I came across some advice about “vain repetition” in writing over at Derek Haines’s website (I follow him on Twitter so I get a constant stream of rookie advice while I write). The short of it was that repetition lulls a reader to sleep and writers need a large repertoire of variation to avoid this. This is undeniably true, although I can recall a misspent youth in which I contorted my prose beyond all reason to avoid even trivial repetition. There’s an obsessive component to writing (and, apparently, to me).
But this warning against repetition, and a few comments to the post, put me in mind of classical rhetoric. Anaphora commands an immortal place in our greatest literature. The most famous speech in modern English is heavy-laden with the device and is colloquially named after its signature (and, ironically, improvised) anaphora: “I Have a Dream.” Vergil employs anaphora with profound, twisted irony to mark the Greek war camp outside of Troy (and they all lived happily ever after!…). And Cicero never met an anaphora he could turn down; in Catilinam I opens with his epic nihil anaphora after getting a few alliterative interrogatives out of the way. (Surprisingly the blind master of the muses does not seem to be taken with anaphora, but let him do as he wishes and be grateful for it).
And there isn’t even time to list, let alone give examples of, all the kinds of repetition in which Greeks and (some) Romans delighted. Suffice to say, those lovable Hellenes named every damn one of them with a tongue twister. Silver Age Romans didn’t know what to do with that embarrassment of riches, and, well, that’s probably the best way to sum up what “silver age” means.
So I naturally wondered, back to writing in 2015, when repetitio becomes repetition. The first example that came to mind was:
Down, out of the tree he went. Down, down, down. It was a long way down!
The second was:
You are not a kitten, you are not a hen, you are not a dog, you are not a cow, you are not a boat or a plane or a snort. You are a bird, and you are my mother!
Sorry, I have small kids. I can recite PD Eastman (forgive me if my citations are a bit off).
So is repetition for kids books? Well, I don’t know, what about this:
Down came the ax and all its woe. Down came that old traitor’s head, and down came his kingdom into ruin. Down came all, and the world was free once more.
Surely in any of the above, except maybe Homer who can do whatever the heck he wants, there’s a theoretical limit to the repetition. Cicero can’t just say nihil for the rest of the speech, P.D. Eastman is already pushing his luck with his, and that last one is just a bit of doggerel with no provenance. At some point anaphora does become the “he said…he said…he said…” that Haines forecautions. But what is the rule? I’m not fond of punting on this issue by saying the masters know when to break the rules. That’s true, but I don’t think any rules are being broken.
Somehow there is an order of reason, as Aquinas would put it, that the repetition must observe. It feels right when the repetition breaks off, the same way it feels right when all the instruments come back in on “1.” But I’m not sure how to articulate what that order of reason is. Sure, Rule of 3 works in almost everything…except when 4 is better. When does the Rule of Cool trump the Rule of 3? This may call for some thought and a future post.
Long live Anaphora! Long live her grace and long live her progeny!
BONUS: Watch Tommy Lee Jones lay down five of a kind in The Fugitive: