Sunday, 11 October 2020

Rhetoric around 1920


Thomas Grant’s really terrific book on Court No 1 the Old Bailey had interesting text comparing two styles of advocacy. The specific moment for us is the 1949 memoirs of an advocate, Patrick Hastings, who denounced the older style of advocacy for ‘flatulence’. The book is Cases in Court and the remark is "There was a time when no defending counsel was worth his salt unless he could be relied on for an exhibition of rhetorical emotion. Those days are past." and "Those days of flatulent oratory are gone." The implication is that a new, unemphatic, factual style came in and found a grandiloquent, Victorian, rhetorical style mendacious and long-winded. Grant links this comment to Sir Edward Marshall Hall. But Hall (1858-1927) had won many cases, including some where he probably got guilty people acquitted. He specialised in dramatic cases, so not the regular stuff of interpreting contracts and petty crime. He had the reputation of holding the jury enthralled – which applied also to the spectators in court. If they found it exciting, they did not also find it flatulent. (The word refers to breath, but in fact as a euphemism for either belching or farting, so gas which does not come from the lungs.) Hall was a firearms expert, in his way, and large parts of his speeches were involved in rather detailed questions of fact, such as how much pressure it took to release a trigger (had the wife shot her husband by accident). He was certainly well equipped to present such issues – his rhetoric was not vague and cloudy. He had spent a lot of time examining and firing guns. Hastings was also famous and also won many cases. As he was 22 years younger than Hall, we can date the change – not to a moment, but to a couple of decades.

The implied shift between two generations of barristers has interesting parallels with shifts in political oratory, the delivery of actors, and poetry. Probably also in the manner of sermons, I have less information on that. If we see poetry in the 1930s being attracted to documentary, that must be in parallel with Patrick Hastings winning juries over with a factual and undramatic style.
I believe the shift is related to the rise of scientific and technical knowledge. This demands a factual and terse way of speaking. Politicians who were explaining government policies in which accurate and abstract knowledge was essential, were not also going to use rhetoric, in which emotions outweigh facts. Economics became central to parliamentary business, and demanded much use of numbers and of explanatory models. Classical rhetoric was not suited to that. Parliamentary sentiment came to accept business values, and to set less store by linguistic beauty and the ability to carry an audience away.

A good example of the overblown and rhetorical style of poetry is Alfred Noyes. He was actually a contemporary of Edward Thomas, and the Georgian poets, although he lived until 1958. Take this:

Hasten the Kingdom, England;
For then all nations shall be one;
One as the ordered stars are one that sing upon their way,
One with the rhythmic glories of the swinging sea and the rolling sun
One with all dreams of beauty,
One with all laws of duty;
One with the weak and helpless while the one sky burns above;
Till eyes by tears made glorious
Look up at last victorious,
And lips that starved break open in one song of life and love.
(from “Nelson’s Year”, in the 1907 volume Forty Singing Seamen)

This we could call florid (I certainly don’t want to use that word ‘flatulence’), and it is probably worth comparison with the oratorical effects of a Marshall Hall. Part of the alien part is the poem’s claim to knowledge: it describes a vision, so it simultaneously describes the fate of the planet (when Christ’s kingdom comes), and is also about something that you can't possibly see. It is unreal, hard to falsify; the details cannot be right. Noyes’ poem is an account of a hallucination – but a fictional account, so of a hallucination which the poet did not actually experience. If you ask questions like “how do you know this” “what did you actually see and hear”, “what objects did you touch or see”, it all collapses. I do wonder what makes the stars sing; this is possibly a fragment of Hellenistic cosmology, about the “music of the spheres”, by which outer space is filled with sound. You can’t actually hear it. I don’t want to get too far into Noyes, since the discussion is meant to apply to hundreds of poets, but we have to quote a bit more of his poem:

Hasten the Kingdom, England;
Look up across the narrow seas,
Across the great white nations to thy dark imperial throne
Where now three hundred million souls attend to thine august decrees;

That phrase “Kingdom” shows that Noyes is not drawing a clear line in between the kingdom of Christ and the British Empire. Are nations becoming One because they are joining in the Kingdom or because they are being subdued and dissolved in the British Empire? Noyes seems unclear about this. The cosmic scheme of the New Testament seems to include the growth of the British State. This scale serves to make the poem important, and the poet. From the perspective of today, it also seems vacuous: it’s all smoke. It is understandable that people didn’t find this a convincing account of politics, or theology, and it is fair to describe the changes of the second quarter of the 20th century as eliminating the florid style. This is a change which the poetry world has stuck with. Edward Thomas describes things you can see and hear. He uses free verse. This is the new thing in around 1912. Thomas is quite widely brought into service now as a “valid ancestor” for modern and plain British poetry. This is not totally honest, since his poetry was very good and the recent poetry in question is often very bad. But, it is a myth worth knowing. I don't think anyone claims Noyes as an ancestor. Or even Tennyson, although people still read Tennyson. If you look at poetry being published between 1920 and 1940, a lot of it is in an unreformed manner. The Georgians were popular, Housman was popular, and there were modernists (quite unpopular I suspect). But other people still wrote in a way we think of as tennysonian.
It is hard to reduce Noyes’ poem to concrete facts. Its subject is the centenary of Nelson’s death – this is a notion, not a real event. The poem is about feelings about patriotism, warfare, maritime expansion and so on, which may be important but which are no more than feelings. The poem does not involve any “things you can see and hear”.

