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The Lion Caged
An outstanding American historian follows Winston Churchill through a typical day during his political exile in the 1930s and uses that single twenty-four-hour period to reveal the character of the century’s greatest Englishman in all its complexity. See Churchill lay bricks, paint a landscape, tease his dinner guests, badger his secretaries, dictate a history, make up a speech, write an article (that’s how he earns his living), refuse his breakfast because the jam has been left off the tray, refight the Battle of Bull Run, feed his fish, drink his brandy, fashion a “bellyband” to retrieve a particularly decrepit cigar, recite all of “Horatius at the Bridge,” take two baths—and await with noisy fortitude the day when he will save the world.
February/March 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 2
Churchillian rhetoric, even at its most purplescent, is also free of padding. Adjectives are used, as Lord Simon notes, only when they serve “as a sort of supercharger to add to the explosive force they qualify.” Like all writers, Churchill has his favorites, and in great moments they appear, like veterans summoned to the colors: tireless, panoplied, squalid, embattled, accomplished, unflagging, sparkling, insurgent, compulsive, furious, acquisitive, inexorable, intricate, irresistible, benignant. Epithets are never used casually; each is vital to a point. Nor is humor protracted; quips are sudden and short: “I told him to improvise and dare, and he improvose and dore”; “I venture to predict that the Right Honorable Gentlemen will vanish unwept, unhonored, unsung and unhung.” In the linguistic fabric he weaves, one thread is alliteration. A lesser speaker would say that forces of evil would be foiled by Britain’s “fullness of power,” but emerging from the Churchillian euphonium it is the “plenitude of power.” One of his most brilliant techniques—so subtle that only the most perceptive appreciate it—is the casual introduction of selfparody. He speaks of his adversaries’ “celestial grins,” of viewing an issue “with stern and tranquil gaze,” and warns that should he be proved wrong, any “chortling” in Parliament “will be viewed with great disfavor by me.”
Another Churchillian strand derives from the majestic, measured diction of the King James Bible. At a time when other men in Parliament were attempting psychological analyses of Hitler, trying to trace his extraordinary behavior to childhood influences, Churchill sharply defined him as “this wicked man.” Every Anglican heart vibrated to that iron string. Elsewhere, after a passage of dazzling syntax, he tied it together with six scriptural words: “Justice is cast from her seat.”
He was a born demagogue—and knew it—and figures of speech came as naturally from him as corn from the stalk. Because he saw society ailing, many of his most memorable similes drew parallels between physical diseases and what, to him, were afflictions crippling society. Describing a futile raj attempt to meet native force with reason, not counterforce, he told Parliament: “The inflammation which could have been brought to a head and then operated on was now dispersed through the whole system.” Of Oriental sects preaching violence he wrote: “Christianity must always exert a modifying influence on men’s passions, and protect them from the more violent forms of fanatical fever, as we are protected from smallpox by vaccination.” His most striking medical image appears in The Aftermath, where, describing the consequences of the Great War, he indicts the Germans for having “transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland into Russia.”
Great speakers instinctively follow certain patterns, not borrowing from one another but drawing from the same well of genius. Cicero, delivering his political orations in metrical patterns, would end each sentence with the same clausula, a ritualistic repetition of a given phrase. One, typically, was esse videatur (“seems to be”); pronounced with a long, broad a in the second word, it was deeply stirring. Latinists didn’t discover this technique until late in the nineteenth century, but Gibbon had picked it up on his own a hundred years earlier. Gibbon’s endings for heavy sentences were prepositional phrases beginning with “of”—“ of a Roman Empire”; “ of a mighty people.” Churchill did the same: “the soft underbelly of the Axis”; “launch this cataract of slaughter, pillage, and despair.” It is remarkable that Churchill, who could read neither Latin nor Greek, was so enriched by masterpieces in both. In a stifling parlor car from Bangalore to Bombay, he first read translations of the speeches Demosthenes had delivered or written for wealthy Athenians. One sentence had leaped from the page: “The supreme purpose and quality of oratory is action.” From that moment onward he was destined to become Demosthenes’ greatest protégé. Lady Violet wrote of Churchill: “Action is the keynote, the life blood of his nature,” and he persuaded A. P. Herbert, MP, that “oratory, surely, is speech in action.”