Monday, May 05, 2008

The Rev. B.F. Tefft on Daniel Webster's oratory

While working on a syllabus for an MOE-required elective called "Introduction to English Rhetoric" (that may not ever actually be taught, since although we're required to offer it students aren't required to take it), I came across the following comments on Daniel Webster's oratory in the preface to a book of Webster's selected speeches. (I imagine the previous sentence will have some of my readers--if I have any readers--wondering why anyone would ask me to write a syllabus for a course on rhetoric, but anyway...)

Here it is for my future reference:
It is quite evident that Mr. Webster matured rather slowly; that his efforts made before the age of fifty were his most popular because the most impassioned efforts; but that his productions dated beyond the age of fifty, though less fiery, are generally more indicative of his unsurpassed abilities as a man of deep, penetrating, far-reaching, and comprehensive mind. His mind, indeed, seemed to grow clearer as he advanced in years; and the very latest speeches, though not so striking to superficial hearers, will be regarded hereafter, by close and competent readers, as the most finished of all the productions of his tongue and pen.

One result, it is to be earnestly hoped, will not fail to follow a general circulation of these master-pieces among the generous youth of Mr. Webster's native land. It is to be hoped that his style of elocution, calm, slow dignified, natural, unambitious, and yet direct and powerful, will take the place of that showy, flowery, flashy, fitful and boisterous sort of speaking, which seems to be becoming too common, which so breaks down the health of the speaker, and which is nevertheless most likely to strike the feelings and corrupt the judgment of the young. Let me here say plainly, that, having heard Mr. Webster speak very frequently, on almost every variety of occasion, I have never heard him, even when most excited, raise his voice higher, or sink it lower, or utter his words more rapidly than he could do consistently with the most perfect ease, and with the utmost dignity of movement. He never played the orator. He never seemed to be making any effort. What he had to say he said as easily, as naturally, and yet as forcibly and possible, with such a voice as he used in common conversation, only elevated and strengthened to meet the demands of his large audiences. So intent did he seem to be, so intent he certainly was, in making his hearers see and feel as he did, in relation to the subject of the hour, that no one thought of his manner, or whether he had any manner, till the speech was over. That is oratory, true oratory; and it is to be hoped that the more general distribution of these masterpieces will have the ultimate effect of making it the American standard of oratory from this age to all future ages. (5-6)

From the Preface to Speeches of Daniel Webster, Selected by Rev. B. F. Tefft, D.D., LL.D., Embracing His Acknowledged Masterpieces in Each Department of the Great Field of Intellectual Action. NY: A. L. Burt Company, n.d. (1852?)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

We can only hope that our oratory, like Webster's, matures like a fine wine, served not early with fire that burns quickly in all the wrong directions, scalding listeners everywhere, but instead delivered gracefully when ripened to its prime, which, fortunately, lies still ten years before us, rather than ten years rearward--if Mr. Webster be suitable example for us, indeed! --ERG