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Parliamentary Oratory

It does not, as I have said, require an orator to write of oratory—else I should not take this subject. To live in the atmosphere of eloquence is not to acquire it. A man may be a good musical critic and be quite unable to play like Paganini, or sing like Malibran. An art-critic may appraise Leonardo da Vinci who could never paint the' 'Last Supper.' Many have criticized 'Hamlet,' but none of them have written a better play. He who witnesses a boat-race can see which oarsman will come in first, though were he in the boat himself he would come in last. For myself, I have known a sufficient number of orators to become a connoisseur of oratory. But though I have lived near the rose, I have not myself acquired the scent.

Two things are mistaken for oratory—eloquence and splendid speaking—whereas stimulant eloquence alone is oratory, and is known by readiness, fitness, fire and velocity of speech. Splendid speaking is description touched with color, as may be seen in Huxley, Goldwin Smith, and Green, the historian. George Dawson was a speaker of repute in his day—the greatest platform talker known in this century. He not only rewarded your attention, he engaged it. The difference between the speaker and the orator may be seen in this:—
A good speaker is one who explains things with distinctness, terseness, and lucidity.
An orator displays energy, compression, and passion.

The object of the speaker is to give information—the object of the orator is to incite to action. The speaker illumines the understanding—the orator impels and directs the passions. The speaker is a guide, the orator is a master. A speech is light—an oration is force. Europe heard it in Gambetta's voice of storm, thunder, and fire. The second Sir Robert Peel's voice stands next in my mind for volcanic force, summoning attention and holding it. He who considers what the qualities of the public speaker are, will better understand what the qualities of the orator are. Pitt in the last century, and Chamberlain in this, are notable examples of commanding speakers. Romilly, in his Dialogue with Percival, says 'Pitt, who could speak fluently three hours together, came about us like the tide along the Lancashire sands, always shallow, but always just high enough to drown us.' Chamberlain, who singularly resembles Pitt in personal features, is not 'shallow' save intermittently, but he has Pitt's overcomingness in his clearness and directness, lacking Pitt's commanding voice and dignity of gesture. I was present a few years ago in an assembly at which Mr. Chamberlain spoke, as did also several other distinguished persons. A stranger who knew none of them would say that Mr. Chamberlain was the most gentlemanly speaker of them all, save Mr. Gladstone, in readiness, undemonstrativeness, in resolution of tone and directness of expression; displaying not the force of passion, but the force of will, which are characteristics of the gentlemanly speaking, I go no further. Other qualities of the gentlemanly manner are considerate courtesy, which is modest before genius, and which never wounds the susceptibility of the humblest by contemptuousness or disparagement—attainments which do not always accompany gifts of speech.

The good speaker is the Light-giver. I once asked John Stuart Mill as to the qualities of the late Lord Derby, then Lord Stanley; he said, 'Lord Stanley is the only young nobleman I know who thinks it necessary to give reasons for the opinions he holds.' Logic is the light of speech. John Arthur Roebuck was the most mathematical speaker in Parliament in his time. He knew that the shortest distance between one point and another was a straight line, and he took it. Sitting at his table one day, he told me what he was going to say at Salisbury, where, at the Bishop's request, he was to deliver prizes to students. A fortnight later, I read a report of his speech in the Times, which, so far as I remembered, was word for word what he had said to me. The reason was that the words of a perfect statement are not changeable. If any term can be changed for the better it means that a wrong word has been used. Thus, to a trained mind, understanding is in place of memory. The chosen words recur to the speaker because they are inevitable; none others will express the sense intended.

John Stuart Mill was a speaker of similar quality. He had principles, which guide the politician (as the Pole star does the mariner) through the tumultuous sea of party questions, which to other minds are trackless. A principle is a magnet which draws particles of sense, like steel, from all quarters to itself. He had also promptness in repartee, which always commands admiration in Parliament. When Lord Cranbrook, then Mr. Gathorne Hardy, whom Mr. Justin M'Carthy describes as 'fluent as the sand in an hourglass, and stirring as the roll of a drum—but often as dry as the sand and empty as the drum'—when he (Mr Hardy) taunted Mr. Mill with saying that the Tories were the 'stupid party,' Mr. Mill -at once rejoined: 'The honorable member misunderstands me. I never said that every Tory was stupid—what I said was, that if a man was stupid he was sure to be a Tory.'

