John Morley.

The life of William Ewart Gladstone, Volume 2 online

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point of view, moreover, anybody who wishes to have his > ^
feeling about the Hiad and Odyssey as delightful poetry
refreshed and quickened, will find inspiring elements in the
profusion, the eager array of Homer's own lines, the diligent
exploration of aspects and bearings hitherto unthought of
The ' theo-mythology ' is commonly judged fantastic,
and has been compared by sage critics to Warburton's
Divine Legation — the same comprehensive general reading,
the same heroic industry in marshalling the particulars of
proof, the same dialectical strength of arm, and all brought
to prove an unsound proposition. 1 Yet the comprehensive
reading and the particulars of proof are by no means without
an interest of their own, whatever we may think of the pro-
position ; and here, as in all his literary writing distinguished
from polemics, he abounds in the ethical elements. Here
perhaps more than anywhere else he impresses us by his
love of beauty in all its aspects and relations, in the
human form, in landscape, in the affections, in animals,
including above all else that sense of beauty which made his
Greeks take it as one of the names for nobility in conduct.
Conington, one of the finest of scholars, then lecturing at
Oxford on Latin pofets and deep in his own Virgilian studies,
which afterwards bore such admirable fruit, writes at length
(Feb. 14, 1857) to say how grateful he is to Mr. Gladstone
for the care with which he has pursued into details a view
of Virgil that they hold substantially in common, and pro-
ceeds with care and point to analyse the quality of the
Roman poet's art, as some years later he defended against
Munro the questionable proposition of the superiority in
poetic style of the graceful, melodious, and pathetic Virgil
to Lucretius's mighty muse.

No field has been more industriously worked for the last
forty years than this of the relations of paganism to the
historic religion that followed it in Europe. The knowledge
and the speculations into which Mr. Gladstone was thus
initiated in the sixties may now seem crude enough ; but he
deserves some credit in English, though not in view of

1 Pattison, ii. p. 166.
VOL. II. 3d

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BOOK German, speculation for an early perception of an unfamiliar
,' / region of comparative science, whence many a product
most unwelcome to him and alien to his own beliefs
has been since extracted. When all is said, however,
Mr. Gladstone's place is not in literary or critical history,
but elsewhere.

His style is sometimes called Johnsonian, but surely with-
out good ground. Johnson was not involved and he was
clear, and neither of these things can always be said of Mr.
Gladstone. Some critic charged him in 1840 with ' prolix
clearness.' The old charge, says Mr. Gladstone upon this, was
' obscure compression. I do not doubt that both may be true,
and the former may have been the result of a well-meant
effort to escape from the latter.' He was fond of abstract
words, or the nearer to abstract the better, and the more
general the better. One effect of this was undoubtedly to
give an indirect, almost a shifty, air that exasperated plain
people. Why does he beat about the bush, they asked ; why
cannot he say what he means ? A reader might have to
think twice or thrice or twenty times before he could be
sure that he interpreted correctly. But then people are so
apt to think once, or half of once ; to take the meaning that
suits their own wish or purpose best, and then to treat that
as the only meaning. Hence their perplexity and wrath
when they found that other doors were open, and they
thought a mistake due to their own hurry was the result of
a juggler's trick. On the other hand a good writer takes all
the pains he can to keep his reader out of such scrapes.

His critical essays on Tennyson and Macaulay are excellent.
They are acute, discriminating, generous. His estimate of
Macaulay, apart from a piece of polemical church history at
the end, is perhaps the best we have. 'You make a very
just remark,' said Acton to him, ' that Macaulay was afraid
of contradicting his former self, and remembered all he had
written since 1825. At that time his mind was formed, and
so it remained. What literary influences acted on the for-
mation of his political opinions, what were his religious
sympathies, and what is his exact place among historians,
you have rather avoided discussing. There is still some-

