Read CHAPTER XI - PARLIAMENTARY ORATORY. of Collections and Recollections, free online book, by George William Erskine Russell, on

Closely connected with the subject of Politics, of which we were speaking in the last chapter, is that of Parliamentary Oratory, and for a right estimate of oratory personal impressions (such as those on which I have relied) are peculiarly valuable. They serve both to correct and to confirm. It is impossible to form from the perusal of a printed speech anything but the vaguest and often the most erroneous notion of the effect which it produced upon its hearers. But from the testimony of contemporaries one can often gain the clue to what is otherwise unintelligible. One learns what were the special attributes of bearing, voice, or gesture, the circumstances of delivery, or even the antecedent conditions of character and reputation, which perhaps doomed some magnificent peroration to ludicrous failure, or, on the contrary, “ordained strength” out of stammering lips and disjointed sentences. Testimony of this kind the circumstances of my life have given me in great abundance. My chain of tradition links me to the days of the giants.

Almost all the old people whose opinions and experience I have recorded were connected, either personally or through their nearest relations, with one or other of the Houses of Parliament. Not a few of them were conspicuous actors on the stage of political life. Lord Robert Seymour, from whose diary I have quoted, died in 1831, after a long life spent in the House of Commons, which he entered in 1771, and of which for twenty-three years he was a fellow-member with Edmund Burke. Let me linger for a moment on that illustrious name.

In originality, erudition, and accomplishments Burke had no rival among Parliamentary speakers. His prose is, as we read it now, the most fascinating, the most musical, in the English language. It bears on every page the divine linéaments of genius. Yet an orator requires something more than mere force of words. He must feel, while he speaks, the pulse of his audience, and instinctively regulate every sentence by reference to their feelings. All contemporary evidence shows that in this kind of oratorical tact Burke was eminently deficient. His nickname, “The Dinner-bell of the House of Commons,” speaks for his effect on the mind of the average M.P. “In vain,” said: Moore, “did Burke’s genius put forth its superb plumage, glittering all over with the hundred eyes of fancy. The gait of the bird was heavy and awkward, and its voice seemed rather to scare than attract.”

Macaulay has done full justice to the extraordinary blaze of brilliancy which on supreme occasions threw these minor defects into the shade. Even now the old oak rafters of Westminster Hall seem to echo that superlative peroration which taught Mrs. Siddons a higher flight of tragedy than her own, and made the accused proconsul feel himself for the moment the guiltiest of men. Mr. Gladstone declared that Burke was directly responsible for the war with France, for “Pitt could not have resisted him.” For the more refined, the more cultivated, the more speculative intellects he had-and has-an almost supernatural charm. His style is without any exception the richest, the most picturesque, the most inspired and inspiring in the language. In its glories and its terrors it resembles the Apocalypse. Mr. Morley, in the most striking of all his critical essays, has truly said that the natural ardour which impelled Burke to clothe his judgments in glowing and exaggerated phrases is one secret of his power over us, because it kindles in those who are capable of that generous infection a respondent interest and sympathy. “He has the sacred gift of inspiring men to care for high things, and to make their lives at once rich and austere. Such a gift is rare indeed. We feel no emotion of revolt when Mackintosh speaks of Shakespeare and Burke in the same breath as being, both of them, above mere talent. We do not dissent when Macaulay, after reading Burke’s works over again, exclaims: ’How admirable! The greatest man since Milton!’”

No sane critic would dream of comparing the genius of Pitt with that of Burke. Yet where Burke failed Pitt succeeded. Burke’s speeches, indeed, are a part of our national literature; Pitt was, in spite of grave and undeniable faults, the greatest Minister that ever governed England. Foremost among the gifts by which he acquired his supreme ascendency must be placed his power of parliamentary speaking. He was not, as his father was, an orator in that highest sense of oratory which implies something of inspiration, of genius, of passionate and poetic rapture; but he was a public speaker of extraordinary merit. He had while still a youth what Coleridge aptly termed “a premature and unnatural dexterity in the combination of words,” and this developed into “a power of pouring forth with endless facility perfectly modulated sentences of perfectly chosen language, which as far surpassed the reach of a normal intellect as the feats of an acrobat exceed the capacities of a normal body.” It was eloquence particularly well calculated to sway a popular assembly which yet had none of the characteristics of a mob. A sonorous voice; a figure and bearing which, though stiff and ungainly, were singularly dignified; an inexhaustible copiousness of grandiloquent phrase; a peculiar vein of sarcasm which froze like ice and cut like steel-these were some of the characteristics of the oratory which from 1782 to 1806 at once awed and fascinated the House of Commons.

