Of the early exhibitions of eloquence in this country we possess scarcely any remains, although some faint shadows have been preserved of its efforts in the accounts transmitted of the bold and manly address of Caractacus when brought before the Roman Emperor, and of Queen Boadicea’s spirited oration to her valiant. generals. Among the Anglo-Saxon chronicles we have a few specimens of the style of writing and expression in those times, which is also exhibited in the successive missals from that period until a comparatively modern era.
What was remarked with regard to the progress and formation of the English language in respect to poetry, applies equally well to the case of prose composition.
The rise and progress of the art of eloquence, in this, as in most other countries, has, indeed, been necessarily, to a large extent mainly dependent on the progress of civilization, by which the advancement of a language is extensively influenced, as I have already remarked with respect to poetry. Like the art of poetry, eloquence also, in many respects, flourished chiefly as regards vigour and grandeur of description in the middle ages of society, when men’s feelings were expressed with more freedom and vehemence, and their passions were more frequently and openly excited, and also less kept in subjection. The style of early English writers,of Sir Thomas More, Lord Bacon, Sir Matthew Hale, Sir Thomas Browne, and Hobbes, was much more terse and vigorous than that of the present or preceding centuries. In grace and refinement, later ages shine more. Periods of excitement in any nation are also found to be those when oratory flourishes most, as it is then principally that people’s passions and energies are raised, that the grandest occasions for the exercise of oratory are afforded, and the greatest freedom of expression is indulged in. Oratory is indeed the artillery of the soul, which times of political and social convulsion ever call into action, and summon from repose. Eloquence may then be said to have its full share of patronage, and like the other arts it is, of course, in many respects dependent upon this circumstance. Thus, in our own country, the gigantic struggles which preceded the protectorate of Oliver Cromwell, produced a Pym, a Hampden, and a Strafford, whose style as regards vigour and freedom has never been exceeded, and is in marked contrast to the more polished and refined productions of our day. From the period lately spoken of to the present time, the pulpit, the bar, and the senate have each contributed liberally to enrich the pages of our forensic literature ; and orations, in all their loftier intellectual characteristics rivalling not only the productions of our poets, but in many respects the noblest efforts of Grecian and Roman eloquence, have been produced, far superior indeed to contemporaneous artistical efforts in painting and sculpture.
For examples of British eloquence of each kind, and of the highest order, we may refer to the speeches of Lord Boling-broke, Lord Chatham, Lord Mansfield, Lord Erskine, Lord Brougham, Mr. Burke, Mr. Sheridan, Mr. Curran, Mr. Canning, and other great men too numerous to specify here, whose efforts not only enchanted the generation which witnessed their productions, but which will remain to all succeeding ages the most splendid and the most suitable monuments to their genius which they could have desired to be raised.
I will, nevertheless, venture to assert that the purest and fairest samples of genuine eloquence are to be found, not in the speeches of our patriots, nor even in the sermons of our celebrated preachers, but in the pages of our philosophers, and in the essays of our critical writers ;our Addisons, our Johnsons, and our Macaulays. The study has here eclipsed the senate, and the pen has been wielded with more power than the oratory of the forum. The noblest efforts of the soul are better evinced, and the result of its deepest cogitations are more fully brought out in the quiet solitude of the closet, or the undisturbed retirement of meditation, than in the turbulent encounter of political debate, or the fierce combat of party animosity. Although its grandest exploits are displayed during the storm of forensic fury, or the thunders of senatorial encounters ; yet in the quiet streams and luxuriant shades of critical and historical composition, the soul most delights to exhibit her rich stores, and to put forth her choicest blossoms. Nature, indeed, everywhere assumes her loveliest aspect, not in the shade but in the sunshine; not on the barren rock, but in the verdant glen.