Page images


unwise to leave the enthusiasm of friends the time to cool, or the objections of adversaries time for preparation; that people soon come to laugh at the thunder which rumbles in the air without producing a bolt, and that an antagonist should be struck down promptly, as with the cannon ball which kills at a blow.

It was contended the Assembly ought not to have the initiative in the impeachment of the ministers. Mirabeau replied on the spot:

“You forget that the people to whom you oppose the limitation of the three powers is the source of all the powers, and that it alone can delegate them. You forget that it is to the sovereign you would deny the control of his own administrators! You forget, in short, that we, the representatives of the sovereign, in presence of whom stand suspended all the powers of the state, those even of the chief of the nation in case of conflict, - you forget that we by no pretend to place or displace ministers by virtue of our decrees, but solely to manifest the opinion of our constituents respecting such or such a minister. What! you would refuse us the simple right of declaration; you who accord us that of accusing, of prosecuting, and of creating a tribunal to punish these fabrications of iniquity, the machinations of which, by a palpable contradiction, you would have us to contemplate in a respectful silence! Do you not see, then, how much a better lot I would insure our governors than you, how much I exceed you in moderation? You allow no interval between a boding silence and a sanguinary denunciation. To say nothing or to punish, to obey or to strike, - such is your system. And for me, I would notify before denouncing, I would remonstrate before casting reproach.”

He frequently used, by inspiration, those vivid figures which transport, of a sudden, men, objects, and places on the stage, and make them hear, speak, and act as if they were really present. The Assembly was about to plunge imprudently into religious quarrels. Mirabeau, to cut the matter short, rose and said: «Recollect, that from this place, from the very tribune where I now speak, I can see the window of the palace through which factious miscreants, uniting temporal interests with the most sacred interests of religion, had fired by the hand of a king of the French the fatal gun which was to be the signal of the massacre of the Huguenots.”

A deputation of the Assembly was preparing to wait upon the king to request the dismission of the troops, already three times refused. The indignant Mirabeau, unable to contain himself, addresses the committee:

"Say to the king,— say to him, that the hordes of foreigners by whom we are invested have received yesterday the visit of the princes, of the princesses, of the favorites, male and female, also their caresses, and their exhortations, and their presents! Say to him that the whole night these foreign satellites, gorged with gold and wine, have been predicting in their impious songs the enslavement of France, and invoking with their brutal vows the destruction of the National Assembly! Say to him, that in his very palace the courtiers have led their dances to the sound of this barbarous music, and that such was the prelude of the Saint Bartholomew!)

In his fine discourse on the right of peace and war,) Mirabeau had arrived, after some confusion of ideas, at a precise solution of the difficulty by means of ministerial responsibility and the refusal of the supplies on the part of the legislative power. But as soon as he had uttered these closing words,—« Fear not that a rebel king, abdicating of himself his sceptre, will expose himself to the peril of running from victory to the scaffold, ” — he was interrupted with violent murmurs. D'Espremenil moved that he be called to order for having attacked the inviolability of the king. “You have all,” replied Mirabeau at the instant, heard my sup

[merged small][ocr errors][ocr errors][merged small][ocr errors]

position of a despotic and revolted king, who should come with an army of Frenchmen, to conquer the position of a tyrant. But a king in this position is no longer a king.” [General applause.] Mirabeau proceeds: “It is the tocsin of necessity alone which can give the signal when the moment is come for fulfilling the imprescriptable duty of resistance,

,-a duty always imperative whenever the Constitution is violated, always triumphant when the resistance is just and truly national.”

Are not these words the prophetic and living picture of the Revolution of July?

In the same effusion and a little after, Mirabeau, in a celebrated adjuration, introduces on the stage the Abbé Sieyès: “I will not conceal,” said he, “my deep regret that the man who has laid the foundations of the Constitution, that the man who has revealed to the world the true principles of representative government, who condemns himself to a silence which I deplore, which I think culpable, that the Abbé Sieyès – I ask his pardon for naming him - does not come forward to insert himself in his constitution, one of the most important springs of the social order. This occasions me the more pain that, crushed beneath a weight of labor beyond my intellectual forces, unceasingly hurried off from self-collection and meditation, which are the principal sources of mental power, I had not myself turned attention to this question of the completion of my work, accustomed as I was to repose upon that great thinker. I have pressed him, conjured, implored in the name of the friendship with which he honors me, in the name of patriotism, that sentiment far more energetic and holy,– to endow us with the treasure of his ideas, not to leave a blank in the Constitution. He has refused me; I denounce him to you!

