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" precipitated out of eternities," and "bathed in eternal
splendours ; " and we are ordered to suspend our
opinion of Mirabeau until some new moralities have
been revealed to us, those which we have at present
being insufficient for the purpose. Among Mr. Carlyle's
imitators, this tendency assumes shapes yet more
fantastic. It lowers history into advocacy in the
hands of Mr. Froude ; it elevates the use of red paint
by Queen Elizabeth into the dignity of a sacrament



IN ENGLISH LITERATURE. 205

in the hands of Mr. Kingsley ; it drives Mr. Motley
into unworthy sophistry in the attempt to extenuate
the equivocations by which William the Silent dimmed
his uprightness, that he might win the daughter of
the Elector Maurice. This is not merely ridiculous,
it is positively pernicious. It deprives us of any
standard whereby to judge human actions. It is of
no great moment what opinions we may form of
historical characters ; but it is of the greatest moment
that our ideas of right and wrong should not be con-
fused. As the new moralities necessary to justify
Mr. Carlyle's strange enthusiasms arc not likely to be
speedily made manifest, we may as well have the old
moralities, which have so long served us, left un-
disturbed. To this Lord Macaulay's method presents
a marked contrast. He never, indeed, fails to make
due allowance for men endowed with dangerous gifts,
or tried by severe temptations. He never bears
harshly on crimes committed, not from sordid or un-
worthy motives, but in pursuit of a great public end,
and under the influence of extreme or ill-regulated zeal
for the public interests. No writer has done more to
win for Cromwell his proper place in the regards of
Englishmen. Carlyle, in his " Hero-worship," declares
that " Cromwell is yet on the gibbet, and finds no
hearty apologist anywhere." A "hearty apologist,"
in the Carlylian sense, he certainly had not found.
But twenty years before Carlyle's lecture was delivered,
Macaulay had sketched a flattering portrait of Crom-
well, in the dialogue between Cowley and Milton ;
and eight years later, in his essay on Hallam, he filled
up this sketch into the most brilliant and most truth-
ful likeness of the great usurper which can be found
in the language. But, on the other hand, he does not
disregard the plain rules of morality which are under-
stood by plain men. Eigid moralists will pronounce



206 LORD MACAULAY S PLACE

him even too generous in his estimate of Machiavelli ;
too much inclined to what he calls the doctrine of
set-off in his accounts of Olive and Hastings. Yet he
never supports the teaching of " the Prince," because
the author of the Prince suffered exile, torture, and
degradation, for the cause of his country's freedom ;
he does not palliate forgery, because forgery was com-
mitted by the conqueror of Bengal ; he does not excuse
cruelty and robbery, because there was no extreme of
the one or the other which Hastings was not pre-
pared to perpetrate for the sake of the Indian revenue.
We verily believe that had Mr. Carlyle written the
history of India, he would have made out that for a
British soldier to be guilty of the crime which deceived
Omichund, was merely " to advance spirally with his
own aim sun-clear in view ; " that the horrors of
Kohilcund, and the spoliation of the princesses of
Oude, were but measures of energetic administration,
easily to be justified by the principles of the new
morality. Such indiscreet advocacy is twice mis-
chievous evil in its effect upon readers, unjust to-
wards those whom it endeavours to defend. It excites
a spirit of antagonism. A determination on the part
of a writer to see no evil will produce a tendency on
the part of readers to see evils which do not really
exist. We feel justly irritated when Mr. Carlyle
denies that we can worthily admire Cromwell, so
long as we condemn the execution of Charles ; it is
hard that Mr. Froude should forbid us to feel akin
with the gay and gallant youth of Henry, unless we
also sympathise with his cruel and imperious old age.
Not even in defence of William is Macaulay thus in-
discriminating. He does not excuse the massacre of
Glencoe on the ground which would certainly have
been occupied by the author of the " Latter-day Pam-
phlets/' that the Macdonalds were a pack of unruly



IN ENGLISH LITERATURE. 207

thieves. He argues that William was kept in ignor-
ance of the real design : that is a question of fact, as
to which he may or may not be mistaken. But he
never palters with right or wrong in the attempt to
blind us as to the nature of the deed ; he does not
hesitate to denounce as a grave crime the forgiveness
which William, upon this as on another occasion,
extended to his guilty servants. It is thus that his-
tory should be written, if history is to instruct and
to elevate.

