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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:

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."

While many of Macaulay's essays are strongly biographical, aiming to bring his historical subjects to dramatic and blazing life, that on "Mr. Robert Montgomery's Poems" stands as the classic attack on literary "puffery," the artificial inflation of a writer's merit by his friends, minions, and publishers. The exaggerated dust jacket blurb is nothing new. Long ago Macaulay noted that "Some times the praise is laid on thick for simple-minded people. 'Pathetic,' 'sublime,' 'splendid,' 'graceful,' 'brilliant wit,' 'exquisite humor,' and other phrases equally flattering fall in a shower as thick and as sweet as the sugar-plums at a Roman carnival." Work after work is pronounced an immortal masterpiece, yet "how many 'profound views of human nature,' and 'vernal and sunny, and refreshing thoughts,' and .  .  . 'harmonies which dissolve the soul in a passionate sense of loveliness and divinity' the world has contrived to forget."

To my mind, the portrait of Madame D'Arblay--Frances Burney--displays Macaulay at his very finest, offering insightful appreciation of the early novels (especially Evelina), followed by criticism of the author's later prose (a natural style insidiously ruined by Johnsonese) and a scathing portrait of Burney's five years as a maid-in-waiting to the queen. By accepting this royal favor, the literary toast of London gradually dwindled into a sickly drudge:

Weak, feverish, hardly able to stand, Frances had still to rise before seven, in order to dress the sweet Queen, and to sit up till midnight in order to undress the sweet Queen. The indisposition of the handmaid could not, and did not, escape the notice of her royal mistress. But the established doctrine of the Court was, that all sickness was to be considered as a pretence until it proved fatal. The only way in which the invalid could clear herself from the suspicion of malingering, as it is called in the army, was to go on
lacing and unlacing, till she fell down dead at the royal feet.

Readers attracted to these wide-ranging and wonderfully entertaining essays should at least dip into George Otto Trevelyan's Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay. This is one of the great Victorian biographies, with telling details about the man behind the legend: One evening, we are told, Macaulay made 200 puns in a little over two hours. He had a weakness for the era's cheap romantic fiction, vaunted his ability to learn languages in a few months, and while in India took his pay from the Edinburgh Review in new books.

Best of all, we learn that the august Thomas Babington Macaulay was as vainly pleased as any modern author that his History of England was "something which shall for a few days supersede the last fashionable novel on the tables of young ladies."

Michael Dirda, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, is the author, most recently, of Classics for Pleasure.