I conjure you, in my turn, to obtain his opinion, which ought not to be a secret, to rescue, in fine, from discouragement a man whose silence and seclusion I regard as a public calamity.”

I have remarked that what has raised Mirabeau incomparably beyond other orators, is the profundity and breadth of his thoughts, the solidity of his reasoning, the vehemence of his improvisations; but it is especially the unexampled felicity of his repartees. In fact, the auditors, and principally the rival orators, hold themselves on their guard against premeditated speeches. As they know that the orator has spread in advance his toils to surprise them, they prepare accordingly in advance to elude him. They search for, they divine, they discover, they dispose for themselves, with more or less of ability, the arguments which he must employ, his facts, his proofs, his insinuations, and sometimes even his figures and happiest movements. They have thus, all ready to meet him, their objections. They shut the air-and-eye holes of their helmet, they cover the weak points of their cuirass where his lance might penetrate: and when the orator crosses the barrier, and rushes im. petuous to the conflict, he encounters before him an enemy armed cap-a-pie, who bars his way and disputes valiantly the victory. But a happy oratorical retort astonishes and delights even your adversaries; it produces the effect of things urexpected. It is a startling counterplot, which cuts the gordian knots of the play and precipitates the catastrophe. It is the lightning flash amid the darkness of night. It is the arm which strikes in the buckler of the enemy, who draws it instantly and returns it to pierce the bosom of him who had launched it. The repartee shakes the irresolute and floating masses of an assembly. It comes upon you, as the eagle, concealed in the hollow of a rock, makes a stoop at its prey and carries it off all palpitating in its talons, before it even has emitted a cry. It arouses, by the stimulant of its novelty, the thick-skulled, phlegmatic, and drowsy deputies who were falling asleep. It sends a sudden and softening thrill to the soul. It fires the audience to cry, To arms! to arms! It wrings from the bosom exclamations of wrath. It provokes laughter inextinguishable. It compels the adversary -- offi

It glo

cer or soldier – to go hide his shame in the ranks of his company, who open them to receive him but with pity and derision. It resolves with a word the question in a debate. It signifies an event. It reveals a character. It paints a situation. It absolves, it condemns, a party. It makes a reputation, or it unmakes it. rifies, it stigmatizes, it dejects, it cheers, it unbinds, it reattaches, it saves, it slays. It attracts, it suspends magically, as by a golden chain, an entire assembly from the lips of a single man. It concentrates at the same time its whole attention upon a single point, for a moment produces unanimity, and may decide of a sudden the loss or the gain of a parliamentary battle.

Never did Mirabeau shrink from an objection or an adversary. He drew himself up to his full height under the menace of his enemies, and burst by sledgeblows the nail which it was intended he should draw. In the tribune he braved the prejudices, the dumb objurgations and muttering impatience of the Assembly. Immovable as a rock, he crossed his arms and awaited silence. He retorted instantly, blow after blow, upon all opponents and on all subjects, with a rapidity of action and a nicety of pertinence really surprising. He painted men and things with a manner and words entirely his own. How energetically did he describe France, "an unconstituted aggregation of disunited people.” He used to say in his monarchical language: «The monarch is the perpetual representative of the people, and the deputies are the temporary representatives.) Member of the Directory of Paris, he expressed himself thus before the king: “A tall tree covers with its shade a large surface. Its roots shoot wide and deep through the soil and entwine themselves around eternal rocks. To pull it down, the earth itself must be up

Such, sire, is the image of constitutional monarchy.” Assailed impertinently by M. de Faucigny, he words the reprimand in these terms: «The Assembly, satisfied with the repentance you testify, remits you, sir, the penalty which you have incurred.)

What vivacity, what actuality, what nobleness in all these repartees! what keen and chivalrous irony! what vigor!


