« PreviousContinue »
raphy as "constitutional questions" our ambitious fluency begins with the general deluge and ends with its own.' Wordiness, floweriness, magniloquence, great swelling structures with very little in them, have often been charged upon us as the leading peculiarity of our speakers. This allegation was made sometime since, in one of the prominent literary and political Reviews of the mother country. Were the charge made with just limitations and discriminations we might stand. corrected. But, in fact, it is indiscriminately made. Even Daniel Webster comes in by name as one in the offence, Daniel Webster who once remarked that he had been employed twenty years in casting off words; who as the result of this process became chaste and severe almost to excess. Yet he is called a wordy, flowery speaker. No man could say this, knowing whereof he affirmed. After this, in such matters, the critic may say what else he pleases; we care not what he says.
Whilst in the business of comparing, let us compare for a moment the merits of the ancient and the modern cloquence. Do we find the qualities of the ancient reproduced in the modern? Do we find as great, or greater qualities? It is admitted there is no exact reproduction of Demosthenes on the one hand, and of Cicero on the other; perhaps no one, in all respects and in all rhetorical powers, equal to the great Grecian master. We find, however, in no small measure, the Demosthenic rigor and intensity. Fox is Demosthenic. He has the fire, the rapidity, the running together of argument and declamation which characterize the Grecian. But he was not the Grecian. Burke is Ciceronian. He has something of the flow, the divergency, the diffuseness, the spreading amplitude of the Roman. But, though in many things he far exceeded him, he was not the Roman. In great thought, in permanent and noble sentiment, in extent and wealth of imagery, the Briton is far before the Roman. I believe there is more of the material that feeds the mind and stirs its energy, making it wiser and stronger, in Edmund Burke than in all the ancient orators put together. There
is more intense, at the same time close, silencing reasoning in some of the secondary efforts of Fox than appears in the most labored orations of Demosthenes himself. There is more melting pathos, more genuine, pungent wit, not useless but aiding the argument, and more convulsing humor in some of the speeches of Sheridan, as he delivered them, than can be found in the most skilfully picked specimens of Grecian oratory. There is incomparably more gigantic grappling and settling of great principles in the addresses of Webster than appears in the profoundest of the ancient advocates. For these qualities, the English eloquence is clearly pre-eminent. In its thought, its sentiment, its argument, its wit, and its pathos it surpasses the ancient. abounds, more than the ancient, even in terrible invective; more, because eloquence in modern times has taken the form of debate, of which the ancients knew little or nothing. This fact has given a personal character to the speaking. The leading orators have all along been pitted against each other. Walpole and Pulteney, Chatham and Murray, Burke and North, Fox and Pitt, Grattan and Flood, Brougham and Canning, Webster and Calhoun. Hence it is that all the leading orators have been greatest in invective. The fire has been the hottest when it has been the fire of emulation or hate. The torrent has been the strongest and most majestic when embittered waters have been running. These master spirits, possessing the withering power in question, have ever been ready and eager to flash and thunder and rive the antagonist object in moments of excitement and conflict. This is a humiliating fact, that so many of the greatest passages in our eloquence are the malignant passages; that the mind has proved the strongest under the influence of feelings which it ought not to have entertained at all.
It is owing in part to the peculiar character of parliamentary assemblies and this terrible form and encounter of debate, which have been described, that so many who have dis tinguished themselves in other fields, as advocates and as writers, have failed on the floor of the senate. William
Murray, so eloquent at the bar, and sometimes in the house, quailed and held his peace before the look and tone of Chatham. Erskine could do but little in Parliament. He could do what he pleased with a jury; but in the house the sarcasm and the overshadowing reputation of Pitt kept him completely under. Jeffrey even, the great Northern critic and advocate, who spake through his Quarterly with an authority which almost sealed the destiny of authors, found that he had no authority and but little influence in the turbulent commons. He could hew men down with his pen, but in the storm of debate his tongue was a mere feather.