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thing to say on these points/ To Tennyson Mr. Gladstone CHAP,
believed himself to have been unjust, especially in the pas- s X "
sages of Maud devoted to the war-frenzy, and when he came
to reprint the article he admitted that he had not sufficiently
remembered that he was dealing with a dramatic and ima-
ginative composition. 1 As he frankly said of himself, he
was not strong in the faculties of the artist, but perhaps
Tennyson himself in these passages was prompted much
more by politics than by art. Of this piece of retractation
the poet truly said, ' Nobody but a noble-minded man would
have done that/ 2 Mr. Gladstone would most likely have
chosen to call his words a qualification rather than a recan-
tation. In either case, it does not affect passages that give
the finest expression to one of the very deepest convictions
of his life, — that war, whatever else we may choose to say
of it, is no antidote for Mammon- worship and can never be a
cure for moral evils : —

It is, indeed, true that peace has its moral perils and tempta-
tions for degenerate man, as has every other blessing, without
exception, that he can receive from the hand of God. It is more-
over not less true that, amidst the clash of arms, the noblest forms
of character may be reared, and the highest acts of duty done ;
that these great and precious results may be due to war as their
cause ; and that one high form of sentiment in particular, the love
of country, receives a powerful and general stimulus from the
bloody strife. But this is as the furious cruelty of Pharaoh made
place for the benign virtue of his daughter; as the butchering
sentence of Herod raised without doubt many a mother's love
into heroic sublimity ; as plague, as famine, as fire, as flood, as
every curse and every scourge that is wielded by an angry Provi-
dence for the chastisement of man, is an appointed instrument for
tempering human souls in the seven-times heated furnace of afflic-
tion, up to the standard of angelic and archangelic virtue.

War, indeed, has the property of exciting much generous and
noble feeling on a large scale ; but with this special recommenda-
tion it has, in its modern forms especially, peculiar and unequalled
evils. As it has a wider sweep of desolating power than the rest,
1 Gleanings, ii. p. 147. * Lift, i. p. 398.

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BOOK so it has the peculiar quality that it is more susceptible of being
t * - decked in gaudy trappings, and of fascinating the imagination of
those whose proud and angry passions it inflames. But it is, on
this very account, a perilous delusion to teach that war is a cure
for moral evil, in any other sense than as the sister tribulations
are. The eulogies of the frantic hero in Maud, however, deviate
into grosser folly. It is natural that such vagaries should over-
look the fixed laws of Providence. Under these laws the mass
of mankind is composed of men, women, and children who can
but just ward off hunger, cold, and nakedness ; whose whole ideas
of Mammon-worship are comprised in the search for their daily
food, clothing, shelter, fuel ; whom any casualty reduces to positive
want; and whose already low estate is yet further lowered and
ground down, when ' the blood-red blossom of war flames with its
heart of fire. , . . .

Still war had, in times now gone by, ennobling elements and
tendencies of the less sordid kind. But one inevitable charac-
teristic of modern war is, that it is associated throughout in all
particulars, with a vast and most irregular formation of com-
mercial enterprise. There is no incentive to Mammon- worship so
remarkable as that which it affords. The political economy of
war is now one of its most commanding aspects. Every farthing,
with the smallest exceptions conceivable, of the scores or hundreds
of millions which a war may cost, goes directly, and very violently,
to stimulate production, though it is intended ultimately for waste
or for destruction. Even apart from the fact that war suspends,
ipso facto, every rule of public thrift, and tends to sap honesty
iteelf in the use of the public treasure for which it makes such
unbounded calls, it therefore is the greatest feeder of that lust of
gold which we are told is the essence of commerce, though we had
hoped it was only its occasional besetting sin. It is, however,
more ^han this ; for the regular commerce of peace is tameness
itself compared with the gambling spirit which war, through the
rapid shif tings and high prices which it brings, always introduces
into trade. In its moral operation it more resembles, perhaps the
finding of a new gold-field, than anything else.

