페이지 이미지
PDF
ePub
[ocr errors]

Spenser's ‘Fairy Queen,' which drew from Burke the remark that whoever was master of Spenser had a strong hold of the English language.' But he had not trusted to the bright and romantic fancy of Spenser alone to supply him with the materials for contests so unlike the source from whence he fetched his aid. He studied the famous divines of our church, and especially Barrow, with the same view. Not only did he attain to a readiness which never failed him, and in the consciousness of power delighted to avail himself of any opportunity to reply, but according to Lord Chesterfield every word he employed was the most expressive that could be used. What remains of his eloquence would not bear out this last eulogium, but the reports are meagre, and cannot be trusted for more than an occasional fragment of which the vigour proves the accuracy. Nevertheless it is certain from contemporary accounts that, like all men who speak much, and trust to the inspiration of the hour, he sometimes made bad speeches, and would often interpose between his brighter sallies long passages of commonplace rhetoric. A bold, brief, and pointed mode of expressing daring truths, sometimes by metaphor and sometimes by antithesis, is the characteristic of his most stirring appeals. He put what he had to say into the strongest words the English tongue would afford, and, possessing a spirit as dauntless as his language, the attempt to check him invariably drew from him an indignant and defiant repetition of the offence. Hence he was a terrible antagonist, who awed his opponents by the fierceness and courage of his invectives, and on popular questions roused enthusiasm by the short and vehement sentences in which he embodied the feverish passions of his hearers. It required the utmost energy of style to sustain the commanding tone he assumed, and he would have been ridiculous if he had not been sublime. Of his manner we can with difficulty form an idea from the descriptions which have come down to us, but all are agreed that every art of elocution and action aided his imposing figure and his eagle eye. So consummate was his gesture and delivery that Horace Walpole often calls him ‘Old Garrick.' This as much as his command of language must have been the result of study, and well deserved it for the effect which it produced.

In 1766 Johnson announced to Langton that Burke, who had recently obtained a seat in Parliament, 'had made two speeches in the House for repealing the Stamp Act, which were publicly commended by Mr. Pitt, and had filled the town with wonder.' This was the appropriate start of a man who, whether as a statesman, a thinker, or an orator, was without an equal. Pitt and Fox were great, but Burke belongs to another order of beings,

and

6

and ranks with the Shakespeares, the Bacons, and the Newtons. He was what he called Charles Townshend—a prodigy'—and the conclusion of Moore, after reading the debates of the time, that his speeches, when compared with those of his ablest contemporaries, were almost superhuman,' must be shared by every one who adopts the same means of forming a judgment. Johnson said he did not grudge his being the first man in the House of Commons, for he was the first man everywhere ;' but the House of Commons was not composed of Johnsons, and when the novelty had worn off they grew tired of his magnificent harangues. His manner was against him. Grattan, who heard him shortly after he had entered Parliament, and while he was yet listened to with profound attention,' and received the homage due to acknowledged superiority,' states that there was a total want of energy in his delivery, and of grace in his action. Later he was noted for frequent outbreaks of impetuosity bordering upon passion, but they rather conveyed the idea of irritability of temper than earnestness of feeling, and were thought no improvement upon the frigid tone of his early displays. His voice, which he never attempted to discipline, was harsh when he was calm, and when he was excited he often became so hoarse as to be hardly intelligible. But the main cause of the weariness he produced arose from his mode of treating his subject. Every man who has any opinions derived from deliberate investigation, unfolds them in the manner in which he himself arrived at them, and enforces the arguments which have carried conviction to his own understanding. Burke drew his conclusions from a wide survey of history and human nature—from enlarged principles, which looked far beyond the petty expedients and fitful passions of the hour. Upon this grand basis he founded his views of present policy. His hearers, on the contrary, were absorbed in the business of the moment, and were impatient of a process so circuitous, and so out of harmony with their own habits of thought. Whatever had not an immediate and obvious bearing upon the question before them seemed foreign to the matter, and carried the mind away from points on which it was fixed with eager interest to topics on which it felt no interest at all. His manner of expressing bimself partook of the philosophic turn of his thoughts. However eloquent or imaginative, he never laid aside his didactic air; and not only tired bis audience by his elaborate lessons in politics, but often seemed to them as if he was arrogating the authority of a master over his pupils. To such a degree was his method of expounding his ideas unsuited to the feelings which prevailed in the House of Commons, that Erskine crept under the benches to escape a speech which, when published, he thumbed

