Page:Modern Parliamentary Eloquence.djvu/26

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18
Modern Parliamentary Eloquence

A good deal, of course, turns upon the exact application of the proviso which I have underlined. But even allowing for that, Mr. Balfour's dictum is conspicuously at variance with both the rules and the practice of the ancient world. All the greatest speeches of antiquity were prepared and learned off by heart, and the audience were perfectly conscious of the fact. The same is true of many at any rate of the masterpieces of post-classical oratory. Does anyone imagine that Abraham Lincoln improvised his Gettysburg oration—I happen to know that it was written out on a slip of paper in advance—or his second Inaugural Address? Many of the greatest efforts of the British eighteenth century orators were similarly committed to memory. Brougham wrote:

"The highest reaches of the art can only be attained by him who well considers and maturely prepares and oftentimes sedulously corrects and refines his oration."

The fact is that both methods are entirely legitimate, and each is capable of being the highest art. The choice lies in the occasion and the theme. The Parliamentary orator who has to deliver a panegyric upon a departed statesman would be foolish if he did not diligently and scrupulously prepare it. But the party leader who has to follow a rival leader in debate would be still more foolish, he would be grossly incompetent, if he relied upon preparation or trusted to memory.

In the
golden age.
If we look back at the golden age of English eloquence we shall see the two streams flowing side by side, the one impetuous and uncontrolled, the other smooth and shining. Chatham at his best in extemporaneous outpouring—his panegyric on Wolfe universally condemned as a failure; Fox the same, weak in opening, ineffective in eulogy (for instance, his speech on the Duke of Bedford) but incomparable in reply; Pitt with an even and majestic flow that depended little upon notes; Burke capable of speaking grandly, though not to the enjoyment of his audience, without preparation, but devoting to his highest flights the most laborious toil; Windham