[Published in the Cornhill in 1860, Dallas's wide-ranging sociological discussion of the changing character of public speaking in modern society included commentary on both pulpit and parliament. - Graham Law]


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principal cause of the low esteem in which parliamentary eloquence is at present held, is the decay of party spirit. The speaking is as good as ever, but the audience is different. It frequently happens that a first-rate speaker is making one of his best speeches, without producing any effect, till suddenly, as he comes to the end of a sentence, a shrill "Hear, hear!" from the back bench reverberates through the House of Commons. That cheer alters the whole character of the scene; the next sentence is still more loudly cheered, and the third even more so. There would have been little or no difference in the delivery of the speech, had there been no cheering at all; the speech is not altered, but the audience is, and the change in the audience makes all the difference between eloquence and ordinary speaking. It is the characteristic of parliamentary debate, that half the force of it depends upon the amount of party spirit with which it is fired. The orator makes a happy remark, but half the value of it is due to the cheering of the men behind him, who in effect say to the Opposition, "There was a dig into your ribs! How do you like that? Come, now, there's another hit - we hope you feel quite well after that." And so by round after round of applause, they make that personal application of the speech which raises it into eloquence. Thus far parliamentary eloquence may be regarded as in general of a second-rate order. The highest order of eloquence is that which affects a man personally. He is deeply moved, and does what the orator bids him. This highest kind of eloquence belongs for the most part to the pulpit. It is only in the sacred edifice that in these degenerate days we are willing to yield ourselves up to emotion, and to bend under the influence of the orator's persuasion. In most cases, however, the highest reach of even pulpit oratory is to awaken some such feeling as this?"That is a capital sermon for these people - I wish that A were here to listen to such arguments - I hope this will have some effect upon B - these people must be very hardened if they do not feel the force of such eloquence." We see how strongly the eloquence ought to be felt, not by ourselves, but by third parties. And this is the ordinary run of parliamentary eloquence. It very seldom happens that a speech really influences the vote. All the eloquence of the Opposition fails to convince the Treasury Bench. And what is all the eloquence of the Treasury Bench? Upon Sir John, who sits immediately behind, it has no personal effect. He has no need of it - he is not moved by it - to him it does not apply; but he sees the application of it to the sinners opposite, and he makes that eloquent which was not eloquent before, by insisting with his jeers and shouts on its fitness to them. An orator may knock and knock with a sledge-hammer till doomsday; but if the hammer never hits the nail, or is never acknowledged to have hit it, the hammer is no better than a straw, and the eloquence is nothing but thin air. We repeat, for the twentieth time, that eloquence is in the audience more than in the speaker. Put more party spirit into the House of Commons, so that by its eager shouting and crowing it shall give more effect and point to the speeches that are made, giving them, in a word, momentum, and the very same orations that now fall flat, would be honoured as astonishing efforts of eloquence. Once more raise that spirit of faction, which, we trust, has been laid for ever, and our parliamentary displays would acquire a new importance. [586-87] . . .

Links to Related Material


[Dallas, Eneas Sweetland]. "Oratory", Cornhill Magazine 2 (November 1860): 580-90.

Created 2 February 2024