It would be interesting and profitable if, in looking over the field of English speakers, we could derive some principles to guide us in the training and developing of the orator. But little of this sort can be found, there having been no uniformity in this particular. Every man seems to have come forward in his own way; almost every one pretty much as it happened. We find that some of the distinguished speakers have been distinguished classics, by no means all. Pulteney, Murray, Burke, Pitt, Fox, McIntosh, were; Walpole, Chatham, Windham, Sheridan, Erskine, Patrick Henry, were decidedly wanting in this respect. McIntosh took to the Roman models; Murray, Fox, Burke, to the Grecian. Fox, notwithstanding his reeking dissipation, surpassed almost all orators of his time in keeping up an intercourse with the ancient, particularly the Greek, models. Lord Chatham's reading, we are told, was very much in Bailey's Dictionary, the sermons of Barrow, and the poems of Spenser. Burke, it is said, made great use of the prose of Dryden, and especially the poetry of Milton, as suggesting the noblest images. Sheridan formed his taste and manner almost wholly by intimacy with the English poets and dramatists. Lord Erskine, too, dwelt almost excusively among English writers. Few men of his time were more familiar with Shakespeare than he; Milton he had nearly by heart; and from Burke, also, he could quote all but indefinitely.
Not many English orators seem to have followed very
sedulously Cicero's direction in the frequent use of the pen. It is, indeed, singular how very few of the powerful speakers have been powerful as writers. Chatham, Fox, Sheridan, the three pre-eminent orators, were not writers. On the other hand, nearly all the masterly writers have utterly failed, particularly as extemporaneous speakers. It may well be doubted whether that quality of mind which makes the words hard got, but the right ones when they come; that closeness, that stringency, that condensed structure, which gives the force and precision to the style,-whether that vivid, compact quality is not wholly irreconcilable with the easy fluency which gives a man power when he thinks upon his legs, and speaks what he thinks.
As to manner, in the line of great English speakers, it is obvious that it has received comparatively little attention. There are some who excelled in manner; but it came spontaneously to them. Lord Chatham, we know, cultivated manner most assiduously, if not excessively-speaking before a glass, often, with a view to perfect both his enunciation and his action; and he, doubtless, greatly surpassed all modern parliamentary men in the externals of oratory. It must be acknowledged that manner will achieve wonders, and few can altogether neglect it with impunity. Yet it is true that some have succeeded in being eloquent without the arts and accomplishments of manner. Of these it may be said, what quaint Thomas Fuller says of Hooker, that "he seems to have made good musick with his fiddle and stick alone, without any rosin; having neither pronunciation nor gesture to grace his matter." Indeed, men have been eloquent in a high degree, in spite of decided physical obstructions or defects as Demosthenes, who was born a stammerer; as Cicero, who had a slender, squeaking utterance; as Fox, who had a clumsy, unwieldy frame; Curran, who went among his schoolmates by the name of "stuttering Jack Curran"; Dunning, whose person was ugly and mean in the extreme-short, thick, stumpy, his voice husky and often clogged; Lord North, who had a
tongue too large for his mouth; or as the duke of Lauderdale, who, from a defective conformation of the mouth that made him unable to hold in all its proper contents, was said "to bedew his hearers while he addressed them."
Almost all the great speakers have acquired their power in speaking by the practice of speaking. Most began their practice early in the debating clubs. The practice was then transferred to the bar, the senate, the popular assembly. Windham began a bad speaker, and became a good one simply by practice. Fox began clumsily, and rose to his astonishing power by persistent practice. He determined, on entering parliament, to speak every night; and he says that for five whole sessions he did speak every night but one, and regretted only that he did not speak on that night too. Sheridan commenced his career with an utter failure, and by practice stood up even with the first debaters of that unequalled period. Curran, one of the most brilliantly fluent in the whole line of orators, at first so disgracefully slumped in the outset of his speech that he had to leave the place, wearing the cognomen of "Orator Mum." To these Pitt is an exception. He broke forth upon the house at the arly age of twenty-two with all the strength and maturity of a veteran orator. Beyond question, practice, persevering, obstinate practice; inflicting its words and wind and stammering and nonsense, as well as sense, upon others; practice whenever and wherever there is any decent chance to speak in the caucus or the temperance gathering or the debating-club, will ultimately surmount all ordinary obstacles and inaptitudes, and lead to a reasonable readiness and ability.
And, let me say here, the power to reach and sway men by argument and appeal is an admirable power. And the attainment of it is within the reach of more than ever realize it; of many more, if they would only come to it resolved to have it; each, in the language of Richter, determined to make as much out of himself, in this particular, "as can possibly be made out of the stuff." And our history shows