Author Interview: Ward Farnsworth

Intern Hannah asks the hard-hitting questions we all want to know


Farnsworth’s Classical English Metaphor9781567925487 is a comprehensive field-guide for the art of comparison that any English-speaking reader or writer can learn from and employ. This is a handy compendium, first organized by source type, including nature, architecture, animals, and myth, and then through countless examples taken from the classics. Farnsworth illustrates just how each of those metaphors is utilized for distinct purposes—for caricature, to make an abstract idea visible, to make a complicated idea simple.

Ward Farnsworth himself is the Dean of the University of Texas School of Law and holds the John Jeffers Research Chair in Law. His previous title, Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric was a bestseller in its field and became the definitive guide to the use of rhetoric.

As someone who appreciates the study of language, I found the book incredibly fascinating and fun. Just as its predecessor, Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric, was, Metaphor is thorough and exhaustive in its examples, allowing its readers to fully comprehend the art of comparison. I decided to ask Farnsworth a few questions about how he arrived at creating this metaphoric epitome.

Your books explore rhetoric and metaphor, which are old-fashioned topics. Why those subjects, and why now?  

They are beautiful and practical. Most of what most of us hope to achieve depends on words; we need them to persuade others or even just hold their attention. Yet we usually spend little time really thinking about how to use words well. Those who care about language do have some resources, but they mostly consist of books on style that explain how to avoid vices and mistakes. The study of rhetoric, as I conceive it, is a little different. It is the analysis of what makes speech and writing successful. When words strike us with their beauty and power, it is not a random event or accident. Memorable writing usually has properties and follows patterns that we can learn to hear if we read and listen carefully. Then we can turn what we’ve learned to our own ends.

Your books focus on examples that are usually a hundred years old or more. Why?

We have more to learn from them. Our own times and culture are teaching us how to write and speak every hour, for better or for worse. If we want to use words in ways better than our own cultural average, we do well to learn what we can from writers at other times and places.

To say it more directly, writers one or two or three hundred years ago understood some things about language that do not come as naturally to us. We may not want to write as they did, or may not be able to do it, but they can teach our ears things that our own times cannot—about rhythm, repetition, surprise, and other rhetorical principles. Older examples have another advantage as well when we come to the study of metaphor. Writers used to know more than their modern counterparts typically do about many great sources of figurative comparison: the animal kingdom, for instance, or nature, or mythology. We can learn not only from how they arranged their words but from how they thought.

Which writers of the past have the most to teach us now?

From Lincoln we can learn a lot about writing, and also about how to learn about writing. He was the most gifted writer in the history of American public life. He gained that distinction by spending a great deal of time with the King James Bible and with Shakespeare. Those sources taught him much about how to write, as can be heard in his letters and speeches. But he didn’t imitate. He immersed himself in the sounds of those writings and absorbed them. Their influence appeared naturally and happily in his own work, though he wrote in a manner that fit his times, not like a man of the early 17th century. Now we can read Lincoln in the same way that he read Shakespeare—not to write exactly as he did, which would sound strange even if we could do it, but to learn what he has to teach. Lincoln probably was not conscious of much that he knew about the sound of writing, and we may not be conscious of all that we gain by listening to him. We learn as musicians sometimes learn, by educating the ear.

If you had to create a metaphor to explain your writing process, what would it be?

Laboring in a vineyard.

Do you find any overlap between the study of law and the study of rhetoric or metaphor?

The lawyer’s job is to achieve consequences with words. That is why the most influential figures in our legal culture have usually been the most gifted rhetorically as well. The most influential legal thinker of the 20th century, for example, was Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. It’s no coincidence that he was also the most literate and talented writer in the legal profession of his times, and the most gifted with metaphor. So a school of law should function in part as a school of rhetoric, and I hope to help that project along in a small way.