Frantic Forensic Oratory: Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart"

By Zimmerman, Brett | Style, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Frantic Forensic Oratory: Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart"


Zimmerman, Brett, Style


I have no idea what Ezra Pound meant when he complained that Poe is "A dam'd bad rhetorician half the time" (qtd. in Hubbell 20). Perhaps he was referring to Poe's literary criticism, but what concerns me here is the rhetoric of one of Poe's murderous narrators, for John P. Hussey is certainly correct when he notes that "Poe created a series of rhetorical characters who try to persuade and guide their readers to particular ends" (37). Let us consider the protagonist of "The Tell-Tale Heart." It has been customary to see that tale as a confession, but it becomes clear that the narrator has already confessed to the murder of the old man who was his former living companion. The tale, then, is not so much a confession as a defense: "The Tell-Tale Heart" is actually a specimen of courtroom rhetoric--judicial, or forensic, oratory. This is not to say that he is necessarily arguing in a court of law; he may be speaking to his auditor(s) in a prison cell--but that he is telling his side of the story to someone (rath er than writing to himself in a journal) is clear by his use of the word "you"; and that he is speaking rather than writing is clear by his exhortation to "hearken" (listen) to what he has to say. The important point is that his spoken account is forensic insofar as that means a legal argument in self-defense. To this end, the narrator has a considerable grasp of the techniques of argument but, like a damned bad rhetorician, he fails in his rhetorical performance even while striving desperately to convince. That does not mean that Poe himself is a damned bad rhetorician, for what John McElroy says of "The Black Cat" is equally true of "The Tell-Tale Heart": the story has "two simultaneous perspectives: the narrative and the authorial" (103). The author, Poe, puts various rhetorical figures of speech and thought, as well as argumentative appeals, into his narrator's explanations of the horrible events he has initiated, and then Poe sits back with his perceptive readers to watch the narrator fall short in his a ttempts at persuasion. The result is an irony that alert readers detect and a conviction--on my part, anyway--that Poe is a better literary craftsman than even some of his critical champions have realized.

Poe and the Tradition of Rhetoric and Oratory: His Time and Place

We cannot say for sure with which rhetorical handbooks Poe was familiar, but that he was familiar with some is shown by a remark he makes in "The Rationale of Verse": "In our ordinary grammars and in our works on rhetoric or prosody in general, may be found occasional chapters, it is true, which have the heading, 'Versification,' but these are, in all instances, exceedingly meagre" (14: 211). To be more particular, scholars attempting to demonstrate a nineteenth-century writer's familiarity with the rhetorical tradition often begin with the eighteenth-century Scottish divine and professor of rhetoric, Hugh Blair, whose Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres "went. through 130 British and American editions between 1783 and 1911" (Short 177n). Hussey shows no diffidence at all in insisting that Poe's art is grounded "in the specific injunctions of the [rhetorical] handbooks," Blair's in particular. For Eureka, specifically, Poe needed appropriate personae for his narrator and a rigidly structured pattern or m old, for which he turned to the "classical address, again as Blair describes it, with six major sections: the Introduction (Exordium), Proposition and Division, Narration, Reasoning or Arguments, the Pathetic, and the Conclusion (Peroration)" (41). Although these divisions are centuries old and as such did not originate in Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, Hussey makes a case for Poe's indebtedness to Blair by showing how the poet-cosmologist follows certain dicta expounded in the Lectures. Although he makes no attempt to prove his case, Donald B. Stauffer takes for granted that Poe took some of his ideas about style from Blair (454). …

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