Eloquence, as an art, consists in the narration of events of great importance, or the description of subjects of the most sub-lime or picturesque nature, in language of corresponding dignity or beauty. Indeed, in many respects, poetry and eloquence are so nearly allied as to be with difficulty distinguishable, as both have for their object, in a great measure, the expression of ideas in this manner. The main apparent distinction between them is that poetry consists of language set into regular metre, while eloquence consists of language disposed merely in its ordinary style and form. Nevertheless, in order to constitute real poetry, metre alone is not considered sufficient, but dignity and beauty in the ideas it conveys are also deemed of essential importance. On the other hand, some writers on eloquence, Aristotle for instance, maintain that oratory of the highest order ought to be put into set metre. This is, however, surely, in strict truth, rather an effort to convert it into poetry, than a means of adorning it as oratory. In their earlier stages, nevertheless, poetry and eloquence oftentimes very nearly resemble each other, and are closely united, sometimes indeed being hardly distinguishable. The latter was even occasionally at those periods accompanied by music, and was ordinarily rendered in measured notes. Alliteration in prose composition is, moreover, but a species of rhyme, where the echo falls at the beginning instead of at the end of the words. It answers too exactly the same purpose as rhyme does in giving a pungency and terseness and set form to the expression.
The invention of eloquence must have been almost coeval with that of language itself. The power of speaking, as regards the mere communication of ideas between mind and mind, was indeed conferred by nature, and is the sustaining medium on which the art of eloquence is grafted. But eloquence, or the faculty of speaking tastefully and feelingly, was conferred by art. Rhetoric and eloquence are often confunded and spoken of as the same effort, whereas they are in reality as distinct as rhyming and poetry, or as architecture and building. One is the act of speaking effectively, the other that of speaking grace-fully; the former is a science, the latter only is an art.
Rhetoric, indeed, I take strictly to include the introduction both of logic and of eloquence into a composition, and to be completely accomplished only by a writing or a speech, in which both these appliances are so fully and effectively blended together as to render it at once convincing and captivating to whoever it is addressed; and not merely ornamental, but also efficient for the practical purpose intended.
In the invention of language the exercise of imitation may be observed, inasmuch as the names of many objects were in the first instance derived from an effort to copy some quality in them, as we still name certain animals (such as the cuckoo and the peewit) by imitating the sound which they make.
Eloquence is to a certain extent the offspring of passion and feeling in common with taste, and might be said on that account to be the progenitor of poetry. I have, however, thought it desirable to consider the latter first, in order that I might be better able to explain the nature of both, and the actual difference between them.
The strict and essential points of distinction between the arts of poetry and eloquence I shall have occasion to consider in a subsequent chapter.* It is sufficient here only to observe that eloquence springs out of language, which is the practical invention on which this art is founded. Eloquence consists, not in-deed, as already pointed out, in the mere act of speaking or writing, but in doing so with grace and elegance, as poetry is not produced by the mere composition of metre, but by effecting this with sublimity and beauty, and infusing corresponding sentiment into the work. Eloquence is the ornament and refinement of the science of speech, as poetry is the adornment of metrical composition.
In the earliest period of its progress we are told that language was wont to be accompanied by vehement gesticulation ; it was ordinarily full of metaphor, and the most forcible expressions were constantly made use of. Language in its primitive stages was much more picturesque than it subsequently became. Considerable inversion of sentences was resorted to; and to prevent confusion arising from this circumstance constant variety was adopted in the termination of different words, the effect of which was very harmonious and musical.
It is extraordinary, indeed, to reflect on the immense effect and additional power which may be given to the same idea or sentiment by investing it with the ornaments and endowments which art is capable of bestowing; as in the case of a simple phrase, which when set to and uttered in music acquires a vigour and a force, and sinks into the soul in a manner far beyond what the identical words, conveyed in mere ordinary language, could by possibility accomplish.
As civilization and society advanced, art gave place to science, the ornamental to the useful, the picturesque to the practical. Eloquence in phrase became sacrificed to greater clearness in expression, and force to plainness ; as is especially seen in the construction of our own language compared with those of ancient times. Thus we perceive that the nearer any art is to its source the more vigorous it appears ; the stream foams most fiercely as it bursts from the fountain.