Page images
[blocks in formation]

A SELECTION of speeches ought to include specimens of every class, so that no kind of oratory should be altogether unrepresented. There have always been, perhaps in the nature of the case there must always be, at least two forms of rhetoric, often typified by the examples of Demosthenes and Cicero. There is the keen, terse, argumentative style, to be found in the great Athenian. There is the elaborate, or ornamental, decorative kind, of which Cicero was the most consummate master, which aims less at the achievement of an immediate object than at the production of a general result. Neither kind can be excluded from any really representative series. Yet it must not be supposed that the two sorts of speaking can always be separated, or that they are never found in the same speech. There must be some general proposition at the back of every practical scheme.

There must be some particular inference to be drawn from every general rule. Much as the characters of speeches may vary, they have the common element of being all made for persuasion. A speech which does not persuade is useless. There are, however, examples of the eloquence which results from intense personal conviction, and has no ulterior motive, the eloquence

of feeling.

We must bear in mind that between means and ends the relation varies within the compass of human ingenuity. There is nothing to restrict the range of oratorical fancy or caprice except the necessity of aiming to produce an influence upon opinion, or to justify the speaker's own belief. All other objects must be subservient to those then. We have to consider how best to represent the various and competing forms of a delicate and complicated art. The resources of the English language have been developed in all sorts of ways


for the purpose of proving a point, or spreading an idea. Equal degrees of excellence may be reached by different methods, and it cannot be said that one is always good, or that another is always bad. We must, therefore, before estimating a speech, consider the circumstances in which it was delivered, and the purpose to which it was directed. This obligation does not preclude the necessity of confining a selection to specimens of acknowledged merit and power. The best examples of each kind are required to illustrate its intrinsic excellences and characteristic dangers.

Here the best speaking has always tended in the direction of debate. Parliamentary Government is government by speaking, and therefore turns speeches towards the goal of practical administration. A British statesman must be prepared to criticise what his opponent may do, and to defend what he has done himself. Even great orations which take an enlarged view of general principles and ideas have usually been delivered in support of definite and particular measures. Political oratory, which makes up a very large proportion of the whole, is profoundly coloured by the fact that public men in office, and public men out of it, are constantly arguing questions of policy from the administrative point of view. It is obvious that a system of this kind trains the logical as well as the rhetorical faculties, and also gives a turn to political controversy which it would not otherwise possess. Both in Parliament and on the platform there is a constant appeal to public opinion, not so much upon abstract issues as upon the merits or defects of rival plans or schemes. Before the days of Pitt and Fox, the younger Fox and the younger Pitt, the constituent bodies, small as they were, knew very little of what passed in Parliament. In the eighteenth century Parliamentary speeches were addressed almost entirely to Parliament itself. But even when reporting became full and general, it was for a long time chiefly through Parliament that English politicians approached the public,

except during the actual progress of an election. Burke's most famous speeches at Bristol are the speeches of a candidate. Gladstone may perhaps be said to have created the modern use of the platform as a vehicle for conveying a body of political doctrine to the public mind.

But though the style of the platform may be different from the style of Parliament, the main purpose remains identical. The object of the speaker is to procure assent for a conclusion, or a series of conclusions, which will, if adopted, take the form of legislative enactment. Moreover, it is usually the aim of one speaker to answer another. Thus the whole trend and shape of rhetoric in this country are forced into debate. An explanatory statement of positive intentions may, no doubt, be found in the speech of a Minister opening a Budget, or introducing a Bill. But nine speeches in every ten, perhaps ninety-nine in every hundred, are directed towards answering or confuting some previous argument or criticism. This fact explains a great deal in the nature and appearance of the speeches themselves. They are not essays, intended to amuse or instruct. They are not declamations, designed to exhibit the skill and dexterity with which a theme may be adorned or varied. They are contributions to a discussion meant for practical results, parts of a controversy which aims at argumentative victory in a definite and practical field. That is why the motive and the method of English speeches are so closely connected as to be almost indistinguishable. They have no other aim than the attainment of the objects which they profess, the refutation of an opposite opinion, or the confirmation of a definite view. They cannot be compared or understood if they are treated merely as rhetorical exercises, or isolated attempts to present the whole of a case from the orator's own point of view.

Of all modern orators who have swayed large masses the greatest was Daniel O'Connell. In the House of Commons he was powerful and successful, if sometimes too violent, and also

too long, for the taste of that assembly. But on the hillsides of Ireland he was supreme. Although, to baffle the reporters of the Government, he once spoke in Erse, he was a master of sonorous English, and of the phrases which appeal to crowds. His legal training had improved his natural readiness, and he could pass with consummate dexterity from the most vehement vituperation to the most ingenious argument. Having fought his own way into the British Parliament by winning Catholic emancipation for his countrymen he enjoyed the doubtful advantage of ending where other people began. When he took up repeal, his luck deserted him, and he came to be regarded as a mere declaimer. He had not Gladstone's double power of adapting himself both to Parliament and to the platform without derogating from his force in either position. O'Connell is an instance of the effect which oratory may produce upon minds prepared for it. But, of course, a great part of the orator's work consists in the process of preparation. To remove prejudice may be quite as important as to answer reasoning, and requires qualities of a different kind. There are almost as many types of speeches as there are types of

For the audience and the cause combine to demand variety of treatment, of method, and of tone. Persuasion being the object, the modes of invoking it are almost infinitely various. Confidence and plausibility may be quite as important as either logic or rhetoric in achieving the desired result. For, despite cynical paradox, it may be doubted whether any speaker has convinced a representative assembly, or a public meeting, of what he did not believe himself, and it is certain that a conclusion must be made palatable as well as probable before it will be adopted by a multitude.

Cicero says that the best teacher of oratory is the pen. Undoubtedly a ready writer has the great advantage of a large vocabulary, and a stock of phrases upon which he can always draw. But inasmuch as an essay is a very different thing from a speech, there must be qualities which speaking calls into


« PreviousContinue »