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LORD JOHN RUSSELL (1792-1878)
THE ORATOR OF REFORM
REATEST among the advocates of parliamentary reform, year
after year Lord John Russell made motions in Parliament for
the suppression of “rotten boroughs,” at first exciting the contempt of the Conservatives, and afterward their dismay, for he was the principal author of the great Reform Bill of 1830, which, after a fight which was little short of a revolution, became a law in 1832. All his life Russell was a persistent Whig, and a thorn in the side of the Tories. In 1845 he became an advocate of the repeal of the Corn Laws, and was called to the office of Prime Minister in 1846, holding office till 1852. In 1865 he was again called to this position, with Gladstone as one of his principal colleagues, and again brought in a Reform Bill—destined to be defeated then, but to bring about a great increase in the suffrage two years later. As an orator Russell played a prominent part, his political speeches being numerous and important.
THE “ROTTEN BOROUGHS” OF ENGLAND (Various references have been made in this work to the great reform movement of 1830–32, and it has just been said that Lord Russell was one of the most persistent advocates of reform. Some fuller account of the state of affairs is here in place. During the preceding two centuries there had been great changes in the distribution of population in England, but the distribution of seats in Parliament remained the same. Flourishing towns had decayed, and ancient boroughs had become practically extinct, yet they were still represented in Parliament. “ Pocket boroughs" these were called, and were well named, since their membership was practically in the pocket of the owner of the land, who could give it to whom he pleased. On the other hand, great manufacturing cities had sprung up, whose hundreds of thousands of people did not send a single member to Parliament. This was the desperately corrupt system against which Russell vigorously protested, and which he earnestly sought to reform. We give his picturesque description of the state of affairs from a speech by him in 1831.
LORD JOHN RUSSELL
A stranger who was told that this country was unparalleled in wealth and industry, and more civilized and enlightened than any country was before it ; that it is a country which prides itself upon its freedom, and which once in seven years elects representatives from its population to act as the guardians and preservers of that freedom-would be anxious and curious to see how that representation is formed, and how the people choose their representatives.
Such a person would be very much astonished if he were to be taken to a ruined mound, and told that that mound sent two representatives to Parliament; if he were taken to a stone wall, and told that these niches in it sent two representatives to Parliament; if he were taken to a park, where no houses were to be seen, and told that that park sent two representatives to Parliament. But he would be still more astonished if he were to see large and opulent towns, full of enterprise and industry, and intelligence, containing vast magazines of every species of manufacture, and were then told that those towns sent no representatives to Parliament.
Such a person would be still more astonished if he were taken to Liverpool, where there is a large constituency, and told, “Here you will have a fine example of a popular election.” He would see bribery employed to the greatest extent, and in the most unblushing manner ; he would see every voter receiving a number of guineas in a bag as the price of his corruption ; and after such a spectacle he would be, no doubt, much astonished that a nation, whose representatives are thus chosen, could perform the functions of legislation at all, or enjoy respect in any degree.
THE IMPORTANCE OF LITERARY STUDY [Of Russell's speeches aside from politics, one of the most interesting is his address at the Leeds Mechanics Institute in 1852. The following selection is taken from this fine oration.]
I will now turn for a short time to the ubject of literature. That subject again is so vast that if I were to attempt to go over any one of its numerous fields I should not find the time sufficient to enable me to do so; but there is one leading remark which I will venture to make, and which, I think, it is worth while for any person who studies literature to keep in view. There are various kinds of productions of literature, of very different forms, and of very different tastes; some grave and some gay, some of extreme fancy, some rigorously logical, but all, as I think, demanding this as their quality, that truth shall prevail in them. A French author has said that nothing is beautiful but truth; that truth alone is lovely, but that truth ought to prevail even in fable. I believe that remark is perfectly correct; and I believe that you cannot use a
LORD JOHN RUSSELL
better test, even of works of imagination, than to see whether they be true to nature. Now, perhaps I can better explain what I mean in this respect by giving you one or two instances, than I should be able to do by precept and explanation.' A poet of very great celebrity in the last century, and who certainly was a poet distinguished for much fancy and great power of pathos, but who had not the merit of being always as true as he is pointed in the poetry he has written, -I mean Young,-has said, at the commencement, I think, of one of his “ Nights
“Sleep, like the world, his ready visit pays
Where Fortune smiles; the wretched he forsakes,
Now, if you will study that sentence, you will see there are two things which the poet has confounded together. He has confounded together those who are fortunate in their peace of mind, those who are fortunate in the possession of health, and those who are fortunate in worldly advantages. Now, it frequently happens that the man who is worst off in his worldly circumstances, to whom the world will pay no homage, on whom it would not be said that Fortune smiled, enjoys sweeter and more regular sleep than those who are in the possession of the highest advantages of rank and wealth. You will all remember no doubt, that in a passage I need not quote, another poet, one always true to nature, Shakespeare, has described the shipboy amidst the storm, notwithstanding all the perils of his position on the mast, as enjoying a quiet sleep, while he describes the king as unable to rest. That is the poet true to nature ; and you will thus, by following observations of this kind, by applying that test to poetry as well as to history and to reasoning, obtain a correct judgment as to whether what you are reading is really worth your attention and worth your admiration, or whether it is faulty and is not so deserving
I may give another instance, and I could hardly venture to do so if my friend and your friend, Lord Carlisle, were here, because the want of truth I am going to point out is in the writings of Pope. There is a very beautiful ode of Horace, in which, exalting the merits of poetry, he says that many brave men lived before Agamemnon ; that there were many great sieges before the siege of Troy ; that before Achilles and Hector existed, there were brave men and great battles; but that, as they had no poet, they died, and that it required the genius of poetry to give immortal existence to the bravery of armies and of chiefs. Pope has copied this ode of Horace, and in some respects has well copied and imitated it in some lines which certainly are worthy of admiration, beginning :
LORD JOHN RUSSELL
“Lest you should think that verse shall die,
Which sounds the silver Thames along."
