Imatges de pàgina
PDF
EPUB
[blocks in formation]

The appearance of a work of deep and anxious research from the hand of one of the most brilliant writers and profound thinkers of the age, cannot fail to be regarded as a benefit conferred on the public. The spirit of the times, and the circumstances in which public writers are placed in these days, are such as tempt them but too much to write solely for the hour and for the present occasion. Publications calculated to while away the moments of leisure, and to withdraw the mind from the sufferings of the day, are increasing on us.

There is in the tumultuous times on which we are cast, little desire to write for posterity, or for those of the age who read that they may learn. To suit the present fashion, and to pander to the passions of the vulgar are the objects and aims of the large mass of the ablest writers. With a disgraceful ignorance of all that is past, and with an incapacity for looking at the present, the popular writers of the day contrive to get themselves into repute with the mob by uttering some gibberish, equally unintelligible to themselves and to their readers, regarding the future-because the future is sure not to rise up and contradict them till they have passed from the earth, and are independent of contradiction.

There are now two or three writers before the world to whom this description does not apply, and Mr. Macaulay is one of them.

In Mr. Macaulay's History of England, we have one of the most valuable contributions that genius and learning have ever made to one of the most valuable of all departments of literature. We have the light of a mind of the highest class which this age has produced, shed upon the most important of subjects, the history of a great nation. In Mr. Macaulay are met the spirit of enquiry, and the extensive learning which are required in the mere annalist, with the philosophic spirit which we seek in him who aspires to the name of a historian. To these gifts not often met with in the same individual, Mr. Macaulay adds that gift of imagination, without which the intellectual nature of man is incomplete, one-sided and liable to many great errors, even in the investigation of the dryest subjects. The want of this gift was a misleading failing with Lord Hailes—to whose minute criticism the history of his country is so much indebted. It impaired and disfigured the disquisitions of Hune, otherwise a man of real genius. It was the splendid imagination which mingled itself among his other gigantic intellectual gifts, that made Lord Bacon the most illustrious of philosophers. With an amount of what is called dry learning equal to that possessed by any of his predecessors, and with more of the philosophic spirit which is his redeeming characteristic than Hume possessed, and exercised over fields which Ilume's limited erudition had never invaded, Mr. Macaulay brings to his task the true poetical feeling which is an aid both to the historian and to the philosopher, and a charm in the hands of whoever tries to instruct the world by his writings.

The active position in the political world which Mr. Macaulay has held, we cannot help considering as a recommendation to his work. In this respect he is associated with those amongst the ancient historians whose writings are most regarded as treasures of wisdom-Xenophon, Thucydides, Polybius, Sallúst, Tacitus and others. The works of these writers though elaborated into forms of beauty in the hours of solitude, have come down to posterity, and commanded the attention of thinking men in all ages, because their wisdom, though indebted to books, was mainly the fruit of extensive commerce with their fellowmen, and of deep meditation on the actual affairs of the world, and particularly on those affairs in which they had themselves shared. Modern historians have too seldom enjoyed the advantage which the more eminent of the ancients did, in being themselves men who lived amidst state transactions and public business.

