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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
William Ewart Gladstone (1809–1898)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
IN view of his distinguished career, it is interesting to know that it was a part of Mr. Gladstone’s unresting ambition to take a place among the literary men of the time, and to guide the thoughts of his countrymen in literary as well as in political, social, and economic subjects. Mr. Gladstone’s preparation to become a man of letters was extensive. Born in Liverpool December 29th, 1809, he was sent to Eton and afterwards to Oxford, where he took the highest honors, and was the most remarkable graduate of his generation. His fellow students carried away a vivid recollection of his viva voce examination for his degree: the tall figure, the flashing eye, the mobile countenance, in the midst of the crowd who pressed to hear him, while the examiners plied him with questions till, tested in some difficult point in theology, the candidate exclaimed, “Not yet, if you please!” and began to pour forth a fresh store of learning and argument.  1
  From the university Mr. Gladstone carried away two passions—the one for Greek literature, especially Greek poetry, the other for Christian theology. The Oxford that formed these tastes was intensely conservative in politics, representing the aristocratic system of English society and the exclusiveness of the Established Church, whose creed was that of the fourth century. Ecclesiasticism is not friendly to literature; but how far Oxford’s most loyal son was permeated by ecclesiasticism is a matter of opinion. Fortunately, personality is stronger than dogma, and ideas than literary form; and Mr. Gladstone, than whom few men outside the profession of letters have written more, was always sure of an intelligent hearing. His discussion of a subject seemed to invest it with some of his own marvelous vitality; and when he selected a book for review, he was said to make the fortune of both publisher and author, if only the title was used as a crotchet to hang his sermon on.  2
  And this not merely because curiosity is excited concerning the opinion of the greatest living Englishman (for notwithstanding his political vacillations, his views on inward and higher subjects had little changed since his Oxford days, and could easily be prognosticated), but on account of the subtlety and fertility of his mind and the adroitness of his argument. Plunging into the heart of the subject, he is at the same time working round it, holding it up for inspection in one light and then in another, reasoning from this premise and that; while the string of elucidations and explanations grew longer and longer, and the atmosphere of complexity thickened. It was out of such an atmosphere that a barrister advised his client, a bigamist, to get Mr. Gladstone to explain away one of his wives.  3
  When Mr. Gladstone made his début as an author, he locked horns with Macaulay in the characteristic paper ‘Church and State’ (1837). He published his ‘Studies in Homer and the Homeric Age’ in 1858, ‘Juventus Mundi’ in 1869, ‘Homeric Synchronism’ in 1857. In 1879 most of his essays, political, social, economic, religious, and literary, written between 1843 and 1879, were collected in seven volumes, and appeared under the title of ‘Gleanings of Past Years.’ He has published a very great number of smaller writings.  4
  From that time until his death, neither his industry nor his energy abated; but he was probably at his best in the several remarkable essays on Blanco White, Bishop Patterson, Tennyson, Leopardi, and the position of the Church of England. The reader spoiled for the Scotch quality of weight by the “light touch” which is the graceful weapon of the age, wonders, when reading these essays, that Mr. Gladstone has not more assiduously cultivated the instinct of style,—sentence-making. Milton himself has not a higher conception of the business of literature; and when discussing these congenial themes, Mr. Gladstone’s enthusiasm does not degenerate into vehemence, nor does he descend from the high moral plane from which he viewed the world.  5
  It is the province of the specialist to appraise Mr. Gladstone’s Homeric writings; but even the specialist will not, perhaps, forbear to quote the axiom of the pugilist in the Iliad concerning the fate of him who would be skillful in all arts. No man is less a Greek in temperament, but no man cherishes deeper admiration for the Greek genius, and nowhere else is a more vivid picture of the life and politics of the heroic age held up to the unlearned. While the critic may question technical accuracy, or plausible structures built on insufficient data, the laity will remember how earnestly Mr. Gladstone insists that Homer is his own best interpreter, and that the student of the Iliad must go to the Greek text and not elsewhere for accurate knowledge.  6
  But Greek literature is only one of Mr. Gladstone’s two passions, and not the paramount one. That he would have been a great theologian had he been other than Mr. Gladstone, is generally admitted. And it is interesting to note that while he glories in the combats of the heroes of Hellas, his enthusiasm was as quickly kindled by the humilities of the early Church. He recognizes the prophetic quality of Homer, but he bows before the sublimer genius of an Isaiah, and sees in the lives and writings of the early Fathers the perfect bloom of human genius and character.  7
  Mr. Gladstone’s death occurred on May 19, 1898. In politics, in literature, in everything that concerned the world’s forward movement, his intellectual sympathies were universal, and he obtained the world’s recognition as the greatest statesman of his day.  8
 
 
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