The Magazine

High Victorian Eye

On reading Lord Macaulay's 'Literary Essays'

Nov 3, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 08 • By MICHAEL DIRDA
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Not long ago, I acquired for seven dollars a handsome Oxford University Press edition, published in 1937, of Macaulay's Literary Essays. For years I had been meaning to read more of this acknowledged master of English prose, best known for his classic History of England. This was, after all, Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859), and even as a kid in junior high school I used to murmur those gravely sonorous syllables with something approaching awe. Thomas Babington Macaulay was more a stately procession, with trumpets, than just a name.

I did know a little about Macaulay before beginning to read his essays: For instance, it was his puckish habit to introduce the most arcane references and allusions with the phrase "As every schoolboy knows." He originated what is now called the "Whig" theory of history (roughly, that things get better and better as the superstitious centuries advance toward the enlightened present). During his early and middle life, he served both in the House of Commons and as an Indian administrator, where he helped organize the colony's English-based educational system.

In my own boyhood I had even enjoyed his stirring, if overlong, anthem to Roman patriotism and courage, commonly called "Horatius at the Bridge": And how can man die better / Than facing fearful odds, / For the ashes of his fathers / And the temples of his gods. Sometime in college I also happened to read the History of England's famous third chapter, a tour de force survey of life in the commonwealth around 1685, and the entry on Samuel Johnson for the Encyclopedia Britannica. Celebrated as a dazzling example of "romantic rhetoric," Macaulay's article was still being used as late as 1910 in the Britannica's revered 11th edition.

It was the promise of enjoying more of this elegant, measured, and often witty prose that attracted me to the Literary Essays. For much of his writing career, Macaulay contributed regularly to the Edinburgh Review, where he used new books as the opportunity to examine the poets, thinkers, and subjects that interested his wide-ranging mind. Generally, his more historical pieces--on, say, the impeachment of Warren Hastings--have been regarded as his true masterpieces in the short form. Yet those essays struck me, perhaps wrongly, as almost too narrowly British in their focus, whereas the literary reflections cover such world-renowned figures as Machiavelli, Bacon, Milton,
John Bunyan, William Congreve, Joseph Addison, Boswell and Johnson, and many others.

As Macaulay himself recognized, his periodical journalism tended to a certain critical asperity, as well as a serene categorical absolutism in its judgments. (Lord Melbourne once complained, "I wish I were as cocksure of any one thing as Macaulay is of everything.") But at this date such pointed stings and arrows only contribute to the fun. One turns the pages of these digressive minibiographies--of 60, 90, or a 100 and more pages--simply to enjoy the literary fireworks.

Here, for instance, is Macaulay's portrait of Byron and Byronism:

Never had any writer so vast a command of the whole eloquence, of scorn, misanthropy, and despair. .  .  .From maniac laughter to piercing lamentation, there was not a single note of human anguish of which he was not master. Year after year, and month after month, he continued to repeat that to be wretched is the destiny of all; that to be eminently wretched is the destiny of the eminent; that all the desires by which we are cursed lead alike to misery, if they are not gratified, to the misery of disappointment if they are gratified, to the misery of satiety. His heroes are men who have arrived by different roads to the same goal of despair, who are sick of life, who are at war with society, who are supported in their anguish only by an unconquerable pride resembling that of Prometheus on the rock or of Satan in the burning marl, who can master their agonies by the force of their will, and who, to the last, defy the whole power of earth and heaven. He always described himself as a man of the same kind with his favourite creations, as a man whose heart had been withered, whose capacity for happiness was gone and could not be restored, but whose invincible spirit dared the worst that could befall him here or hereafter.

He then goes on to undercut Lord Byron's romantic self-image, even while he laments its deleterious power: