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Macaulay by Leslie Stephen

 

Lord Macaulay was pre-eminently a fortunate man; and his good fortune has survived him. Few, indeed, in the long line of English authors whom he loved so well, have been equally happy in a biographer. Most official biographies are a mixture of bungling and indiscretion. It is only in virtue of some happy coincidence that the one or two people who alone have the requisite knowledge can produce also the requisite skill and discretion. Mr. Trevelyan is one of the exceptions to the rule. His book is such a piece of thorough literary workmanship as would have delighted its subject. By a rare felicity, the almost filial affection of the narrator conciliates the reader instead of exciting a distrust of the narrative. We feel that Macaulay's must have been a lovable character to excite such warmth of feeling, and a noble character to enable one who loved him to speak so frankly. The ordinary biographer's idolatry is not absent, but it becomes a testimony to the hero's excellence instead of introducing a disturbing element into our estimate of his merits.

No reader of Macaulay's works will be surprised at the manliness which is stamped not less plainly upon them than upon his whole career. But few who were not in some degree behind the scenes would be prepared for the tenderness of nature which is equally conspicuous. We all recognised in Macaulay a lover of truth and political honour. We find no more than we expected, when we are told that the one circumstance upon which he looked back with some regret was the unauthorised publication by a constituent of a letter in which he had spoken too frankly of a political ally. That is indeed an infinitesimal stain upon the character of a man who rose without wealth or connection, by sheer force of intellect, to a conspicuous position amongst politicians. But we find something more than we expected in the singular beauty of Macaulay's domestic life. In his relations to his father, his sisters, and the younger generation, he was admirable. The stern religious principle and profound absorption in philanthropic labours of old Zachary Macaulay must have made the position of his brilliant son anything but an easy one. He could hardly read a novel, or contribute to a worldly magazine, without calling down something like a reproof. The father seems to have indulged in the very questionable practice of listening to vague gossip about his son's conduct, and demanding explanations from the supposed culprit. The stern old gentleman carefully suppressed his keen satisfaction at his son's first oratorical success, and, instead of praising him, growled at him for folding his arms in the presence of royalty. Many sons have turned into consummate hypocrites under such paternal discipline; and, as a rule, the system is destructive of anything like mutual confidence. Macaulay seems, in spite of all, to have been on the most cordial terms with his father to the last. Some suppression of his sentiments must indeed have been necessary; and we cannot avoid tracing certain peculiarities of the son's intellectual career to his having been condemned from an early age to habitual reticence upon the deepest of all subjects of thought.

Macaulay's relations to his sisters are sufficiently revealed in a long series of charming letters, showing, both in their playfulness and in their literary and political discussions, the unreserved respect and confidence which united them. One of them writes upon his death: 'We have lost the light of our home, the most tender, loving, generous, unselfish, devoted of friends. What he was to me for fifty years who can tell? What a world of love he poured out upon me and mine!' Reading these words at the close of the biography, we do not wonder at the glamour of sisterly affection; but admit them to be the natural expression of a perfectly sincere conviction. Can there be higher praise? His relation to children is equally charming. 'He was beyond comparison the best of playfellows,' writes Mr. Trevelyan; 'unrivalled in the invention of games, and never weary of repeating them.' He wrote long letters to his favourites; he addressed pretty little poems to them on their birthdays, and composed long nursery rhymes for their edification; whilst overwhelmed with historical labours, and grudging the demands of society, he would dawdle away whole mornings with them, and spend the afternoon in taking them to sights; he would build up a den with newspapers behind the sofa, and act the part of tiger or brigand; he would take them to the Tower, or Madame Tussaud's, or the Zoological Gardens, make puns to enliven the Polytechnic, and tell innumerable anecdotes to animate the statues in the British Museum; nor, as they grew older, did he neglect the more dignified duty of inoculating them with the literary tastes which had been the consolation of his life. Obviously he was the ideal uncle—the uncle of optimistic fiction, but with qualifications for his task such as few fictitious uncles can possess. It need hardly be added that Macaulay was a man of noble liberality in money matters, that he helped his family when they were in difficulties, and was beloved by the servants who depended upon him. In his domestic relations he had, according to his nephew, only one serious fault—he did not appreciate canine excellence; but no man is perfect.

The thorough kindliness of the man reconciles us even to his good fortune. He was an infant phenomenon; the best boy at school; in his college days, 'ladies, artists, politicians, and diners-out' at Bowood, formed a circle to hear him talk, from breakfast to dinner-time; he was famous as an author at twenty-five; accepted as a great parliamentary orator at thirty; and, as a natural consequence, caressed with effusion by editors, politicians, Whig magnates, and the clique of Holland House; by thirty-three he had become a man of mark in society, literature, and politics, and had secured his fortune by gaining a seat in the Indian Council. His later career was a series of triumphs. He had been the main support of the greatest literary organ of his party, and the 'Essays' republished from its pages became at once a standard work. The 'Lays of Ancient Rome' sold like Scott's most popular poetry; the 'History' caused an excitement almost unparalleled in literary annals. Not only was the first sale enormous, but it has gone on ever since increasing. The popular author was equally popular in Parliament. The benches were crammed to listen to the rare treat of his eloquence; and he had the far rarer glory of more than once turning the settled opinion of the House by a single speech. It is a more vulgar but a striking testimony to his success that he made 20,000_l. in one year by literature. Other authors have had their heads turned by less triumphant careers; they have descended to lower ambition, and wasted their lives in spasmodic straining to gain worthless applause. Macaulay remained faithful to his calling. He worked his hardest to the last, and became a more unsparing critic of his own performances as time went on. We do not feel even a passing symptom of a grudge against his good fortune. Rather we are moved by that kind of sentiment which expresses itself in the schoolboy phrase, 'Well done our side!' We are glad to see the hearty, kindly, truthful man crowned with all appropriate praise, and to think that for once one of our race has got so decidedly the best of it in the hard battle with the temptations and the miseries of life.

