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as mischievous io - their iofluence, because do one can
learu to speak, till be comes into the real business of speak*
ing, as bis profession.

On this I can make but one passing remark. Pre-
paratofy discipline of the faculties necessarily wants the
stimulus of real business, in respect to every liberal ai:t
and valuable talent among men. Why then shall not
such discipline be deemed useless in all other cases, as
well as in elocution ? Why shall we not neglect to learn
any thing, which relates to practical skill in a profession,
till we actually enter on that profession ?

I now proceed to offer my remarks on Rhetorical Ac-
tion, dividing the subject into two parts.

Part I. The principles of rhetorical action.

The power of action consists wholly in its correspond-
ence with thought and emotion ; and this correspondence
arises either from nature or custom*

Sect. 1. — Action as significant from nature.

The body is the instrument of the soul, or the medi-
um of expressing internal emotions, by external signs.
The less these signs depend on the will, on usage, or on
accident, the more uniform are they, and the more cei^
tainly to be relied on.

Expression of the countenance.

The soul speaks most intelligibly, so far as visible
signs are concerned, in those muscles which are the most



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RHCTOKICAL ACTION. 147

pliant and prompt to obey iu dictates. These are the
muscles of the face ; which spontaneously, and almost
instantaneously respond to the impulse from within. An-
ger, for example, shows itself in the contraction of the
brow, the flash of the eye, the quivering of the lip, and the
alternate paleness and crimson of the cheek. Terror is
expressed by convulsive heaving of the bosom, and by
hurried respiration and speech. Joy sparkles in the ejre,
— sorrow vents itself in tears.

Now, why is it that these signs, invariably, and every
where, are regarded as the stamp of reality ? The rea-
son is, they are not only the genuine language of emotion,
but are independent of the vnlL A groan or shriek speaks
to the ear, as the language of distress, with far more
thrilling e&ct than words. Yet these may be counter-
feited by art. Much more may common tones of voice
be rendered loud or soft, high or low, at pleasure. But
not so with the signs which emotion imprints on the face.
Whether anger, fear, joy, — shall show themselves in the
hue of my cheek, or the expression of my eye, depends
not at all on my choice, any more than whether my heart
shall beat, and my blood circulate. So unequivocal is
this language of the passions, and so incapable of being
applied to purposes of decepttDU, that all men feel its force,
instinctively and immediately. They know that the hand
or the tongue^ which obey the dictates of the will, may
deceive ; but the /ace cannot speak falsehood.

I might add, that he whose soul is so destitute of emo-
tion, as not to impart this expression to bis countenance,
or he whose acquired habits are so unfortunate, as to frus-
trate this expression, whatever qualities he may possess
besides, lacks one grand requisite to true eloquence.



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148 RHETORICAL ACTION.

. If the visible signs of passion are thus invariable, so
that even a child instinctively understands the smile or the
frown of its nurse, it is probably no visionary theory which
supposes a correspondence, to some extent, between the
habits of the mind, and certain configurations in the fea-
tures of the face. Every one knows the difference be-
tween the cheerful aspect of innocence, the vivacity of
intelligence, the charming languor of pity or grief, as im-
printed on the countenance ; and the scowl of misanthro-
py, the dark suspicion of guilt, the vacant stare of stupid-
ity, or the haggard phrensy of despair. And it is reason-
able to suppose that affections and intellectual habits, such
as benevolence or malignity, cheerfulness or melancholy,
deep thought or frivolity, must imprint themselves, just in
proportion to their predominance, in distinct and perma-
nent lines upon the face.

Attitvde and Mkn.

Here again, all distinctions, of any value, result from
our knowledge of the influence which the mind has on
the body. An erect attitude denotes majesty, activity,
strength. It becomes the authority of the commander, the
energy of a soldier in arms, and, in all cases, the dignity
of conscious innocence. Adam and Eve, in the descrip-
tion of Milton, on account of their noble shape and erect
carriage, "seem'd lords of all." The leaning altitude,
in. its varieties of expression, may denote affection, re-
spect, the earnestness of entreaty, the dignity of compo-
sure, the listlessness of indifference, or the lassitude of
disease.

