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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
By William Ewart Gladstone (1809–1898)
From ‘Gleanings of Past Years’

LORD MACAULAY lived a life of no more than fifty-nine years and three months. But it was an extraordinarily full life, of sustained exertion; a high table-land, without depressions. If in its outer aspect there be anything wearisome, it is only the wearisomeness of reiterated splendors, and of success so uniform as to be almost monotonous. He speaks of himself as idle; but his idleness was more active, and carried with it hour by hour a greater expenditure of brain power, than what most men regard as their serious employments. He might well have been, in his mental career, the spoiled child of fortune; for all he tried succeeded, all he touched turned into gems and gold. In a happy childhood he evinced extreme precocity. His academical career gave sufficient, though not redundant, promise of after celebrity. The new Golden Age he imparted to the Edinburgh Review, and his first and most important, if not best, Parliamentary speeches in the grand crisis of the first Reform Bill, achieved for him, years before he had reached the middle point of life, what may justly be termed an immense distinction.  1
  For a century and more, perhaps no man in this country, with the exceptions of Mr. Pitt and of Lord Byron, had attained at thirty-two the fame of Macaulay. His Parliamentary success and his literary eminence were each of them enough, as they stood at this date, to intoxicate any brain and heart of a meaner order. But to these was added, in his case, an amount and quality of social attentions such as invariably partake of adulation and idolatry, and as perhaps the high circles of London never before or since have lavished on a man whose claims lay only in himself, and not in his descent, his rank, or his possessions….  2
  One of the very first things that must strike the observer of this man is, that he was very unlike to any other man. And yet this unlikeness, this monopoly of the model in which he was made, did not spring from violent or eccentric features of originality, for eccentricity he had none whatever, but from the peculiar mode in which the ingredients were put together to make up the composition. In one sense, beyond doubt, such powers as his famous memory, his rare power of illustration, his command of language, separated him broadly from others: but gifts like these do not make the man; and we now for the first time know that he possessed, in a far larger sense, the stamp of a real and strong individuality. The most splendid and complete assemblage of intellectual endowments does not of itself suffice to create an interest of the kind that is, and will be, now felt in Macaulay. It is from ethical gifts alone that such an interest can spring.  3
  These existed in him not only in abundance, but in forms distant from and even contrasted with the fashion of his intellectual faculties, and in conjunctions which come near to paradox. Behind the mask of splendor lay a singular simplicity; behind a literary severity which sometimes approached to vengeance, an extreme tenderness; behind a rigid repudiation of the sentimental, a sensibility at all times quick, and in the latest times almost threatening to sap, though never sapping, his manhood. He who as speaker and writer seemed above all others to represent the age and the world, had the real centre of his being in the simplest domestic tastes and joys. He for whom the mysteries of human life, thought, and destiny appear to have neither charm nor terror, and whose writings seem audibly to boast in every page of being bounded by the visible horizon of the practical and work-day sphere, yet in his virtues and in the combination of them; in his freshness, bounty, bravery; in his unshrinking devotion both to causes and to persons; and most of all, perhaps, in the thoroughly inborn and spontaneous character of all these gifts,—really recalls the age of chivalry and the lineaments of the ideal. The peculiarity, the differentia (so to speak) of Macaulay seems to us to lie in this: that while as we frankly think, there is much to question—nay, much here and there to regret or even censure—in his writings, the excess, or defect, or whatever it may be, is never really ethical, but is in all cases due to something in the structure and habits of his intellect. And again, it is pretty plain that the faults of that intellect were immediately associated with its excellences: it was in some sense, to use the language of his own Milton, “dark with excessive bright.”…  4
  His moderation in luxuries and pleasures is the more notable and praiseworthy because he was a man who, with extreme healthiness of faculty, enjoyed keenly what he enjoyed at all. Take in proof the following hearty notice of a dinner a quattr’ occhi to his friend: “Ellis came to dinner at seven. I gave him a lobster curry, woodcock, and macaroni. I think that I will note dinners, as honest Pepys did.”  5
  His love of books was intense, and was curiously developed. In a walk he would devour a play or a volume. Once, indeed, his performance embraced no less than fourteen Books of the Odyssey. “His way of life,” says Mr. Trevelyan, “would have been deemed solitary by others; but it was not solitary to him.” This development blossomed into a peculiar specialism. Henderson’s ‘Iceland’ was “a favorite breakfast-book” with him. “Some books which I would never dream of opening at dinner please me at breakfast, and vice versá!” There is more subtlety in this distinction than could easily be found in any passage of his writings. But how quietly both meals are handed over to the dominion of the master propensity! This devotion, however, was not without its drawbacks. Thought, apart from books and from composition, perhaps he disliked; certainly he eschewed. Crossing that evil-minded sea the Irish Channel at night in rough weather, he is disabled from reading; he wraps himself in a pea-jacket and sits upon the deck. What is his employment? He cannot sleep, or does not. What an opportunity for moving onward in the processes of thought, which ought to weigh on the historian! The wild yet soothing music of the waves would have helped him to watch the verging this way or that of the judicial scales, or to dive into the problems of human life and action which history continually is called upon to sound. No, he cared for none of this. He set about the marvelous feat of going over ‘Paradise Lost’ from memory, when he found he could still repeat half of it. In a word, he was always conversing, or recollecting, or reading, or composing; but reflecting never.  6
