Sunday, October 16, 2005


As I have mentioned, the art of writing prose poses many challenges. It requires a great degree of clarity in thought, good command over the language and a kind of sublime understanding in making the audience on the other side of the paper grasp the spark of thought that the author wishes conveyed. Oration on the other hand demands of the speaker a gumption which is not easily gained. The writer has the advantage of time that his readers can spend with his writing to understand it; the orator is stretched for time in the sense that generally there is an inverse proportion between the length of the speech and the audience’s understanding of it. There is a substantial difference even between the actual speech and the speaker’s written version, which he may refer to. This is because the speaker while preparing his speech in written form allows his mind the latitude of time to form his thoughts, but even this practiced speech is not granted the same latitude by a listening audience.

Thus oration requires above all, alacrity in speaker understanding the subject. A beautiful example of such a quality can be found in one of the short World War I biographies written by Sir Winston Churchill about the erstwhile French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau. He writes in the note on Clemenceau in the book Great Contemporaries, which by itself is an exquisite piece of superlative writing, about the latter’s oratory skill as follows

“I also heard Clemenceau’s reply in the Chamber. It is very difficult for a foreigner with only a superficial knowledge of the language and only an indirect sensing of the atmosphere, to judge such oratorical performances. Certainly Clemenceau reproduced more than any other French Parliamentarian I have heard, the debating methods of the House of Commons. The essence and foundation of the House of Commons debating is formal conversation. The set speech, the harangue addressed to constituents, or to the wider public out of doors, has never succeeded much in our small wisely-built chamber. To do any good you have got to get down to grips with the subject and in human touch with the audience. Certainly Clemenceau seemed to do this; he ranged from one side of the tribune to the other, without a note or book of reference or scrap of paper, barking out sharp staccato sentences as the thought broke upon his mind. He looked like a wild animal pacing to and fro behind bars, growling and glaring; and all around him was an assembly which would have done anything to avoid having him there, but having put him there, felt they must obey. Indeed it was not a matter of words or reasoning. Elemental passions congealed by suffering, dire perils close and drawing nearer, awful lassitude, and deep forebodings, disciplined the audience. The last desperate stake had to be played. France had resolved to unbar the cage and let her tiger loose upon all foes, beyond the trenches or in her midst. Language, eloquence, arguments were not needed to express the situation. With snarls and growls, the ferocious, aged, dauntless beast of prey went into action.”

Apart from the superlative prose of the author, we are treated also to details of M. Clemenceau’s oratory skills. His ability to hold lethargically hostile audiences, with extempore oration, to rapt attention enough to make them obey him, is definitely a quality to be admired. Writing presupposes a great ability to convey to the reader the authors flow of thought and as a medium of communication is no less difficult when compared to oration, but the “method” required of speech is far greater in terms of proficiency of thought. Taken out of context, the above excerpt may suggest that M. Clemenceau’s oratory prowess may have been restricted to fierce rhetoric, but the following excerpt, again from the same source as above clarifies that his capabilities were much more. More, since the secret behind his exceptional oratory skills was his inherent ability to write.

“Excluded from the chamber, his voice could no longer be heard. Never mind! He had another weapon. He had a pen. His biographer says that Clemenceau’s journalistic output could not be contained in a hundred substantial volumes. He wrote for bread and life: for life and honour! And far and wide what he wrote was read. Thus he survived. He survived not to recover only, but to assault: not to assault, but to conquer.”


Great Contemporaries by Winston S. Churchill, Fontana Books, 1937

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