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Method in Expression

Method is policy in statement, and relates mainly to arrangement of the parts of a discourse. When I was a Social Missionary in Robert Owen's days, one of my colleagues was a tailor—Mr. Speir—who had only such knowledge as a person of his occupation could acquire himself; but he had so fine a faculty of method that what he did know relating to any subject he spoke upon, was set forth with such masterly lucidity—each succeeding part following from the preceding one—that he produced more conviction than other lecturers with many times his knowledge. When I was a learner and a listener to lectures in the Birmingham Mechanics' Institution, I observed that when a man of great repute in his department addressed us, he was the simplest and most lucid of all—said the least, and taught us most.

Coleridge asks, 'What is it that first strikes us, and strikes us at once, in a man of education, and which, among educated men, so instantly distinguishes the man of superior mind? Not always the weight or novelty of his remarks, nor always the interest of the facts which he communicatesfor the subject of conversation may chance to be trivial, and its duration to be short. Still less can any just admiration arise from any peculiarity in his words and phrases. The true cause of the impression made on us is that his mind is methodical. We perceive this in the unpremeditated and evidently habitual arrangement of his words, flowing spontaneously and necessarily from the clearness of the leading idea, from which distinctness of mental vision, when men are fully accustomed to it, they obtain a habit of foreseeing at the beginning of every sentence how it is to end, and how all its parts may be brought out in the best and most orderly succession. However irregular and desultory the conversation may happen to be, there is method in the fragments.' Those who try it will find that a little method is worth a great deal of memory.

'Since custom,' says the wise Bacon, 'is the principal magistrate of a man's life, let him, by all means, endeavor to obtain good customs.' Digressiveness is the natural action of the human faculties, till custom or habit come in to give them a settled direction. Man is as liable, and more liable, to be influenced by the last impression than by any preceding one; and the liability of man is the characteristic of children. The teacher knows this. It is the object of discipline to check the tendency to digression, and give stability to method. A man may be made to perceive method, but not to follow it, without the power of discipline. A child accustomed to it will go to bed in the dark with peace and pleasure, but all the rhetoric in the world would not accomplish the same end without habit. Nothing but habit will give the power of habit.

Drawing characters in novels or dramas is a matter of method. An original character of general interest is not easily conceived. Heroes or heroines must have some characteristic of speech or—better and more difficult to sustain—some manner of mind, by which the reader knows them whenever they appear. The method of the successful author is to keep these characteristics in sight. Coleridge thought that 'the character of Hamlet is decided by the constant recurrence, in the midst of every pursuit, of philosophic reflections.' Mrs. Quickly's talk is marked by that lively incoherence so common with garrulous women, whereby the last idea suggests the successor, each carrying the speaker further from the original subject. After this manner:—'Speaking of tails—we always like them that end well—Hogg's for instance—speaking of hogs—we saw one of these animals the other day lying in the gutter, and in the opposite one a well-dressed man; the former had a ring in his nose, the latter had a ring on his finger. The man was drunk, the hog was sober. A man is known by the company he keeps.' As Dr Caius clips English, some of Bulwer's characters amplify periods. Scott makes Dominie Sampson exclaim 'Prodigious.' Dickens's Sam Weller talks droll slang. In other and highest forms of art, an overwhelming passion pervades a character, or an intellectual idiosyncrasy is the peculiar quality, leading the possessor to look at everything in a given light. But whatever may be the feature fixed upon, its methodical working out constitutes individuality of character.

In the preceding paragraph the reader has met with this sentence: 'We saw the other day one of these animals (a pig) lying in the gutter, and in the opposite one a well-dressed man; the former had a ring in his nose, the latter had a ring on his finger.' He who would cultivate directness and vigor of speech, his method should be to avoid these hateful trouble-giving words 'former' and 'latter,' and even 'one 'and 'other,' as representing things cited, unless they are close at hand and immediately before the eyes, as in Hamlet's remark, 'look on this picture and on 11 that.' 'Former' and 'latter' are always detestable, as they interrupt attention while it goes back to look for the thing referred to. Suppose the pig sentence above quoted was put thus: We saw the other day a pig lying in the gutter, and in the opposite gutter a well-dressed man. The pig had a ring in his nose—the man had a ring on his finger. Here is methodical directness, and no doubts raised as to whether 'one' refers to pig or gutter, and no doubt as to the two animals referred to.

Next to those who talk as though they would never come to the point, are a class of bores who talk as though they did not know what the point was. Before they have proceeded far in telling a story, they stumble upon some Mr 'What's-his-name,' whom they have forgotten, and, though it does not matter whether he had a name or not, the narrative is made to stand still until they have gone through the tiresome and fruitless task of trying to remember the name—in which they never succeed.

