Page:Modern Parliamentary Eloquence.djvu/15

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
7
Modern Parliamentary Eloquence

Let me take another and renowned illustration. Sheridan's famous speech on the Begums of Oude on the motion for the impeachment of Warren Hastings in the House of Commons in February, 1787, was described by Byron as "the very best oration ever conceived or heard in this country." This might be set down as the pardonable exaggeration of a poet—an exaggeration not unfamiliar to ourselves, for how often have we not heard men say, even in these degenerate days, that such and such a speech was the finest that they had ever heard—were it not that Byron's verdict was re-echoed by Burke and Pitt, by Wilberforce and Fox, who all heard the speech. Upon their judgment it is impossible to deny to Sheridan the distinction of having made a speech of superlative merit (and he made two others nearly as good), or to exclude him from the inner circle of the foremost orators. But the speech itself we cannot judge either as literature or as art, for Sheridan, with an admirable discretion, refused, even for an offer of 1000, to publish it, and the reporting in those days was so bad that the text was to all intents and purposes lost.

In dealing with the Parliamentary speakers of our time I shall, accordingly, confine myself to those whom I have myself heard, or for whom I can quote the testimony of others who heard them; and I shall not regard them as prose writers or literary men, still less as purveyors of instruction to their own or to future generations, but as men who produced, by the exercise of certain talents of speech, a definite impression upon contemporary audiences, and whose reputation for eloquence must be judged by that test, and that test alone.

Conditions
of modern eloquence.
But perhaps, before I come to individuals, I may endeavour to summarise the main conditions under which modern Parliamentary eloquence is produced, and to show how materially they differ from those which prevailed in what is generally regarded as the golden age of British oratory, viz., the second half of the eighteenth century. In this difference lies a complete and sufficient