Life of Gladstone - M. B. Synge

As Scholar and Orator

"From the lore of bards and sages old,

From whatsoe'er my waking thoughts create

Out of the hopes of thine aspirings bold,

Have I collected language to unfold

Truth to my countrymen."


The very day that Mr. Gladstone took leave for ever of his colleagues in Cabinet Council, he returned home to put the finishing touches to his translation of the "Odes of Horace." It was this feeling for scholarship and literary work that enabled him to keep his marvellous vitality. It was the change from politics to bookmaking, and from bookmaking to politics, that made his life so full of interest and freshness. He was once asked the secret of his wondrous vitality, and quaintly answered: "There was a road leading out of London on which more horses died than on any other. Inquiry revealed the fact that it was perfectly level; consequently, the animals travelling over it used only one set of muscles."

His contributions to literature, extending over sixty years, are prodigious in quantity. His earliest efforts appeared in The Eton Miscellany, when he wrote under the pseudonym "Bartholomew Bouverie." His first serious book was "The State in its Relations with the Church," which still remains the most valuable of his works, though one called "The Vatican Decrees" ran through a hundred and ten editions.

His "Studies on Homer," contained in three large volumes, were published in 1858. As the work of one of our finest orators and greatest statesmen, they were altogether wonderful. Mr. Gladstone did not take up his Homer as a plaything, not even as a mere literary enjoyment. To him the study of this prince of poets was a means by which himself and other men might become better and wiser. He has "done such justice to Homer and his age as Homer has never received out of his own land."

"Juventus Mundi," a study on gods and men of the heroic age of Greece, was written mainly in the two recesses of 1867 and 1868.

A pamphlet on "Bulgarian Horrors," in 1876, was followed by seven volumes called "Gleanings of Past Years," which he collected while he was paving the way for the great political triumph of 1880. There was no doubt that the two characters of scholar and statesman did much to help and strengthen each other; the close study of classics must have helped him specially in his capacity as an orator.

His speeches were full of classical allusions and quotations; his vocabulary was full; he had what has been called almost a "dangerous" command of language. He possessed the one great quality in which as a Parliamentary orator he had no rival in our time—that readiness which seems to require no preparation, but can marshal all its arguments as if by instinct at a given moment, and the fluency to pour out the most eloquent language to order.

His voice, indeed, would make the commonplace interesting, and lend something of fascination to dullness itself. It was singularly pure, clear, resonant, and sweet. The orator never seemed to use the slightest effort or strain in filling any hall and reaching the ear of the farthest among his audience. It was not a loud voice or of great volume, but strong, vibrating, and silvery. His words were aided by energetic action and by his deep, gleaming eyes. It is not to be denied that his wonderful gift of words sometimes led him astray, and he would utter words "grave and majestic, but of vague and uncertain import." "Half his acuteness and diligence," says Macaulay, "with a barren imagination and a scanty vocabulary, would have saved him from almost all his mistakes."

Often this superb rush of words added indescribable strength to the eloquence of the speaker. In passages of indignant remonstrance, when word followed word as stroke upon stroke with a wealth of inexhaustible resource, the very variety and fluency of the speaker fairly overwhelmed his audience. He had no humour. He was always terribly in earnest. Whether the subject were great or small, he threw his whole soul into it. Some of his images were splendid. The language does not contain a more magnificent one than that in which he likens a strong nation of peace to a great man-of-war lying calm and motionless till the moment for action comes, when it "puts forth all its beauty and its bravery, collects its scattered elements of strength, and awakens its dormant thunder." Or again, when he compares the service done to Christendom by the Balkan States to a shelving beach, itself desolated and made barren by the incessant beating of the waves, but shielding the land that lies behind.

Time after time his eloquence turned votes in his favour. In 1873 he made a great speech on the Irish University Bill. Lord Elcho told a friend, as he walked to the House that day, that he intended to vote against the Bill. After the division his friend remarked,—

"I wonder, Elcho, that you could have listened to that speech and voted against the man who made it."

"I listened to the speech," was the answer, "and voted for  the man who made it."