to

to rags; and Pitt and Lord Grenville once consulted whether it was worth while to answer another of his famous harangues, and decided in the negative, though Lord Grenville read it afterwards with extreme admiration and delight, and held it to be one of his noblest efforts. The very circumstance which diminished the interest of his oratory when it was delivered adds to it now. The less it was confined to temporary topics, and the more it dealt in permanent principles, the greater its value to posterity. Those whose own horizon was bounded by party prejudices could not even perceive how vast was the reach of his vision in comparison with their own. The profligate Wilkes, who, in his popular time, was at best an ape mimicking the fierceness of the tiger, said, in the days when the pretended patriot had subsided into the sleek and docile placeman, that Burke had drawn his own character in that of Rousseau—much splendid, brilliant eloquence, little solid wisdom.' In our age the wisdom and the eloquence would be pronounced to be upon a par. They are both transcendant, and the world has never afforded a second example of their union in anything like the same degree. His language was nervous, his sentences polished, his abundant metaphors grand and original. Though his style is never stilted, it has a rare majesty both in thought and expression. Occasionally he descends to phrases and images which are too homely for the general strain of his discourse ; but these blots are not frequent. His commonest fault is rather a monotony of dignity, which wants the relief of passages dressed in a more familiar garb. He has the further defect of moving too slowly over bis ground. There is no repetition in his language, nor much tautology in his sentences. But he dwells long upon one idea, and reiterates it as a whole or in its parts under manifold forms. That speeches so finished and elaborate, and abounding in eloquence of unrivalled magnificence, should have been the product of infinite pains, requires no other proof than is supplied by the speeches themselves. But the immense labour which he bestowed upon all he did was his constant boast. He disclaimed superior talent, and always appealed to his superior industry. Gibbon testifies that he published his great orations as he delivered them, which is only another mode of saying that he prepared his addresses to the House of Commons with no less care than he prepared his pamphlets for the printer. By this incessant labour he could at last soar at any moment to his highest elevation, as though it had been his natural level. "His very answers,' says Horace Walpole, that had sprung from what had fallen from others, were so pointed and artfully arranged that they wore the appearance of study.' His innate genius was undoubtedly won

derful,

6

derful, but he improved it to the uttermost. By reading and observation he fed his rich imagination; to books he owed his vast and varied knowledge; from his extensive acquaintance with literature he derived his inexbaustible command of words; through his habits of severe thought he was enabled to draw the inferences which have won for him the renown of being the most sagacious of politicians ; and by the incessant practice of composition he learnt to embody his conclusions in a style more grandly beautiful than has ever been reached by any other Englishman with either the tongue or the pen.

Conversation Sharpe relates of Mr. Fox that he sometimes put the arguments of his adversaries in such an advantageous light that his friends were alarmed lest he should fail to answer them. To state one by one the arguments of the opposition, and one by one to reply to them, was the characteristic of his speaking, and without the aid of this text upon which to hang his comments he could make little progress. His opening speeches were almost always bad. Until he got warmed with his subject he hesitated and stammered, and he often continued for long together in a tame and commonplace strain. Even in his highest flights he indulged in incessant repetitions, was negligent in his language, and was neither polished nor exact in his style. Notwithstanding these defects he exercised a prodigious influence over his hearers. He forgot himself,' says Sir James Mackintosh, and everything around him. He darted fire into his audience. Torrents of impetuous and irresistible eloquence swept along their feelings and convictions. There is nothing in his finest passages which would seem to answer to this description, for to the calm eye of the reader they are marred by the want of condensation and finish, and their faults are perhaps more conspicuous than their beauties. But if his speeches are considered with reference to the influence they might exert when delivered with vehemence to partizans who were excited upon the topics of which they treat, and who would only slightly remark during the rapidity of utterance the negligence which reigns throughout his best declamation, it is easy to understand the impression they made. There is a rough vigour and animation in his phraseology, a force or plausibility in his reasoning, and a fertility in his counter arguments which would be highly effective whilst the contest raged. Of all the celebrated orators of his generation he was the one who composed the least, and it is precisely on this account that he is the one whose speeches betray the greatest carelessness. His arguments, on the contrary, must have been carefully meditated, and as in reflecting on them the manner in which they could be rendered most telling must have constituted

part

6

a

part of the process, even the expressions themselves must have been in some respects prepared. Far from being an instance to encourage indolence, his example confirms the proposition that no powers can enable men to dispense with industry, since the particular in which he took less pains than his compeers was also the point in which he was most defective. He had not the teeming knowledge, the enlarged views, the prophetic vision, the exuberant imagination, or the lofty eloquence of Burke ; but he surpassed him as a party leader, or at least as a party debater, chiefly because he kept to the topics of the hour. His were not the grand strategic movements of which few had the patience to await the issue. They were close hand-to-hand fights with the adversaries in his front, and hence much of the interest which attended them then, and the faint impression they produce by comparison at present.

The late Lord Stanhope asked Pitt by what method he acquired his readiness of speech, and Pitt replied that it was very much due to a practice enjoined on him by his father of reading a book in some foreign language, turning it into English as he went along, and pausing when he was at a loss for a fitting word until the right expression came. He had often to stop at first, but grew fluent by degrees, and in consequence had never to stop when he afterwards entered into public life. This is the example adduced by Lord Stanhope to show the students of the Aberdeen University the necessity of training, and the means by which success is obtained. Lord Chatham brought up his son to be an orator, and the reason he came forth a consummate speaker in his youth was that he had been learning the lesson from boyhood. None of the negligence of Fox was apparent in him. His sentences, which fell from him as easily as if he had been talking, were as finished as if they had been penned. They were stately, flowing, and harmonious, kept up throughout to the same level, and set off by a fine voice and a dignified bearing. But it must be confessed that there is a large measure of truth in the criticism that he spoke 'a state-paper style.' Though the language is sonorous, pure, and perspicuous, and though it perfectly defines the ideas he intended to convey, it is wanting in fire, and those peculiar felicities which arrest attention, and call forth admiration. In our opinion he was greater as a minister than as an orator if his speeches are to be judged as literary compositions, and not solely for their adaptation to a temporary purpose, which they most effectually served. His father was less equal, and his manner indeed entirely different from that of his son, but in the energy and picturesqueness of his brightest flashes Lord Chatham was as superior to Mr. Pitt as Mr. Pitt was superior to

Lord

« 이전계속 »