Collections and Recollections
by George William Erskine Russell
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No sane critic would dream of comparing the genius of Pitt with that of Burke. Yet where Burke failed Pitt succeeded. Burke's speeches, indeed, are a part of our national literature; Pitt was, in spite of grave and undeniable faults, the greatest Minister that ever governed England. Foremost among the gifts by which he acquired his supreme ascendency must be placed his power of parliamentary speaking. He was not, as his father was, an orator in that highest sense of oratory which implies something of inspiration, of genius, of passionate and poetic rapture; but he was a public speaker of extraordinary merit. He had while still a youth what Coleridge aptly termed "a premature and unnatural dexterity in the combination of words," and this developed into "a power of pouring forth with endless facility perfectly modulated sentences of perfectly chosen language, which as far surpassed the reach of a normal intellect as the feats of an acrobat exceed the capacities of a normal body." It was eloquence particularly well calculated to sway a popular assembly which yet had none of the characteristics of a mob. A sonorous voice; a figure and bearing which, though stiff and ungainly, were singularly dignified; an inexhaustible copiousness of grandiloquent phrase; a peculiar vein of sarcasm which froze like ice and cut like steel—these were some of the characteristics of the oratory which from 1782 to 1806 at once awed and fascinated the House of Commons.

"I never want a word, but Mr. Pitt always has at command the right word." This was the generous tribute of Pitt's most eminent rival, Charles James Fox. Never were great opponents in public life more exactly designed by Nature to be contrasts to one another. While every tone of Pitt's voice and every muscle of his countenance expressed with unmistakable distinctness the cold and stately composure of his character, every particle of Fox's mental and physical formation bore witness to his fiery and passionate enthusiasm. "What is that fat gentleman in such a passion about?" was the artless query of the late Lord Eversley, who, as Mr. Speaker Shaw-Lefevre, so long presided over the House of Commons, and who as a child had been taken to the gallery to hear Mr. Fox. While Pitt was the embodied representative of Order, his rival was the Apostle and Evangelist of Liberty. If the master passion of Pitt's mind was enthusiasm for his country, Fox was swayed by the still nobler enthusiasm of Humanity. His style of oratory was the exact reflex of his mind. He was unequalled in passionate argument, in impromptu reply, in ready and spontaneous declamation. His style was unstudied to a fault. Though he was so intimately acquainted with the great models of classical antiquity, his oratory owed little to the contact, and nothing to the formal arts of rhetoric; everything to inborn genius and the greatness of the cause which he espoused. It would be difficult to point to a single public question of his time on which his voice did not sound with rousing effect, and whenever that voice was heard it was on behalf of freedom, humanity, and the sacred brotherhood of nations.

I pass on to the orator of whose masterpiece Fox said that "eloquent indeed it was; so much so that all he had ever heard, all he had ever read, dwindled into nothing, and vanished like vapour before the sun." In sparkling brilliancy and pointed wit, in all the livelier graces of declamation and delivery, Sheridan surpassed all his contemporaries. When he concluded his speech on the charge against Warren Hastings of plundering the Begums of Oude, the peers and strangers joined with the House in a tumult of applause, and could not be restrained from clapping their hands in ecstasy. The House adjourned in order to recover its self-possession. Pitt declared that this speech surpassed all the eloquence of ancient and modern times, and possessed everything that genius or art could furnish to agitate or control the human mind. And yet, while Sheridan's supreme efforts met with this startling success, his deficiencies in statesmanship and character prevented him from commanding that position in the House and in the Government which his oratorical gift, if not thus handicapped, must have secured for its possessor.

As a speaker in his own sphere Lord Erskine was not inferior to the greatest of his contemporaries. He excelled in fire, force, and passion. Lord Brougham finely described "that noble figure every look of whose countenance is expressive, every motion of whose form graceful; an eye that sparkles and pierces and almost assures victory, while it 'speaks audience ere the tongue.'" Yet, as is so often the case, the unequalled advocate found himself in the House of Commons less conspicuously successful than he had been at the Bar. The forensic manner of speech, in which he was a head and shoulders higher than any of his legal contemporaries, is, after all, distinct from parliamentary eloquence.

The same disqualification attached to the oratory of Lord Brougham, whose speech at the bar of the House of Lords in defence of Queen Caroline had made so deep an impression. His extraordinary fierceness and even violence of nature pervaded his whole physical as well as intellectual being. When he spoke he was on springs and quicksilver, and poured forth sarcasm, invective, argument, and declamation in a promiscuous and headlong flood. Yet all contemporary evidence shows that his grandest efforts were dogged by the inevitable fate of the man who, not content with excellence in one or two departments, aims at the highest point in all. In reading his speeches, while one admires the versatility, one is haunted by that fatal sense of superficiality which gave rise to the saying that "if the Lord Chancellor only knew a little law he would know something about everything."

Pitt died in 1806, but he lived long enough to hear the splendid eloquence of Grattan, rich in imagination, metaphor, and epigram; and to open the doors of the official hierarchy to George Canning. Trained by Pitt, and in many gifts and graces his superior, Canning first displayed his full greatness after the death of his illustrious master. For twenty years he was the most accomplished debater in the House of Commons, and yet he never succeeded in winning the full confidence of the nation, nor, except in foreign affairs, in leaving his mark upon our national policy. "The English are afraid of genius," and when genius is displayed in the person of a social adventurer, however brilliant and delightful, it is doubly alarming.

We can judge of Canning's speeches more exactly than of those of his predecessors, for by the time that he had become famous the art of parliamentary reporting had attained almost to its present perfection; and there are none which more amply repay critical study. Second only to Burke in the grandeur and richness of his imagery, he greatly excelled him in readiness, in tact, and in those adventitious advantages which go so far to make an orator. Mr. Gladstone remembered the "light and music" of the eloquence with which he had fascinated Liverpool seventy years before. Scarcely any one contributed so many beautiful thoughts and happy phrases to the common stock of public speech. All contemporary observers testify to the effect produced by the proud strength of his declaration on foreign policy: "I called the New World into existence, to redress the balance of the Old." And the language does not contain a more magnificent or perfect image than that in which he likens a strong nation at peace to a great man-of-war lying calm and motionless till the moment for action comes, when "it puts forth all its beauty and its bravely collects its scattered elements of strength, and awakens its dormant thunder."

Lord John Russell entered the House of Commons in 1813, and left it in 1861. He used to say that in his early days there were a dozen men there who could make a finer speech than any one now living; "but," he used to add, "there were not another dozen who could understand what they were talking about." I asked him who was, on the whole, the best speaker he ever heard. He answered, "Lord Plunket," and subsequently gave as his reason this—that while Plunket had his national Irish gifts of fluency, brilliant imagination, and ready wit very highly developed, they were all adjuncts to his strong, cool, inflexible argument. This, it will be readily observed, is a very rare and a very striking combination, and goes far to account for the transcendent success which Plunket attained at the Bar and in the House, and alike in the Irish and the English Parliament. Lord Brougham said of him that his eloquence was a continuous flow of "clear statement, close reasoning, felicitous illustration, all confined strictly to the subject in hand; every portion, without any exception, furthering the process of conviction;" and I do not know a more impressive passage of sombre passion than the peroration of his first speech against the Act of Union: "For my own part, I will resist it to the last gasp of my existence, and with the last drop of my blood; and when I feel the hour of my dissolution approaching, I will, like the father of Hannibal, take my children to the altar and swear them to eternal hostility against the invaders of their country's freedom."

Before the death of Pitt another great man had risen to eminence, though the main achievement of his life associates him with 1832. Lord Grey was distinguished by a stately and massive eloquence which exactly suited his high purpose and earnest gravity of nature, while its effect was enormously enhanced by his handsome presence and kingly bearing. Though the leader of the popular cause, he was an aristocrat in nature, and pre-eminently qualified for the great part which, during twenty years, he played in that essentially aristocratic assembly—the unreformed House of Commons. In a subsequent chapter I hope to say a little about parliamentary orators of a rather more recent date; and here it may not be uninteresting to compare the House of Commons as we have seen it and known it, modified by successive extensions of the suffrage, with what it was before Grey and Russell destroyed for ever its exclusive character.

The following description is taken from Lord Beaconsfield, who is drawing a character derived in part from Sir Francis Burdett (1770-1840), and in part from George Byng, who was M.P. for Middlesex for fifty-six years, and died in 1847:—"He was the Father of the House, though it was difficult to believe that from his appearance. He was tall, and kept his distinguished figure; a handsome man with a musical voice, and a countenance now benignant, though very bright and Once haughty. He still retained the same fashion of costume in which he had ridden up to Westminster more than half a century ago to support his dear friend Charles Fox—real topboots and a blue coat and buff waistcoat. He had a large estate, and had refused an earldom. Knowing E., he came and sate by him one Jay in the House, and asked him, good-naturedly, how he liked his new life. It is very different from what it as when I was your age. Up to Easter we rarely had a regular debate, never a party division; very few people came up indeed. But there was a good deal of speaking on all subjects before dinner. We had the privilege then of speaking on the presentation of petitions at any length, and we seldom spoke on any other occasion. After Easter there was always at least one great party fight. This was a mighty affair, talked of for weeks before it came off, and then rarely an adjourned debate. We were gentlemen, used to sit up late, and should have been sitting up somewhere else had we not been in the House of Commons. After this party fight the House for the rest of the session was a mere club.... The House of Commons was very much like what the House of Lords is now. You went home to dine, and then came back for an important division.... Twenty years ago no man would think of coming down to the House except in evening dress. I remember so late as Mr. Canning the Minister always came down in silk stockings and pantaloons or knee-breeches. All these things change, and quoting Virgil will be the next thing to disappear. In the last—Parliament we often had Latin quotations, but never from a member with a new constituency. I have heard Greek quoted here, but that was long ago, and a great mistake. The House was quite alarmed. Charles Fox used to say as to quotation, 'No Greek; as much Latin as you like; and never French under any circumstances. No English poet unless he has completed his century.' These were, like some other good rules, the unwritten orders of the House of Commons."



