George William Erskine Russell.

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Pitt died in 1806, but he lived long enough to hear the splendid
eloquence of Grattan, rich in imagination, metaphor, and epigram; and to
open the doors of the official hierarchy to George Canning. Trained by
Pitt, and in many gifts and graces his superior, Canning first displayed
his full greatness after the death of his illustrious master. For twenty
years he was the most accomplished debater in the House of Commons, and
yet he never succeeded in winning the full confidence of the nation,
nor, except in foreign affairs, in leaving his mark upon our national
policy. "The English are afraid of genius," and when genius is displayed
in the person of a social adventurer, however brilliant and delightful,
it is doubly alarming.

We can judge of Canning's speeches more exactly than of those of his
predecessors, for by the time that he had become famous the art of
parliamentary reporting had attained almost to its present perfection;
and there are none which more amply repay critical study. Second only to
Burke in the grandeur and richness of his imagery, he greatly excelled
him in readiness, in tact, and in those adventitious advantages which go
so far to make an orator. Mr. Gladstone remembered the "light and music"
of the eloquence with which he had fascinated Liverpool seventy years
before. Scarcely any one contributed so many beautiful thoughts and
happy phrases to the common stock of public speech. All contemporary
observers testify to the effect produced by the proud strength of his
declaration on foreign policy: "I called the New World into existence,
to redress the balance of the Old." And the language does not contain a
more magnificent or perfect image than that in which he likens a strong
nation at peace to a great man-of-war lying calm and motionless till the
moment for action comes, when "it puts forth all its beauty and its
bravely collects its scattered elements of strength, and awakens its
dormant thunder."

Lord John Russell entered the House of Commons in 1813, and left it in
1861. He used to say that in his early days there were a dozen men there
who could make a finer speech than any one now living; "but," he used to
add, "there were not another dozen who could understand what they were
talking about." I asked him who was, on the whole, the best speaker he
ever heard. He answered, "Lord Plunket," and subsequently gave as his
reason this - that while Plunket had his national Irish gifts of
fluency, brilliant imagination, and ready wit very highly developed,
they were all adjuncts to his strong, cool, inflexible argument. This,
it will be readily observed, is a very rare and a very striking
combination, and goes far to account for the transcendent success which
Plunket attained at the Bar and in the House, and alike in the Irish and
the English Parliament. Lord Brougham said of him that his eloquence was
a continuous flow of "clear statement, close reasoning, felicitous
illustration, all confined strictly to the subject in hand; every
portion, without any exception, furthering the process of conviction;"
and I do not know a more impressive passage of sombre passion than the
peroration of his first speech against the Act of Union: "For my own
part, I will resist it to the last gasp of my existence, and with the
last drop of my blood; and when I feel the hour of my dissolution
approaching, I will, like the father of Hannibal, take my children to
the altar and swear them to eternal hostility against the invaders of
their country's freedom."

Before the death of Pitt another great man had risen to eminence, though
the main achievement of his life associates him with 1832. Lord Grey was
distinguished by a stately and massive eloquence which exactly suited
his high purpose and earnest gravity of nature, while its effect was
enormously enhanced by his handsome presence and kingly bearing. Though
the leader of the popular cause, he was an aristocrat in nature, and
pre-eminently qualified for the great part which, during twenty years,
he played in that essentially aristocratic assembly - the unreformed
House of Commons. In a subsequent chapter I hope to say a little about
parliamentary orators of a rather more recent date; and here it may not
be uninteresting to compare the House of Commons as we have seen it and
known it, modified by successive extensions of the suffrage, with what
it was before Grey and Russell destroyed for ever its exclusive

