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

II. Political Writers and Speakers

§ 17. Richard Brinsley Sheridan

While Fox shone especially in the witty humour of an illustration, irresistibly quaint and full of a convincing sound sense, Pitt employed a dry contumelious sarcasm, in which severe irony was the distinguishing trait. Thus, he observed of a hopelessly muddled speech that it “was not, I presume, designed for a complete and systematic view of the subject.” Both orators, however, so far as mere wit was concerned, were outdone by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who almost turned their dual supremacy into a triumvirate of eloquence. But in spite of all his brilliancy, he was manifestly outweighted; unlike Pitt and Fox, he had entered the period of decline long before he quitted parliament. It is not easy, from the mere reports of his speeches, to give a satisfactory account of his comparative lack of weight and influence. He entered parliament in the same year as Pitt, and his oratorical ability, although, at first, it was somewhat clouded, soon obtained the recognition it deserved; one speech against Warren Hastings, in February, 1787, was declared by the auditors to be the best they had ever heard. But, perhaps, he was too frankly an advocate, and he was too clearly bound, by personal attachment, rather than by interest, to the prince of Wales’s chariot-wheels. Although his special pleading by no means surpassed that of his contemporaries, it was more obvious, and his changes of opinion, due to fresh developments of Napoleon’s action, were not condoned as were those of others. In 1812, the first debater of the day was left out of parliament through the loss of the prince’s favour, and his political career was closed.

Wit—brilliant, sustained and polished to the utmost—distinguished Sheridan from his competitors. Many of his impromptu speeches, alone in contemporary literature, have the true Junian ring, and, were they known by later publication or could they have been prepared beforehand, doubtless we should have been told that they were “tormented with the file.” As it is, we must own that balanced antithesis and mischievous scoffing were native to him and his readiest means of expression, even if the Letters of Junius provided him with a favourite model. Nor did his merits end with wit. In the mere physical part of oratory, his animated gay expression and his trained musical voice exercised an “inconceivable attraction,” although it may be that the absence of “violence or excess,” which is also recorded, may have led to an impression that he was not in earnest. In spite of this, his gaiety could be very bitter; and, so far as the words went, his higher flights could be as impassioned as any. Yet, his merit was his defect; he is not absorbed in his subject like Fox, or delivering a ruler’s oracles like Pitt; we feel, all along, that here is a celebrated author, enjoying the use of his powers, impassioned on principles of taste and arguing with the conscious pleasure of the casemaker. He bears print better than the two greater men; but, in the real test of an orator—the spoken word—he was, admittedly, their inferior.