I concluded my last chapter with a quotation from Lord Beaconsfield, describing parliamentary speaking as it was when he entered the House of Commons in 1837. Of that particular form of speaking perhaps the greatest master was Sir Robert Peel. He was deficient in those gifts of imagination and romance which are essential to the highest oratory. He utterly lacked—possibly he would have despised—that almost prophetic rapture which we recognize in Burke and Chatham and Erskine. His manner was frigid and pompous, and his rhetorical devices were mechanical. Every parliamentary sketch of the time satirizes his habit of turning round towards his supporters at given periods to ask for their applause; his trick of emphasizing his points by perpetually striking the box before him; and his inveterate propensity to indulge in hackneyed quotation. But when we have said this we have said all that can be urged in his disparagement. As a parliamentary speaker of the second and perhaps most useful class he has never been excelled. Firmly though dispassionately persuaded of certain political and economic doctrines, he brought to the task of promoting them unfailing tact, prompt courage, intimate acquaintance with the foibles of his hearers, unconquerable patience and perseverance, and an inexhaustible supply of sonorous phrases and rounded periods. Nor was his success confined to the House of Commons. As a speaker on public platforms, in the heyday of the ten-pound householder and the middle-class franchise, he was peculiarly in his element. He had beyond most men the art of "making a platitude endurable by making it pompous." He excelled in demonstrating the material advantages of a moderate and cautious conservatism, and he could draw at will and with effect upon a prodigious fund of constitutional commonplaces. If we measure the merit of a parliamentary speaker by his practical influence, we must allow that Peel was pre-eminently great.

In the foremost rank of orators a place must certainly be assigned to O'Connell. He was not at his best in the House of Commons. His coarseness, violence, and cunning were seen to the worst advantage in what was still an assemblage of gentlemen. His powers of ridicule, sarcasm, and invective, his dramatic and sensational predilections, required another scene for their effective display. But few men have ever been so richly endowed by Nature with the original, the incommunicable, the inspired qualifications which go to make an orator. He was magnificently built, and blessed with a voice which, by all contemporary testimony, was one of the most thrilling, flexible, and melodious that ever vibrated through a popular assembly. "From grave to gay, from lively to severe" he flew without delay or difficulty. His wit gave point to the most irrelevant personalities, and cogency to the most illogical syllogisms. The most daring perversions of truth and justice were driven home by appeals to the emotions which the coldest natures could scarcely withstand; "the passions of his audience were playthings in his hand." Lord Lytton thus described him:—

"Once to my sight the giant thus was given: Walled by wide air, and roofed by boundless heaven, Beneath his feet the human ocean lay, And wave on wave flowed into space away. Methought no clarion could have sent its sound Even to the centre of the hosts around; But, as I thought, rose the sonorous swell As from some church tower swings the silvery bell. Aloft and clear, from airy tide to tide It glided, easy as a bird may glide; To the last verge of that vast audience sent, It played with each wild passion as it went; Now stirred the uproar, now the murmur stilled, And sobs or laughter answered as it willed. Then did I know what spells of infinite choice, To rouse or lull, hath the sweet human voice; Then did I seem to seize the sudden clue To that grand troublous Life Antique—to view, Under the rockstand of Demosthenes, Mutable Athens heave her noisy seas."

A remarkable contrast, as far as outward characteristics went, was offered by the other great orator of the same time. Sheil was very small, and of mean presence; with a singularly fidgety manner, a shrill voice, and a delivery unintelligibly rapid. But in sheer beauty of elaborated diction not O'Connell nor any one else could surpass him. There are few finer speeches in the language than that in which he took Lord Lyndhurst to task for applying the term "aliens" to the Irish in a speech on municipal reform:—

"Aliens! Good God! was Arthur Duke of Wellington in the House of Lords, and did he not start up and exclaim, 'Hold! I have seen the aliens do their duty'?... I appeal to the gallant soldier before me, from whose opinions I differ, but who bears, I know, a generous heart in an intrepid bosom—tell me, for you needs must remember, on that day when the destinies of mankind were trembling in the balance, while death fell in showers—tell me if for an instant, when to hesitate for an instant was to be lost, the 'aliens' blenched.... On the field of Waterloo the blood of England, of Scotland, and of Ireland flowed in the same stream and drenched the same field. When the chill morning dawned their dead lay cold and stark together; in the same deep pit their bodies were deposited; the green corn of spring is now breaking from their commingled dust; the dew falls from heaven upon this union in the grave. Partakers in every peril, in the glory shall we not be permitted to participate? And shall we be told as a requital that we are 'aliens' from the noble country for whose salvation our life-blood was poured out?"

By the time which we are now considering there had risen to eminence a man who, if he could not be ranked with the great orators of the beginning of the century, yet inherited their best traditions and came very near to rivalling their fame. I refer to the great Lord Derby. His eloquence was of the most impetuous kind, corresponding to the sensitive fierceness of the man, and had gained for him the nickname of "The Rupert of Debate." Lord Beaconsfield, speaking in the last year of his life to Mr. Matthew Arnold, said that the task of carrying Mr. Forster's Coercion Bill of 1881 through the House of Commons "needed such a man as Lord Derby was in his youth—a man full of nerve, dash, fire, and resource, who carried the House irresistibly along with him"—no mean tribute from a consummate judge. Among Lord Derby's ancillary qualifications were his musical voice, his fine English style, and his facility in apt and novel quotation, as when he applied Meg Merrilies's threnody over the ruins of Derncleugh to the destruction of the Irish Church Establishment. I turn to Lord Lytton again for a description:—

"One after one, the Lords of Time advance; Here Stanley meets—how Stanley scorns!—the glance. The brilliant chief, irregularly great, Frank, haughty, rash, the Rupert of Debate; Nor gout nor toil his freshness can destroy, And time still leaves all Eton in the boy. First in the class, and keenest in the ring, He saps like Gladstone, and he fights like Spring! Yet who not listens, with delighted smile, To the pure Saxon of that silver style; In the clear style a heart as clear is seen, Prompt to the rash, revolting from the mean."

I turn now to Lord Derby's most eminent rival—Lord Russell. Writing in 1844, Lord Beaconsfield thus described him:—"He is not a natural orator, and labours under physical deficiencies which even a Demosthenic impulse could scarcely overcome. But he is experienced in debate, quick in reply, fertile in resource, takes large views, and frequently compensates for a dry and hesitating manner by the expression of those noble truths that flash across the fancy and rise spontaneously to the lip of men of poetic temperament when addressing popular assemblies." Twenty years earlier Moore had described Lord John Russell's public speaking in a peculiarly happy image:—

"An eloquence, not like those rills from a height Which sparkle and foam and in vapour are o'er; But a current that works out its way into light Through the filtering recesses of thought and of lore."

Cobden, when they were opposed to one another in the earlier days of the struggle for Free Trade, described him as "a cunning little fox," and avowed that he dreaded his dexterity in parliamentary debate more than that of any other opponent.

In 1834 Lord John made his memorable declaration in favour of a liberal policy with reference to the Irish Church Establishment, and, in his own words, "The speech made a great impression; the cheering was loud and general; and Stanley expressed his sense of it in a well-known note to Sir James Graham: 'Johnny has upset the coach.'" The phrase was perpetuated by Lord Lytton, to whom I must go once again for a perfectly apt description of the Whig leader, both in his defects of manner and in his essential greatness:—

"Next cool, and all unconscious of reproach, Comes the calm Johnny who "upset the coach"— How formed to lead, if not too proud to please! His fame would fire you, but his manners freeze; Like or dislike, he does not care a jot; He wants your vote, but your affections not. Yet human hearts need sun as well as oats; So cold a climate plays the deuce with votes. But see our hero when the steam is on, And languid Johnny glows to Glorious John; When Hampden's thought, by Falkland's muses drest, Lights the pale cheek and swells the generous breast; When the pent heat expands the quickening soul, And foremost in the race the wheels of genius roll."

As the general idea of these chapters has been a concatenation of Links with the Past, I must say a word about Lord Palmerston, who was born in 1784, entered Parliament in 1807, and was still leading the House of Commons when I first attended its debates. A man who, when turned seventy, could speak from the "dusk of a summer evening to the dawn of a summer morning" in defence of his foreign policy, and carry the vindication of it by a majority of 46, was certainly no common performer on the parliamentary stage; and yet Lord Palmerston had very slender claims to the title of an orator. His style was not only devoid of ornament and rhetorical device, but it was slipshod and untidy in the last degree. He eked out his sentences with "hum" and "hah;" he cleared his throat, and flourished his pocket-handkerchief, and sucked his orange; he rounded his periods with "you know what I mean" and "all that kind of thing," and seemed actually to revel in an anti-climax—"I think the hon. member's proposal an outrageous violation of constitutional propriety, a daring departure from traditional policy, and, in short, a great mistake." It taxed all the skill of the reporters' gallery to trim his speeches into decent form; and yet no one was listened to with keener interest, no one was so much dreaded as an opponent, and no one ever approached him in the art of putting a plausible face upon a doubtful policy and making the worse appear the better cause. Palmerston's parliamentary success perfectly illustrates the judgment of Demosthenes, that "it is not the orator's language that matters, nor the tone of his voice; but what matters is that he should have the same predilections as the majority, and should entertain the same likes and dislikes as his country." If those are the requisites of public speaking, Palmerston was supreme.