The air of a man too, including his general motion,



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flHETORIOAL ACTIOH. 149

has its language. That peculiarity in the walk of differ*
ent persons, which enables us to distinguish at a distance^
one friend from another^ does not of course make a cor-
respondent description of character. But the meas^
ured pace of the ploughman, the strut of the coxcomb^
and the dignified gait of the military chief, we necessari*
ly associate with a supposed difference of personal quali*^
ties and habits in the individuals. Hence the queen of
Olympus is represented in poetic fable, as claiming to be
known by her stately carriage ; " divum incedo regina.**
And so Venus was known to her son, by the elegance of
her motion ; '* incessu patuit dea."

In those parts of the body, which act frequently and
visibly in the common offices of life, motion is more or
less significant according to circumstances. A deaf man
places his hand by his ear, in such a manner as partially
to serve the purpose of a hearing trumpet. He opens
his mouth, in the attitude of listening, because defective
hearing is assisted by transmission of sound through a
passage from the mouth to the ear.

Joy approaching to rapture, gives a sparkling brillian-^
cy to the eye, and a sprightly activity to the limbs. We
see this in a long absent child, springing to the arms of its
parent ; we see it in the beautiful narrative of the lame
man,"wbo had been miraculously healed, *' walking, and
leaping J and praising God."

The bead gently reclined, denotes grief or shame ;
erect, — courage, firmness ; thrown back or shaken, — dis-
sent, negation ; forwards, — assent.

The hand, raised and inverted, repels ; more elevat-
ed and extended, denotes surprise ; placed on the mouth,
18*



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150 BHETORICAL ACTION.

silence ; on the head, pain ; on the breast, affection, or
an appeal to conscience ; clenched, it signifies defiance.
Both hands raised, with the palms united, express suppli*
cation ; gently clasped, thankfulness ; wrung, agony.

In roost of these cases, action is significant because it
is spontaneous and uniform. The mother who saw her
son just shot dead, in Covent Garden, expressed her
amazement by a motion of her hand, such as a thousand
others would make probably without one exception, in
similar circumstances.

A Greek eulogist of Caesar says, *' his right hand was
mighty to command, which by its majestic power did
quell the fierce audacity of barbarous men." " A man
standing by the bed of an expiring friend, waving bis
hand with the palm outward, tells an officious nurse to
stand back at a distance. Again the same hand beck-
ons, with the palm inward, and the nurse flies to his assis-
tance."^ The Roman who held up the stump of his
arm, from which the hand was lost in the service of his
country, pleaded for his brother, with an eloquence sur-
passing the power of words. And all the influence of
the tribunes could not persuade the people to pass a vote
of condemnation against Manlius, while he stood and si*
lently stretched out his hand towards the Capitol, which
bis valor had saved.

* SiddoDs.



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RHETORICAL ACTION. 151



Sect. 2. — Action considered as sigmficant from custom.

' [n this respect its meaning, like that of words, is arbi-
trary, local and mutable. In Europe, respect is express-
ed by uncovering the head ; in the East, by keeping it
covered. In one country, the same thing is expressed by
bowing, in another, by kneeling, in another, by prostration.
The New-Zealander presses his nose against that of his
friend, to denote what we express by a squeeze of the
hand.^ The European welcomes the return of a beloved
object by an embrace ; — the Otaheitan signifies the
same emotion by tearing his hair, and lacerating his body.
On gestures of this description I shall say nothing
more, except that they have very little concern with grave
oratory. This allows nothing as becoming, that does not
correspond with time and place, the age of the orator,
and the elevation of the subject. It abjures mimicry and
pantomime. The theatre admits of attitude and action,
that would be altogether extravagant in the senate. The
forum too, though much more restricted than the stage, al-
lows a violence that would be unsuitable to the business
of the sacred orator. Indeed, the dignity of eloquence can
in no case condescend to histrionic levity. The comie
actor may descend to minute imitation ; he may, for ex-
ample, represent the fingers of the physician applied to
the pulse of his patient, or of the musician to the strings
of his instrument. But in the orator, all this is to be, as
Quinctilian says, 'Mongissime fugiendum.''

* Homer makes Glaacas and Diomed, two chiefii of the oppo-
siDff armiea, ahakb hands, as a token of individnal friendship. Jliad

viraaa.



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152 RHETORICAL ACTION.



Part II. — Faults of rhetorical action.