Lord Cranbrook was a type of the explosive speaker. His father was an ironmaster, and Lord Cranbrook always spoke like a blast furnace. He produced common-places red-hot, and spoke them with a red face, as I have often seen him. He would have been leader of the House when his party was in power but for his explosive tendencies.

Lord Sherbrooke, when Mr. Lowe, displayed a classical clearness and brightness of speech. When he was contemptuous his sentences had teeth in them, which left their mark upon the mind. In the grey of a morning in 1868, when the Liberals had deserted Mr. Gladstone, and left him with only a majority of five on a question of State, Mr. Gladstone, with his usual high spirit, at once resigned. The alarmed deserters thought they might reassure him by a vote of confidence in him, and as Mr. Lowe emerged into the lobby they asked his opinion of the idea. His answer was, 'I think, gentleman, that you cannot unpull a man's nose,' which ended that project.

Lord Derby, the son of the Rupert of Debate, was not a fluent speaker, but he excelled in vigorous lucidity. The hearer came to see exactly what Lord Derby saw, and what otherwise he would not see—the common-sense of a contested question, which only few persons ever do perceive.

In ease, in grace, in silvery tones, in the confidence he created that he could say, and continue to say, whatever he willed to say, no speaker, save one, in his parliamentary days exceeded Lord Coleridge.

Lord Westbury had in him the making of a Lord Chancellor of the quality of Lord Bacon. All the details of the most complicated subject seemed to lie open before his mind, in clear order. Never from a form so lusty and bucolic in appearance did words proceed so low, so continuous, so pellucid, so keen, and so unerring. His sentences were as clear cut as though turned out of one of Sharp and Roberts' lathes. I once heard him plead a case, when the court adjourned for lunch as he arrived at the word sesquipedalian. He had got only 'sesqui' pronounced. When the court returned he went on with 'pedalian' as though no interruption had occurred. He never lost the continuity of his argument. In reply in the House of Lords to the Bishop of Oxford, then unfairly known as 'Soapy Sam,' Lord Westbury remarked with ungentlemanly rudeness upon 'the saponaceous oratory of the right reverend prelate.'

Of all the great speakers of our time none have been more instructive or more self-possessed than Cobden. He was one of the great masters of statement in Parliament or on the platform. Demands of agitation left him too little time to predetermine what he would say, but he determined it while he was saying it. Like Bunyan—who saw principles like men walking in the streets—so Cobden saw sentences as palpable things. He saw his words in the air before him as they left his lips. If he had put a proposition in terms redundant he restated it with retrenchment—that it might be more clearly seen. If the terms used were too brief he supplied those lacking—lest his argument might be incomplete. If a phrase went too far he qualified it, so that when he left it, ignorance could not misunderstand his meaning, nor malignity pervert it. When it was proposed in the House of Commons to go to war with America to procure cotton, so that our Lancashire weavers might not starve, Mr. Cobden answered to the effect that war is not proposed by any honorable members from hatred to the American people—no one professes that; nor from love of war—no one had the inhumanity to avow that. The contention is that war would save us expense in supporting our unemployed weaver population by bringing cotton from the South. 'Since economy is the reason,' said Cobden, 'it might be well to observe that it would be far cheaper to feed all our unemployed people on turtle soup and champagne than go to war for cotton.' It would be better for the weavers, and neither make bad blood between kindred nor shed good blood in fratricidal battle.

Such is good public speaking—whose qualities are that it gives light, information, and direction without wasting time by prolixity or perplexing the public understanding by ambiguity, or depraving the public ear by verbiage.

