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The Art of Eloquence: Byron, Dickens, Tennyson, Joyce (review)

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 15, Number 3, September 2008
pp. 567-568 | 10.1353/mod.0.0010

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A happily conciliatory book, this, reintroducing history to form and reasserting the relation between the spoken and the written in terms of the continuous rather than the adversarial. The linking argument of Bevis’s study, that the four writers in question were particularly energized by political oratory, is carried off so well, with such a combination of useful information and readerly panache that one is not just surprised but glad that it has not been done before. From first sight it is clear that there is a fascinating theme to be pursued here, but such is the ambition of the project that only a sustained performance of rhetorical judgement and a first-rate ear would be able to carry the argument through without doing injustice to one of its four masters of eloquence. In each of Bevis’s chapters, attention to context in all of its complexity is matched by intimacy with authorial idiolects, so that neither the historical, the aesthetic, nor the ethical gets a bad deal. The selection of writers treated also shows considerable boldness along with careful thought: the two poet-lords make for a likely pairing, but Dickens is far from the only politically-inflected novelist during the great age of parliamentary oratory, and for Trollope, Thackerey, Disraeli, and other Victorians to be left on the margins in favor of a departure with Joyce into another country and another century shows a breadth of interest, and a willingness to take risks, which is altogether admirable. A more narrowly focused book, attending to the literary-political crossovers of the high Victorian age, would already be a considerable achievement, but the greater reach of Bevis’s work responds to a more subtle sense of period and of influence, so that the chapter on Joyce, far from reading as a coda or afterthought, bears a sense of cumulative inevitability as the waves of parliamentary imperialist rhetoric meet a backwash from Dublin’s backwater.

What all four writers have in common is a dual accent, in which we hear both a fascination with oratorical endeavor and a need to resist the orators. Byron’s thorough and classical elocutionary training for his parliamentary career, make of him an orator gifted of self–consciousness. He is good, Bevis says, at having “second thoughts of first impressions,” and Don Juan, particularly in its English episodes, takes deliberate delight in digression as a most unparliamentary mode of speech. Similarly Dickens’ work bears the traces of a fourfold engagement with public speaking: as shorthand reporter, journalist, public speaker, and dramatic reader. Dickens’ most public writing is praised by Ruskin as being exactly right in social questions, whatever his tendency to inflation and caricature, and like Ruskin, he takes pleasure in mimicking the self-righteous and delusive bombast of those such as Brougham. With Dickens, fiction builds on journalism’s transmissions of the parliamentary, but he resists the rhetoric of menace which for him, accompanies Chartism, seeing a need to rein in the unruly, the wayward, the accents of excess. Tennyson is also applauded for his subtlety and reticence; less the laureate of empire than the conscience of the Victorian public; alert to the music of their self-divisions, his work in Maud and Idylls of the King is marked by resistance to Gladstone’s more triumphalist urgings. As Bevis puts it, “for the Laureate, sound poetic judgement was also a matter of judging sounds” (203). The overwhelming orality of Nineteenth-century culture is insisted on; from elocution lessons to resurgences in classical rhetoric, civic eloquence meant for a relation between the written text and the spoken world which our textual reading tends to underestimate: in Bevis’s happy phrase, this is deconstruction’s deaf spot.

If when the argument crosses the Irish Sea one notices a bit of a splash, it soon settles into an assurance that where rhetoric has most effect in the British Parliament in the Nineteenth century, it is where the Irish questions are asked and answered. So the scrupulous meanness of Joyce’s prose is usefully linked with Parnell’s anti-oratory and his penchant for litotes as a rhetorical disavowal of blarney. Yeats’s observation that “out of the quarrel...

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