprints this quote in her introduction to The New Poetry, adding: “...Synge and Yeats. These great men, fortified and inspired by the simplicity and clarity of primitive Celtic song, had little patience with the ‘over-apparelled’ art of Tennyson and his imitators. They found it stiffened by rhetoric…” T.S. Eliot reviews Monroe's best-selling anthology finding: “But as for the escape from rhetoric—there is a great push at the door, and some cases of suffocation. But what is rhetoric? The test seems unsatisfactory. There is rhetoric even among the new poets.”

All of this occurred in 1917. Right around that busy year, Yeats mentioned something mysterious and crucial to his confidante and sometimes editor, Pound, who later wrote of the incident. Pound relates how Yeats said:

“I have spent the whole of my life trying to get rid of rhetoric.” (This must have been along between 1912–1918.) “I have got rid of one kind of rhetoric and have merely set up another.” Being a serious character, at least along certain lines, he set about getting rid of THAT.

This piece of writing by Pound makes clear five key things:

1. Rhetoric was an integral part of poetry before the Modernist gang targeted it for elimination.

2. The Modernists (especially Yeats and Pound) defined themselves by their opposition to rhetoric in poetry.

3. Several Modernists, like Yeats (and Eliot in the quote above), realized that as one kind of rhetoric was being dismantled, another kind was emerging.

4. Pound viewed this development not as a theoretical flaw in the Modernist project but as an artistic shortcoming in Yeats himself.

5. Pound was the kind of guy who would use all caps in an essay and undercut his friend with the nasty backhanded compliment “being a serious character, at least along certain lines...”

This appeared in an article called “French Poets” because, to Pound, French symbolist poets were ideal models of unrhetorical verse. “Prends l’éloquence et tords-lui son cou!” Take eloquence and wring its neck, Paul Verlaine wrote, in a poem called “Art poétique”—yes, another Ars Poetica—this one published in 1884. Verlaine’s poem became the template for MacLeish’s; it too is aimed squarely at Horace. Verlaine targets “l’éloquence” specifically because, in the nineteenth century, rhetoric was still associated with the art of speaking eloquently as much as it was with the art of speaking persuasively.

But to understand how rhetoric acquired this strange dual meaning, we’re going to have to rewind the tape and go all the way back to antiquity—which I know is annoying. Any time someone insists on bringing ancient Greece into a discussion about poetry it feels as though referees are interrupting the game and going to the replay monitor to see who touched the ball last, forcing the audience to watch the play over and over from every camera angle, a play that no longer seems relevant, especially after it has been picked apart in slow motion. No one enjoys it, I don’t. Can’t we get back to the current action? We will, I promise. But it’s worth getting the call right.

So, Homer. He was known by many epithets, including “father of rhetoric.” Ancient treatises and manuals of rhetoric quote Homer extensively for examples of various rhetorical techniques, which is not surprising considering that nearly half of The Iliad and over two-thirds of The Odyssey are made up of speeches. In addition, Homer also becomes—along with the archaic lyric poets—the model of how great poetry is composed.

Would Homer have identified rhetoric in his works? No, he wouldn’t, not because it isn’t there, but because there was no such word in his lexicon. Rhetor rhetores rhetorike doesn’t show up until many centuries after Homer’s time. He wouldn’t have identified any poesis either. It too was not yet a word. The idea that Homer was a poet, or rhetorician, are assessments backwardly projected onto him by later generations. The Iliad and The Odyssey are proto-poetry, proto-rhetoric.

The terms Homer most often uses to describe his works are aoidos (songs) and epos, which is later translated as epic poetry, but had a much broader meaning. Epos is related to the term epea, which in Homer’s time encompassed the collection of all oral knowledge, any saying, speech, song, story, or myth. The Iliad and The Odyssey were built by placing pieces of epea together, a speech here, an ancient proverb there, a historical narrative as a foundation on which to build. By adding one prefabricated part to another, Homer completes an overall design that is episodic yet epic.

