BOOK REVIEW / And the word was mightier than the oil can: 'Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History' - Ed. William Safire: Norton, 25 pounds

Share
Related Topics
IT IS a fact universally unacknowledged that the weight of an opinion stands in direct proportion to the size of the person to whom it belongs. Only the heavy brigade - Healey, Lawson, Heath, Jenkins, Maxwell and so on - are said to 'weigh in' with an observation or a thought. Little guys, however brilliant or solemn, are rarely described as big guns. Their views do not tip the scales, though once in a while they can be the last straw.

As with people, so with books. Lend Me Your Ears is a substantial volume. William Safire notes that it weighs 2.4lb, and commends Antiphlogiston - an ointment for the book-holding deltoid muscles - as the most effective remedy against any spasms or twinges that might follow an enthusiastic reading. But while it is tempting to dwell on the intellectual weight of the 200 speeches squashed between its covers, they are for the most part models of lightness.

The contents page is a roll-call of the great, the good, the bad, and the extra bad. The anthology travels in time from the condemned Socrates ('At what price would you not estimate a conference with Orpheus and Musaeus, Hesiod and Homer?') to the born-again Billy Graham: 'Yes, man has a terminal disease. It is called sin.'

In between, we are offered the words of Churchill, Napoleon, Luther, Zola, Demosthenes, Lenin, Job, Marx, St Francis, Hitler, Jefferson, Cicero, Stalin and many, many more. The editor even includes an oration of his own, a witty and cunning attack on the telephone as the enemy of literature: 'My subject today is 'The Decline of the Written Word'. If the speech I have written is disjointed and confusing, you will get my point the hard way.'

Of the 200 speeches in question, only 44 are by people who lived outside the United States, and only 13 are by women. Delivering speeches, it seems, is a manly and American calling. The stiff entry requirements demanded of the overseas contingent lead to some unsettling juxtapositions. After James Wright resigns as Speaker of the House ('I shall never cease to be thankful to the Twelfth District of Texas') we turn to Jesus: 'Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt . . .'

After Martin Luther King's famous and heart-wrenching anthem ('I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be laid low') we move to a perky defence of the marigold by some senator: 'It is as sprightly as the daffodil, as colourful as the rose.'

But these are inevitable quirks, and do not detract from the collection's seductive appeal. It is not a question of the spoken word being more dramatic, or simpler, than the written word. The best speeches are written and spoken - a fusion of the rhetorical arts, or what we now call 'language skills'. Besides, American is a rich and versatile tongue. It was slower to dispense with the shapeliness of biblical language, quicker to accommodate the fleet-footedness of everyday speech, and seems more varied and supple than our own aloof version.

It is a shame, though, that the book leans so hard on politics, a field of endeavour that generates the least interesting work. Presumably for comic reasons, Safire has included Dan Quayle's trapped-in- the-headlights performance in the televised vice-presidential debate. But he also finds room for several rambling, evasive monologues by Richard Nixon; and then there's Barry Goldwater, George Bush, Jimmy Carter, Jack Kemp, Hubert Humphrey, Harry Truman, and so on. Real zingers, all of them.

The trouble is that the theme of any campaigning speech is: vote for me. Alongside the truly grand utterances in this book - the rallying cries or elegies of King, Byron, Havel, Nehru and others - this seems, er, lightweight. Obviously, the contributors who rose to their feet at the turning points of history - Lincoln at Gettysburg, Churchill in 1940 - had an unfair advantage. And some were dealt even more outrageous hands. When Charles I stroked the axe and addressed the audience at his execution, he had the benefit of 17th-century English, which allowed him to say things like: 'I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown, where no disturbance can be.'

And Mark Antony was lucky enough ('So are they all, all honourable men') to have Shakespeare as his speechwriter.

Throughout, as befits a man who describes himself as being 'in the rhetorics dodge', Safire keeps one ear on the linguistic formalities. His introductions highlight the use of parallel structure, metonymy, anaphora (the repetition of a phrase) and much else. Of these, perhaps the most popular is the famous quotation with twist. Ask not what broadcasting can do for you; ask what you can do for broadcasting. Never have so few owed so much to so many. The Lady's not for turning. The oil can is mightier than the sword.

And they are both mightier than the pen, right? This book suggests the opposite. Lurking between loud chunks of political bluster are the quiet, steadfast voices. Gandhi, for instance: 'My public life began in 1893 in South Africa in troubled weather.' Or Eugene Debs, a US anti-war protestor in 1918: 'I recognise the feebleness of my effort, but fortunately I am not alone.' At Gettysburg, in his great hymn to the fallen, Lincoln said: 'The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.' Parallel structure, anaphora . . . it's all there. But he was wrong. We have forgotten the men who died; yet the words are as fresh as a marigold.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Supporters in favour of same-sex marriage pose for a photograph as thousands gather in Dublin Castle  

The lessons we can learn from Ireland's gay marriage referendum

Stefano Hatfield
Immigration enforcement officers lead a Romanian national who has been arrested on immigration offences from a house in Southall in London  

Don’t blame migrants – the West helped to create their plight

Yasmin Alibhai Brown
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?