Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Lord Macaulay

On Monday next Westminster Abbey will receive the body of one of the very small number of our contemporaries who have had a real claim to be laid there. There may possibly be amongst us men of greater learning than Lord Macaulay, though they must be very few. We may even have writers whose technical literary skill is superior to his. We have certainly deeper thinkers, but no other living English writer has shown in so many ways the general power and fire which pervaded his whole nature. There are amongst us, no doubt, miracles of versatility. We have statesmen who pique themselves on literary ability, and men of letters who speak with considerable confidence on politics; but there is a wide difference between the cleverness which does well a number of things which have no solid connection with each other, and the force which displays itself with equal vigour in kindred, though separate pursuits. The one proves nothing more than the pliability and dexterity of the mind which possesses it, and it is not unfrequently associated with a levity or insincerity of character which may excite our astonishment without gaining our respect; but the other is among the strongest proofs which can possibly be given of true depth and genuine power, not merely of understanding, but of character. The real foundation on which Lord Macaulay's greatness rested was the substantial unity of his whole life. The principles of his literary and of his political career were identical. He was not one of those who pass from letters to politics in order to provide new stimulants for a vanity satiated by old ones, but he made the two halves of his life play into each other. After advocating in Parliament, with extraordinary power and success, the principles to which he was attached, he proceeded to advocate them with even greater and more permanent effect as a political historian. No other politician, and no other author, has ever set in so strong a light the great truth that the business of life is the best apprenticeship to literature, and that the higher departments of literature derive the same advantage from a practical acquaintance with the business of life which the blood derives from passing through the lungs. Whatever may be the faults or defects of Lord Macaulay's books, it is impossible to read them without feeling that, though the author had more rhetoric and more imagination in his composition than almost any one of his contemporaries, he was neither a poet nor a rhetorician, but a sober and experienced statesman. He was the master of his fancy, and not its servant; and if any one compares his life and writings with those of M. de Lamartine and M. Michelet, he will see how strong a contrast there is between a statesman who is also a man of genius, and a man of genius who supposes that, as such, he is a statesman.

Deep and valuable as was the influence which Lord Macaulay's legal and political training exercised over the mind, it can be considered, upon a review of his whole career, only as an apprenticeship to those literary labours which were the real work of his life. It was through them that he exercised the widest influence over his contemporaries, and it is by them that he will be remembered hereafter. The same unity which belonged to his life characterizes the whole of his writings. All of them are essentially historical and political. One or two of his essays are purely literary; but most of them relate either to politics or to political biography, and his poems, without an exception, are of the same cast. It is, therefore, in his conception of history and politics, and in his manner of dealing with them, that the leading habits of his mind are to be traced. One of the most - characteristic was his constant and instinctive association of politics with history. He was not only a Whig, but he was the greatest, and indeed almost the only great, advocate and expounder of Whig principles since the time of Burke. These principles are essentially historical. They rest, not upon any theory as to the rights of man, nor as to the pleasures and pains of which men are susceptible, but on a series of facts and precedents relating to the rights of Englishmen. Persons are not wanting who condemn them as narrow and shallow, but it is an unquestionable truth that their assertion has been closely allied, not only with a course of national greatness and prosperity unequalled in human history, but also with a spirit of reverence and affection for the past which in other countries has hardly ever been separated from a love for despotism and bigotry. It would be impossible on the present occasion to discuss the limitations and additions which Whig principles require in order to be accepted as true. No doubt they are important, and in so far as he failed to recognise them, Lord Macaulay's political theories were false or defective; but no reasonable man can doubt that their prevalence and assertion have been of inestimable value to the nation, and it is no small service to have grasped them with the firmness and to have expressed them with the symmetry and power which mark every portion of Lord Macaulay's writings. Many readers may feel that in his reviews of Mr. Gladstone's Essay on Church and State and Southey's Colloquies on Society, and in his Essay on the admission of Jews to Parliament, Lord Macaulay not only left untouched many questions of vast importance, but failed to show that he appreciated their weight. Yet it is still to be said that the theory which he did advance is a weighty and perfect one, that he threw it into the clearest shape possible, and that in so doing he rendered a service of vast importance to all persons who think upon the subject—and especially to those who agree with him least, inasmuch as the systematic vigour of his expressions must force his opponents, if they have any power of mind at all, into an attempt to invest their objections to them with something like equal clearness.

The greater part of Lord Macaulay's opinions on politics are characteristically embodied in his narratives, and can hardly be separated from them; and though his polemical writings are admirably vigorous and precise, he undoubtedly showed far more of his real nature in describing men and relating facts. His mode of doing so was not entirely free from objection. His colours were generally too glaring, and his habit of resting satisfied with exclaiming against the inconsistencies which he detected in the conduct of remarkable persons, without attempting to discover the principles by which they might be harmonized and reconciled, was unfortunate, and sometimes unjust. Marlborough cannot have been a moral monster, nor does it follow that James was a living contradiction, because he risked his soul for the sake of his mistress, whilst he was risking his crown for the sake of his creed. But notwithstanding the blemishes of the most popular history that ever was written, its popularity ought not to occasion regret or wonder; no one can see that massive fragment—glowing with enthusiastic ardour, and testifying in its very defects to the rush and riot of genius by which it was moulded—without feeling that the strong man who bowed himself before his work was done would, if he had been spared to complete it, have left behind him, not indeed the greatest of histories, but a book which would have done more than almost any other to delight his countrymen, and to teach them to love as he did the land over which he rejoiced and exulted with an admiration as passionate as it was manly. Now that that eloquent tongue and more eloquent pen are silent for ever, it is to these characteristics that the mind most willingly reverts. Whatever else he was, Lord Macaulay was a true Englishman. A more hearty lover of his country never lived. With occasional asperity, with some injustice, with a good deal of language which it is hard to justify, and with some estimates of individual character with which it is difficult to sympathize, the keynote both of the History and of the Essays is as generous and as magnanimous as was ever struck. The first lines of his ballad on the Spanish Armada might well form the motto of his greater works—
"Attend all ve who love to hear our noble England's praise; I sing of the thrice famous deeds she wrought in ancient days."

