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My question is related to the Irish orator, politician, lawyer and judge, John Philpot Curran (24 July 1750 – 14 October 1817)

Source: p 54-55, The Art of the Advocate (1993) by Richard Du Cann QC (called to the Bar of England and Wales).

Here he [Curran] attacks the English idea of freedom which gives liberty to its colonial subjects immediately they land on English soil but keeps them in their own subjugated territory in a state akin to slavery:

CURRAN: No matter in what language his doom may have been pronounced; no matter what complexion incompatible with English freedom an African or Indian sun may have burnt upon him; no matter in what disastrous battle his liberty may have been cloven down; no matter with what solemnities he may have been devoted upon the altar of slavery, the first moment he touches the soil of Britain, the altar and the God sink together in the dust; his soul walks abroad in his own majesty; his body swells beyond the measure of the chains that burst from round him, and he stands redeemed, regenerated, and disenthralled by the irresistible genius of universal emancipation.

This is eloquence of a very high order and of another age. [1.] There is not an advocate in practice at the Bar today who could formulate and then deliver a sentence of this kind.
[End of 1.] John Buchan recognized that eloquence is rarely found in those who practise law.

  1. In [1.] the modal auxiliary verb 'could' appears ambiguous. Does the author intend that advocates lack the intellectual linguistic capacity to produce eloquent speech, or they are restrained somehow (e.g. Judges in the 21st century disfavour long speeches, or lay juries nowadays cannot follow)?

  2. What rhetorical devices did Curran use in his speech?

  3. How would Anglophones in 2016 rate or view the rhetoric I cited above? Writing in 1993, the author judges it favourably because he describes this as of a very high order and of another age.

  • It seems to me that you value highly this form of verbal eloquence, which sounds impressive and quite theatrical. But nowadays, for better or for worse, people appreciate concision, plain, and very simple English, see the Brexit propaganda pro "leave" speeches made before the referendum. These speeches had to appeal to the masses: cheap slogans, emotive language, sentences are short, and to the point, – Mari-Lou A Jul 6 '16 at 3:17
  • @Mari-LouA The Wikipedia link shows Curran lived 1750-1817 and was in fact Irish, and, being Master of the Rolls of Ireland, fairly high up in the judiciary and presumably well-educated. I suppose this data might usefully be added to the question. – Andrew Leach Jul 6 '16 at 6:26
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    Three people have voted to close this question as "opinion-based", probably because it asks about value-judgments of modern speakers. If you remove this aspect, maybe people will retract their votes. Also, I wonder if questions asking about which rhetorical devices are employed in a passage are on topic? This is a question for meta, I guess... In any event, I like answering them because they cut my (rhetorical) teeth. – GoldenGremlin Jul 6 '16 at 17:18
  • I would like to add that an audience's estimation of the eloquence of this passage might very well depend on whether it was delivered extemporaneously or prepared. – Adam Wykes Jul 11 '16 at 14:35
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(2) My first thought was that "could" means "having the capacity" not "is permitted", and I think that's confirmed by the next sentence saying "is rarely found in" rather than "is rarely expressed by".

(4) I personally (being a technical writer) prefer simpler language that's easier to parse. IMO it's emotive language, and I try to understand the meaning (what it says) rather than experiencing whatever emotion the speech is intended to make me feel. It's also clearly a prepared speech. I've never studied rhetoric but it's using some obviously rhetorical techniques (starting with the repetition of "No matter"). It's uncommon but not exclusively pre-20th century, it's not unlike Churchill's speeches for example.


I don't think it's especially good rhetoric by the way.

It's one sentence, far too long. I had to reread it to understand it, therefore I think it's a failure as a speech (admittedly it would have been easier to understand in real life, where I'd probably already know in advance what kind of thing he was trying to say). Compare Churchill's speech which includes, "we shall never surrender." Having heard Churchill's sentence you know, there's no doubt, what he's saying (it's like "Thou shalt not kill", i.e., it leaves no real room for confusion). The second clause of Curran's speech (i.e. "no matter what complexion incompatible...") is especially weak because it's too long (I find myself wondering if it might be any clearer in Latin or German which have a different sentence structure e.g. with the verb at the end). Anyway the sentence structure seems to me to be practiced, artificial, automated, not person-to-person.

