AT the introduction of the course of lectures, which I am now to conclude, in dividing the science of rhetoric into its principal constituent parts, according to the distribution of the great masters of antiquity, I informed those of you, who then heard me, that what we now include under the common term, delivery, as applied to public speaking, was by them called action or pronunciation. It consists of two things; the deportment of the body, and the utterance of the words. It was therefore denominated action in reference to the gestures; and pronunciation in regard to the voice.
The modern usages of public oratory are so different from those of antiquity, and gesture bears so small a proportion of in oratorical performance, that we can scarcely conceive how it could have been of such importance, as to have engrossed the name; as if the whole delivery had consisted of action. But Demosthenes, according to the well known anecdote related of him, carried his ideas of it still further, and considered it as comprising the whole art of eloquence.
Cicero, in his dialogues de oratore, observes truly that in every thing, appertaining to the action of a discourse, there is a certain energy, derived from nature herself; and which has therefore a peculiar efficacy upon all mankind; which sways the illiterate, as well as the learned; the vulgar, as much as the wellbred; the savage, much as the civilized. Words can effect only those, with whom the speaker is associated by the ties of a common language. Pointed sentences often skim over the minds of men of senses unrefined. But action is the very emotion of the soul, and moves all alike; for the affections are universally excited by the same gestures; and they are by every heart recognised [sic] in itself; and indicated that to others by the same tokens.
In the early ages of human society we can readily imagine, that the eloquence of gesticulation should have been rendered necessary in proportion to the poverty of language. As in process of time every sentiment of the soul had a word appropriated for its expression, the excess of gesture fell into disuse, and pronunciation became a substitute for action. This term itself underwent a corresponding process of change. In the first instance action was the mere delivery of a discourse; and the speaker was called the actor. But as early, as the days of Cicero, these terms had acquired a more limited signification. An actor was a public accuser; and the prosecution of a criminal was called an action. Thus we have, among the works of Cicero himself, his first and second action against Verres. Still however it was not applied to theatrical representations; and Cicero, in his directions to public speakers, draws a very strong injudicious line of distinction between the delivery proper for an orator, and that of a stage player, from this very difference between them. Remembering, says he, that upon the stage the performer is only the imitator, while the orator of the forum or the bar is the actor of truth. There is therefore all the difference between the modes of speaking suitable to each of them respectively, that there is between action and imitation.
In a later age, at the time when the body of the civil law was compiled under the orders of Justinian, and action was expressive of the right, by force of which individual citizens prosecute their claims upon others by the process of law. The word in this sense has been engrafted upon the common law of England, and is now familiar in our courts of justice. So one man sues another in an action of dad, or of covenant, or of trespass, according to the circumstances of his case.
We have also applied the terms, action and actor, to the theatre, where, notwithstanding the pointed and accurate discrimination of Cicero, the performers are now universally called actors; while the name has been wholly discarded by all classes of public speakers; so that a lawyer, a divine, a legislator, would at this day deem it an insult to be called and actor. As Dr. Johnson doubtless meant in an insult upon Lord Chatham, when he described him as "the great actor of patriotism."
The other term, pronunciation, has also lost in common acceptance its meaning, although a speech or a sermon is still sometimes said to be pronounced. We have indeed in daily use terms, appropriated to this part of public discourse, varied according to the object of its performance. A member of a popular assembly makes a speech; a lawyer at the bar argues a case; the orator of a festival delivers an oration; and a clergymen preaches a sermon. These are all however the same action, diversified by the purpose of the speaker and the occasion. The term delivery, as applied to them all, is that, upon which I am now to treat; as including, according to Dionysius of Halicarnasus, τα παθη τα της φωνησ, the affections of the voice, and τα σχηματος, the figures of the body.
The passions of the voice; from which expressions you will infer, that the functions of the voice in public speaking are twofold. First to articulate sounds; to transmit words to the ears of the audience; and secondly to electrify with sentiment; to convey passions to their hearts.
As the mere conveyance of sounds the material circumstance, relating to the voice, is its quantity. Sound is imparted to the ear by the means of a certain vibration of the air. This vibration is effected by the expulsion of a certain portion of air from the lungs, agitated by the various organs of the voice. The stronger the exertion of these organs is, the more rapid is the vibration, and of course the louder it is the sound, produced by it. But the vibration diminishes in proportion to the distance; and, when it is too weak to produce a corresponding vibration of the organs of hearing, the conveyance of articulate sound must fail. The quantity of sound then must be accommodated to the size of the building, in which you speak; and, as far as the powers of the voice will admit, to the hearing of the most distant auditory.