The orator is of a different order. He is a speaker inspired by purpose and passion. He has a torrid fervor—energy, action—the power of seeing the essential parts of his subject, velocity and fitness of expression, presenting an impelling argument with a directness that cannot be mistaken, and a force that cannot be evaded. Sometimes a single burst of scorn is a speech, as when Henry Clay, in slavery abolition days, made the famous retort to the slaveowners who tried to drown his voice by hisses, by exclaiming, 'That is the sound you hear when the waters of truth drop upon the fires of hell.'

There are six names in the memory of most persons which illustrate the characteristics of parliamentary oratory—Shiel, O'Connell, Beaconsfield, Cowen, Bright and Gladstone.

Shiel was a small man with a small voice, two disadvantages which only genius can cancel. He had a voice which squealed, but his sentences had a flame in them which scorched the adversary they touched. At other times, as Hawthorne said, 'He spoke with a strange wild sound like a language half blown away by the wind.' Shiel had Irish fervor of speech and French vivacity of action. There may be those who remember seeing Stella Colas as Juliet, in the garden scene with Romeo, throw herself forward over the balcony as though she would fall over; so Shiel threw his body across the table of the House of Commons in uttering his famous reply to the Duke of Wellington or Lord Lyndhurst, who had said the Irish were aliens in race, blood and religion. His accents were in his hair, his eyes, in his arms, in every limb. He was alive all over, and from this confluence of action proceeded a piercing stream of sentences of scorn and fire.

O'Connell had the three greatest qualities of an orator,
(1) a commanding figure—his words came from above you;
(2) a voice which could be heard by everyone, without which the entire audience cannot be moved;
(3) the sagacity to say things which most interested those who heard them. O'Connell, besides a majestic stature, had a three-fold voice: one of persuasiveness in the law court, one of dignity in Parliament, another of resounding raciness on the platform. He told us at a meeting in London how the birth-rate in Dublin had decreased 5000 a year for four years, adding, 'I charge the British Government with the murder of those 20,000 infants who never were born.' He saw nothing absurd in it, nor under his magical voice did his hearers until the next day. An Irish schoolmaster, of Birmingham, who was present, was more self-possessed. Mr. Sam Timmins told me that the discerning schoolman prodded a friend near him and said, 'That is worthy of my countrymen.'

Addressing the Newhall Hill meeting in Birmingham, at which 200,000 persons were computed to be present, O'Connell observed a compact mass of 400 women from Rowley Regis, who had marched to Birmingham in the early morning. Grim and stalwart, with lusty arms, they maintained their position against the pressure of the vast throng. O'Connell's quick eye rested upon them for a moment and began his oration, exclaiming, 'Surrounded as I am by the fair, the gentle and the good.' They might be • good'—the Black Country industries did not make women 'fair,' and had they been 'gentle' they had never been in that turbulent throng, but the intrepid compliment told. The women cheered, and cheered afterward everything he said. The men near cheered because the women did, and the crowd behind cheered because those before them cheered, and so the fortune of the great oration was made. Anyone can read how it was done in the first Lord Lytton's New Timon, where he says:—
Once to my sight the giant thus was given,
Walled by wide air and roofed by boundless heaven.
Beneath his feet the human ocean lay,
And wave on wave flowed into space away.
Methought no clarion could have sent its sound
Even to the center of the hosts around;
And as I thought arose the sonorous swell,
As from church tower swings the silver bell.
Aloft and clear, from airy tide to tide
It glided, easy as a bird may glide,
To the last verge of that vast audience sent.
It played with each wild passion as it went.

No member of Parliament in my time won in so short a time the reputation of an orator as Joseph Cowen. This came to pass by his speech in the House of Commons on the Bill for giving the title of Empress to the Queen. The House, impatient to vote, was filled with cries of 'Divide, divide,' when he rose for the first time to address it. All that could be seen was his dark, luminous eye, for his stature is short; all that could be heard was a new voice of manifestly honest tone. His argument was historical, compact, brief, in which three things were said never before or since heard in that House. He spoke of the Prince Napoleon as 'the son of a usurper;' he said 'the divine right of kings was killed on the scaffold with Charles I.;' and declared that 'the superstition of royalty had never taken deep hold on the people of this country.' All this was unusual and bold. Of all the sentences none were weak, and their impetuous rush never ceased until the end—and Mr. Cowen acquired the fame of an orator in a single night.

