Friday, January 14, 2011

The writer vs the orator

In his late 30s, Henry Fynes Clinton, an MP and classical scholar who died 230 years ago today, came to the conclusion that he would never make it as a public speaker, and carefully explained to his diary why he should, therefore, concentrate on ‘literary labours’. Indeed, the papers he left behind when he died were published as ‘Literary Remains’ and included his ‘Literary Journal’. The word ‘literary’, however, best describes the matter he writes of, not the quality of his language!

Henry Fynes Clinton was born on 14 January 1781 at Gamston, Nottinghamshire, and his father was rector at nearby Cromwell. They were direct descendants of Henry, second earl of Lincoln, who died in 1616. Although the family bore the name of Fynes for several generations, Henry’s father resumed the older family name of Clinton in 1821. Henry was educated at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford.

From 1806 to 1826 Clinton was the Member of Parliament for Aldborough (in West Riding of Yorkshire), and although initially he had ambitions to become a speaker, he found he had little ability as an orator and increasingly took to concentrating on his classical studies. In 1809, he married Harriot Wylde, but she died the following year. That same year, he bought an estate at Welwyn, where he lived with his second wife, Katherine Majendie, who bore him several children.

Clinton wrote several important books on the Greek and Roman civilisations, and is considered to have applied an exacting and critical scholarship to ancient chronology, and to the dating of classical authors. He retired from parliament in June 1826, and was subsequently disappointed not to be appointed principal librarian at the British Museum. He died in 1852. Wikipedia has a short biography.

Rev C J Fynes Clinton edited his brother’s ‘Literary Remains’ and these were published by Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans in 1854 as Literary Remains of Henry Fynes Clinton Esq M A, author of ‘Fasti Hellenica’ and ‘Fasti Romani’; consisting of an Autobiography and Literary Journal and Brief Essays on Theological Subjects. The book is freely available at Internet Archive.

It is worth noting, however, that the word ‘literary’ in the titles of the book and the journal appears to have far more to do with the matter being discussed than the quality of the writing - despite a clear implication that he believed his writing had a purity of style and language! Here, though, are a few of the first entries in that ‘literary journal’, including a longish entry in which Clinton debates with himself the relative merits or being an author or a writer.

1 January 1819
‘Occupied with drawing out a plan of future studies, and in writing my Journal of former years.

It is now the ninth year since I returned to Greek literature. Within this period I have accomplished the following . . . 33,700 pages will give about 3,750 for the average number read in each year. I possess therefore nine Poets of the first rank; and among nine of the second rank, three principal ones, Theocritus, Lycophron, Apollonius: the three Historians, Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon: all the Orators: the twelve Scriptores, except Dion Cassius: of the ten Scriptores, Polysenus and Dio Chrysostom: of the forty, Stobseus: among the Philosophers, Diogenes Laertius, about half of Plato, the best of Aristotle. I have consumed too much time and labour, perhaps, in the Scholiasts.’

2-13 January 1819
‘During these days occupied in writing my Journal, and in reading Polybius, Euripidis Medea, Malthus on Population, the ‘Fasti Attici’ of Corsini.’

14 January 1819
‘Left Welwyn, and arrived in Dean’s Yard at twelve. House of Commons in the afternoon. Sworn in; my fourth election as a Member of Parliament.’

15 January 1819
‘House of Commons, two to four. After the House met, the Speaker is approved by the Lords. Oaths and subscriptions taken.’

16 January 1819.
‘Returned to Welwyn. On the following days I resumed my Journal, and proceeded with Corsini diligently, and finished his first volume on the 23rd. I then proceeded with my Chron. Grsec, and on February 2nd completed it to the end of Theopompus and Alcaemenes. This compilation, equal to about thirty quarto pages, has occupied eight entire days. I now lay it aside till a future opportunity of consulting the original works, on our return to Welwyn. For completion of the first part, perlegendi sunt Eurip. et Pind. Scholiastse, Apollodorus with Heyne’s notes.’

3 March 1819
‘My love of letters begins to revive, which has been dormant or extinct for some time past; and an inward alacrity and cheerfulness consequently succeeds to that spirit of despondency and dissatisfaction which I have lately felt. I perceive that I can never be a public speaker; but I observe that those whose lives have been passed as eminent public speakers, have not, in general, the faculty of being good writers: they generally fail in purity of style and language, points in which they might especially be expected to excel. Mr Pitt weakened the effect of his speeches by attempting to retouch those of them which appeared in print; and the published specimens of his eloquence do not justify to us who have not heard him the splendid testimony of his auditors. Mr Fox, when he applied himself to written composition, produced the feeble and languid history of James the Second. The style of Mr Wilberforce, in his treatise on Christianity, is verbose and heavy, and never rises above mediocrity. Although therefore I have not faculties for public speaking, which requires extempore powers, yet I may be capable of written composition, which is the fruit of meditation, diligence, care, and labour.

Nor is it perhaps to be granted that oratory is necessarily the highest effort of the faculties of man: it is only an exhibition of them in a particular form. The orator possesses from nature or practice the talent of putting forth all his powers at once; the writer produces his best efforts by meditation, time, and revision of his subject. But in a comparative estimate of genius, it will be inquired, not by what steps excellence is reached, but at what point of excellence men arrive at last. The orator indeed is always regarded with more indulgence than the writer can hope to receive. He possesses the advantage of being only measured against his contemporaries. He who is the best orator of his own age acquires all the present benefits that eloquence can confer. Demosthenes and Cicero were no more than this; although the standard of excellence in different times and countries may have been very different. But the writer, on the contrary, is compared with the compositions of other times and countries. He is measured with those who have cultivated the same kind of writing in all past times; and the wit and genius of ages are set in the balance against him. The standard, then, of excellence is more defined and ascertained, and more difficult to be reached, in written compositions, than in eloquence. The one is absolute, the other relative. He who is eminent as a public speaker, owes much of his fame to particular circumstances: but the reputation of a writer is founded upon a higher kind of merit.

I will not, then, because Nature has denied me the gifts of an orator, unwisely overlook or neglect the advantages and the usefulness of that literature of which I may yet be capable. There is a field in which I may still successfully labour. One advantage, and that the highest of all, I have already gained by literary occupations. Nine years are this day completed since I returned to these occupations upon my arrival in Dean’s Yard, after the events in 1810. In surveying my own mind during that period, I perceive that whenever I have been occupied and interested in literary labours, I have been safe, and innocent, and satisfied, and happy. But those periods in which I have deserted my habitual studies, have been intervals of danger, of temptation, of discontent, of evil thoughts. Can I have a stronger motive for continuing that course of studies? or shall I say that my labours have failed in being profitable, even though they produce no returns of fame or interest?’

1 comment:

Shaine said...

There is something modern in his thinking, though perhaps it is more accurate to say "human" than "modern". Or perhaps it is more accurate still to say there is something in his self assessment I see in others and to which I can relate.

Thanks for sharing this.