Certain shortcomings have been set off against these virtues by critics of Macaulay's life. He was, it has been said, too good a hater. At any rate, he hated vice, meanness, and charlatanism. It is easier to hate such things too little than too much. But it must be admitted that his likes and dislikes indicate a certain rigidity and narrowness of nature. 'In books, as in people and places,' says Mr. Trevelyan, 'he loved that, and loved that only, to which he had been accustomed from boyhood upwards.' The faults of which this significant remark reveals one cause, are marked upon his whole literary character. Macaulay was converted to Whiggism when at college. The advance from Toryism to Whiggism is not such as to involve a very violent wrench of the moral and intellectual nature. Such as it was, it was the only wrench from which Macaulay suffered. What he was as a scholar of Trinity, he was substantially as a peer of the realm. He made, it would seem, few new friends, though he grappled his old ones as 'with hooks of steel.' The fault is one which belongs to many men of strong natures, and so long as we are considering Macaulay's life we shall not be much disposed to quarrel with his innate conservatism. Strong affections are so admirable a quality that we can pardon the man who loves well though not widely; and if Macaulay had not a genuine fervour of regard for the little circle of his intimates, there is no man who deserves such praise.

It is when we turn from Macaulay's personal character to attempt an estimate of his literary position, that these faults acquire more importance. His intellectual force was extraordinary within certain limits; beyond those limits the giant became a child. He assimilated a certain set of ideas as a lad, and never acquired a new idea in later life. He accumulated vast stores of knowledge, but they all fitted into the old framework of theory. Whiggism seemed to him to provide a satisfactory solution for all political problems when he was sending his first article to 'Knight's Magazine,' and when he was writing the last page of his 'History.' 'I entered public life a Whig,' as he said in 1849, 'and a Whig I am determined to remain.' And what is meant by Whiggism in Macaulay's mouth? It means substantially that creed which registers the experience of the English upper classes during the four or five generations previous to Macaulay. It represents, not the reasoning, but the instinctive convictions generated by the dogged insistence upon their privileges of a stubborn, high-spirited, and individually short-sighted race. To deduce it as a symmetrical doctrine from abstract propositions would be futile. It is only reasonable so far as a creed, felt out by the collective instinct of a number of more or less stupid people, becomes impressed with a quasi-rational unity, not from their respect for logic, but from the uniformity of the mode of development. Hatred to pure reason is indeed one of its first principles. A doctrine avowedly founded on logic instead of instinct becomes for that very reason suspect to it. Common-sense takes the place of philosophy. At times this mass of sentiment opposes itself under stress of circumstances to the absolute theories of monarchy, and then calls itself Whiggism. At other times it offers an equally dogged resistance to absolute theories of democracy, and then becomes nominally Tory. In Macaulay's youth the weight of opinion had been slowly swinging round from the Toryism generated by dread of revolution, to Whiggism generated by the accumulation of palpable abuses. The growing intelligence and more rapidly growing power of the middle classes gave it at the same time a more popular character than before. Macaulay's 'conversion' was simply a process of swinging with the tide. The Clapham Sect, amongst whom he had been brought up, was already more than half Whig, in virtue of its attack upon the sacred institution of slavery by means of popular agitation. Macaulay—the most brilliant of its young men—naturally cast in his lot with the brilliant men, a little older than himself, who fought under the blue and yellow banner of the 'Edinburgh Review.' No great change of sentiment was necessary, though some of the old Clapham doctrines died out in his mind as he was swept into the political current.

Macaulay thus early became a thoroughgoing Whig. Whiggism seemed to him the ne plus ultra of progress: the pure essence of political wisdom. He was never fully conscious of the vast revolution in thought which was going on all around him. He was saturated with the doctrines of 1832. He stated them with unequalled vigour and clearness. Anybody who disputed them from either side of the question seemed to him to be little better than a fool. Southey and Mr. Gladstone talked arrant nonsense when they disputed the logical or practical value of the doctrines laid down by Locke. James Mill deserved the most contemptuous language for daring to push those doctrines beyond the sacred line. When Macaulay attacks an old non-juror or a modern Tory, we can only wonder how opinions which, on his showing, are so inconceivably absurd, could ever have been held by any human being. Men are Whigs or not-Whigs, and the not-Whig is less a heretic to be anathematised than a blockhead beneath the reach of argument. All political wisdom centres in Holland House, and the 'Edinburgh Review' is its prophet. There is something in the absolute confidence of Macaulay's political dogmatism which varies between the sublime and the ridiculous. We can hardly avoid laughing at this superlative self-satisfaction, and yet we must admit that it is indicative of a real political force not to be treated with simple contempt. Belief is power, even when belief is most unreasonable.

To define a Whig and to define Macaulay is pretty much the same thing. Let us trace some of the qualities which enabled one man to become so completely the type of a vast body of his compatriots.