Proto-poetry, proto-rhetoric, also occurs in the aoidos of Sappho:


Some an army of horsemen, some an army on foot

and some say a fleet of ships is the loveliest sight

on this dark earth; but I say it is what-

ever you desire;


and it is possible to make this perfectly clear

to all; for the woman who far surpassed all others

in her beauty, Helen, left her husband—

the best of all men—


behind and sailed far away to Troy; she did not spare

a single thought for her child nor for her dear parents

but [the goddess of love] led her astray

[to desire…]



reminds me now of Anactoria

although far away,


whose long-desired footstep, whose radiant, sparkling face

I would rather see before me than the chariots

of Lydia or the armour of men

who fight wars on foot…


Sappho begins with the rhetorical gambit now known as they say / I say. The ancient version was called a priamel where three inferior options are listed to contrast and highlight a more praiseworthy fourth. Whenever men speak of splendour, all they can do is talk about horses, soldiers, ships, Sappho implies, while they entirely ignore the much richer values found in social relations. The rhetorical figure is superbly deployed to satirize the insularity of male discourse. Sappho is throwing shade.

Ironic disdain continues in the second stanza with a sarcastic insistence that—despite the enormity of the prevailing biases against Helen—it’s possible for everyone (even those caught in the tumble cycle of male discourse) to understand why Helen made the decisions she did.

Yes she left her husband who was the best of all men, King Menelaus, who would have rhapsodized about military splendour in much the same way as Sappho has mocked. Yes, Helen left a child and parents with abruptness. Sappho acknowledges all this and still identifies with Helen, saying that her choice of Paris (who along with Menelaus, significantly, is never mentioned by name in the poem) reminds Sappho of how she would rather see her female companion, Anactoria, than any chariots / phalanx / dumb-military-show. Callback to that time, three stanzas ago, when male discourse was compared to a circle jerk obsessed with cavalry / phalanx / fleet. Sappho forcefully asserts the values of eros and femininity against the omnipresent backdrop of strife and glorification of military valour in a mode of praise and blame emblematic of what is later called epideictic rhetoric.

Written in private and kept in a diary, this poem would be a powerful statement of individual rebellion. But that’s not how poems got poemed in antiquity. They were declaimed aloud, often with musical accompaniment. We don’t know if the audience was a salon of Sappho’s companions at the shrine of Aphrodite or a private gathering like a wedding (where we know that Sappho sometimes performed), or perhaps on several public occasions to audiences ranging on a wide spectrum from sympathetic to hostile. We do know that the island of Lesbos was ruled by a nasty bunch of thugs at the time, who persecuted any and all families that opposed them. It was not, by any means, a sanctuary of feminism.

In this context, Sappho’s poems can be seen as calculated and courageous acts of dissent and resilience. Maximus of Tyre certainly saw Sappho as engaged in a battle of ideas:

And the [love] of the Lesbian [Sappho]…what else could it be but this, the techne erotike of Socrates? … For what Alcibiades and Charmides and Phaedrus were to him, this to the Lesbian were Gyrinna and Atthis and Anactoria; and whatever to Socrates were his rival-artists [antitechnoi] Prodicus and Gorgias and Thrasymachus and Protagoras, this to Sappho were Gorgo and Andromeda; sometimes she censures them, and sometimes she cross-examines and uses ironies just like those of Socrates.

Sappho wasn’t only an advocate but also un avocat, a cross-examiner who spoke in direct, eloquent arguments for or against prevailing values and rival propositions.

At this point it’s worth acknowledging that the rest of this essay will rely heavily on Rhetoric and Poetics in Antiquity by Jeffrey Walker. I could simply refer you, fair reader, to find a copy of his masterful piece of scholarship to delve into all 365 pages of etymology, philology, anthropology, and textual analysis yourself. However I’m willing to hazard a guess you may have pressing cat videos to watch and won’t mind too much if I provide a summary of some of the more fascinating points of Walker’s book, supplemented by my own take on the primary texts and other secondary works (all of which are listed at the end of this essay).

