The Vitality of Macaulay
THE reign of Queen Victoria has been the golden age of English prose. The royal masters lived earlier, — the makers of the English Bible, Milton, and Burke. Other masters of great fame — Hooker, Browne, Addison, Bolingbroke — have been scattered over other generations ; but the prose of Victoria’s reign has Newman, Ruskin, Carlyle, and Macaulay. Such diverse excellences of so high a reach have never appeared in England at one time before. In these men manner has so well matched matter that it seems the order of nature for a priest to write like Newman, a poet like Ruskin, a prophet like Carlyle, an historian like Macaulay. The diversity of these four, one from another, forbids any comparison ; do you prefer a horseshoe, a saltcellar, or a bottle of cologne ? Nevertheless, time has thrown out some hints concerning their enduring quality. Tract number 90 is already old with hoary age; Sartor Resartus is powerless to arouse the youth of to-day; the period of Ruskin’s tyranny is past ; and still Macaulay’s essays, though it is fifty years since they were first published, are read continually, from London to Melbourne, from New York to Singapore.
It is the fashion at present to speak of Newman, Ruskin, and Carlyle with the utmost deference, even for those who dissent from their opinions ; but many, both they who are fond of books and they who simulate such an affection, feel at liberty to speak of Macaulay as a sort of literary demagogue. The objects of admiration by a poet, a prophet, and a priest are more to the taste of the dainty than is the resolute, matter-of-fact man of business whom Macaulay celebrates.
For Macaulay’s popularity there is one principal reason, — that he was a typical Englishman. All his English critics agree — and they ascribe it to him as a great limitation — that he was a man who represented his generation, who believed their beliefs, hoped their hopes, and feared their fears. Whether that charge be serious or not, Macaulay was far more than that; he had much of the permanent English in him. He did hold the political opinions of the men who emancipated the Catholics and reformed the House of Commons. Yet those political ideas of 1830 were not transitory, but English ; they were merely the nineteenth-century form of the ideas which have been working at the social and political constitution of England ever since Magna Carta. Englishmen have always been zealous to obtain what they have deemed their rights. Those rights have not been creations of the imagination, not children of theory, but certain definite powers to be enjoyed, certain definite restraints to be cast loose. Macaulay’s speeches on the Reform Bill are characteristic of the English mind. He instinctively employs only English arguments ; he disclaims any symmetrical theory, he courts property, he shouts warning of instant danger. His voice sounds like the voice of England calling to her children in a good set English speech.
At Runnymede Macaulay would have had passionate delight. King John would have looked as big a fool as King James, and as bad as Jeffreys. Macaulay would have argued for the plaintiff in Taltarum’s case; he would have cited endless precedents for the Petition of Right; he would have written hexameters for the Writ of Habeas Corpus; he would have championed any remedy for an immediate distemper of the body politic. He had no relish for the discomforts of subordination ; he never believed that submission and asceticism were the will of God.
Macaulay had no religious quality ; the English have never had the peculiar grace of Latin piety. Dunstan and à Becket have been their saints. Thomas à Kempis, St. Francis, Joan of Arc, St. Theresa, never could have been English. English piety trickles like “ a rivulet in a meadow ” of common sense and respectability. The Established Church calls to mind that picture of an English milord in Brown, Jones, and Robinson who is reading in a foreign railway carriage; some peasants are chattering under his window: “ How rude in those people to disturb his lordship ! ” Emerson says : “ The doctrine of the Old Testament is the religion of England. It believes in a Providence which does not treat with levity a pound sterling. They are neither transcendentalists nor Christians. They put up no Socratic prayer, much less any saintly prayer for the Queen’s mind ; ask neither for light nor right, but say bluntly, ‘Grant her in health and wealth long to live.’ ”
Macaulay had none of the artist’s temperament. England has never produced one of the world’s great painters. England has never given birth to a great musician or to a good sculptor. There has been no great English architect since the French influences ceased. Sir Christopher Wren was not a great architect, but a great Englishman.
