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ticular matter, said, "And now, Mr. Gladstone, we will leave that part
of the subject." " No," replied the examinee, " we will, if you please, not
leave it yet." Whereupon he proceeded to pour forth a further flood of
knowledge and disquisition.

William Ewart Gladstone 463

was regular, systematic, and deliberate in his
habits and ways of doing business. A swift
reader and a surprisingly swift writer, he was
always occupied, and was skilful in using even
the scraps and fragments of his time. No i)res-
sure of work made him fussy, nor could any one
remember to have seen him in a hurry.

The best proof of his swiftness, industry, and
skill in economising time is supplied ])v the
quantity of his literary work, which, consider-
ing the abstruse nature of the subjects to which
much of it is related, would have been credit-
able to the diligence of a German professor
sitting alone in his study. The merits of the
work have been disputed. Mankind are slow to
credit the same person with eminence in various
fields. When they read the prose of a great
poet, they try it by severer tests than would be
applied to other writers. When a jxiiiiter has
won credit by his landscapes or his cattle; pieces,
he is seldom encouraged to venture into other
lines. So Mr. Gladstone's re[)utation as an
orator stood in his own light wlum hr ap-
peared as an author. lie was reatl l)\- thou-
sands who would not have looked at the article
or book had it borne some othc^r name ; but Ik;
was judged by the standard, not of his finest
[printed speeches, for his speeclies were seldom
models of composition, but rather by the impres-
sion which his tinest si)eeches made; on those

464 Biographical Studies

who heard them. Since his warmest admirers
could not claim for him as a writer of prose any
such pre-eminence as belonged to him as a
speaker, it followed that his written work was
not duly appreciated. Had he been a writer and
nothing else, he would have been eminent and
powerful by his pen.

He might, however, have failed to secure a place
in the front rank. His style was forcible, copious,
rich with various knowledge, warm with the
ardour of his temperament. But it suffered from
an inborn tendency to exuberance which the long
practice of oratory had confirmed. It was diffuse,
apt to pursue a topic into details, when these might
have been left to the reader's own reflection. It
was redundant, employing more words than were
needed to convey the substance. It was un-
chastened, indulging too freely in tropes and
metaphors, in quotations and adapted phrases
even when the quotation added nothing to the
sense, but was suggested merely by some associa-
tion in his own mind. Thus it seldom reached
a high level of purity and grace, and though one
might excuse the faults as natural to the work
of a swift and busy man, they were sufficient
to reduce the pleasure to be derived from the
form and dress of his thoughts. Nevertheless
there are not a few passages of rare merit,
both in the books and in the articles, among
which may be cited (not as exceptionally good,

William Ewart Gladstone 465

but as typical of his strong points) the strik-
ing picture of his own youthful feeling toward
the Church of England contained in the Chapter
of AtUobiography, and the refined criticism of
Robert E/smere, published in 1808. Almost
the last thing he wrote, a pamphlet on the
Greek and Cretan question, published in the
spring of 1897, has the force and cogency of his
best days. Two things were never wanting to
him : vigour of expression and an admirable
command of appropriate words.

His writings fall into three classes : political,
theological, and literary the last chiefly con-
sisting of his books and articles upon Homer
and the Homeric question. All the political
writings, except the books on T/ie State in its
Relations to the Ckurc/i and Church Py^inciples
considered in their Results, belong to the class
of occasional literature, being pamphlets or
articles produced with a view to some cur-
rent crisis or controversy. They are valuable
chiefly as proceeding from one who l)ore a
leading part in the afiairs they relate to, and
as embodying vividly the opinions and aspira-
tions of the moment, less frequently in res[jecl
of permanent lessons of political wisdom, such
as one finds in Machiavelli or Toc(}U(;vill(,' or
Edmund Burke. Like Pitt and Peel. Mr. Clad-
stone had a mind which, whatever its original