Among the many excellencies which have combined
to render Lord Macaulay, on the whole, the most
popular writer of the day, his style is not the least
deserving of attention. It is curious to remark how
soon that style was formed, and how little it ever
changed. His early writings, indeed, are, as he him-
self admits, overlaid with a gaudy ornament which
his mature taste rejected. The ornate essay on Milton
contrasts strangely with the purity of the essay on
Pitt. But the marked characteristics of the style
the short sentences, the absence of pronouns, the use
of antitheses remained always the same. The last
of these peculiarities has been blamed as tending to
mislead. We question very much whether, in the
hands of Macaulay, it ever misled anybody. An-
titheses are pernicious, either when they are so forced
as to throw no light on the subject, or when they
are so broadly expressed as to convey an erroneous
view. As employed by Macaulay, they are guarded
from both evils. He never employs them vaguely,
from a mere love of balancing sentences ; and he
never fails so to limit them as to remove all danger
of their carrying the reader too far. They are useful
as stimulants. By the powerful flow of his narrative,
readers are apt to be borne along unthinkingly. An
antithesis occasionally introduced, breaks the fascina-



208 LORD MACAULAY'S PLACE

tion, and rouses the attention which had been
charmed into luxurious rest. They are in him what
uncouth phraseologies and strange constructions are
to Carlyle. The use of them is undoubtedly an
artifice ; but it is a very agreeable artifice, and can
only mislead those who are determined to be misled
in order to be censorious. But many, even among
warm admirers, feel that the style is pitched in too
high a key. Majestic as it is, it wants repose. The
finest passages, they say, lose much from a want of
relief. To a certain extent the objection is true. In
varying beauty, Lord Macaulay's style is not equal to
that of Mr. Froude, while it is far short of the magic
with which Mr. Newman's language rises and falls,
seemingly without effort, as if in unavoidable harmony
with the changing theme. But in this Mr. Newman
is, so far as we know, absolutely unrivalled ; and Mr.
Froude has followed, though at a distance, the steps
of the master. Like the goblin page in the Minstrel's
Lay, he has had one hasty glance into the mystic
book, and learned some imperfect knowledge of the
spell. On the other hand, if we compare Macaulay
with Gibbon, the result is different A volume of
Gibbon positively fatigues the reader ; while it would
take a good many volumes of Macaulay to communi-
cate any feeling of weariness. In this particular,
Macaulay is to Gibbon as Thucydides is to Tacitus.
The historian of Greece, arid the historian of England,
are perhaps deficient in the art of telling a simple
story in simple words ; but both have far more of
this art than the historian of the Empire, or the
historian of the Decline and Fall.

Beyond doubt, one of the greatest merits of Lord
Macaulay's style was its clearness. It has all the
lucidity of Paley, with a brilliancy which Paley never
reached. He can give expression to exact thinking,



IN ENGLISH LITERATURE. 209

or conduct subtle argument in a manner as easy to
follow as the simplest narrative. In his disquisition
on the nature of the Papacy in the Eeview of Ranke,
in his refutation of Mr. Gladstone's Church and State
crotchets, and in the papers on the Utilitarian Theory,
there is not a sentence hard to be understood. Some
very profound people object to this, but we confess
to a weakness for comprehending what we read.
There is a great distinction between thought and
the expression of thought. It is not desirable that
the thought should always be obvious <and easy, but
it is impossible that the expression of it can be too
clear. There must be no obscurity in the medium.
The matter of the sentence may be difficult, but that
is no reason why the form should be slovenly. No
one, we suppose, would call Berkeley a shallow thinker ;
and yet no thinker ever conveyed his thoughts more
distinctly to his readers. When any writer's language
becomes cloudy, the reason simply is, that the ideas
of which it is the vehicle are vague. To attain this
clearness, Lord Macaulay does not discard ornament
and content himself with inelegant simplicity. On
the contrary, " brilliant " is the epithet which rises to
the lips of every one in speaking of his style. He
presents a curious contrast to the historian of the
middle ages. His lucid narrative contrasts with
Mr. Hallam's trick of hinting at a fact, of implying
what he should have clearly told ; his eloquence con-
trasts with Mr. Hallam's abrupt and austere judg-
ments ; his fervour contrasts with Mr. Hallam's total
want of enthusiasm. In a question of popularity, he
is to Mr. Hallani what Mr. Hallam is to Brady or
Carte. His writings cannot fail to recall the common
remark that history is like oratory. That poetic
faculty which is the highest reach of the imagination
he wanted. Even the vigorous and stirring " Lays "
VOL. i. o



210 LORD MACAULAY'S PLACE

do not establish a claim to rank as a poet. But the
imagination of the orator a thing quite distinct from
the knack of the debater, and which may be mani-
fested in writing as well as in speaking was his in
large measure.

