IN the composition of a formal oratorical discourse the narration is the part, which immediately succeds [sic] the exordium. The object of the introduction being, as in my last lecture I explained, to conciliate the attention, the kindness, and the docility of the audience, when that has been accomplished, or at least attempted, so far as the situation and circumstances of the speaker have rendered it expedient, his next object must obviously be to give a general exposition of the facts, upon which he purposes to raise his argument.
The term itself, narration, is doubtless so well understood by you all, that it would derive no additional clearness or precision in your minds from a definition. But, in considering its application to the several classes of oratory, we shall find its character and uses to differ materially on different occasions, when it may be employed.
It has sometimes been questioned whether narration belonged at all to discourses of the deliberative class; because deliberation, relating always to future time, can furnish no materials for a narrative. Indeed it is of judicial orations alone upon the state of conjecture, or, to speak in reference to our modern practice, it is of trials at the bar upon issues of fact, questions for the decision of juries, that narration forms a principal and indispensable ingredient; and therefore most of the rhetorical precepts for the conduct of this part of a discourse are adapted especially to occasions of that nature. But to every other mode of public speaking narration is incidental. The utility of any measure, which is the subject of deliberative discussion, generally depends upon a previously existing state of things; often upon a particular disclosure of facts, which the purpose of the deliberative orator requires him to make before his auditory. No question upon the imposition of a tax, the collection of a revenue, the sale of lands, or the subscription to a loan, a declaration of war, or the ratification of a treaty, can arise, in a public assembly, in a state of abstraction. These great topics of debate must always be connected with a series of great public events; and the expediency, upon which the issue of the deliberation will turn, must lean upon the basis of the public affairs at the time of deliberation. The policy of the future is interwoven with the history of the past; and every deliberative orator, whose views of a proposed measure are directed by facts within his own knowledge, must lay before his hearers, in justification of his opinions, as well the facts themselves, as their connexion [sic] with the benefits or disadvantag4es of the measure, which he commends or dissuades.
In demonstrative oratory, so far as this is made the vehicle of panegyric or of censure, narration is equally necessary. A character can be justly commended or reprobated only on account of the deeds, by which it has been distinguished; and these deed scan be emblazoned only by means of a narrative.
But in all such cases, when the narrative does not contain the whole proposition within itself, there is no necessity, nor even would there be any propriety in confining this part of the discourse to a separate location, immediately subsequent to the introduction. It should be introduced occasionally in any part of the speech, intermingled with discussion, diversified by argument, assumed, laid aside, and again renewed, as may serve the purpose of the speaker.
The Manilian law was an act of the Roman people, proposed by the tribune, Manilius, giving the command of the army by an extraordinary commission, and with unusual powers, to Pompey, for the purpose of finishing the war with Mithridates. The celebrated oration of Cicero upon that subject was delivered with a view to prevail upon the people to bestow this unprecedented favor, and to place this uncommon trust in Pompey. The expediency of the act was to be proved by arguments, drawn from the nature of the war and the character of the proposed commander. This oration therefore partook both of the deliberative and of the demonstrative class; and a distinct narrative was necessary to both. The nature of the war was to be manifested by a narrative of the most important events, which had marked its progress. The character of Pompey was to be recommended by a narrative of his prior achievements. It was the first occasion, upon which Cicero ever addressed the assembly of the people, and he labored his discourse with more than ordinary solicitude; stimulated at once by the treble motive of serving his friend, of maintaining his own influence with the people, and of obtaining a general adequate to the exigences [sic] of the war. The narration is double; one part detailing the disasters of the war, and the other extolling the exploits of Pompey. They both contribute essentially to the object of the discourse, but neither of them contains it entirely. They are indeed placed in strict conformity to the rules, in immediate connexion [sic] together, and follow directly after the introduction. But, as they were narrations merely designed to illustrate particular arguments, they might have been produced in any other part of the discourse. This distinction it is proper to make even upon jury trials, where the narration, entitled immediately to succeed the introduction, can only be that, which embraces the facts in issue, and upon which the verdict is to be pronounced.
There are likewise cases, when the narration even of judicial causes should be postponed for the consideration of other preliminaries besides the introduction. This is especially the case, when the orator has to combat strong prejudices against himself or his cause. The removal of such obstacles naturally belongs to the head of the confutation; but it will sometimes be advisable to transfer them to an earlier stage of his discourse, and connect them immediately with his exordium. For the effect of unfavorable prejudice is to make the auditor unwilling to hear; and very little indeed can be expected either of attention, benevolence, or docility, from that, against which the person addressed has barred his ears.
