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  • Oral Rhetoric, Rhetoric, and Literature
  • Carroll C. Arnold

In 1960, Professor Donald R. Pearce edited and published a small volume entitled The Senate Speeches of W. B. Yeats.1 Some editorial decisions Pearce made serve to focus attention on what the distinctive features of spoken, instigative discourse may be.2

Pearce included in his volume of "speeches" a body of extensively interrupted discourse on divorce, delivered in the Irish Senate. This material comprises remarks by Yeats and seven other senators plus a number of interruptive observations and rulings by the presiding officer of the Senate. The editor says he chose to present this discourse "practically in its entirety, partly as the best way of incorporating necessary information, and partly to preserve the context of excitement" surrounding what was "probably Yeats's forensic showpiece."3 Elsewhere in his collection Pearce included what he titled, "Divorce: An Undelivered Speech."4

This editor's inclusion and treatment of materials satisfy common sense. Why? To ask the question is to draw attention to seldom discussed aspects of rhetorical speech: contextual information must be supplied if oral rhetoric (or its printed remains) is to be open to full understanding, and to think of an "undelivered speech" is not to be self-contradictory. I propose in this essay to explore why these common-sense judgments can be true and what the reasons may suggest concerning distinctions among oral rhetoric, rhetoric, and literature. In the process I hope to display some features of oral rhetoric which may partially account for the fact that editors like Pearce and ordinary users of English would find it unusual to refer to a man's "speeches" as his "tracts" and equally unusual to say that his "speeches" are, by definition if printed, "literature."

In furnishing contextual material for Yeats's remarks on divorce and in using the concept of "an undelivered speech" together with special contextual material, Professor Pearce acted as though some prose composed for oral delivery has attributes of a unique sort. He implied that these works by Yeats could not be rightly understood or rightly described by reference to the same data and terms [End Page 170] that he would have used in presenting the other kinds of verbal works Yeats produced: essays, dramas, poems. In like ways most of us affirm in practical decisions that works we think of as "rhetorical" or "persuasive" are not fundamentally "literary" and that among "rhetorical" works those orally communicated or intended to be so communicated stand still farther apart because they were conceived for communication by means of the human behaviors we commonly call "speaking" and "listening." But, as I have said, the bases of these judgments are seldom discussed; therefore, in this essay I shall try to ask in several ways whether paragraphs like the following are the fruits of significant observations of the ways of men or are careless effusions. N. F. Newsome's "Preface" to a volume entitled Voices from Britain contains this paragraph:

Here is an outstanding volume of history written in the spoken words of those who were living and making it. Nothing quite like this has appeared before. Great historic works by men who played a leading role in the events which they recorded, such as Churchill's World Crisis, are not the same as this book because they have been written afterwards with a retrospective eye. Collections of despatches, letters, or even speeches by eminent men are different because they have either been intended for the eyes or ears of only a comparatively few contemporaries or have been framed deliberately for posterity. Here we have the words which men and women of many nations chose for vast audiences of their contemporaries, words spoken from the heart and to the heart, expressing the feelings which the speakers were experiencing at the moment of delivery, and aimed at producing an immediate course of conduct among the listeners, which would itself make history.5

In making their distinctions Pearce and Newsome avoided such hard-to-anchor terms as "rhetorical" and "literary." In the inquiry I propose, I shall need the terms and must therefore define them. I shall not inquire directly into the reasonableness of our common...


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