A second injunction respecting the quantity of the voice is to speak slow. Every syllable uttered must have its distinct sound. If they be crowded to thick in succession upon each other, the vibrations of air, which are to convey one sound, includes upon those, which are adapted to communicate another, and produce indistinctness and confusion. At the same time it over strains the organs of the speaker; exhausts his breath, and deprive him of that command of his own respiration, without which he cannot proceed. A pronunciation to rapid is also utterly incompatible with that harmony of discourse, which constitutes one of the greatest charms of eloquence.
With regard to the second rule, of speaking slow, as it is a habit, the acquisition of which depends altogether upon the will of the orator, he, who pretends to speak in public, must be inexcusable for neglecting to acquire it. The case is not exactly the same with regard to speaking loud. Many public speakers have not the advantage of enjoying lungs and other organs of speech always adequate to the constant emission of that volume of sound, which is necessary to fill those buildings, commonly devoted to the purposes of oratory. To them the soundest advice perhaps would be to devote themselves to some occupation more compatible with their tenderness of constitution. If however they find that impracticable, Quinctilian recommends bodily exercise, bathing, and temperance, bordering upon abstemiousness, as the great strengtheners of the voice. But when the voice has communicated the words of the speaker, it has performed only half its office. The thoughts of a discourse are indeed contained in the words, of which it is composed; but as it is always one of the purposes of oratory to move the affections of the audience, the most powerful of all the instruments of the speaker for accomplishing this purpose is the voice. Hence it is that we perceive the propriety, with which Dionysius speaks of the passions of the voice; as if the communication of passion were its only object.
It is remarked by all the rhetoricians, that there is not in the heart of man an emotion, but is capable of being indicated by a corresponding modification of sound by the voice. This power of the voice is also recognised [sic] in every part of the holy scriptures; where in numberless instances the voice of a passion is identified with the passion itself. Thus in the Psalms, David says “I went to the house of God with the voice of joy.” “Thou heardest the voice of my supplications.” “Shout unto God with the voice of triumph.” Nor are these expressions confined to the poetical language of the Psalms. In the prophetical books of the Old Testament, and in the narratives of the new, the voice of gladness and of mirth, of the bridegroom and the bride, the voice of thanksgiving, and the voice of salutation, occur with equal familiarity. From the history of the Jews we know, that they attributed preternatural powers to the voice. It was an universal opinion, that to hear the voice of God was the precursor of immediate death. In the book of Revelations its author embodies it into substance, and says “I turned to see the voice that spake;” and among the customary modes of divination of the Hebrews was that of Bath-kol, or the daughter of the voice.
If the miraculous effects of the voice, like all other miracles, have ceased, we are still sensible of its efficacy upon the passions. And who is there among us, but without the instruction of any other school, then that of nature, has felt the magic of its influence? Who is there, but in the sharp and angry tones of contention has felt his bosom swell with emotions of anger, until they required, if they did not spurn, the control of his sober reason? Who, but from the accents of distress, has found his eyes unconsciously filled with the drops, that sacred pity had engendered? Who, but in the artless eloquence of an infant’s tones, has by a soft compulsive sympathy exalted in all his little joys, and saddened with his little sorrows, until manhood itself returns with rapture to the whistle and the bells? Who, but in the maturity of a still more exquisite affection, on meeting, after long absence, a friend or lover, has found only half the sentiment of the heart gratified by the site, until, to complete its fruition, he has heard the voice? “Let me see thy countenance; let me hear thy voice; for sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely.”
These are powers far beyond the competence of rhetoric to bestow. But they are not beyond her competence to employee. Nothing, that I can say to you from this place, can ever put you in possession of this faculty; but I may without impropriety urge you not to throw it away. For you all possess it, by the gift of nature; though perhaps not all in equal degrees. But by a phenomenon, which would be inconceivable, were it not so commonly tested by experience of the fact, it is one of the most common habits of professed orators, and has been so even at the periods, when the art has flourished in its highest perfection, to lay this irresistible weapon aside, on the very occasions, when it would be most serviceable.
It is by the means of variety alone, that the voice can be made the vehicle of the passions; in this variety principally consists in the tones. Variety of sounds is essential to the formation of words; and a variety of tones is equally necessary to give those words their proper force. They depend rather upon the quality, then upon the quantity of the voice.
