Friday, August 14, 2009

"It touched every note in the gamut of human susceptibilities"

Henry Clay was, by all accounts, one of the finest orators that America ever produced. And yet his speeches were not studied, memorized and recited by generations of schoolboys the way, for example, Daniel Webster's Second Reply to Hayne was.

The reason seems to be that the words that Henry Clay uttered formed only a small portion of his art. Like a great actor, Clay used every resource at his disposal -- tonal inflection, facial expressions, body movement and language -- to sway and affect his audience. Numerous auditors have confirmed that the result was overwhelming.

In his book, On the Brink of Civil War, John C. Waugh cites to and quotes from a number of witnesses to Clay's speeches. I've gone back to the underlying sources and wanted to share some of their attempts to explain Clay's power. After reading them, I for one wish I could be transported back to hear and see Clay in action.

Descriptions of what made Clay's oratory great seem to start with "his wonderful voice." Here is Edward G. Parker's description, from The Golden Age of American Oratory (1857). I have added additional paragraph breaks for readability:
No orator's voice superior to his in quality, in compass and in management, has ever, we venture to say, been raised upon this continent. It touched every note in the whole gamut of human susceptibilities; it was sweet, and soft, and lulling as a mother's to her babe. It could be made to float into the chambers of the ear, as gently as descending snow-flakes on the sea; and again it shook the Senate, stormy, brain-shaking, filling the air with its absolute thunders.

That severe trial of any speaker, to speak in the open air, he never shrank from. Musical yet mighty, that marvellous organ ranged over all levels, from the diapason organ-tone to the alto shriek; from the fine delicacies of pathetic inflections, to the drum-beat rolls of denunciatory intonations. And all the time it flowed harmoniously. Its "quality," as elocutionists would say, was delicious; and its modulations proved that the human voice is indeed the finest and most impressive instrument of music in the world.


His general level of speech was conversational, like animated talk . . .. But even while upon this level, so silver-tongued were his tones, so easy and gliding their flow, and so varied and delicate their inflections, that he held his auditors' attention fascinated and unflagging. When, then, he rose above that subdued level, the effect was correspondingly powerful; and in every pitch of the scale, that glorious voice was unbroken; he had never injured it by bad usage, he had never roared it into gruffness, nor growled it into hardness and an edgy coarseness, but always he was golden-mouthed, -- a modern Chrysostom, in that point at least.

There are many distinguished speakers who are never extremely interesting, except when making a point, or making a vehement burst; but all really great speakers can command attention, and exhibit charms on their general level; and in the highest degree Clay's average level was grateful to the hearer. He did not, like some quite popular declaimers, indulge in violent contrasts of pitch; running along, for instance, for ten sentences on one level, and then abruptly changing to another and remote level; but maintained always this melodious general level of spirited conversation, from which, easily and gracefully and by gradations, he rose and fell. Single words and tones, however, he would sometimes give with great variety of modulation; for his voice was not only full and wide-ranging, but it was under the most exact command; from his low and sweet level of tone, he would sometimes strike instantly a tone like an alarm-bell.

We remember once hearing him throw off the simple words "railroad speed" in such a manner that, in an instant, he made the whole express train, under lightning headway, dash across our mind. He had, too, a faculty of crowding,-- as by some hydrostatic pressure of oratory, an amazing weight of expression on to the backbone of a single word. Sometimes mounting from his easy level, on one word alone, he would go through a whole pantomime of action; his form rises, his eye burns, his look strikes awe, while the final ejaculation of that much-anticipated word would burn it into the very fibre of the brain, for an everlasting memory. In boyhood, we heard him thus utter the word "crevasse"; we didn't even know then what a "crevasse" was, but it was struck, as by some tremendous die, into our mind; and has been there ever since, the type and synonyme of everything appalling.

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