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William Ewart Gladstone
Chapter 4 - Orator


Of that oratory, something must now be said. By it he rose to fame and power, as, indeed, by it most English statesmen have risen, save those to whom wealth and rank and family connections have given a sort of presumptive claim to high office, like the Cavendishes and the Russells, the Cecils and the Bentincks. And for many years, during which Mr. Gladstone was distrusted as a statesman because, while he had ceased to be a Tory, he had not fully become a Liberal, his eloquence was the main, one might almost say the sole, source of his influence. Oratory was a power in English politics even a century and a half ago, as the career of the elder Pitt shows. But within the last fifty years, years which have seen the power of rank and family connections decline, it has continued to be essential to the highest success although much less cultivated as a fine art, and brings a man quickly to the front, though it will not keep him there should he prove to want the other branches of statesmanlike capacity.

The permanent reputation of an orator depends upon two things, the witness of contemporaries to the impression produced upon them, and the written or printed--we may, perhaps, be soon able to say the phonographed--record of his speeches. Few are the famous speakers who would be famous if they were tried by this latter test alone, and Mr. Gladstone was not one of them. It is only by a rare combination of gifts that one who speaks with so much readiness, force, and brilliance as to charm his listeners is also able to deliver such valuable thoughts in such choice words that posterity will read them as literature. Some few of the ancient orators did this; but we seldom know how far those of their speeches which have been preserved are the speeches which they actually delivered. Among moderns, some French preachers, Edmund Burke, Macaulay, and Daniel Webster are perhaps the only speakers whose discourses have passed into classics and find new generations of readers. Twenty years hence Mr. Gladstone's will not be read, except, of course, by historians. They are too long, too diffuse, too minute in their handling of details, too elaborately qualified in their enunciation of general principles. They contain few epigrams and few of those weighty thoughts put into telling phrases which the Greeks called [Greek text].

The style, in short, is not sufficiently rich or finished to give a perpetual interest to matters whose practical importance has vanished. The same oblivion has overtaken all but a very few of the best things of Grattan, Pitt, Canning, Plunket, Brougham, Peel, Bright. It may, indeed, be said--and the examples of Burke and Macaulay show that this is no paradox--that the speakers whom posterity most enjoys are rarely those who most affected the audiences that listened to them.

If, on the other hand, Mr. Gladstone be judged by the impression he made on his own time, his place will be high in the front rank. His speeches were neither so concisely telling as Mr. Bright's nor so finished in diction; but no other man among his contemporaries--neither Lord Derby nor Mr. Lowe nor Mr. Disraeli nor Bishop Wilberforce nor Bishop Magee--deserved comparison with him. And he rose superior to Mr. Bright himself in readiness, in variety of knowledge, in persuasive ingenuity. Mr. Bright required time for preparation, and was always more successful in alarming his adversaries and stimulating his friends than in either instructing or convincing anybody. Mr. Gladstone could do all these four things, and could do them at an hour's notice, so vast and well ordered was the arsenal of his mind.

His oratory had many conspicuous merits. There was a lively imagination, which enabled him to relieve even dull matter by pleasing figures, together with a large command of quotations and illustrations. There were remarkable powers of sarcasm--powers, however, which he rarely used, preferring the summer lightning of banter to the thunderbolt of invective. There was admirable lucidity and accuracy in exposition. There was great skill in the disposition and marshaling of his arguments, and finally--a gift now almost lost in England--there was a wonderful variety and grace of appropriate gesture. But above and beyond everything else which enthralled the listener, there were four qualities, two specially conspicuous in the substance of his eloquence--inventiveness and elevation; two not less remarkable in his manner--force in the delivery, expressive modulation in the voice.