Common sense is the great English characteristic ; Macaulay was filled with it. Macaulay did not care for philosophy. “ The philosophy of Plato,” says he, “ is the philosophy of words.” “ The brilliant Macaulay, who expresses the tone of the English governing classes of the day, explicitly teaches that good means good to eat, good to wear, material commodity ; that the glory of modern philosophy is its direction on ‘ fruit; ’ to yield economical inventions ; and that its merit is to avoid ideas and avoid morals. He thinks it the distinctive merit of the Baconian philosophy, in its triumph over the old Platonic, its disentangling the intellect from theories of the all-Fair and all-Good, and pinning it down to the making a better sick-chair and a better wine-whey for an invalid; that ‘ solid advantage,’ as he calls it, meaning always sensual benefit, is the only good.” This is Emerson’s criticism on Macaulay, but he puts it forward as illustrating English traits. Taine says : “I do not wish to criticise doctrines, but to depict a man ; and truly nothing could be more striking than this absolute scorn for speculation, and this absolute love for the practical. Such a mind is entirely suitable to the national genius ; in England a barometer is still called a philosophical instrument; philosophy is there a thing unknown. . . . The English have moralists, psychologists, but no metaphysicians. . . . The only part of philosophy which pleases men of this kind is morality, because, like them, it is wholly practical, and only attends to actions. . . . Macaulay’s essays are a new example of this national and dominant inclination.”
England is highly renowned for her natural science ; but the Englishman’s lack of interest in abstract ideas is the burden of the lamentation of every English Jeremiah.
Macaulay was essentially, and in his strongest characteristics, an Englishman. His mind and heart were cast in English moulds. His strong love and unbounded admiration of England sprung from his inner being. His morality, his honesty, his hate of sham, his carelessness of metaphysics, his frank speech, his insular understanding, his positiveness, are profoundly English. And there is in him something of that tenderness, to which in public he could give no adequate expression, which grants its grace to that most honorable epithet “ an English gentleman.” The real English gentleman shows his quality in his English home.
The cause of Lord Macaulay’s success, of his triumphant and enduring popularity, is that he is an Englishman praising English things. This is especially true of his History.
The history of England is the great romance of the modern world. The story of the rise, triumph, decline, and fall of the Roman Empire is more dramatic ; it would be impossible to match in interest the narrative of the Roman people from their cradle on the Palatine Hill until they walked abroad masters of the world. But England is now living in the height of her pride and power, the great civilizing force of this century. Sprung from the mingled blood of Celt, Saxon, Scandinavian, and Norman; the Englishman has made his island home a garden of poetry, a school of government for the nations, the factory of the world : —
This precious stone set in the silver sea.”
The story of England outdoes the Waverley novels. Its pages spread their brilliant colors in the full meridian of life. Its panorama extends like the visions of an enchanter, —
The mightiest Julius lands ; legionaries build walls and camps, and withdraw; wild men struggle with wild men ; missionaries teach the Pater Noster to awkward lips ; petty kingdoms weld together; Saxons strike down Celts ; Normans strike down Saxons; Crusaders cross the seas ; Runnymede listens to a great charter ; English judges and English priests contend against the dominion of Roman law and Roman theology; Hotspurs and Warwicks march across the stage; sons of serfs are born freemen ; English kings lay claims to the lands of France ; books are printed ; rebellions break out against the Roman pontiffs; traders and sailors roam abroad ; Bacon reasons ; Shakespeare dramatizes ; the nation shuffles off the coil of royal tyranny ; Royal Societies are founded ; weavers weave; spinners spin ; bobbins and shuttles load ships ; chapter succeeds chapter, till the large volume of the nineteenth century is reached.
England has created the best and freest government in the world ; England has made the greatest literature ; England has brought forth Bacon, Newton, Darwin ; England has wrought the only system of law that can match that of Rome; England has sent forth comme un vol de gerfauts, adventurers, colonizers, civilizers ; England, by Drake and Howard of Effingham, has annexed the Channel to her coast; England has sent westward Raleigh and Cabot, Pilgrims to Massachusetts, younger sons to Virginia, Wolfe to Canada, Clive and Warren Hastings to India, Dampier and Cook to Australia, Gordon and Kitchener to Khartoum, taking vi et armis great regions of the earth to have and to hold to her and her English heirs forever.