We perhaps come upon more debateable ground when we express an opinion that the part which Mr. Macaulay has taken in public affairs is such as gives weight to his character as an historian. We are arrived at a period in political conflict when it is hardly possible, and would not be very prudent, to wage minor controversies of opinion with any politician who like Mr. Macaulay has given a powerful support to the British Constitution, and is attached to the institutions of his country, however quick-sighted to their defects. Throughout all his public career, Mr. Macaulay has shown himself to be the high-minded man of honour, the candid and generous combatant in the arena of politics. Beyond almost any member of Parliament whose services have benefited a constituency, Mr. Macaulay has upheld the genuine character of a representative of the best intellect, the best morality and the deliberate judgment of his constituency, as distinguished from the degraded position of a mere delegate sent to the house of Legislature to vote according to the directions given to him by the party whose influence put him there. As a member of Parliament the position held by Mr. Macaulay was honourable to himself and the city of Edinburgh, as the position held by his successor, the present member, is discreditable to him and to the faction who elected him. Above all, Mr. Macaulay is a man of that class, the rarity of which is one of the most unhappy and threatening signs of the times,-to whom in the discharge of his duty, the hissings and hootings of the people whose interests he desires to serve, are more agreeable than their applause would be, if that applause were gained by any base pandering to their passions, or any deceitful flattering of their ignorance. His desire has been with Cató, rather to be, than appear to be a good man. It was the manly sincerity of his character, his high sense of what the honour of a gentleman ought to be, and his bold assertion of the independence of the office of a representive, that lost for him his seat in Parliament at the late election, and lost to the city of Edinburgh the honour and advantage of his services. There was at that time, over the country, a run against talent, and independence, and honour, and a thirst after servility and ignorance ;and the spirit of the season drove Mr. Macaulay into retirement, and made a senator of Mr. Charles Cowan. The choice was fortunate for Mr. Macaulay's fame, which the publication of this great historical work will far to increase, and fortunate for the world, which we trust is destined to reap the most solid advantages from his literary leisure.

Mr. Macaulay's work, of which two volumes, extending to thirteen hundred and forty pages are published, is entitled, The History of England, from the Accession of James II.” The end of the second volume brings us to the era of the settlement of the British Crown on William and Mary.

In the first chapter we are presented with a brief but exceedingly vigorous sketch of the history of England, or rather an Essay on the history of England, from the invasion of the Romans to the Restoration of Charles II. The hundred and fifty pages which form this chapter, are the digested fruit of deep and extensive historical studies, and furnish the reader with the marrow of innumerable works on laws, manners, and customs. In this chapter, the beauties of the writer's style are brought out in all their endless variety, and in all their rich luxuriance. As a writer's style is essentially a great part of a writer's mind, it is necessary, though the task be a difficult one, to make some attempt at describing the style of this history,

We have already alluded to the infinite variety of Mr. Macaulay's style, which adapts it admirably to the infinite variety of his materials. In reading this history, we feel the pleasure which the student experiences that pleasure, indeed, which enables him to accumulate his stores of wisdom and learning-when he turns from the page to the page of prose-when he exchanges the history of great national events for the private memoirs of individuals and the anecdotes which illustrate private character, when he stops in following after severe reasoning, and solaces himself with wit, satire, and sarcasm—when his gravest investigations prepare him to enjoy his relaxations with a keener relish, and his lightest relaxations invigorate his mind, and enable it to grapple successfully with his gravest investigations. Those who

of poetry may conceive that history ought to be written in the same way that history has generally been written, and confined within the limits to which most honest historians have believed that they were rigidly confined by the laws of pedants and critics, may be disposed to find as much fault with the beautiful diversity of style by which these vclumes are equally distinguislied as they are by the infinite variety of their materials. Those who hold, that a historian should be a mere narrator of facts and events will not be expected to deal leniently with an audacious writer, who, under the name of a history presents us not merely with all that his profession calls upon him to deal in, but in addition, gives us under the same title, essays on men and manners, equal to the best that are anywhere to be had on these subjects, with wit of the most sparkling and pungent quality, and sarcasm of the most biting severity, with eloquence, lofty, vehement, and seductive by turns, and with disquisitions, moral, political, and philosophical, not to be surpassed in profoundness and importance. All this is perfectly out of order, and perfectly delightful.

The schoolmen, in discussing what they loved so much to discuss, because they knew so little about it, the nature and capacities of the angels, declare, that they have this gift, that whatever they communicate is intelligible to those who hear it, be the hearers ever so ignorant, or the matter communicated ever so profound. There is a good idea in this. Certainly the most angelic of a writer's gifts is perspicuity. No

grace can compensate for its absence; its presence is never without other accompanying graces. Mr. Macaulay's style being the style of a man of deep learning and profound thinking, is eminently perspicuous—as perspicucus as that of Bacon or Raleigh. He has no blaneable ignorance to conceal, no frauds on the public to commit ; he needs no spurious titles to fame; and, therefore, he can afford to write plainly, and he has the gift not given to every writer, and which it would be fatal to the character, such as it is, of many writers to possess, of being able to make himself intelligible.