  The laboriousness of Macaulay as an author demands our gratitude; all the more because his natural speech was in sentences of set and ordered structure, well-nigh ready for the press. It is delightful to find that the most successful prose writer of the day was also the most painstaking. Here is indeed a literary conscience. The very same gratification may be expressed with reference to our most successful poet, Mr. Tennyson. Great is the praise due to the poet; still greater, from the nature of the case, that share which falls to the lot of Macaulay. For a poet’s diligence is, all along, a honeyed work. He is ever traveling in flowery meads. Macaulay, on the other hand, unshrinkingly went through an immense mass of inquiry, which even he sometimes felt to be irksome, and which to most men would have been intolerable. He was perpetually picking the grain of corn out of the bushel of chaff. He freely chose to undergo the dust and heat and strain of battle, before he would challenge from the public the crown of victory. And in every way it was remarkable that he should maintain his lofty standard of conception and performance. Mediocrity is now, as formerly, dangerous, commonly fatal, to the poet; but among even the successful writers of prose, those who rise sensibly above it are the very rarest exceptions. The tests of excellence in prose are as much less palpable as the public appetite is less fastidious. Moreover, we are moving downward in this respect. The proportion of middling to good writing constantly and rapidly increases. With the average of performance, the standard of judgment progressively declines. The inexorable conscientiousness of Macaulay, his determination to put out nothing from his hand which his hand was still capable of improving, was a perfect godsend to the best hopes of our slipshod generation.  7
  It was naturally consequent upon this habit of treating composition in the spirit of art, that he should extend to the body of his books much of the regard and care which he so profusely bestowed upon their soul. We have accordingly had in him, at the time when the need was greatest, a most vigilant guardian of the language. We seem to detect rare and slight evidences of carelessness in his Journal: of which we can only say that in a production of the moment, written for himself alone, we are surprised that they are not more numerous and considerable. In general society, carelessness of usage is almost universal, and it is exceedingly difficult for an individual, however vigilant, to avoid catching some of the trashy or faulty usages which are continually in his ear. But in his published works his grammar, his orthography, nay, his punctuation (too often surrendered to the printer), are faultless. On these questions, and on the lawfulness or unlawfulness of a word, he may even be called an authority without appeal; and we cannot doubt that we owe it to his works, and to their boundless circulation, that we have not in this age witnessed a more rapid corruption and degeneration of the language.  8
  To the literary success of Macaulay it would be difficult to find a parallel in the history of recent authorship. For this and probably for all future centuries, we are to regard the public as the patron of literary men; and as a patron abler than any that went before to heap both fame and fortune on its favorites. Setting aside works of which the primary purpose was entertainment, Tennyson alone among the writers of our age, in point of public favor and of emolument following upon it, comes near to Macaulay. But Tennyson was laboriously cultivating his gifts for many years before he acquired a position in the eye of the nation. Macaulay, fresh from college in 1825, astonished the world by his brilliant and most imposing essay on Milton. Full-orbed, he was seen above the horizon; and full-orbed after thirty-five years of constantly emitted splendor, he sank beneath it.  9
  His gains from literature were extraordinary. The check for £20,000 is known to all. But his accumulation was reduced by his bounty; and his profits would, it is evident, have been far larger still had he dealt with the products of his mind on the principles of economic science (which however he heartily professed), and sold his wares in the dearest market, as he undoubtedly acquired them in the cheapest. No one can measure the elevation of Macaulay’s character above the mercenary level, without bearing in mind that for ten years after 1825 he was a poor and a contented man, though ministering to the wants of a father and a family reduced in circumstances; though in the blaze of literary and political success; and though he must have been conscious from the first of the possession of a gift which by a less congenial and more compulsory use would have rapidly led him to opulence. Yet of the comforts and advantages, both social and physical, from which he thus forbore, it is so plain that he at all times formed no misanthropic or ascetic, but on the contrary a very liberal and genial estimate. It is truly touching to find that never, except as a minister, until 1851, when he had already lived fifty years of his fifty-nine, did this favorite of fortune, this idol of society, allow himself the luxury of a carriage.  10
  It has been observed that neither in art nor letters did Macaulay display that faculty of the higher criticism which depends upon certain refined perceptions and the power of subtle analysis. His analysis was always rough, hasty, and sweeping, and his perceptions robust. By these properties it was that he was so eminently [Greek], not in the vulgar sense of an appeal to spurious sentiment, but as one bearing his reader along by violence, as the River Scamander tried to bear Achilles. Yet he was never pretentious; and he said frankly of himself that a criticism like that of Lessing in his ‘Laocoön,’ or of Goethe on ‘Hamlet,’ filled him with wonder and despair. His intense devotion to the great work of Dante is not perhaps in keeping with the general tenor of his tastes and attachments, but is in itself a circumstance of much interest.  11