[merged small][ocr errors][merged small][merged small][merged small]


[ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][merged small][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors]



« On the Athenian Orators" is the result of extensive study and the subject is one with which he was thor

oughly familiar. He loved oratory as an art, and for its own sake, aside from any possible results to be achieved from it. He became, largely through such studies, one of the most celebrated orators of the first half of the nineteenth century; but a result of still greater importance was the formation of his prose style on that of Cicero. He is probably the best English representative of Cicero's method of Wamplification” by adding clause to clause, balancing one against the other, to make cumulative the force of meaning in a sentence. It is a fact of the highest artistic and practical importance that both in Macaulay and in Cicero, such clauses have a governing impulse of rhythm under which they seek to balance each other in musical time, as do the verses of a quatrain or the sextette of a sonnet. No one ever becomes a great writer of prose without developing this subconscious faculty of perception for "quantity » in language.

What Macaulay says of Quintilian should be accepted with reserve. Conceding all that could be said of his faults of taste and judgment, Quintilian would still remain secure in his rightful place at the side of Cicero as one of the greatest essayists and critics of Rome, with a knowledge of the fundamental melodic laws of language from which the most learned and scientific of modern philologists and prosodists have yet much to borrow before they can reach an adequate idea of classical art in the handling of words in prose and verse.

[ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors]


To the famous orators repair,
Those ancient, whose resistless eloquence
Wielded at will that fierce democratie,
Shook the arsenal, and thundered over Greece
To Macedon and Artaxerxes' throne.

- Milton.

[ocr errors]

HE celebrity of the great classical writers is confined within no limits,

except those which separate civilized from savage man. Their works are

the common property of every polished nation. They have furnished subjects for the painter, and models for the poet. In the minds of the educated classes throughout Europe, their names are indissolubly associated with the endearing

recollections of childhood, the old schoolroom, the dog-eared grammar, - the first prize, - the tears so often shed and so quickly dried. So great is the veneration with which they are regarded, that even the editors and commentators, who perform the lowest menial offices to their memory are considered, like the equerries and chamberlains of sovereign princes, as entitled to a high rank in the table of literary precedence. It is, therefore, somewhat singular that their productions should so rarely have been examined on just and philosophical principles of criticism. The ancient writers themselves afford us but little assistance.

When they particularize, they are commonly trivial; when they would generalize, they become indistinct. An exception must, indeed, be made in favor of Aristotle. Both in analysis and in combination, that great man was without a rival. No philosopher has ever possessed, in an equal degree, the talent either of separating established systems into their primary elements, or of connecting detached phenomena in harmonious systems. He was the great fashioner of the intellectual chaos; he changed its darkness into light, and its discord into order. He brought to literary researches the same vigor and amplitude of mind to which both physical and metaphysical science are so greatly indebted. His fundamental principles of criticism are excellent. To cite only a single instance: the doctrine which he established, that poetry is an imitative art, when justly understood, is to the critic what the compass is to the navigator. With it he may venture upon the most extensive excursions. Without it he must creep cautiously along the coast, or lose himself in a trackless expanse, and trust, at best, to the guidance of an occasional star. It is a discovery which changes a caprice into a science.

The general propositions of Aristotle are valuable. But the merit of the superstructure bears no proportion to that of the foundation. This is partly to be ascribed to the character of the philosopher, who, though qualified to do all that could be done by the resolving and combining powers of the understanding, seems not to have possessed much of sensibility or imagination. Partly, also, it may be attributed to the deficiency of materials. The great works of genius which then existed were not either sufficiently numerous or sufficiently varied to enable any man to form perfect code of literature. To require that a critic should conceive classes of composition which had never existed, and then investigate their principles, would be as unreasonable as the demand of Nebuchadnezzar, who expected his magicians first to tell him his dream, and then to interpret it.

With all his deficiencies, Aristotle was the most enlightened and profound critic of antiquity. Dionysius was far from possessing the same exquisite subtlety, or the same vast comprehension. But he had access to a much greater number of specimens, and he had devoted himself, as it appears, more exclusively to the study of elegant literature. His particular judgments are of more value than his general principles. He is only the historian of literature. Aristotle is its philosopher.

Quintilian applied to general literature the same principles by which he had been accustomed to judge of the declamations of his pupils. He looks for nothing but rhetoric, and rhetoric not of the highest order. He speaks coldly of the incomparable works of Æschylus. He admires, beyond expression, those inexhaustible mines of commonplaces, the plays of Euripides. He bestows a few vague words on the poetical character of Homer. He then proceeds to consider him merely as an orator. An orator Homer doubtless was, and a great orator. But surely nothing is more remarkable in his admirable works than the art with which his oratorical powers are

made subservient to the purposes of poetry.

« EelmineJätka »