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  • The Art of Eloquence: Byron, Dickens, Tennyson, Joyce
  • Julie M. Wise (bio)
The Art of Eloquence: Byron, Dickens, Tennyson, Joyce, by Matthew Bevis; pp. 302. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007, £68.00, £26.99 paper, $99.00, $50.00 paper.

The Art of Eloquence: Byron, Dickens, Tennyson, Joyce announces itself with a title eloquent in its brevity and form, but one that only hints at the range of ideas it explores. Readers who recall J. S. Mill’s take on eloquence as the red-headed step-brother of poetry might expect, from Bevis’s title, an effort to recuperate an underappreciated form of expression. Instead, Bevis draws out an alternative nineteenth-century understanding of eloquence as an important means of engaging with complexity. For Bevis, eloquence emerges as a practice of addressing—and respecting—multiple viewpoints at once. As a rhetorical form it enables disinterested evaluation without sacrificing the possibility of action. For this reason, eloquence represents not simply the persuasive power of a skilled orator but also the aesthetic and ethical commitment of an artist.

Bevis takes as his focus four writers who engaged closely with public and especially political oratory. He begins with Lord Byron, noting that the poet was born the same year as “The Times came into existence (1788)” and avidly read “the oratory that commanded unprecedented space in early-nineteenth-century newspapers” (26). More significantly, Byron briefly sat in the House of Lords. Bevis explores Byron’s use of political oratory in his parliamentary speeches before focusing more closely on the critical analysis the poet makes of such oratory in Don Juan (1819–24). In doing so, he reveals Byron’s commitment to “the potential richness and responsibility of unsettled thinking” as a poet with a greater interest in “forging discriminating judgements than final sentences” (39, 74). Turning to Charles Dickens, Bevis finds another orator and writer, one who carefully scrutinized the often contradictory rhetoric of mid-century liberalism. Bevis draws out the extent to which Dickens’s experiences as a journalist and public speaker contributed to an alternative, polyvocal eloquence in novels like The Pickwick Papers (1836–37), Oliver Twist (1837–38), Bleak House (1852–53), Little Dorrit (1855–57), and Hard Times (1854). Bevis’s chapter on Alfred Tennyson covers a similar breadth of material. Offering readings of Tennyson’s dramatic monologues “St. Simeon Stylites” (1833) and “Ulysses” (1842) alongside analyses of Maud (1855) and Idylls of the King (1859–85), Bevis reveals Tennyson’s “negotiation between a self that has a right to its own peculiar accents and a self,” as Laureate, “that speaks for the people in a voice not entirely his own” (203). Bevis rounds out his study by examining James Joyce and Irish oratory. Born in 1882, Joyce “had persistent recourse to the styles of Victorian oratory in his work” (27). Bevis traces the ways in which Joyce’s major writings both make use of and examine such styles, and the particular uses made of them by Irish politicians. [End Page 163]

Throughout his study Bevis draws upon a truly impressive knowledge of nineteenth-century oratory. More importantly, he brings attention to the ways in which particular speeches reverberated in the literature of the time period. For instance, in Oliver Twist he hears the rhetoric of Henry Brougham’s “four-hour extravaganza of bombast” in support of the New Poor Law of 1834 (102). Oliver’s request for more food, “perhaps the most famous sentence ever spoken by a Dickens character,” directly answers this speech by “deliberately tak[ing] up Brougham’s language while refusing his tone” (102). As another surprising example, in Idylls of the King, Bevis hears contemporary political rhetoric exercising a more subtle but pervasive influence. In “Guine-vere,” he finds Arthur’s speech in answer to his wife’s betrayal another version of the rhetoric used by the queen when addressing the Indian Mutiny of 1857; both speeches highlight a tension between mercy and justice. With such analyses, Bevis makes convincing the assertion from his introduction that “grand narratives of the century as breaking with an oral past, instituting a decisive shift to print culture, stand in need of revision...


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