Of the swift resourcefulness of his mind, something has been said already. In debate it shone out with the strongest ray. His readiness, not only at catching a point, but at making the most of it on a moment's notice, was amazing. Some one would lean over the back of the bench he sat on and show a paper or whisper a sentence to him. Apprehending its bearings at a glance, he would take the bare fact and so shape and develop it, like a potter molding a bowl on the wheel out of a lump of clay, that it grew into a cogent argument or a happy illustration under the eye of the audience, and seemed all the more telling because it had not been originally a part of his case. Even in the last two years of his parliamentary life, when his sight had so failed that he read nothing, printed or written, except what it was absolutely necessary to read, and when his deafness had so increased that he did not hear half of what was said in debate, it was sufficient for a colleague to whisper a few words to him, explaining how the matter at issue stood, and he would rise to his feet and extemporize a long and ingenious argument, or perhaps retreat with dexterous grace from a position which the course of the discussion or the private warning of the "whips" had shown to be untenable. No one ever saw him at a loss either to meet a new point raised by an adversary or to make the most of an unexpected incident. Sometimes he would amuse himself by drawing a cheer or a contradiction from his opponents, and would then suddenly turn round and use this hasty expression of their opinion as the basis for a fresh argument of his own. In this particular kind of debating power, for the display of which the House of Commons--an assembly of moderate size, which knows all its leading figures familiarly--is an apt theater, he has been seldom rivaled and never surpassed. Its only weakness sprang from its superabundance. He was sometimes so intent on refuting the particular adversaries opposed to him, and persuading the particular audience before him, that he forgot to address his reasonings to the public beyond the House, and make them equally applicable and equally convincing to the readers of next morning.

As dignity is one of the rarest qualities in literature, so elevation is one of the rarest in oratory. It is a quality easier to feel than to describe or analyze. We may call it a power of ennobling ordinary things by showing their relation to great things, of pouring high emotions round them, of bringing the worthier motives of human conduct to bear upon them, of touching them with the light of poetry. Ambitious writers and speakers incessantly strain after effects of this kind; but they are effects which study and straining do not enable a man to attain. Vainly do most of us flap our wings in the effort to soar; if we rise from the ground it is because some unusually strong or deep burst of feeling makes us for the moment better than ourselves. In Mr. Gladstone the capacity for feeling was at all times so strong, the susceptibility of the imagination so keen, that he soared without effort. His vision seemed to take in the whole landscape. The points actually in question might be small, but the principles involved were to him far-reaching. The contests of to-day seemed to interest him because their effect would be felt in a still distant future. There are rhetoricians skilful in playing by words and manner on every chord of human nature, rhetoricians who move you indeed, and may even carry you away for the moment, but whose sincerity you nevertheless doubt, because the sense of spontaneity is lacking. Mr. Gladstone was not of these. He never seemed to be forcing an effect or assuming a sentiment. To listen to him was to feel convinced of his own conviction and of the reality of the warmth with which he expressed it. Nor was this due to the perfection of his rhetorical art. He really did feel what he expressed. Sometimes, of course, like all statesmen, he had to maintain a cause whose weakness he knew, as, for instance, when it became necessary to defend the blunder of a colleague. But even in such cases he did not simulate feeling, but reserved his earnestness for those parts of the case on which it could be honestly expended. As this was true of the imaginative and emotional side of his eloquence altogether, so was it especially true of his unequaled power of lifting a subject from the level on which other speakers had treated it into the purer air of permanent principle, perhaps even of moral sublimity.

The note of genuineness and spontaneity which marked the substance of his speeches was no less conspicuous in their delivery. Nothing could be more easy and graceful than his manner on ordinary occasions. His expository discourses, such as those with which he introduced a complicated bill or unfolded a financial statement, were models of their kind, not only for lucidity, but for the pleasant smoothness, equally free from monotony and from abruptness, with which the stream of speech flowed from his lips. The task was performed so well that people thought it an easy task till they saw how immeasurably inferior were the performances of two subsequent chancellors of the exchequer so able in their respective ways as Mr. Lowe and Mr. Goschen. But when an occasion arrived which quickened men's pulses, and particularly when some sudden storm burst on the House of Commons, a place where the waves rise as fast as in a mountain lake under a squall rushing down a glen, the vehemence of his feeling found expression in the fire of his eye and the resistless strength of his words. His utterance did not grow swifter, nor did the key of his voice rise, as passion raises and sharpens it in most men. But the measured force with which every sentence was launched, like a shell hurtling through the air, the concentrated intensity of his look, as he defied antagonists in front and swept his glance over the ranks of his supporters around and behind him, had a startling and thrilling power which no other Englishman could exert, and which no Englishman had exerted since the days of Pitt and Fox. The whole proud, bold, ardent nature of the man seemed to flash out, and one almost forgot what the lips said in admiration of the towering personality.