Walker’s history is a self-declared revisionist one, telling an alternative tale of the development of poetry and rhetoric. The problem with the conventional tale is that we’ve inherited it from a Romantic-Modernist tradition that was invested in separating rhetoric from poetry and denying their shared history—but perhaps that’s unfair. There have always been opponents to poetry and its ancient twin, rhetoric, including the person who appears to have coined the term: Plato.

Rhetorike” shows up for the first time in Plato’s smear campaign of a dialogue, Gorgias.

We have few extant texts of Gorgias’ own work, but philosophers refer to him with a consistent measure of reverent fear. He was the original sophist, the first to treat speech-making as a art form that could be analyzed and taught. Gorgias’ speeches were models used to teach rhetorical technique, yet they are also filled with ornate use of metaphor, rhythm, and alliteration:


Speech [logos] is a powerful lord, who

            With the finest and most invisible body

            Achieves the most divine works:

            It can stop fear    and banish grief

            And create joy    and nurture pity.

I shall show how this is the case,

            For I must offer proof to the opinions of my hearers.

I both deem and define all poetry

            As speech [logos] possessing metre.


There come upon its hearers

                        Fearful shuddering

            And     tearful pity

            And     grievous longing

And at the good fortunes and evil actions

            Of others’ affairs and bodies

Through the agency of words [logos]

            The soul experiences suffering of its own.


Oratory and poetry accomplish the same emotional results (joy, pity, fearful shuddering, grievous longing), according to Gorgias. The only distinction is a technical one: poetry is speech, with addition of metre.

The word translated here as speech, however, is not rhetorike. Gorgias uses the more general term logos, which had a vast variety of meanings. It has been translated broadly (although reductively) as words, but—like a visual logo—it signifies something greater than itself. Logos could be as small as a phrase or as large as entire speech, even a way of thought. Logos is also the root of logic and can be translated as the appeal to reason, although, for Gorgias, it clearly carries emotional impact. I might suggest the unwieldy definition of “thought as represented by any logographic or phonemic signifier.” Or I could give up and translate it as “discourse.” Both rhetoric and poetry were forms of logos. What kind of logos, no one could say, any more than they could define logos itself.

Plato took aim at Gorgias to discredit the sophistic tradition. He wanted to show how philosophers were concerned with essences, sophists with mere appearances. His dialogues are not transcripts of actual conversations, of course. They are dramatized treatises in which Plato uses historical figures as fictional representatives of ideas he wants to critique. His opponents when reduced to characters become straw men who misrepresent their own ideas so that the Socratic method may appear superior and its dialectic an unstoppable force in producing absolute truths.

In Plato's dialogue Gorgias, poetry and rhetoric are lumped together as forms of populist communication to be shunned for their ability to influence civic discourse:

Socrates: Now if one were to strip poetry of music, rhythm, and metre, what is left would be mere words [logos], would it not?

Callicles: Of course.

Socrates: And words [logos] addressed to a large popular audience?

Callicles: Yes.

Socrates: Then poetry is a sort of public speaking?

Callicles: So it seems.

Socrates: In that case it will partake of the nature of oratory. Don’t you think that the tragic poets play the part of orators in their own world of the theatre?

Callicles: Yes.

Socrates: So now between us we have discovered a sort of oratory [poetry] addressed to a heterogeneous popular audience of men, women, and children, slaves as well as free men; and oratory moreover of a kind which we don’t much admire, seeing that by our account of the matter it is a species of pandering.

Plato, through his puppetry with Socrates and Callicles (a fictional student of Gorgias), implies that beyond the superficial difference of “music, rhythm, and metre” poetry and oratory are essentially similar art forms, shaped by their relation to the masses. “A popular audience means an ignorant audience, doesn’t it?” Socrates asks a bit later on, entirely rhetorically. As Cicero remarked, Plato’s Gorgias was clearly an attack on rhetoric by a master rhetorician.