If regard be had to the triumphs of public speaking, Lord Beaconsfield might be described as the greatest orator of our time. Race, religion, fortune and character were against him—but he had the instinct and art of expression, and was the only man in Europe in his time who had climbed on phrases to power. He did not study principles—he studied men, whom he labelled with disabling phrases as a professor would a plant, a shell, or a bird. His voice was an organ of policy, not of feeling. He might have been sincere in a way of his own—but he never gave the impression, even by accident, that he believed what he said. He was no more English in his mind than Napoleon the Corsican was French, whom Madame de Stael said was ' a man of unknown nature.' Disraeli was as distinct in his ideas as though he belonged to another world. But he understood this world; he influenced men like a master. He advanced himself as only the unfriended can—by being of service to his employers or his party. He had audacity and his courage never forsook him. His ambition was to dazzle men. He bewildered others, but never lost himself. Once when he was overcome, not by what he felt but from what he had taken, he could not stand at the Treasury table without clutching it, when he exclaimed that 'he was thankful there was a table between him and Mr. Gladstone, or that right honorable and impetuous gentleman might spring up and attack him personally.' All he meant was that he might, but for the table, fall into the arms of his adversary. Thus he gave the public to believe that he needed protection, when all he needed was support. His merit was that he introduced pleasantry into politics. His wit stood him in the place of principle. He touched public affairs with a light hand; and being without prejudices or preferences, he often stated with admirable force the case to which he was opposed, when it did not interfere with the purpose in hand. As Cobden once said of Palmerston, he was entirely impartial, he had no biasnot even towards the truth.

Disraeli's oratory was based on a Jewish craving for effect, an instinct of speech, and early knowledge of himself. In Vivian Grey he described himself as he always remained—gracious to those who aided his ambition, vindictive to any who opposed him. Mr. Stansfeld, who had no mean power of his own, early expressed in Parliament that contempt for Disraelian principles, which Lord Salisburywhen Viscount Cranbourne—published a Review to expose. After Stansfeld's speech, Disraeli said to a friend, 'I will do for that educated mechanic;' a well-chosen phrase of hatred and malice. Soon after, he commenced nightly attacks on Stansfeld, as a friend of Mazzini, saying there was an underground passage between Thurloe Square, where Mazzini visited Stansfeld, and the Treasury bench on which Stansfeld then sat. This continued until ended by Bernal Osborne, with his Jewish wit, often as effective as Disraeli's, but with a generous vein in it. Sir Richard Strachey, whose elongated visage was blue, rendered so by some gunpowder explosion, abetted the attack. After this had gone on for a month, Osborne broke in, 'Mr. Speaker, I think this farce has gone on long enough. Here, every night towards twelve o'clock, in stalks the honorable member for Norwich, like a tragedy king, with his dagger and his poisoned bowl; and he not only acts the character, he looks it.' This hit at Sir Richard's blue visage extinguished him in ridicule and laughter. He probably disposed of his dagger and bowl in Wardour Street, for it no more appeared in the House. Thus wit succeeded where reason had failed. Whoever stood in Disraeli's way he stabbed with words as a bravo would with a dagger. Lord Beaconsfield was the most polished gladiator Parliament has known since the days of Canning, and he would have been one of the first of orators had he cared for anything save the effect of it on his own fortunes.