The most conspicuous of all Links with the Past in the matter of Parliamentary Oratory is obviously Mr. Gladstone. Like the younger Pitt, he had a "premature and unnatural dexterity in the combination of words." He was trained under the immediate influence of Canning, who was his father's friend. When he was sixteen his style was already formed. I quote from the records of the Eton Debating Society for 1826:—

"Thus much, sir, I have said, as conceiving myself bound in fairness not to regard the names under which men have hidden their designs so much as the designs themselves. I am well aware that my prejudices and my predilections have long been enlisted on the side of Toryism—(cheers)—and that in a cause like this I am not likely to be influenced unfairly against men bearing that name and professing to act on the principles which I have always been accustomed to revere. But the good of my country must stand on a higher ground than distinctions like these. In common fairness and in common candour, I feel myself compelled to give my decisive verdict against the conduct of men whose measures I firmly believe to have been hostile to British interests, destructive of British glory, and subversive of the splendid and, I trust, lasting fabric of the British Constitution."

Mr. Gladstone entered Parliament when he was not quite twenty-three, at the General Election of 1832, and it is evident from a perusal of his early speeches in the House of Commons, imperfectly reported in the third person, and from contemporary evidence, that, when due allowance is made for growth and development, his manner of oratory was the same as it was in after-life. He was only too fluent. His style was copious, redundant, and involved, and his speeches were garnished, after the manner of his time, with Horatian and Virgilian tags. His voice was always clear, flexible, and musical, though his utterance was marked by a Lancastrian "burr." His gesture was varied and animated, though not violent. He turned his face and body from side to side, and often wheeled right round to face his own party as he appealed for their cheers.

"Did you ever feel nervous in public speaking?" asked the late Lord Coleridge.

"In opening a subject, often," answered Mr. Gladstone; "in reply, never."

It was a characteristic saying, for, in truth, he was a born debater, never so happy as when coping on the spur of the moment with the arguments and appeals which an opponent had spent perhaps days in elaborating beforehand. Again, in the art of elucidating figures he was unequalled. He was the first Chancellor of the Exchequer who ever made the Budget interesting. "He talked shop," it was said, "like a tenth muse." He could apply all the resources of a glowing rhetoric to the most prosaic questions of cost and profit; could make beer romantic and sugar serious. He could sweep the widest horizon of the financial future, and yet stoop to bestow the minutest attention on the microcosm of penny stamps and the monetary merits of half-farthings. And yet, extraordinary as were these feats of intellectual athletics, Mr. Gladstone's unapproached supremacy as an orator was not really seen until he touched the moral elements involved in some great political issue. Then, indeed, he spoke like a prophet and a man inspired. His whole physical formation seemed to become "fusile" with the fire of his ethical passion, and his eloquence flowed like a stream of molten lava, carrying all before it in its irresistible rush, glorious as well as terrible, and fertilizing while it subdued. Mr. Gladstone's departure from the House of Commons closed a splendid tradition, and Parliamentary Oratory as our fathers understood it may now be reckoned among the lost arts.



We have agreed that Parliamentary Oratory, as our fathers understood that phrase, is a lost art. Must Conversation be included in the same category? To answer with positiveness is difficult; but this much may be readily conceded—that a belief in the decadence of conversation is natural to those who have specially cultivated Links with the Past; who grew up in the traditions of Luttrell and Mackintosh, and Lord Alvanley and Samuel Rogers; who have felt Sydney Smith's irresistible fun, and known the overwhelming fullness of Lord Macaulay. It is not unreasonable even in that later generation which can still recall the frank but high-bred gaiety of the great Lord Derby, the rollicking good-humour and animal spirits of Bishop Wilberforce, the saturnine epigrams of Lord Beaconsfield, the versatility and choice diction of Lord Houghton, the many-sided yet concentrated malice which supplied the stock in trade of Abraham Hayward. More recent losses have been heavier still. Just ten years ago[15] died Mr. Matthew Arnold, who combined in singular harmony the various elements which go to make good conversation—urbanity, liveliness, quick sympathy, keen interest in the world's works and ways, the happiest choice of words, and a natural and never-failing humour, as genial as it was pungent. It was his characteristic glory that he knew how to be a man of the world without being frivolous, and a man of letters without being pedantic.

Eight years ago[16] I was asked to discuss the Art of Conversation in one of the monthly reviews, and I could then illustrate it by such living instances as Lord Granville, Sir Robert Peel, Lord Coleridge, Lord Bowen, Mr. Browning, and Mr. Lowell. Each of those distinguished men had a conversational gift which was peculiarly his own. Each talked like himself, and like no one else; each made his distinct and individual contribution to the social agreeableness of London. If in now endeavouring to recall their characteristic gifts I use words which I have used before, my excuse must be that the contemporary record of a personal impression cannot with advantage be retouched after the lapse of years.

Lord Granville's most notable quality was a humorous urbanity. As a story-teller he was unsurpassed. He had been everywhere and had known every one. He was quick to seize a point, and extraordinarily apt in anecdote and illustration. His fine taste appreciated whatever was best in life, in conversation, in literature, even when (as in his selection of the preface to the Sanctus as his favourite piece of English prose) it was gathered from fields in which he had not habitually roamed. A man whose career had been so full of vivid and varied interests must often have felt acutely bored by the trivial round of social conversation. But if he could not rise—who can?—to the apostolic virtue of suffering bores gladly, at any rate he endured their onslaughts as unflinchingly as he stood the gout. A smiling countenance and an unfailing courtesy concealed the torment which was none the less keen because it was unexpressed. He could always feel, or at least could show, a gracious interest in what interested his company, and he possessed in supreme perfection the happy knack of putting those to whom he spoke in good conceit with themselves.

The late Sir Robert Peel was, both mentally and physically, one of the most picturesque figures in society. Alike in his character and in his aspect the Creole blood which he had inherited from his maternal descent triumphed over the robust and serviceable commonplace which was the characteristic quality of the Peels. Lord Beaconsfield described "a still gallant figure, scrupulously attired; a blue frock coat, with a ribboned button-hole; a well-turned boot; hat a little too hidalgoish, but quite new. There was something respectable and substantial about him, notwithstanding his moustaches and a carriage too debonair for his years." The description, for whomsoever intended, is a lifelike portrait of Sir Robert Peel. His most salient feature as a talker was his lovely voice—deep, flexible, melodious. Mr. Gladstone—no mean judge of such matters—pronounced it the finest organ he ever heard in Parliament; but with all due submission to so high an authority, I should have said that it was a voice better adapted to the drawing-room than to the House of Commons. In a large space a higher note and a clearer tone tell better, but in the close quarters of social intercourse one appreciates the sympathetic qualities of a rich baritone. And Sir Robert's voice, admirable in itself, was the vehicle of conversation quite worthy of it. He could talk of art and sport, and politics and books; he had a great memory, varied information, lively interest in the world and its doings, and a full-bodied humour which recalled the social tone of the Eighteenth century.

His vein of personal raillery was rather robust than refined. Nothing has been heard in our time quite like his criticism of Sir Edgar Boehm in the House of Commons, or his joke about Mr. Justice Chitty at the election for Oxford in 1880. But his humour (to quote his own words) "had an English ring," and much must be pardoned to a man who, in this portentous age of reticence and pose, was wholly free from solemnity, and when he heard or saw what was ludicrous was not afraid to laugh at it. Sir Robert Peel was an excellent hand at what our fathers called banter and we call chaff. A prig or a pedant was his favourite butt, and the performance was rendered all the more effective by his elaborate assumption of the grand seigneur's manner. The victim was dimly conscious that he was being laughed at, but comically uncertain about the best means of reprisal. Sydney Smith described Sir James Mackintosh as "abating and dissolving pompous gentlemen with the most successful ridicule." Whoever performs that process is a social benefactor, and the greatest master of it whom I have ever known was Sir Robert Peel.

The Judges live so entirely in their own narrow and rather technical circle that their social abilities are lost to the world. It is a pity, for several of them are men well fitted by their talents and accomplishments to take a leading part in society. The late Lord Coleridge was pre-eminently a case in point. Personally, I had an almost fanatical admiration for his genius, and in many of the qualities which make an agreeable talker he was unsurpassed. Every one who ever heard him at the Bar or on the Bench must recall that silvery voice and that perfect elocution which prompted a competent judge of such matters to say: "I should enjoy listening to Coleridge even if he only read out a page of Bradshaw." To these gifts were added an immense store of varied knowledge, a genuine enthusiasm for whatever is beautiful in literature or art, an inexhaustible copiousness of anecdote, and a happy knack of exact yet not offensive mimicry. It is always pleasant to see a man in great station, who, in the intercourse of society, is perfectly untrammelled by pomp and form, can make a joke and enjoy it, and is not too cautious to garnish his conversation with personalities or to season it with sarcasm. Perhaps Lord Coleridge's gibes were a little out of place on "The Royal Bench of British Themis," but at a dinner-table they were delightful, and they derived a double zest from the exquisite precision and finish of the English in which they were conveyed.