Plato extends his attack on eloquent discourse by inventing a new word, rhetorike, which is coined as a sort of insult for what orators in law courts and political assemblies do. Plato takes the existing words of rhetor and rhetores and twists them into a new term that, from its invention, is imbued with a derogatory connotation. It’s a subtle perversion of the existing language meant to demean oratory and associate it with its most base manifestations. It would be like calling an orator a “lectern-talker” or oratory “speechification.” Meanwhile, Isocrates and the sophists had a perfectly good term for prose oratory, logon techne, which could be generously translated to “the art of embodied knowledge,” as Walker outlines:

Rhetorike from the beginning is the misname of an art that keeps resolving itself back into, or that simply becomes, or that always was, something like an Isocratean logon techne… The deeper truth, or the truer tale... is that the discourse art that acquires the misname or the synechdochic name of "rhetoric" originates from the expansion and ramification of the archaic poetic/epideictic domain from sung to spoken verse, then to the prose poetry of logos, and thence to the domain of logos generally… the suasive eloquence of poetry is at once a subset of the general art of “rhetoric” and at the same time is its ancient ancestor. Further, insofar as epideictic is the primary or central form of rhetoric, and poetry is the original and ultimate form of epideictic (or is understood as such), poetry is also the original and ultimate form of rhetoric.

Rhetoric becomes the theory of the art of speaking; oratory becomes its practice. But because of Plato's semantic trickery, the term for that art keeps turning its focus back to rhetors (ancient lawyers and politicians) and away from orature’s true oral lineage, which originates in the epea of Homer and Sappho.

Plato spends much of books two, three, and ten of The Republic—an inordinate portion of the argument—talking about what a nuisance poets are and how they ruin everything. Why Plato spends so much time attacking poetry in a book about the ideal form of society only makes sense if you realize that poetic discourse was understood as the foundation of rhetoric, and rhetoric was considered the essential logos of democracy. Plato’s republic was in direct competition with democratic modes of thought. His criticisms of poetry aren’t a digression; they are targeted attacks on the roots of Athens’ burgeoning democratic culture.

Aristotle tries to rehabilitate rhetorike, not noticing that the term itself is derogatory, and in so doing, accidentally codifies it into ancient thought, all the while congratulating himself for redeeming it, and thinking he’s proved himself wiser than his teacher Plato. What he does with poetry is even worse.

While Plato defined himself by his opposition to the popular institutions of democracy, polytheism, and poetry, Aristotle was a great compromiser and compiler. He had an obsessive desire to catalogue all forms of knowledge and to do so through taxonomies and hierarchies. In his lust to be comprehensive, Aristotle spews logical contortions and self-contradictions, inventing categories and ranking which is the greater and which is the lesser of each type. While Plato wrote with dramatic flair, Aristotle’s treatises are bone dry and severe, but they do have two redeeming features: 1) they seek to explain, rather than explain away, existing forms of knowledge; and 2) they constitute an interesting survey of the ideas in existence in Greece around the fourth century BC.

That Aristotle wrote one book called Poetics and another called Rhetoric could lead to the simplistic interpretation that he believed them to be mutually exclusive fields of inquiry. However he also wrote a book called Politics, which is clearly related to Rhetoric, and any close reading shows the vast web of connections between Poetics and Rhetoric as well. This is most blatant in his examination of tragic poetry, where Aristotle lists “reasoning” and “diction” as two of its four essential components:

Third is reasoning. This is the ability to say what is implicit in a situation and appropriate to it, which in prose is the function of the arts of statesmanship and of rhetoric. Older poets used to make people speak like statesmen; contemporary poets make them speak rhetorically… Reasoning refers to the means by which people argue something is or is not the case, or put forward some universal proposition.

Fourth is diction. By ‘diction’ I mean, as was said before, verbal expression; this is the same effect both in verse and in prose speeches.

Aristotle makes the link between his two books explicit in his more in-depth examination of poetic diction:

The discussion of reasoning can be reserved for my Rhetoric, since it has more to do with that field of enquiry. Under reasoning fall those effects which must be produced by language; these include proof and refutation, the production of emotions (e.g. pity, fear, anger, etc.), and also establishing importance or unimportance.