“I never want a word, but Mr. Pitt always has at command the right word.” This was the generous tribute of Pitt’s most eminent rival, Charles James Fox. Never were great opponents in public life more exactly designed by Nature to be contrasts to one another. While every tone of Pitt’s voice and every muscle of his countenance expressed with unmistakable distinctness the cold and stately composure of his character, every particle of Fox’s mental and physical formation bore witness to his fiery and passionate enthusiasm. “What is that fat gentleman in such a passion about?” was the artless query of the late Lord Eversley, who, as Mr. Speaker Shaw-Lefevre, so long presided over the House of Commons, and who as a child had been taken to the gallery to hear Mr. Fox. While Pitt was the embodied representative of Order, his rival was the Apostle and Evangelist of Liberty. If the master passion of Pitt’s mind was enthusiasm for his country, Fox was swayed by the still nobler enthusiasm of Humanity. His style of oratory was the exact reflex of his mind. He was unequalled in passionate argument, in impromptu reply, in ready and spontaneous declamation. His style was unstudied to a fault. Though he was so intimately acquainted with the great models of classical antiquity, his oratory owed little to the contact, and nothing to the formal arts of rhetoric; everything to inborn genius and the greatness of the cause which he espoused. It would be difficult to point to a single public question of his time on which his voice did not sound with rousing effect, and whenever that voice was heard it was on behalf of freedom, humanity, and the sacred brotherhood of nations.

I pass on to the orator of whose masterpiece Fox said that “eloquent indeed it was; so much so that all he had ever heard, all he had ever read, dwindled into nothing, and vanished like vapour before the sun.” In sparkling brilliancy and pointed wit, in all the livelier graces of declamation and delivery, Sheridan surpassed all his contemporaries. When he concluded his speech on the charge against Warren Hastings of plundering the Bégums of Oude, the peers and strangers joined with the House in a tumult of applause, and could not be restrained from clapping their hands in ecstasy. The House adjourned in order to recover its self-possession. Pitt declared that this speech surpassed all the eloquence of ancient and modern times, and possessed everything that genius or art could furnish to agitate or control the human mind. And yet, while Sheridan’s supreme efforts met with this startling success, his deficiencies in statesmanship and character prevented him from commanding that position in the House and in the Government which his oratorical gift, if not thus handicapped, must have secured for its possessor.

As a speaker in his own sphere Lord Erskine was not inferior to the greatest of his contemporaries. He excelled in fire, force, and passion. Lord Brougham finely described “that noble figure every look of whose countenance is expressive, every motion of whose form graceful; an eye that sparkles and pierces and almost assures victory, while it ’speaks audience ere the tongue.’” Yet, as is so often the case, the unequalled advocate found himself in the House of Commons less conspicuously successful than he had been at the Bar. The forensic manner of speech, in which he was a head and shoulders higher than any of his legal contemporaries, is, after all, distinct from parliamentary eloquence.

The same disqualification attached to the oratory of Lord Brougham, whose speech at the bar of the House of Lords in defence of Queen Caroline had made so deep an impression. His extraordinary fierceness and even violence of nature pervaded his whole physical as well as intellectual being. When he spoke he was on springs and quicksilver, and poured forth sarcasm, invective, argument, and declamation in a promiscuous and headlong flood. Yet all contemporary evidence shows that his grandest efforts were dogged by the inevitable fate of the man who, not content with excellence in one or two departments, aims at the highest point in all. In reading his speeches, while one admires the versatility, one is haunted by that fatal sense of superficiality which gave rise to the saying that “if the Lord Chancellor only knew a little law he would know something about everything.”

Pitt died in 1806, but he lived long enough to hear the splendid eloquence of Grattan, rich in imagination, metaphor, and epigram; and to open the doors of the official hierarchy to George Canning. Trained by Pitt, and in many gifts and graces his superior, Canning first displayed his full greatness after the death of his illustrious master. For twenty years he was the most accomplished debater in the House of Commons, and yet he never succeeded in winning the full confidence of the nation, nor, except in foreign affairs, in leaving his mark upon our national policy. “The English are afraid of genius,” and when genius is displayed in the person of a social adventurer, however brilliant and delightful, it is doubly alarming.