Another judge who excelled in conversation was the late Lord Bowen. Those who knew him intimately would say that he was the best talker in London. In spite of the burden of learning which he carried and his marvellous rapidity and grasp of mind, his social demeanour was quiet and unobtrusive almost to the point of affectation. His manner was singularly suave and winning, and his smile resembled that of the much-quoted Chinaman who played but did not understand the game of euchre. This singular gentleness of speech gave a special piquancy to his keen and delicate satire, his readiness in repartee, and his subtle irony. No one ever met Lord Bowen without wishing to meet him again; no one ever made his acquaintance without desiring his friendship. Sir Henry Cunningham's memoir of him only illustrated afresh the impossibility of transplanting to the printed page the rarefied humour of so delicate a spirit. Let me make just one attempt. Of a brother judge he said: "To go to the Court of Appeal with a judgment of ——'s in your favour, is like going to sea on a Friday. It is not necessarily fatal; but one would rather it had not happened." Had Bowen been more widely known, the traditions of his table-talk would probably have taken their place with the best recollections of English conversation. His admirers can only regret that gifts so rich and so rare should have been buried in judicial dining-rooms or squandered on the dismal orgies of the Cosmopolitan Club, where dull men sit round a meagre fire, in a large, draughty, and half-lit room, drinking lemon-squash and talking for talking's sake—the most melancholy of occupations.

The society of London between 1870 and 1890 contained no more striking or interesting figure than that of Robert Browning. No one meeting him for the first time and unfurnished with a clue would have guessed his vocation. He might have been a diplomatist, a statesman, a discoverer, or a man of science. But whatever was his calling, one felt sure that it must be something essentially practical. Of the disordered appearance, the unconventional demeanour, the rapt and mystic air which we assume to be characteristic of the poet he had absolutely none. And his conversation corresponded to his appearance. It abounded in vigour, in fire, in vivacity. It was genuinely interesting, and often strikingly eloquent, yet all the time it was entirely free from mystery, vagueness, and jargon. It was the crisp, emphatic, and powerful discourse of a man of the world who was incomparably better informed than the mass of his congeners. Mr. Browning was the readiest, the blithest, and the most forcible of talkers, and when he dealt in criticism the edge of his sword was mercilessly whetted against pretension and vanity. The inflection of his voice, the flash of his eye, the pose of his head, the action of his hand, all lent their special emphasis to the condemnation. "I like religion to be treated seriously," he exclaimed with reference to a theological novel of great renown, "and I don't want to know what this curate or that curate thought about it. No, I don't." Surely the secret thoughts of many hearts found utterance in that emphatic cry.

Here I must venture to insert a personal reminiscence. Mr. Browning had honoured me with his company at dinner, and an unduly fervent admirer had button-holed him throughout a long evening, plying him with questions about what he meant by this line, and whom he intended by that character. It was more than flesh and blood could stand, and at last the master extricated himself from the grasp of the disciple, exclaiming with the most airy grace, "But, my dear fellow, this is too bad. I am monopolizing you." Now and then, at rather rare intervals, when time and place, and company and surroundings, were altogether suitable, Mr. Browning would consent to appear in his true character and to delight his hearers by speaking of his art. Then the higher and rarer qualities of his genius came into play. He kindled with responsive fire at a beautiful thought, and burned with contagious enthusiasm over a phrase which struck his fancy. Yet all the while the poetic rapture was underlain by a groundwork of robust sense. Rant, and gush, and affectation were abhorrent to his nature, and even in his grandest flights of fancy he was always intelligible.

The late Mr. Lowell must certainly be reckoned among the famous talkers of his time. During the years that he represented the United States in London his trim sentences, his airy omniscience, his minute and circumstantial way of laying down literary law, were the inevitable ornaments of serious dinners and cultured tea-tables. My first encounter with Mr. Lowell took place many years before he entered on his diplomatic career. It was in 1872, when I chanced to meet him in a company of tourists at Durham Castle. Though I was a devotee of the Biglow Papers, I did not know their distinguished author even by sight; and I was intensely amused by the air of easy mastery, the calm and almost fatherly patronage, with which this cultivated American overrode the indignant showwoman; pointed out, for the general benefit of the admiring tourists, the gaps and lapses in her artistic, architectural, and archaeological knowledge; and made mullion and portcullis, and armour and tapestry the pegs for a series of neat discourses on mediaeval history, domestic decoration, and the science of fortification.

Which things are an allegory. We, as a nation, take this calm assurance of foreigners at its own valuation. We consent to be told that we do not know our own poets, cannot pronounce our own language, and have no well-educated women. But after a time this process palls. We question the divine right of the superiority thus imposed on us. We ask on what foundation these high claims rest, and we discover all at once that we have paid a great deal of deference where very little was deserved. By processes such as these I came to find, in years long subsequent to the encounter at Durham, that Mr. Lowell, though an accomplished politician, a brilliant writer, and an admirable after-dinner speaker, was, conversationally considered, an inaccurate man with an accurate manner. But, after all, inaccuracy is by no means the worst of conversational faults, and when he was in the vein Mr. Lowell could be exceedingly good company. He liked talking, and talked not only much but very well. He had a genuine vein of wit and great dexterity in phrase-making; and on due occasion would produce from the rich stores of his own experience some of the most vivid and striking incidents, both civil and military, of that tremendous struggle for human freedom with which his name and fame must be always and most honourably associated.


[15] April 15 1888

[16] Written in 1897.



Brave men have lived since as well as before Agamemnon, and those who know the present society of London may not unreasonably ask whether, even granting the heavy losses which I enumerated in my last chapter, the Art of Conversation is really extinct. Are the talkers of to-day in truth so immeasurably inferior to the great men who preceded them? Before we can answer these questions, even tentatively, we must try to define our idea of good conversation, and this can best be done by rigidly ruling out what is bad. To begin with, all affectation, unreality, and straining aftereffect are intolerable; scarcely less so are rhetoric, declamation, and whatever tends towards speech-making. Mimicry is a very dangerous trick, rare in perfection, and contemptible when imperfect. An apt story well told is delicious, but there was sound philosophy in Mr. Pinto's view that "when a man fell into his anecdotage it was a sign for him to retire from the world." One touch of ill-nature makes the whole world kin, and a spice of malice tickles the intellectual palate; but a conversation which is mainly malicious is entirely dull. Constant joking is a weariness to the flesh; but, on the other hand, a sustained seriousness of discourse is fatally apt to recall the conversation between the Hon. Elijah Pogram and the Three Literary Ladies—"How Pogram got out of his depth instantly, and how the Three L.L.'s were never in theirs, is a piece of history not worth recording. Suffice it that, being all four out of their depths and all unable to swim, they splashed up words in all directions, and floundered about famously. On the whole, it was considered to have been the severest mental exercise ever heard in the National Hotel, and the whole company observed that their heads ached with the effort—as well they might."

A talker who monopolizes the conversation is by common consent insufferable, and a man who regulates his choice of topics by reference to what interests not his hearers but himself has yet to learn the alphabet of the art. Conversation is like lawn-tennis, and requires alacrity in return at least as much as vigour in service. A happy phrase, an unexpected collocation of words, a habitual precision in the choice of terms, are rare and shining ornaments of conversation, but they do not for an instant supply the place of lively and interesting matter, and an excessive care for them is apt to tell unfavourably on the substance of discourse.

"I might as well attempt to gather up the foam of the sea as to convey an idea of the extraordinary language in which he clothed his description. There were at least five words in every sentence that must have been very much astonished at the use they were put to, and yet no others apparently could so well have expressed his idea. He talked like a racehorse approaching the winning-post—every muscle in action, and the utmost energy of expression flung out into every burst." This is a contemporary description of Lord Beaconsfield's conversation in those distant days when, as a young man about town, he was talking and dressing his way into social fame. Though written in admiration, it seems to me to describe the most intolerable performance that could ever have afflicted society. He talked like a racehorse approaching the winning-post. Could the wit of man devise a more appalling image?

Mr. Matthew Arnold once said to me: "People think that I can teach them style. What stuff it all is! Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style." This dictum applies, I think, at least as well to conversation as to literature. The one thing needful is to have something to say. The way of saying it may best be left to take care of itself. A young man about town once remarked to me, in the tone of one who utters an accepted truism: "It is so much more interesting to talk about people than things." The sentiment was highly characteristic of the mental calibre and associations of the speaker; and certainly the habitual talk—for it is not conversation—of that section of society which calls itself "smart" seems to touch the lowest depth of spiteful and sordid dullness. But still, when the mischiefs of habitual personality have been admitted to the uttermost, there remains something to be said on the other side. We are not inhabitants of Jupiter or Saturn, but human beings to whom nothing that is human is wholly alien. And if in the pursuit of high abstractions and improving themes we imitate too closely Wordsworth's avoidance of Personal Talk, our dinner-table will run much risk of becoming as dull as that poet's own fireside.

Granting, then, that to have something to say which is worth hearing is the substance of good conversation, we must reckon among its accidents and ornaments a manner which knows how to be easy and free without being free-and-easy; a habitual deference to the tastes and even the prejudices of other people; a hearty desire to be, or at least to seem, interested in their concerns; and a constant recollection that even the most patient hearers may sometimes wish to be speakers. Above all else, the agreeable talker cultivates gentleness and delicacy of speech, avoids aggressive and overwhelming displays, and remembers the tortured cry of the neurotic bard:—

"Vociferated logic kills me quite; A noisy man is always in the right— I twirl my thumbs, fall back into my chair, Fix on the wainscot a distressful stare; And when I hope his blunders all are out, Reply discreetly, 'To be sure—no doubt!'"

