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About Elocution

( Originally Published Early 1900's )


A man who knows just where to pause and emphasize in order to produce the best elocutionary effects, will know also how to arrange his words the most effectively when writing. Still greater will be the influence of the same fact upon his oratorical rhetoric. He will instinctively come to present his thoughts not only rhythmically but emphatically. His good elocution will secure him an audience when he speaks, and often, too, when what he speaks is put into print.—Essay on Elocution in the Theological Seminary.


The form to which the elocutionist must apply the result of technique is a part of himself. Therefore, he, of all artists, is least liable, in his own conceptions, to divorce the form of expression from the significance of expression. Take any elocutionary system and you will see the truth of this,—that of Delsarte, for instance. What does it suggest? To half of us the importance and possibility of accurately representing significance in the form. But to the other half, it suggests gymnastic technique—the importance and possibility of adapting the form to every possible requirement of grace. At the same time, to all of us it suggests something of both conceptions. Such a result is not so inevitable in any other art. Nor is it an unimportant mission of elocution, as I conceive, to make it inevitable in all the arts. But, while doing this, and because doing it, our branch of instruction has a broader mission still. What, as well as it, can enable a man to realize that he has a soul of which his body is merely an instrument, an instrument that can be made to signal any purpose, or to trumpet any call? And the man who recognizes that the human form can be transfigured by the influence of soul, is not he the one most likely to recognize that, by way of association or suggestion, all forms can be thus transfigured ?Essay on the Function of Technique.


The man who has learned how to arrange tones and pauses in reading is the man who can best arrange what can be easily read by others. Where elocution is properly taught, not once in a score of times, will you find a prize writer in an upper class who has not started by being a prize speaker in a lower class. When Wendell Phillips made a special study of elocution at Harvard, by his side studied Motley, the historian. But, beyond its influence upon literary excellence, the kind of practice necessitated in elocution, and its very apparent effects, are a revelation to large numbers of students of the true method through which thought and feeling can make subservient to themselves the agencies of expression in any department whatever that necessitates the acquirement of skill; indeed, a revelation of how, if at all, the mind can master the whole body or any of its bodily surroundings.—Idem.


It is not only an art, but also, in an important sense, the art of arts, the centre and fountain of the whole aesthetic system. When the fountain plays, there is melody and rhythm in the rush of its spray and the ripple of its overflow; there is color and line in the sunlit bow crowning its brow and in the ghost-like shadow shrinking from the touch of moonlight or the frost. But there would be nothing to hear or to see, except for the fountain itself. Nor would there be anything of the whole art-system except for elocution. Make that which can echo a man's intonations, symbolize his articulations, imitate his postures and the hues and outlines that surround him, and you have the possibilities of music, poetry, painting, sculpture, and architecture. Whatever more these latter arts include, they gain all their uses and meanings from the previous use which an immaterial soul has made of its material body. Art is human sentiment made incarnate in the forms of nature; and it first touches nature in the human form, as in elocution. Idem.


"In reading without utterance aloud," says Alexander Bain, in his " Rhetoric," "we have a sense of the articulate flow of the voice as it appeals to the ear." If this be so, the deduction is unavoidable that the man who, himself, knows how to read with ease will be the most likely to know how to select and to arrange words so that they can be read with ease by others. He will be the most likely to know just where to introduce the accents causing natural rhythm, the pauses enabling one to breathe without effort, and the important words emphasizing the sense; to know where to hasten the movement by short sentences and syllables that one can pronounce quickly, and where to retard it by long sentences and syllables that have to be uttered slowly; to know how to balance the sound-effects of epithets and phrases, when ideas are to be contrasted, or to parallel them when they are to be compared; to know how to let the suggestions of proof, if decisive, unwind like a cracking whiplash at the end of a periodic sentence or climax, or, if indecisive, unravel into shreds at the end of a loose sentence or an anti-climax; to know how to charge his batteries of breath with consonants and clauses that hiss, whine, roar, or rattle, and give thought the victory over form, through rhyme that is loaded with reason, and rhythm that repeats the thought-waves pulsing in the brain, or only to waste his energies in cataloguing names for things that never waken realization of what they cannot picture, that never rouse imagination save as they first lull to dreams, and that never stir one vivid feeling except of gratitude when their dull details are at an end. Essay on the Literary Artist and Elocution.


The inexperienced conception of a professorship like ours is more likely to be that of a man spending all his time in enlarging the range of Demosthenes and Shakespeare by his own contributions, blowing their dead phrases to a glow with the breath of his own inflections, and starring their every climax with the rays of his own gestures; above all, exhibiting his familiarity with the very gods themselves, by pointing the end of every criticism with a rocket bursting into a temporary rivalry of Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn and the whole galaxy of the empyrean.

As a fact, however, no boy was ever more cramped and smothered, while playing dumb orator, than some of us have been, spending so much of our lives, as we have, almost literally kneeling behind those who, but for us, would have had little more influence in the world than the dumb and the halt—and with what result? Not infrequently a comic result; for this is a world of incongruities. The born genius to whom we have been conscious of offering a few hardly-needed suggestions, may thankfully attribute all his success to our efforts. But the man whom we have literally created from the diaphragm up, sending into certain parts of his lungs for the very first time the real breath of life, is not seldom inclined to resent the impious insinuation that to any influence less than that of divinity could be attributed what he has become. Essay on the Function of Technique.


Occasionally, one meets candidates for such positions who articulate with such pedantic precision that he feels like shaking them to see if teeth and tongue, which appear to have cut connection with head and heart, cannot actually drop out. There are others who emphasize with so much artificiality that the chief impression conveyed comes from the dexterity with which subordinate words and clauses are kept dancing up and down, as if intent to assume an importance that will keep the main sense in the background.—Essay on Elocution in the Theological Seminary.


A word, too, might be added with reference to the fault of making elocution too picturesque; of confounding representation in action with painting. As we all know, in connection with expression in language, only a moderate degree of action is natural. To overstep the boundary of moderation in this regard is to transgress those limits where the dignity of appropriate characterization passes into the ludicrousness of incongruous caricature,—a result that we may laugh with in comedy, but can only laugh at in a serious performance. — The Representative Significance of Form, XXVI.


In correct elocutionary delivery, every sound represents a definite thought. In music, not every sound but every series of sounds represents, and, even then, it does not represent a definite thought but an indefinite emotive tendency of thought. The musical motive is manifested in elocution, when the speaker begins to be influenced by the general drift of the words rather than by the particular thought behind each word. He is more apt to be influenced thus when he is reading from a manuscript than when he is speaking without one. When the eye is attending to phrases instead of individual words the mind is apt to be thinking of the phrase. As a consequence, there begin to be regularly recurring series of slow or rapid upward and downward utterances, irrespective of the emphasis appropriate for particular words, which, when a man is thinking of them, he always gives. This makes the result of elocution resemble that of music. Music either puts our thinking powers to sleep, as if the rhythm had a sort of hypnotic influence, or else it sets us to thinking not of anything in particular but of many things in general, the drift only of which need be in analogy with that which is being heard. And this is just what is done by a sermon delivered with the musical motive, no matter how sweet the voice or correct the enunciation. It either puts people to sleep, or makes them think of something having nothing to do with the discourse. Indeed, however they may try to follow the line of its thought they have hard work in doing so, the legitimate effect of the delivery being to incline them away from it. One's feet might al-most as well attempt, without slipping off, to follow a line of cracks along the side of a steep roof covered with ice. —Idem, XXVI.


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