tendencies, had come to be ratlicr practical than

2 II

466 Biographical Studies

meditative. He was fond of generalisations and
principles, but they were always directly related
to the questions that came before him in actual
politics ; and the number of weighty maxims or
illuminative suggestions to be found in his writ-
ings and speeches is small in proportion to the,
sustained vigour they display. Even Disraeli,
though his views were often fanciful and his
epigrams often forced, gives us more frequently
a brilliant (if only half true) historical aperfu, or
throws a flash of light into some corner of human
character. Of the theological essays, which are
mainly apologetic and concerned with the authen-
ticity and authority of Scripture, it is enough to
say that they were the work of an accomplished
amateur, who had been too busy to follow the pro-
gress of critical inquiry. His Homeric treatises,
the most elaborate piece of work that proceeded
from Mr. Gladstone's pen, are in one sense worth-
less, in another sense admirable. Those parts of
them which deal with early Greek mythology,
genealogy, and religion, and, in a less degree, the
theories about Homeric geography and the use
of Homeric epithets, have been condemned by
the unanimous voice of scholars as fantastic.
The premises are assumed without sufficient in-
vestigation, while the reasonings are fine-drawn
and flimsy. Extraordinary ingenuity is shown
in piling up a lofty fabric, but the foundation is
of sand, and the edifice has hardly a solid wall

William Ewart Gladstone 467

or beam in it. A conjecture is treated as a fact ;
then an inference, possible but not certain, is
drawn from this conjecture ; a second possible
inference is based upon the first ; and we are
made to forget that the probabiliiy of this second
is at most only half the probability of the first.
So the process goes on ; and when the super-
structure is complete, the reader is provoked
to perceive how much dialectical skill has been
wasted upon a series of hypotheses which a breath
of common-sense criticism dissipates. \^ one is
asked to explain the weakness in this particular
department of a mind otherwise so strong, the
answer would seem to be that the element of
fancifulness in Mr. Gladstone's intellect, and his
tendency to mistake mere argumentation for
verification, were checked in practical politics by
constant intercourse with friends and colleagues
as well as by the need of convincing visible
audiences, while in theological or historical in-
quiries his ingenuity roamed with latal frecdoni
over wide plains where no obstacles ch(;cked
its course. Something may also be due to the
fact that his philosophical and historical educa-
tion was received at a time when the modern
critical spirit and the canons it recognises had
scarcely begun to assert themselves at Oxlord.
Similar defects may be discerned in other eminent
writers of his own and the jjreceding gcMieration
of Oxford men, defects from which persons of

468 Biographical Studies

inferior power in later days might be free. In
some of these writers, and particularly in Cardinal
Newman, the contrast between dialectical acumen,
coupled with surpassing rhetorical skill, and the
vitiation of the argument by a want of the critical
faculty, is scarcely less striking ; and the example
of that illustrious man suggests that the dominance
of the theological view of literary and historical
problems, a dominance evident in Mr. Gladstone,
counts for something in producing the phenomenon.
With these defects, Mr. Gladstone's Homeric
work had the merit of being based on a full
and thorough knowledge of the Homeric text.
He had seen, at a time when few people in
England had seen it, that the Homeric poems
are an historical source of the highest value, a
treasure-house of data for the study of early
Greek life and thought, an authority all the more
trustworthy because an unconscious authority,
addressing not posterity but contemporaries.
This mastery of the matter contained in the
poems enabled him to present valuable pictures
of the political and social life of Homeric Greece,
while the interspersed literary criticisms are often
subtle and suggestive, erring, when they do err,
chiefly through the over-earnestness of his mind.
He often takes the poet too seriously; reading
an ethical purpose into descriptive or dramatic
touches which are merely descriptive or dramatic.
Passages whose moral tendency offends him are

William Ewart Gladstone 469

reprobated as later insertions with a naivete which
forgets the character oi" a primitive age. But he
has for his author not only that sympathy which is
the best basis for criticism, but a justness of poetic
taste which the learned and painstaking German
commentator frequently wants. That ]\Ir. Glad-
stone was a sound scholar in that narrower sense of
the word which denotes a grammatical and literary
command of Greek and Latin, goes without say-
ing. Men of his generation kept a closer hold
upon the ancient classics than we do to-day ; and
his habit of reading Greek for the sake of his
Homeric studies, and Latin for the sake of his
theological, made this familiarity more than
usually thorough. Like most Etonians, he loved
and knew the poets by preference. Dante was
his favourite poet, perhaps because Dante is the
most theological and ethical of the great poets,
and because the tongue and the memories ot Italy
had a peculiar attraction for him. He used to say
that he found Dante's thought incomparably in-
spiring, but hard to follow, it was so high and so
abstract. Theology claimed a place beside poetry ;
history came next, though he did not study it
systematically. It seemed odd that he was some-
times at fault in the constitutional anlicpiilics ol
England ; but this subject was. until llu; day ol
Dr. Stubbs, pre-eminently a Whig subject, and
Mr. Gladstone never was a Whig, never leaiaunl
to think upon the lines of the great Whigs of

