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

§ 6. Rhetoric and Literature

It is this literary quality which concerns us here, and to appreciate it we must mark the distinction, often a very narrow one, between the rhetorical and the literary. Rhetoric is of course in its place a branch of literature, but it may be of the utmost excellence and yet lack the highest literary quality. Rhetoric is out of place in purely literary work which is not dramatic in character. Yet curiously enough it is not misplaced in poetry. Rhetorical verse, although not the highest kind of poetry, may yet be in its own sphere very admirable indeed.

  • You have the Pyrrhic dance as yet,
  • Where is the Pyrrhic phalanx gone?
  • Of two such lessons, why forget
  • The nobler and the manlier one?
  • You have the letters Cadmus gave—
  • Think ye he meant them for a slave?
  • That is rhetorical poetry and it is very fine of its kind, very splendid even. Byron was a great master of rheotrical verse, often too much so for his own good, but none the less the rhetoric is not out of place. On the other hand, to put rhetoric, except in dramatic passages, into literary prose is almost as bad as to write metred prose, of which Dickens was guilty in the description of the death of Little Nell. But when we come to giving the literary touch to rhetoric the exact reverse is the case. The rhetoric is at once lifted up and illuminated. The only objection is that the art is as rare as it is difficult, to be found in only a few great masters of speech in human history. It was precisely in this rare and difficult art that Webster excelled. His rhetoric was always unimpeachable, but his peculiar power lay in the fact that he was able to give to it with ever-increasing ease the imperishable literary quality.

    We detect the first gleams of this beautiful art in the Plymouth oration. It is not necessary to take as an example the celebrated passage about the slave trade, where the rhetoric predominates; less familiar sentences prove the point. He is speaking of Rome:

  • Although the time might come, when darkness should settle on all her hills; when foreign or domestic violence should overturn her altars and her temples; when ignorance and despotism should fill the places where Laws, and Arts and Liberty had flourished; when the feet of barbarism should trample on the tombs of her consuls and the walls of her Senate-house and forum echo only to the voice of savage triumph.
  • A little farther on, speaking of the human love of home and birth-place, a well-worn theme, he says:
  • When the heart has laid down what it loved most, then it is desirous of laying itself down. No sculptured marble, no enduring monument, no honourable inscription, no ever burning taper that would drive away the darkness of the tomb, can soften our sense of the reality of death, and hallow to our feelings the ground which is to cover us, like the consciousness that we shall sleep, dust to dust, with the objects of our affections.
  • The thought in these passages is simple, oft-recurrent, entirely familiar, expressed by many other orators with great effect and received by genuinely moved audiences with much applause. The first time one looks upon them, if one could extricate them from the limbo of forgotten speeches, they might sound as well as Webster’s words. But listen to them again, read them, and it will be found that Webster’s sentences have a quality which all the others lack. Literature is interwoven with Webster’s rhetoric, and it is this that preserves what he said from the forgetfulness which has overwhelmed others who in public speech have said the same things but just a little differently and without the magic literary touch.

    Let us take one more example from his early days. In 1826, speaking in the House upon the Monroe Doctrine, Webster said:

  • I look on the message of December, 1823, as forming a bright page in our history. I will neither help to erase it or tear it out; nor shall it be by any act of mine blurred or blotted. It did honor to the sagacity of the government and I will not diminish that honor. It elevated the hopes and gratified the patriotism of the people. Over those hopes I will not bring a mildew; nor will I put that gratified patriotism to shame.
  • Rhetorically this passage is all that could be desired. The sentences are short, effective, possessing both balance and precision. But when we come to the last we find the literary touch. It is only one word, “mildew,” but that single word is imaginative and strikes us at once. Leave it out and change the sentence slightly; the rhetoric remains excellent as before, but the whole effect is altered.

    Let us take one or two other familiar passages from the later speeches when the style was perfected and when the literary quality had become a second nature. As Webster stood one summer morning on the ramparts of Quebec, and heard the sound of drums and saw the English troops on parade, the thought of England’s vast world empire came strongly to his mind. The thought was very natural under the circumstances, not at all remarkable nor in the least original. Some years later, in a speech in the Senate, he put his thought into words, and this, as everyone knows, is the way he did it:

  • A power which has dotted over the surface of the whole globe with her possessions and military posts, whose morning drumbeat, following the sun and keeping company with the hours, circles the earth with one continuous and unbroken strain of the martial airs of England.
  • The sentence has followed the drumbeat round the world and has been repeated in England and in the antipodes by men who never heard of Webster and probably did not know that this splendid description of the British Empire was due to an American. It is not the thought which has carried these words so far through time and space. It is the beauty of the imagery and the magic of the style. Let me take one more very simple example of the quality which distinguishes Webster’s speeches above those of others, which makes his words and serious thoughts live on when others, equally weighty and serious, perhaps, sleep or die. In his first Bunker Hill oration he apostrophized the monument, just as anyone else might have tried to do, and this is what he said:

  • Let it rise, let it rise till it meet the sun in his coming; let the earliest light of morning gild it, and parting day linger and play on its summit.