Before I proceed to that cursory view of these which
1 propose to give, it may be useful to advert to the sour-
ces from which they are derived. These are chiefly,
personal defects ^ diffidence j and imitation.

Any considerable defect, original or accidental, in
the conformation of the body^ may injure the force or
gracefulness of its movements. The walk of Achilles
must have had more dignity, than the halting gait of Ther-
sites. If Cicero bad lost his right hand, or even the
thumb or forefinger of that hand, though he would have
been still the first orator of Rome, he would have been
somewhat less than Cicero. Austin observes that short-
ness of neck and of arms is unfavorable to oratorical ges-
ture. But 1 am not aware that this remark is justified by
facts, except so far as corpulence is unfriendly to agility
and freedom of movement.

Many defects in the action of public speakers, have
their origin probably in an unmanly diffidence. When
one, who has had no preparatory discipline in public
speaking, rises to address a large assembly, be is appalled
at the very aspect of his audience, and dares not stir a
limb, lest he should commit some mistake. Before be
surmounts this timidity, he is liable to fall under the do-
minion of habits, from which he can never release himself.
When, therefore; Walker says, ^* A speaker should use
no more jesture than he can help,^ he must mean an oe-
complished speaker, whose external powers spontaneously
obey the impulse of his feelings. But it would be idle



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RHETORICAL ACTION. 1 53

to say that a prisoDer, whose bands are pinioDed by cords,
should stir them no more than be can help. And it is no
less idle to say this of a speaker, whose hands are pinion-
ed by habit. Cut the cords that bind him, set his limbs
at liberty to obey bis inward emotions, and I readily ad-
mit the justice of the principle. But when diffidence
does not acquire such an ascendency as to suppress ac-
tion, it may render it constrained and inappropriate, and
in many ways frustrate its utility.

The only other cause of the imperfections which L am
about to notice, is imitation. This when combined with
the one just mentioned, operates with an influence more
powerful perhaps, than in any other case. Addison, in
describing English oratory, says " We can talk of life and
death in cold blood, and keep our temper, in a discourse
that turns upon every thing that is dear to us." This
censure he extends to the pulpit, the bar, and the senate.
The fact he accounts for, partly by the charitable suppo-
sition that the English are peculiarly modest ; while he
allows us, if he does not oblige us, to ascribe it ultimately
to a frigid national temperament. And yet, in this be
seems hardly consistent ; for he adds, " Though our zeal
breaks out in the finest tropes and figures, it is not able to
stir a limb about us."

But how can the external signs of emotion be thus in-
congruous ? A zeal that kindles the soul of a speaker,
that bursts from his mouth in tropes, never fails to stir his
limbs. Unless some powerful, counteracting cause prevents.
Now we have just seen that such a cause may exist,
which even in spite of emotion, will as effectually confine
a man's hands, as if they were literally bound, And



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154 RHETORICAL ACTION^.

what absurdity is there in supposing, (hat what was excess
of modesty, in a few Englishmen of distinction, at some
early period, was transferred to others, by imitation ; so
that the want of gesture of which Addison complains, be-
came a national characteristic ? National habits resuh
from individual, often by a process of ages, the effects of
which are manifest, while the operation is unseen. And
it is nnore philosophical to ascribe the fact on which I am
remarking, to a public taste, formed and perpetuated by
imitation, than to suppose, as is often done, a temperament
singularly phlegmatic in a people, whose poets, and secu-
lar orators, have unquestionably surpassed all their con-
temporaries, in powers of imagination.

But want of action is not the only fauk that may
spring from imitation. In the case of individuals, excess
and awkwardness may arise from undue regard to some
improper model. Cicero mentions an orator, who was
distinguished for pathos, and a wry face ; and says that
another who made him his pattern, imitated his distor-
tion of features, but not his pathos. Special faults in one
whom we mean to imitate, strike attention, because they
commonly appear in the form of peculiarity. This, while
it renders imitation more preposterous, renders it, at the
same time, more obvious. The worst gesture of Hamil-
ton has been transmitted by imitation to this time ; and
is used by some who never saw that great man, and who
know nothing of his manner as a speaker. In this way,
some peculiarity, that was perhaps accidental at first, may
acquire ascendency in a college, and be transmitted from
one generation to another of its studeuts.

