Dinner Speaking: A Letter to My Nephew

SO you did not enjoy your first Phi Beta dinner, dear Tom, because you were afraid all the time that the new members would be toasted, and then “ the fellows ” had said you must reply for them. That is a pity. As, after all, the fellows were not toasted, it is a great pity. I am glad you write to me about it, however, and now it is for me to take care that this never happens to you again.

I will tell you how to be always ready. I will tell you how I do.

My first Phi Beta dinner was, like yours, my first public dinner. It was on the day, which this year everybody remembered who was old enough, when Mr. Emerson delivered his first Phi Beta oration at Cambridge. How proudly he has the right to look back on the generation between, all of which he has seen, so much of which he has been! Well, he is no older this day, to all appearance, than he was then, — and your uncle, my dear boy, though older to appearance, is not older in reality. What is it dear GQsings, — who sat behind me that early day at Phi Beta ?

“ When we ’ve been there ten million years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We ’ll have more days
To sing God’s praise,
Than when we first begun ! ”

Remember that, my dear oldest nephew, as the ten million years go by, — and, remembering it, keep young or grow young.

Mr. Emerson was young, I say, — and I. We were all young.

Mr. Edward Everett was young. He was then Governor, — and, I think, presided, certainly spoke, at that Phi Beta dinner. By the almanac he must have been that year forty-five years old,—just as old, dear Tom, as some other people are this year by the almanac. He had been pretty much everything, had gone most everywhere, had seen almost all the people that were worth seeing, and remembered more than all the rest of us had forgotten. And he was very young. To those who knew him he always was. The day he died he was about the youngest man in most things that I knew.

And so it happened that he made the first dinner speech that I remember. We were all in the South Commons Hall of University, now used as somebody’s lecture-room, say, at a guess, Professor Lovering’s. And he gave some charming reminiscences of Charles Emerson, brother of the philosopher, too early lost, and everywhere loved, — and then, speaking of the oration of the day, and of the new philosophy to which it belonged, and of which the orator was, is, and will be the prophet, he said, in his gracious, funny, courtly, and hearty way, that he always thought of its thunders as he did of the bolts of Jupiter himself! Could one have complimented an orator more than to compare him to Jupiter ? And then he went on to verify the comparison, by quoting the description, —

“Tres imbris torti radios, tres nubis aquosæ
Addiderant, tres rutili ignis, tres alitis Austri,” —

and translated the words for his purpose, —

“ Three parts were raging fire, and three the whelming waves !
But three were thirsty cloud, and three were empty wind ! ”

Ah well, my boy! You do not remember what all the world, except a few of the elect, then said of “ Transcendentalism.” So you cannot imagine the scream of fun and applause which saluted this good-natured analysis of its thunder.

And I, — I was delighted at this aptness of quotation. Should I ever bring my capping lines to such a market ? Here was a hit as good as the famous parliamentary retorts, which were so precious to us in the I. O. H. and in the Harvard Union. Should I ever live to see the happy day when I should find that it was wise, witty, and just the thing to say,

“ Tu quoque litoribus nostris Æneia nutrix ” ?


“Tityre dum redeo, brevis est via, pasce capellas,”

or any other of the T’s ? Or,

“ Æsopus auctor quam materiam reperit,”


“ Æacus ingemuit, tristique ita voce locutus,”

or any other of the Æ diphthongs ? It did not seem possible, but we would see.

