POETIC DEVICES: RHETORICAL FIGURES OF SPEECH

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INTRODUCTION

We should recall at this point the emphasis we placed on the figurative or connotative nature of the language of poetry in our consideration of several definitions of the genre in our previous articles. Among other points, we stressed that poetry communicates experiences in language deliberately selected and arranged by the poet to create specific emotional as well as intellectual responses through meaning, sound and rhythm. Another related point we made was that poetry, in line with the general nature of literature, communicates experiences through indirection. This deliberately contrived and indirect/suggestive language of poetry is achieved, mainly, through some figurative usages among which are irony, paradox, metaphor, simile, apostrophe, personification, metonymy, synecdoche, etc, which we shall discuss in this article.

Contrast

Contrast has been defined by RN Egudu as “the technique of juxtaposing ‘unlike characters, ideas, or images for the purpose of furthering or heightening an effect’”. He continues, “like irony, or paradox, contrast is a device of finding direction by indirection which … is part of what poetry is” (77). On the other hand, Hugh Holman refers to it as a rhetorical device and goes on to stress its function of emphasis and clarity whenever it is deployed in a poem or any other form of writing. In simple terms, contrast comes into play and its effect is effectively felt when ideas, objects, persons, situations are placed side by side in a context in which their opposite qualities are made clear and striking.

It is important to note that if these ideas, persons, objects, etc are made to stand alone, the clarity engendered by this device of contrast would be lacking. It is in this sense that Egudu has seen the device as a veritable means of “finding direction by indirection”; it serves to throw into sharp relief the differences between the ideas, objects, situations or characters contrasted/juxtaposed. The following examples will illustrate the workings of contrast in a poem.

In the poem “Loser of Everything” by David Mandessi Diop, contrast achieves the poet’s desired effect of highlighting the stark different realities in two historical periods in the national life of postcolonial society; a natural and peaceful order depicted in nature imagery (in the first ten lines) and a ravished and militarised order represented in images of machines and corruption (in the last ten lines). By juxtaposing these two contrasting orders, the socio-political existence in a typical pre-colonial African setting and that in a colonial regime become very clear and heightened.

The sun used to laugh in my hut

And my women were lovely and lissom

Like palms in the evening breeze.

My children would glide over the mighty river

Of deadly depths

And my canoes would battle with crocodiles.

The motherly moon accompanied our dances

The heavy frantic rhythm of the tom-tom,

Tom-tom of joy, tom-tom of carefree life.

Amid the fires of liberty.

Then one day, Silence…

It seemed the rays of the sun went out

In my hut empty of meaning.

My women crushed their painted mouths

On the thin hard lips of steel-eyed conquerors

And my children left their peaceful nakedness

For the uniform of iron and blood.

Your voice went out too

The irons of slavery tore my heart to pieces

Tom-tom of my nights, tom-toms of my fathers.

Hammer Blows

Another example of the use of contrast is available in the poem “Virtue” by the

English metaphysical poet, George Herbert as follows:

Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,

The bridal of earth and sky,

The dew shall weep thy fall tonight

For thou must die

Sweet rose, whose hue angry and brave

Bids the rash gazer wipe his eye,

Thy root is ever in its grave;

And thou must die.

Sweet spring, full of sweet days and roses,

A box where sweets compacted lie,

My music shows ye have your closes,

And all must die.

Only a sweet and virtuous soul,

Like seasoned timber, never gives;

But though the whole world turn to coal,

Then chiefly lives.

Helen Gardner

To underscore the endless currency of the abstract Virtue, it is juxtaposed with the ephemeral “Sweet day”, “Sweet rose”, “Sweet spring” which must all inevitably die. By placing these phenomena beside the “sweet and virtuous soul”, the difference between them is shown by indirection as they ‘speak’ by themselves.

Apostrophe

As we have seen so far in our examination of the devices and examples of their uses in the sections above, poets are consistently seeking and utilizing different techniques to concretise, emphasise, and heighten meaning in their works. We have seen how this is achieved through irony, paradox, contrast. We shall now turn our attention to apostrophe which is a direct and straight forward “address either to an absent person or to an abstract or inanimate entity” (Abrams 149).

Poets use the apostrophe to the give the impression or sense of immediacy as well as the emotional involvement/outpouring in their works; that is, it enables both the poet and the reader to have a feeling of nearness and a sense of presence of the person or entity addressed in a poem. You will agree with me that this usage equally aids the reader’s imaginative realisation of meaning in a poem. Let us consider the following examples to illustrate these qualities and functions of this rhetorical figure of speech:

  1. Sweet Auburn, loveliest village of the plain

Where health and plenty cheer the labouring swain

Oliver Goldsmith “The Deserted Village”

  1. O dawn

Where do you hide your paint at night

That cool breath, that scent

With which you sweeten the early air?