In proceeding now to mention, with more parti'cular-



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imBTORICAL ACTioar. 155

ity, the faults of action, I shall follow the order of my
previous remarks on countenance^ attitude^ and gesture.

The eye is the only part of the face, that it falls with-
in my design to notice here, both because this is the chief
seat of expression, and because its significance is espe-
cially liable to be frustrated by mismanagement. For rea-
sons already mentioned, the intercourse of soul between
speaker and hearers, is carried on more unequivocally
through the eye, than in any other way. But if he neg-
lects to look at them, and they in return neglect, (as they
commonly will,) to look at him ; the mutual reaction of
feeling through the countenance is lost ; and vocal lan-
guage is all the medium of intercourse that remains.*

The eye " bent on vacuity," as the artists call it, is the
next most common defect, of this sort. The glass eye
of a wax figure at once tells its own character. There
may be in other respects, the proportion and complexion
of a human face ; but that eye, the moment it is examin-
ed, you perceive is nothing more, and, at best, it can be
nothing more than a bungling counterfeit. So the eye
of a speaker may be open, and yet not see ; at least there
may be no discrimination^ no meaning in its k)ok. It

* The reader will please to observe that, in the following pages,
gacb remarks as apply solely or peculiarly to ih^ puhpH^ are giyen in
the notes.

It falls not within my design here, to inquire how far the preva-
lent practice of reading sermons ougnt to be dispensed with. Bat
it is plainly absurd to speak of expression in a preacher's eye, while
it is fixed on a manuscript. Nearly the same infelicity, and on some
accounts a greater one, attends the rapid, dodging cast of the eye
from the notes to the hearers, and back again ; implying a servile
dependence on what is written, even in repeating the most familiar
declarations of the Bible. And this infelicity is still aggravated by
such a position of the manuscript, as to require the eye to be tamed
directly downward in looking at it.



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156 BHETORICAL AOTION.

does not look at any thing. There is io its expression
a generality, a vacuity, so to speak, that expresses nothing.
To the same class belongs that indefinite sweep of the
eye, which passes from one side to another of an assem-
bly, resting no where ; and that tremulous, waving cast of
the eye, and winking of the eyelid, which is in direct con-
trast to an open, collected, manly expression of-tbeface.^

So fatal are these faults to the impression of delivery,
that too much care cannot be taken to avoid them.

Attitude I use, not in the theatrical sense of the word,
(for this has no concern with oratory,) but as denoting the
general positions of the body, which are becoming or oth-
erwise in a speaker. In some few instances I have ob-
served the head to be kept so erect, as to give the air of
haughtiness. In others, it is dropped so low, that the man
seems to be carelessly surveying his own person. In oth-
ers it is reclined towards one shoulder, so as to give the
appearance of languor or indolence. f

As to the degree of motion that is proper for the body,

it may be safely said, that while the fixedness of a post is

an extreme, all violent tossing of the body from side to

side, rising on the toes, or writhing of the shoulders and

limbs, are not less unseemly.

■■"

• Here again the habit acquired by some preachers, from closely
reading their sermons, is such, that when they raise their eye from
the paper, they fix it on the floor of the aisle, or on a post or pannel,
to ayoid a direct look at their hearers.

t There is often something characteristic in the air with which
a preacher enters a church, ascends the pulpit, and rises in it to
address an assembly. If he assumes the gracefulness of a fine gen-
tleman, as if he were practising the lessons of an assembly room, ev-
ery hearer of discernment will see that his object is to exhibit him-



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RHETORICAL ACTION. 1 57

The remarks which come next to be made on gesture,
are more various.^

One principal fault which I have noticed in this, is
want of appropriateness. By this I mean that it is not
sufficiently adapted to circumstances. An address to an
assembly of common men, admits a boldness of action,
that would be unseemly in one delivered to a prince.f



self, and will be offended at so gross a want of that seriousness
which becomes his aacred office.

In minor points, — what constitutes decorum depends no^ on
philosophy nor accident, but on custom. From real or affected
carelessness on such points, the preacher may Bx on some trivial
circumstance, that attention of his hearers, which should be devot-
ed to greater things. He may do this, for example, by standing
much too high, or too low in the puli>it; by rising, as in the act
of commencing his sermon, before the singing is closed; or delay-
ing for so louff an interval, as to excite apprehension that something
has befallen nim ; by an awkward holoing his Psalm book, or es-
pecially his Bible, with one side hanging down or doubled back-
wards; — by drawing his hands behind him, or thrusting them into
his clothes.

