Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 15. Burke as an Orator

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

I. Edmund Burke

§ 15. Burke as an Orator

Burke’s unique power as an orator lies in the peculiar interpenetration of thought and passion. Like the poet and the prophet, he thinks most profoundly when he thinks most passionately. When he is not deeply moved, his oratory verges towards the turgid; when he indulges feeling for its own sake, as in parts of Letters on a Regicide Peace, it becomes hysterical. But, in his greatest speeches and pamphlets, the passion of Burke’s mind shows itself in the luminous thoughts which it emits, in the imagery which at once moves and teaches, throwing a flood of light not only on the point in question but on the whole neighbouring sphere of man’s moral and political nature. Such oratory is not likely to be immediately effective. “One always came away from Burke with one’s mind full,” Wordsworth declared; but it was necessary first to have a mind. The young men who jeered at Burke and interrupted him did so because they could not understand him; and Pitt and Dundas found it unnecessary to reply to the speech On the Nabob of Arcot’s Debts. The successful orator moves most safely among the topics familiar to his audience, trusting for success to the art with which he adapts and adorns them. But Burke combined the qualities of the orator with those of the seer, the logical architecture of western oratory with qualities which we find in the Hebrew prophets—moral exaltation, the union of dignity with trenchancy of language, vehemence, imagery that ranges from the sublime to the degrading. As the accidents of his political career recede into the distance we perceive more and more clearly for what he stood. He is the enemy of the spirit of Macchiavelli and Hobbes, which would exempt politics from the control of morality, and, in so far, is at one with Rousseau and the revolutionists. But, he is equally opposed to the new puritanism of the revolutionists, which claimed in the eighteenth century, as the puritans claimed in the sixteenth and seventeenth, to break in pieces the state or church that they might reconstruct it after an abstract and ideal pattern. His attitude to the doctrinaires of the “rights of man” is very similar to that of Hooker towards the followers of Cartwright. Yet, the first opposition is the more fundamental of the two. He is the great champion of the control of politics, domestic and foreign, by moral considerations. Philosophy was not so much the foe of his latter days as Jacobinism; and Jacobinism was simply Macchiavellism come back to fill the void which the failure of philosophy had created. It may be that, in his defence of moral prejudices and inherited institutions, he sometimes mistook the unessential for the vital; that his too passionate sensibility rendered his conduct at times factious, unjust and unwise. He brought into politics the faults as well as the genius of a man of letters and a prophet. When all is said, his is one of the greatest minds which have concerned themselves with political topics, and, alike, the substance and the form of his works have made him the only orator whose speeches have secured for themselves a permanent place in English literature beside what is greatest in our drama, our poetry and our prose. Of his many literary and artist friends, Johnson, Goldsmith, Reynolds and others, the foremost is Johnson. They differed radically in party politics, but they were knit together by a practical philosophy rooted in common sense and religious feeling.