But in the instances which he gives he mentions Newton, and says that not only brave men had lived and fought, but that other Newtons “systems fram’d.” Now, here he has not kept to the merit and truth of his original; for, though it may be quite true that there were distinguished armies and wonderful sieges, and that their memory has passed into oblivion, it is not at all probable that any man like Newton followed by mathematical roads the line of discovery, and that those great truths which he discovered should have perished and fallen into oblivion.
I give you these two instances of want of truth even in celebrated poets, and I think it is a matter you will do well to keep in view, because there is a remarkable difference between the history of science and the history of literature. In the history of science the progress of discovery is gradual. Those who make these discoveries sometimes commit great errors. They fall into many absurd mistakes, of which I could give you numerous instances; but these blunders and these errors disappear—the discoveries alone remain ; other men afterwards make these discoveries the elements and groundwork of new investigations, and thus the progress of science is continual; but truth remains, the methods of investigation even are shortened, and the progress continually goes on.
But it is not so with regard to literature. It has, indeed, happened often in the history of the world, among nations that have excelled in literature, after great works had been produced which brought down the admiration of all who could read them, that others, attempting to go further,-attempting to do something still better,-have produced works written in the most affected and unnatural style, and, instead of promoting literature, have corrupted the taste of the nation in which they lived. Now, this is a thing against which I think we should always be upon our guard, and, having those great models of literature which we possess before us, -having Shakespeare, and Milton, and Pope, and a long list of illustrious poets and authors, we should always study to see that the literature of the day is, if not on a par with, at least as pure in point of taste as that which has gone before it, and to take care that we do not, instead of advancing in letters, fall back and decay in the productions of the time.
RICHARD LALOR SHEIL (1793–1851)
IRISH DRAMATIST AND ORATOR
MONG the famous orators of Irish birth and inspired by Irish
patriotism must be named Richard Lalor Sheil, a native of
Dublin and a friend and associate of O'Connell, whom he most nearly approached in oratory. Elected to Parliament in 1829, he soon became conspicuous there for his brilliant eloquence. He was made Master of the Mint in Russell's Cabinet of 1846, and was British Minister at Florence in 1850. As an orator, his enunciation was quick and impetuous, his gesture rapid and continuous, while his wealth of illustration and unrivalled power in the use of words held spell-bound all who heard him.
IRISH ALIENS AND ENGLISH VICTORIES (Sheil's most brilliant speech, and one of the most eloquent known in British oratory, was instigated by an expression made by Lord Lyndhurst in the House of Lords, in which he spoke of the Irish as “ aliens, in blood and religion.” Sheil took the opportunity to reply, while speaking, February 22, 1837, on the Irish Municipal Bill. Never had the House of Commons heard a finer burst of indignant oratory.)
I should be surprised, indeed, if, while you are doing us wrong, you did not profess your solicitude to do us justice. From the day on which Strongbow set his foot upon the shore of Ireland, Englishmen were never wanting in protestations of their deep anxiety to do us justice; even Strafford, the deserter of the People's cause,--the renegade Wentworth, who gave evidence in Ireland of the spirit of instinctive tyranny which predominated in his character,—even Strafford, while he trampled upon our rights, and trod upon the heart of the country, protested his solicitude to do justice to Ireland! What marvel is it, then, that gentlemen opposite should deal in such vehement protestations ? There is, however, one man, of great abilities,—not a member of this House, but whose talents and