When Fadladeen is asked his critical opinion on the poem of Feramoz he commences thus:—' In order to convey with clearness my opinion of the story this young man has related, it is necessary to take a review of all the stories that ever were told—' 'My good Fadladeen!' exclaimed Lalla Rookh, interrupting him, 'we really do not deserve that you should give yourself so much trouble. Your opinion of the poem we have just heard will, no doubt, be abundantly edifying, without further waste of your valuable erudition.' 'If that be all,' replied the critic—evidently mortified at not being allowed to show how much he knew—'if that be all that is required, the matter is easily dispatched.' He then proceeded to analyze the poem. The wit of Moore here satirizes a discursiveness common to the learned as well as to the uninstructed.

Prolixity, says Bentham, may be where redundancy is not. Prolixity may arise, not only from the multifarious insertion of unnecessary articles, but from the conservation of too many necessary ones in a sentence; as a workman may be overladen not only with rubbish, which is of no use for him to carry, but with materials the most useful and necessary, when heaped up into loads too heavy for him at once. There is a limit to the lifting powers of each man, beyond which all attempts only charge him with a burthen to him immovable. There is in like manner a limit to the grasping power of man's apprehension, beyond which, if you add article to article, the whole shrinks from under his utmost efforts. 'Too much is seldom enough,' say the Authors of Guesses at Truth. 'Pumping after your bucket is full prevents it keeping so.' It belongs to method to limit information to the capacity of the hearers to deal with it, as well as to the capacity of the speaker to dispense it. The mind is often stricken with a palsy of thought; sometimes with a paralysis by weight of information which prevents it thinking. It was probably knowledge of this nature that made Hobbes exclaim, 'If I read as much as my neighbors I should be as ignorant as they are.' The word 'cramming' excludes a selection of knowledge for choice in use. Cramming is filling the mind with all the information relating to many subjects, so that thought has no room or power to move on any. It was said—when he became querulousby Mr Somerville, the 'Whistler at the Plough,' that Mr Cobden employed him to cram him on Corn-Law questions. If Mr Cobden employed him to collect outlying facts for him, he did wisely. Cobden always kept his mind disengaged and free to deal with relevant facts, as was manifest in his judgment and decision in what he brought forward in argument. Mr. Spurgeon wisely employed a reader at the British Museum to look up for him droll sayings of humorous preachers, which he used with a discretion and fitness which made them his own. It is method which directs an orator in the uses of illustration, and keeps them from becoming the substance instead of the light of a discourse.

Method in common things is often important. A good deal may depend on how you place your facts. Some years ago it was the custom in Glasgow, when a fire broke out in the evening, for the police to enter the theatre and announce the fire and the locality, that if any person concerned was present, he might be apprised of his impending loss. On one occasion, when the watch commenced to announce 'Fire—45 Candleriggs,' the audience took alarm at the word 'Fire,' and concluded that it applied to the theatre. A rush ensued, which prevented the full notice being heard, and several persons lost their lives. The inversion of the order of announcement, '45 Candleriggs on Fire,' would have prevented the disaster. But afterwards, the practice of such announcements was forbidden, as though it were impossible to reform the rhetoric of policemen.

A like want of method appeared on the tombstone of a preacher who died in India, which ran thus: 'Sacred to the memory of the Rev. David Zelus, who, after twenty years of unremitting labor as a missionary, was accidentally shot by his steward.' Then followed the line, 'Well done, thou good and faithful servant.' The object was not to praise the man for killing his minister, but the line was so placed as to do it.

What eloquence is more touching, as a rule, than that of a simple tale of actual wrong? Dispassionateness gives the air of truth. Controlled passion leads us to suspect the partisan. Invective is the twin brother of exaggeration. The suffrage of mankind is always on the side of dignity. When a man feels that he has a strong case, his hearers have less excitement and no self-returned verdict. A man who thinks he has a clear case can safely leave it to the judgment of others. No barrister makes a long speech to the jury when the evidence is all on his side. Sir Fitzroy Kelly never shed tears except when he had Tawell to defend, who had confessed his crime to him, nor did Sergeant Phillips weep save when he knew Courvoisier guilty.

As has been said, earnestness is an element of force; but earnestness must go only as far as the hearers will believe it to be real. No assembly is moved by an intensity they do not feel to be well founded and cannot share. It is not only in vain you say more than your hearers will believe; it is against you. For those who distrust your judgment cease to be under your influence.

