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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The number of hopeful undergraduates and medical students who became things of dark imaginings, on whom the freshness of the heart ceased to fall like dew, whose passions had consumed themselves to dust, and to whom the relief of tears was denied, passes all calculation. This was not the worst. There was created in the minds of many of those enthusiasts a pernicious and absurd association between intellectual power and moral depravity. From the poetry of Lord Byron they drew a system of ethics, compounded
of misanthropy and voluptuousness, a system in which the two great commandments were, to hate your neighbour, and to love your neighbour's wife.

Today we seldom attempt such grand flights, but this is why it is so refreshing to turn to the older masters of English prose, especially those in the high oratorical tradition of Thomas Browne, Jeremy Taylor, Edward Gibbon, and Macaulay. They possess an organ roll that thrills us like a Bach toccata played in a great cathedral.

As a historian, Macaulay emphasized that circumstances, the spirit of the times, shape history, and that we should be careful not to judge the past by the temporary rules of today. In the brilliant essay on Machiavelli he risks the accusation of stereotyping to contrast the northern idolization of courage and headlong heroism with the southern appreciation of ingenuity and self-control. This honeyed worldliness can be glimpsed even in the Italian attitude toward the corrupt Renaissance papacy:

The people .  .  . had observed the whole machinery of the church, its saints and its miracles, its lofty pretensions and its splendid ceremonial, its worthless blessings and its harmless curses, too long and too closely to be duped. They stood behind the scenes on which others were gazing with childish awe and interest. They witnessed the arrangement of the pulleys, and the manufacture of the thunders. They saw the natural faces and heard the natural voices of the actors. Distant nations looked on the Pope as the vicegerent of the Almighty, the oracle of the Allwise, the umpire from whose decisions, in the disputes of either theologians or kings, no Christian ought to appeal. The Italians were acquainted with all the follies of his youth, and with all the dishonest arts by which he had attained power. They knew how often he had employed the keys of the church to release himself from the most sacred engagements, and its wealth to pamper his mistresses and nephews. The doctrines and rites of the established religion they treated with decent reverence. But though they still called themselves Catholics, they had ceased to be Papists.

In his literary opinions Macaulay can be astonishingly acute--finding Jane Austen second only to Shakespeare as a portrayer of human character--and frequently epigrammatic: "Dante's angels are good men with wings. His devils are spiteful ugly executioners. His dead men are merely living men in strange situations." Even though he loved the conversational wit of Samuel Johnson as displayed in Boswell's life, Macaulay blithely (and wrongly) dismisses the biographer as a nonentity and execrates Johnson's own Latinate prose: "All his books are written in a learned language, in a language which nobody hears from his mother or his nurse, in a language in which nobody ever quarrels, or drives bargains, or makes love, in a language in which nobody ever thinks."

Johnsonians have been battling this disparaging sentence for nearly two centuries now. But there is, of course, truth in it.

Throughout his essays Macaulay repeatedly alludes to classical authors, likes to use stories from the Arabian Nights to illustrate his points, and reveals his Evangelical upbringing in the easy pervasiveness of his biblical similitudes: "A time was at hand, when all the seven vials of the Apocalypse were to be poured forth and shaken out over those pleasant countries, a time of slaughter, famine, beggary, infamy, slavery, despair." Summarizing the polymath and politician Francis Bacon, he writes that "his understanding resembles the tent which the fairy Paribanou gave to Prince Ahmed. Fold it; and it seemed a toy for the hand of a lady. Spread it; and the armies of powerful Sultans might repose beneath its shade."