A like power, and a greater deficiency, may be re-
marked in Mr. Gladstone. That gentleman's want
of poetic fee] ing, indeed, is so extreme as to excite
astonishment. It seems impossible in any man of
ordinary cultivation. Macaulay, on the other hand,
approached the heights of poetry. He could never
have written those volumes in which Homer is
almost made prosaic, could never have compared
Athene* to the electric telegraph. But the oratorical
fervour of the great speaker often reminds us of the
oratorical fervour of the great writer. No man ever
possessed to a greater degree than Lord Macaulay
the real secret of an orator, the power to enter into,
and to arouse at will, the emotions which sway
masses of mankind. Ehetorical, in the proper sense
of the word, he was not. The distinction is not easy
to give exactly ; but perhaps we may find it in this,
that the strength of the orator lies in power and
sincerity ; while the rhetorician is an artist only, bent
on temporary success, with or without convictions,
as the case may be. By the former spirit Macaulay
was always actuated ; to the latter he was always a
stranger. Some wonderful critics have indeed declared,
that, wanting heart himself, he never reached the
hearts of others that he coloured his characters from
a mere love of effective contrasts, heedless of the truth
of his portraits. Astonished silence is the only
answer to such criticism as this. The heart of the
man, even in the cool judgment of Mr. Thackeray,
beats in every sentence he has written. He is
persuaded, some may think too firmly persuaded, of



IN ENGLISH LITERATURE. 211

the rectitude of his views. His strong beliefs, and
his warm, almost passionate expression of them, have
done not a little towards his unparalleled popularity.
It is by the power of his enthusiasm alone that he
rises almost into the regions of poetry when he tells
of Cromwell's charge at Naseby, or the fury of the
Huguenots, who followed the white plume at Ivry.

We have already compared Macaulay to Thucy-
dides. He resembles the Greek in yet another point
his knowledge of what he somewhere calls the laws of
historical perspective. No historian can be exhaus-
tive. He cannot tell the whole truth, he must
content himself with conveying an impression of it.
" The perfect historian," says the essay on History,
" is he in whose work the character and spirit of an
age is exhibited in miniature." But to accomplish
this requires the utmost discretion in selecting lead-
ing points, and in rejecting what is incidental.
Thucydides had this gift in perfection, and Macau-
lay does not fall short of him. Both writers are
sometimes minute, and sometimes general. Many
things they narrate in the fullest detail, for many
others a cursory notice is sufficient ; yet they are
never prolix, and never jejune. It is this power,
together with a faculty of orderly arrangement, which
makes Lord Macaulay's narrative take such a hold on
the mind. His changes of scene are managed with such
method, that we are never confused ; and he assigns
to each part so exactly its due share of consideration,
that we cannot fail to apprehend distinctly the pro-
portions of the whole. All the innumerable touches
which give reality never bewilder, never obscure the
clearness and consecutiveness of the record.

An historian, to be really great, must possess some
of the qualities of a great dramatist. The highest con-
dition of genius the creative faculty may be want-



