Monday, February 27, 2017

Thoughts at the Funeral of Lord Palmerston

All funerals are solemn, but when a great man, who formed a conspicuous figure in every mind, is laid in the dark pit into which we have all looked with emotions which never can become trite or vulgar, we are able to listen to some at least of the lessons which the grave has to teach with a solemnity which familiarity has not blunted, and a calmness which personal grief has not disturbed.  Think for a moment what Westminster Abbey has to say to us all when it opens its doors to receive the body of a great English statesman and patriot, to be turned into corruption by the side of those who made England what it is -- who fought the battles, and made the laws, and wrote the books which have extended our dominion over every quarter of the globe, and which will for ages mould the character of the first family of the human race.

It says, Here is the end of your real knowledge of one who helped on this progress as few have helped it.  He served England well, faithfully, with a single mind, and with an unhesitating purpose, for nearly sixty years; and now he has passed out of your sight into an unknown region upon which faith and hope shed some rays of light, but which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived.  It is no time now to flatter one whose ear is dull and cold to flattery, or to veil from your own eyes the facts which you have come here to contemplate in soberness and truth.  Dare to own to yourselves what manner of man he was to whom you pay such high honour; that from the Queen on the throne to the pauper in the workhouse, all sorts and conditions of men truly mourn for him; that Church and State vie with each other in celebrating his fame and deploring his loss; and draw fearlessly from these facts the conclusions to which they point.

Lord Palmerston was a statesman and a patriot on whose public character not a breath of dishonour can rest.  Hardly a single public writer or speaker in Europe has hesitated to say thus much of him in the most forcible language which he could find, and with illustrations taken from the history of two of the most active of human generations. But what was he in private?  He was a man of the world and a man of pleasure; either he was calumniated most foully, and most circumstantially, or his personal morals and religion were not very unlike those of Wellington and Nelson.  It is surely most unlikely that a man so popular and so universally beloved should have been the object of calumny of this kind.  It is, at all events, certain that whatever the actual truth may have been, nineteen-twentieths at least of those who follow Lord Palmerston’s coffin to the grave with sincere sorrow and admiration, will do so in the fullest conviction that he was what we have said -- a statesman and a patriot, but a man of pleasure and  a man of the world, and that as he lived so he died.

Such are the facts which candid men must admit to themselves as they look into the grave which contains the most popular statesman of our age. What is to be inferred from them?  We see no way to escape from an alternative, which requires the most earnest consideration of every one who is capable of grasping its vast significance.  Either the churchmen, the statesmen, the magistrates, the lawyers, and the vast mass of private persons of every position in life who stand round that grave do not believe their own official creed, or else they are engaged in what approaches very nearly to a mockery.  How many of them could lay there hands on their hearts and say that for what they know or reasonably believe of the life and conversation of Lord Palmerston they can bring him within any of the conditions under which alone, as the common run of preachers say, Heaven is to be hoped for?  Is it the ordinary lesson of the clergy that great mental and moral gifts vigorously employed in great questions -- that good-humour, good-nature, patriotism, and courage in its various forms -- in a word, that the active civil and social virtues are the things with which God is well pleased, and for which future happiness is prepared?  Do they not habitually teach the very reverse, and declare that if these things are not splendid sins, they are, at least, filthy rags which  have no value of their own -- that abstinence from positive sins is infinitely more important, and that neither one nor the other can really avail a man hereafter unless they are caused by and coupled with divine influences on the mind producing a certain habitual temper which no one would seriously attribute to Lord Palmerston?  In a word, if we are not all under a complete mistake about his character, and if what we usually hear preached on Sundays is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, why are we not all humbling ourselves at the present moment over the prospects of one who was on many accounts to dear to us, instead of following his funeral with an awe not untampered with exultation?

We adopt boldly the first half of the alternative which we have stated.  There is an inconsistency, and one which is altogether irreconcilable, between the conduct of the eminent persons to whom we have referred and their stated official belief.  We do not blame them; we rather honour them for it.  If there are such things as good and evil at all in the world, if these words are not merely empty labels, to be put upon any vessel, no matter what may be its contents, then it is right and meet, and the bounden duty of all persons in authority to do what as we write these lines they actually are doing-- to kneel, namely, by the side of the great, good, sinful man whom we all deplore, and there to thank Almighty God that it was pleased Him to deliver that our brother out of the miseries of this sinful world, and so to commit his body to the dust-- earth to earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes --in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life.  This we may do, being well assured that our miserable technical rules reach but a very little way into that mystery which they dimly foreshadow, that whatever we with our small capacities have been able to love or honour, God, who is infinitely greater, wiser, and more loving than we, will love and honour too; that whatever we have been compelled to blame and to lament, God, who is too pure to endure unrighteousness, will deal with, not revengefully or capriciously, but justly, and with a holy and righteous purpose; for whatever else we believe, it is the cardinal doctrine of all belief worth having that the Judge of all the earth will do right, that his justice is confined by no rules, that his mercy is over all his works, and that revenge and caprice and cruelty can have no place in his punishments.

Pall Mall Gazette, October 27, 1865.

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