Графични страници
PDF файл
ePub

tion to the Present Time, in a series of Letters to the Reverend Doctor Wilson, the Rector of St. Stephen's, Walbrook ;” for Mrs. Macaulay had not emancipated herself from the delusion that sprightliness could be infused into a dull book by arranging its contents in the form of epistolary correspondence. “Sir Robert Walpole, my friend, was well acquainted with the blindness of the nation to every circumstance which regarded their true interest.” That is a specimen sentence from Mrs. Macaulay; and it is difficult to imagine how such a style of composition could be tolerated by Horace Walpole, whose own youthful narrative of the scenes in Parliament, which led up to his father's fall, palpitates with life as do the political letters of Cicero.

The literary form, into which Mrs. Macaulay had thrown her History, proved in the sequel fatal to her reputation as an author. The Doctor Wilson, for whose edification the book professed to be written, was no ordinary, or parsimonious, admirer. He had made over to Mrs. Macaulay his house at Bath, with the furniture and library; he placed her statue, adorned with the attributes of the Muse of History, inside the altar-rails of his church ; and he built a vault where her remains should rest when her spirit had joined the immortals. the age, and the high-flown language which it was customary to use when complimenting Mrs. Macaulay. She was born in April ; and she then resided at Alfred House, – - a name that suggested the motive of the poem.

“ Just patriot King! Sage founder of our laws,
Whose life was spent in virtue's glorious cause :
If aught on earth, blest saint, be worth thy care,
Oh! deign this day's solemnity to share,
(Sacred to friendship and to festive mirth,)
The day that gave the fair Macaulay birth ;
Whose learned page, impartial, dares explain
Each vice, or virtue, of each different reign,
Which tends to violate thy sacred plan,
Or perfect what thy sacred laws began.
Blest month! Tho' sacred to the Cyprian Dame
This day, at least, let sage Minerva claim,
(Sacred to friendship and to social mirth,)

The day which gave her loved Macaulay birth! 1 Nichols's Literary Anecdotes; Vol. VIII., page 458.

The first volume of the Continuation of her History was published in 1778. Before that year ended Mrs. Macaulay took to herself a second husband, who was very much less than half her own age, and who was not Doctor Wilson. The statue was at once removed, the house reclaimed, and the vault sold. The clergyman and the lady paraded their mutual grievances before a disenchanted world; and that world, as its custom is, revenged its own infatuation upon the idol whom it had unduly worshipped. The complimentary odes, in which her praises had once been sung, gave place to satirical parodies reflecting on a Certain Female Patriot; the new book was recognised to be detestably bad; and it was the last of the series. A sense of humour could not be counted among Mrs. Macaulay's gifts; but she perceived the absurdity of continuing, through a long succession of volumes, to pour forth exhaustive disquisitions on the Stamp Act, and minute examinations of the New England Charters, interspersed with affectionate epithets addressed to an elderly gentleman between whom and herself there notoriously existed an irreconcileable quarrel.

No worthy record of that eventful time can be found in any contemporary book which was deliberately compiled as a history; but the age nevertheless gave birth to a vast mass of political literature, written for the purpose of the moment, some portion of which will never be allowed to die. There is a stirring and decisive chapter in the story of ancient Greece which a good scholar makes shift to pick out, and piece together, for himself from the orations of Æschines and Demosthenes; and so, - between the day that George the Third instituted the system of Personal Government, down to the day when the American war, (the chief, and almost the solitary, fruit and product of that system,) ended in public disaster and national repentance, — the most brilliant and authentic account of the period may be drawn from Edmund Burke's published speeches and controversial treatises. Apart from, and above, their unique

literary merit, those performances are notable as showing how the gravity of a statesman, and the sense of responsibility which marks a genuine patriot, can co-exist with an unflinching courage in the choice and the handling of topics. That courage, in Burke's case, had been exercised with impunity throughout the most perilous of times. Multitudinous and formidable were the assailants whose attacks, from the in-coming of Lord Bute to the out-going of the Duke of Grafton, were directed against the King, and those King's Friends who made office a purgatory for every King's Minister whom the King did not love; but all their effusions together were less damaging in their effect on the minds of impartialmen than the "Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, the last ten pages of the “ Observations on a late State of the Nation," and one very brief paragraph of courtly and almost reverential irony in that marvel of point and compression which is entitled a “Short Account of a Short Administration." 1

