The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

XVI. Webster

§ 3. Literature and Oratory

The fact, however, that in Johnson’s phrase he had literature and loved it, although it tells us of the man, would not give him a place in literary history. Yet he has that place and his right to it rests and must rest upon his speeches, for speeches and addresses are all that Webster has left to us to prove his literary quality, and it very rarely happens that a literary reputation can be based upon speeches actually spoken and delivered. The reason for this rarity of speeches which give a title to a place in literature lies, if we pause to reflect upon it, in the very nature of the speech itself.

Charles Fox was the author of the famous aphorism that “no good speech ever read well.” This is a declaration in epigrammatic form that the speech which is prepared like an essay and then read or recited, which, in other words, is primarily literature and not oratory, is not a thoroughly good speech, and of the soundness of the doctrine there can hardly be a doubt. But the theory, however valid, is not without its dangers. Charles Fox lived up to his own principle. He was, it may well be thought, the greatest of English orators at the moment of speech, but he is little read and seldom quoted now. What he actually said has faded from the minds of men despite its enchanting, its enormous effect at the moment. On the other hand, the speech which is literature before it is spoken is ineffective or only partially effective at the moment, and if it is read afterwards, however much we may enjoy the essay, we never mistake it for the genuine eloquence of the spoken word.

Macaulay is an example of this latter class, as Fox is of the former. Macaulay’s speeches are essays, eloquent and rhetorical, but still essays—literature, and not speeches. He was listened to with interest and delight, but he was not a parliamentary debater or speaker of the first order. The highest oratory, therefore, must combine in exact balance the living force and freshness of the spoken word with the literary qualities which alone ensure endurance. The best examples of this perfection are to be found in the world of imagination, in the two speeches of Brutus and Mark Antony following the death of Cæsar. They are speeches and nothing else—one cool, stately, reasonable; the other a passionate, revolutionary appeal, hot from the heart and pouring from the lips with unpremeditated art, and yet they both have the literary quality, absolutely supreme in this instance, because Shakespeare wrote them.

It is not the preparation or even the writing out before-hand which makes a speech into an essay, for these things can both be done without detracting from the spontaneity, without dulling the sound of the voice which the wholly great speech must have, even on the printed page. The speech loses when the literary quality becomes predominant, and absolute success as high as it is rare comes only from the nice balance of the two essential ingredients. This balance and combination are found in Demosthenes and Isocrates, although one may venture to think that those two great masters, as they have come down to us, lean, if at all, too much to the literary side. In Cicero, although in matter and manner the best judges would rank him below the Greek masters, the combination is quite perfect. One of his most famous speeches, it is said, was never delivered at all, and none the less it is a speech and nothing else, instinct with life and yet with the impalpable literary feeling all through it, the perfect production of a very beautiful and subtle art. Among English orators Burke undoubtedly comes nearest to a complete union of the two qualities, and while the words of Fox and Pitt are unread and unquoted, except by historians, Burke’s gorgeous sentences are recited and repeated and his philosophic discussion of great general principles are studied and admired by successive generations. Yet there is no doubt that Burke erred somewhat on the literary side, and we find the proof of this in the fact that he often spoke to empty benches, and that Goldsmith could say of him:

  • Too deep for his hearers still went on refining,
  • And thought of convincing while they thought of dining.