More remarkable than either of these two is his piece on
Leopardi (1850), the Italian poet, whose philosophy and

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frame of mind, said Mr. Gladstone, ' present more than any CHAP,
other that we know, more even than that of Shelley, the*
character of unrelieved, unredeemed desolation — the very
qualities in it which attract pitying sympathy, depriving it
of all seductive power/ It is curious that he should have
selected one whose life lay along a course like Leopardi's for
commemoration, as a man who in almost every branch of
mental exertion seems to have had the capacity for attain-
ing, and generally at a single bound, the very highest excel-
lence. ' There are many things/ he adds, ' in which Christians
would do well to follow him : in the warmth of his attach-
ments ; in the moderation of his wants ; in his noble freedom
from the love of money; in his all-conquering assiduity/ 1
Perhaps the most remarkable sentence of all is this : — ' . . .
what is not needful, and is commonly wrong, namely, is to pass
a judgment on our fellow-creatures. Never let it be forgotten
that there is scarcely a single moral action of a single man
of which other men can have such a knowledge, in its
ultimate grounds, its surrounding incidents, and the real
determining causes of its merits, as to warrant their pro-
nouncing a conclusive judgment upon it/

The translation of poetry into poetry, as Coleridge said, is
difficult because the translator must give brilliancy without
the warmth of original conception, from which such
brilliancy would follow of its own accord. But we must not
judge Mr. Gladstone's translation either of Horace's odes or
of detached pieces from Greek or Italian, as we should judge
the professed man of letters or poet like Coleridge himselt
His pieces are the diversions of the man of affairs, with
educated tastes and interest in good literature. Perhaps the
best single piece is his really noble rendering of Manzoni's
noble ode on the death of Napoleon ; for instance : —

From Alp to farthest Pyramid,

From Rhine to Mansanar,
How sure his lightning's flash foretold
His thunderbolts of war 1
To Don from Scilla's height they roar,
From North to Southern shore.

1 Gleanings, ii. p. 129.

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BOOR And this was glory ? After-men,

X. Judge the dark problem. Low

We to the Mighty Maker bend
The while, Who planned to show
What Taster mould Creative Will
With him could fill

As on the shipwrecked mariner

The weltering wave's descent —
The wave, o'er which, a moment since,
For distant shores he bent
And bent in vain, his eager eye ;
So on that stricken head
Came whelming down the mighty Past

How often did his pen
Essay to tell the wondrous tale
For after times and men,
And o'er the lines that could not die
His hand lay dead.

How often, as the listless day
In silence died away,
He stood with lightning eye deprest,
And arms across his breast,

And bygone years, in rushing train,

Smote on his soul amain :

The breezy tents he seemed to see,
And the battering cannon's course,
And the flashing of the infantry,
And the torrent of the horse, t

And, obeyed as soon as heard,
Th 1 ecstatic word.

Always let us remember that his literary life was part
of the rest of his life, as literature ought to be. He was
no mere reader of many books, used to relieve the strain
of mental anxiety or to slake the thirst of literary or in-
tellectual curiosity. Reading with him in the days of his
full vigour was a habitual communing with the master
spirits of mankind, as a vivifying and nourishing part of lifa
As we have seen, he would not read Dante in the session,
nor unless he could have a large draught. Here as else-
where in the ordering of his days he was methodical,
systematic, full.

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Though man of action, yet Mr. Gladstone too has a place
by character and influences among what we may call the
abstract, moral, spiritual forces that stamped the realm of
Britain in his age. In a new time, marked in an incompar-
able degree by the progress of science and invention, by vast
mechanical, industrial, and commercial development, he
accepted it all, he Adjusted his statesmanship to it all, nay,
he revelled in it all, as tending to ameliorate the lot of the
' mass of men, women, and children who can just ward off
hunger, cold, and nakedness/ He did not rail at his age, he
strove to help it Following Walpole and Cobden and, Peel
in the policies of peace, he knew how to augment the material
resources on which our people depend. When was Britain
stronger, richer, more honoured among the nations — I do
not say always among the diplomatic chanceries and
governments — than in the years when Mr. Gladstone was
at the zenith of his authority among us ? When were her
armed forces by sea and land more adequate for defence of
every interest ? When was her material resource sounder ?
When was her moral credit higher? Besides all this, he
upheld a golden lamp.

