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Lord Chatham in argument and the knowledge of politics and finance.
Sheridan as an orator was very inferior to the persons with whom his name is usually associated. His taste was radically vicious. His favourite sentiments were claptrap, his favourite phraseology tinsel. The florid rhetoric, the apostrophes, and the invocations which imposed upon his listeners appear now to be only fit to be addressed to the galleries by some hero of a melodrama. Burke said of his speech on the Begums in Westminster Hall, at the impeachment of Warren Hastings, 'That is the true style ; something neither prose nor poetry, but better than either.' Moore had the short-hand writer's report, and though his own taste at that time was sufficiently oriental, he pronounced it to
be trashy bombast.' There is occasionally in Sheridan a fine image or a splendid sentence, but his most highly wrought passages belong in general to the class of the false sublime. Such as he was, however, he became entirely by unremitting exertion. He Moore made a speech of any moment of which a sketch was not found in his papers, with the showy parts written two or three times over. The minutest points had been carefully considered, and he marked the precise place in which what he meant to seem the involuntary exclamation Good God, Mr. Speaker,' was to be introduced. This preparation he continued to the last. He never, in truth, acquired readiness by practice. Both Sir Samuel Romilly and Dugald Stewart said that his transitions from his learnt declamation to his extempore statements were perceptible to everybody. From his inability to keep for an instant on the wing there was no gradation, and he suddenly dropped from tropes and rhetoric into a style that was singularly bald and lax. His wit, which was his chief excellence, was equally known to have been studied in the closet even before Moore printed from his papers the several forms through which many of his sarcastic pleasantries had passed from their first germ to the last edition which he produced in public. Pitt in replying to him spoke of his 'hoarded repartees and matured jests.' Every person who has been upon the stage remains more or less an actor when he is off it. Sheridan, the son of a player, and himself a dramatist and the manager of a theatre, had contracted this habit, and carried to charlatanery his vain attempts to conceal his laboured preparation. In one of his speeches on the trial of Warren Hastings, when Mr. M. A. Taylor, who was to read the minutes referred to in the argument, asked him for the papers, he said he had omitted to bring them. But he would abuse Ned Law, ridicule Plumer's long orations, make the court laugh, please the women, and get triumphantly through the
whole.' The Lord Chancellor, as he proceeded, insisted that the minutes should be read. A general cry of inquiry was raised for Mr. Sheridan's bag. Fox, alarmed lest the want of it should be the ruin of the speech, eagerly demanded of Mr. Taylor the cause of the mistake, and Taylor whispered to him, “The man has no bag. The whole scene according to Moore was a contrivance of Sheridan to raise surprise at the readiness of his resources, notwithstanding that he had shut himself up at Wanstead to elaborate this very oration, and wrote and read so hard that he complained at evenings that he had motes before his eyes. The fate which attended the attempt was just what might have been foreseen. The man who could feel it necessary upon such a point to contrive an elaborate piece of dramatic deception could never personate his part with sufficient perfection to deceive.
Sir James Mackintosh remarked that the true light in which to consider speaking in the House of Commons was as an animated conversation on public business, and that it was rare for any speech to succeed which was raised on any other basis.' Canning joined in this opinion. He said that the House was a business assembly, and that the debates must conform to its predominant character; that it was particularly jealous of ornament and declamation, and that if they were employed at all they must seem to spring naturally out of the subject. This preponderance of the business element had been of gradual growth. In the time of Lord Chatham the discussions turned much upon personalities and abstract sentiments, and were compared by Burke to the loose discussions of a vestry meeting or a debating-club. A more extensive knowledge of the minutiæ of a question was required during the reign of Pitt and Fox, but far less than was demanded in the time of Canning and Brougham. Canning is an evidence that wit and eloquence may find a full exercise in the exposition of facts, and in reasoning upon details, as well as in vague and superficial generalities. His style was lighter than that of Pitt and his language more elegant, disclosing in its greater felicity his more intimate acquaintance with the masterpieces of literature. His graceful composition would have enlivened any topic even if his satirical pleasantry had been less bright and abundant. The point in which he fell below the highest orators was in his declamatory passages, which are somewhat deficient in that robustness and power, that grandeur and magnificence which thrill through the mind. The effect of his speaking was even diminished by the excess to which he carried his painstaking, by the evident elaboration of every word he uttered, by the overfastidiousness which prevented his forgetting in his subject his
care for the garb in which he clothed it. He needed a little more of that last art by which art is concealed; but what intense application did not enable him to reach would certainly not have been gained through indolence, except by the sacrifice of all the merits which have rendered him famous.
Lord Brougham, who comes next in this line of illustrious orators, whom we have named in a chronological series, has, like Cicero, discoursed largely upon his art ; and not Cicero himself has insisted more strenuously upon the absolute necessity of incessant study of the best models, and the diligent use of the pen. His speeches, a selection from which, in two volumes, has been recently published, are an evidence that he has done both in his own person. His familiarity with Demosthenes is attested by his imitation of some of his noblest passages; and he is generally understood to have written several of his celebrated perorations again and again. No man has spoken more frequently offhand, or has had a more inexhaustible supply of language, knowledge, and sarcasm at command. He, if any one, might have been supposed capable of dispensing with the preparation he has practised and enforced; and we could desire no stronger illustration of the eternal truth, that excellence and labour are never disjoined. In the speeches of Pitt, Fox, Sheridan, and Canning we seek in vain for specimens of oratory which, when separated from the context, would give an adequate idea of their powers, and do justice to their renown.