The first and most obvious power in which Macaulay excelled his neighbours was his portentous memory. He could assimilate printed pages, says his nephew, more quickly than others could glance over them. Whatever he read was stamped upon his mind instantaneously and permanently, and he read everything. In the midst of severe labours in India, he read enough classical authors to stock the mind of an ordinary professor. At the same time he framed a criminal code and devoured masses of trashy novels. From the works of the ancient Fathers of the Church to English political pamphlets and to modern street ballads, no printed matter came amiss to his omnivorous appetite. All that he had read could be reproduced at a moment's notice. Every fool, he said, can repeat his Archbishops of Canterbury backwards; and he was as familiar with the Cambridge Calendar as the most devout Protestant with the Bible. He could have re-written 'Sir Charles Grandison' from memory if every copy had been lost. Now it might perhaps be plausibly maintained that the possession of such a memory is unfavourable to a high development of the reasoning powers. The case of Pascal, indeed, who is said never to have forgotten anything, shows that the two powers may co-exist; and other cases might of course be mentioned. But it is true that a powerful memory may enable a man to save himself the trouble of reasoning. It encourages the indolent propensity of deciding difficulties by precedent instead of principles. Macaulay, for example, was once required to argue the point of political casuistry as to the degree of independent action permissible to members of a Cabinet. An ordinary mind would have to answer by striking a rough balance between the conveniences and inconveniences likely to arise. It would be forced, that is to say, to reason from the nature of the case. But Macaulay had at his fingers' end every instance from the days of Walpole to his own in which Ministers had been allowed to vote against the general policy of the Government. By quoting them, he seemed to decide the point by authority, instead of taking the troublesome and dangerous road of abstract reasoning. Thus to appeal to experience is with him to appeal to the stores of a gigantic memory; and is generally the same thing as to deny the value of all general rules. This is the true Whig doctrine of referring to precedent rather than to theory. Our popular leaders were always glad to quote Hampden and Sidney instead of venturing upon the dangerous ground of abstract rights.

Macaulay's love of deciding all points by an accumulation of appropriate instances is indeed characteristic of his mind. It is connected with a curious defect of analytical power. It appears in his literary criticism as much as in his political speculations. In an interesting letter to Mr. Napier, he states the case himself as an excuse for not writing upon Scott. 'Hazlitt used to say, “I am nothing if not critical.” The case with me,' says Macaulay, 'is precisely the reverse. I have a strong and acute enjoyment of works of the imagination, but I have never habituated myself to dissect them. Perhaps I enjoy them the more keenly for that very reason. Such books as Lessing's “Laocoon,” such passages as the criticism on “Hamlet” in “Wilhelm Meister,” fill me with wonder and despair.' If we take any of Macaulay's criticisms, we shall see how truly he had gauged his own capacity. They are either random discharges of superlatives or vigorous assertions of sound moral principles. He compliments some favourite author with an emphatic repetition of the ordinary eulogies, or shows conclusively that Montgomery was a sham poet, and Wycherley a corrupt ribald. Nobody can hit a haystack with more certainty, but he is not so good at a difficult mark. He never makes a fine suggestion as to the secrets of the art whose products he admires or describes. His mode, for example, of criticising Bunyan is to give a list of the passages which he remembers, and of course he remembers everything. He observes, what is tolerably clear, that Bunyan's allegory is as vivid as a concrete history, though strangely comparing him in this respect to Shelley—the least concrete of poets; and he makes the discovery, which did not require his vast stores of historical knowledge, 'that it is impossible to doubt that' Bunyan's trial of Christian and Faithful is meant to satirise the judges of the time of Charles II. That is as plain as the intention of the last cartoon in 'Punch.' Macaulay can draw a most vivid portrait, so far as that can be done by a picturesque accumulation of characteristic facts, but he never gets below the surface, or details the principles whose embodiment he describes from without.

The defect is connected with further peculiarities, in which Macaulay is the genuine representative of the true Whig type. The practical value of adherence to precedent is obvious. It may be justified by the assertion that all sound political philosophy must be based upon experience: and no one will deny that assertion to contain a most important truth. But in Macaulay's mind this sound doctrine seems to be confused with the very questionable doctrine that in political questions there is no philosophy at all. To appeal to experience may mean either to appeal to facts so classified and systematically arranged as to illustrate general truths, or to appeal to a mere mass of observations, without taking the trouble to elicit their true significance, or even to believe that they can be resolved into particular cases of a general truth. This is the difference between an experimental philosophy and a crude empiricism. Macaulay takes the lower alternative. The vigorous attack upon James Mill, which he very properly suppressed during his life on account of its juvenile arrogance, curiously illustrates his mode of thought. No one can deny, I think, that he makes some very good points against a very questionable system of political dogmatism. But when we ask what are Macaulay's own principles, we are left at a stand. He ought, by all his intellectual sympathies, to be a utilitarian. Yet he treats utilitarianism with the utmost contempt, though he has no alternative theory to suggest. He ends his first Essay against Mill by one of his customary purple patches about Baconian induction. He tells us, in the second, how to apply it. Bacon proposed to discover the principle of heat by observing in what qualities all hot bodies agreed, and in what qualities all cold bodies. Similarly, we are to make a list of all constitutions which have produced good or bad government, and to investigate their points of agreement and difference. This sounds plausible to the uninstructed, but is a mere rhetorical flourish. Bacon's method is admittedly inadequate for reasons which I leave to men of science to explain, and Macaulay's method is equally hopeless in politics. It is hopeless for the simple reason that the complexity of the phenomena makes it impracticable. We cannot find out what constitution is best after this fashion, simply because the goodness or badness of a constitution depends upon a thousand conditions of social, moral, and intellectual development. When stripped of its pretentious phraseology, Macaulay's teaching comes simply to this: the only rule in politics is the rule of thumb. All general principles are wrong or futile. We have found out in England that our constitution, constructed in absolute defiance of all à priori reasoning, is the best in the world: it is the best for providing us with the maximum of bread, beef, beer, and means of buying bread, beer, and beef: and we have got it because we have never—like those publicans the French—trusted to fine sayings about truth and justice and human rights, but blundered on, adding a patch here and knocking a hole there, as our humour prompted us.

