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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
John Morley (1838–1923)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
THE NOT infrequent union in English public life of the man of letters with the politician, is illustrated in the career of John Morley. In an address on the study of literature, delivered by him in 1887 to the students of the London Society for the Extension of University Teaching, he refers to the fact that he has strayed from literature into the region of politics, adding that he is “not at all sure that such a journey conduces to the aptness of one’s judgment on literary subjects.” Had Mr. Morley’s essays in criticism been concerned exclusively with literature, his political life might not have been of profit to him as a man of letters. As it is, his ‘Miscellanies’—studies of men and their times—and his biographies witness to the fruitful influence of actual contact with present-day affairs upon the critical spirit. Mr. Morley has enriched his literary products through his public life. The biographer of Richard Cobden, of Edmund Burke, and of Horace Walpole was certainly aided in his estimates of these statesmen by his own political experience; and in his estimates of Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot, by contact with the social-philosophic and humanitarian spirit of the extreme Gladstone party. It is significant that Mr. Morley chose as subjects of political biography, men identified with the more liberal tendencies of modern English statesmanship. He himself is a radical and a scientific idealist, who places his reliance upon the future rather than upon the past. His political career did not open, however, until he was well established as a writer and editor. Born at Blackburn, Lancashire, in 1838, he was educated at Cheltenham, and at Lincoln College, Oxford, where he obtained his B. A. in 1859. Ten years later he was an unsuccessful candidate to Parliament for his native place. In the meantime he had undertaken the editorship of the Fortnightly Review, a position which he held from 1867 to 1882. Mr. Morley’s sound literary sense, and his well-developed critical faculty, were put to valuable use in the conduct of this important periodical. He drew to his aid men like George Henry Lewes, Bagehot, and Cairnes. The apparently insignificant innovation of signing articles was due to his influence. His editorial qualifications were further exhibited in his conduct of the Pall Mall Gazette from 1880 to 1883, and of Macmillan’s Magazine from 1883 to 1885. From 1883, however, he was drawn more and more into a purely political career. He became Secretary for Ireland (1886), for India (1905), and President of the Council (1910), resigning on the outbreak of the War.  1
  In Morley’s essays and biographies he exhibits the same spirit of radicalism which has governed his political career. He is drawn naturally to a consideration of those writers, thinkers, and statesmen whose influence upon their times has been in the direction of essentially modern ideals of government and social constitution, or who have stood as representatives of a new order in opposition to the old. For this reason Mr. Morley has found congenial subjects of critical biography in the French philosophers and thinkers of the eighteenth century. His studies of Vauvenargues, of Turgot, of Condorcet, of Diderot, are written in a spirit of sympathetic criticism which witnesses to his divination of the dominating social and political forces of a given era, and to his recognition of the concrete expression of these forces in the individual. In this sense his life of Rousseau is a study of French politics in the eighteenth century. The author of the ‘Social Contract,’ although more of a vaporist and dreamer than a politician, exerted a strong influence upon the political temper of his own and later times. Mr. Morley traces this influence through the social and political confusions of the Revolution, and into the readjusting forces of the nineteenth century, where it gives birth to those “schemes of mutualism, and all other shapes of collective action for a common social good, which have possessed such commanding attraction for the imagination of large classes of good men in France ever since.” In his elaborate analysis of the ‘Social Contract,’ Mr. Morley displays his own insight into difficult problems of society and of politics. His modern habit of mind is shown in his appreciation of the time-spirit as the most reliable interpreter of the phenomena of history. He is indeed a historical critic rather than a creator in the domain of literature. He has used the essay more as a vehicle for his political reflections than for itself as a literary product. He possesses, however, ideals of style which are high, exacting, and comprehensive. These are expressed in his clear, strong English, compactly fitted to his thought. He has given to the literature of his century a not inconsiderable body of vigorous and well-tempered prose. His later works are ‘Cromwell’ (1900), ‘Literary Essays’ (1906), and ‘Notes on Politics’ (1914).  2

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