Amid such prodigal wealth of harvest there is room for many husbandmen. Holinshed and Froissart may chronicle legend and foray ; Bacon may find a narrative that shall lead to political preferment ; Hakluyt may gather yarns together that shall stop the question, “ What have the indolent English done at sea ? ” Clarendon may prove the badness of a fallen cause ; Hume may uncover plentiful proofs of Tory virtue ; Napier may track the “ thin red line of heroes ” threading the mountains of Spain. Out of the hundred facets an historian may select that one which flashes most light to him. Fronde may praise the red hands of Elizabethan marauders ; Gardiner may follow endless links of cause and effect ; Freeman may find explanations for his own historic doubts ; Lingard may gratify Roman Catholics ; Green may avoid personal prejudices. English history has great garners laden with probabilities, theories, interests, and facts, protean enough to satisfy the most wanton historical desires.
By the side of the gay and splendid colors of English history there are large quiet spaces of sombre hues, dull to the indolent eye. While heroes, paladins, and champions have been caracoling conspicuous, sad-visaged, shrewd, resolute men have been steadily working, plodding, planning, constructing, — commonly behind the scenes, but not always: men who gradually, step by step, sadly and surely enlarging precedent, piecing and patching, wrought the common law ; who slowly and steadfastly built up the pious and sombre creeds and practices of the Nonconformist churches of England. Such men have had a great and controlling influence on the development of modern England. They have been the burghers as opposed to landowners or yeomen ; of the middle class as against the aristocracy and the plebeians ; the educated in distinction from the learned or the ignorant. They have been the Dissenters and Low Churchmen. They have been the party of advance ; the advocates of petty changes ; the practical men busy with daily needs, careless of sentiments and theories, taking care of the pennies of life.
They are the men of double entry, magnifying routine. In business, they have added mechanical device to mechanical device ; they have put wind, water, steam, and electricity into subjection ; they have done most of the reckoning in England, and their brains are hieroglyphed with l. s. d. They have built up cities, adding house to house, block to block, factory to factory ; they also have made a man’s house his castle. The magic of science does not affect them. But for its usefulness they would not heed it, —
We cannot miss him : he does make our fire,
Fetch in our wood, and serves in offices
That profit us. What ho ! slave ! ”
In literature they have sustained the names that have been forgotten ; of art they are innocent; in religion they are for the Old Testament ; in English politics they are Whigs and Liberals. They made the revolution of 1688 ; they passed the Act of Settlement, — a formal declaration of an accepted principle that no king had divine rights in Great Britain ; they maintained the house of Hanover.
This cautious, industrious, peeringround-the-corner class is not attractive to everybody. We miss the glitter and the purple of ostentatious heroism ; we feel the absence of luxury, of recklessness, of epigram, of sangfroid. Nevertheless, that class constitutes most of the machinery of the civilized world, calling itself the party of progress, known to its enemies as Mr. Gradgrind, Mr. Worldlywise, and their friends. This difference between the manufacturer and the country squire, the artisan and the soldier, the practical man and the idealist, an eye fixed on the present and an eye roaming over the past or future, between Whig and Tory, is the line of demarcation between two kinds of minds : the Benjamin Franklin character, inclined to wise saws, wise doubts, wise practices and experiments ; and the Dr. Johnson temperament, bowing to authority, custom, the ways of grandfathers, the traditions of grandmothers, full of crotchets, prejudices, beliefs, and idealism.
If one looks at these classes from the point of view of the reader on winter evenings, the attractions of Tory history (to use the political epithet), English conquests, English empire, English traditions, English poetry, are beyond comparison more entertaining than histories of the common law, of Presbyterian synods, of factory acts, of Manchesters and Birminghams. But when the world is quiet, and the politics of England can regulate themselves by private morality and by the maxims of Poor Richard’s Almanac, the outwardly uninteresting class is sure to be in power. The great wealth of England, the moral tone of her literature, the humane standard among her common clergy, the saving ballast in her ship of state, are all triumphs of the Whigs.
Two generations ago, the chief historians of England, Clarendon, Hume, Lingard, had done little justice to the achievements of utility and progress ; it was time that an advocate should arise to show the real value of the work of the middle classes. Justice demanded that at the bar of public opinion a zealous believer should plead the cause of the Whigs. Up rose Thomas Babington Macaulay, and first in the Edinburgh Review, and afterward in his History, eulogized their political achievements with amazing eloquence. All that he has written on the subject has been a splendid repetition of his words on his election as member for Edinburgh : “ I look with pride on all that the Whigs have done for the cause of human freedom and of human happiness.”
