The Lion Caged

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Though a born warlord, Churchill would sacrifice all—save England’s honor—for peace.

Copia, “abundance,” is prized by teachers of rhetoric. Written prose need offer the reader no pause for reflection; he can put his book down at any point to ponder a paragraph before taking it up again. Not so oratory; it moves ever forward, and if the rhetoric is all muscle the audience will be lost. Thus soft, supple, resilient tissue is needed to transform a line of sinewy argument into graceful prose. Churchill excelled in cornucopiousness, and he did it, ironically, by using Anglo Saxon words for brawn and sonorous phrases of classical derivation for copia. Indeed, Churchill the rhetorician had the best of both worlds. Unlike so many other alumni of Rugby, Winchester, Charterhouse, Westminster, Shrewsbury, Harrow, and Eton, he had not been seduced into mimicry of the Greeks and Romans. Yet neither did he hesitate to use soaring words of Latin parentage when they suited him. He was the only man in Parliament who could resurrect phrases unheard in the chamber for a generation—“in olden times,” “I venture to say,” “superb, nay, sublime”—without losing his audience.

This, of course, was very different from speaking in tongues unintelligible to the man on the street. That was the curious practice of elegant Tories who fashioned carefully crafted epigrams, cleverly transposed Latin tags familiar to their peers—Macti virtute este!  (“Hail to you!”) began the Lord Chief Justice’s congratulatory message to Stanley Baldwin after a Conservative landslide—and quoted to Parliament the taut lines of Tacitus—Ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant (“Where they make a desert, they call it peace”) and Omnium consensu capax imperii, nisi imperasset (“By the consent of all, well qualified to rule—if he had not ruled”). To them this was magnificent. And so it is; Latin is the most precise, most exquisitely structured of languages, and the clarity of English is derivative of it. But Britain’s millions merely knew it as a dead language.

As the new Germany began to darken learned Englishmen’s reflections on the future, they turned instinctively to the seers of their classical boyhood curricula, and especially to Tacitus’ Germania, inspired by the Roman legions’ fascination with the fierce Teutonic tribes confronting them on the east bank of the Rhine. Tacitus is cold, incisive, analytic, rich with insights but anemic and entirely cogitative. He tells the Franks: “The Germans are ever determined to cross into Gaul, goaded by lust, avarice, and the longing for a new home, prompting them to leave their marshes and deserts, and to possess themselves of this most fertile soil and of you, its inhabitants.” But this antiseptic reasoning cannot compete with the vitality of Churchill’s “The Hun is always at your feet or at your throat,” or “I see advancing...the dull, drilled, docile, brutish masses of the Hun soldiery plodding on like a swarm of crawling locusts.” The fact was that Churchill’s critics were addressing one another, not their constituents, who knew nothing of cases, declensions, and conjugations. His adversaries in Commons knew that beyond the halls of Parliament he was building a following that could threaten their own. He reached hearts with the lightest of touches and seldom failed to break them. Hear him on the burial of Elisabeth Everest, his childhood nanny. When “Woom” visited him at Harrow, he had openly kissed her in front of his schoolmates, “one of the bravest acts,” one of them later recalled, “I have ever seen.” He erected a headstone over her grave and wrote: “Death came very easily to her. She had lived such an innocent and loving life of service to others and held such a simple faith, that she had no fears at all, and did not seem to mind verv much.”