Now it happened that, in the vacation following, a French steamer, I think the Geryon, came to Boston. And there was, perhaps a civic dinner, certainly an excursion down the harbor, to persuade her officers, and through them Louis Philippe, for this was in the early age of stone, that Boston Harbor was the best point for the projected line of French packets to stop at, — and somebody invited me to go. And it turned out that few of the Frenchmen spoke English, and few of the Common Councilmen spoke French, so that poor little I came to some miserable use as a half-interpreter. I remember telling a Lieutenant de Vaisseau that the “ Centurion ” rock was called so because the 74 Centurion was lost there; and that an indignant civic authority, guessing out my speech, told me they did not want, the Frenchmen to know anything was ever lost in Boston Harbor ! Perhaps that was the reason the French packets never came. Well, by and by there was the inevitable collation in the cabin. (A collation, dear boy, is a dinner where you have nothing to eat.) And we went down stairs to collate. I began to think of the speeches. Suppose they should call on the youngest of the interpreters, what could he say ? What Latin quotation that would answer ? Not Tityrus certainly! No. Nor Æneas’s nurse certainly, for she went overboard, — bad luck to her! — or was she buried decently ? Bad omen that ! But — yes ! certainly — what better than the thunderbolts of Jove? Steam - navigation forever,— Robert Fulton, Marquis of Worcester, madman in the French bedlam, — bolts of heaven secured for service of earth, — Franklin,— the great alliance.— steam - navigation uniting the world! Was not the whole prefigured, messieurs, quand le grand poète forged the very thunderbolts of the Dieu des Cieux ?

“ Tres imbris torti radios, tres nubis aquosæ
Addiderant, tres rutili ignis, tres alitis Austri.”

What better description of the power which at that moment was driving us along, —

“Three rays of writhen rain, of fire three more,
Of winged southern winds, and cloudy store,
As many parts the dreadful mixture frame ”

Could anything have been more happy ? And fortunately no member of Phi Beta was present but myself. But, unfortunately, there was no speaking, and for the moment I lost my opportunity.

But not my preparation, dear Tom. And for this purpose have I written this long story, to show you how, in thirty happy years since, when I have had nothing else to say, “ Tres imbris torti radios ” has always stood me in stead. One good quotation makes an after-dinner speaker the match of the whole world. And if you have it in Latin, the people who understand that language enjoy it especially, and those who do not always appear to enjoy it more especially. Perhaps they do. There is also the advantage of slight variations in the translation. Note the difference between Mr. Everett’s above, and John Dryden’s.

Imagine yourself, for instance, an invited guest at a Cincinnati dinner in Wisconsin. Unfortunately, my dear boy, none of your ancestors rose even to the rank of drummer in the army of the Revolution. Your great-grandfather’s brother had Chastellux to dinner one day. If you can, make your speech out of that. But I do not think you can. Still, you are called up to speak : “ Our friend from New England,” — “ Connecticut, — Israel Putnam, — Bunker Hill,— Groton,—Wooster,” &c., &c. What will you do, my boy ? You must do something, and you must not disgrace old Wooster, Do ! You have your thunderbolts.

“ This army,” — “ gathered from North and South and East and West,” — “like another army,” — “whose brave officers still linger among us, — cheer us,” &c., &c., — “ this army,” — “combining such various elements of power, endurance, and wisdom, — this army, always when I think of it, — more than ever to-day, sir, when I see these who represent it in another generation, — when I think of Manly coming from the yeasty waves of the outstretched Cape, — of Ethan Allen descending from the cloudy tops of the Green Mountains, — of Knox, sweaty and black from the hot furnace work of Salisbury, where

' He created all the stores of war,’—

all meeting at the same moment with the Morgans, and Marions, and the one Washington from the distant South,—this army always seems to me to be the prefigured thunderbolt which the Cyclops forged for Jupiter.

' Tres imbris torti radios, tres nubis aquosæ
Addiderant, tres rutili ignis, tres alitis Austri.’
‘ Three from the sultry South, three from the stormbeat shore,
Three parts from distant mountains’ cloudy store,
While raging heat fused all with three parts more!'”

You see, dear Tom, these audiences are always good-natured, and by no means critical of your version.

Why, at the only time I was ever at a regimental dinner on the Plains, long before the war, you know, when to the untaught mind it did seem as if there was no reason why we were, there, and no pretence for mutual congratulation, I remember when poor Pendergrast called me up to represent science, (I was at that time in the telegraph business,) the dear old quotation came to my relief like an inspiration. I got round to the Flag. Do you remember how safe General Halleck always found it to allude to the Flag?