47 o Biographical Studies

former days. His historical knowledge was not
exceptionally wide, but it was generally accurate
in matters of fact, however fanciful he might be
in reasoning from the facts, however wild his
conjectures in the prehistoric region. I^n meta-
physics strictly so called his reading did not go
far beyond those companions of his youth, Aris-
totle and Bishop Butler ; and philosophical specu-
lation interested him only so far as it bore on
Christian doctrine. Keen as was his interest
in theology and in history, it is not certain that
he would have produced work of permanent
value in either sphere even had his life been
wholly devoted to study. His mind seemed to
need to be steadied, his ingenuity restrained,
by having to deal with concrete matter for a
practical end. Neither, in spite of his emin-
ence as a financier and an advocate of free
trade, did he show much taste for economic
studies. On practical topics, such as the work-
ing of protective tariffs, the abuse of charitable
endowments, the development of fruit-culture in
England, the duty of liberal giving by the rich,
the utility of thrift among the poor, his remarks
were full of point, clearness, and good sense, but
he seldom launched out into the wider sea of
economic theory. He took a first-class in mathe-
matics at Oxford, at the same time as his first
in classics, but did not pursue the subject in
later life. Regarding the sciences of experi-

William Evvart Gladstone 47 1

ment and observation, he seemed to feel as little
curiosity as any educated man who notes the
enormous part they play in the modern world
can feel. Sayings of his have been quoted which
show that he imperfectly comprehended the char-
acter of the evidence they rely upon and of the
methods they employ. On one occasion he
horrified a dinner-table of younger friends by
refusing to accept some of the most certain conclu-
sions of modern geology. No doubt he belonged,
as Lord Derby (the Prime Minister) once said of
himself, to a pre-scientific age. Perhaps he was
unconsciously biassed by the notion that such
sciences as geology and biology, for instance, were
being used by some students to sap the founda-
tions ot revealed religion. But I can recall
no sign of disposition to dissuade free inquiry
either into those among the sciences of nature
which have been supposed to touch theology, or
into the date, authorship, and authority of the
books of the Bible. He had faith not only in his
creed, but in God as a God of truth, and in the
power of research to elicit truth.

General propositions are dangerous, yri it
seems safe to observe that great men have
seldom been obscurantists or persecutors. I'.iiher
the synipathy with intellectual cltort. which is
natural to a powerful intc^llcct, or th(; sense ih:u
free inquiry, though it may be checlonl by re-
pression for a certain tinie or within a ceriain

47 2 Biographical Studies

area, will ultimately have its course, dissuades
them from that attempt to dam up the stream of
thought which smaller minds regard as the obvious
expedient for saving souls or institutions.

It ought to be added, for this was a remarkable
feature of his character, that he had the deepest
reverence for the great poets and philosophers,
placing the career of the statesman on a far lower
plane than that of those who rule the world by
their thoughts enshrined in literature. He ex-
pressed in a striking letter to Tennyson's eldest son
his sense of the immense superiority of the poet's
life and work. Once, in the lobby of the House
of Commons, seeing his countenance saddened by
the troubles of Ireland, I told him, in order to
divert his thoughts, how some one had recently
discovered that Dante had in his last years been
appointed at Ravenna to a lectureship which
raised him above the pinch of want. Mr. Glad-
stone's face lit up at once, and he said, " How
strange it is to think that these great souls whose
words are a beacon-light to all the generations
that have come after them, should have had
cares and anxieties to vex them in their daily
life, just like the rest of us common mortals."
The phrase reminded me that a few days before
I had heard Mr. Darwin, in dwelling upon the
pleasure a visit paid by Mr. Gladstone had
given him, say, " And he talked just as if he had
been an ordinary person like one of ourselves."

William Ewart Gladstone 473

The two great men were alike unconscious of
their greatness.

