Rhetoric is how the writer/speaker phrases their arguments and views in order to be convincing and influential. It is also commonly known as “the art of discourse.” It was originally used primarily in politics but is found today in almost every field. The right kind of rhetoric is necessary for all kinds of writing. For example, the rhetoric in a piece of writing about fine arts is going to be different from a scientific research paper.
Definition of Rhetoric
Rhetoric is a very common part of everyday life. It is used in everything from conversations with friends and family members to advertising, politics, and motivational speaking. It occurs when someone uses language to their advantage in an attempt to influence those listening. This could be to bring them over to a particular ideology, convince them to join a group, change their opinion, or vote in a certain way.
Sometimes, it’s viewed in a negative light, suggesting that when someone uses rhetoric, they are all “talk” and no “action.”
Rhetoric or Figure of Speech
Heroical devices and figures of speeches can achieve similar ends, but they are different from one another. Figures of speech alter the meanings words have and include things like metaphors and similes. Rhetoric, on the other hand, is focused on convincing someone of something. They can overlap, for example, using hyperbole (a figure of speech) in an argument. Someone might say, “I’ll lose my mind if I have to do that,” in an effort to influence someone’s decision.
Examples of Rhetoric in Literature
Death Be Not Proud by John Donne
‘Death Be Not Proud’ by John Donne, also known as ‘Holy Sonnet 10,’ is one of Donne’s best-known poems. In this piece, the poet presents a very clear example of a rhetorical question. Consider the following lines and how they should influence the reader:
Thou ‘art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy ‘or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
In these lines, the poet uses “why swell’st thou then?” to suggest that death isn’t as bad or powerful as it seems. He calls death a “salve” in the first line of this excerpt and attempts to degrade it by reminding the reader that it keeps company with “poison, war, and sickness.” No one should be terrified of something that seeks support from such sources. Donne is seeking to provide readers with a sense of comfort as they consider death. Death is going to be overcome by something even greater, he concludes. All these elements are rhetorical devices used to convince the reader of a particular way of thinking—Death is only “one short sleep” and that those who experience Death “wake eternally” in a new life alongside God in Heaven.
Read more John Donne poems.
The Tyger and The Lamb by William Blake
These two companion poems, published separately in Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, use rhetoric to convince the reader of the two sides of God and God’s creation. On one side, there is the dangerous, fire-fueled “tyger,” and on the other, the peaceful and harmless “lamb.” Consider these lines from ‘The Tyger’:
When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the lamb make thee?
Here, the poet considers how God made the tiger and what it means about the rest of the creation that he did. There is a dark, dangerous side to the world that readers are made aware of in this poem. It is juxtaposed against ‘The Lamb.’ Here are a few lines from the latter:
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice!
Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
The tiger’s fierceness is juxtaposed against the lamb’s calm beauty. The poet uses these two poems as a way of revealing life’s complexities to the reader and convincing them that there is more than one side to God’s creation.
Read more poems by William Blake.
Halloween in the Anthropocene, 2015 by Craig Santos Perez
‘Halloween in the Anthropocene, 2015’ is a perfect example of how rhetoric can be used in poetry. Throughout, the speaker addresses the “Anthropocene.” It refers to a geological epoch that deals with the period at which human beings first made a significant impact on the earth. It is said to have begun sometime between 12,000-15,000 years ago. The world is in shambles in this piece, forcing the reader to consider human-caused climate change and the future of the planet. Here are a few lines of the poem that use imagery and emotional appeals rhetorically:
Let us praise our mothers
of asthma, mothers of cancer clusters, mothers of
miscarriage — pray for us — because our costumes
won’t hide the true cost of our greed. Praise our
mothers of lost habitats, mothers of fallout, mothers
of extinction — pray for us — because even tomorrow
will be haunted — leave them, leave us, leave —
In these lines, which end the poem, the poet concludes with the speaker urging the reader to see these people he’s mentioned. As well as the millions of others suffering around the world.
Discover more Craig Santos Perez poems.
Why Do Writers Use Rhetoric?
Writers use rhetoric as a way of convincing readers or listeners to agree with them. It can be used in a wide variety of ways and to achieve many different possible ends. Someone might use it to create a convincing argument about a political or social topic, while another person might use it to win an argument with their parents about their curfew. There are many different examples in political speeches, debates, religious sermons, and motivational speeches. When rhetoric is used, will use comparisons, appeal to the audience’s emotions, and use logic.
Related Literary Terms
- Aporia: a figure of speech where a speaker or writer poses a question. This question expresses doubt or confusion
- Aposiopesis: a figure of speech in which the writer stops a line of text in the middle of a sentence.
- Apostrophe: a figure of speech in which a character or speaker addresses someone who is absent.
- Double Entendre: a literary device, phrase, and/or figure of speech that has multiple meanings or interpretations.
- Figurative Language: refers to figures of speech that are used in order to improve a piece of writing.
- Read: 23 Common Figures of Speech
- Read: Classical Rhetoric 101
- Watch: Political Rhetoric Explained