In these things, as in all others, connected with the worship of
God, it is the province of good sense to avoid peculiarity in trifies. ^

* The prevailing taste in our own country, like that of England,
has been to employ but little action in the pulpit. Whitefield,in
the last century, broke through the trammels or custom, in a bold-
ness and variety of action, bordering on that of the stage. But his
gesture, like nis elooution, was far from the declamatory. His
and had scarcely less authority than Ciesar^s ; and the movement
even of his finger gave an electric thrill to the bosoms of his hear-
ers. Massillons ac^oU was less diversified, and less powerful,
though more refined, as was the general character of his eloquence.

t On this principle it is, that gesture is felt to be so unseasonable
in personating God, and in addresses made to him. When we
introduce him as speaking to man, or when we speak of his adorable
perfections, or to him in prayer, the sentiments inspired demand
composure and reverence or manner. Good taste then can never ap-
prove the stretching upward of the hands at full length, in the man-
ner of Whitefield, at the commencement of prayer ; nor the frown*
ing aspect and the repelling movement of the hand, with which ma-
ny otter the sentence of the final Judge, <' Depart, ye cursed,*' &^,

14



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158 RHETOBICAL ACTION.

More vivacity and variety is admissible in the action
of a young speaker, than of one who is aged ; and the
same boldness of manner wjiich is proper when the orator
is kindled to a glowing fervor, in the close of a discourse,
would be out of place at its commencement. Yet the same
action is used by some speakers, in the exordium as in the
conclusion — in cool argument to the understanding, as in
impassioned appeals to the heart. Good sense will lead
a man, as Quinctillian says, ^^ To act as well as to speak
in a different manner, to different persons, at difierent
times, and on different subjects."

Nearly of the same class is another kind of faults,
arising from want of discrimination. Of this sort is that
puerile imitation which consists in acting words^ instead
of thoughts. The declaimer can never utter the word
heartf. without laying his hand on his breast ; nor speak of
God or heaven^ in the most incidental manner, without
directing his eye and his gesture upwards. Let the same
•principle be carried out, iu repeating the prophet's descrip*
tion of true fasting ; *< It is not for a man to bow down
his head as a bulrush," Sec**— and every one would see
that to conform the gesture to the words, is but childish
mimicry. This false taste has been reprobated even on
the stage, as in the following passage from Hamlet.

—Why shoald the poor be flatter'd ?

No, let the candied ton^^ae liok abiurd pomp ;

And crook the pregnant hingei of the knee,

When thrift may follow fawning. ■ ■

— Give me the man,

That is not paaiion'e slave. —



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llfiCtrORICAL ACTIOK. 159

A certain actor, in repeating these lines, bent the knee^
and kissed the hand^ instead of assuming, as he ought,
the firm attitude and indignant look, proper to express
Hamlet's contempt for a cringing parasite. But it is still
more absurd, in grave delivery, to regard mere phraseol-
ogy instead of sentiment and emotion.

There is no case in which this want of discrimination
oftener occurs, than in a class of words denoting some-
times numerical^ and sometimes local extent, accompanied
by the spreading of both hands ; the significance of this
gesture being destroyed by misapplication. The follow-
tng examples may illustrate my meaning.

Exam. 1. ^^The goodness of Crod is the source of
all our blessings." The declaimer, when he utters the
word Oodf raises his eye and his right hand ; and when
he utters the word aUj extends both hands. Now the lat-
ter action confounds two things, that are very distinct, num-
ier and space. When I recount all the blessings of my
life, they are very many ; but why should I spread my
hands to denote a multiplicity that is merely numerical
and successive f when the thought has no concern with Zo-
cal dimensions any more than in this case : ^^ All the days
of Methuselah were nine hundred sixty and nine years.*'

Exam. 2. ^* All the actions of our lives will be brought
into judgment." Heve again, the thought is that of arith-
metical succession, not of local extent ; and if any gesture
is demanded, it is not the spreading of both hands.

Exam. 3. " I bring you glad tidings of great joy,



Online LibraryEbenezer PorterAnalysis of the principles of rhetorical delivery as applied in reading and ... → online text (page 11 of 30)