It would be easy to find fault with any story of past events, even if it were written by Minos and Rhadamanthus together. The historian must tell in a chapter the events of years; he must compress into a page the character of a hero; he must cram into a paragraph an episode which brought life or death to a thousand men. With innumerable facts to choose from, he is bound to make choice. By the law of individuality he will not choose just the facts that Tom, Dick, or Harry sets store by. That Stubbs, Freeman, Hallam, Gardiner, do not have as many fault-finders as Macaulay is due in a measure, at least, to the fact that they have not one fiftieth part of his readers ; and the readers whom they have belong to certain general classes. Macaulay’s readers are of every kind and description : of crabbed age and fiery youth ; grave seniors, reckless ne’er-do-wells ; obstinate men, reasonable men ; choleric men, meek men; pinched men, pampered men ; misers, prodigals ; saints, sinners ; cynics, believers; the melancholy man, the curious man, the mean man, the envious man, — all kinds, from Brabantio to Autolycus, from Major Pendennis to Mr. Wiukle; and every one a critic, caring not who knows his mind.
There are, however, several classes of men to whom Macaulay’s History wears an essentially false aspect. These are, first, the men of Tory cast of thought: men who have been taught from babyhood to look upon the cause represented by Tories in the history of politics as the only true and just cause ; men who sit at ease in the status quo, and wonder why other men squirm in their seats ; men whose minds, clinging to the past,
look askance at the future and possible change, who face to-morrow in the posture of self-defense. Naturally, they look upon the liberal type with an unjust eye. Men who are strong party men bestow harsh criticism (even Montaigne says, “II faut prendre party”) ; they strive to strike their buffets home, and expect hard blows back.
In the second place, there are men of religious nature : men who give as little ear to daily happenings as they do to unknown tongues ; who care not for the reputed meaning of things; who read Plato, Spinoza, Wordsworth ; who roam about seeking something that shall satisfy their sense of bigness ; who plunge into learning, bigotry, or sacrifice as headlong as a boy dives into a summer pool. These men cannot take the Whig interpretation of life. Macaulay’s facts are to them incoherent, meaningless ; he might as well hold out to them a handful of sand. What are those gay-faceted little facts to them ? What care they for machinery, parliamentary reform, progress, Manchester prints? They delight not in gaudy day ; they are servants to darkness : —
Then there is a third class of men susceptible to delicate and indefinite sensations. They demand chiaroscuro, twilight, “ shadows and sunny glimmerings.” They are of a sensitive, skeptical quality. They hold that the meaning of one solitary fact cannot be exhausted by the most brilliant description; they must needs go back to it continually, like Claude Monet to his haystack ; every time they find it different. They live in mystery and uncertainty. The past is to them as doubtful as the future. For them some infinite spirit hovers over life, continually endowing it with its own attribute of infinite change; forever wreathing this misty matter into new shapes ; making all things uncommon, wonderful, and strange. For them the highest of man’s nature is in his shudder of awe. For them all life has fitful elements of poetry, music, and art. They are sensitive to little things ; moving about like children in a world unrealized. They are sympathetic with seeming mutually exclusive things. Such men seek poetry everywhere, and find it; they contemplate life as an aggregate of possibilities, not of facts. At common happenings, like opium eaters they fall into strange dreams. They live on symbols. To such an aspect of life as these men behold, Macaulay was utterly strange. Of a chapel in Marseilles he says : “ The mass was nearly over. I stayed to the end, wondering that so many reasonable beings could come together to see a man bow, drink, bow again, wipe a cup. wrap up a napkin, spread his arms, and gesticulate with his hands; and to hear a low muttering which they could not understand, interrupted by the occasional jingling of a bell.”
Macaulay seems to have felt his estrangement in a childlike way whenever he had to do with those matters of beauty which peculiarly call out the distinctive character of this class of men. “ I have written several things on historical, political, and moral questions, of which, on the fullest reconsideration, I am not ashamed, and by which I should be willing to be estimated ; but I have never written a page of criticism on poetry or the fine arts which I would not burn if I had the power.”And yet Macaulay had strong feelings for two great idealists of the world, Dante and Cervantes. In Florence, his rooms looked out on a court adorned with orange trees and marble statues. His diary reads : “ I never look at the statues without thinking of poor Mignon : —
Was hat man dir, du armes Kind, gethan ? ’
I know no two lines in the world which I would sooner have written than those.” In another part of his diary he writes : “ I walked far into Herefordshire, and read, while walking, the last five books of the Iliad, with deep interest and many tears. I was afraid to be seen crying by the parties of walkers that met me as I came back, — crying for Achilles cutting off his hair, crying for Priam rolling on the ground in the courtyard of his house ; mere imaginary beings, creatures of an old ballad maker who died near three thousand years ago.” To such sentiments few have been as susceptible as Macaulay, but beyond that, into the realm of spiritual sensitiveness, into the borderland where the senses cease to tyrannize, he could not go.