This sovereign contempt of all speculation—simply as speculation—reaches its acme in the Essay on Bacon. The curious naïveté with which Macaulay denounces all philosophy in that vigorous production excites a kind of perverse admiration. How can one refuse to admire the audacity which enables a man explicitly to identify philosophy with humbug? It is what ninety-nine men out of a hundred think, but not one in a thousand dares to say. Goethe says somewhere that he likes Englishmen because English fools are the most thoroughgoing of fools. English 'Philistines,' as represented by Macaulay, the prince of Philistines, according to Matthew Arnold, carry their contempt of the higher intellectual interests to a pitch of real sublimity. Bacon's theory of induction, says Macaulay, in so many words, was valueless. Everybody could reason before it as well as after. But Bacon really performed a service of inestimable value to mankind; and it consisted precisely in this, that he called their attention from philosophy to the pursuit of material advantages. The old philosophers had gone on bothering about theology, ethics, and the true and beautiful, and such other nonsense. Bacon taught us to work at chemistry and mechanics, to invent diving-bells and steam-engines and spinning-jennies. We could never, it seems, have found out the advantages of this direction of our energies without a philosopher, and so far philosophy is negatively good. It has written up upon all the supposed avenues to inquiry, 'No admission except on business;' that is, upon the business of direct practical discovery. We English have taken the hint, and we have therefore lived to see when a man can breakfast in London and dine in Edinburgh, and may look forward to a day when the tops of Ben-Nevis and Helvellyn will be cultivated like flower-gardens, and when machines constructed on principles yet to be discovered will be in every house.

The theory which underlies this conclusion is often explicitly stated. All philosophy has produced mere futile logomachy. Greek sages and Roman moralists and mediæval schoolmen have amassed words, and amassed nothing else. One distinct discovery of a solid truth, however humble, is worth all their labours. This condemnation applies not only to philosophy, but to the religious embodiment of philosophy. No satisfactory conclusion ever has been reached or ever will be reached in theological disputes. On all such topics, he tells Mr. Gladstone, there has always been the widest divergence of opinion. Nor are there better hopes for the future. The ablest minds, he says in the Essay upon Ranke, have believed in transubstantiation; that is, according to him, in the most ineffable nonsense. There is no certainty that men will not believe to the end of time the doctrines which imposed upon so able a man as Sir Thomas More. Not only, that is, have men been hitherto wandering in a labyrinth without a clue, but there is no chance that any clue will ever be found. The doctrine, so familiar to our generation, of laws of intellectual development, never even occurs to him. The collective thought of generations marks time without advancing. A guess of Sir Thomas More is as good or as bad as the guess of the last philosopher. This theory, if true, implies utter scepticism. And yet Macaulay was clearly not a sceptic. His creed was hidden under a systematic reticence, and he resisted every attempt to raise the veil with rather superfluous indignation. When a constituent dared to ask about his religious views, he denounced the rash inquirer in terms applicable to an agent of the Inquisition. He vouchsafed, indeed, the information that he was a Christian. We may accept the phrase, not only on the strength of his invariable sincerity, but because it falls in with the general turn of his arguments. He denounces the futility of the ancient moralists, but he asserts the enormous social value of Christianity.

His attitude, in fact, is equally characteristic of the man and his surroundings. The old Clapham teaching had faded in his mind: it had not produced a revolt. He retained the old hatred for slavery; and he retained, with the whole force of his affectionate nature, reverence for the school of Wilberforce, Thornton, and his own father. He estimated most highly, not perhaps more highly than they deserved, the value of the services rendered by them in awakening the conscience of the nation. In their persistent and disinterested labours he recognised a manifestation of the great social force of Christianity. But a belief that Christianity is useful, and even that it is true, may consist with a profound conviction of the futility of the philosophy with which it has been associated. Here again Macaulay is a true Whig. The Whig love of precedent, the Whig hatred for abstract theories, may consist with a Tory application. But the true Whig differed from the Tory in adding to these views an invincible suspicion of parsons. The first Whig battles were fought against the Church as much as against the King. From the struggle with Sacheverell down to the struggle for Catholic emancipation, Toryism and High-Church principles were associated against Whigs and Dissenters. By that kind of dumb instinct which outruns reason, the Whig had learnt that there was some occult bond of union between the claims of a priesthood and the claims of a monarchy. The old maxim, 'No bishop, no king,' suggested the opposite principle that you must keep down the clergy if you would limit the monarchy. The natural interpretation of this prejudice into political theory, is that the Church is extremely useful as an ally of the constable, but possesses a most dangerous explosive power if allowed to claim independent authority. In practice we must resist all claims of the Church to dictate to the State. In theory we must deny the foundation upon which such claims can alone be founded. Dogmatism must be pronounced to be fundamentally irrational. Nobody knows anything about theology; or what is the same thing, no two people agree. As they don't agree, they cannot claim to impose their beliefs upon others.

This sentiment comes out curiously in the characteristic Essay just mentioned. Macaulay says, in reply to Mr. Gladstone, that there is no more reason for the introduction of religious questions into State affairs than for introducing them into the affairs of a Canal Company. He puts his argument with an admirable vigour and clearness which blinds many readers to the fact that he is begging the question by evading the real difficulty. If, in fact, Government had as little to do as a Canal Company with religious opinion, we should have long ago learnt the great lesson of toleration. But that is just the very crux. Can we draw the line between the spiritual and the secular? Nothing, replies Macaulay, is easier; and his method has been already indicated. We all agree that we don't want to be robbed or murdered: we are by no means all agreed about the doctrine of Trinity. But, says a churchman, a certain creed is necessary to men's moral and spiritual welfare, and therefore of the utmost importance even for the prevention of robbery and murder. This is what Macaulay implicitly denies. The whole of dogmatic theology belongs to that region of philosophy, metaphysics, or whatever you please to call it, in which men are doomed to dispute for ever without coming any nearer to a decision. All that the statesman has to do with such matters is to see that if men are fools enough to speculate, they shall not be allowed to cut each other's throats when they reach, as they always must reach, contradictory results. If you raise a difficult point—such, for example, as the education question—Macaulay replies, as so many people have replied before and since, Teach the people 'those principles of morality which are common to all the forms of Christianity.' That is easier said than done! The plausibility of the solution in Macaulay's mouth is due to the fundamental assumption that everything except morality is hopeless ground of inquiry. Once get beyond the Ten Commandments and you will sink in a bottomless morass of argument, counterargument, quibble, logomachy, superstition, and confusion worse confounded.

