On the Unlocking of Words

By Lawrence “Mack in Texas” Hall (Rated G)

Their leader answered him, Beowulf unlocking
Words from deep in his breast: “We are Geats…”

-Beowulf to the Danish Coast Watcher

One does not imagine President Roosevelt, on the 8th of December in 1941, skipping his appearance before Congress and, wearing knee pants, a slogan tee, and some tats and piercings while blocking Pennsylvania Avenue and chanting, “Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Hirohito has got to go!”

In his four-minute speech to Congress, President Roosevelt eloquently stated the facts of Japan’s simultaneous aggressions against American and British territories throughout the far east, and then simply asked Congress for a declaration of war. He did not talk about himself or his mood or his feelings; he addressed the topic. More than that, he addressed the topic with words that, because of their simplicity, were powerful.

The art of oratory is little studied now, and so speeches are seldom about stating the facts and coming to a conclusion, but rather a matter of posturing and yelling and chanting.

The ultimate failure to persuade is in the use of a bullhorn. When a speaker at a rally or protest lifts up a bullhorn instead of his heart, he has demonstrated that he has nothing to say that will appeal to the intelligence of his hearers, and is now going to make loud noises as camouflage for his inadequacies.

Good speakers study the great ones, and learn from them: primary and secondary epics, Shakespeare’s speeches – especially in Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and Henry – Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome, Prime Minister Churchill, President Roosevelt, President Kennedy, Reverend King, and President Reagan.

In Beowulf, for example, our hero is confronted by a Danish coast watcher who says, in the strong cadence of the four-beat Old English line:

“…You! Tell me your name,
And your father’s; no spies go further onto
Danish Soil than you’ve come already. Strangers,
From wherever it was you sailed, tell it,
And tell it quickly, the quicker the better,
I say, for us all. Speak, say
Exactly who you are, and from where, and why.”

Beowulf responds:

Their leader answered him, Beowulf unlocking
Words from deep in his breast: “We are Geats…
…And we have come seeking
Your prince, Healfdane’s son, protector
Of this people, only in friendship: instruct us,
Watchman, help us with your words! Our errand
Is a great one, our business with the glorious king
Of the Danes no secret…”

After more of this polite but firm back-and-forth, the coast watcher says,

“A soldier should know the difference between words
And deeds, and keep that knowledge clear
In his brain. I believe your words, I trust in
Your friendship. Go forward, weapons and armor
And all, on into Denmark. I’ll guide you…”

(Beowulf- Burton Raffel – Google Docs)

We hear little such good, plain, meaningful language these days, either in our streets or in those famous halls of power or in the unfortunate presentations that constitute popular culture just now. Instead we the people are often subjected to shouting, screaming, chanting, and unfocused babbling that seems to echo from, in Milton’s poetic re-naming of (Newark, New Jersey), Pandaemonium.

The good use of language is important. We need to hear each other, not yelp at each other. And keep it short. There are many variants of this old wheeze: An effective speaker must be focused, be clear, be respectful, and be seated.

Let us, like Beowulf, unlock from our hearts good words as a form of respect for each other.

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