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The House Of Commons Manner
by [?]

A grave and beautiful place, the Palace of Westminster. I sometimes go to that little chamber of it wherein the Commons sit sprawling or stand spouting. I am a constant reader of the `graphic reports’ of what goes on in the House of Commons; and the writers of these things always strive to give one the impression that nowhere is the human comedy so fast and furious, nowhere played with such skill and brio, as at St. Stephen’s; and I am rather easily influenced by anything that appears in daily print, for I have a burning faith in the sagacity and uprightness of sub-editors; and so, when the memory of my last visit to the House has lost its edge, and when there is a crucial debate in prospect, to the House I go, full of hope that this time I really shall be edified or entertained. With an open mind I go, reeking naught of the pro’s and con’s of the subject of the debate. I go as to a gladiatorial show, eager to applaud any man who shall wield his sword brilliantly. If a `stranger’ indulge in applause, he is tapped on the shoulder by one of those courteous, magpie-like officials, and conducted beyond the precincts of the Palace of Westminster. I speak from hearsay. I do not think I have ever seen a `stranger’ applauding. My own hands, certainly, never have offended.

Years ago, when to be a member of the House of Commons was to be (or to deem oneself) a personage of great importance, the debates were conducted with a keen eye to effect. Members who had a sense of beauty made their speeches beautiful, and even those to whom it was denied did their best. Grace of ample gesture was cultivated, and sonorous elocution, and lucid ordering of ideas, and noble language. In fact, there was a school of oratory. This is no mere superstition, bred of man’s innate tendency to exalt the past above the present. It is a fact that can easily be verified through contemporary records. It is a fact which I myself have verified in the House with my own eyes and ears. More than once, I heard there–and it was a pleasure and privilege to hear–a speech made by Sir William Harcourt. And from his speeches I was able to deduce the manner of his coevals and his forerunners. Long past his prime he was, and bearing up with very visible effort against his years. An almost extinct volcano! But sufficient to imagination these glimpses of the glow that had been, and the sight of these last poor rivulets of the old lava. An almost extinct volcano, but majestic among mole-hills! Assuredly, the old school was a fine one. It had its faults, of course–floridness, pomposity, too much histrionism. It was, indeed, very like the old school of acting, in its defects as in its qualities. With all his defects, what a relief it is to see one of the old actors among a cast of new ones! How he takes the stage, making himself felt–and heard! How surely he achieves his effects in the grand manner! Robustious? Yes. But it is better to exaggerate a style than to have no style at all. That is what is the matter with these others–these quiet, shifty, shamefaced others they have no style at all. And as is the difference between the old actor and them, so, precisely was the difference between Sir William Harcourt and the modern members.

I do not desire the new actors to model themselves on the old, whose manner is quite incongruous with the character of modern drama. All I would have them do is to achieve the manner for which they are darkly fumbling. Even so, I do not demand oratory of the modern senators. Oratory I love, but I admit that the time for it is bygone. It belonged to the age of port. On plenty of port the orator spoke, and on plenty of port his audience listened to him. A diet-bound generation can hardly produce an orator; and if, by some mysterious throw-back, an orator actually is produced, he falls very flat. There was in my college at Oxford a little `Essay Society,’ to which I found myself belonging. We used to meet every Thursday evening in the room of this or that member; and, when coffee had been handed round, one of us read an essay–a calm little mild essay on one of those vast themes that no undergraduate can resist. After this, we had a calm little mild discussion `It seems to me that the reader of the paper has hardly laid enough stress on…’ One of these evenings I can recall most distinctly. A certain freshman had been elected. The man who was to have read an essay had fallen ill, and the freshman had been asked to step into the breach. This he did, with an essay on `The Ideals of Mazzini,’ and with strange and terrific effect. During the exordium we raised our eyebrows. Presently we were staring open-mouthed. Where were we? In what wild dream were we drifting? To this day I can recite the peroration. Mazzini is dead. But his spirit lives, and can never be crushed. And his motto–the motto that he planted on the gallant banner of the Italian Republic, and sealed with his life’s blood, remains, and shall remain, till, through the eternal ages, the universal air re-echoes to the inspired shout–`GOD AND THE PEOPLE!’