Thursday, 30 September 2010

Finest Hour


I love words, I love the English language, a point I’ve made previously. I delight in good prose and good verse, in the rise and fall of sounds, in brilliant, perceptive images. There are few people who can really command language now, and none at all in public life. Politicians are particularly guilty here, reaching for stale phrases and pre-fabricated expressions, fatuous garbage like ‘British jobs for British workers.’

It was not always thus. There are politicians in modern history whose command of language was sublime, people who could have lived in the great ages of the past, in the Athens of Pericles, people whose words will always be remembered for their perspicacity and transcendence. For me there are two in particular: Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill.

Take Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, so few words which conveyed so much, so much understanding, compassion and generosity;

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.




I simply can’t hear this without feeling tears welling up. How marvellous it must have been to have been there that day in November, 1863, to hear them spoken. We can’t hear them spoken by Lincoln himself, but we can still hear the words of Winston Churchill, another great wartime leader.

People think of Churchill principally as a politician. But he was so much more. He was a writer of brilliance, an historian who wrote in simple and beautiful terms. I don’t suppose he ever read the essays of George Orwell, particularly those on the degeneration of language in modern political discourse. But he committed none of the sins that Orwell warns of. His speeches were poetic in intensity, with a simple message full of vivid and memorable phrases and images. People have their favourites, and here the Fight them on the Beaches and Never in the Field of Human conflict orations come to mind. They are good but my particular favourite is the one he delivered at the most desperate moment in British history, just after the capitulation of France, the one in which the expression the Battle of Britain was coined for the first time;

What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour’.

The Empire did not last a thousand years; it hardly survived the conclusion of the war. No matter; these words are immortal. I have no doubt at all that if England lasts for a thousand years people will still say he was our greatest orator.

35 comments:

  1. "There finest hour"

    I have lost count of the times I've listened to thosse words and they still have the same effect. I will alwys regret having been born a few years too early to have been able to hear them when they were first spoken.

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  3. I'm sure it would have been a marvelous experience, David, like hearing the Greek paean at Salamis.

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  4. I suspect that when an older and more mature Boris Johnson becomes PM in 2020, we may have an opportunity to witness a rare combination of wit and dignity.

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  5. Yes, where are the great parliamentary orators of our age and land?

    Diverted into other careers by managerialism and spin, above all, I suspect. Too many little men (and women), yes-men (and women) and hacks. Too much encouragement of mediocrity being the result.

    Certainly the greatest debaters of my university days, in more cases than not, have gone on to become lawyers, or, in a couple of cases, priests, but not politicians (in some cases not for wont of trying).

    And that was in the part of the UK (ie Scotland) where is there is still a solid tradition of debating, even in many state schools. Not to mention that it is aided by the naturally pugnacious nature of the Scots.

    It strikes me that George Galloway may have been the best master of the arts of rhetoric in Westminster in recent years. Which is a profoundly depressing thought.

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  6. I recently came across this clip from Enoch Powell who I think was a good modern speaker. He was quite a good poet as well writing in formal verse. His Collected Poems book is well worth discovering. Here's the clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c5N0ZcbOeEQ

    I am lucky to know what it is to be in the presence of a powerful speaker. The fourth Caliph of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community was one of the greatest speakers I have ever heard speak, I have had the honour to sit in his company at times when he would make the audience roar with laughter and at times when he would make them weep with him, if only because he wept:

    Such, Echecrates, was the end of our comrade, who was, we may fairly say, of all those whom we knew in our time, the bravest and also the wisest and most upright man.

    (Plato. Phaedo).

    His father (the second Caliph) is described as a gifted speaker as well and there are recordings of them both. I have heard it said that he used Churchill's wartime speeches as a model, especially during the turbulent times of the early part of his Caliphate in which the Community was forced (by infamous, draconian anti-Ahmadiyya laws passed by the government of Pakistan) into exile to Great Britain:

    One Ahmadi was to say, "There are moments in history when a speech, a poem or a song seems to inspire a people. They appear to be defeated, all around them is chaos and despair, yet suddenly this speech or poem will rally a nation. Suddenly there is hope."

    "Winston Churchill's speech, when Britain appeared to be defeated, when he promised 'blood, sweat and tears' but also promised final victory, was such a speech. It put new heart into Britain."

    "the poem by the Khalifa was similar. It put new heart into us. It gave vent to our pain and anguish. It recognised our despair, but it gave us hope. It promised us final victory - and the downfall of Zia's tyranny."

    It is difficult to translate a poem. It needs a poet to do so and even then the flavour is lost. It becomes a new poem rather than a translation.

    In his poem the Khalifa urged his followers to be patient. The dark storms of persecution that were raging would collide with the prayers they were offering and then the storms would disappear, almost as though they had never been. The darkness and peril of their persecution would pass away and tranquillity would light the dawning day.

    Continue to pray humbly, the Khalifa urged. Prayer had destroyed Nimrod the tyrant, the prayers of Moses had humbled the great Pharaohs. The sword of prayer was more powerful than an y worldly weapon. Even if destruction appeared to be entering in at the door, do not give up hope. Prayer harder. God would curse and overturn the tyrant.

    Zia was a well-read soldier. He became almost beside himself when it was reported that he was being compared to Nimrod.

    (Iain Adamson. A Man of God: The Astonishing Story of Khalifatul Masih IV. George Shepeherd. 1990. 132, 133).

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  7. I'm rather fond of this:

    http://www.historyplace.com/speeches/henry.htm

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  8. thanks ana, i had my finest hour today: i managed to memorize the gettysburg speech. English is beautiful!

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  9. This post reminds me of one of my favorite trivia questions: Who was Edward Everett? He was actually the featured speaker at Gettysburg and orated for over two hours (compared to Lincoln's 5-minute address). A classic triumph of Quality over Quantity...

    -Jay

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  10. Dean, I'm fond of Boris, a dear friend. :-))

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  11. Jay, I remember that from watching Ken Burns' documentary on the Civil War. If I remember rightly Everett was one of the few to congratulate the President, recognising the historical importance of his words.

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  13. Goodness, Adam, what a claim! Oh, well, it's all a matter of taste, I suppose.

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  15. Oh, but I love self-aggrandising masochistic talentless pseudo-idols, particularly if his name happens to be Philip Larkin, particularly if he wrote High Windows. :-))

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  17. I've written about him before here but the publication of the letters affords me another opportunity. :-)

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  19. I honestly don't think that matters. A great many poets were complete bastards, taking their 'angst' out on everyone but themselves!

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  21. All that matters to me are those wonderful words, those lovely verses, even This be the verse :-))

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  24. Byron! Now there's a real bastard. :-))

    Some good choices, yes, though John Donne will always be top of my list. My tastes are quite eclectic. I also like Lovlace, Rochester, Dryden, Brooke, Plath, to mention a few. And then there are the foreigners, Rilke, most of all.

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  26. Ana,
    Byron was a romantic--he never lacked confidence. Larkin was both lacking and arrogant; it's a combination I find particularly grating.

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  28. Mister Garrie's One Nation: Thank You. There are loads of favourites I have (I'm leaving out the Urdu poets as Urdu literature has developed far in the second century of it's youth, beginning with Mir Taqi Mir who I call the Chaucer of Urdu poetry. He was around 1722 - 1810). There was a TV dramatisation of the life of Byron a few years ago that you should see if you've not already done so.

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