Then there are men of individual idiosyncrasies : one does not like the popularity of Macaulay’s History. — he prefers that which is caviare to the general, a privacy of glorious light must be his; a second is troubled by antitheses and rhetoric ; a third, hazy with old saws, thinks that in so much glitter there can be no gold ; a fourth wants humor, — he misses the “tender blossoming” of Charles Lamb ; others are Quakers zealous for William Penn, doctors of philosophy tender of Bacon’s good name, grandsons of Scotch cavaliers warm for Dundee, militiamen valiant for Marlborough ; then there are Mr. Churchill Babington, Sir Francis Palgrave, and Gladstone himself, defenders of the Anglican Church, and, not least, Macaulay’s fellow historians. How can a just man please men of such varying humors ? How shall a man write history for a fellow scholar ? How hold the balances between yesterday and to-morrow ? How can a man be neither for the party of change nor for the party that says, “ Tarry awhile ” ? “ C’est une plaisante imagination de concevoir un esprit balancé justement entre deux pareilles envyes.”
Macaulay’s History suits the majority of Englishmen, by its virile directness, its honest clearness, its bold definiteness. Macaulay is never afraid ; he never shirks; he never dissembles or cloaks ; he never says “ perhaps ” or “ maybe,” nor “ the facts are obscure,” nor “authorities differ.” He makes the reader know just what effect the evidence has produced on his mind. To be sure, there is danger in that brilliant rhetoric. The glow of declamation disdains the sickly hue of circumspection. The reader of the year 3000, for whom Macaulay winds his horn, cannot hear the shuffling syllables of shambling uncertainties. Men go to the window when a fire engine gallops through the street; a gentler summons might not fetch them. There is something of martial music about Macaulay’s prose. There is that in it which excites a man. It belongs to a great advocate, not to blindfolded Justice holding her cautious scales and doling out “ ifs,” “ buts,” “ howevers,” as she balances probabilities with all the diffidence of Doubt.
In former times, when readers disagreed with an historian, they said politely that he had fallen into error, or rudely that he lied. Such people sincerely entertained great devotion to truth; they had in it the pleasure of proprietors ; they were proud of a standard by which they should judge and condemn. The more zealous among them were stoutly attached to what they called “ God’s truth.” Their successors, in these latter days, are too cautious to use the word “ truth.” Therefore they cloak their criticism in hooded phrases. They say that Macaulay is narrow; that he understands only what all liberals of his generation understand ; that he sees clearly, but not deep; that he is blinded by prejudice ; that he beholds the outward aspect of life, but that the inner things escape him ; or that he knows literature, and not life. There are many other phrases which, peeled and pared, signify that Macaulay does not tell facts as they are, does not narrate the truth.
If these persons were cross-examined as to their meaning, they would end by saying that a man such as Macaulay, of strong beliefs, of definite views, of onesided knowledge, must by his own nature be especially unfit to arrive at just and evenly balanced conclusions upon disputed points of history. And if they were pressed home as to what shall determine the justice and nice balance of such conclusions, they would answer, The standard of the man free from prejudice.
This noble conception, this unprejudiced Cæsar to whom they appeal, must declare himself; and there are but three parts in which he can appear. First, as a cosmopolitan ; second, as the average man ; third, as a skeptic. Let us turn upon him a little of the light that beats fiercely upon the unprejudiced.
To Macaulay’s critics the cosmopolitan appears crowned with impersonality, untouched by prejudice, unstained by violence. He never dreams the fanatic’s dreams, he never strides the hippogriff; he neither bends to yesterday nor bows to to-morrow. The blood of twenty races mingles in his veins ; seventy times seven cities lay claim to his birth. He is the embodiment of humanity, the personification of twentieth - century mankind ; careless of his native speech or of the spot where stood his father’s house.