In speaking to a very numerous assembly in her whole variety can be used with regard to the loudness or softness of expression. For it is necessary to remember, that there is a very material distinction between loud and soft sounds, and high or low notes. If distinction, with which in musical performances we are all perfectly familiar; but which has sometimes been overlooked by public speakers, and even by rhetorical writers. There is a certain natural pitch of voice, to which every person is accustomed in his ordinary discourse; and which every orator should be careful to assume and to preserve in addressing an audience. The same, or nearly the same degree of loudness should be preserved throughout his discourse; because it is the measure of the extent, at which he can be heard. But it does not follow, that because he must speak in a louder tone, he must also speak and a higher note before a thousand hearers, than to a single friend. The most important varieties are those, which are effected a means of the accent, the emphasis, and the pauses; and the inflexions [sic], whereby the voice slides from the lower to the higher note, or inversely from the higher to be lower.
It would not be consistent with the purpose of these lectures to enter minutely into the consideration of these particulars, the lading to the mechanical part of public speaking. The rules for placing the proper accent upon words, for marking the end static words of a sentence, for pausing at the proper places, and for modulating the voice by the rising, the following, in the reciprocal inflection, are generally contained in those elementary books, which are in the hand of every school-boy. Their attainment however in that perfection, to which those of you, who are destined to oratorical profession, will, I hope, steadily aspire, can only be accomplished by assiduous and persevering practice; by observation of the manner, which distinguishes the most eminent public speakers; and by continual comparison between your observation and your practice; and between both and the principles, elucidated by the writers, who have investigated most thoroughly the subject. The elements of criticism by Lord Kaines, and the various writings of Sheridan and Walker upon elocution and the art of reading, will deserve your particular attention and study. Between Sheridan and Walker you will find many differences of opinion, not quite so important, as the latter of these writers appears to believe them. Sheridan led the way in the attempt to settle and methodize the public pronunciation of the English language. Walker was ambitious of improving upon his master; often controvert his opinions, and claims with great earnestness the merit of a new discovery, in the doctrine of vocal inflexions [sic]. You may perhaps sometimes not be able easily to settle in your own minds the points of contest; but they will not lead to any very serious perplexity, if, in reading these rival rhetoricians, you recollect the instruction of Lord Byron; and “nor to believe and take for granted, nor to find talk and disclosure, but to weigh and consider.”
From these writers may be collected also the rules of gesture, as far as they have been made in modern times a subject of positive precept. But of all the treatises upon this part of delivery the most complete and most methodical, that has ever come to my notice, is the third chapter of the 11th book of Quinctilian’s institutes. It is long and very minute; containing not only the necessary injunctions for the management of the voice, but particular rules for the government of every feature and member of the body, which may concur to the end of public oratory. He considers the modes of gesture likewise in regard to all the possible directions, which can be given them; as right and left, up and down, forward which of these are most easy and most frequently suitable. He directs the accommodation of the voice and gesture to each other, and of both to the subject; to the several parts of the discourse; to the thoughts and sentiments of the speaker; and to the words of his discourse. He gives also the most particular directions for the dress of his orator; how he is to manage the folds of his gown; and how he is to wear the rings upon his fingers. Much of this no doubt is useless for the practice of our age and country. Much of it is interesting only as evidence of the importance, given in the most flourishing ages of eloquence to objects apparently trivial; and of the study, lavished upon the most insignificant trifles at the time, when the art was in its decay. Thus, in the early progress of oratory at Rome, we are told, that Gracchus, in haranguing the people, kept a man close behind him with a pitch-pipe to regulate the modulation of his voice. Cicero, who relates this circumstance, advises his young students of oratory to leave the pitch-pipe at home, and acquire a previous control over their own voices, which will answer the same purpose. But in the age of Quinctilian, that is in the declining days of oratory, the public appear to have been more fastidious with regard to the looks of the orator, than to the tones of his voice or the substance of his discourse. The poet Juvenal, who was contemporary with Quinctilian, says, that Cicero himself in that age could not obtain a fee, unless he should wear an enormous ring.
Fidimus eloquio? Ciceroni nemo ducentos
Nunc dederit nummos, nisi fulserit annulus ingens.
And he adds, that a certain distinguished warrior increased his practice by hiring a sardonyx to wear, when he argued his causes in court. This despicable foppery Quinctilian himself dares not treat, as it deserves; but only manifests his own sentiments by recommending to his pupils not to wear many rings, and those not to pass the middle joints of the fingers.
There are also many directions respecting the movement of speakers at the bar, which cannot well be adapted to our usages. Our public orators, as well in the judicial courts, as before legislative assemblies, or in the pulpit, are usually confined to a single spot; and their gestures can only be partial, and limited to certain members. But in the time of Quinctilian it appears, there was a large area, over which a lawyer could range in the course of his argument. The judges were numerous; and it was customary for the speaker in the midst of his discourse to pass to and fro between them. This traveling oratory was sometimes carried to such lengths, that Quinctilian mentions, as a good jest, a question put to a lawyer, noted for his activity at this exercise, how many miles he had spoken.