Apart from the structure I also didn't find the content evocative, it doesn't make me imagine something concrete. Consider "conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition", that really makes me imagine the Founding Fathers having a get-together. Contrast that with "the first moment he touches the soil of Britain, the altar and the God sink together in the dust". The first thing I think when I read that are if the altar and the God sink together at the first moment then why are you talking about them and when will you get to the present point? The next thing, since when have people landed on soil and/or dust? Maybe William the conqueror landed on "soil" (he stumbled and seized the earth in his hands), but I don't imagine soil (I imagine a wooden jetty or paved quay) if someone arrives from overseas in the 18th century and lands in London or Portsmouth or Bristol etc. "Sink together in the dust" is just a set phrase, a poetic fragment, and it's chosen because it's a set phrase, a stock phrase, and not because it's especially on-message. It's not even especially good poetry.

"His body swells beyond the measure" puts me in mind of a bloating corpse (though if I were being polite and not a literary critic, I would overlook that and not say so).

But OK, maybe I get Du Cann's point: it's at least clearly meant to be eloquent rather than prosaic.

  • When did stirring devolve into emotive? :( – tchrist Jul 6 '16 at 3:44
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+100

Regarding which rhetorical devices the author used,

No matter in what language his doom may have been pronounced; no matter what complexion incompatible with English freedom an African or Indian sun may have burnt upon him; no matter in what disastrous battle his liberty may have been cloven down; no matter with what solemnities he may have been devoted upon the altar of slavery

is an example of anaphora, defined as:

Rhetoric. repetition of a word or words at the beginning of two or more successive verses, clauses, or sentences.


Next, the larger sentence in which this anaphora is present:

No matter in what language his doom may have been pronounced; no matter what complexion incompatible with English freedom an African or Indian sun may have burnt upon him; no matter in what disastrous battle his liberty may have been cloven down; no matter with what solemnities he may have been devoted upon the altar of slavery, the first moment he touches the soil of Britain, the altar and the God sink together in the dust

is an example of a periodic sentence, defined as:

a stylistic device employed at the sentence level, described as one that is not complete grammatically or semantically before the final clause or phrase.

The periodic sentence emphasizes its main idea by placing it at the end, following all the subordinate clauses and other modifiers that support the principal idea. The sentence unfolds gradually, so that the thought contained in the subject/verb group only emerges at the sentence's conclusion. Obviously artificial, it is used mostly in what in oratory is called the grand style....

According to William Harmon, the periodic sentence is used "to arouse interest and curiosity, to hold an idea in suspense before its final revelation." In the words of William Minto, "the effect...is to keep the mind in a state of uniform or increasing tension until the dénouement."

(my emphasis)

The main idea of the first sentence is what I have emboldened above. But this idea is only revealed after the tension-building anaphora. As such, it is an example of a periodic sentence.


Next,

he stands redeemed, regenerated, and disenthralled

is an example of rule of three and/or a tricolon.

Rule of three

is a writing principle that suggests that things that come in threes are funnier, more satisfying, or more effective than other numbers of things.

A tricolon is

a rhetorical term for a series of three parallel words, phrases, or clauses.

The words "redeemed", "regenerated", and "disenthralled" are parallel in that each is composed of a prefix and a root.


Lastly, the construction

his soul walks abroad...; his body swells beyond

is a loose example of a clausal bicolon (defined similarly to tricolon above).


Regarding how an English speaker of 2016 would view this passage, I can speak from my own experience as well as from that of a hypothetical everyman.

From my own experience as someone who is interested in rhetoric, I can appreciate the passage as one in which time-tested rhetorical devices are used. But I don't think they're used particularly effectively. For example, the anaphora of "no matter" is used four times, when a golden three would have been sufficient and the resultant sentence easier to parse.

From the point of view of an everyman, the passage is needlessly prolix. The syntax certainly seems "of another age". The diction, however, is colorful yet grounded enough to be easily understood.

  • I have reversed my acceptation of an answer for now, to encourage others to answer. – Greek - Area 51 Proposal Jul 8 '16 at 18:18

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