If these, or something like these, are the attributes of good conversation, in whom do we find them best exemplified? Who best understands the Art of Conversation? Who, in a word, are our best talkers? I hope that I shall not be considered ungallant if I say nothing about the part borne in conversation by ladies. Really it is a sacred awe that makes me mute. London is happy in possessing not a few hostesses, excellently accomplished, and not more accomplished than gracious, of whom it is no flattery to say that to know them is a liberal education. But, as Lord Beaconsfield observes in a more than usually grotesque passage of Lothair, "We must not profane the mysteries of Bona Dea." We will not "peep and botanize" on sacred soil, nor submit our most refined delights to the impertinences of critical analysis.

In considering the Art of Conversation I obey a natural instinct when I think first of Mr. Charles Villiers, M.P. His venerable age alone would entitle him to this pre-eminence, for he was born in 1802, and was for seventy years one of the best talkers in London. Born of a family which combined high rank with intellectual distinction, his parentage was a passport to all that was best in social and political life. It argues no political bias to maintain that in the first quarter of the nineteenth century Toryism afforded its neophytes no educational opportunities equal to those which a young Whig enjoyed at Bowood and Panshanger and Holland House. There the best traditions of the previous century were constantly reinforced by accessions of fresh intellect. The charmed circle was indeed essentially, but it was not exclusively, aristocratic; genius held the key, and there was a carriere ouverte aux talents.

Thus it came to pass that the society of Lord Lansdowne and Lord Holland and Lord Melbourne was also the society of Brougham and Mackintosh, and Macaulay and Sydney Smith. It presented every variety of accomplishment and experience and social charm, and offered to a man beginning life the best conceivable education in the art of making oneself agreeable. For that art Mr. Villiers had a natural genius, and his lifelong association with the Whigs superadded a technical training in it. But this, though much, was by no means all. I hold it to be an axiom that a man who is only a member of society can never be so agreeable as one who is something else as well. And Mr. Villiers, though "a man about town," a story-teller, and a diner-out of high renown, has had seventy years' experience of practical business and Parliamentary life. Thus the resources of his knowledge have been perpetually enlarged, and, learning much, he has forgotten nothing. The stores of his memory are full of treasures new and old. He has taken part in the making of history, and can estimate the great men of the present day by a comparison with the political immortals.

That this comparison is not always favourable to some exalted reputations of the present hour is indeed sufficiently notorious to all who have the pleasure of Mr. Villiers's acquaintance; and nowhere is his mastery of the art of conversation more conspicuous than in his knack of implying dislike and insinuating contempt without crude abuse or noisy denunciation. He has a delicate sense of fun, a keen eye for incongruities and absurdities, and that genuine cynicism which springs, not from the poor desire to be thought worldly-wise, but from a lifelong acquaintance with the foibles of political men. To these gifts must be added a voice which age has not robbed of its sympathetic qualities, a style of diction and a habit of pronunciation which belong to the eighteenth century, and that formal yet facile courtesy which no one less than eighty years old seems capable of even imitating.

I have instanced Mr. Villiers as an eminent talker. I now turn to an eminent man who talks—Mr. Gladstone.[17] An absurd story has long been current among credulous people with rampant prejudices that Mr. Gladstone was habitually uncivil to the Queen. Now, it happens that Mr. Gladstone is the most courteous of mankind. His courtesy is one of his most engaging gifts, and accounts in no small degree for his power of attracting the regard of young men and undistinguished people generally. To all such he is polite to the point of deference, yet never condescending. His manners to all alike—young and old, rich and poor—are the ceremonious manners of the old school, and his demeanour towards ladies is a model of chivalrous propriety. It would therefore have been to the last degree improbable that he should make a departure from his usual habits in the case of a lady who was also his Sovereign. And, as a matter of fact, the story is so ridiculously wide of the mark that it deserves mention only because, in itself false, it is founded on a truth. "I," said the Duke of Wellington on a memorable occasion, "have no small talk, and Peel has no manners." Mr. Gladstone has manners but no small talk. He is so consumed by zeal for great subjects that he leaves out of account the possibility that they may not interest other people. He pays to every one, and not least to ladies, the compliment of assuming that they are on his own intellectual level, engrossed in the subjects which engross him, and furnished with at least as much information as will enable them to follow and to understand him. Hence the genesis of that absurd story about his demeanour to the Queen.

"He speaks to Me as if I was a public meeting," is a complaint which is said to have proceeded from illustrious lips. That most successful of all courtiers, the astute Lord Beaconsfield, used to engage her Majesty in conversation about water-colour drawing and the third-cousinships of German princes. Mr. Gladstone harangues her about the polity of the Hittites, or the harmony between the Athanasian Creed and Homer. The Queen, perplexed and uncomfortable, tries to make a digression—addresses a remark to a daughter or proffers biscuit to a begging terrier. Mr. Gladstone restrains himself with an effort till the Princess has answered or the dog has sat down, and then promptly resumes: "I was about to say—" Meanwhile the flood has gathered force by delay, and when it bursts forth again it carries all before it.

No image except that of a flood can convey the notion of Mr. Gladstone's table-talk on a subject which interests him keenly—its rapidity, its volume, its splash and dash, its frequent beauty, its striking effects, the amount of varied matter which it brings with it, the hopelessness of trying to withstand it, the unexpectedness of its onrush, the subdued but fertilized condition of the subjected area over which it has passed. The bare mention of a topic which interests Mr. Gladstone opens the floodgates and submerges a province. But the torrent does not wait for the invitation. If not invited it comes of its own accord; headlong, overwhelming, sweeping all before it, and gathering fresh force from every obstacle which it encounters on its course. Such is Mr. Gladstone's table-talk. For conversation, strictly so called, he has no turn. He asks questions when he wants information, and answers them copiously when asked by others. But of give-and-take, of meeting you half-way, of paying you back in your own conversational coin, he has little notion. He discourses, he lectures, he harangues. But if a subject is started which does not interest him it falls flat. He makes no attempt to return the ball. Although, when he is amused, his amusement is intense and long sustained, his sense of humour is highly capricious. It is impossible for even his most intimate friends to guess beforehand what will amuse him and what will not; and he has a most disconcerting habit of taking a comic story in grim earnest, and arguing some farcical fantasy as if it was a serious proposition of law or logic. Nothing funnier can be imagined than the discomfiture of a story-teller who has fondly thought to tickle the great man's fancy by an anecdote which depends for its point upon some trait of baseness, cynicism, or sharp practice. He finds his tale received in dead silence, looks up wonderingly for an explanation, and finds that what was intended to amuse has only disgusted. Mr. Browning once told Mr. Gladstone a highly characteristic story of Disraelitish duplicity, and for all reply heard a voice choked with indignation:—"Do you call that amusing, Browning? I call it devilish."[18]


[17] This was written before the 19th of May, 1898, on which day "the world lost its greatest citizen;" but it has not been thought necessary, here or elsewhere, to change the present into the past tense.

[18] I give this story as I received it from Mr. Browning.



More than thirty years have passed since the festive evening described by Sir George Trevelyan in The Ladies in Parliament:—

"When, over the port of the innermost bin, The circle of diners was laughing with Phinn; When Brookfield had hit on his happiest vein. And Harcourt was capping the jokes of Delane."

The sole survivor of that brilliant group now[19] leads the Opposition; but at the time when the lines were written he had not yet entered the House of Commons. As a youth of twenty-five he had astonished the political world by his anonymous letters on The Morality of Public Men, in which he denounced, in the style of Junius, the Protectionist revival of 1852. He had fought a plucky but unsuccessful fight at Kirkcaldy; was making his five thousand a year at the Parliamentary Bar; had taught the world international law over the signature of "Historicus," and was already, what he is still, one of the most conspicuous and interesting figures in the society of London. Of Sir William Harcourt's political alliances this is not the place nor am I the person to treat:

"Let the high Muse chant loves Olympian: We are but mortals, and must sing of Man."

My theme is not Sir William Harcourt the politician, but Sir William Harcourt the man, the member of society—above all, the talker. And, although I have thus deliberately put politics on one side, it is strictly relevant to my purpose to observe that Sir William is essentially and typically a Whig. For Whiggery, rightly understood, is not a political creed but a social caste. The Whig, like the poet, is born, not made. It is as difficult to become a Whig as to become a Jew. Macaulay was probably the only man who, being born outside the privileged enclosure, ever penetrated to its heart and assimilated its spirit. The Whigs, indeed, as a body have held certain opinions and pursued certain tactics which have been analyzed in chapters xix. and xxi. of the unexpurgated Book of Snobs. But those opinions and those tactics have been mere accidents, though perhaps inseparable accidents, of Whiggery. Its substance has been relationship.