The unending revolutions of the world are for ever bring-
ing old phases uppermost again. Events from season to
season are taken to teach sinister lessons, that the Real is
the only Rational, force is the test of right and wrong, the
state has nothing to do with restraints of morals, the ruler
is emancipated. Speculations in physical science were dis-
torted for alien purposes, and survival of the fittest was taken
to give brutality a more decent name. Even new concep-
tions and systems of history may be twisted into release of
statesmen from the conscience of Bishop Butler's plain man.
This gospel it was Mr. Gladstone's felicity to hold at bay.
Without bringing back the cosmopolitanism of the eighteenth
century, without sharing all the idealisms of the middle of
the nineteenth, he resisted with his whole might the odious
contention that moral progress in the relations of nations
and states to one another is an illusion and a dream.

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BOOK This vein perhaps brings us too near to the regions of
^' . dissertation. Let us rather leave off with thoughts and
memories of one who was a vivid example of public duty
and of private faithfulness ; of a long career that with every
circumstance of splendour, amid all the mire and all the
poisons of the world, lighted up in practice even for those
who have none of his genius and none of his power his
own precept, 'Be inspired with the belief that life is a
great and noble calling; not a mean and grovelling thing,
that we are to shuffle through as we can, but an elevated
and lofty destiny/

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Vol. I. page 82
Mr Gladstone to his Father

Cuddesdon, Aug. 4, 1830. — My beloved Father, — I have a good
while refrained from addressing you on a subject of importance
and much affecting my own future destiny, from a supposition that
your time and thoughts have been much occupied for several
months past by other matters of great interest in succession.
Now, however, believing you to be more at leisure, I venture to
bring it before you. It is, as you will have anticipated, the
decision of the profession to which I am to look forward for life.
Above eighteen months have now passed since you spoke to me of
it at Seaforth, and most kindly desired me, if unable then to make
up my mind to go into the law, to take some time to consider
calmly of the whole question.

It would have been undutiful to trouble you with a recurrence
of it, until such a period had been suffered to elapse, as would
suffice to afford, by the effects it should itself produce, some fair
criterion and presumption of the inclination which my mind was
likely to adopt in reference to the final decision. At the same time
it would also have been undutiful, and most repugnant to my
feelings, to permit the prolongation of that intervening period to
such an extent, as to give the shadow of a reason to suppose that
anything approaching to reserve had been the cause of my silence.
The present time seems to lie between these two extremes, and
therefore to render it incumbent on me to apprise you of the state
of my own views.

I trust it is hardly necessary to specify my knowledge that when
I speak of 'the state of my own views on this question, I do so
not of right but by sufferance, by invitation from you, by that
more than parental kindness and indulgence with which I have
ever met at my parents' hands, which it would be as absurd to
make a matter of formal acknowledgment as it would be impossible
to repay, and for which I can only say, and I say it from the
bottom of my heart, may God reward them with his best and
choicest gifts, eternal, unfading in the heavens.

If then I am to advert to the disposition of my own mind as


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regards this matter, I cannot avoid perceiving that it has inclined
to the ministerial office, for what has now become a considerable
period, with a bias at first uncertain and intermittent, but which has
regularly and rapidly increased in force and permanence. It has
not been owing as far as I can myself discern, to the operation of
any external cause whatever ; nor of internal ones to any others
than those which work their effects in the most gradual and imper-
ceptible manner. Day after day it has grown upon and into my
habit of feeling and desire. It has been gradually strengthened by
those small accessions of power, each of which singly it would be
utterly impossible to trace, but which collectively have not only
produced a desire of a certain description, but have led me by
reasonings often weighed and sifted and re-sifted to the best of
my ability, to the deliberate conclusion which I have stated
above. I do not indeed mean to say that there has been no time
within this period at which I have felt a longing for other pursuits;
but such feelings have been unstable and temporary ; that which I
now speak of is the permanent and habitual inclination of my
mind. And such too, I think, it is likely to continue ; as far at
least -as I can venture to think I see anything belonging to the
future, or can anticipate the continuance of any one desire, feeling,
or principle, in a mind so wayward and uncertain as my own — so
far do I believe that this sentiment will remain.