The average man is a little different. His views are those which in course of time have been gradually accepted. They are such as a jury would adopt. There is a large element of compromise in a verdict ; and it is this very element of compromise which enables the average to exist. Beliefs which are now regarded as self-evident are verdicts which were once reached by means of general concession. Ideas which once were acceptable to nobody have now the stamp and superscription of universal consent. Scholars tell us that the English translation of the Bible bears traces of the cleavage between Presbyterian and High Churchman ; nevertheless, every sentence has been accepted by ten generations as the language of divine truth. So it has been with all creeds, religious, political, social, and moral. One man receded here, another gave way there ; exchange was made, concessions were granted ; a belief was nominated, and acknowledged as a belief de facto ; in the next generation it became a belief de jure. So it has been with the facts of history. Protestant and Catholic, Teuton and Latin, Republican and Tory, the man of statistics and the man of letters, have gradually reached a compromise on a large number of historical facts. One chief motive for these mutual concessions appears to have been a paradoxical deference to the theory of absolute truth. The only attribute of truth to which everybody agreed was fixedness ; and by making mutual concessions that one quality of truth was approximately reached. In recent years another motive has been at work. The definiteness and positiveness of the sciences have stirred the envy of historians. They affect to look on history as a science, and desire that the facts of history should be as well settled as the composition of chemical substances ; nevertheless, accepted historical facts are constantly changing. New materials throw new light on old subjects, and new generations unconsciously color old subjects with their own pigments. Those elements in an accepted historical fact which were incorporated out of respect to violent beliefs little by little fade away, vanishing with the vanishing belief; necessarily the fact is modified. In this way the processes of change go on. New generations have new interests, new desires, new problems ; they find the historian of the last generation old-fashioned, and his facts somewhat mouldy.
Sometimes facts are established, not by compromise, but by victory. Truth has often been decided by wager of battle and by duel. The stronger side has established its view of the truth ; yet it may have conquered by a very slight excess of strength, by a narrow majority, as in the case of the triumph of the Athanasian creed over the Arian at the council of Nicæa. A fact established in this way can hardly be said to have received the sanction of the common human mind ; it has not been fashioned by the handling of the thoughts of a whole people. It remains the fact of a dominant party, and it bears witness to conquest on one side, and to the desire for peace and quiet on the other.
In such ways, the views, beliefs, and facts of the average man have become what they are. They are accepted as established, in that it is for general weal that they be settled, and that they be comfortably settled. Protestants show gentleness to Mary, Queen of Scots, Catholics are deferent to Elizabeth; Whigs pretend sympathy with the idea of empire, Tories are polite to the man who does not wish to be distraught from business. These compromised views, opinions, and historical facts, as substitutes for truth, have many practical advantages, but they cannot lay claim to any very close relation to truth nor to any of that enthusiastic support which has always come forth when the motto Truth with us has been hoisted.
The skeptic approaches facts as an honorable man lays his wagers ; he always deals with probabilities, never with certainties. He will not tumble into any partisan pitfalls ; he is equally indifferent to Puritan and to Cavalier, to William and to James. He lends ear to all witnesses alike ; he believes that their testimony is false. He looks over records with a mechanical eye, for they are but embodiments of the doctrine of chances. He has no theory that the chapter of history told by fate was worse or better than that which might have been told had facts been changed. He makes no guesses at unseen motives ; he does not grope after general laws operating from some great hiding place. He puts forth handfuls of dust, saying, This once had life ; but how it looked, or whether blood flowed when you pricked it, he cannot tell.
Brilliant skeptics have written history known to all the world. Hume’s history of England, however, bears few signs of skepticism. Renan’s Histoire des Origines du Christianisme has not commanded universal assent; his history of Israel describes David as a Highland robber or a Sicilian brigand. The truth is that Hume and Renan, when they came to history, ceased to be philosophers and became men.
The skeptic must always face alternate difficulties. Either he will adhere to his principles, and free himself from religion and country, from longitude and latitude, from sex, from youth and age, and see history as no man ever saw life ; or he will share the weaknesses of our common humanity, and espouse a cause, comfort it and live with it, and be persecuted for its sake. The latter choice all historians who have been skeptics have made. How could they help themselves ? How can the skeptic tell of love, of loyalty, of passion, of all the unreasoning affections that flesh is heir to ? What does Ishmael know of a father and a home ?
