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Modern Oratory— its greatest triumphs won by sudden bursts.

The most memorable triumphs of modern oratory are connected with the tradition of thrills, of electrical shocks, given to the hearers at the moment by bursts which were extemporary, not necessarily as regards the thought, but necessarily as regards the form. It was for such bursts that the eloquence of the elder Pitt was famous; that of Mirabeau, and of Patrick Henry, owed its highest renown to the same cause. Sheil's retort, in the debate on the Irish Municipal Bill in 1837, to Lord Lyndhurst's description of the Irish (in a phrase borrowed from O'Connell), as ‘aliens in blood, language and religion’, was of this kind1. Erskine, in his defence of Lord George Gordon, produced an astonishing effect by a protestation,—which would have been violent if it had not been solemn,—of personal belief in his client's innocence; a daring transgression of the advocate's province which was paralleled, with some momentary success, in a celebrated criminal case about twenty years ago. Now these sudden bursts, and the shock or the transport which they may cause, were forbidden to ancient oratory by the principal law of its being. In nothing is the contrast more striking than in this— that the greatest oratorical reputations of the ancient world were chiefly made, and those of the modern world have sometimes been endangered, by prepared works of art. Perikles and Hypereides were renowned for no efforts of their eloquence more than for their funeral orations. Fox's carefully composed speech in honour of the Duke of Bedford, Chatham's elaborate eulogy of Wolfe, were accounted among the least happy of their respective performances. There is, however, at least one instrument of
Use of quotation.
sudden effect which Greek oratory and British Parliamentary oratory once had in common, but which the latter has now almost abandoned—poetical quotation. A quotation may, of course, be highly effective even for those to whom it is new. But the genuine oratorical force of quotation depends on the hearers knowing the context, having previous associations with the passage, and thus feeling the whole felicity of the application as, at the instant, it is flashed upon the mind. In this respect, the opportunities of the Greek orator were perfect. His hearers were universally and thoroughly familiar with the great poets. When Aeschines applies the lines from Hesiod to Demosthenes, it is as if Digby, addressing Puritans, had attempted to sum up Strafford in a verse of Isaiah. In the days when all educated Englishmen knew a good deal of Virgil and Horace, and something of the best English poets, quotation was not merely a keen, but, in skilful hands, a really powerful weapon of parliamentary debate; and its almost total disuse, however unavoidable, is perhaps a more serious deduction than is generally perceived from the rather slender resources of modern English oratory for creating a glow. Pitt's speech on the Slave Trade concluded with the expression of this hope—that ‘Africa, though last of all the quarters of the globe, shall enjoy at length, in the evening of her days, those blessings which have descended so plentifully upon us in a much earlier period of the world’: the first beams of the rising sun were just entering the windows of the House, and he looked upward as he said— “Nos......primus equis Oriens affiavit anhelis;
Illic sera rubens accendit lumina Vesper.

1 It is quoted in the excellent article on ‘The British Parliament; its History and Eloquence’, Quarterly Review of April, 1872, No. cxxxii. p. 480.

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