The following description is taken from Lord Beaconsfield, who is
drawing a character derived in part from Sir Francis Burdett
(1770-1840), and in part from George Byng, who was M.P. for Middlesex
for fifty-six years, and died in 1847: - "He was the Father of the House,
though it was difficult to believe that from his appearance. He was
tall, and kept his distinguished figure; a handsome man with a musical
voice, and a countenance now benignant, though very bright and Once
haughty. He still retained the same fashion of costume in which he had
ridden up to Westminster more than half a century ago to support his
dear friend Charles Fox - real topboots and a blue coat and buff
waistcoat. He had a large estate, and had refused an earldom. Knowing
E., he came and sate by him one Jay in the House, and asked him,
good-naturedly, how he liked his new life. It is very different from
what it as when I was your age. Up to Easter we rarely had a regular
debate, never a party division; very few people came up indeed. But
there was a good deal of speaking on all subjects before dinner. We had
the privilege then of speaking on the presentation of petitions at any
length, and we seldom spoke on any other occasion. After Easter there
was always at least one great party fight. This was a mighty affair,
talked of for weeks before it came off, and then rarely an adjourned
debate. We were gentlemen, used to sit up late, and should have been
sitting up somewhere else had we not been in the House of Commons. After
this party fight the House for the rest of the session was a mere
club.... The House of Commons was very much like what the House of Lords
is now. You went home to dine, and then came back for an important
division.... Twenty years ago no man would think of coming down to the
House except in evening dress. I remember so late as Mr. Canning the
Minister always came down in silk stockings and pantaloons or
knee-breeches. All these things change, and quoting Virgil will be the
next thing to disappear. In the last - Parliament we often had Latin
quotations, but never from a member with a new constituency. I have
heard Greek quoted here, but that was long ago, and a great mistake. The
House was quite alarmed. Charles Fox used to say as to quotation, 'No
Greek; as much Latin as you like; and never French under any
circumstances. No English poet unless he has completed his century.'
These were, like some other good rules, the unwritten orders of the
House of Commons."



I concluded my last chapter with a quotation from Lord Beaconsfield,
describing parliamentary speaking as it was when he entered the House of
Commons in 1837. Of that particular form of speaking perhaps the
greatest master was Sir Robert Peel. He was deficient in those gifts of
imagination and romance which are essential to the highest oratory. He
utterly lacked - possibly he would have despised - that almost prophetic
rapture which we recognize in Burke and Chatham and Erskine. His manner
was frigid and pompous, and his rhetorical devices were mechanical.
Every parliamentary sketch of the time satirizes his habit of turning
round towards his supporters at given periods to ask for their applause;
his trick of emphasizing his points by perpetually striking the box
before him; and his inveterate propensity to indulge in hackneyed
quotation. But when we have said this we have said all that can be urged
in his disparagement. As a parliamentary speaker of the second and
perhaps most useful class he has never been excelled. Firmly though
dispassionately persuaded of certain political and economic doctrines,
he brought to the task of promoting them unfailing tact, prompt courage,
intimate acquaintance with the foibles of his hearers, unconquerable
patience and perseverance, and an inexhaustible supply of sonorous
phrases and rounded periods. Nor was his success confined to the House
of Commons. As a speaker on public platforms, in the heyday of the
ten-pound householder and the middle-class franchise, he was peculiarly
in his element. He had beyond most men the art of "making a platitude
endurable by making it pompous." He excelled in demonstrating the
material advantages of a moderate and cautious conservatism, and he
could draw at will and with effect upon a prodigious fund of
constitutional commonplaces. If we measure the merit of a parliamentary
speaker by his practical influence, we must allow that Peel was
pre-eminently great.

In the foremost rank of orators a place must certainly be assigned to
O'Connell. He was not at his best in the House of Commons. His
coarseness, violence, and cunning were seen to the worst advantage in
what was still an assemblage of gentlemen. His powers of ridicule,
sarcasm, and invective, his dramatic and sensational predilections,
required another scene for their effective display. But few men have
ever been so richly endowed by Nature with the original, the
incommunicable, the inspired qualifications which go to make an orator.
He was magnificently built, and blessed with a voice which, by all
contemporary testimony, was one of the most thrilling, flexible, and
melodious that ever vibrated through a popular assembly. "From grave to
gay, from lively to severe" he flew without delay or difficulty. His wit
gave point to the most irrelevant personalities, and cogency to the most
illogical syllogisms. The most daring perversions of truth and justice
were driven home by appeals to the emotions which the coldest natures
could scarcely withstand; "the passions of his audience were playthings
in his hand." Lord Lytton thus described him: -