In Macaulay's teaching, as in that of his party, there is doubtless much that is noble. He has a righteous hatred of oppression in all shapes and disguises. He can tear to pieces with great logical power many of the fallacies alleged by his opponents. Our sympathies are certainly with him as against men who advocate persecution on any grounds, and he is fully qualified to crush his ordinary opponents. But it is plain that his whole political and (if we may use the word) philosophical teaching rests on something like a downright aversion to the higher order of speculation. He despises it. He wants something tangible and concrete—something in favour of which he may appeal to the immediate testimony of the senses. He must feel his feet planted on the solid earth. The pain of attempting to soar into higher regions is not compensated to him by the increased width of horizon. And in this respect he is but the type of most of his countrymen, and reflects what has been (as I should say) erroneously called their 'unimaginative' view of things in general.

Macaulay, at any rate, distinctly belongs to the imaginative class of minds, if only in virtue of his instinctive preference of the concrete to the abstract, and his dislike, already noticed, to analysis. He has a thirst for distinct and vivid images. He reasons by examples instead of appealing to formulæ. There is a characteristic account in Mr. Trevelyan's volumes of his habit of rambling amongst the older parts of London, his fancy teeming with stories attached to the picturesque fragments of antiquity, and carrying on dialogues between imaginary persons as vivid, if not as forcible, as those of Scott's novels. To this habit—rather inverting the order of cause and effect—he attributes his accuracy of detail. We should rather say that the intensity of the impressions generated both the accuracy and the day-dreams. A philosopher would be arguing in his daily rambles where an imaginative mind is creating a series of pictures. But Macaulay's imagination is as definitely limited as his speculation. The genuine poet is also a philosopher. He sees intuitively what the reasoner evolves by argument. The greatest minds in both classes are equally marked by their naturalisation in the lofty regions of thought, inaccessible or uncongenial to men of inferior stamp. It is tempting in some ways to compare Macaulay to Burke. Burke's superiority is marked by this, that he is primarily a philosopher, and therefore instinctively sees the illustration of a general law in every particular fact. Macaulay, on the contrary, gets away from theory as fast as possible, and tries to conceal his poverty of thought under masses of ingenious illustration.

His imaginative narrowness would come out still more clearly by a comparison with Carlyle. One significant fact must be enough. Everyone must have observed how powerfully Carlyle expresses the emotion suggested by the brief appearance of some little waif from past history. We may remember, for example, how the usher, De Brézé, appears for a moment to utter the last shriek of the old monarchical etiquette, and then vanishes into the dim abysses of the past. The imagination is excited by the little glimpse of light flashing for a moment upon some special point in the cloudy phantasmagoria of human history. The image of a past existence is projected for a moment upon our eyes, to make us feel how transitory is life, and how rapidly one visionary existence expels another. We are such stuff as dreams are made of:—

            None other than a moving row
    Of visionary shapes that come and go
      Around the sun-illumined lantern held
    In midnight by the master of the show.

Every object is seen against the background of eternal mystery. In Macaulay's pages this element is altogether absent. We see a figure from the past as vividly as if he were present. We observe the details of his dress, the odd oaths with which his discourse is interlarded, the minute peculiarities of his features or manner. We laugh or admire as we should do at a living man; and we rightly admire the force of the illusion. But the thought never suggests itself that we too are passing into oblivion, that our little island of daylight will soon be shrouded in the gathering mist, and that we tread at every instant on the dust of forgotten continents. We treat the men of past ages quite at our ease. We applaud and criticise Hampden or Chatham as we should applaud Peel or Cobden. There is no atmospheric effect—no sense of the dim march of ages, or of the vast procession of human life. It is doubtless a great feat to make the past present. It is a greater to emancipate us from the tyranny of the present, and to raise us to a point at which we feel that we too are almost as dreamlike as the men of old time. To gain clearness and definition Macaulay has dropped the element of mystery. He sees perfectly whatever can be seen by the ordinary lawyer, or politician, or merchant; he is insensible to the visions which reveal themselves only to minds haunted by thoughts of eternity, and delighting to dwell in the border-land where dreams blend with realities. Mysticism is to him hateful, and historical figures form groups of individuals, not symbols of forces working behind the veil.

Macaulay, therefore, can be no more a poet in the sense in which the word is applied to Spenser, or to Wordsworth, both of whom he holds to be simply intolerable bores, than he can be a metaphysician or a scientific thinker. In common phraseology, he is a Philistine—a word which I understand properly to denote indifference to the higher intellectual interests. The word may also be defined, however, as the name applied by prigs to the rest of their species. And I hold that the modern fashion of using it as a common term of abuse amounts to a literary nuisance. It enables intellectual coxcombs to brand men with an offensive epithet for being a degree more manly than themselves. There is much that is good in your Philistine; and when we ask what Macaulay was, instead of showing what he was not, we shall perhaps find that the popular estimate is not altogether wrong.