It gives me pain, great pain, to communicate anything which I
have even the remotest apprehension can give the slightest annoy-
ance to you. I trust this will not do so; although Ifear it may.
But though fearing it may, I feel it is my duty to do it : because I
have only these three alternatives before me. First, to delay
communication to some subsequent opportunity : but as I have
no fair prospect of being able then to convey a different statement,
this plan would be attended with no advantage whatever, as far as
I can see. Secondly, to dissemble my feelings : an alternative on
which if I said another word I should be behaving undufcifully and
wickedly towards you. Thirdly, to follow the course I have now
chosen, I trust with no feelings but those of the most profound
affection, and of unfeigned gfief that as far as my own view is con-
cerned, I am unable to make it coincide with yours. I say, as far
as my own view goes, because I do not now see that my own view
can, or ought to stand for a moment in the way of your desires.
In the hands of my parents, therefore, I am left. But lest you
should be led to suppose that I have never reasoned with myself
on this matter, but yielded to blind impulses or transitory whims,
I will state, not indeed at length, but with as much simplicity and
clearness as I am able, some of the motives which seem to me to
urge me with an irresistible accumulation of moral force, to this
conclusion, and this alone. In the first place, I would say that my
own state and character is not one of them ; nor, I believe, could
any views of that character be compatible with their existence and
reception, but that in which it now appears to me : namely, as one
on which I can look with no degree of satisfaction whatever, and

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for the purification of which I can only direct my eyes and offer
up my prayers to the throne of God.

First, then, with reference to the dignity of this office, I know
none to compare with it ; none which can compete with the grandeur
of its end or of its means — the end, the glory of God, and the
means, the restoration of man to that image of his Maker which is
now throughout the world so lamentably defaced. True indeed
it is, that there are other fields for the use and improvement of all
which God lends to us, which are wide, dignified, beneficial,
desirable : desirable in the first and highest degree, if we had not
this. But as long as this field continues, and as long as it continues
unfilled, I do not see how I am to persuade myself that any
powers, be they the meanest or the greatest, can be so profitably
or so nobly employed as in the performance of this sublime duty.
And that this field is not yet filled, how can any one doubt who
casts his eyes abroad over the moral wilderness of this world, who
contemplates the pursuits, desires, designs, and principles of the
beings that move so busily in it to and fro, without an object
beyond the finding food, be it mental or bodily, for the present
moment or the present life — it matters little which — or beyond
ministering to the desires, under whatever modification they may
appear, of self-will and self-love f When I look to the standard of
habit and principle adopted in the world at large, and then divert
my eyes for a moment from that spectacle to the standard fixed and
the picture delineated in the book of revelation, then, my beloved
father, the conviction flashes on my soul with a moral force I cannot
resist, and would not if I coula, that the vineyard still wants
labourers, that ' the kingdoms of this world are not yet become the
kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ, ' and that till they are
become such, till the frail race of Adam is restored to the know-
ledge and the likeness of his Maker, till universally and throughout
the wide world the will of God is become our delight, and its
accomplishment our first and last desire, there can be no claim so
solemn and imperative as that which even nc-w seems to call to us
with the voice of God from heaven, and to say * I have given Mine
own Son for this rebellious and apostate world, the sacrifice is offered
and accepted, but you, you who are basking in the sunbeams of
Christianity, you who are blessed beyond measure, and, oh, how
beyond desert in parents, in friends, in every circumstance and
adjunct that can sweeten your pilgrimage, why will you not bear
to fellow-creatures sitting in darkness and the shadow of death the
tidings of this universal and incomprehensible love ? '

In this, I believe, is included the main reason which influences
me ; a reason as full of joy as of glory : that transcendent reason,
in comparison with which every other object seems to dwindle into
utter and absolute insignificance. But I would not conceal from
you — why should I ? — that which I cannot conceal from myself :
that the darker side of this great picture sometimes meets me, and
it is vain that, shuddering, I attempt to turn away from it. My

Online LibraryJohn MorleyThe life of William Ewart Gladstone, Volume 2 → online text (page 72 of 91)