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

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

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny
 

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own