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Modern Parliamentary Eloquence

a single authentic sentence of Bolingbroke: we have only scattered fragments of Chatham, the majority of whose recorded speeches were later compilations. But the title of these two men to be considered as almost, if not quite, the supreme orators of the British race none will dispute. Perhaps their speeches would have read well: I cannot but believe it. But, if they did not, that would not have detracted at all from their fame as orators. Fox, indeed, who cared a great deal about immediate effect and very little for literature, went so far as to say that if a speech read well it must have been a d——d bad speech. That of course is a paradox. Mr. Gladstone, however, would have given great satisfaction to Fox. It is doubtful if posterity will preserve with reverence or read with enjoyment any but a few passages in a few of his almost countless harangues. And yet who that heard him would deny to him the gift of oratory in the highest degree? As Mr. Balfour well said in his eulogium of that statesman delivered in the House of Commons after the latter's death (May 20, 1898):

"Mr. Gladstone's speeches are of a kind that make it impossible for those who read them in any sense to judge of their excellence. Posterity must take it from us, who heard with our own ears the extraordinary gifts of pathos, humour, invective, detailed exposition, of holding the audience and interesting them in the most intricate and dry matters of administrative and financial detail that they had all these qualities. If you go and take down a volume of his speeches and read them, you will not believe what I tell you; but I am telling you the truth. It is not the speeches which read best which are the greatest speeches. Posterity cannot possibly judge of their merit by a mere study of the words used. They must see the man, feel the magnetism of his presence, see his gestures, the flash of his eyes. … The test of a speaker is the audience he addresses. There is no other judge; from that Court there is no appeal."

Ben Jonson said of Bacon that "the fear of every man that heard him was that he should make an end." If so Bacon also was among the first of orators: it is only Mr. Balfour's proposition stated in another form. Lord Morley is reported once to have said: " Three things matter in a speech who says it, how he says it, and what he says, and of the three the last matters the least." The gay cynicism of this remark may be forgiven for its underlying truth.