The Spike or Victoria College Review 1936
"As great strains of true sublime eloquence as are anywhere to be found."—Swift.
"And what," I said, "of oratory?"
"Some are," he replied cryptically, "and some are not. There is, to be sure, a society of men among us bred up from their youth in the art of proving, by words multiplied for the purpose, that some long-forgotten reliques should be exhumed."
"But," says I, "is it not well to hearken to the strength and beauty of the English tongue?"
"That may be," says he, "but this society of orators has a peculiar cant and jargon of its own. For instance, they deal dexterously in fraud, perjury, and oppression, in truth, justice, and valour, yet will do this only for reward."
"Reward?" says I.
"Why yes," says he. "It has long been ordained that to him who shall best dissimulate his true feelings and expound a ritual recitation, concealing withal the nervousness or boredom which the occasion must warrant—to him, I say, is given rank and honour."
"But," says I, "are these orators not the leading scholars of the day?"
"Indeed they are," says he, "an unsunned heap."
"Tell me, then," says I, "how do they speak, and of whom?"
"Gladly," says he, "for not long since, eight such orationists wielded the sadly tarnished weapons of their armoury. One of them came from the highlands, McGhie by name."
"Careful," says I, "for I, like Elia, have been trying all my life to like Scotchmen, but am obliged to desist from the experiment in despair. Mine is a constitution essentially anti-Caledonian."
"Well," says he, "this McGhie declaimed concerning a dour and dogged Scot—Mac-Donald it was—whose life was a frayed and tangled skein of triumph and defeat. He spoke of Celtic pride and idealism and the solace of the heather, filling the air with mellifluous phrases."
"And was not that delightful?" says I.
"It was indeed," says he, "and the judges placed him second, the customary way of marking popular favour. But he would amuse us when we should have been serious. He was too happy on the stage, smiling at our innocence, and ringing down the curtain with an imponderable conundrum."
"At least he did not bore you," says I.
"No, but there were others," says he, "who after the first exquisite plunge into the archives of greatness were soon beset by fear of cramp and returned at once to the shore, to follow a drear pedestrian course by land. No fiery exuberance, no tempestuousness, save those patches of dead-leaf gold that even a southerly will stir. There was one Perry, an early Christian making a first appearance before the lions. He spoke of Peter Chanel, yet could arouse none of the feelings that a great man and great works should readily inspire. Instead, a lucubration, tinsel melodrama that could not be heard or endured by anyone with an ear for music and a heart to be moved by a tale of nobility."
"Hard words," says I. "Do you freely speak thus harshly of your orators? Is revenge unknown?"
"Another of the speakers," says he, proceeding undeterred, "would have had us quicken our pulses for an American woman pioneer, yet gave a humourless homily adorned with lists of the emotions that an unadorned tale might of itself readily have created. Jane Addams and Joy Stock together—and the fumes of the Chicago sweatshops were comparable only to the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless. The story was too heavily laden with good works and concentrated essence of moral indignation. How little, indeed divides an impassioned speech from mere over-earnestness!"
"But I cannot follow you," says I, "do you or don't you want the orator to rage and wave his arms in a storm of emotion?"
"Oratory is the same in all languages," says he, "and there is a just distinction, as has been observed, between hearing what we cannot help and approving what we ought to condemn."page 46
"What's all this?" says I.
"I remember reading somewhere," says he, "that an ordinary cheesemonger that scarce ever heard of a university will speak much better sense and more to the purpose than these young philosophers." And with this he would elucidate no more, but was away again.
"There was yet another," says he, "whose brilliantly devastating conversation, blended with keen-edged stabs and jests, was as welcome as the chirping of a bird in a hedge on a hot day."
"I know what you mean," says I, recalling an appropriate line, "voice and gesture instinctively gave melody and force to the flowing period."
"Not at all, not at all," says he. "There was a pronounced groan of concern when she faltered—and that not once nor twice."
"Ah," says I, trying again, "the tongue cleaving to the gums?"
"Nay," says he, "the recitation not cleaving to the memory. But a happy discourse withal, and one that caught the ear and the imagination at once with the spin of a gamblers' wheel and a tale of the man that owns the bank at Monte Carlo. Here was sparkling phrase, provoking quip, keen irony, happy demeanour, and musical intonation."
"Why, then," says I, "this was surely a winning oration?"
"Not quite," says he. "This Miss Shortall did not weld us into an emotional mass of haters or admirers, and what else is an orator supposed to do? It was too friendly, too personal a chat, too informal an attack, You see, it was so engaging. This man she spoke of—he should have been a villain: she made him out a mere Zaharuffian."
"I suppose," says I, "that all these orators of yours are trained speakers?"
"Alas, yes," says he. "Elocution or electrocution—it's all one to me, Miss Souter we heard. She bleats except when she shrills. She waxed emotional, but the wax couldn't stand the heat. She took us to the surgery, but wouldn't leave it to the doctors. And the judges placed her third."
"Why," says I, "and whom may she have been extolling?"
"Sir James Simpson, discoverer of anaesthetics. And appropriately enough, she dwelt with loving emphasis on his birth and his funeral. Still, her grim recital of the doctor's visit (old style) was stark and convincing, and you would hardly have realised it was all a recitation."
"You speak obliquely," says I.
"Would that some others could do as much," says he. "Take the next speaker, for example—a Mr. Scott, who told us all about Rosa Luxemburg. Every seventh person will tell you he snarled his way through."
"Come, come," says I, "surely not."
"Indeed," says he, "it was Rosas Rosas all the way. Monotonously rings the little bell. Not that he renounced the substance for the shadow. He made the crowd talk. He dragged an unknown name from obscurity and posted it among the stars. He bestrided the nations, gathered in the past, and shot an arrow into futurity. At any rate, that's what he meant to do. But men are as dust before the wind, and their way is dark and slippery. We heard the reverberations of civil war; but the speaker remained a barbarian to his auditors. They hear the sound, but are not edified. And so was he swallowed up, for their judgments are like the mighty deep."
"Even in the days of dearth," says I, "one may have too much."
"It was different," says he, "with another accustomed warrior yclept Scotney. His speech was clear, interesting, well-delivered, and progressively developed. He overflowed with fire and enthusiasm. He galvanised the audience with the tense drama of Henri Christophe, negro king of Haiti. No delicate and petty stature, no grey setting, no conventional career, but a man: and one that was equal to ten battalions."
"Did not this speaker win?" says I.
"No," says he, "there was one fatal error. He was the first to speak."
"But then," says I, "can one do aught about that?"
"In all future contests," says he, "the position of first speaker is to be abolished."
"Who then did win?" says I.
"Jack Aimers," says he, "with Marie Antoinette, as mediocre a woman as ever sustained a flight of oratory. Too analytical to be dramatic, too accommodating to be provocative, he held the balance without fulcrum or beam. No page 47 splendid conflagration, no thunder of gigantic sentiments; nothing to inspire, to master, or overwhelm; deliberate; lacking surprise. Never carried away with his own eloquence. A good plain not-too-forceful speech. A formal laying-foundation-stone style. Not memorable; nothing to make the sun stand still. Dignified; technically correct; well-arranged; unexaggerated."
"One moment," says I, "what is this catalogue? Do you tell me this has anything to do with an oration? What, after all, is oratory?"
"That," says he, "remains to be defined."
(Adapted from the Classics by Sulla.)