The skeptical history is a fiction of the imagination ; and if it were not, we should find that the skeptic no better than the cosmopolitan or the average man can lead us to truth. We must be content to see facts through one of the colors of the spectrum. The cold white light of truth is the dismal dream of the poet.
The conclusion is full of comfort. We find that life is far too big to be comprehended by one man or by a hundred thousand men. It partakes of the vast nature of the universe, and has some of the awfulness of infinity. History will always be written by one of a sect for the adherents of that sect. Why should not Whigs have their scribe ? The sect has the outward appearance of vitality. Macaulay has spoken for them vigorously and well. Hundreds of years may go by before the Whig, or rather, one may say, the English idea of history, will be so admirably stated again.
Macaulay’s collected essays fill several volumes. All but a few were published in the Edinburgh Review from 1825 to 1845. Of his first essay, that on Milton, he himself says it “ contains scarcely a paragraph such as my matured judgment approves, and is overloaded with gaudy and ungraceful ornament.” Howbeit, a gay livery becomes the opinions of youth. The essay on Milton is boyish, not with the ordinary immaturity of four-and-twenty, but with the boyishness of Macaulay’s own schoolboy of twelve ; he who at fifteen, in the Seminary of Douai, learned enough theology to outweigh the Jesuit counselors of Charles II. and James II., and whose private library would be incomplete without a full edition of Burnet’s pamphlets. Nevertheless, of all blame laid upon Charles I., most people best remember the famous summing up : “ We charge him with having broken his coronation oath; and we are told that he kept his marriage vow.” The essay is boyish ; but fifty years after it was published, Mr. Gladstone, at the age of sixty-five, deemed it worthy of criticism.
In the essays many little mistakes of fact have been discovered by careful seekers. Froude charges Macaulay with error upon error ; in that Macaulay makes accusation that Alice Perrers was mistress of Edward III., that Strafford debauched the daughter of Sir Richard Bolton, that Henry VIII. was the murderer of his wives. These allegations savor a little of the technical knowledge of an advocate at the criminal bar retained for the defense. Macaulay’s statements may technically not be proved ; as jurymen we may say not guilty, but as individuals we are convinced of the justice of his charge. Froude, champion of the Protestant cause, accuses Macaulay of wrong to the English Reformation and to Cranmer, and of espousal of the Catholic cause in 1829, but disarms himself by adding, “ The Ethiopian, it was said, had changed his skin.” Froude also finds fault that Macaulay was too severe in his essay on Robert Montgomery’s bad poems. What place has generosity in matters of art?
Froude says Macaulay “ was the creation and representative of his own age ; what his own age said and felt, whether it was wise or foolish, Macaulay said and felt.” In this judgment Mr. John Morley and Mr. Leslie Stephen concur. It may be that to be the representative of the age is no very serious fault. Shakespeare bears witness to the high renaissance of England ; Dante embodies the Middle Ages ; Cervantes represents the chivalry of Spain ; Abraham Lincoln is the flower of American democracy. Macaulay, it is true, never tires telling of the growth of population and the increase of wealth; and many men, whose minds, like his, are, as Froude says, “ of an ordinary kind,” think exactly as he does. But their creed is the creed of England. Is it surely wrong ? We are taught to rejoice at the increase of wisdom, and not at multiplying numbers; but what of a hundred thousand mothers who rejoice over a hundred thousand children ? Whose new-born son shall be handed to Herod as the price of wisdom ? And what becomes of the sneer at commercial prosperity when we think of food for the hungry, shelter for the ragged, schools for the ignorant, homes for the aged ? It is not the beliefs, but the skepticisms of the utilitarian which are to be blamed.
It may be asked if Froude’s fame is the triumph of accuracy ; if Mr. Morley has been wholly free from the popular positivist creed of his generation, if he has in Voltaire and Rousseau betrayed an unquiet sympathy with an alien faith ; and whether Mr. Leslie Stephen is in danger lest he be flung from the saddle of common sense by the caracoling of his rhetoric. They all complain that Macaulay lacks sensitiveness. The complaint is just; but are they in a position to claim that their own title to distinction is d’avoir quelquefois pleuré ?