We now turn to him whom Mr. Beresford Hope described as the 'White Lion of Birmingham'—Mr. Bright, who had the voice of an organ, at once strong and harmonious, which swelled but never screeched. A resolute face, and a resolute tone, gave him a commanding manner; this, united to a stately way of thinking, gave him ascendency in oratory. Disregarding details, he puts the relevance of a question so strongly that it was difficult to express in other words the same idea with equal force. As I have said elsewhere, take this passage in one of Bright's orations, in which you see his passion for justice and his method of speech. He exclaims,—

'I believe there is no permanent greatness in a nation, except it be based on morality. I do not care for military greatness or military renown; I care for the condition of the people among whom I live. There is no man in England less likely to speak irreverently of the crown and monarchy of England than I am; but crowns, coronets, mitres, military displays, pomp of war, wide colonies and a huge empire, are, in my view, all trifles light as air, and not worth considering unless with them you can have a fair share of comfort, contentment, and happiness among the great body of the people. Palaces, baronial castles, great halls and stately mansions do not make a nation. The nation in every country dwells in the cottage.'

Here is the Homeric trend of simplicity and power, not among metaphysical abstractions (which flit before the mind like shadows) but among men and things, palpable to everyone, and touching living interests. But let anyone turn to the record of Mr. Bright's speeches in the Anti-Corn Laws days, and compare the recurrence of famous figures of speech thirty years later, where he described the army and navy as kept up for the outdoor relief of the aristocracy, and he will see that the crude form of the earlier day and the finished expression of later years, is as different as the flintheaded spear of the Mongol from the rapier of Toledo. A famous statue is not cut out of the first block the sculptor lays his hands upon, nor is an oration perfected except by many efforts.

In the clearness and melody of a far-reaching voice, in spontaneity of expression, in fertility of thought begotten by the subject while speaking upon it—in action animated by the sense of mastery and conviction, Mr. Gladstone excels all living orators. He poises himself on words as an eagle poises himself in the air. When the Opposition speakers in Parliament have unexpectedly collapsed, Mr. Gladstone (when leader of the House) is suddenly called upon by the Speaker to close the debate. To reply at once on what has not been said, as well as upon what has, requires consideration. I have heard Mr. Gladstone on such occasions speak for several minutes without saying anything. What you hear is a well-woven texture of articulation—an unbroken continuity of argumentative mist—an almost infinite and coherent extension of glittering vapor. The circumambient air is thick with words, all connected—with nothing. An Italian poet has described exactly what takes place:—
I certainly beheld (nor do suppose
My sight deceived me aught) that in the air,
A fume or vapor thin and subtle rose,
And by the wind began revolving there:
Thence to the topmost clouds its sprays it throws,
But of a substance so exceeding rare,
That scarce the naked eye its form could see:
It seemed as like the clouds composed to be.

All at once the cloud is cleared away with a sudden gesture and you hear the words 'Mr. Speaker.' The orator then has made up his mind as to the scope of his reply, and then follows a stream of sentences direct, compact, and pungent—crisp as the curling wave, definite as the bullet. Mr. Gladstone is the greatest orator of our time, who can be serious and humorous, earnest without being heavy, vehement without imputation—a very rare attainment. In all the hurricane of personalities, at one time blown upon him from every quarter, only one charge of imputation was brought against Mr. Gladstone, and that was that he had described an opponent as a 'certain' person. It is not giving a political but a rhetorical opinion to say that there is no example on record of any speaker of Mr. Gladstone's eminence, who has displayed his abstinence from personal imputation—the easiest and most popular of all the arts of oratory. Invective relieves the speaker of the trouble of proof, and delights the auditor who ceases to think of the question at issue, and does not know that it is withdrawn from his sight. Outraged partisans then appear upon the scene and principles disappear.