“ The Flag, gentlemen,” — “ colors,” — “rainbow of our liberties,” — “Liberty everywhere.” “ Blue, white, and red of Low Countries,” — “Red, white, and blue of France,” — “English Constitution,” — “ Puritan fathers, Cavaliers,” &c., &c.

“ Does it seem too much to say, gentlemen, that, with the divine instinct of poetry, the unequalled bard of the court of Augustus, looking down the ages beyond the sickly purple of the palace, to the days when armies should be the armies of freemen, and not the Prætorian guards of a tyrant, — that he veiled the glad prophecy of the future in the words in which he describes even the thunderbolt itself? The white crest of the foam, the blue of the sky, the red of the fiery furnace, are all tossed together, and play together, and rejoice together, there in the smiles or in the rage of the very breeze of Heaven.

‘ Tres imbris torti radios, tres nubis aquosæ
Addiderant, tres rutili ignis, tres alitis Austri.’
' Three parts of white the crested billows lent,
Three parts of blue the heavens themselves had sent,
Three parts of fiery red with these were blent,
And on the free-born wind across the world they went.'”

You are not old enough, my dear nephew, to remember the great consistory which the Pope held at Somerville, when for a moment he thought that the churches of the world had recognized that Union which in fact does make them one, and were willing to offer one front to the Devil, instead of fighting, as they always had done, on ten thousand hooks of their own. You understand, it was not this pope, Pius IX. It was the pope who came after Gregory XVII. and before Pius IX. Well, at that immense dinner-table, which had been built on the plan of John O’Groat’s, so that each of the eleven thousand six hundred and thirty popes present might sit at the head, — I was fortunate enough to be appointed to represent the Sandemanian clergy, — the only body, as I will venture to say to you, which really preserves the simplicity of Gospel institutions, or in the least carries into our own time the spirit and life of fundamental Christianity. Now you may imagine the difficulty of speaking on such an occasion. I had thought it proper to speak in Latin. The difficulty was not so much in the language as in what to say, that one might be at once brave as a Sandemanian, and at the same time tolerant, and catholic as a Christian. Now it is not for me to say how well I acquitted myself. If you want to see my speech, you had better look in the Annales de Foi; and, if it is there, you will certainly find it. I did not think it amiss, certainly, that I was able to close by comparing the great agencies which the United Church would be able to employ to the thunderbolt itself. We had there present bishops from England of perpetual rain, from Sitka of perpetual cloud, from the eternal fires of the torrid zone, and from the farthest south of Patagonia. When we selected our sacred twelve, it was easy for us to take them, as if we were forging thunders.

“ Tres imbris torti radios, tres nubis aquosæ
Addiderant, tres rutili ignis, tres alitis Austri.”

Now, my dear Tom, I am sure my lesson needs no moral. Of course I do not think you had better start in life with my quotation. To tell you the truth, I am still young. I am a lifemember of many societies, and, as they outlive other usefulness, the more frequently do they dine together. I may therefore have some other occasion when I may be reminded of the Cyclops. But if, at your dinner, I had happened to be called upon, I think,— I do not know, but I think that, seeing such men as you describe, I should have been irresistibly led to consider the varied gifts which the University every year scatters over the land, and the exquisite harmony by which, from such different callings, different homes, and different destinies, they unite in the merriment or in the wisdom of her festivities. The men of practice who have been taming the waterfall, and made it subservient; the men of the gentle ministries of peace, whose blessings distil upon us like the very dews of heaven ; and the men of the spoken word, — of the spirit of truth, of which, like the wind itself, no man knoweth whence it cometh or whither it goeth, — these, and the men of war who have passed through its fires to give us the free America of to-day, all were around you. Surely in such a union I should have been reminded of the divine harmony by which elements the most diverse were welded into the bolts of Jove.

“Tres imbris torti radios, tres nubis aquosæ
Addiderant, tres rutili ignis, tres alitis Austri.”
“ Three parts like dews from heaven, three from the wave-beat shore,
Three from the soft-winged breeze, and three from blood-red war,”

Always, dear Tom, your affectionate uncle,