Other, and less redoubtable, critics of the Government, -as well as the very craftsmen who printed, and the tradesmen who sold, their writings, — were punished with the utmost rigour of the law, and harassed by the arbitrary vindictiveness of Parliament; but neither the Attorney-General, nor the Sergeant-at-Arms, ever meddled with Burke or his publishers. It was the strongest possible testimonial, on the part of his adversaries, to his character and his standing in the country. The agents of the Government would no more have ventured to prosecute Edmund Burke for libel than they would have dared to arrest Lord Chatham on a charge of treason as he passed out of the House of Lords after delivering

1" In the prosecution of their measures they were traversed by an Opposition of a new and singular character; an Opposition of placemen and pensioners. They were supported by the confidence of the nation; and, having held their offices under many difficulties and discouragements, they left them at the express command, as they had accepted them at the earnest request, of their Royal Master.” So mildly did Burke refer to the usage which Lord Rockingham and his colleagues encountered from the monarch whom they so faithfully served.

one of his diatribes against the influence of the Crown. Burke enjoyed immunity himself, and extended the shield of his protection over his humbler associates in the business of giving his opinions to the reading world, during the miserable years when the persecution of the Press was at its height. All the more, after the American difficulty had become serious, - when the power of the Executive was on the decline, and the Censorship had lost its terrors, — the great Whig publicist, if his taste and self-respect had permitted, might safely have pursued the Court and the Cabinet with an unbounded licence of invective. But he wisely preferred to set forth his opinions with the same measured and dignified force of argument and illustration as he had displayed when the Middlesex Election was the question of the day. He could not, indeed, write better than he had written already; but close reasoning, supported by a solid array of facts and figures, has nowhere been presented in a shape more attractive and persuasive than in Burke's "Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol," and in the authorised report of his “Speech on moving the Resolutions for Conciliation with America."

A literary work of rare merit seldom stands alone, and in most cases proceeds from the pen of one who does best what many around him are attempting to do

Burke's masterpieces were produced at a time when the political essay was widely practised, and held in great account. The historian, who is destined to relate the events of our own generation, will be under an obligation to read leading articles by the furlong and the mile; for, during the past half-century, the leading article has frequently dictated the action of the State, has inspired or terrorised its rulers, and has kept them up to the mark, or below it, until their allotted task has, for good or evil, been accomplished. But between 1774 and 1783 the leading article, strictly so called, was yet in the future. The news in newspapers, already ample in quantity, year by year improved in accuracy; but the editorial comments on public affairs were confined to

PT. II. - VOL. II.

S

paragraphs of five or six, to a dozen, lines, allusive rather than explanatory in their character, and for the most part of a humorous and satirical tendency. Serious instruction and exhortation were conveyed to the world in the pamphlets of well-known men who acknowledged their authorship; and, (within the columns of daily and weekly journals,) by means of long, elaborate, and often extremely able letters, signed by some adopted name, for the periodical reappearance of which a large circle of readers eagerly looked. Charles Fox, who was conversant with every legitimate method of influencing opinion, has clearly drawn the distinction between the signed letter and the newspaper paragraph. Grave problems in foreign and domestic politics must, (he said,) first be treated in some earnest and plain way, and must be much explained to the public before any paragraphs alluding to them could be understood by one in a thousand. These responsible, or semi-responsible, personal manifestoes, (for a writer who styled himself Atticus or Publicola was expected to be rational in his arguments, and constitutional in his views, almost as much as one who called himself by his Christian name, and his surname, in full,) had never been so numerous, or attained so high an average level of excellence, as during the American war. Junius, indeed, whoever Junius was, had not published a single sentence of print since Philip Francis sailed for India. A conspicuous niche was vacant, which no single successor or imitator had been reckoned worthy to fill; but the lists of controversy were thronged by a perfect phalanx of well-informed and fervid partisans, who, under a variety of Greek and Roman pseudonyms, in

1 “I cannot think as you do of the insignificancy of newspapers, though I think that others overrate their importance. I am clear, too, that paragraphs alone will not do. Subjects of importance should be first gravely treated in letters or pamphlets or, (best of all perhaps,) in a series of let. ters; and afterwards the paragraphs do very well as an accompaniment. It is not till a subject has been so much discussed as to become threadbare that paragraphs, which consist principally in allusions, can be generally understood.” Fox to Fitzpatrick ; St. Ann's Hill ; Sunday, November, (or December,) 1785.

« ПредишнаНапред »