When Lord John Russell formed his first Administration his opponents alleged that it was mainly composed of his cousins, and one of his younger brothers was charged with the impossible task of rebutting the accusation in a public speech. Mr. Beresford-Hope, in one of his novels, made excellent fun of what he called "the sacred circle of the Great-Grandmotherhood." He showed—what, indeed, the Whigs themselves knew uncommonly well—that from a certain Earl Gower, who flourished in the eighteenth century, and was great-great-great-grandfather of the present Duke of Sutherland, are descended all the Levesons,[20] Gowers, Howards, Cavendishes, Grosvenors, Russells, and Harcourts, who walk on the face of the earth. Truly a noble and a highly favoured progeny. "They are our superiors," said Thackeray; "and that's the fact. I am not a Whig myself (perhaps it is as unnecessary to say so as to say I'm not King Pippin in a golden coach, or King Hudson, or Miss Burdett-Coutts). I'm not a Whig; but oh, how I should like to be one!"

From this illustrious stock Sir William Harcourt is descended through his grandmother, Lady Anne Harcourt—born Leveson-Gower, and wife of the last Prince-Archbishop of York (whom, by the way, Sir William strikingly resembles both in figure and in feature). When one meets Sir William Harcourt for the first time in society, perhaps one is first struck by the fact that he is in aspect and bearing a great gentleman of the old school, and then that he is an admirable talker. He is a true Whig in culture as well as in blood. Though his conversation is never pedantic, it rests on a wide and strong basis of generous learning. Even those who most cordially admire his political ability do not always remember that he is an excellent scholar, and graduated as eighth in the First Class of the Classical Tripos in the year when Bishop Lightfoot was Senior Classic. He has the Corpus Poetarum and Shakespeare and Pope at his finger-ends, and his intimate acquaintance with the political history of England elicited a characteristic compliment from Lord Beaconsfield. It is his favourite boast that in all his tastes, sentiments, and mental habits he belongs to the eighteenth century, which he glorifies as the golden age of reason, patriotism, and liberal learning. This self-estimate strikes me as perfectly sound, and it requires a very slight effort of the imagination to conceive this well-born young Templar wielding his doughty pen in the Bangorian Controversy, or declaiming on the hustings for Wilkes and Liberty; bandying witticisms with Sheridan, and capping Latin verses with Charles Fox; or helping to rule England as a member of that "Venetian Oligarchy" on which Lord Beaconsfield lavished all the vials of his sarcasm. In truth, it is not fanciful to say that whatever was best in the eighteenth century—its robust common sense, its racy humour, its thorough and unaffected learning, its ceremonious courtesy for great occasions, its jolly self-abandonment in social intercourse—is exhibited in the demeanour and conversation of Sir William Harcourt. He is an admirable host, and, to borrow a phrase from Sydney Smith, "receives his friends with that honest joy which warms more than dinner or wine." As a guest, he is a splendid acquisition, always ready to amuse and to be amused, delighting in the rapid cut-and-thrust of personal banter, and bringing out of his treasure things new and old for the amusement and the benefit of a later and less instructed generation.

Extracts from the private conversation of living people, as a rule, I forbear; but some of Sir William's quotations are so extraordinarily apt that they deserve a permanent place in the annals of table-talk. That fine old country gentleman, the late Lord Knightley (who was the living double of Dickens's Sir Leicester Dedlock), had been expatiating after dinner on the undoubted glories of his famous pedigree. The company was getting a little restive under the recitation, when Sir William was heard to say, in an appreciative aside, "This reminds me of Addison's evening hymn—

'And Knightley to the listening earth Repeats the story of his birth.'"

Surely the force of apt citation can no further go. When Lord Tennyson chanced to say in Sir William Harcourt's hearing that his pipe after breakfast was the most enjoyable of the day, Sir William softly murmured the Tennysonian line—

"The earliest pipe of half-awakened birds."

Some historians say that he substituted "bards" for "birds," and the reception accorded by the poet to the parody was not as cordial as its excellence deserved.

Another capital talker is Sir George Trevelyan. He has been, from the necessities of his position, a man of the world and a politician, and he is as ready as Mr. Bertie-Tremaine's guests in Endymion to talk of "that heinous subject on which enormous fibs are ever told—the Registration." But, after all, the man of the world and the politician are only respectable parts which he had been bound to assume, and he has played them—with assiduity and success: but the true man in Sir George Trevelyan is the man of letters. Whenever he touches a historical or literary theme his whole being seems to undergo a transformation. The real nature flashes out through his twinkling eyes. While he muses the fire burns, and, like the Psalmist, he speaks with his tongue. Dates and details, facts and traditions, cantos and poetry, reams of prose, English and Latin and Greek and French, come tumbling out in headlong but not disorderly array. He jumps at an opening, seizes an illusion, replies with lightning quickness to a conversational challenge, and is ready at a moment's notice to decide any literary or historical controversy in a measured tone of deliberate emphasis which is not wholly free from exaggeration. Like his uncle Lord Macaulay, Sir George Trevelyan has "his own heightened and telling way of putting things," and those who know him well make allowance for this habit. For the rest, he is delightful company, light-hearted as a boy, full of autobiographical chit-chat about Harrow and Trinity, and India and Holly Lodge, eagerly interested in his friends' concerns, brimming over with enthusiasm, never bored, never flat, never stale. A well-concerted party is a kind of unconscious conspiracy to promote cheerfulness and enjoyment, and in such an undertaking there can be no more serviceable ally than Sir George Trevelyan.

Mr. John Morley's agreeableness in conversation is of a different kind. His leading characteristic is a dignified austerity of demeanour which repels familiarity and tends to keep conversation on a high level; but each time one meets him there is less formality and less restraint, and the grave courtesy which never fails is soon touched with friendliness and frank good-humour in a singularly attractive fashion. He talks, not much, but remarkably well. His sentences are deliberate, clear-cut, often eloquent. He excels in phrase-making. His quotations are apt and novel. His fine taste and varied reading enable him to hold his own in many fields where the merely professional politician is apt to be terribly astray. His kindness to social and literary beginners is one of his most engaging traits. He invariably finds something pleasant to say about the most immature and unpromising efforts, and he has the knack of so handling his own early experience as to make it an encouragement and a stimulus, and not (as the manner of some is) a burden and a bogey. Mr. Morley never obtrudes his own opinions, never introduces debatable matter, never dogmatizes. But he is always ready to pick up the gauntlet, especially if a Tory flings it down; is merciless towards ill-formed assertion, and is the alert and unsparing enemy of what Mr. Ruskin calls "the obscene empires of Mammon and Belial."

Lord Salisbury goes so little into general society that his qualities as a talker are not familiarly known. He is painfully shy, and at a club or in a large party undergoes the torments of the lost. Yet no one can listen, even casually, to his conversation without appreciating the fine manner, full both of dignity and of courtesy; the utter freedom from pomposity, formality, and self-assertion, and the agreeable dash of genuine cynicism, which modifies, though it does not mask, the flavour of his fun. After a visit to Hatfield in 1868, Bishop Wilberforce wrote in his diary: "Gladstone how struck with Salisbury: 'Never saw a more perfect host.'" And again—"He remarked to me on the great power of charming and pleasant hosting possessed by Salisbury." And it is the universal testimony of Lord Salisbury's guests, whether at Hatfield or in Arlington Street, that he is seen at his very best in his own house. The combination of such genuine amiability in private life with such calculated brutality in public utterance constitutes a psychological problem which might profitably be made the subject of a Romanes Lecture.

Barring the shyness, from which Mr. Balfour is conspicuously free, there is something of Lord Salisbury's social manner about his accomplished nephew. He has the same courtesy, the same sense of humour, the same freedom from official solemnity. But the characteristics of the elder man are exaggerated in the younger. The cynicism which is natural in Lord Salisbury is affected in Mr. Balfour. He cultivates the art of indifference, and gives himself the airs of a jaded Epicurean who craves only for a new sensation. There is what an Irish Member, in a moment of inspiration, called a "toploftiness" about his social demeanour which is not a little irritating. He is too anxious to show that he is not as other men are. Among politicians he is a philosopher; among philosophers, a politician. Before that hard-bitten crew whom Burke ridiculed—the "calculators and economists"—he will talk airily of golf and ladies' fashions; and ladies he will seek to impress by the Praise of Vivisection or the Defence of Philosophic Doubt. His social agreeableness has, indeed, been marred by the fatuous idolatry of a fashionable clique, stimulating the self-consciousness which was his natural foible; but when he can for a moment forget himself he still is excellent company, for he is genuinely amiable and thoroughly well informed.


[19] 1897.

[20] Cromartie, 4th Duke.



The writer of these chapters has always felt some inward affinity to the character of Lord St. Jerome in Lothair, of whom it is recorded that he loved conversation, though he never conversed. "There must be an audience," he would say, "and I am the audience." In my capacity of audience I assign a high place to the agreeableness of Lord Rosebery's conversation. To begin with, he has a delightful voice. It is low, but perfectly distinct, rich and sympathetic in quality, and singularly refined in accent. It is exactly the sort of voice which bespeaks the goodwill of the hearer and recommends what it utters. In a former chapter we agreed that the chief requisite of good conversation is to have something to say which is worth saying, and here Lord Rosebery is excellently equipped. Last week the newspapers announced with a flourish of rhetorical trumpets that he had just celebrated his fiftieth birthday.[21] Some of the trumpeters, with a laudable intention to be civil, cried, "Is it possible that he can be so old?" Others, with subtler art, professed themselves unable to believe that he was so young. Each compliment contained its element of truth. In appearance, air, and tastes Lord Rosebery is still young. In experience, knowledge, and conduct he is already old. He has had a vivid and a varied experience. He is equally at home on Epsom Downs and in the House of Lords. His life has been full of action, incident, and interest. He has not only collected books, but has read them; and has found time, even amid the engrossing demands of the London County Council, the Turf, and the Foreign Office, not only for study, but—what is much more remarkable—for thought.