But wheresoever the narration is introduced, whether in regular form immediately after the exordium, or at any subsequent stage of the discourse; whether in one connected train, or in frequent and occasional recurrences, there are certain peculiar characters, by which it should be distinguished. The most essential of these are brevity, perspicuity, probability. The brevity of a narration must however be a relative, rather than a positive quality; and always bear reference to the nature of the speaker’s subject. That narrative is always sufficiently short, which is not overcharged with any superfluous circumstances. Hence Aristotle, whose precision of intellect never suffered him to admit the use of general, indefinite terms, expressly denies that brevity can be included among the essentials of narration. Its length, he contends, must be measured by the complication of the simplicity of the transactions to be told; and he says that the rhetoricians, who require that every narration should be short, may be answered like the baker, who asked his customer whether he should make his bread hard or soft. “Pray sir, cannot you make my bread good?”
This reasoning is obviously just. But some rule is as obviously necessary for curtailing superfluities of narration; nor is it possible in prescribing brevity to indicate some criterion, by which the looseness of this general precept may be circumscribed. What is the use of the narration? It is to lay the foundation for the speaker’s argument; and the end, for which it is introduced, is the best measure for marking its limits. Narration, adduced as the basis of reasoning, comprises three periods of time, and three distinct links, chained in succession together; the important facts, the causes in which they originated, and the consequences which flowed from them. The facts are composed of various incidents, the selection of which should be diversified according to the purpose, for which they are alleged. The same events are susceptible of very various narratives, all strictly conformable to the truth; and the same assemblage of circumstances, which would constitute a concise narrative for the purpose of illustrating an important argument, would be tediously long if the position, which gives them pith and moment, were removed.
Take for example the narration of Milo’s departure from Rome, the day of the encounter, which terminated in the death of Clodius. “Milo,” says the orator, “had attended that day in the senate, and after their adjournment went home, changed his shoes and garments, waited a little, as usual, for his wife to get ready, and finally left his house at a time, when Clodius, had he meant to return that day to ROme, must have been arrived. Clodius meets him on horseback, without carriage, without baggage, without his usual train of effeminate Greeks, nay without his wife, which was almost unexampled; while this supposed assassin, who is represented as having taken that road for the express purpose of murder, was traveling in his carriage, muffled up in his cloak, encumbered with a load of baggage, and surrounded by a delicate and timorous train of women and children.”
Suppose that the defence [sic] of Milo upon that trial had been like that in the case of Roscius of Ameria. Suppose the murder had been committed at Rome, and the object of Cicero had been to show, that it was not and could not be committed by Milo, because he was, at the time of its commission, in the country. The material fact of his departure from Rome would have been precisely the same; but the narration must have been altogether different. The selection of incidents would have been varied, or omitted. The purpose being merely to show that he was not at Rome, it would have been useless and impertinent to tell of his attendance in the senate; of his change of clothing; of his wife’s adjustment of cap and ribbons; of his cloak, his maid-servants, and his boys. In such a state of the cause those very incidents, which in the oration, as it now appears, are selected with such consummate address, would have been tedious and ridiculous. In that case the absence from the city would alone have been material, and the narration might have been comprised in a half a line. But here the object was to exhibit Milo in a certain state of mind, for the purpose of convincing the judges, that his meeting with Clodius was on his part unpremeditated. What an admirable grouping of incidents to produce this effect! In Shakspeare’s [sic] tragedy of Julius Caesar, the poet makes the principal conspirator of Caesar’s death describe the state of mind, which in the human constitution precedes the commission of such unnatural deeds.
“Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream;
The genius and the mortal instruments
Are then in council; and the state of man,
Like to a little kingdom, suffers then
The nature of an insurrection.”
Cicero does not precisely say this; but the whole tenor of his narration is founded upon the presumption, that the judges would feel what extreme agitation deportment, and what a fearful conflict of the passions accompanies in the human breast the premeditation of murder. Milo was a senator. He had on the same day, when Clodius was killed, attended the meeting of the senate, and had not left that assembly until after their adjournment. To a superficial observer of human nature it were perhaps impossible to select an incident less entitled to notice in a narrative than this. Why, no doubt Milo, like the other senators, habitually attended the meetings of the senate, and waited for the adjournment to go home. True; but this regular recurrence to his ordinary daily occupation has a tendency to show, that he was not in the convulsive agitations of a laboring crime. The settled intent of murder would have produced a deviation from the common round of business. He would not have attended the senate at all; or he would have left the assembly before its adjournment, had the bloody purpose been teeming in his soul. A purpose of murder would have absorbed all his faculties. He could not have enjoyed the composure of spirit, nor the coolness of recollection to go home and change his clothes, and wait for the lingering arrangements of a lady’s dress. Still less would he have thought of taking her with her chambermaids and boys in his retinue. This is the argument, which Cicero intends to raise from the facts, thus recapitulated; and the bare notice of circumstances, thus trifling in themselves, prepares the minds of the judges for the reception of his defence [sic]. By turning to the subsequent argumentative part of the same oration, you will see with what earnestness and force he dwells upon these incidents seemingly so slight, as affording the clearest demonstration of Milo’s innocence.
