It is not a new notion to say that great speeches are like great poetry [Look up Simon Armitage’s documentary on the subject “Speeches that Shook the World” shown on BBC TV on 6th November in 2013 *]. We know all too well how there are certain circumstances, certain events that cause negative emotions to be stirred in us, like the fear that we would ordinarily prefer to keep hidden; fear that has the capability to paralyse us, and deny us our inner strengths. But great speeches. like great poetry, can also stir in us those very positive emotions that bond us in our familial, local and national and even international communities and, in so doing, bind and galvanise us, as well as motivating cooperative action, repair and renewal. The like of this kind of behaviour may seem difficult to believe, these days, when our motives seem only to be characterised by an aspirational, but selfish pursuit of wealth and personal celebrity, often at the expence of those less fortunate; often at the expence of greater causes.
But one man encapsulated the essence of leadership for Great Britain, at a time when it was needed most. He was a man, who, despite his unpopularity amongst certain sections of society in peace time, galvanised a nation into girding its loins and taking action; who, above all else, was capable of stirring the most powerful of positive emotions in us, of breathing the oxygen of hope into a nation that was almost on its knees in the early years of World War II. He was a man, who was an articulate weaver of words, a speech-maker and, it could be argued, a poet. Above all else he was a true leader. That man was, of course, none other than the late Sir Winston Churchill. Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of his State funeral – an honour, apparently never before afforded to a ‘Commoner’.
His speech at the conclusion of the Battle of Britain was poetic:
“Never in the field of human conflict
was so much owed
by so many
to so few”
I have deliberately broken his prose into poem-like lines, to emphasise the pauses he made between them, to great dramatic effect; an effect that embeds a message deep into our psyche, it sears the soul such that you could feel it in your guts.
The way in which he delivered his rallying speech to Parliament on 4th June 1940 …
“We shall go on to the end.
We shall fight in France,
we shall fight on the seas and oceans,
we shall fight with growing confidence
and growing strength in the air,
we shall defend our island,
whatever the cost may be.
We shall fight on the beaches,
we shall fight on the landing grounds,
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
we shall fight in the hills; …
… without doubt, embraces many facets of the poetic. It had such rhythm, even half rhymes and cadences, to say nothing of the way he used the repeated punchy phrase “we shall fight” and how the subtle stress on certain words, lingering on the vowels of certain key words and leaving short silences between lines built drama as the speech progressed to its conclusion.
… we shall never surrender.”
Whatever your detractors may have said against you, Sir Winston, for the huge role you played, between 1940 and 1945, in helping a nation believe in itself again and that it could, nay, would prevail, I salute you.
* Armitage revealed the key elements of a good speech (and also a good poem), which were defined by one of the many people he interviewed during his documentary, Vincent Franklin, who played the blue sky thinking guru, Stuart Pearson, in the BBC’s comic satire, “The Thick of It”. Franklin is a speech writer in his other life. The three elements he revealed were based on the ‘rhetoric strategies’ of the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, which are also referred to as the ‘modes of persuasion’ that defined a great speech as one which had Logos (an appeal to logic and factual argument), Ethos (an appeal to the authority or trustworthiness of the speaker) and Pathos (having secured your audience’s attention, this is the quality of the language, which drives the message home more powerfully than any other technique). The final speech presented by Armitage in the documentary is Martin Luther King Jnr’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech, delivered to quarter of a million people from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963; a classic mood changing, history making speech if ever there was one.
– John Anstie
© 2015, essay and photograph, John Anstie, All rights reserved