So far, then, as substance goes, his conversation is (to use Mr. Gladstone's quaint phrase) "as full of infinitely varied matter as an egg is full of meat;" and in its accidents and ornaments it complies exactly with the conditions laid down in a former chapter—a manner which knows how to be easy and free without being free-and-easy; habitual deference to the tastes and prejudices of other people; a courteous desire to be, or at least to seem, interested in their concerns; and a recollection that even the most patient hearers (among whom the present writer reckons himself) may sometimes wish to be speakers. To these gifts he adds a keen sense of humour, a habit of close observation, and a sub-acid vein of sarcasm which resembles the dash of Tarragon in a successful salad. In a word, Lord Rosebery is one of the most agreeable talkers of the day; and even if it is true that il s'ecoute quand il parle, his friends may reply that it would be strange indeed if one could help listening to what is always so agreeable and often so brilliant.

A genial journalist recently said that Mr. Goschen was now chiefly remembered by the fact that he had once had Sir Alfred Milner for his Private Secretary. But whatever may be thought of the First Lord of the Admiralty as a politician and an administrator, I claim for him a high place among agreeable talkers. There are some men who habitually use the same style of speech in public and in private life. Happily for his friends, this is not the case with Mr. Goschen. Nothing can be less agreeable than his public style, whether on the platform or in the House of Commons. Its tawdry staginess, its "Sadler's Wells sarcasm," its constant striving after strong effects, are distressing to good taste. But in private life he is another and a much more agreeable man. He is courteous, genial, perfectly free from affectation, and enters into the discussion of social banalities as eagerly and as brightly as if he had never converted the Three per Cents, or established the ratio between dead millionaires and new ironclads. His easiness in conversation is perhaps a little marred by a Teutonic tendency to excessive analysis which will not suffer him to rest until he has resolved every subject and almost every phrase into its primary elements. But this philosophic temperament has its counterbalancing advantages in a genuine openness of mind, willingness to weigh and measure opposing views, and inaccessibility to intellectual passion. It is true that on the platform the exigencies of his position compel him to indulge in mock-heroics and cut rhetorical capers for which Nature never designed him; but these are for public consumption only, and when he is not playing to the gallery he can discuss his political opponents and their sayings and doings as dispassionately as a microscopist examines a black-beetle. Himself a good talker, Mr. Goschen encourages good talk in other people; and in old days, when the Art of Conversation was still seriously cultivated, he used to gather round his table in Portland Place a group of intimate friends who drank '34 port and conversed accordingly. Among these were Lord Sherbrooke, whose aptness in quotation and dexterity in repartee have never, in my experience, been surpassed; and Lord Chief Justice Cockburn, whose "sunny face and voice of music, which lent melody to scorn and sometimes reached the depth of pathos," were gracefully commemorated by Lord Beaconsfield in his sketch of Hortensius. But this belongs to ancient history, and my business is with the conversation of to-day.

Very distinctly of to-day is the conversation of Mr. Labouchere. Even our country cousins are aware that the Member for Northampton is less an ornament of general society than the oracle of an initiated circle. The smoking-room of the House of Commons is his shrine, and there, poised in an American rocking-chair and delicately toying with a cigarette, he unlocks the varied treasures of his well-stored memory, and throws over the changing scenes of life the mild light of his genial philosophy. It is a chequered experience that has made him what he is. He has known men and cities; has probed in turn the mysteries of the caucus, the green-room, and the Stock Exchange; has been a diplomatist, a financier, a journalist, and a politician. Under these circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that his faith—no doubt originally robust—in the purity of human nature and the uprightness of human motive should have undergone some process of degeneration. Still it may be questioned whether, after all that he has seen and done, he is the absolute and all-round cynic that he would seem to be. The palpable endeavour to make out the worst of every one—including himself—gives a certain flavour of unreality to his conversation; but, in spite of this peculiarity, he is an engaging talker. His language is racy and incisive, and he talks as neatly as he writes. His voice is pleasant, and his utterance deliberate and effective. He has a keen eye for absurdities and incongruities, a shrewd insight into affectation and bombast, and an admirable impatience of all the moral and intellectual qualities which constitute the Bore. He is by no means inclined to bow his knee too slavishly to an exalted reputation, and analyzes with agreeable frankness the personal and political qualities of great and good men, even if they sit on the front Opposition bench. As a contributor to enjoyment, as a promoter of fun, as an unmasker of political and social humbug, he is unsurpassed. His performances in debate are no concern of mine, for I am speaking of conversation only; but most Members of Parliament will agree that he is the best companion that can be found for the last weary half-hour before the division-bell rings, when some eminent nonentity is declaiming his foregone conclusions to an audience whose whole mind is fixed on the chance of finding a disengaged cab in Palace Yard.

Like Mr. Labouchere, Lord Acton has touched life at many points—but not the same. He is a theologian, a professor, a man of letters, a member of society; and his conversation derives a distinct tinge from each of these environments. When, at intervals all too long, he quits his retirement at Cannes or Cambridge, and flits mysteriously across the social scene, his appearance is hailed with devout rejoicing by every one who appreciates manifold learning, a courtly manner, and a delicately sarcastic vein of humour. The distinguishing feature of Lord Acton's conversation is an air of sphinx-like mystery, which suggests that he knows a great deal more than he is willing to impart. Partly by what he says, and even more by what he leaves unsaid, his hearers are made to feel that, if he has not acted conspicuous parts, he has been behind the scenes of many and very different theatres.

He has had relations, neither few nor unimportant, with the Pope and the Old Catholics, with Oxford and Lambeth, with the cultivated Whiggery of the great English families, with the philosophic radicalism of Germany, and with those Nationalist complications which, in these later days, have drawn official Liberalism into their folds. He has long lived on terms of the closest intimacy with Mr. Gladstone, and may perhaps be bracketed with Canon MacColl and Sir Algernon West as the most absolute and profound Gladstonian outside the family circle of Hawarden. But he is thoroughly eclectic in his friendships, and when he is in London he flits from Lady Hayter's tea-table to Mr. Goschen's bureau, analyzes at the Athenaeum the gossip which he has acquired at Brooks's, and by dinner-time is able, if only he is willing, to tell you what Spain intends and what America; the present relations between the Curia and the Secret Societies; how long Lord Salisbury will combine the Premiership with the Foreign Office; and the latest theory about the side of Whitehall on which Charles I. was beheaded.

The ranks of our good talkers—none too numerous a body at the best, and sadly thinned by the losses which I described in a former chapter—have been opportunely reinforced by the discovery of Mr. Augustine Birrell. For forty-eight years he has walked this earth, but it is only during the last nine—in short, since he entered Parliament—that the admirable qualities of his conversation have been generally recognized. Before that time his delightful Obiter Dicta had secured for him a wide circle of friends who had never seen his face, and by these admirers his first appearance on the social scene was awaited with lively interest. What would he be like? Should we be disillusioned? Would he talk as pleasantly as he wrote? Well, in due course he appeared, and the questions were soon answered in a sense as laudatory as his friends or even himself could have desired. It was unanimously voted that his conversation was as agreeable as his writing; but, oddly enough, its agreeableness was of an entirely different kind. His literary knack of chatty criticism had required a new word to convey its precise effect. To "birrell" is now a verb as firmly established as to "boycott," and it signifies a style light, easy, playful, pretty, rather discursive, perhaps a little superficial. Its characteristic note is grace. But when the eponymous hero of the new verb entered the conversational lists it was seen that his predominant quality was strength.

An enthusiastic admirer who sketched him in a novel nicknamed him "The Harmonious Blacksmith," and the collocation of words happily hits off the special quality of his conversation. There is burly strength in his positive opinions, his cogent statement, his remorseless logic, his thorough knowledge of the persons and things that he discusses. In his sledge-hammer blows against humbug and wickedness, intellectual affectation, and moral baseness, he is the Blacksmith all over. In his geniality, his sociability, his genuine love of fun, his frank readiness to amuse or be amused, the epithet "harmonious" is abundantly justified. He cultivates to some extent the airs and tone of the eighteenth century, in which his studies have chiefly lain. He says what he means, and calls a spade a spade, and glories in an old-fashioned prejudice. He is the jolliest of companions and the steadiest of friends, and perhaps the most genuine book-lover in London, where, as a rule, people are too "cultured" to read books, though willing enough to chatter about them.


[21] May 7, 1897.



Clerus Anglicanus stupor mundi. I believe that this complimentary proverb originally referred to the learning of the English clergy, but it would apply with equal truth to their social agreeableness. When I was writing about the Art of Conversation and the men who excelled in it, I was surprised to find how many of the best sayings that recurred spontaneously to my memory had a clerical origin; and it struck me that a not uninteresting chapter might be written about the social agreeableness of clergymen. A mere layman may well feel a natural and becoming diffidence in venturing to handle so high a theme.