Aristotle is basically saying: for more info, refer to my other book. Rhetoric is taken as a given, one of the devices by which poetry is constructed. Meanwhile, in the Style section of Rhetoric, he refers back to Poetics several times, noting: “it is clear that this sort of enquiry has just as much to do with rhetoric as to do with poetics” because “it was the poets, as was natural, then, who first began the study of style and delivery.” Aristotle acknowledges that poetics is the root and predecessor of rhetorical delivery.

But if reasoning is an essential component of poetry, and if Aristotle refers back to Rhetoric to understand how this rationale functions, to what part of Rhetoric is he referring? Most likely, this is a redirection to his explanation of the enthymeme, which is compared to its cousin in dialectic, the syllogism. Syllogisms produce absolute proofs, while enthymemes produce probable ones. Before explaining how they work, however, Aristotle can’t resist taking a shot at the poets’ populist appeal in a manner that strongly echoes Plato:

This is also the reason for the uneducated person’s being more persuasive than the educated one before mobs, just as the poets say that uneducated ‘speak more musically before the people’.

Aristotle does a very poor job of defining what he means by enthymeme. He sketches it out as a logical process that moves from premise of common topics to a refutational conclusion, but how the logic functions in a practical way is unclear.

The poet and great composer of Greek tragedy, Sophocles, views enthymemata (essentially the same term) differently. Sophocles located the response of the audience at the core of how arguments function. Walker puts it this way:

…the word enthymemata refers to emotively charged reasons felt by an audience for responding in a certain way, reasons placed or evoked “in” their thymos by what a speaker has said or presented to them. Or, to put it another way, enthymemata seems to mean, with Sophocles, a judgment-motivating argument as perceived, interpreted, and emotively appreciated: not only, or not simply, an argument stated by a speaker but rather the argument that transpires “in” the listener's heart in response to the speaker’s words.

So if we ignore Aristotle’s attempt to strip subjectivity from enthymeme, then we circle back to its root, thymos (sometimes transliterated as thumos or thymo), the capacity for response, or, metaphorically speaking, one’s inner throne. The listener from this throne assumes the position of ruler, not follower. The poet or orator makes an appeal to the thymos of their compatriots, and the listener sitting in judgment receives it and chooses how to respond through their in-thymatic capacity. They may grant the appeal and be persuaded, or reject it and remain unmoved. This conception of thymos makes no promise of a controlled response but rather of an audience that is in control. It sits in stark contrasts to Plato’s analogy of thymos (and even nastier epithumetikon) as leashed horses pulling the chariot driven by logos, their master.

Although he messes up enthymeme, Aristotle does, to his credit, provide a very succinct rebuttal to Plato and all of those who would dismiss rhetoric simply because it has the power to change people’s minds:

And if it be objected that one who uses such power of speech unjustly might do great harm, that is a charge which may be made in common against all good things except virtue, and above all against the things that are most useful, as strength, health, wealth, generalship. A man can confer the greatest of benefits by a right use of these, and inflict the greatest of injuries by using them wrongly.

Rhetoric is more commonly collapsed with the idea of propaganda and associated with dictatorship in our time, but from Aristotle’s perspective, it’s morally neutral, a tool whose effects will be determined by the user’s intentions. To Plato, it’s inherently evil because of its ability to distort the truth of the philosopher king. To Gorgias, it’s inherently awesome and irresistible. For Sophocles, and other more moderate sophists, logos functions in combination with the classical idea of thymos as a discourse with inherently democratic functions; its purpose is to provide useful arguments, which the listener weighs against each other to gain a more complete picture of the subject matter.