"Once to my sight the giant thus was given:
Walled by wide air, and roofed by boundless heaven,
Beneath his feet the human ocean lay,
And wave on wave flowed into space away.
Methought no clarion could have sent its sound
Even to the centre of the hosts around;
But, as I thought, rose the sonorous swell
As from some church tower swings the silvery bell.
Aloft and clear, from airy tide to tide
It glided, easy as a bird may glide;
To the last verge of that vast audience sent,
It played with each wild passion as it went;
Now stirred the uproar, now the murmur stilled,
And sobs or laughter answered as it willed.
Then did I know what spells of infinite choice,
To rouse or lull, hath the sweet human voice;
Then did I seem to seize the sudden clue
To that grand troublous Life Antique - to view,
Under the rockstand of Demosthenes,
Mutable Athens heave her noisy seas."

A remarkable contrast, as far as outward characteristics went, was
offered by the other great orator of the same time. Sheil was very
small, and of mean presence; with a singularly fidgety manner, a shrill
voice, and a delivery unintelligibly rapid. But in sheer beauty of
elaborated diction not O'Connell nor any one else could surpass him.
There are few finer speeches in the language than that in which he took
Lord Lyndhurst to task for applying the term "aliens" to the Irish in a
speech on municipal reform: -

"Aliens! Good God! was Arthur Duke of Wellington in the House of Lords,
and did he not start up and exclaim, 'Hold! I have seen the aliens do
their duty'?... I appeal to the gallant soldier before me, from whose
opinions I differ, but who bears, I know, a generous heart in an
intrepid bosom - tell me, for you needs must remember, on that day when
the destinies of mankind were trembling in the balance, while death fell
in showers - tell me if for an instant, when to hesitate for an instant
was to be lost, the 'aliens' blenched.... On the field of Waterloo the
blood of England, of Scotland, and of Ireland flowed in the same stream
and drenched the same field. When the chill morning dawned their dead
lay cold and stark together; in the same deep pit their bodies were
deposited; the green corn of spring is now breaking from their
commingled dust; the dew falls from heaven upon this union in the grave.
Partakers in every peril, in the glory shall we not be permitted to
participate? And shall we be told as a requital that we are 'aliens'
from the noble country for whose salvation our life-blood was poured

By the time which we are now considering there had risen to eminence a
man who, if he could not be ranked with the great orators of the
beginning of the century, yet inherited their best traditions and came
very near to rivalling their fame. I refer to the great Lord Derby. His
eloquence was of the most impetuous kind, corresponding to the sensitive
fierceness of the man, and had gained for him the nickname of "The
Rupert of Debate." Lord Beaconsfield, speaking in the last year of his
life to Mr. Matthew Arnold, said that the task of carrying Mr. Forster's
Coercion Bill of 1881 through the House of Commons "needed such a man as
Lord Derby was in his youth - a man full of nerve, dash, fire, and
resource, who carried the House irresistibly along with him" - no mean
tribute from a consummate judge. Among Lord Derby's ancillary
qualifications were his musical voice, his fine English style, and his
facility in apt and novel quotation, as when he applied Meg Merrilies's
threnody over the ruins of Derncleugh to the destruction of the Irish
Church Establishment. I turn to Lord Lytton again for a description: -

"One after one, the Lords of Time advance;
Here Stanley meets - how Stanley scorns! - the glance.
The brilliant chief, irregularly great,
Frank, haughty, rash, the Rupert of Debate;
Nor gout nor toil his freshness can destroy,
And time still leaves all Eton in the boy.
First in the class, and keenest in the ring,
He saps like Gladstone, and he fights like Spring!
Yet who not listens, with delighted smile,
To the pure Saxon of that silver style;
In the clear style a heart as clear is seen,
Prompt to the rash, revolting from the mean."

I turn now to Lord Derby's most eminent rival - Lord Russell. Writing in
1844, Lord Beaconsfield thus described him: - "He is not a natural
orator, and labours under physical deficiencies which even a Demosthenic
impulse could scarcely overcome. But he is experienced in debate, quick
in reply, fertile in resource, takes large views, and frequently
compensates for a dry and hesitating manner by the expression of those
noble truths that flash across the fancy and rise spontaneously to the
lip of men of poetic temperament when addressing popular assemblies."
Twenty years earlier Moore had described Lord John Russell's public
speaking in a peculiarly happy image: -

"An eloquence, not like those rills from a height
Which sparkle and foam and in vapour are o'er;
But a current that works out its way into light
Through the filtering recesses of thought and of lore."

