Of Eloquence

The intimate alliance between poetry and eloquence, precisely the same elements being employed in both, has already been referred to. Not unfrequently, indeed, they are so closely connected as to appear in many respects identical, the difference between them being very indistinctly, if at all discernible. Thus, the speeches in a drama, and eloquence itself, especially of the purest and highest order, seem of exactly the same nature. The main distinction as regards their respective province may be said to be that the one has for its object description, whether of a scene, or subject, or sentiment, and its end is to enchant and delight us ; while the leading object of the other is to aid in a controversy of some kind by enlisting the feelings and the passions on the side of our own particular views.

The object of eloquence is at once to rouse us to action, and its effect should be both powerful and instantaneous. Poetry, on the other hand, has no ultimate end in view of this nature. Its only aim is to convey ideas of certain events and objects to the mind, and to afford us delight in so doing. It appeals to the taste and the imagination rather than the understanding. Its origin is in the passions more than in the mind ; and it speaks rather the language of the former than of the latter. The reason as well as the feelings should, however, be influenced in some measure, not only in efforts of eloquence but in other artistical performances, in poetry, painting, sculpture, and also music and architecture, so that the two may be harmoniously propelled in the same direction, and not thwart or counteract each other. Where this is not attended to, as soon as the passions which were excited relapse into their accustomed calm, reason will resume her triumphant sway, and at once annihilate all that has been effected. But we must also bear in mind what has been well observed by an eminent writer,* that “there is a great difference between painting to the imagination and painting to the heart.” Perhaps the former is more entirely the province of poetry, the latter of eloquence. Milton often affects the former, but not often the latter. Cicero very frequently the latter, but very seldom, I think, the former.

I must, however, here repeat that eloquence is not the art of reasoning, or even a branch of it, or in any way actually connected with it. While reasoning is effected through the exercise with the utmost skill and acuteness of the argumentative and logical powers of the mind,—those of comparing ideas one with another, and drawing conclusions from certain premises; eloquence, on the other hand, is effected through the exercise of the powers of taste and imagination, and by rousing the feelings, and thus urging on in a particular direction the passions, and through them influencing the judgment, and thereby leading the mind to the result desired.

But it may be said that poetry in regular metre is sometimes argumentative ; and, indeed, in nearly all tragedies and epic poems, orations are put into the mouths of the heroes of them which, on the principle I have laid down, must be considered as belonging strictly to eloquence. And doubtless many of the noblest passages in Shakspeare’s tragedies are in reality masterpieces of eloquence rather than of poetry.

In these instances, however, I think that we must consider the effort as one of a mixed character, as in the case of an imaginative composition in prose. And it should be especially borne in mind that where orations are introduced into poetry, all the rules of eloquence are as strictly applicable to them as to ordinary orations ; and to poetical descriptive pieces, which are not in metre, all the rules of poetry will as fully apply as to strictly and purely poetic compositions.

Take, for instance, our English translation of the Psalms, or of the poems of Ossian. Here metre is not even attempted. As regards the material of them, they are therefore purely prosaic. Yet it is never on that account proposed to class them as rhetorical, or other than poetic performances. Their claim to the latter, nevertheless, they owe solely and entirely to their being of a descriptive imaginative nature, as I observed when defining poetry in contradistinction to eloquence. Those orations which are full of poetic imagery and beautiful description, but contain no point or argument, might perhaps be more correctly comprehended under the genus poetry than that of eloquence; as an oration no more necessarily belongs to eloquence if it be wanting in all the leading qualities and characteristics of this art, than metre, destitute of all the other ingredients of poetry, belongs to the latter. On the other hand, in some orations and prose compositions a kind of rhyme has been introduced in special passages of peculiar force, which, although not set out as metrical, are quite capable of being so regarded. Take, for instance, that celebrated one in Cicero’s oration against Marc Antony, which admits of being put into measured lines or metre equally with verse, though perhaps under no recognized form of versification. Thus : —-

“Defendi rempublicam adolescens; Non deseram senex. Contempsi Catilinm gladios, Non pertimescam tuos.”

Which may be thus rendered in metre of a corresponding character:–

” In my youth I defended the state; In old age I will not desert it. The arms of Catiline I despised ; Yours I shall not dread.”

Aristotle, indeed, as already mentioned, observes in his ` Rhetoric,’* that ” style ought not to be destitute of rhyme, that is a due relation of its component parts, in point of time to each other” That it ” must have harmony to please the ear, but not that unvaried harmony which would offend the taste by the affectation of artifice.” And that ” composition in prose ought not to be regularly measured, nor yet destitute of measure.”

After all, however, doubts may still exist whether poetry is not the perfection of, instead of being a distinct art from eloquence; from which it might be contended to differ not in actual genus, but only in class. It may be said to be the full development of the art of speaking, of which eloquence is only the imperfect mode, the flower of which the latter is merely the bud.

In some respects eloquence is less free than poetry, as in compositions in the latter such great latitude is allowed in the transposition of words. Yet this liberty, on the other hand, does but in part atone for the restraint which by this art is imposed on the free expression of our thoughts and sentiments, from the formal regular style in which, in this species of composition, the words are arranged, and the limited choice allowed us in the selection of them, which is confined to those only that will rhyme harmoniously in the verse; although the musical intonations thus created add much to the effect of the sentiments expressed.

It appears to me, however, to be quite incorrect to conclude as has been done by a celebrated writer,* to whose work I have referred with great approbation, that because poetry and eloquence possess the power of representing a transaction through all its stages, while painting and sculpture can describe it in one of them only, the former are necessarily superior to the latter. The decision here is pronounced from a partial and imperfect view of the case, from considering the advantages and capabilities of the two former arts, without regarding either their disadvantages and deficiencies, or the advantages and capabilities of the latter, to which I have adverted when treating in this chapter on each of these different arts separately.

Poetry and eloquence have a great advantage over the other arts, in expressing the passions and feelings of the mind, as the various efforts in those arts are, like these emotions, active, and living, and sonorous. They can represent as a reality, that of which painting and sculpture can describe only the effects. Poetry and eloquence have also this further superiority, over painting and sculpture, that they give utterance to the very words of the person referred to ; whereas painting and sculpture only afford a knowledge of his internal characteristics, by exhibiting his external qualifications. His mental endowments are not by the latter arts displayed immediately or directly, but only indirectly, and by evincing the results which they produce. In the efforts of poetry and eloquence the actual sentiments are set forth, which painting and sculpture can do no more than as it were reflect.