Reference > Cambridge History > The Age of Johnson > Political Literature > Their substance and characteristics
  The Letters of Junius proper Their supremacy in slanderous polemic  

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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

XVII. Political Literature.

§ 22. Their substance and characteristics.


Yet these sentences betray in their sinister close the cast of Junius’s mind. There is an evil taint in his strength, which could not find satisfaction in impartial reasoning on political questions. This partisanship merges at once into personal hatred, and his rancour against his chief victim, Grafton, can hardly be accounted for on merely political grounds. His object is to wound and ruin, not only to overthrow. Scandal, true or false, is the weapon of his choice. “The great boar of the forest,” as Burke called him, loved the poison in which he dipped his tusks, and took a cruel pleasure in the torture he inflicted. Secure in his anonymity, no insult or counter-thrust could reach him. With frigid glee, he retorts upon accusations, which, of necessity, were vague and wide, by plausible insinuations against his opponents. “To him that knows his company,” said Dr. Johnson, “it is not hard to be sarcastic in a mask.” And Junius, thus gripped with the obvious realities of his position, found no reply to this sarcasm.   32
  But, however much he owed to his concealment and to his remarkable knowledge of the vulnerable points of his quarry (and, be it added, to the cunning with which he selected for his attack men who could not produce their defence), Junius holds a high position on his own literary merits. He was the most perfect wielder of slanderous polemic that had ever arisen in English political controversy. Not lack of rivals, but eminent ability, made him supreme in that ignoble competition. In invective which is uninformed by any generosity of feeling he stands unequalled. His sentences, brief, pithy and pungent, exhibit a delicate equilibrium in their structure. Short as they are, their rhythm goes to form the march of a period, and the cat-like grace of their evolution ends in the sudden, maiming wit of a malign epigram. Direct invective, lucid irony, dry sarcasm mingle with one another in the smooth-ranked phrases. A passage on George III and Grafton will show to what excellence Junius can rise:
There is surely something singularly benevolent in the character of our sovereign. From the moment he ascended the throne there is no crime of which human nature is capable (and I call upon the recorder  16  to witness it) that has not appeared venial in his sight. With any other prince, the shameful desertion of him in the midst of that distress, which you alone had created, in the very crisis of danger, when he fancied he saw the throne already surrounded by men of virtue and abilities, would have outweighed the memory of your former services. But his Majesty is full of justice, and understands the doctrine of compensations; he remembers with gratitude how soon you had accommodated your morals to the necessities of his service; how cheerfully you had abandoned the engagements of private friendship, and renounced the most solemn professions to the public. The sacrifice of Lord Chatham was not lost upon him. Even the cowardice and perfidy of deserting him may have done you no disservice in his esteem. The instance was painful, but the principle might please.
Junius possessed to perfection the art of climax.
  33

Note 16. Jas. Eyre, later chief justice, in whose court there had lately been condemned for murder two or three persons, who received the royal pardon. [ back ]

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  The Letters of Junius proper Their supremacy in slanderous polemic  
 
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