Switching over to Aristotle’s Poetics, the most glaring and somewhat hilarious error that Aristotle makes, like Plato, is to define poetry as semblances. Only instead of seeing them as shadows of truth, Aristotle defines poetry as mimesis, which must, by definition, portray the actions of men or gods, and preferably (in line with Plato’s admonishments) only the morally exemplary actions. Aristotle’s idea of poetry doesn’t seem like poetry at all, but rather a kind of dramatic fiction, its defining feature being that it represents good stories. He even explicitly states that words with metre cannot always be considered poetry because someone like Empedocles might publish a medical or scientific text in verse (I want this!), in which case they would certainly not be writing poetry (I disagree). In Rhetoric, Aristotle neatly contradicts himself by affirming “So a speech must have rhythm, but not metre, otherwise it would be a poem.” Wait: so is metre an essential feature of poetry or not?

Poetry as a form of representation helps Aristotle to explain the epic poetry of Homer and the tragic drama of Sophocles, but what about lyric poets like Sappho? They don’t tell stories, so all of Aristotle’s contorted rules of character and plot don’t have any application. Aristotle ignores the lyric poets where he can and ends up categorizing them as both proto-poetry and exemplary rhetoric, as Walker describes further:

And so the Rhetoric cites lyric poets, including Archilochus, Alcaeus, Sappho, Simonides, and Pindar, to illustrate lines of (epideictic) argument and such argumentational tactics as “replying to an opponent,” while the Poetics cites no lyric poet whatsoever. Rhetoric describes the art of speeches, both those that appear in prose and verse; lyric poems are versified speeches. Paradoxically, then, Aristotle on one hand posits lyric as the primal poetic mode, while on the other hand by means of his omissions and consignments he seems implicitly to deny that it is “poetry” at all, or is not essentially “poetic,” insofar as it is not mimesis in his terms.

For all of his taxonomies, Aristotle fails to find a category for the archaic lyric poet, other than, maybe, as the true predecessor of great oratory—a truly bizarre conclusion on his part. Equally strange is how rarely Aristotle quotes the great prose orators of the era, Pericles and Demosthenes, in Rhetoric. Why does he continually rely on poets for examples of ideal rhetorical techniques instead of practitioners of pragmatic rhetoric? He insists there’s a distinction to be made between the two art forms, but his methodology suggests otherwise.

Aristotle tries to redeem the art of rhetoric but he’s caught up in his former teacher’s web of false definitions and devious semantic chasms. Despite all his ponderous (and prolific) contortions of logic, he only ends up demonstrating how impossible it is to define poetry and rhetoric without considering them as interlocked and overlapping branches of verbal eloquence. Aristotle makes several connections between the two, but in the end his core definition of poetry as mimesis aligns with the Platonic ideal of art focused on sustaining the moral character of society, and never assuming a dissenting role. After all, as Plato writes in The Republic, “[d]ramatic poetry has a most formidable power of corrupting even men of high character.”

Rhetoric’s origin story is one of bastardization and misrepresentation. It is rudely separated from its poetic roots and misrepresented as nothing other than political speeches and legal arguments. This fails to capture the full range of ancient practices so the extra category of epideictic rhetoric—the rhetoric of ceremony and display—is tacked on where poetry can, sometimes, be included. This conciliatory move ends up creating more confusion than clarity. It obscures the fact that poetry is the root of eloquence in all oral discourse, including pragmatic rhetoric. Even worse, it signals that the persuasive modalities of rhetoric are not valid and essential poetic devices. The damage done, theory begins mixing with practice, and although much poetry remains overtly rhetorical, new strains of Aristotelian mimetic practice emerge, concerned only with the nice representation of nice things, disavowing poetry’s capacity for civic engagement.

Having established the arch dickishness of Plato and Aristotle, we must face a grim but unavoidable follow-up question: if they were such jerks, why has their work been so incredibly influential?

The first part of the answer requires historical context. In their day, they were not as preeminent as we tend to believe. They were two important thinkers among a large milieu of equally respected intellectuals. Isocrates and Gorgias were just an influential during the same period.

