The English language is a thing of understated beauty at times, in the hands of the right person or people it can be a powerful tool. In the hands of the very best the language can shine like a finely honed jewel reflecting the celestial light of the far bedistant sun. This power and beauty was never so well exploited as by Shakespeare, and the current BBC series of his plays brings that home. Who does not well with pride at the speeches put into the mouth of the King in Henry V, or think of the great paen of praise for England given to John of Gaunt on his death bed. This is language being used to its highest purpose, with intelligence and not a little craft.
The main weapons of politics are words, and the object of politicians should be to convince and persuade others to a given point of view. This was very much the case in the past and actually until relatively recently. Now though it appears that a generation has given up the sport of persuasion and are content merely to be the echo and not the sounding trumpet. Think of Churchill who in his war speeches took the English language to new heights of persuasive beauty and cajoled a nation to gird up its loins and fight. Martin Luther King used language to persuade a nation of the brutality and inequity of treating people differently on the basis of their race.
There are many other examples of imperious use of language to achieve a task, I think the best exemplars of language use choose words like an artist chooses colours on his palette. The best speeches are those that take words and paint imagery with them. Think of John of Gaunt’s soliloquy where he says of England :-
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear’d by their breed and famous by their birth,
It is the imagery that Shakespeare is conjouring up in the first few lines, that sets the scene for the almost staccato lines that follow with the culminating line that uses a classic rhetorical device of using a kind of symmetrical double phrasing. There is much you can unpick from these short lines, but the need is not there the lines work uninvestigated.
Churchill was also a great word painter and in his “Finest Hour” speech comes one of my favourite uses of language to bring forth visual imagery and to therefore bring forth an emotive response:-
Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.
To me this is pure gold dust, it is also metrical so Churchill has moved slightly beyond prosaic speech into the realms of poetry. The cleverness is in the linguistic contrast of lightness and darkness, that in itself is a ruse and cypher for a simplistic notion of good and evil. This was Churchill chosing words that had import and meaning. The really clever bit is when in the midst of discoursing on the darkness of defeat he whacks in a “light”, simultaneously breaking and reinforcing the spell. The light he has whacked in is false light still “sinister”, “protracted” and “perverted”. It is deliberately and emphatically not the “broad, sunlit uplands”. Thus in a few short lines Churchill has used language to paint a full canvas of utopia and dystopia upon the minds of his hearers.
Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech is probably one of the most impressive pieces of rhetoric from the twentieth century. It is one of the most inspirational speeches ever conceived. The cleverness is in the reptition of the phrase that provides the title of the speech, following which the speaker paints out his vision. It inspired because it was beautiful and bold in equal measure and it didn’t reach down to a base level but raised up its audience and its speaker. This was a speech that used language as poetry to build and implant a vision upon the soul of man. The speech spoke into its moment with the echoes of history and a clanging gong into the future, it therefore became a speech not just of its time but for all time.
Not all speeches will achieve the same heights but I think one of the problems in modern politics is that none of the speeches or interventions in modern politics achieve that same electricity as some of those of the past. I cannot recall a speech by a leading politician with a single memorable phrase in the last decade or so, you have to go back decades for anything of singular note. Some of the dying of the rhetorical art may be simply to do with the fact that there are no grand political battles any more. We live in an age that shuns ideology, for good or ill, we also live in an age where political speeches have become pedestrian fair or worse still excercises in saying very little in a great number of words. The guiding idea of the age is to give no offence to anyone, and so nothing is said that could be remotely controversial or in the least memorable.
Political discourse is therefore carried on in an antiseptic fashion, with politicians aiming to be all things to all people they largely end up being nothing to no-one. Where are the politicians who will plant their flag upon an idea and issue forth the rallying cry? Where are the wordsmiths who will take a language imbued with so much history, breadth and complexity and marshall it to its full potential to inspire? Where are the politicians who eschew prose and reach instead for poetry and carve out for themselves a niche in the public space? I know not. The danger though is that a seductive siren voice can spring up skilled in a linguistic craft but poisoned in the well of their humanity. Such a voice has a great capacity to lead a nation astray and to bring forth catastrophe upon it.