We can judge of Canning’s speeches more exactly than of those of his predecessors, for by the time that he had become famous the art of parliamentary reporting had attained almost to its present perfection; and there are none which more amply repay critical study. Second only to Burke in the grandeur and richness of his imagery, he greatly excelled him in readiness, in tact, and in those adventitious advantages which go so far to make an orator. Mr. Gladstone remembered the “light and music” of the eloquence with which he had fascinated Liverpool seventy years before. Scarcely any one contributed so many beautiful thoughts and happy phrases to the common stock of public speech. All contemporary observers testify to the effect produced by the proud strength of his declaration on foreign policy: “I called the New World into existence, to redress the balance of the Old.” And the language does not contain a more magnificent or perfect image than that in which he likens a strong nation at peace to a great man-of-war lying calm and motionless till the moment for action comes, when “it puts forth all its beauty and its bravely collects its scattered elements of strength, and awakens its dormant thunder.”

Lord John Russell entered the House of Commons in 1813, and left it in 1861. He used to say that in his early days there were a dozen men there who could make a finer speech than any one now living; “but,” he used to add, “there were not another dozen who could understand what they were talking about.” I asked him who was, on the whole, the best speaker he ever heard. He answered, “Lord Plunket,” and subsequently gave as his reason this-that while Plunket had his national Irish gifts of fluency, brilliant imagination, and ready wit very highly developed, they were all adjuncts to his strong, cool, inflexible argument. This, it will be readily observed, is a very rare and a very striking combination, and goes far to account for the transcendent success which Plunket attained at the Bar and in the House, and alike in the Irish and the English Parliament. Lord Brougham said of him that his eloquence was a continuous flow of “clear statement, close reasoning, felicitous illustration, all confined strictly to the subject in hand; every portion, without any exception, furthering the process of conviction;” and I do not know a more impressive passage of sombre passion than the peroration of his first speech against the Act of Union: “For my own part, I will resist it to the last gasp of my existence, and with the last drop of my blood; and when I feel the hour of my dissolution approaching, I will, like the father of Hannibal, take my children to the altar and swear them to eternal hostility against the invaders of their country’s freedom.”

Before the death of Pitt another great man had risen to eminence, though the main achievement of his life associates him with 1832. Lord Grey was distinguished by a stately and massive eloquence which exactly suited his high purpose and earnest gravity of nature, while its effect was enormously enhanced by his handsome presence and kingly bearing. Though the leader of the popular cause, he was an aristocrat in nature, and pre-eminently qualified for the great part which, during twenty years, he played in that essentially aristocratic assembly-the unreformed House of Commons. In a subsequent chapter I hope to say a little about parliamentary orators of a rather more recent date; and here it may not be uninteresting to compare the House of Commons as we have seen it and known it, modified by successive extensions of the suffrage, with what it was before Grey and Russell destroyed for ever its exclusive character.

The following description is taken from Lord Beaconsfield, who is drawing a character derived in part from Sir Francis Burdett (1770-1840), and in part from George Byng, who was M.P. for Middlesex for fifty-six years, and died in 1847:-“He was the Father of the House, though it was difficult to believe that from his appearance. He was tall, and kept his distinguished figure; a handsome man with a musical voice, and a countenance now benignant, though very bright and Once haughty. He still retained the same fashion of costume in which he had ridden up to Westminster more than half a century ago to support his dear friend Charles Fox-real topboots and a blue coat and buff waistcoat. He had a large estate, and had refused an earldom. Knowing E., he came and sate by him one Jay in the House, and asked him, good-naturedly, how he liked his new life. It is very different from what it as when I was your age. Up to Easter we rarely had a regular debate, never a party division; very few people came up indeed. But there was a good deal of speaking on all subjects before dinner. We had the privilege then of speaking on the presentation of petitions at any length, and we seldom spoke on any other occasion. After Easter there was always at least one great party fight. This was a mighty affair, talked of for weeks before it came off, and then rarely an adjourned debate. We were gentlemen, used to sit up late, and should have been sitting up somewhere else had we not been in the House of Commons. After this party fight the House for the rest of the session was a mere club.... The House of Commons was very much like what the House of Lords is now. You went home to dine, and then came back for an important division.... Twenty years ago no man would think of coming down to the House except in evening dress. I remember so late as Mr. Canning the Minister always came down in silk stockings and pantaloons or knee-breeches. All these things change, and quoting Virgil will be the next thing to disappear. In the last-Parliament we often had Latin quotations, but never from a member with a new constituency. I have heard Greek quoted here, but that was long ago, and a great mistake. The House was quite alarmed. Charles Fox used to say as to quotation, ’No Greek; as much Latin as you like; and never French under any circumstances. No English poet unless he has completed his century.’ These were, like some other good rules, the unwritten orders of the House of Commons.”