Their most perfect pages would disappoint those whose opinion of their genius is chiefly derived from traditionary fame. In the case of Lord Brougham, the best panegyric of his highest eloquence is to transcribe it. It is thus that he winds up his speech on Law Reform in 1828 :
• You saw the greatest warrior of the age—conqueror of Italy, humbler of Germany-terror of the North-saw him account all his matchless victories poor compared with the triumph you are now in a condition to win-saw him contemn the fickleness of Fortune, while in despite of her he could pronounce his memorable boast, “ I shall go down to posterity with the Code in my hand !" You have vanquished him in the field; strive now to rival him in the sacred arts of peace! Outstrip him as a lawgiver whom in arms you overcame! The lustre of the Regency will be eclipsed by the more solid and enduring splendour of the Reign. It was the boast of Augustus—it formed part of the glare in which the perfidies of his earlier years were lost—ihat he found Rome of brick and left it of marble. But how much nobler will be the Sovereign's boast, when he shall have it to say, that he found law dear and left it cheap; found it a sealed book, left it a living letter; found it the patrimony of the rich, left it the inheritance of the poor ; found it the two-edged sword of craft and oppression, left it the staff of honesty and the shield of innocence!'
Nobody needs to be told that this conclusion must have been laboured in advance, because it is not within the compass of human intellect to have sustained the antithesis in language so felicitous and condensed by any extempore effort. An ordinary speaker may approach the greatest in his middle strain. The test of genius is in flights like this, which, as with the fine parts of Milton, soar to a height that lesser masters cannot approach. To an example of a prepared peroration we add one which must have been inspired at the moment, since it was in answer to an argument used in the course of the debate, and which was hardly of a nature to have been foreseen. The subject was the Eastern Slave Trade, and the date of the discussion was 1838:
But I am told to be of good courage, and not to despond. bid to look at the influence of public opinion--the watchfulness of the press—the unceasing efforts of all the societies—the jealous vigilance of Parliament. Trust, say the friends of this abominable measure, trust to the force which gained the former triumph. Expect some Clarkson to arise, mighty in the powers of persevering philanthropy, with the
piety of a saint, and the courage of a martyr-hope for some second Wilberforce who shall cast away all ambition but that of doing good, scorn all power but that of relieving his fellow-creatures, and reserving for mankind what others give up to party, know no vocation but that blessed work of furthering justice and freeing the slave--reckon upon once more seeing a government like that of 1806—alas, how different from any we now witness !— formed of men who deemed no work of humanity below their care or alien to their nature, and resolved to fulfil their high destiny, beard the Court, confront the Peers, contemn the Planters, and in despite of planter and peer and prince, crush the foreign traffic with one hand, while they gave up the staff of power with the other, rather than be patrons of intolerance at home. I make for answer, If it please you-No. I will not suffer the upastree to be transplanted on the chance of its not thriving in an ungenial soil, and in the hope that, after it shall be found to blight with death all beneath its shade, my arm may be found strong enough to wield the axe which shall lay it low.'
Cicero says that, as a boat, when the rowers rest upon their oars, continues to move by the previous impulse in the same direction, so in a speech which has been in part composed, the extemporaneous portion proceeds in the same strain from the influence of the high-wrought declamation which has gone before. This extract from Lord Brougham is both an example of the truth of Cicero's observation, and of the pitch to which unprepared eloquence may rise. Marvellous under any circumstances, it would be absolutely miraculous if extraordinary industry did not conspire with extraordinary talent to produce the result. Orators are not made by the talk of the nurse, and it would indeed be Vol. 103.-No. 206.
strange if passages which are surpassed by nothing in the English language could have been conceived without the study and practice of that composition of which they are such noble specimens.
Lord Brougham states, in his ‘Discourse on Natural Theology, that though the body begins to decline after thirty, the mind improves rapidly from thirty to fifty, and suffers no decay till past seventy in the generality of men, while in some it continues unimpaired till eighty or ninety. Of such persons there have been more than an ordinary number in the present day; and Lord Brougham, who himself is one of them, may thus be said to have flourished in two generations. Of the speakers who belong exclusively to a later period than that of Canning we shall not touch here; but we venture to express our belief that, when the circumstances which have formed Lord Derby and Mr. Gladstone are known, it will be found that these two orators, confessedly without a rival among the men of their own standing, have attained to excellence by the same methods as their prede
If they have not surpassed their forerunners by doing without effort what their precursors could only effect with diligence, as little can we admit that they fall behind them. Persons who have been thrilled and charmed by their oratory, and who are loud in its praise, yet share the notion, which is founded upon nothing, that the exhibitions of Pitt and Fox were finer still. Burke, in conformity with this hereditary delusion, spoke of that very age as of an age of mediocrity; we speak of it as of an age of giants. Every era is thus unduly depressed while it is passing, and is sometimes unduly elevated when it is past. Nearly all mankind, in this respect, adopt the language of Nestor, or even believe, with the old count in Gil Blas,' that the peaches were much larger in their youth. But let those who are not imposed on by names read a speech or two of Pitt and Fox, and, when fresh from the task, listen to an oration, upon an equal occasion, of Lord Derby in the House of Lords, or of Mr. Gladstone in the Huuse of Commons, and they will, we are confident, be ready to confess that eloquence in England is not yet upon the decline. The real improvement required is that the men who have entirely neglected the art should endeavour to repair a deficiency which deprives their knowledge of its utility by destroying its charm.