Macaulay was not only a typical Whig, but the prophet of Whiggism to his generation. Though not a poet or a philosopher, he was a born rhetorician. His parliamentary career proves his capacity sufficiently, though want of the physical qualifications, and of exclusive devotion to political success, prevented him, as perhaps a want of subtlety or flexibility of mind would have always prevented him, from attaining excellence as a debater. In everything that he wrote, however, we see the true rhetorician. He tells us that Fox wrote debates, whilst Mackintosh spoke essays. Macaulay did both. His compositions are a series of orations on behalf of sound Whig views, whatever their external form. Given a certain audience—and every orator supposes a particular audience—their effectiveness is undeniable. Macaulay's may be composed of ordinary Englishmen, with a moderate standard of education. His arguments are adapted to the ordinary Cabinet Minister, or, what is much the same, to the person who is willing to pay a shilling to hear an evening lecture. He can hit an audience composed of such materials—to quote Burke's phrase about George Grenville—'between wind and water.' He uses the language, the logic, and the images which they can fully understand; and though his hearer, like his schoolboy, is ostensibly credited at times with a portentous memory, Macaulay always takes excellent care to put him in mind of the facts which he is assumed to remember. The faults and the merits of his style follow from his resolute determination to be understood of the people. He was specially delighted, as his nephew tells us, by a reader at Messrs. Spottiswoode's, who said that in all the 'History' there was only one sentence the meaning of which was not obvious to him at first sight. We are more surprised that there was one such sentence. Clearness is the first of the cardinal virtues of style; and nobody ever wrote more clearly than Macaulay. He sacrifices much, it is true, in order to obtain it. He proves that two and two make four with a pertinacity which would make him dull, if it were not for his abundance of brilliant illustration. He always remembers the principle which should guide a barrister in addressing a jury. He has not merely to exhibit his proofs, but to hammer them into the heads of his audience by incessant repetition. It is no small proof of artistic skill that a writer who systematically adopts this method should yet be invariably lively. He goes on blacking the chimney with a persistency which somehow amuses us because he puts so much heart into his work. He proves the most obvious truths again and again; but his vivacity never flags. This tendency undoubtedly leads to great defects of style. His sentences are monotonous and mechanical. He has a perfect hatred of pronouns, and for fear of a possible entanglement between 'hims' and 'hers' and 'its,' he will repeat not merely a substantive, but a whole group of substantives. Sometimes, to make his sense unmistakable, he will repeat a whole formula, with only a change in the copula. For the same reason, he hates all qualifications and parentheses. Each thought must be resolved into its constituent parts; each argument must be expressed as a simple proposition: and his paragraphs are rather aggregates of independent atoms than possessed of a continuous unity. His writing—to use a favourite formula of his own—bears the same relation to a style of graceful modulation that a bit of mosaic work bears to a picture. Each phrase has its distinct hue, instead of melting into its neighbours. Here we have a black patch and there a white. There are no half tones, no subtle interblending of different currents of thought. It is partly for this reason that his descriptions of character are often so unsatisfactory. He likes to represent a man as a bundle of contradictions, because it enables him to obtain startling contrasts. He heightens a vice in one place, a virtue in another, and piles them together in a heap, without troubling himself to ask whether nature can make such monsters, or preserve them if made. To anyone given to analysis, these contrasts are actually painful. There is a story of the Duke of Wellington having once stated that the rats got into his bottles in Spain. 'They must have been very large bottles or very small rats,' said somebody. 'On the contrary,' replied the Duke, 'the rats were very large and the bottles very small.' Macaulay delights in leaving us face to face with such contrasts in more important matters. Boswell must, we would say, have been a clever man or his biography cannot have been so good as you say. On the contrary, says Macaulay, he was the greatest of fools and the best of biographers. He strikes a discord and purposely fails to resolve it. To men of more delicate sensibility the result is an intolerable jar.

For the same reason, Macaulay's genuine eloquence is marred by the symptoms of malice prepense. When he sews on a purple patch, he is resolved that there shall be no mistake about it; it must stand out from a radical contrast of colours. The emotion is not to swell by degrees, till you find yourself carried away in the torrent which set out as a tranquil stream. The transition is deliberately emphasised. On one side of a full stop you are listening to a matter-of-fact statement; on the other, there is all at once a blare of trumpets and a beating of drums, till the crash almost deafens you. He regrets in one of his letters that he has used up the celebrated, and, it must be confessed, really forcible passage about the impeachment scene in Westminster Hall. It might have come in usefully in the 'History,' which, as he then hoped, would reach the time of Warren Hastings. The regret is unpleasantly suggestive of that deliberation in the manufacture of eloquence which stamps it as artificial.

Such faults may annoy critics, even of no very sensitive fibre. What is it that redeems them? The first answer is, that the work is impressive because it is thoroughly genuine. The stream, it is true, comes forth by spasmodic gushes, when it ought to flow in a continuous current; but it flows from a full reservoir instead of being pumped from a shallow cistern. The knowledge and, what is more, the thoroughly-assimilated knowledge, is enormous. Mr. Trevelyan has shown in detail what we had all divined for ourselves, how much patient labour is often employed in a paragraph or the turn of a phrase. To accuse Macaulay of superficiality is, in this sense, altogether absurd. His speculation may be meagre, but his store of information is simply inexhaustible. Mill's writing was impressive, because one often felt that a single argument condensed the result of a long process of reflection. Macaulay has the lower but similar merit that a single picturesque touch implies incalculable masses of knowledge. It is but an insignificant part of the building which appears above ground. Compare a passage with the assigned authority, and you are inclined to accuse him—sometimes it may be rightfully—of amplifying and modifying. But more often the particular authority is merely the nucleus round which a whole volume of other knowledge has crystallised. A single hint is significant to a properly-prepared mind of a thousand facts not explicitly contained in it. Nobody, he said, could judge of the accuracy of one part of his 'History' who had not 'soaked his mind with the transitory literature of the day.' His real authority was not this or that particular passage, but a literature. And for this reason alone, Macaulay's historical writings have a permanent value which will prevent them from being superseded even by more philosophical thinkers, whose minds have not undergone the 'soaking' process.

It is significant again that imitations of Macaulay are almost as offensive as imitations of Carlyle. Every great writer has his parasites. Macaulay's false glitter and jingle, his frequent flippancy and superficiality of thought, are more easily caught than his virtues; but so are all faults. Would-be followers of Carlyle catch the strained gestures without the rapture of his inspiration. Would-be followers of Mill fancied themselves to be logical when they were only hopelessly unsympathetic and unimaginative; and would-be followers of some other writers can be effeminate and foppish without being subtle or graceful. Macaulay's thoroughness of work has, perhaps, been less contagious than we could wish. Something of the modern raising of the standard of accuracy in historical inquiry may be set down to his influence. The misfortune is that, if some writers have learnt from him to be flippant without learning to be laborious, others have caught the accuracy without the liveliness. In the later volumes of his 'History,' his vigour began to be a little clogged by the fulness of his knowledge; and we can observe symptoms of the tendency of modern historians to grudge the sacrifice of sifting their knowledge. They read enough, but instead of giving us the results, they tumble out the accumulated mass of raw materials upon our devoted heads, till they make us long for a fire in the State Paper Office.