212 LORD MACAULAY'S PLACE

ing. But although he need not create, he must be
endowed with that secondary power of the imagina-
tion which disposes and arranges existing materials
so as to animate them with life. "It would be a
great thing," wrote Niebuhr, "if I could make the
Romans stand before my readers, distinct, intelligible,
familiar as contemporaries, living and moving." What
Niebuhr longed to do, Macaulay has been able to
accomplish. His characters live and move before us.
His earliest writings show a constant endeavour to
realise and to represent the scenes and the actors of
other times. In the fragment of a Roman tale, and
the dialogue between Milton and Cowley, we have the
first glimpses of that power which. drew the vivid
picture of the " club " in the essay on Johnson, and
which has given to these four volumes of history an
interest surpassing all but the most perfect triumphs
of dramatic art. Not a few worthy people, indeed,
regard this interest with a vague alarm. They con-
sider it, as Plato long ago considered the poet, "as
something sweet, and wonderful, and divine ; " but
they accord it no hearty welcome ; they had rather
crown it with a crown of doubtful honour, and send it
away into another country. They don't understand
how a history can be as entertaining as a novel. The
phenomenon is strange : it frightens them ; and, not
without some irritation, they reject it as an imposture.
In their judgment, the historian, like the philosopher,
must have " the dry light, unmingled with any tinc-
ture of the affections." He must be a passionless
machine, and his production must have the unexciting
merits of an almanac. As, in social intercourse,
many persons get credit for sincerity by being dis-
agreeable, so, according to this canon, history must
win a reputation for trustworthiness by being dull.
It is impossible to convince any who hold this belief



IN ENGLISH LITERATURE. 213

whose requisition from an historian is, surtout point
de zele. We can only wonder at the peculiarity of
their taste, and leave them, without argument, to
their preference of the frigid virtues of Kollin over
characters drawn with the accuracy of Clarendon, and
sustained with a force and consistency not unworthy
of Scott. In this respect Macaulay has rivalled
Tacitus. The portrait of William is deserving to be
placed beside the portrait of Tiberius. These his-
torians possessed the power of giving individuality to
their characters in a manner only surpassed by the
greatest masters of fiction.

It has been urged with more plausibility, that this
attraction is obtained by violations of human nature,
that, in order to secure it, contrasts are worked out
with a sharpness which results in the delineations not
of possible human beings, but of grotesque and un-
natural monsters. It is difficult to determine what
inconsistencies in men's characters transcend belief.
Sir Walter Scott has been accused of exceeding pro-
bability in his attempt to reproduce in Buckingham the
original of Zimri. But has Macaulay exceeded it in
the instances most commonly brought against him
Bacon and Marlborough \ The grounds of the charge
are curious. Because Marlborough married a woman
without money, therefore he was not avaricious ; be-
cause he always loved his wife, therefore he was not
cold-hearted. As if conflict of passions was a thing
unknown ; as if calm and unimpassionable natures
were not the chosen abiding-places of one enduring
emotion. Again, because a knot of young gentle-
men at Cambridge, little exposed to the seductions
of place and power, have found intellectual culture
strengthen their unassailed virtue, therefore Bacon,
in his eager quest after the world's prizes, could not
have deserted Essex or fawned on Buckingham. As



214 LORD MACAULAY'S PLACE

if the long history of human frailty had never been
written, as if temptation had never lured men from
rectitude, as if intellect had never stooped to sin.

Such criticism refuses to see any incongruities, will
not allow of their existence. It prefers writers like
the later classical historians, whose characters are im-
personations of the virtues and the vices, acting
always after their kind. It argues after the fashion
of the gentle Cowper, who never would believe that
Hastings had hanged Nuncomar, because Hastings
had been a good-natured boy at Westminster. But,
in truth, it is founded on a total mistake. We can-
not arrive, as it were, at the centres of men's disposi-
tions, from which all their thoughts and actions will
radiate naturally. Characters are not circles. It is
not thus that the great masters have portrayed human
nature. Shakespeare's men and women do not act in
unvarying obedience to any ruling passion ; they
abound in inconsistencies, such as the existence of a
love for Ophelia in the heart of the depraved and
guilty Queen. If this be true in the world of fiction,
it is much more true in the world of reality. For the
best artists obey a canon of propriety which forbids
them to run into extremes. Inconsistencies and in-
congruities they indeed give us ; but lest they shock
by a too great improbability, they soften what they
know to exist. They wisely avoid what is so extra-
ordinary as to seem unnatural, though they may be
persuaded of its truth, as the discreet painter does
not seek to represent startling and uncommon effects
of sea or sky, even such as he may have himself be-
held. No such privilege is accorded to the historian.
He may not select or tone down. He is but a copyist,
and must represent faithfully whatever nature brings
before him. It is not his business to make nature
natural to reconcile what is with our ideas of what



