The Arts of Language: Reading vs Word-Watching

If you want to read some old school literary criticism, try Sis. Miriam Joseph’s Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language. The book, first published in in 1947, was (for some reason, probably not a good reason) re-published in 2005. It has some devoted readers and I’m (obviously) one of it’s not very devoted readers. A very bright friend with intriguing interests recommended it recently. Apparently the catalog of “arts” provided in this text have informed a few of his writing projects. Fair enough–I can see how the many examples of linguistic forms at play in Shakespeare’s writing … especially when named … might inspire one to deliberately attempt to employ them. I have, in my own poetry, often played with the rules of grammar, so I can’t complain about the influence.

I’m bothered, however, by the book. Granted, I’m only 70 pages or so into the text, but the author doesn’t seem to have an argument–at least, not an argument that merits a book-length manuscript. The Sister was, obviously, a diligent and devoted reader of Shakespeare, but she read the “bard” as if she were bird watching. At each spotting of a linguistic device (like anastrophe) she must have jotted the quotation down on an index card. After many years these were compiled into a book–so, what we have here is a collection of favorite lines glossed by very sparse notes. Given that these lines were harvested from some of the greatest literature written in English, the reading’s not too bad. Given a choice, however, I’d prefer to do my own bard-watching. Sure, I might forget that this-or-that clever phrase from the play is actually a good example of something like zeugma, but do I really need to know these Latin diagnostics to truly digest and enjoy the writing?

As I write this, I am reminded of how much pleasure I find in knowing the names of various plants and animals … , so, I’m probably missing something here. I’ll have to revisit this question after reading another 70 pages of this text. Given my reading rate, that will be sometime next year. (May 30, 2008)

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