To comply them with the requisition, that the narration should be short, it will be sufficient to remember that you must begin precisely with that incident, which is material to the argument you intend to urge; and, as you proceed, to suppress every circumstance, which has no relation to it. For the purpose of brevity you must exclude likewise every part of a transaction, necessarily implied in the statement of the fact itself. Suppose in the narrative of a journey you should say, we came to the river, inquired the rate of ferriage, entered the boat, were rowed across, and landed on the opposite shore; every part of this relation, considered separately is as short as it could be made; but “we crossed the river” would tell the same fact in four words.
The rule of brevity is not necessary for the purpose of proscribing repetitions and tautology. For however allowable it might be to protract the narration, these would still be inadmissible. But, in the endeavour [sic] to avoid these faults, we must be no less careful to avoid those of confusion and obscurity. This was the caution of Horace to the poets, “brevis esse laboro, obscurus fio.” And the danger is still more incident to an orator, over anxious of brevity in his narration. The danger of redundancy too is not of such vital importance, as that of obscurity. By saying too much the speaker may become tedious. But in saying too little he puts in jeopardy the very justice of his cause. So that the precept of brevity must be relative, not only with regard to the character of the cause, but also with regard to that of the audience. Nothing, already known to all his hearers, can be essential to the narration of a speaker. To a very select and intelligent body a concise summary will fully answer the end of a narrative, when to a numerous, popular assembly, or to an ordinary jury a circumstantial detail might be indispensable to make them understand your subject. If the narrative comprehends events so multifarious and complicated, that it must be positively long, it will be most advisable to divide it into several distinct periods, and mark the divisions either by formal enumeration, or as the relation proceeds, so that the mind of your hearer may dwell upon them, as resting stages for his attention. Nor let the love of brevity preclude the seasoning of occasional ornament. As you lead your hearer along, scatter fragrance in his path. Spread the smiling landscape around. With the attractive charm of fancy make all nature beauty to his eye and music to his ear. The road will then never be long.
The second of the qualities essential to a good narration is clearness or perspicuity; to obtain which the speaker must use plain, intelligible language, never descending to vulgarity; never soaring into affectation. He must mark with obvious distinctions the things, persons, times, places, and motives, of which he discourses; and observe a due conformity of voice, action, and delivery, to the substance of his speech. He must fasten the attention of his hearers altogether upon the facts, which he is relating; and, instead of attracting it, use his most strenuous endeavours [sic] to withdraw it from the manner, in which he tells the story. Let him relate so that every hearer may seem to have been present at the scene, and may fancy that he could himself have told it exactly so. If the orator labors here for admiration, he must earn it at the expense of his credit. He will be applauded, and not understood, or not believed.
The same principle dictates the rule of probability. The facts are to constitute the foundation for the reasoning; of course the great object of the narration is to obtain belief. In the other parts of the discourse the speaker may plead some excuse for aiming to attract some of the hearer’s attention to himself. The success of the orator might not be lost, though his audience should sometimes think that he argues forcibly, or deeply feels his subject. But once give your hearer time, while your story is telling, to think, this man tells his story well, and ten to one but your cause is lost. He had much better think you tell it ill. Art and labor may naturally be expected elsewhere; but in the narration they must not even be suspected. You want the acquiescence of your hearer’s mind not to the goodness, but to the truth of what you say. You may perhaps inquire, why then the precept is not that the narrative should be true? It is undoubtedly of great importance to an orator that his statement of facts should be true; but this is not included among the precepts of his art, for two reasons; first because the truth of his statement does not always depend upon himself. His narrative must generally be founded upon the testimony of others, and he cannot be responsible for its truth. And secondly because the truth is not by itself sufficient to obtain the hearer's belief. There is a natural connexion [sic] between truth and probability; and so strong is this connexion [sic], that as audience is seldom willing to admit any other test of that truth, which they cannot certainly know, but that probability, of which all can judge. Hence it follows, that an improbable truth is less adapted to obtain belief, than a probable falsehood. And hence the rhetorical instruction to an orator is not “make your narration true;” but make your narration probable.
