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A Reminiscence of Macaulay by E. Y.

It was in June, 1857, that I had the good fortune to meet Macaulay at dinner at the house of my dear friend, the Rev. Derwent Coleridge, then principal of St. Mark's College, Chelsea. The brilliant career of the great talker and essayist was drawing to its close, and it is partly on this account that I make now what record I can of my single meeting with him. He was beginning to give up society, so that only at the houses of his oldest friends was there any chance of seeing him. Besides the especial attraction of Macaulay's presence it was an interesting company that was gathered that evening around my friend's hospitable board. One felt that the English dinner, that choicest of all opportunities for exchange of thought, was here to be enjoyed in high perfection. Among the guests were Mr. Blore, an elderly gentleman, one of whose distinctions was that he had been a friend of Sir Walter Scott and the architect of Abbotsford; Mr. Helmore, the well-known writer on choral music; Mr. Tremenheere, who had traveled in America and had written on the subject of education in our country; and Mr. Herbert Coleridge, the gifted son of Sara Coleridge—young man of the highest promise, who had taken a double first-class at Oxford. Alas! that his mother, herself of such brilliant powers, had not lived to know of this high achievement of her son!—she whose love and thought for her children, and unwearied efforts for their intellectual advancement, are so abundantly shown in the Memoir and Letters which her daughter has lately published! Alas! too, that the son for whom such high hopes had been cherished, and whose opening manhood was of such promise, was himself cut off three years after the time of which I now write! Miss Edith Coleridge, the other child of Sara Coleridge, was also present. She was even then meditating the memoir of her mother, that work of filial duty which three years ago she accomplished with a grace and propriety beyond all praise.

Of my host, Mr. Derwent Coleridge, and of Mrs. Coleridge, my dear and honored friends of so many years, I must not permit myself to speak. I may note only the brilliant conversational power of Mr. Coleridge, and the fact that as I listen to him I perfectly understand the marvelous gifts in this way of his father, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Again and again I have been held as if under a spell by the flowing stream of his delightful monologue. He had been the friend in boyhood of Macaulay, and almost the first published words of the afterward famous writer had appeared in conjunction with a like youthful effort of Derwent Coleridge. Mr. Coleridge has been the biographer of Winthrop Praed and the editor of his poems, and only a year ago he published a touching tribute to John Moultrie. These two poets were also the companions in youth of Macaulay, and each was in a way a stimulus to the others in their first intellectual efforts. My place at the table was just opposite to Macaulay, and I need not say with what keen interest I looked at him and watched his countenance as he became animated in conversation. His face was round, and his complexion was colorless, one might almost say pallid: his hair, which appeared to have been of a brownish hue, had become almost white. He was no doubt then beginning to break in health, and perhaps this, which could only be called a premature decay, was the penalty he was at length paying for the years he had spent in India. His neck was short, and his figure was short and ungainly. His eye had a quick flash, and his change of expression was rapid; his head, too, had a quick movement; and altogether there was a look of vivacity which showed that his intellect was as keen as ever. He was always ready to speak, whatever the subject, but he showed no disposition to take all the talk. There was no moment of pause in the flowing after-dinner discussions, for our host, as well as several of his guests, was abundantly able to hold his own with this marvelous and every way delightful talker—this prince in the domain of London social life.

There was some conversation about Nollekens the sculptor, whose inordinate love of money was such a curious blemish in his character. Macaulay told one or two stories illustrating his parsimony. Then he came to speak of art in general, and said he did not think the faculty for it a high gift of mind. This opinion was strongly combated by Mr. Blore the architect and others, but I remember Macaulay gave, as in some sort an illustration of his theory, a story of Grant the portrait-painter, then of chief eminence in London. Cornewall Lewis was to sit to him, and Grant, knowing he had written books, desired to get at least a smattering of them before the sittings began. But some one, perhaps mischievously, told him Lewis was the author of The Monk, and this book he accordingly read. He took an early opportunity to refer to it to his sitter, who to his no small discomfiture disclaimed it. As conclusive proof of the truth of this denial, Lewis stated further that the book was written before he was born. Everybody was amused that Cornewall Lewis, so famous for abstruse learning, should have deemed it necessary to appeal thus to dates to show he was not the author of a novel.