The second part of the answer is that each age rewrites history in its own image. Two millennia of Christian scholars returning to antiquity have been looking for texts that aligned to the ideas of the Bible. Plato’s monotheism and absolute truths were a perfect fit. Aristotle’s hierarchies of knowledge aligned soothingly to the hierarchies of the organized church. Their philosophical strictness and their admonishments for erring from doctrine made excellent bedfellows with the concepts of sin and punishment. The sophists on the other hand, with their embrace of moral relativism, their intellectual debauchery, their humour, and their flexible definitions seemed like Satan’s henchmen. So it’s no surprise that Plato and Aristotle were transcribed over and over, ensuring we have many of their works, while other ancient thinkers and their texts fell into disfavour, and, sometimes, oblivion.

The late twentieth century brought a surge of interest in redeeming the sophists and their ideas, as well as an increasing skepticism about the authority of Plato and Aristotle on much of anything. But in the early twentieth century, these Platonic and Aristotelian ideals were still very much the preeminent ones. Yeats, Eliot, MacLeish, Pound, all the Modernists would have been baptized in reverence for Plato and Aristotle, both directly through an educational system that still lionized their ancient treatises and through the myriad acolytes and imitators through the ages who passed on their ideas.

Still, before we look at the Modernists in detail, it’s worth following the game of telephone from Rome to Romanticism to see how the theory and practice of rhetoric in poetry were passed from one era to the next. That’s the journey I’ll be tracing in Part Two. The series will return, I promise, to Yeats cryptic remark that “I have got rid of one kind of rhetoric and have merely set up another.” That comment is a skeleton key, and, with a few millennia of background, we might discover which locks it opens.






Primary Texts:


Aristotle. Poetics. Translated and with introduction by Malcolm Heath, Penguin, 1996.

Aristotle. The Art of Rhetoric. Translated and with introduction by H.C. Lawson-Tancred, Penguin, 2004.

Gorgias. “Encomium of Helen.” The Greek Sophists. Translated and formatted by J. Dillon and T. Gergel, Penguin, 2003.

Plato. Gorgias. Translated and with introduction by Walter Hamilton, Penguin, 1960.

Plato. Phaedrus. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. Dover, 1993

Plato, The Republic of Plato. Translated and with introduction by Francis MacDonald Cornford, Oxford University Press, 1941.

Plato. The Theaetetus of Plato. Translated by M.J. Levett, Hackett, 1990.

Sappho. Poems & Fragments. Translated and with introduction by Josephine Balmer, Brilliance, 1984.

Sappho. If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho. Translated and with introduction by Anne Carson, Vintage, 2002.


And the Perseus Digital Library, an incredible source of ancient texts with multiple translations and glossaries.

Secondary Texts:


Barilli, Renato. Rhetoric. Translated by Giuliana Menozzi, University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

Gunderson, Erik, editor. Cambridge Companion to Ancient Rhetoric. Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Meijer Wertheimer, Molly, editor. Listening to their Voices: the Rhetorical Activities of Historical Women. University of South Carolina Press, 1997.

Papillon, Terry. "The Identity of Gorgias in Isocrates' Helen." Electronic Antiquity. VirginiaTech, 1 Feb. 1997. Accessed 20 Aug 2016.

Patrick, Andrew J. Language Is a Mighty Lord: a Gorgias Reader. Riposte, 2012.

Perelman, Chaim. The Realm of Rhetoric. University of Notre Dame Press, 1982.

Pound, Ezra. Make It New. Yale University Press, 1935.

Vickers, Brian. Classical Rhetoric in English Poetry. Macmillian, 1970.

Walker, Jeffrey. Rhetoric and Poetics in Antiquity. Oxford University Press, 2000.

Wardy, Robert. The Birth of Rhetoric. Routledge, 1998.


And the graphic novel Sappho and Socrates: The Nature of Rhetoric by Rachel Parish

Published online October 11 2016.

C.R. Gilpin is the former Executive Director of Vancouver Poetry House and a regular contributor to the Canadian Review of Literature in Performance (litlive.ca). 

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This piece is part of ‘Groundwork: Tracing the Tradition of Rhetoric in Poetry,’ a CV2 web exclusive.