Sublimity in Martin L. King’s Speech: I Have a Dream

Since time unknown oratory has been used as a tool by the great leaders to influence the general public, and to gain a repute for themselves. Through inspirational and motivational public addresses leaders have for centuries propagated their messages to the world at large. People possessing the qualities of great oration have made their works and ideas immortal, by using the concepts of the ‘Sublime’.

It was Longinus who said (in ‘On the Sublime’) that “orators of much passion succeed.” ‘On the Sublime’ by Longinus, was one of the first works of its kind that provided insight into the great importance of sublimity and aesthetics in acquiring ecstasy, elevation and loftiness. He said that sublimity has a ‘beautiful and genuine effect’ which ‘pleases always and pleases all’. Here, the different aspects of oration in relation to Sublimity, in the famous speech of Martin Luther King Jr., ‘I have a dream’, will be explored and discussed.

The well-known speech of Martin Luther King, ‘I have a dream’ incorporates the qualities of sublimity in it. This is the reason of the speech being recognized and appreciated universally even today. Scholars from different fields of life take inspiration from King’s words and talk about the greatness of his speech.

In assessing the qualities of Martin Luther King as a successful orator, guidance can be taken from the parameters given by Longinus, declaring the characteristics of sublime writings.

As a prerequisite to any sublime writing Longinus considers, power of expression as one. Martin Luther King’s speech ‘I have a dream’ exhibits his complete control over the ability to deliver his ideas in an extraordinary expression. The speech of Martin Luther King is a combination of eloquent style and great use of words, enriched with hope and clarity of ideas. He says in the beginning of the speech, “I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.” Being the first sentence of his speech it holds immense importance. Through this sentence King displays his ‘faculty of grasping great conceptions’. In the world of 1963 King stood on behalf of the black people to raise a voice for freedom. The word ‘freedom’ recurs throughout the speech as it is one of the main themes of the speech. It was this great concept of freedom that gave Martin Luther King recognition among the people of America and world over.

His speech gained eminence as it created strong passion in the listeners. Martin Luther King addressed the audience with much fervor and force; he emphasized all his ideas in mighty sentences and thus created an atmosphere of excitement and inspiration.

The key-characteristic of Martin Luther King’s speech is the use of metaphors, to create an association of the concepts of his speech with concrete images and emotions. He says, “One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.”

One can analyze from the above sentences that King has employed the use of metaphors in his speech to allow him the ability to transport his audience to a state where they can easily relate to each word and in the true sense feel each word with its real intensity. When King talks about the ‘manacles of segregation’ and ‘chains of discrimination’ he paints a picture of the black people in utter desperation, hopelessness and victimization. He further uses metaphors like ‘sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent’, here the word sweltering enables the listeners to feel the harshness of the time faced by the black, as they compare it with the most harsh summers they have experienced ever. Regarding usage of words Longinus said, “…grand words wonderfully attracts and charms hearers… it brings greatness, beauty, raciness, weight, strength, mastery, and an exultation all its own.”

Martin Luther King also incorporated the technique of using repetition of words and phrases in his speech. This technique not only laid emphasis on certain things but also generated strong emotions among the leaders. As an example the following lines from the speech can be considered, ‘Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.’

The repetition of the word ‘now’ granted Martin Luther King an opportunity to create a unique sense of urgency and excitement among the listeners. The passion of the speech reached its peak at this moment, as the emotions of the audience come in alignment with the leader. This success is reached by the use of sublimity of words. Longinus says about passion that. “…nothing reaches great eloquence son surely as genuine passion in the right place.” This success is reached by Martin Luther King is due to his passion when he talks about the rights of the black people.

Martin Luther King gained the attention of listeners by cultivating in his speech credible information; in the form of Biblical references as well as literary allusions. He adds at one point that; “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Here Martin Luther King refers to an important document, the Declaration of Independence, and provides his listeners with a reference point to validate his point and make his stance credible.

Martin Luther King managed to make his speech a landmark in the history by enveloping his words with sublimity. The very simple example of this is the repetition of the phrase – ‘I have a dream’. He builds in his audience a quest for freedom by painting a ‘dream’ for them, and provides them an opportunity to recognize their dreams.

This speech is an amalgamation of excellent diction, powerful sentences, classic imagery creation and a strong contact with the audience. In addition to this his speech exhibits a rhythmic arrangement of words and phrases. Martin Luther King orates in such a flow and passion that his words create an atmosphere, which mesmerizes his listeners and bound them to agree to his points. In short Martin Luther King’s speech ‘I have a dream’ contains in it all qualities of sublimity mentioned by Longinus.

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