Cobden, when they were opposed to one another in the earlier days of the
struggle for Free Trade, described him as "a cunning little fox," and
avowed that he dreaded his dexterity in parliamentary debate more than
that of any other opponent.

In 1834 Lord John made his memorable declaration in favour of a liberal
policy with reference to the Irish Church Establishment, and, in his own
words, "The speech made a great impression; the cheering was loud and
general; and Stanley expressed his sense of it in a well-known note to
Sir James Graham: 'Johnny has upset the coach.'" The phrase was
perpetuated by Lord Lytton, to whom I must go once again for a perfectly
apt description of the Whig leader, both in his defects of manner and in
his essential greatness: -

"Next cool, and all unconscious of reproach,
Comes the calm Johnny who "upset the coach" -
How formed to lead, if not too proud to please!
His fame would fire you, but his manners freeze;
Like or dislike, he does not care a jot;
He wants your vote, but your affections not.
Yet human hearts need sun as well as oats;
So cold a climate plays the deuce with votes.
But see our hero when the steam is on,
And languid Johnny glows to Glorious John;
When Hampden's thought, by Falkland's muses drest,
Lights the pale cheek and swells the generous breast;
When the pent heat expands the quickening soul,
And foremost in the race the wheels of genius roll."

As the general idea of these chapters has been a concatenation of Links
with the Past, I must say a word about Lord Palmerston, who was born in
1784, entered Parliament in 1807, and was still leading the House of
Commons when I first attended its debates. A man who, when turned
seventy, could speak from the "dusk of a summer evening to the dawn of a
summer morning" in defence of his foreign policy, and carry the
vindication of it by a majority of 46, was certainly no common performer
on the parliamentary stage; and yet Lord Palmerston had very slender
claims to the title of an orator. His style was not only devoid of
ornament and rhetorical device, but it was slipshod and untidy in the
last degree. He eked out his sentences with "hum" and "hah;" he cleared
his throat, and flourished his pocket-handkerchief, and sucked his
orange; he rounded his periods with "you know what I mean" and "all that
kind of thing," and seemed actually to revel in an anti-climax - "I think
the hon. member's proposal an outrageous violation of constitutional
propriety, a daring departure from traditional policy, and, in short, a
great mistake." It taxed all the skill of the reporters' gallery to trim
his speeches into decent form; and yet no one was listened to with
keener interest, no one was so much dreaded as an opponent, and no one
ever approached him in the art of putting a plausible face upon a
doubtful policy and making the worse appear the better cause.
Palmerston's parliamentary success perfectly illustrates the judgment of
Demosthenes, that "it is not the orator's language that matters, nor the
tone of his voice; but what matters is that he should have the same
predilections as the majority, and should entertain the same likes and
dislikes as his country." If those are the requisites of public
speaking, Palmerston was supreme.

The most conspicuous of all Links with the Past in the matter of
Parliamentary Oratory is obviously Mr. Gladstone. Like the younger Pitt,
he had a "premature and unnatural dexterity in the combination of
words." He was trained under the immediate influence of Canning, who was
his father's friend. When he was sixteen his style was already formed. I
quote from the records of the Eton Debating Society for 1826: -

"Thus much, sir, I have said, as conceiving myself bound in fairness not
to regard the names under which men have hidden their designs so much as
the designs themselves. I am well aware that my prejudices
and my predilections have long been enlisted on the side of
Toryism - (cheers) - and that in a cause like this I am not likely to be
influenced unfairly against men bearing that name and professing to act
on the principles which I have always been accustomed to revere. But the
good of my country must stand on a higher ground than distinctions like
these. In common fairness and in common candour, I feel myself compelled
to give my decisive verdict against the conduct of men whose measures I
firmly believe to have been hostile to British interests, destructive of
British glory, and subversive of the splendid and, I trust, lasting
fabric of the British Constitution."

