English for Experts: the Hidden Language Behind the Language

“Tiger tiger burning bright

In the forests of the night,

What immortal hand or eye

Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?”

The foregoing passage is taken from one of the most famous and well-studied poems in the history of English: “The Tiger” by William Blake. In both British and American schools, countless students have spent hours upon hours trying to discover meaning in Blake’s reflections on the magnificent jungle creature.

Blake is also famous for saying:

“A robin redbreast in a cage

Puts all Heaven in a rage.”

But what do these phrases actually mean? Was the poem intended to convey an intricate message on the nature of life? Do caged birds really unleash the wrath of some superior being? Or was it just that using the particular combination of words that Blake chose just sound so darn good?

The latter is just what English language guru Mark Forsyth believes. In his book The Elements of Eloquence,  Forsyth writes: “Rather than being taught about how a poem is phrased, schoolchildren are asked to write essays on what William Blake thought about the Tiger; despite the fact that William Blake was a nutjob whose opinions, in a civilized society, would be of no interest to anybody apart from his parole officer”.

This is where the standard English language curriculum fails its students, whether they are native or second language speakers. The truth is that these poets were not necessarily philosophers as much as they were some of the most successful rhetoricians in history. Another truth is that you, as an English speaker, are also capable of using extremely complex rhetoric without even knowing it!

Eloquent communication in the English language requires a strong grasp of the various techniques that underlie it. Most people know the obvious one: alliteration. “Whereat, with blade, with bloody blameful blade”, is perhaps one of Shakespeare’s more blatant examples of how a sequence of words starting with the same letter just sounds so sexy!

But what about the other rhetorical tricks, such as merisms, zeugmas, litotes, and yes, the great scesis onomaton? A description of all or even some of this rhetorical magic would go beyond the scope of this article, but hopefully those who have read it feel inspired to master their ability to convey a message in the English language. Your professional, personal, and school lives stand to benefit greatly!