O dawn

What language do you use

To instruct the birds to sing

Their early songs

And insects to sound

The rhythm of an African heartbeat?

Susan Lwanga “Daybreak”

  1. Before you, mother Idoto,

naked I stand,

before your watery presence,

a prodigal

leaning on an oilbean,

lost in your legend…

Christopher Okigbo “Idoto”

In these three excerpts, the poets address abstract and inanimate objects or entities as if they were living and sensate. As we have mentioned above, the device is a ready tool for the poet’s emotional expression and this is evident in the direct addresses in the forms of eulogy and adulation directed to the village of Auburn that is no more (in excerpt 1), the evanescent dawn (as in excerpt 2) and a revered female godhead, Idoto (in excerpt 3).

  1. Antithesis

This is a rhetorical figure of speech achieved by the poet by juxtaposing or placing side by side two contrasting phrases or statements to create expressional balance. In the words of Abrams, it “is a contrast or opposition in meaning, emphasised by a parallel in grammatical structure” (10). An interesting quality of this device is its wittiness and ability to surprise through abrupt apposition.

As ingenious and attractive as it may be in a poem, Hugh Holman (35 – 36) has cautioned that it could lose its significance and surprise if overused. He then advises that “true antithetical structure demands that there be not only an opposition of ides, but that the opposition in different parts be manifested through similar grammatical structure – the noun “wretches” being opposed by the noun “jury-men” and the verb “hang” by the verb “dine”, as in the following example:

The hungry judges soon the sentence sign,

And wretches hang that jury-men may dine

Other examples of antithesis that obey the above structure and are likely to be

familiar to you:

  1. To err is human, to forgive divine
  2. For many are called, but few are chosen
  3. Once bitten, twice shy

Hyperbole

This is the use of deliberate exaggeration or overstatement for emphasis or to achieve a humorous effect, without any intention to deceive the reader or audience. It is the opposite of litotes. (Look this up in a dictionary of glossary of literary terms). As in common usage amongst you and your friends, you should be in a position to appreciate the deployment and effect of exaggeration in communication. Take, for example, when you walk into your friend’s room after a long day of back-to-back lectures and say: “I want to eat a basin of eba”.

Certainly, you know that you are not capable of eating that quantity of food; but you have made the statement to emphasise how hungry you are as well as to achieve humour. The following excerpts from Robert Burn’s poem, “A Red, Red Rose”, will equally illustrate the nature and effect of hyperbole:

O my love is like a red, red rose

That’s newly sprung in June:

O my love is like the melody,

That’s sweetly played in tune.

As fair thou art, my bonnie lass,

So deep in love am I;

And I will love thee still, my dear,

Till a’ the seas gang dry.

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,

And the rocks melt wi’ the sun;

And I will love thee still, my dear,

While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare thee weel, my only love!

And fare thee weel awhile!

And I will come again, my love,

Tho’ it were ten thousand mile.

You should take note of the words and lines highlighted in the stanzas and attempt to appreciate, enjoy and be able to discuss their effectiveness as hyperbole.

Onomatopoeia

This rhetorical figure, according to Abrams, “is applied to a word, or a combination of words, whose sound seems to resemble the sound it denotes:

‘hiss’, ‘buzz’, ‘rattle’, ‘bang’” (118). In other words, this figure involves the use

of words whose pronunciation echo or suggest their meaning. For example, the

highlighted words in the following lines excerpted from Coleridge’s “The Rime

of the Ancient Mariner” intimate their meaning through an artful matching of

sound to sense:

  1. The ice was all around:

It crack’d, growl’d, and roar,d

  1. With heavy thump, … …

They dropp’d one by one

  1. And every soul, it pass’d me by

Like the whizz of my crossbow!

The closing lines of David Rubadiri’s “An African Thunderstorm” also contains some words whose sounds resemble and suggest their meaning, as follows:

As jaggered blinding flashes

Rumble, tremble, and crack

Oxymoron

In oxymoron, two words or phrases of opposite or contrary/contrasting meanings are placed side by side to achieve a rhetorical effect. While such a juxtaposition may seem to be “pointedly foolish”, it achieves sharp emphasis in the context in which it is used. Examples are the following phrases and expressions: bittersweet; loving hate; pleasing pain; kindly unkind; I burn and freeze; resounding silence; conspicuous absence; a dearness that lacerates; etc.

 

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