It was an unspeakable benefit to Mr. Gladstone
that his love of letters and learning enabled hini
to find in the pursuit of knowledge a relief from
anxieties and a solace under disappointments.
Without some such relief his fiery and restless
spirit would have worn itself out. He lived two
lives the life of the statesman and the life of the
student, and passed swiftly from the one to the
other, dismissing when he sat down to his books
all the cares of politics. But he led a third
life also, the secret life of the soul. Religion
was of all things that which had the strongest
hold upon his thoughts and feelings. Nothing
but his father's opposition prevented him trom
becoming a clergyman when he (]uitted the Uni-
versity. Never thereafter did he cease to lake
the warmest interest in everything that attecied
the Christian Church. I le lost his seal for (.)\tord
University by the votes of the country clergy,
who formed the bulk of the constituency. Me in-
curred the displeasure of four-litths ol the Angli-
can communion by disestablishing llie Protestant
Episcopal Church in Ireland, and from iS()S to ilu;
end of his life found nearly all the clerical force
of the English establishment arrayed against him,
while his warmest support came trom the N(mi-
conformists of England and the I'resbytrrians ol
Scotland. Yet nothing alfected his devcHion to

474 Biographical Studies

the Church in which he had been brought up, nor
to the body of Anglo-Catholic doctrine he had
imbibed as an undergraduate. After an attack
of influenza which had left him very weak in the
spring of 1891, he endangered his life by attend-
ing a meeting on behalf of the Colonial Bishoprics
Fund, for which he had spoken fifty years before.
His theological opinions tinged his views upon
political subjects. They filled him with dislike of
the legalisation of marriage with a deceased wife's
sister ; they made him a vehement opponent of
the bill which established the English Divorce
Court in 1857, and a watchfully hostile critic of
all divorce legislation in America afterwards.
Some of his friends traced to the same cause his
less than adequate appreciation of German litera-
ture (though he admired Goethe and Schiller) and
even his political coldness towards Prussia and
afterwards towards the German Empire. He
could not forget that Germany had been the
fountain of rationalism, while German Evangeli-
cal Protestantism was more schismatic and farther
removed from the mediaeval Catholic Church than
it pleased him to deem the Church of England to
be. He had an exceedingly high sense of the
duty of purity of life and of the sanctity of
domestic relations, and his rigid ideas of decorum
inspired so much awe that it used to be said to
a person who had told an anecdote with ever
so slight a tinge of impropriety, " How many

William Ewart Gladstone 475

thousands of pounds would you take to t('ll that
to Gladstone?" When living in the country, it
was his practice to attend daily morning service
in the parish church, and on Sunday to read in
church the lessons for the day ; and he rarely, if
ever, transgressed his rule against Sunday labour.
Religious feeling, coupled with a system of firm
dogmatic beliefs, was the mainspring of his life, a
guiding light in perplexities, a source of strength
in adverse fortune, a consolation in sorrow, a
beacon of hope beyond the failures and disap-
pointments of this present world. He did noi
make what is commonly called a profession ot
religion, and talked little about it in general
society, although always ready to plunge into a
magazine controversy when Christianity was
assailed. But those who knew him best knew
that he was always referring current questions to,
and trying his own contluct by, a religious
standard. He believed in the efhcacy of i)rayer,
and sought through prayer for slrengih and tor
direction in the affairs of state. I le was a re-
markable example of the coexistence together
with a Christian virtue of a ([uality which
Catholic theologians treat as a mortal sin. lie
was an exceedingly pnMid man, yet an exceed-
ingly humble Christian. W'itli a high regard for
his own dignity and a sensiti\cness m any inipu
tation on his honour, ht^ was (U-eply conscious ot
his imperfections in the (^ye of i\n(\. realising the

47 6 Biographical Studies

weakness and sinfulness of human nature with
a mediaeval intensity. The 'language of self-
depreciation he was wont to use, sometimes
deemed unreal, expressed his genuine sense of
the contrast between the religious ideal he set
up and his own attainment. And the tolerance
which he extended to those who attacked him
or who had (as he thought) behaved ill in public
life was largely due to this pervading sense of the
frailty of human character, and of the inextricable
mixture in conduct of good and bad motives.
" It is always best to take the charitable view,"
he once observed when I had quoted to him the
saying of Dean Church that Mark Pattison had
painted himself too black in his autobiography
" always best," adding, with grim emphasis,
" especially in politics."