Of the two great orators of whom I have spoken, Mr. Gladstone has the subtler reason—Mr. Bright had the stronger fire. Mr. Gladstone is moved by a sense of duty, which seeks for reasons and waits for occasions. Mr. Bright was incited by a sense of justice, which is impetuous and acts from indignation. Mr. Bright's eloquence was more volcanic and imposing; Mr. Gladstone's more resembles lightning—greater in vividness, and revealing under its flashes a greater extent of hidden country. Mr. Bright seemed to take just the quantity of words upon the platform which he required, and, like parts of a well-fitting structure, each word fell into its place as the mighty oration proceeded. With Mr. Gladstone it is as though he took upon the platform with him vast piles of the English language, from which he takes, with a swift hand, whatever he requires for the purpose of the moment; words of strength, or beauty, or brightness—of light, or shade, or force, until each passage is perfect. When a sentence is begun, you cannot always foresee how Mr. Gladstone will end it. But the great artist never fails. His eye sees all the while the fitting word lying by his side, and he dashes it in with the spontaneity of a master, and light is diffused all over the argument, as in a picture which has just received the final touch of genius. That is Parliamentary oratory. The audience is the most cultivated and critical in the world. The finish which is applauded in the Senate would seem tameness on the platform.

In that arena where distinction won reaches to posterity, there are discerning plaudits for those felicities of speech which Tennyson describes in Virgil:—
Landscape-lover, lord of language, more than he that sang the
Works and Days. All the chosen coin of fancy flashing out from many a golden phrase;
Thou that singest wheat and woodland, tilth and vineyard, hive and horse and herd. All the charm of all the Muses often flowering in a lonely word.

The qualities of the noblest style are all comprised in this splendid praise. But the House of Commons, though fastidious, is not foolish—neither is it impatient to do right; as a rule, it is not impatient to do anything, but it likes to know what it is doing. It thinks with Mark Antony—
Who tells me true,
Tho' in the tale lie death,
I hear him as he flattered.

And the working-class member who, like Mr. Burt, is diffident without being afraid and intelligent without being presumptuous, may gain the ear of the House. It may be charmed by a picturesque phrase, as it was by the Irish member who praised the whisky of his country above all other 'because it went down the throat like a torchlight procession.' The House gives ear to an honest voice. There are some members of Parliament in whose voice there is an accent of petty larcency. But he who, speaking with sincerity of manner, gives information upon subjects which he knows and is known to know, he is listened to, however unpretending or vernacular may be the language in which he tells his story.

I omit many high names and many illustrations of the distinction other speakers and orators have attained which would interest the readers nearly as much as those I have cited. I omit them lest by too great variety I distract attention from the nature of oratory, which it is my duty to make clear and keep clear in the reader's mind. Most of us hope that the English Parliament may maintain its ascendency as the first political assembly in the world. Most of us hope that its members will always so comport themselves in dignity and excellence as to challenge the imitation of public men. Whatever time may be given to increase public interest in the high character of Parliament, or inspire any who may go there with the desire to sustain it, is of the nature of patriotism.

Long may it remain the merit of Parliament that what a man says shall be more regarded than how he says it. Landor warned one, inattentive to this, who had brilliance without purpose:—
Here lies our honest friend, Sam Parr,
A better man than most men are.
So learned, he could well dispense
Sometimes with merely common sense;
So voluble, so eloquent,
You little heeded what he meant.

The speaker and the orator alike must mean something, and something distinctive. All men cannot be orators, but every man will speak better and write better by knowing the qualities which go to make the orator. Lord Brougham defined oratory in the sense in which he himself excelled in it, as the power of seeing, when you begin a sentence, all through it, and of knowing at the opening what the end is to be.

Protracted and parenthetical as Brougham's sentences often were, there was never confusion in them; they always terminated intelligibly. The parenthesis, when limited and direct, is a sign of mastery, showing that the speaker never loses sight of his subject. Concentration and directness make the force of speech. Too many objects presented to the mind prevent the points essential being seen. Too much said means something relevant hidden by a crowd of words, which essential something should stand distinct, clear, open, alone, and endowed with the glory of space. Economy in words, stopping at sufficiency, implies mastery of statement. Captain Cuttle said 'his power to put his hands on. a few words whenever he wanted them came from his not wasting them as some do.' Walter Savage Landor, who himself equaled Plutarch in the vigor which comes of terseness, said:—
'Phocion conquered with few soldiers, and he convinced with few words. I know not what better description I could give you either of a great captain or a great orator.'

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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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