Macaulay’s essays taken one by one can be splintered and chipped, but bound together they furnish part of the strength of English literature. Their subjects have great range of historical interest; vast knowledge of literature has been crammed into their compass ; mastery of rhetoric colors page, paragraph, and sentence. Picture follows picture, till the reader fancies that he is whirled by spring floods from Shalott castle down to many-towered Camelot. Like a genie to the lord of his lamp, Macaulay fetches the wealth of all the literature of the civilized world and lays it before his readers. He goes through a volume for an anecdote ; he ransacks a library for an impression.
There is one danger into which Macaulay’s critics often fall. In the picture of a man, in the narration of an episode, they find an error of fact, and conclude that the picture is unjust, that the episode is false. But Macaulay is so steeped in information that, although he may be wrong as to a particular fact, he is justified in his conclusion. In the case of Henry VIII., there may be legal error and moral truth in the epithet “ murderer.” If some future Macaulay shall describe our great Rebellion and the President of the Southern Confederacy, would a critic be justified in denying his authority because he shall say that current in the North was a proposition to hang Jefferson Davis on a sweet apple tree ?
The essays are the work of a rhetorician, — the greatest, perhaps, in English literature. One defect in that literature, as compared with Latin literatures, has been a lack of rhetoric. The great masters of English prose, Milton and Burke, appeal to the imagination; their language is sensuous and adorned, but they address themselves to the intellect; they charge their speech with thought; they are careless that they lay burdens upon their readers ; they are indifferent that they outstride the crowd. The rhetorician— a Cicero, a Bossuet — tries to spare his readers ; he wishes to be always thronged by the multitude. So it is with Macaulay. He says nothing that everybody cannot comprehend, and at once. He exerts all his powers to give the reader as little to do as possible ; he drains his memory to find decorations to catch their eye and fix their attention. He presents everything in brilliant images. He writes to the eye and the ear. He has in mind the ordinary Briton ; he does not write for a sect nor for a band of disciples. He is always the orator talking to men who are going to vote at the close of his speech. He never stops with a suggestion ; he never pauses with a hint; he is never tentative, never is rendered august by the clouds of doubt.
Macaulay was a born orator fit to speak to the multitude at the crossroads, not to the individual in his closet. He was also a man of letters, a man of the library ; no living being ever had such a mass of information in his head at one time. These two qualities explain his devotion to literature, his admiration of the Greeks, his love of the world’s great poets, and the seemingly inconsistent fact that he never exceeded the stature of a rhetorician. He had a skilled, delicate, and educated taste in literature ; but his ear to listen and his voice to speak were far apart. His ear is the cunning ear of Jacob listening to the sweet voice of Rachel, but his voice is the voice of Esau calling afar to his shepherds.
Macaulay’s poetry is himself set to metre and rhyme. It has the swing, the vigor, the balanced sentences, of his prose. It has the awakening power of brass instruments playing the reveille. It used to be a subject of debate whether Macaulay’s poems were poetry or not; and there are men to whom those poems have not and never can have the significance of poetry native to them. But they are the poetry of a strong, healthy, typical Englishman. It may be doubted if there be any other English poetry which bears in itself half so much evidence that it was written by an Englishman. The metre is good, the rhyme is good, the narrative is excellent. Everybody knows how the strenuous rush of Horatius dints itself on the memory ; everybody can name the cities which sent their tale of men to Lars Porsena.
Macaulay, in his verse as in his prose, presents one definite picture after another. Each character comes on the stage in exact portraiture, whether it be Horatius, Herminius, Halifax, Sunderland, or Somers. There they are in the blaze of high noon : there is no twilight for them ; never do their outlines blend in the shades of doubt. Macaulay saw the world as one vast picture book. This is the reason why his essays stand on the Australian’s shelf next to the Bible and to Shakespeare. There is nothing in English literature comparable to them ; there is nothing of the kind in foreign literatures. Each essay is a combination of history and literature, of anecdote and learning, of incident and portraiture, of advocacy and party spirit, — such as are commonly found separate and distinct in the essays of a dozen different men. There is somewhat of the constructive element of imagination here; as the mechanical mind brings together the odds and ends of its recollection, the remainder baggage of its memory, and works and fashions them into an invention, so Macaulay from his vast stores unites and combines scattered materials and creates an imaginative picture. There is nothing to be found in his work which the world did not possess before ; but most of the world was not aware of those possessions until Macaulay gathered them together.
H. D. Sedgwick, Jr.