Fortunately, Macaulay did not yield to this temptation in his earlier writings, and the result is that he is, for the ordinary reader, one of the two authorities for English history, the other being Shakespeare. Without comparing their merits, we must admit that the compression of so much into a few short narratives shows intensity as well as compass of mind. He could digest as well as devour, and he tried his digestion pretty severely. It is fashionable to say that part of his practical force is due to the training of parliamentary life. Familiarity with the course of affairs doubtless strengthened his insight into history, and taught him the value of downright common-sense in teaching an average audience. Speaking purely from the literary point of view, I cannot agree further in the opinion suggested. I suspect the 'History' would have been better if Macaulay had not been so deeply immersed in all the business of legislation and electioneering. I do not profoundly reverence the House of Commons' tone—even in the House of Commons; and in literature it easily becomes a nuisance. Familiarity with the actual machinery of politics tends to strengthen the contempt for general principles, of which Macaulay had an ample share. It encourages the illusion of the fly upon the wheel, the doctrine that the dust and din of debate and the worry of lobbies and committee-rooms are not the effect but the cause of the great social movement. The historian of the Roman Empire, as we know, owed something to the captain of Hampshire Militia; but years of life absorbed in parliamentary wrangling and in sitting at the feet of the philosophers of Holland House were not likely to widen a mind already disposed to narrow views of the world.

For Macaulay's immediate success, indeed, the training was undoubtedly valuable. As he carried into Parliament the authority of a great writer, so he wrote books with the authority of the practical politician. He has the true instinct of affairs. He knows what are the immediate motives which move masses of men; and is never misled by fanciful analogies or blindfolded by the pedantry of official language. He has seen flesh-and-blood statesmen—at any rate, English statesmen—and understands the nature of the animal. Nobody can be freer from the dominion of crotchets. All his reasoning is made of the soundest common sense, and represents, if not the ultimate forces, yet forces with which we have to reckon. And he knows, too, how to stir the blood of the average Englishman. He understands most thoroughly the value of concentration, unity, and simplicity. Every speech or essay forms an artistic whole, in which some distinct moral is vigorously driven home by a succession of downright blows. This strong rhetorical instinct is shown conspicuously in the 'Lays of Ancient Rome,' which, whatever we might say of them as poetry, are an admirable specimen of rhymed rhetoric. We know how good they are when we see how incapable are modern ballad-writers in general of putting the same swing and fire into their verses. Compare, for example, Aytoun's 'Lays of the Cavaliers,' as the most obvious parallel:—

    Not swifter pours the avalanche
      Adown the steep incline,
    That rises o'er the parent springs
      Of rough and rapid Rhine,

than certain Scotch heroes over an entrenchment. Place this mouthing by any parallel passage in Macaulay:—

    Now, by our sire Quirinus,
      It was a goodly sight
    To see the thirty standards
      Swept down the tide of flight.
    So flies the spray in Adria
      When the black squall doth blow.
    So corn-sheaves in the flood time
      Spin down the whirling Po.

And so on in verses which innumerable schoolboys of inferior pretensions to Macaulay's know by heart. And in such cases the verdict of the schoolboy is perhaps more valuable than that of the literary connoisseur. There are, of course, many living poets who can do tolerably something of far higher quality which Macaulay could not do at all. But I don't know who, since Scott, could have done this particular thing. Possibly Mr. Kingsley might have approached it, or the poet, if he would have condescended so far, who sang the bearing of the good news from Ghent to Aix. In any case, the feat is significant of Macaulay's true power. It looks easy; it involves no demands upon the higher reasoning or imaginative powers: but nobody will believe it to be easy who observes the extreme rarity of a success in a feat so often attempted.

A similar remark is suggested by Macaulay's 'Essays.' Read such an essay as that upon Clive, or Warren Hastings, or Chatham. The story seems to tell itself. The characters are so strongly marked, the events fall so easily into their places, that we fancy that the narrator's business has been done to his hand. It wants little critical experience to discover that this massive simplicity is really indicative of an art not, it may be, of the highest order, but truly admirable for its purpose. It indicates not only a gigantic memory, but a glowing mind, which has fused a crude mass of materials into unity. If we do not find the sudden touches which reveal the philosophical sagacity or the imaginative insight of the highest order of intellects, we recognise the true rhetorical instinct. The outlines may be harsh, and the colours too glaring; but the general effect has been carefully studied. The details are wrought in with consummate skill. We indulge in an intercalary pish! here and there; but we are fascinated and we remember. The actual amount of intellectual force which goes to the composition of such written archives is immense, though the quality may leave something to be desired. Shrewd common-sense may be an inferior substitute for philosophy, and the faculty which brings remote objects close to the eye of an ordinary observer for the loftier faculty which tinges everyday life with the hues of mystic contemplation. But when the common faculties are present in so abnormal a degree, they begin to have a dignity of their own.

It is impossible in such matters to establish any measure of comparison. No analysis will enable us to say how much pedestrian capacity may be fairly regarded as equivalent to a small capacity for soaring above the solid earth, and therefore the question as to the relative value of Macaulay's work and that of some men of loftier aims and less perfect execution must be left to individual taste. We can only say that it is something so to have written the history of many national heroes as to make their faded glories revive to active life in the memory of their countrymen. So long as Englishmen are what they are—and they don't seem to change as rapidly as might be wished—they will turn to Macaulay's pages to gain a vivid impression of our greatest achievements during an important period.