As our eloquence is in none of its forms itinerant, unless it be in that of field-preaching, we have little or no present occasions for those parts of Quinctilian’s instructions, which relate to these practices; and as gesticulation in common discourse is much less used, then was customary among the ancients, and even of the moderns far less by those, who speak the English language, then by the inhabitants of the southern parts of Europe, it is unnecessary to dwell with much earnestness upon this topic. It may suffice to say, that the head should be kept in an erect position; steady, but not immovable; avoiding on one hand the stiffness of the statue, and on the other the perpetual nodding vibrations of a Chinese image. The countenance should be firm, without any appearance of presumption or of bashfulness; and composed with equal exemption from all affectation of harshness or of levity. The eyes should not be fixed to any one spot, but move round to every part of the audience particularly addressed. This, in the case of pulpit discourses and public orations, includes the whole auditory. But at the bar and in our legislative assemblies there are often numbers of spectators, who attend merely from motives of curiosity. As the discourse cannot with propriety be addressed to them, the speaker should seldom extend his eyes to them, or appear to be too sensible of their presence. There is a fashion with some of our clergymen of keeping their eyes closed during a certain part of their services. This practice may perhaps be convenient to the speaker, by assisting his self-abstraction from all objects, which might divide his attention; but it has an ungracious appearance; nor is it supposable, that the only expedient for giving fervency to devotion is voluntary blindness. Quinctilian says, that to cover or shut the eyes in speaking is so gross a fault, that a caution against it could not be necessary.
The eyebrows and shoulders should seldom or ever be remarked by any perceptible motion. A shrug of the shoulders is no unusual gesture at the bar, and even in the pulpit; but its awkwardness and vulgarity make it always ridiculous. And in that violent invective of Cicero against Piso, there is perhaps not a passage, where he exposes him more thoroughly to contempt, then that, in which he describes him speaking to the Senate, in the dignified character of consul, with one eyebrow screwed up to the four head, in the other dropped to a level with the chin. Respondes, altero ad frontem sublato, altero ad mentum depresso supercilio, crudelitatem tibi non placere.
To the arms and hands some movement is indispensably necessary. This should be varied according to the position, in which the speaker stands. Our public orators most frequently speak before a table, or within a bar, or in a pulpit, where only their upper half, (to use an expression of our most eminent poet), is seen by the auditory. The hands occasionally find resting places on the table or the question; but the arms should never be suffered to wall upon them the movements of the arm should commence from the elbow, rather than from the shoulder. They should generally be from left to right; and very seldom from right to left. In extending the arm, the fingers should also be extended; and the left-hand or arm should seldom or never attempt any motion by itself.
Finally, let it be remembered, that the movements of the hands should generally accompany the tones of the voice, for the expression of passion; but very rarely for the imitation of action. Even upon the stage, if a performer should be repeating the discourse of another character, he cannot assume all his manners, unless in representations of low buffoonery. But the orator has a real character of his own to maintain; and he degrades himself by assuming the character of a mimic.
This is the substance of the principal rules of oratorical action, prescribed by Quinctilian; which may still be studied to advantage, and applied with success. Little of material importance has been added to them in modern times; nor would any multiplication of written precepts enable you to acquire that ease and elegance of oratorical action, which can only be obtained by experience and practice.
This course of lectures, comprising a system of the rhetorical science, as distributed and taught by the great masters of Greece and Rome, is now completed. It has been my endeavour [sic] to give you a general view of the principles, upon which their rhetorical doctrines were founded; all of the writers chiefly distinguished in this career; and all of the historical progress of their speculations from the earliest ages, until the extinction of ancient science and literature. At the same time I have been sensible, they knowledge of Greek and Roman elementary treatises could be of little use, unless their instructions could be accommodated to the manners of our own times, and the language of our own country. The acquaintance with those writers, which it has been possible for me to give you, has been necessarily slight and superficial. To open the avenues of science is the duty of the teacher. To explore them must be the labor of the scholar himself. Oviedo, which it has been or may be in my power to contribute to your advancement in this department of your studies, I can but regret, that it is so small. Of my ardent wishes, that your success in this and every other laudable pursuit may answer every expectation of your friends, and every hope of your country; as they were the first sentiments, with which I entered on the duties of this place, so they are the last, with which I close this period of their fulfillment.