To observe the rule of probability, you must in the first place, by a severe and impartial scrutiny of incidents, exert your faculties to discover the truth; and lay it down as a maxim of rhetoric no less than of morality, never to give for truth what you know to be false. You must then trace and exhibit a natural connexion [sic] between your facts, their causes, and the motives, in which they originated. You should give intimations of character, which may account for the acts of persons, which form a part of your relation. You should observe all the conformities of time, place, and circumstance; and as there is in all human transactions a sort of homogeneous congruity of facts, you must be attentive to give your narrative that natural air of truth, which forms the first excellence of dramatic representation. If the first part of the story be properly told, it will prepare the hearer for the sequel, and even for the substance of the argument. As the narrative is the foundation, upon which the proof or confirmation is to be built, whatsoever is there to be enlarged upon, the characters, time, place, motives, and occasions, are to be first sketched in the narration.
In addition to these rules some rhetorical teachers consider the narration as requiring peculiar dignity of language, and loftiness of expression. A more judicious rule will be to diversify the style according to the nature of the subject to be related. Digressions should here seldom be indulged, and always be short. Exclamations, figures of high poetical character, personifications, formal arguments, and forceful appeals to the passions, have no place here; for they would extend the narrative to unnecessary length, or veil it with obscurity, or impair its credibility. But of all the parts of an oration the narrative is that, which calls for the profoundest art, for that art, which disguises itself, for that “callidissima simplicitatis imitatio,” which belongs only to the most eloquent of men. It is the part, which requires graces of the most delicate refinement, beauties of the most exquisite polish. But the speaker must cling to the character of his subject. In causes of a private character and of minor importance, he must present only those modest, unassuming graces, which attain distinction by flying from notice. Every word should be selected for its meaning, and bear the sterling stamp of significancy. Yet his simplicity must not be plain; his purity must not be barren. The discourse should be seasoned with pleasantry; the language quickened with variety.
The attention of the auditory seldom fixes upon any part of a public speaker’s performance so intensely, as upon his narration. There is something in the nature of narrative interesting to all mankind; and it is owing to this propensity, that the most popular of all reading in every stage of society subsequent to the introduction of letters, and at every period of life, is history, real or fictitious. Hence the general fondness for biography. Hence the still more universal attachment to romances, novels, and ballads. But, independent of this passion for hearing stories told, the auditory have a further stimulus to attention in the wish to form their own judgment from the facts. They suppose themselves as able to reason and draw conclusions, as the orator himself; and they give themselves credit for as much feeling, as he can display. THere is upon mist judicial trials a spirit of pride and self love in the judge or jury, which gives birth to a professed principle of total disregard to the argument or eloquence of the advocate, and glories in making up the decision exclusively upon the facts. At the narration alone, jealousy, suspicion, and self complacency may be lulled to sleep in exact proportion, as attention is awakened. The pleasure of the hearer imperceptibly ripens into judgment; and, in surrendering entire acquiescence tot he narrative of the orator, the judge or juror fancies he has pronounced upon the naked facts, without any bias from the oratory of the pleader.
The credit of a narrative must therefore always depend much upon that of the narrator. An established reputation for veracity is often equivalent to a cloud of witnesses. This reputation it behooves then every public speaker to acquire by the general tenor of his life, and the uniform adherence to truth. This acquisition can be made only by degrees, and in process of time. When once attained, it calls for the same solicitude to be retained; and the public speaker should never forget, that a single detected deviation from truth may forfeit the accumulated confidence of many spotless years.
One of the moist powerful arts of narration is to intersperse the relation with such sensible images, as present the scene to the hearer’s eye. All narrative is a species of imitation. It is the representation to the mind by the means of speech of events, which have before been the objects of observation. The more picturesque then a narration is made, the closer is its resemblance to the truth, and the better adapted must it be to obtain belief. The preeminence of the eye over the ear, as a judge of imitation, is remarked by Horace, whose principles of taste, though prescribed only for the composition of poetry, are universally applicable to all the fine arts.
Segeniùs irritant animos demissa per aurem,
Quam quae sunt oculis subjecta fidelibus, et quae
Ipse sibi tradit spectator.
ART. POET. 180.
A passage, which has been well translated by Roscommon.
But what we hear moves less, than what we see;
Spectators only have their eyes to trust,
But auditors must trust their ears and you.
This talent of picturesque description furnishes one of the surest tests of the genius of an orator. The poser of painting speech cannot, like the expression of sentiments and passions, be borrowed from others. It requires accuracy of observation, correctness of judgment, and facility of communication; an union of faculties, bestowed only upon the darlings of nature. But as, if attainable at all by exertions of your own, it must rather by the contemplation of examples, than from the abstraction of precepts, I shall at a future stage of our inquiries invite your attention to some of those imperishable models, which have commanded the admiration of ages, and survived the revolutions of empires; which may teach you what to do, by showing you what has been done.