Nor is this all. The fire which glows in Macaulay's history, the intense patriotic feeling, the love of certain moral qualities, is not altogether of the highest kind. His ideal of national and individual greatness might easily be criticised. But the sentiment, as far as it goes, is altogether sound and manly. He is too fond, it has been said, of incessant moralising. From a scientific point of view the moralising is irrelevant. We want to study the causes and the nature of great social movements; and when we are stopped in order to inquire how far the prominent actors in them were hurried beyond ordinary rules, we are transported into a different order of thought. It would be as much to the purpose if we approved an earthquake for upsetting a fort, and blamed it for moving the foundations of a church. Macaulay can never understand this point of view. With him, history is nothing more than a sum of biographies. And even from a biographical point of view his moralising is often troublesome. He not only insists upon transporting party prejudice into his estimates, and mauls poor James II. as he mauled the Tories in 1832; but he applies obviously inadequate tests. It is absurd to call upon men engaged in a life-and-death wrestle to pay scrupulous attention to the ordinary rules of politeness. There are times when judgments guided by constitutional precedent become ludicrously out of place, and when the best man is he who aims straightest at the heart of his antagonist. But, in spite of such drawbacks, Macaulay's genuine sympathy for manliness and force of character generally enables him to strike pretty nearly the true note. To learn the true secret of Cromwell's character we must go to Carlyle, who can sympathise with deep currents of religious enthusiasm. Macaulay retains too much of the old Whig distrust for all that it calls fanaticism fully to recognise the grandeur beneath the grotesque outside of the Puritan. But Macaulay tells us most distinctly why Englishmen warm at the name of the great Protector. We, like the banished Cavaliers, 'glow with an emotion of national pride' at his animated picture of the unconquerable Ironsides. One phrase may be sufficiently illustrative. After quoting Clarendon's story of the Scotch nobleman who forced Charles to leave the field of Naseby by seizing his horse's bridle, 'no man,' says Macaulay, 'who had much value for his life would have tried to perform the same friendly office on that day for Oliver Cromwell.'

Macaulay, in short, always feels, and therefore communicates, a hearty admiration for sheer manliness. And some of his portraits of great men have therefore a genuine power, and show the deeper insight which comes from true sympathy. He estimates the respectable observer of constitutional proprieties too highly; he is unduly repelled by the external oddities of the truly masculine and noble Johnson; but his enthusiasm for his pet hero, William, or for Chatham or Clive, carries us along with him. And at moments when he is narrating their exploits, and can forget his elaborate argumentations and refrain from bits of deliberate bombast, the style becomes graphic in the higher sense of a much-abused word, and we confess that we are listening to genuine eloquence. Putting aside for the moment recollection of foibles, almost too obvious to deserve the careful demonstration which they have sometimes received, we are glad to surrender ourselves to the charm of his straightforward, clear-headed, hard-hitting declamation. There is no writer with whom it is easier to find fault, or the limits of whose power may be more distinctly defined; but within his own sphere he goes forward, as he went through life, with a kind of grand confidence in himself and his cause, which is attractive, and at times even provocative of sympathetic enthusiasm.

Macaulay said, in his Diary, that he wrote his 'History' with an eye to a remote past and a remote future. He meant to erect a monument more enduring than brass, and the ambition at least stimulated him to admirable thoroughness of workmanship. How far his aim was secured must be left to the decision of a posterity which will not trouble itself about the susceptibilities of candidates for its favour. In one sense, however, Macaulay must be interesting so long as the type which he so fully represents continues to exist. Whig has become an old-fashioned phrase, and is repudiated by modern Liberals and Radicals, who think themselves wiser than their fathers. The decay of the old name implies a remarkable political change; but I doubt whether it implies more than a very superficial change in the national character. New classes and new ideas have come upon the stage; but they have a curious family likeness to the old. The Whiggism whose peculiarities Macaulay reflected so faithfully represents some of the most deeply-seated tendencies of the national character. It has, therefore, both its ugly and its honourable side. Its disregard, or rather its hatred, for pure reason, its exaltation of expediency above truth and precedent above principle, its instinctive dread of strong religious or political faiths, are of course questionable qualities. Yet even they have their nobler side. There is something almost sublime about the grand unreasonableness of the average Englishman. His dogged contempt for all foreigners and philosophers, his intense resolution to have his own way and use his own eyes, to see nothing that does not come within his narrow sphere of vision, and to see it quite clearly before he acts upon it, are of course abhorrent to thinkers of a different order. But they are great qualities in the struggle for existence which must determine the future of the world. The Englishman, armed in his panoply of self-content, and grasping facts with unequalled tenacity, goes on trampling upon acuter sensibilities, but somehow shouldering his way successfully through the troubles of the universe. Strength may be combined with stupidity, but even then it is not to be trifled with. Macaulay's sympathy with these qualities led to some annoying peculiarities, to a certain brutal insularity, and to a commonness, sometimes a vulgarity, of style which is easily criticised. But, at least, we must confess that, to use an epithet which always comes up in speaking of him, he is a thoroughly manly writer. There is nothing silly or finical about him. He sticks to his colours resolutely and honourably. If he flatters his countrymen, it is the unconscious and spontaneous effect of his participation in their weaknesses. He never knowingly calls black white, or panders to an ungenerous sentiment. He is combative to a fault, but his combativeness is allied to a genuine love of fair-play. When he hates a man, he calls him knave or fool with unflinching frankness, but he never uses a base weapon. The wounds which he inflicts may hurt, but they do not fester. His patriotism may be narrow, but it implies faith in the really good qualities, the manliness, the spirit of justice, and the strong moral sense of his countrymen. He is proud of the healthy vigorous stock from which he springs; and the fervour of his enthusiasm, though it may shock a delicate taste, has embodied itself in writings which will long continue to be the typical illustration of qualities of which we are all proud at bottom—indeed, be it said in passing, a good deal too proud.

 
 
 

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