A point where the style of elevated speech in Britain abandons traditional powers and virtues may shed a light on the contrast between British idiom and that of many other cultures, including ones whose members have migrated to Britain in significant numbers. It is hard to explain why poets lack command of the resources of language, when that is their stock in trade. Since rhetoric was designed to make formal language persuasive, it is hard to see why it should be excluded from poetry. People may expect poetry to be enthralling, copious, elaborate, and so on. Where we can trace historic bodies of poetry from other cultures, they often use rhetoric, and are more elaborate than prose or everyday speech. There are often similarities between religious language and secular poetry. This is also true of English poetry up to the first book of Georgian Poetry (1912), which was strikingly spare in language. This was only one style of several floating around at the time. Thomas was born in the same year as Patrick Hastings – whose courtroom approach was so much less high-flown than Hall’s. Hastings used the plain style and it was completely non-literary – even drab. Hastings once had a hit play in the West End and was also Attorney General in the first Labour government. He thus crossed the courtroom, Parliament, and the stage – a reminder that you can’t wholly separate these various sites of elaborate and public language. (One of his plays was made, in Hollywood, into a silent film named The Notorious Lady, in 1927.) (Another was made into The Blind Goddess, which I have a copy of on my PC, it stars my favourite actor, Eric Portman, gosh, I must watch it.)

The shift in poetry is often connected to the rise of Close Reading, a way of getting students to write about literary texts which was a new fashion in the late 1920s, and started in the universities. This may be a false point of origin – one has to explain why people founding the Cambridge English Tripos already thought the new approach was desirable, and what directed them away from a Victorian style which was still quite common in the 1920s. Every point of origin seems to be false, a result rather than an origin. The empirical and documentary style of poetry was already available around 1905. However, the steep decline of the rhetorical and non-religious style was twenty years later. Noyes made a career, with huge sales, during that transitional period.
Other sources might be that people rejected religion and wanted literature to be more scientific and factual. Or, that the overblown public emotion of the First World War set off a reaction in the Twenties, which took the form of streamlined and direct writing. Or, that the latent knowledge which had been the basis of poetry was replaced in the thinking of its readership by scientific knowledge. Or, that the Depression made poets interested in issues of economics and politics, which required less rhetoric and more facts. Possibly all these explanations are true.
Using Close Reading in the classroom could have made poetry more rhetorical and less banal. There is something about the silent rules of the classroom which meant that rhetoric got “exposed” and banality or literalness were less castigated. In general, poets find Close Reading oppressive, and associate it with being unable to write. It is fair to recall that the classics of the New Criticism did not reject high-flown writing; if you look at the choice of texts in “The Well-Wrought Urn”, they are mostly very rhetorical and literary. They are not domestic anecdote.

Modern British poetry is anti-rhetorical. It is plain and tries to rely on facts. This may correlate with a national habit of diffidence, embarrassment, verbal awkwardness. The two things may be related.

The standard book on Marshall Hall was written by someone who worked with him, and it is very much biased in his favour. It is a heroic narrative. Voices which found Hall to be theatrical and misleading, and perhaps out of date in his later years, are not represented in that book. Incidentally, it didn’t matter if other barristers found his speeches theatrical and fantastic, as long as the jury found them enthralling and convincing. That biography (I use the green Penguin edition which is abbreviated, I admit) does not comment on whether the wife who shot her Egyptian husband (more than once) in Hall’s most famous case was guilty. Grant’s narrative implies very strongly that she was. This is surely a question to raise about Hall’s courtroom rhetoric. He got the jury to acquit because the husband was Egyptian – that is pretty much what happened. Grant’s writing is impressive because anti-rhetorical. It is unimprovable – I can't get enough of it. But can you write poetry in that way?

Silent cinema was anti-verbal. Its makers had to cut the speeches in their source material and narrate everything visually. Did this influence novels and poems? I don't know. But culture is porous and subject to a thousand substances flowing in and out.
The legal historian Andrew Watson has written about the shift in courtroom styles and made the point that it was the juries who changed – the barristers followed the juries. Jurors became more educated and more critical. Also with poetry, we have to see the audience changing, not sovereign decisions by poets. More on Watson in my next post. Robert Ross wrote "The Georgian Revolt", a very interesting book about what the Georgians actually stood for

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