Art in statement is like cultivated taste in exhibiting treasures. The picture or statuette must be seen with the glory of space around it. All crowding is distraction and detraction. Multiplicity is not magnificence, as the uneducated think. Details have but a limited place in statement. Out of place they are meaner things crowding about the nobler, hiding the proportions of beauty, distracting, tormenting and outraging the trained eye or ear. As the mariner sees a revolving light easier than a fixed one, so an object alternately dark and light is seen more clearly and noticed longer than uniformity of brightness. In the English International Exhibition there were ten times more objects of art and of industrial invention and skill than in the French Exhibition of the same character. But the French produced ten times more effect than we did, because the English less understand that space is a part of splendor. Thus in literature and eloquence, as well as in art, it is a rule of method to let the main points be distinctly seen without impedimentary obstacles or the shadow of an alien attraction, Bear in mind that diversion is dispersion of power.

On the principle of method, things related should go together, and this relationship kept in view not only assists the understanding of the hearer, but aids the memory of the speaker. Forty-two years ago (October 1854), the Quarterly Review gave the following instance without showing or knowing its origin or lesson. Macklin, himself a great actor, one evening gave a lecture on 'Memory in Connection with Oratory,' and said that he had a system of memory by which he could repeat anything after once hearing it. Whereupon Foote, a wit of that day, handed him a paper, asking him to read it and then repeat it from memory. The paper contained these words:—

'So she went into the garden to cut a cabbage-leaf, to make an apple-pie: and at the same time a great she-bear, coming up the street, pops its head into the shop. "What? No soap." So he died, and she very imprudently married the barber, and there were present the Picninnies, and the Joblillies, and the Garcelies, and the grand Panjandrum himself, with the little round button at top; and they all fell to playing the game of catch as catch can, till the gunpowder ran out at the heels of their boots.'

Macklin's Art of Memory failed him straightway. The utter disconnection of every idea presented with that which went before—the total absence of all relationship defeated him. Relationship, the principle of method, is the handmaid of memory. The very rudiment of method is to have a point and keep to it—that is, to let the march of speech lead direct to it. Remember, the shortest distance to any point is a straight line. One who knew says: 'Keep always to the point, or with an eye upon it;' and instead of saying things to make people stare and wonder, say what will withhold them hereafter from wondering and staring. To make remote things tangible, common things extensively useful, useful things common, is philosophy.

If you wish a traveler to reach a distant town—by a way unknown to him—you endeavor to select for him a way free from cross-roads, lest he may turn aside and lose himself. An exordium should be of this character, that the understanding may pass uninterruptedly into the heart of the subject. Motley terms, questionable assertions, disputable dogmas, are the cross-roads; so much like the real road that the traveler after truth often loses himself before he is half way on his journey.

A discerning writer, John Morley, I think, in his book on Burke, says:—' Of the effect of the want of method in neutralizing the most magnificent powers, Burke is a remarkable instance. As an orator, Burke dazzled his hearers, then distracted them, and finished by fatiguing or offending them. And it was not uncouth elocution and exterior only which impaired the efficacy of his speeches. Burke almost always deserted his subject before he was abandoned by his audience. In the progress of a long discourse he was never satisfied with proving that which was principally in question, or with enforcing the single measure which it was his business and avowed purpose to enforcehe diverged to a thousand collateral topicshe demonstrated as many disputed propositionshe established principles in all directionshe illuminated the whole horizon with his magnificent, but scattered, lights. Having too many points to prove, his auditors in their turn forgot that they had undergone the process of conviction upon any.'

But how can method in oratory be better illustrated than in the following passage from a morning sermon at South Place Chapel, London, delivered by W. J. Fox when he was preacher there:—
'From the dawn of intellect and freedom Greece has been a watchword on the earth. There rose the social spirit to soften and refine her chosen race, and shelter as in a nest her gentleness from the rushing storm of barbarism; there liberty first built her mountain throne, first called the waves her own, and shouted across them a proud defiance to despotism's banded myriads; there the arts and graces danced around humanity, and stored man's home with comforts, and strewed his path with roses, and bound his brows with myrtle, and fashioned for him the breathing statue, and summoned him to temples of snowy marble, and charmed his senses with all forms of eloquence, and threw over his final sleep their veil of loveliness; there sprung poetry, like their own fabled goddess, mature at once from the teeming intellect, gilt with arts and armour that defy the assaults of time and subdue the heart of man; there matchless orators gave the world a model of perfect eloquence, the soul the instrument on which they played, and every passion of our nature but a tone which the master's touch called forth at will; there lived and taught the philosophers of bower and porch, of pride and pleasure, of deep speculation, and of useful action, who developed all the acuteness and refinement, and excursiveness, and energy of mind, and were the glory of their country when their country was the glory of the earth.'

Here the student discerns the hand of a master of method. There was no cheering at the close of this splendid period, but the rustle of dresses and stir of admiration as the congregation, who had bent forward, sat upright again, told of the enchantment diffused by the brilliant relevance of the preacher.

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George Jacob Holyoake

  • Born April 13, 1817 in Birmingham, UK and died on January 22nd, 1906.
  • Was a British secularist, co-operator (The English Leader), and newspaper editor (Reasoner).

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