In a former chapter I said something of the secular magnificence which surrounded great prelates in the good old days, when the Archbishop of Canterbury could only be approached on gilt-edged paper, and even the Bishop of impecunious Oxford never appeared in his Cathedral city without four horses and two powdered footmen. In a certain sense, no doubt, these splendid products of established religion conduced to social agreeableness. Like the excellent prelate described in Friendship's Garland, they "had thoroughly learnt the divine lesson that charity begins at home." They maintained an abundant hospitality; they celebrated domestic events by balls at the episcopal palace; they did not disdain (as we gather from the Life of the Hon. and Rev. George Spencer) the relaxation of a rubber of whist, even on the night before an Ordination, with a candidate for a partner. They dined out, like that well-drawn bishop in Little Dorrit, who "was crisp, fresh, cheerful, affable, bland, but so surprisingly innocent;" or like the prelate on whom Thackeray moralized: "My Lord, I was pleased to see good thing after good thing disappear before you; and think that no man ever better became that rounded episcopal apron. How amiable he was! how kind! He put water into his wine. Let us respect the moderation of the Establishment."

But the agreeableness which I had in my mind when I took upon myself to discourse of agreeable clergymen was not an official but a personal agreeableness. We have been told on high authority that the Merriment of Parsons is mighty offensive; but the truth of this dictum depends entirely on the topic of the merriment. A clergyman who made light of the religion which he professes to teach, or even joked about the incidents and accompaniments of his sacred calling, would by common consent be intolerable. Decency exacts from priests at least a semblance of piety; but I entirely deny that there is anything offensive in the "merriment of parsons" when it plays round subjects outside the scope of their professional duties.

Of Sydney Smith Lord Houghton recorded that "he never, except once, knew him to make a jest on any religious subject, and then he immediately withdrew his words, and seemed ashamed that he had uttered them;" and I regard the admirable Sydney as not only the supreme head of all ecclesiastical jesters, but as, on the whole, the greatest humorist whose jokes have come down to us in an authentic and unmutilated form. Almost alone among professional jokers, he made his merriment—rich, natural, fantastic, unbridled as it was—subserve the serious purposes of his life and writing. Each joke was a link in an argument; each sarcasm was a moral lesson.

Peter Plymley's Letters, and those addressed to Archdeacon Singleton, the Essays on America and Persecuting Bishops, will probably be read as long as the Tale of a Tub or Macaulay's review of Montgomery's Poems; while of detached and isolated jokes—pure freaks of fun clad in literary garb—an incredible number of those which are current in daily converse deduce their birth from this incomparable Canon.

When one is talking of facetious clergymen, it is inevitable to think of Bishop Wilberforce; but his humour was of an entirely different quality from that of Sydney Smith. To begin with, it is unquotable. It must, I think, have struck every reader of the Bishop's Life, whether in the three huge volumes of the authorized Biography or in the briefer but more characteristic monograph of Dean Burgon, that, though the biographers had themselves tasted and enjoyed to the full the peculiar flavour of his fun, they utterly failed in the attempt to convey it to the reader. Puerile puns, personal banter of a rather homely type, and good stories collected from other people are all that the books disclose. Animal spirits did the rest; and yet, by the concurrent testimony of nearly all who knew him, Bishop Wilberforce was not only one of the most agreeable but one of the most amusing men of his time. We know from one of his own letters that he peculiarly disliked the description which Lord Beaconsfield gave of him in Lothair, and on the principle of Ce n'est que la verite qui blesse, it may be worth while to recall it: "The Bishop was particularly playful on the morrow at breakfast. Though his face beamed with Christian kindness, there was a twinkle in his eye which seemed not entirely superior to mundane self-complacency, even to a sense of earthly merriment. His seraphic raillery elicited sympathetic applause from the ladies, especially from the daughters of the house, who laughed occasionally even before his angelic jokes were well launched."

Mr. Bright once said, with characteristic downrightness, "If I was paid what a bishop is paid for doing what a bishop does, I should find abundant cause for merriment in the credulity of my countrymen;" and, waiving the theological animus which the saying implies, it is not uncharitable to surmise that a general sense of prosperity and a strong faculty of enjoying life in all its aspects and phases had much to do with Bishop Wilberforce's exuberant and infectious jollity. "A truly emotional spirit," wrote Matthew Arnold, after meeting him in a country house, "he undoubtedly has beneath his outside of society-haunting and men-pleasing, and each of the two lives he leads gives him the more zest for the other."

A scarcely less prominent figure in society than Bishop Wilberforce, and to many people a much more attractive one, was Dean Stanley. A clergyman to whom the Queen signed herself "Ever yours affectionately" must certainly be regarded as the social head of his profession, and every circumstance of Stanley's nature and antecedents exactly fitted him for the part. He was in truth a spoiled child of fortune, in a sense more refined and spiritual than the phrase generally conveys. He was born of famous ancestry, in a bright and unworldly home; early filled with the moral and intellectual enthusiasms of Rugby in its best days; steeped in the characteristic culture of Oxford, and advanced by easy stages of well-deserved promotion to the most delightful of all offices in the Church of England. His inward nature accorded well with this happy environment. It was in a singular degree pure, simple, refined, ingenuous. All the grosser and harsher elements of human character seemed to have been omitted from his composition. He was naturally good, naturally graceful, naturally amiable. A sense of humour was, I think, almost the only intellectual gift with which he was not endowed. Lord Beaconsfield spoke of his "picturesque sensibility," and the phrase was happily chosen. He had the keenest sympathy with whatever was graceful in literature; a style full of flexibility and colour; a rare faculty of graphic description; and all glorified by something of the poet's imagination. His conversation was incessant, teeming with information, and illustrated by familiar acquaintance with all the best that has been thought and said in the world.

Never was a brighter intellect or a more gallant heart housed in a more fragile form. His figure, features, bearing, and accent were the very type of refinement; and as the spare figure, so short yet so full of dignity, marked out by the decanal dress and the red ribbon of the Order of the Bath, threaded its way through the crowded saloons of London society, one felt that the Church, as a civilizing institution, could not be more appropriately represented.

A lady of Presbyterian antecedents who had conformed to Anglicanism once said to the present writer, "I dislike the Episcopal Church as much as ever, but I love the Decanal Church." Her warmest admiration was reserved for that particular Dean, supreme alike in station and in charm, whom I have just now been describing; but there were, at the time of speaking, several other members of the same order who were conspicuous ornaments of the society in which they moved. There was Dr. Elliot, Dean of Bristol, a yearly visitor to London; dignified, clever, agreeable, highly connected; an administrator, a politician, an admirable talker; and so little trammelled by any ecclesiastical prejudices or habitudes that he might have been the original of Dr. Stanhope in Barchester Towers. There was Dr. Liddell, Dean of Christ Church, whose periodical appearances at Court and in society displayed to the admiring gaze of the world the very handsomest and stateliest specimen of the old English gentleman that our time has produced. There was Dr. Church, Dean of St. Paul's, by many competent judges pronounced to be our most accomplished man of letters, yet so modest and so retiring that the world was never suffered to come in contact with him except through his books. And there was Dr. Vaughan, Dean of Llandaff, who concealed under the blandest of manners a remorseless sarcasm and a mordant wit, and who, returning from the comparative publicity of the Athenaeum to the domestic shades of the Temple, would often leave behind him some pungent sentence which travelled from mouth to mouth, and spared neither age nor sex nor friendship nor affinity.

The very highest dignitaries of the Church in London have never, in my experience, contributed very largely to its social life. The garden-parties of Fulham and Lambeth are indeed recognized incidents of the London season; but they present to the critical eye less the aspect of a social gathering than that of a Church Congress combined with a Mothers' Meeting. The overwhelming disparity between the position of host and guests is painfully apparent, and that "drop-down-dead-ativeness" of manner which Sydney Smith quizzed still characterizes the demeanour of the unbeneficed clergy. Archbishop Tait, whose natural stateliness of aspect and manner was one of the most conspicuous qualifications for his great office, was a dignified and hospitable host; and Archbishop Thomson, reinforced by a beautiful and charming wife, was sometimes spoken of as the Archbishop of Society. Archbishop Benson looked the part to perfection, but did not take much share in general conversation, though I remember one terse saying of his in which the odium theologicum supplied the place of wit. A portrait of Cardinal Manning was exhibited at the Royal Academy, and I remarked to the Archbishop on the extraordinary picturesqueness of the Cardinal's appearance "The dress is very effective," replied the Archbishop dryly, "but I don't think there is much besides." "Oh, surely it is a fine head?" "No, not a fine head; only no face."

Passing down through the ranks of the hierarchy, I shall presently have something to say about two or three metropolitan Canons who are notable figures in society; but before I come to them I must offer a word of affectionate tribute to the memory of Dr. Liddon. Probably there never was a man whose social habit and manner were less like what a mere outsider would have inferred from his physical aspect and public demeanour. Nature had given him the outward semblance of a foreigner and an ascetic; a life-long study of ecclesiastical rhetoric had stamped him with a mannerism which belongs peculiarly to the pulpit. But the true inwardness of the man was that of the typical John Bull—hearty, natural, full of humour, utterly free from self-consciousness. He had a healthy appetite, and was not ashamed to gratify it; liked a good glass of wine; was peculiarly fond of sociable company, whether as host or guest; and told an amusing story with incomparable zest and point. His verbal felicity was a marked feature of his conversation. His description of Archbishop Benson (revived, with strange taste, by the Saturday Review on the occasion of the Archbishop's death) was a masterpiece of sarcastic character-drawing. The judicious Bishop Davidson and the accomplished Canon Mason were the subjects of similar pleasantries; and there was substantial truth as well as genuine fun in his letter to a friend written one dark Christmas from Amen Court: "London is just now buried under a dense fog. This is commonly attributed to Dr. Westcott having opened his study-window at Westminster."

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