The style of Mr. Macaulay is eminently picturesque-being eminently specific in its terms. This is one of the greatest and rarest beauties which a style can have, and we are hardly able to name a writer, ancient or modern, in whom this great beauty receives such splendid illustrations as it does in the living and breathing pages of Mr. Macaulay. We speak of writers, ancient and modern, because this is one of those beauties which are to be looked for and found in the writings of early authors, living in comparatively illiterate times, and writing from first impressions, rather than amongst those who live in days when literature is generally cultivated and when men have learned to describe, and take a pride in describing, what they speak about, not from the inforniation of their own senses, but from instructions and ideas derived from books. It was from a consideration of the picturesque style of the early writers, in all countries, as opposed to the style of the learned rabble in literary times that David Hume, very often an unsafe guide in matters of criticism, pronounced truly, and on the surest grounds, that Ossian's poems were a modern fabrication—the manufac

[ocr errors]

ture of an educated scribbler of the eighteenth century, and not the effusions of a Caledonian bard, the contemporary of the Emperor Caracalla.

On this use of specific and picturesque terms which is one of the distinguishing characteristic beauties of Macaulay's history, the criticism of Dr. George Campbell is well worthy of attention. We may remark, that the critic's instances are taken from ancient writings. The discourses of our Saviour, it may be observed, furnish some of the finest specimens of this style :

Nothing," says Dr. Campbell, can contribute more to enliven the expression, than that all the words employed be as particular and determinate in their signification, as will suit with the nature and the scope of the discourse. The more general the terms are, the picture is the fainter; the more special they are, it is the brighter. The same sentiments may be expressed with equal justice and even perspicuity in the former way as in the latter; but as the colouring will, in that case be more languid, it cannot give equal pleasure to the fancy, and by consequence, will not contribute so much either to fix the attention, or to impress the memory.

« « Consider,' says our Lord, 'the Wilies how they grow; they toil not, they spin not; and yet, I say unto you, that Solomon, in all his glory, was not arrayed like one of those. If then, God so clothe the grass which today is in the field, and to-morrow is cast into the oven, how much more will he clothe you. Let us here adopt a little of the tasteless manner of modern paraphrasts, by the substitution of more general terms, one of their many expedients of infrigidating, and let us consider the effect produced by this change :— Consider the flowers, how they gradually increase in their size, they do no manner of work, and yet 1 declare to you, that no king whatever, in his most splendid habit, is dressed up like them. If then God, in his providence, so adorn the vegetable productions, which continue but for a little time on the land, and are afterwards put into the fire, how much more will he provide clothing for you ? How spiritless is the same sentiment rendered by these small variations ? The very particularising of to-day and to-morrow is infinitely more expressive of transitoriness, than any description, wherein the terms are general, that can be substituted in its room."( Philosophy of Rhetoric, II. 137.)

The extracts we are about to give from his pages, will illustrate several of the characteristics of Macaulay's style. One or two of them, however, as peculiarities, deserve to be particularly noticed.

It has been justly remarked of the style of Lord Brougham's historical works, and justly enough objected to it as a blemish, that it is very frequently rather the diffuse style of repetition, admirably suited to spoken eloquence, than the style of the work originally designed for printed publication, where, as the whole sentence is under the reader's eye at once, and may be reviewed at a glance, the same style is not so desirable, on account of perspicuity. Into this style, amongst his other varieties, Mr. Macaulay frequently falls, but not so frequently as to make the peculiarity be regarded as a fault.

Another characteristic of Mr. Macaulay's style is the abundant use of a mode of mentioning men and things, not directly by their names,

« AnteriorContinua »