Macaulay persisted in his theory that artistic power was not an intellectual faculty, but I could not quite determine whether he was not putting it forth as mere paradox. One could fancy the paroxysm of rage into which Haydon would have been thrown had such a theory been advanced in his presence; or Fuseli, who, as Haydon reports, exclaimed, on first seeing the Elgin Marbles, with his strange accent, "Those Greeks, they were godes." But the thought of Michel Angelo and of Lionardo was a sufficient answer to the theory.

Macaulay, in further support of his general proposition, maintained that a man might be a great musical composer and yet not in the true sense a man of genius. He instanced Mozart, who, he said, was not claimed to have been of high intellectual ability. Mr. Herbert Coleridge said he thought this a mistake, but he urged that full details were wanting in regard to his mental capacity as shown in other ways than in music. Macaulay replied that Mozart was the Raphael of music, and was both a composer and a wonderful performer at the age of six. "Now," said he, "we cannot conceive of any one being a great poet at the age of six: we hear nothing of Shakespeare or Milton at the age of six."

The conversation turned to Homer and the question whether the Homeric poems were the product of one mind. Macaulay maintained they were. It was inconceivable, he said, that there could have been at the Homeric period five or six poets equal to the production of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Great poets appeared at long intervals. As he reckoned them, there had been but six given to the world—Homer, Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Sophocles and Æschylus. With the exception of the last two, there had been great spaces of time between these. Could it be supposed that at the very dawn of history there was a group, as it were, of men each in the highest degree gifted with "the vision and the faculty divine"? Then as to the Iliad and Odyssey being both the production of Homer: if we admitted one to be, that the other was would follow as a matter of course. It was the old test of Paley over again—the finding the watch, and the presumption from it of a maker; and in this case there was the watchmaker's shop close by. He urged, too, that Homer was the only great poet who did not in narrating past events use the present tense—speak of them as if happening at the moment. He quoted long passages from Paradise Lost to show how Milton would fall into the present tense, though he might have begun in the past. The fact that throughout the many thousand lines of Homer no instance of the sort could be found seemed to make it clear that but one mind produced them. It was very interesting to hear Macaulay recite Milton, for whom he had such passionate admiration. He made quotations also from Burns and from old ballads in illustration of some theory which I do not recall, but showing his wonderful memory. He had, indeed, an altogether marvelous facility in producing passages as he might need them for whatever subject he was discussing. Greville, writing of him in 1836, says that he displayed feats of memory unequaled by any other human being, and that he could repeat all Milton and all Demosthenes and a great part of the Bible. "But his great forte," Greville adds, "is history, especially English history. Here his superhuman memory, which appears to have the faculty of digesting and arranging, as well as of retaining, has converted his mind into a mighty magazine of knowledge, from which, with the precision and correctness of a kind of intellectual machine, he pours forth stores of learning, information, precept, example, anecdote and illustration with a familiarity and facility not less astonishing than delightful."

Our evening was all too short. The talk had never flagged, and so the time had gone quickly by. I may note that in the discussions about Homer, Mr. Herbert Coleridge had shown the utmost familiarity with the subject, making him seem in this respect quite on a level with Macaulay.

The time came for us to join the ladies in the drawing-room, but Macaulay's carriage was announced, and he declined going up stairs again, saying that his shortness of breath warned him it was dangerous to do so. This symptom was doubtless due to that affection of the heart which two years and a half later ended his life. As I have said, he was beginning to give up dining out on account of his failing health. But his delight was as great as ever in the society of his near friends among men of letters, and these he continued to gather at the breakfasts he had long been in the habit of giving—Dean Milman, Lord Stanhope, the bishop of St. Davids (Thirlwall), our host, Mr. Coleridge, and others. Occasionally he gave dinners to two persons. His apartments were in Piccadilly, at what is known as the Albany. His emoluments from his Indian appointment were ten thousand pounds a year, and though he held the position little more than three years, it was understood that his savings from it gave him an income of a thousand pounds. This was before his English History brought him in its great returns. His Parliamentary life, Mr. Coleridge said, had not been a success: he did good to neither party—indeed, was dangerous to both. I may note a characteristic remark of his which was mentioned to me by Mr. Coleridge: it was to the effect that what troubled us most in life were the lesser worries and vexations: great perplexities and calamities we somehow nerved ourselves to contend with. "If a thousand megatheriums were let loose upon the world, in twenty-four hours they would all be in museums."