In this indulgent view, more evident in his
later years, and the more remarkable because
his expressions were often too vehement, there
was nothing of the cynical " man of the world "
acceptance of a low standard as the only possible
standard, for his moral earnestness was as fervent
at eighty-eight as it had been at thirty, and he
retained a simplicity and an unwillingness to sus-
pect sinister motives, singular in one who had
seen so much. Although accessible and frank in
the ordinary converse of society, he was in reality
a reserved man ; not shy, stiff, and externally
cold, like Peel, nor always standing on a pedestal

William Ewart Gladstone 4 -

of dignity, like the younger Pitt, but revcalinj^^
his deepest thoughts only to a few intinKiic
friends, and treating others with a couri<:ou.'^
kindliness which, though it put them at their
ease, did not encourage them to approach nt-arcr.
Thus, while he was admired by th<,' mass of his
followers, and beloved by the small inner group
of family friends, the majority of his colleagues,
official subordinates, and political or ecclesiastical
associates, would have hesitated to give him anv of
friendship's confidences. Though quick to mark
and acknowledge good service, or to offer to a junior
an opportunity of distinction, many deemed him
too much occupied with his own thoughts to
show interest in his disciples, or to bestow those
counsels which a young man prizes from his
chief. But for the warmth of his devoti(Mi t(^ a
few early friends and the reverence he jxucl to
their memory, a reverence touchiiigly shown in
the article on Arthur Hallam which he jiublished
near the end of his own life, sixiy-ti\-e years after
Mallam's death, ther(r might ha\-e sf^emed in be
a measure of truth in the judgm<-nt that lie eareii
less for men than tor ideas ami causes. Those,
however, who marked the pang which ilv de-
parture to the Roman Church ot his Iriend I lope
Scott caused him, those wlio in later d.iys r.cned
the; enthusiasm with wliich he would speak ot
Lord Althorp, his opponent, .ami ot Lor>i Aber-
deen, his chief, tl welling upon the truihtuiness .in!

478 Biographical Studies

uprightness of the former^ and the amiability of
the latter, knew that the impression of detach-
ment he gave wronged the sensibility of his own
heart. Of how few who have lived for more than
sixty years in the full sight of their countrymen,
and have been as party leaders exposed to angry
and sometimes spiteful criticism, can it be said
that there stands on record against them no
malignant word and no vindictive act ! This
was due not perhaps entirely to natural sweet-
ness of disposition, but rather to self-control
and to a certain largeness of soul which would
not condescend to anything mean or petty.
Pride, though it may be a sin, is to most of us a
useful, to some an indispensable, buttress of virtue.
Nor should it be forgotten that the perfectly happy
life which he led at home, cared for in everything
by a devoted wife, kept far from him those domestic
troubles which have soured the temper and em-
bittered the judgments of not a few famous men.
Reviewing his whole career, and summing up the
concurrent impressions and recollections of those
who knew him best, this dignity is the feature
which dwells most in the mind, as the outline of
some majestic Alp thrills one from afar when all
the lesser beauties of glen and wood, of crag and
glacier, have faded in the distance. As elevation
was the note of his oratory, so was magnanimity
the note of his character.

The Greek maxim that no one can be called

William Ewart Gladstone 479

happy till his life is clostjd must, in the case of
statesmen, be extended to warn us from the
attempt to fix a man's place in history till a
generation has arisen to whom he is a mer<'
name, not a familiar figure to be loved or
hated. Few reputations made in ])olitics so far
retain their lustre that curiosity continut-s to
play round the person when those who can re-
member him living have departed. Dante has
in immortal stanzas contrasted the fame of Pro-
venzano Salvani that sounded through all Tuscany
while he lived with the faint whispers of his name
heard in his own Siena forty years after his death.'
So out of all the men who have held a foremost
place in English public life in the nineteenth
century there are but six or seven Piti, i'ox,
Wellington, Peel, Disraeli, jjossibly Canning, or
O'Connell, or Melljourne whose names art- tt)-
day upon our lips. The great jjoet or the great

Online LibraryJames Bryce BryceStudies in contemporary biography → online text (page 28 of 29)