IN ENGLISH LITERATURE. 215

ought to be. Hence his representations are often
strange and inexplicable. After all that has been
written, even by such a thinker as Carlyle, can any
one say that he comprehends men like Mahomet or
Cromwell ? The inconsistencies and contradictions of
their lives lie before us ; but we cannot, save by an
arbitrary exercise of fancy, ascribe them to a common
origin. They are to us enigmas ; probably they were
enigmas to themselves. To go no further than the
pages before us, can anything be conceived more
unaccountable than the proceedings of Rochester in
the intrigue which dismissed Catherine Sedley from
the palace ? We have a statesman who, in addition
to the vices of drinking and swearing, approves him-
self an adept in the part of a procurer, and who
employs the agency of his own wife in order to divert
the jealousy of the Queen in the direction of an inno-
cent lady. Yet this very man, in the midst of such
an intrigue, retires to his closet and composes a reli-
gious meditation so fervent and so devout that it
would not have misbecome the lips of Ken. Hypo-
crisy cannot be imputed, for his prayers and his
penitence were offered up in secret, and were known
to no man till the grave had closed over him for more
than a century. The historian may well add, "So
much is history stranger than fiction ; and so true
it is, that nature has caprices which art dares not
imitate." Attempts to explain such things are vain.
Man's analysis, like the syllogism, is all unequal to
the subtlety of nature.

A strong dramatic tendency has one danger, it
leads to exaggeration. The persons of the drama are
so grouped, their actions are so narrated, their expres-
sions so introduced, as to bring out peculiarities in
the strongest light. Great as is the attraction be-
stowed by this style of writing, it may give to some



216 LORD MACAULAY'S PLACE

traits of character an undue prominence over others.
Yet it may be doubted whether this leads to essential
error. The misrepresentation is in form rather than
in fact. Macaulay has supplied a half-defence of the
method in his essay on Machiavelli : " The best por-
traits," he says, " are perhaps those in which there
is a slight mixture of caricature; and we are not
certain that the best histories are not those in which
a little of the exaggeration of fictitious narrative is
judiciously employed. Something is lost in accuracy ;
but much is gained in effect. The fainter lines are
neglected ; but the great characteristic features are
imprinted on the mind for ever." The theory is rather
a dangerous one, but we suspect it is right in the
main. Attention is arrested by art in disposition,
fertility of illustration, and force of language. Taken
literally, these may express more than the real state
of matters, but a slight effort of reason will make the
truth apparent. The question of accuracy, however,
has been already discussed. We would only now ask
those who complain of Macaulay's deceptive art this
one question : Have they themselves been ever really
misled by it, or have they represented it as mislead-
ing merely because such a charge seemed a plausible
objection to an historian whose principles they dis-
liked ? If the charm employed has been in truth so
potent and so subtle, it is somewhat odd that so many
should have escaped its action. As to the question
of effect there can be no dispute. We know his cha-
racters, as we know the men and women with whom
we live. Danby, Halifax, Shaftesbury, Marlborough,
William, can never be forgotten. The features of
even his secondary personages are " impressed on the
mind for ever."

If, going beyond the four volumes of the History,
we take the series of Historical Essays into considera-



IN ENGLISH LITERATURE. 217

tion, we shall find ourselves justified in calling Lord
Macaulay an historian of England in a very wide
sense. Of the feudal days, indeed, he tells us little ;
but in his half-dozen essays he has so illustrated
critical periods of our history as to convey general
views of surprising accuracy. Any diligent student
of those papers, and of the History, will have no slight
acquaintance with at least the later acts of that great
drama, the growth of the English Constitution. He
will be able to give no superficial answer to the ques-
tion, What has made England what England is ? how
comes it that her destinies have been so immeasurably
happier than those of nations whose political condi-
tion she at no very distant date nearly resembled \
how has it been her lot alone to " combine, beyond
all example and all hope, the blessings of liberty with
the blessings of order," escaping monarchical tyranny
on the one hand, and the not less oppressive tyranny
of democracy on the other ? Such an inquiry must
be interesting to students of all countries, and as-
suredly none can be more worthy the attention of
Englishmen. There are many now-a-days who,
imagining themselves wiser than their neighbours,
deem such matters of small account, and look down
on them as surface questions. To such shallow
thinkers the invigorating influences of an honest
patriotism must be ever unknown. They affect to
despise the noble science of politics ; they merely



Online LibraryHenry H LancasterEssays and reviews → online text (page 17 of 38)