People who read next day the report in the newspapers of a speech delivered on such an occasion could not comprehend the impression it had made on the listeners. "What was there in it so to stir you?" they asked. They had not seen the glance and the gestures; they had not heard the vibrating voice rise to an organ peal of triumph or sink to a whisper of entreaty. Mr. Gladstone's voice was naturally one of great richness and resonance. It was a fine singing voice, and a pleasant voice to listen to in conversation, not the less pleasant for having a slight trace of Liverpool accent clinging to it. But what struck one in listening to his speeches was not so much the quality of the vocal chords as the skill with which they were managed. He had the same gift of sympathetic expression, of throwing his feeling into his voice, and using its modulations to accompany and convey every shade of meaning, that a great composer has when he puts music to a poem, or a great executant when he renders at once the composer's and the poet's thought. And just as great singers or violinists enjoy the practice of their art, so it was a delight to him to put forth this faculty of expression-- perhaps an unconscious, yet an intense delight; as appeared from this also, that whenever his voice failed him (which sometimes befell in later years) his words came less easily, and even the chariot of his argument seemed to drive heavily. That the voice should so seldom have failed him was wonderful. When he had passed his seventy-fifth year, it became sensibly inferior in volume and depth of tone. But its strength, variety, and delicacy remained. In April, 1886, he being then seventy-seven, it held out during a speech of nearly four hours in length. In February, 1890, it enabled him to deliver with extraordinary effect an eminently solemn and pathetic appeal. In March, 1895, those who listened to it the last time it was heard in Parliament--they were comparatively few, for the secret of his impending resignation had been well kept-- recognized in it all the old charm. But perhaps the most curious instance of the power it could exert is to be found in a speech made in 1883, during one of the tiresome debates occasioned by the refusal of the Tory party and of some timorous Liberals to allow Mr. Bradlaugh to be sworn as a member of the House of Commons. This speech produced a profound impression on those who heard it, an impression which its perusal to-day fails to explain. That impression was chiefly due to the grave and reverent tone in which he delivered some sentences stating the view that it is not our belief in the bare existence of a Deity, but the realizing of him as being also a Providence ruling the world, that is of moral value and significance, and was due in particular to the lofty dignity with which he declaimed six lines of Lucretius, setting forth the Epicurean view of the gods as unconcerned with mankind. There were probably not ten men in the House of Commons who could follow the sense of the lines so as to appreciate their bearing on his argument. But these stately and sonorous hexameters--hexameters that seemed to have lived on through nineteen centuries to find their application from the lips of an orator to-day; the sense of remoteness in the strange language and the far-off heathen origin; the deep and moving note in the speaker's voice, thrilled the imagination of the audience and held it spellbound, lifting for a moment the whole subject of debate into a region far above party conflicts. Spoken by any one else, the passage culminating in these Lucretian lines might have produced little effect. It was the voice and manner, above all the voice, with its marvelous modulations, that made the speech majestic.

Yet one must not forget to add that with him, as with some other famous statesmen, the impression made by a speech was in a measure due to the admiring curiosity and wonder which his personality inspired. He was so much the most interesting human being in the House of Commons that, when he withdrew, many members said that the place had lost half its attraction for them, and that the chamber seemed empty because he was not in it. Plenty of able men remained. But even the ablest seemed ordinary, perhaps even commonplace, when compared with the figure that had vanished, a figure in whom were combined, as in no other man of his time, an unrivaled experience, an extraordinary activity and versatility of intellect, a fervid imagination, and an indomitable will.


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