The Art of Eloquence: Byron, Dickens, Tennyson, Joyce, by Matthew Bevis
This study by Matthew Bevis, part literary-criticism, part social-history, examines in depth the relationship between literature and political speech. With particular reference to Byron, Dickens, Tennyson and Joyce he considers how their writing was influenced by public voices and parliamentary discussion, how these influences manifested themselves in their published works, and how the writers themselves were involved in such debate and discussion.
Bevis’ interest lies mainly in the opposing forces operating on literature: towards segregation and specialisation on the one hand, and towards public property on the other. What all four writers considered in this book share is the ability to view arguments from multiple angles and to ventriloquise a wide range of voices, as well as the ability to work towards their own artistic ends whilst simultaneously satisfying their reading public. This, argues Bevin, is also the key skill of a successful politician.
Although we are used to current writers sharing their opinions on current affairs, often to widespread ridicule, the degree to which Byron, for example, became involved in parliament may come as a surprise. However, even more surprising may be the widespread use by 19th century politicians of literary quotation and references to contemporary writers in their speeches: “preparing the budget speech in 1859 [Gladstone] was reading ‘Tennyson, Tennyson, Tennyson’”. It clearly paid off too, leading to a culture in which “the diction and cadences of political speeches were pored over on the printed page.” This was an age when writers became politicians and vice-versa. With Jeffrey Archer being the first name that springs to mind today, one might read certain sections of this book with a jealous nostalgia.
All four chapters are insightful, but the chapter on Joyce is a particular pleasure. Bevin explores the influence of Charles Stewart Parnell, the Irish nationalist political leader, on Joyce’s acoustic imagination, before moving on to enlist Parnell as a kindred spirit to Ulysses’ already multifarious Leopold Bloom. A coda which follows this chapter very briefly looks at Finnegans Wake, and might just tempt you to tackle that notoriously difficult novel.
Bevis is equally comfortable when dealing with the character development in a novel by Dickens or the prosody of a Tennyson poem as he is when tackling reform bills and Whig/Tory wrangling. On both aspects of his topic, the political and the literary, he writes with clear knowledge and enthusiasm. Though this is not recommended as an introduction to any of the writers, those who have read their work will find the myriad new approaches of Bevis’ criticism enlightening and engaging. Bevis is excellent at revealing the political subtexts of these four writers, which may have gone unnoticed to those with a less firm grounding in the history of their respective periods. For this, as well as his perceptive stylistic analyses, he is to be applauded.