Page images

But gesture may be not merely too much;-it may be too violent. Such are the habits of some men, that they can never raise the hand, without stretching the arm at full length above the head, or in a horizontal sweep; or drawing it back, as if in the attitude of prostrating some giant at a stroke. But such a man seems to forget that gentleness, and tranquillity, and dignity, are attributes that prevail more than violence, in real oratory. The full stroke of the hand, with extended arm, should be reserved for its own appropriate occasions. For common purposes, a smaller movement is sufficient, and even more expressive. The meaning of a gesture depends not on its compass. The tap of Cæsar's finger, was enough to awe a Senate.

Gesture is often too complex. When there is want of precision, in the intellectual habits of the speaker, he adopts perhaps two or three gestures for one thought. In this way all simplicity is sacrificed; for though the idea is complex, an attempt to exhibit each shade of meaning, by the hand, is ridiculous. After one principal stroke, every appendage to this, commonly weakens its effect.

Another fault is too great uniformity. Like periodic tones and stress of voice, the same gesture recurring constantly, shows want of discriminating taste. "In all things,” says Cicero, "repetition is the parent of satiety."

This barren sameness usually prevails, in a man's manner, just in proportion as it is ungraceful. Suppose, for example, that he is accustomed to raise his arm by a motion from the shoulder, without bending the elbow; or that

point morality. But he was only giving notice, that on the Sunday following, he would preach upon repentance. I was extremely surprised to hear so indifferent a thing uttered with so much vehemence. The motion of the arm is proper, when the orator is very vehement; but he ought not to move his arm in order to appear ve hement. Nay, there are many things that ought to be pronounced calmly, and without any motion."

the elbow is bent to a right angle, and thrust outward; or that it is drawn close to the side, so that the action is confined to the lower part of the arm and hand; or that the hand is drawn to the left, by bending the wrist so far as tó give the appearance of constraint, or backwards so far as to contract the thumb and fingers;-in all these cases, the motion is at once stiff and unvaried.

The same thing is commonly true of all short, abrupt, and jerking movements. These remind you of the dry limb of a tree, forced into short and rigid vibrations by the wind; and not of the luxuriant branch of the willow, gently and variously waving before the breeze. The action of the graceful speaker, is easy and flowing, as well as forcible. His hand describes curve lines, rather than right or acute angles; and when its office is finished, in any case, it drops gently down at his side, instead of being snatched away, as from the bite of a reptile. The action of young children is never deficient in grace or variety; because it is not vitiated by diffidence, affectation, or habit.

There is one more class of faults, which seems to arise from an attempt to shun such as I have just described, and which I cannot better designate, than by the phrase mechanical variety.

This is analogous to that variety of tones, which is produced by an effort to be various, without regard to sense. The diversity of notes, like those of the chiming clock, returns periodically, but is always the same diversity. So a speaker may have several gestures, which he repeats always in the same successive order. The most common form of this artificial variety consists, in the alternate use of the right hand and the left. I have seen a preacher, who aimed to avoid sameness of action, in the course of a few sentences, extend first his right hand, then his left, and then both. This order was continued through the discourse; so that these three gestures, whatever might


be the sentiment, returned, with nearly periodical exactNow whatever variety is attained in this way, is at best but a uniform variety; and is the more disgusting, in proportion as it is the more studied and artificial.

But the question arises, does this charge always lie against the use of the left hand alone? I answer, by no means. The almost universal precepts, however, in the institutes of oratory, giving precedence to the right hand, are not without reason. It has been said, indeed, that the confinement of the left hand in holding up the robe, was originally the ground of this preference; and that this is a reason which does not exist in modern times. But how did it happen that this service, denoting inferiority, came to be assigned to the left, rather than the right hand? Doubtless because this accords with a general usage of men, through all time. When Joseph brought his two sons to be blessed by Jacob, the patriarch signified which was the object of special benediction, by placing the right hand on his head, and the left on the head of the other. As a token of respect to his mother, Solomon gave her a seat on the right hand of his throne. In the same manner the righteous will be distinguished from the wicked, in the final judgement. Throughout the Bible, the right hand is spoken of as the emblem of honour, strength, authority, or victory.

The common act of salutation is expressed by the right hand; and hence its name dextra, from dexoμar to take, that is by the hand; and hence, by figure, the English word dextrous, denoting skill and agility. General custom has always given preference to the right hand, when only one is used, in the common offices of life. The sword of the warrior, the knife of the surgical operator, the pen of the author, belong to this hand. With us, to call a man left handed is to call him awkward; and it is a curious fact that the Sandwich Islanders use the same phrase to denote ignorance or unskilfulness. To give the left hand in salu

tation, denotes a familiarity and levity, never offered to a superior. To employ this in taking an oath, or in giving what is called the "right hand of fellowship," as a religious act, would be deemed rusticity or irreverent trifling.

Now so long as this general usage exists, without inquiring here into its origin, it is manifest that the left hand can never, without incongruity, assume precedence over the right, so as to perform alone the principal gesture, with the few exceptions mentioned below. To raise this hand, for example, as expressing authority; or to lay it on the breast, in an appeal to conscience, would be likely to excite a smile. Though it often acts with great significance, in conjunction with the right hand, the only cases, that I recollect, where it can with propriety act alone, in the principal gesture, are these:

First, when the left hand is spoken of in contradistinetion from the right; "He shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on his left." Secondly, when there is local allusion to some object on the left of the speaker. For example, if his face is to the north, and he points to the setting sun, it is better perhaps to do it with his left hand, than to turn his body, so as to make it convenient to do it with his right. Thirdly, when two things are contrasted, though without local allusion, if the case requires, that the one be marked by the action of the right hand, it is often best to mark the antithetic object with the left.

But I would not magnify, by dwelling on it, a question of so small moment. It would have been despatched in a sentence or two, had it not seemed proper to show, that what some are disposed to call an arbitrary and groundless precept of ancient rhetoric, has its foundation in a general and instinctive feeling of propriety. Still I would say, that when a departure from this precept results, not from affectation, but from emotion, it is far better than any minute observance of propriety, which arises from a coldly correct and artificial habit.

In finishing this chapter, the general remark may be made, as applying to action, and indeed to the whole subject of delivery, that many smaller blemishes are scarcely observed in a speaker, who is deeply interested in his subject; while the affectation of excellence, is never excused by judicious hearers. To be a first-rate orator, requires a combination of powers which few men possess: and no means of cultivation can ever confer these highest requisites for eloquence, on public speakers generally. But neither is it necessary to eminent usefulness, that these requisites should be possessed by all. Any man, who has good sense, and a warm heart, if his faculties for elocution are not essentially defective, and if he is patient and faithful in the discipline of these faculties, may render himself an agreeable and impressive speaker.

« PreviousContinue »