Page:Modern Parliamentary Eloquence.djvu/16

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Modern Parliamentary Eloquence

explanation of the apparent decline of British eloquence. The reason is not that a particular fountain of human genius has been dried at its source, never again to be revived, but that it flows into new channels, and irrigates a fresh soil. Or, if the metaphor may be varied, men's souls are still capable of being set on fire by the spoken word; but the spark is otherwise kindled, and it lights a less radiant and consuming flame.

Oratory of the Eighteenth century.If we study the oratory of the great speakers of the Georgian epoch, from Chatham down to Canning—for with the latter the tradition may be said to have expired we shall at once see that it was the art of an aristocratic society, practised under aristocratic conditions, in an aristocratic age. The great speakers were drawn from a few families, frequently connected by ties of intermarriage. They had received the same public school and University education, deliberately framed to qualify them, not merely for participation in public life, but for proficiency in public speech. The elder Pitt insisted on the younger making a special study of Thucydides when he went up to Cambridge. The son gladly responded to the father's admonitions, and read and translated the celebrated orators of the ancient world. Virgil, Horace, Cicero, Juvenal, even the later Roman poets,[1] were more familiar to them than are Tennyson and Browning to us. They quoted their favourite authors, they capped each other's efforts and, above all, they understood (i.e., the few who counted, understood) each other's quotations. When they went down to the House of Parliament a similar dignity characterised their dress and deportment, regularised their hours of leisurely labour, and pervaded the debates. The House met early in the afternoon, and usually finished its proceedings on the same day. They did not mind sitting up late at night—that was a part of the social habit of the time—and we read of many of the finest orations having been delivered in the early hours of the morning, even long after the

  1. Burke, in his famous speech on Fox's East India Bill, quoted Silius Italicus. Another orator quoted Claudian.