Mr. Gladstone entered Parliament when he was not quite twenty-three, at
the General Election of 1832, and it is evident from a perusal of his
early speeches in the House of Commons, imperfectly reported in the
third person, and from contemporary evidence, that, when due allowance
is made for growth and development, his manner of oratory was the same
as it was in after-life. He was only too fluent. His style was copious,
redundant, and involved, and his speeches were garnished, after the
manner of his time, with Horatian and Virgilian tags. His voice was
always clear, flexible, and musical, though his utterance was marked by
a Lancastrian "burr." His gesture was varied and animated, though not
violent. He turned his face and body from side to side, and often
wheeled right round to face his own party as he appealed for their

"Did you ever feel nervous in public speaking?" asked the late Lord

"In opening a subject, often," answered Mr. Gladstone; "in reply,

It was a characteristic saying, for, in truth, he was a born debater,
never so happy as when coping on the spur of the moment with the
arguments and appeals which an opponent had spent perhaps days in
elaborating beforehand. Again, in the art of elucidating figures he was
unequalled. He was the first Chancellor of the Exchequer who ever made
the Budget interesting. "He talked shop," it was said, "like a tenth
muse." He could apply all the resources of a glowing rhetoric to the
most prosaic questions of cost and profit; could make beer romantic and
sugar serious. He could sweep the widest horizon of the financial
future, and yet stoop to bestow the minutest attention on the microcosm
of penny stamps and the monetary merits of half-farthings. And yet,
extraordinary as were these feats of intellectual athletics, Mr.
Gladstone's unapproached supremacy as an orator was not really seen
until he touched the moral elements involved in some great political
issue. Then, indeed, he spoke like a prophet and a man inspired. His
whole physical formation seemed to become "fusile" with the fire of his
ethical passion, and his eloquence flowed like a stream of molten lava,
carrying all before it in its irresistible rush, glorious as well as
terrible, and fertilizing while it subdued. Mr. Gladstone's departure
from the House of Commons closed a splendid tradition, and Parliamentary
Oratory as our fathers understood it may now be reckoned among the lost



We have agreed that Parliamentary Oratory, as our fathers understood
that phrase, is a lost art. Must Conversation be included in the same
category? To answer with positiveness is difficult; but this much may be
readily conceded - that a belief in the decadence of conversation is
natural to those who have specially cultivated Links with the Past; who
grew up in the traditions of Luttrell and Mackintosh, and Lord Alvanley
and Samuel Rogers; who have felt Sydney Smith's irresistible fun, and
known the overwhelming fullness of Lord Macaulay. It is not unreasonable
even in that later generation which can still recall the frank but
high-bred gaiety of the great Lord Derby, the rollicking good-humour and
animal spirits of Bishop Wilberforce, the saturnine epigrams of Lord
Beaconsfield, the versatility and choice diction of Lord Houghton, the
many-sided yet concentrated malice which supplied the stock in trade of
Abraham Hayward. More recent losses have been heavier still. Just ten
years ago[15] died Mr. Matthew Arnold, who combined in singular harmony
the various elements which go to make good conversation - urbanity,
liveliness, quick sympathy, keen interest in the world's works and ways,
the happiest choice of words, and a natural and never-failing humour, as
genial as it was pungent. It was his characteristic glory that he knew
how to be a man of the world without being frivolous, and a man of
letters without being pedantic.

Eight years ago[16] I was asked to discuss the Art of Conversation in
one of the monthly reviews, and I could then illustrate it by such
living instances as Lord Granville, Sir Robert Peel, Lord Coleridge,
Lord Bowen, Mr. Browning, and Mr. Lowell. Each of those distinguished
men had a conversational gift which was peculiarly his own. Each talked
like himself, and like no one else; each made his distinct and
individual contribution to the social agreeableness of London. If in now
endeavouring to recall their characteristic gifts I use words which I
have used before, my excuse must be that the contemporary record of a
personal impression cannot with advantage be retouched after the lapse
of years.

Lord Granville's most notable quality was a humorous urbanity. As a
story-teller he was unsurpassed. He had been everywhere and had known

Online LibraryGeorge William Erskine RussellCollections and Recollections → online text (page 9 of 28)