There are probably no finer compositions of their kind in the language than the Essays on Lord Clive and Warren Hastings. The founders of our Indian Empire stand out before us as they fought and conquered, with the radiance of victory and patriotism shining through the blemishes and crimes by which they were stained. They live and move without grimace or exaggeration, not claiming to be heroes whom we are to worship, nor incarnate ideas which we are to analyze, but English gentlemen whom, for the good service which they did to their country, we can love, and honour, and forgive.

In these days, when young people are sedulously provided, through the medium of little pictures of little domestic incidents, and little caricatures of little follies, with a store of little scruples and theories about the world in which they live, and with a hortus siccus of emotions and tempers from which they may learn how they will or ought to feel in every possible circumstance of life, Lord Macaulay's Essays have an incidental value which is almost boundless. There is hardly any other book relating to modern times, which will at once tempt a boy to read and teach him to think. They contain a wider range of sound knowledge, and exemplify more fully the qualities of power, precision, and definite statement, than any other book which a boy is likely to read; and they have, moreover, the merit of dealing with great subjects in a fearless way, and sweeping aside with a rough hand the cobwebs which so often entangle and fascinate the young by their promise of mystery and profundity. Their faults are hardly likely to injure a mind of any depth; for there is nothing which such minds (especially in youth) resist more vehemently than a theory which is certainly clear and possibly shallow. The Essay on Bacon, to which great and just objection has been taken, is quite as likely to lead an inquisitive lad to try to find out for himself what Bacon was as to induce him to congratulate himself on knowing all that is to be known on the subject. Indeed, if he is in danger of the latter result, Lord Macaulay is hardly likely to do more than give an intelligible form to errors which would otherwise have assumed a confused one.

Of all Lord Macaulay's works, his poems are, in one respect, the most curious. Their composition was, perhaps, one of the most remarkable feats of strength upon record. They have effectually popularized one of the leading theories of Niebuhr's history, and they have done so with such force and simplicity that the theory is made familiar to thousands of readers who are ignorant, not only of German, but of Latin. To have combined the production of such a result with the composition of almost the only really spirited ballads written in the present generation would have been enough to secure a considerable literary reputation. Campbell immortalized himself by two songs, Gray by thirty or forty stanzas; and we may form some notion of Lord Macaulay's claims upon fame by the thought that, of the thousands to whom his name is familiar, comparatively few associate him with the Prophecy of Capys, the Battle of the Lake Regillus, or the Ballad on the Spanish Armada.

To those who were honoured with Lord Macaulay's personal friendship, his works will always have an interest which, with all their popularity, they can hardly excite in most of his readers. Few men have impressed their personal character more deeply on what they wrote. It has been insinuated that Lord Macaulay had little sympathy with those amongst whom his early life was passed, and that the opinions and professions of his manhood were discordant with the lessons of his youth. It would be impertinent to enter largely upon this question, but it may be stated with great confidence that the society in which his childhood was passed, and from which his earliest impressions were received, was not the dull, bigoted, narrow-minded circle which some assertions respecting it and him would imply that it was. Lord Macaulay was not the only remarkable man in the present generation who was brought up in his infancy at Clapham. When the "Clapham Sect" is referred to, it should be remembered that one of the ablest speakers (Mr. Wilberforce) and one of the best political economists (Mr. Thornton) of the last generation were amongst the half dozen persons upon whom Sydney Smith bestowed the nickname. Lord Macaulay's father was something better than a man of genius, for he sacrificed not only his time and his labour, but his fortune, and, as far as calumny could destroy it, his reputation, to labours of love, in which he bore the burden whilst others reaped the glory. When it is implied that it is an extraordinary thing that men of ability should be born and bred in such a society, it should be remembered that the same society produced many other men who were highly distinguished in their day. It would be easy, but it would also be inappropriate, to name them here. Any one who understands the temper of Lord Macaulay's early associations may easily trace the influence upon his mind of his father's friends. His works do not contain—and it is, to some extent, part of their plan to exclude—express statements of theological belief. Nor is this surprising when wo remember that one modern doctrine of the political school to which he belonged, and of the theological party amongst whom he was brought up, was the separation of politics and theology; but on the other hand he invariably handles religious subjects not only with reverence, but with tenderness. One of the graces of style for which his essays are conspicuous is the beauty and reverence with which he introduces Biblical expressions when the opportunity for doing so arises. It was not from Mr. Carlvle that Lord Macaulay learned Ur admire Cromwell; and it ought to be remembered that in some of his earliest writings—writings in which his youthful impressions can be traced most forcibly—he manfully contended for the greatness of the Puritans.

To those who knew Lord Macaulay personally, a studied vindication of his affection for the memory of the friends of his youth would read like an insult. The quality by which he was most pre-eminently distinguished was the intensity of his domestic affections. A warmer-hearted man, or one more disposed to cherish hereditary friendship, to acknowledge and to repay obligations, to show kindness, to do favours, to help the distressed, never lived in the world. This, however, is ground on which it would be wrong to linger here. It is enough to bear witness to the regret which must be felt when so eminent a name is struck off from that list of great men which increases so slowly and diminishes so fast.

Saturday Review, January 7, 1860.

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