  We remember however at least one observation of Macaulay’s in regard to art, which is worth preserving. He observed that the mixture of gold with ivory in great works of ancient art—for example, in the Jupiter of Phidias—was probably a condescension to the tastes of the people who were to be the worshipers of the statue; and he noticed that in Christian times it has most rarely happened that productions great in art have also been the objects of warm popular veneration….  12
  It has been felt and pointed out in many quarters that Macaulay as a writer was the child, and became the type, of his country and his age. As fifty years ago the inscription “Bath” used to be carried on our letter-paper, so the word “English” is, as it were, in the water-mark of every leaf of Macaulay’s writing. His country was not the Empire, nor was it the United Kingdom. It was not even Great Britain. Though he was descended in the higher, that is the paternal, half from Scottish ancestry, and was linked specially with that country through the signal virtues, the victorious labors, and the considerable reputation of his father Zachary,—his country was England. On this little spot he concentrated a force of admiration and of worship which might have covered all the world. But as in space, so in time, it was limited. It was the England of his own age.  13
  The higher energies of his life were as completely summed up in the present as those of Walter Scott were projected upon the past. He would not have filled an Abbotsford with armor and relics of the Middle Ages. He judges the men and institutions and events of other times by the instruments and measures of the present. The characters whom he admires are those who would have conformed to the type that was before his eyes: who would have moved with effect in the court, the camp, the senate, the drawing-room of to-day. He contemplates the past with no desiderium, no regretful longing, no sense of things admirable which are also lost and irrecoverable. Upon this limitation of his retrospects it follows in natural sequence that of the future he has no glowing anticipations, and even the present he is not apt to contemplate on its mysterious and ideal side. As in respect to his personal capacity of loving, so in regard to the corresponding literary power. The faculty was singularly intense, and yet it was spent within a narrow circle. There is a marked sign of this narrowness, in his disinclination even to look at the works of contemporaries whose tone or manner he disliked.  14
  It appears that this dislike, and the ignorance consequent upon it, applied to the works of Carlyle. Now, we may have much or little faith in Carlyle as a philosopher or as a historian. Half-lights and half-truths may be the utmost which, in these departments, his works will be found to yield. But the total want of sympathy is the more noteworthy, because the resemblances, though partial, are both numerous and substantial between these two remarkable men and powerful writers, as well in their strength as in their weakness. Both are honest; and both, notwithstanding honesty, are partisans. Each is vastly, though diversely, powerful in expression; and each is more powerful in expression than in thought. Both are, though variously, poets using the vehicle of prose. Both have the power of portraitures, extraordinary for vividness and strength. For comprehensive disquisition, for balanced and impartial judgments, the world will probably resort to neither; and if Carlyle gains on the comparison in his strong sense of the inward and the ideal, he loses in the absolute and violent character of his one-sidedness. Without doubt, Carlyle’s licentious though striking peculiarities of style have been of a nature allowably to repel, so far as they go, one who was so rigid as Macaulay in his literary orthodoxy, and who so highly appreciated, and with such expenditure of labor, all that relates to the exterior or body of a book. Still, if there be resemblances so strong, the want of appreciation, which has possibly been reciprocal, seems to be partly of that nature which Aristotle would have explained by his favorite proverb, [Greek]. 1 The discrepancy is like the discrepancy of colors that are too near. Carlyle is at least a great fact in the literature of his time, and has contributed largely,—in some respects too largely,—toward forming its characteristic habits of thought. But on these very grounds he should not have been excluded from the horizon of a mind like Macaulay’s, with all its large and varied and most active interests….  15
  There have been other men of our own generation, though very few, who if they have not equaled have approached Macaulay in power of memory, and who have certainly exceeded him in the unfailing accuracy of their recollections; and yet not in accuracy as to dates or names or quotations, or other matters of hard fact, when the question was one simply between ay and no. In these he may have been without a rival. In a list of kings, or popes, or senior wranglers, or prime ministers, or battles, or palaces, or as to the houses in Pall Mall or about Leicester Square, he might be followed with implicit confidence. But a large and important class of human recollections are not of this order: recollections for example of characters, of feelings, of opinions; of the intrinsic nature, details, and bearings of occurrences. And here it was that Macaulay’s wealth “was unto him an occasion of falling.” And that in two ways. First, the possessor of such a vehicle as his memory could not but have something of an overweening confidence in what it told him; and quite apart from any tendency to be vain or overbearing, he could hardly enjoy the benefits of that caution which arises from self-interest, and the sad experience of frequent falls. But what is more, the possessor of so powerful a fancy could not but illuminate with the colors it supplied, the matters which he gathered into his great magazine, wherever the definiteness of their outline was not so rigid as to defy or disarm the action of the intruding and falsifying faculty. Imagination could not alter the date of the battle of Marathon, of the Council of Nice, or the crowning of Pepin; but it might seriously or even fundamentally disturb the balance of light and dark in his account of the opinions of Milton or of Laud, or his estimate of the effects of the Protectorate or the Restoration, or of the character and even the adulteries of William III. He could detect justly this want of dry light in others; he probably suspected it in himself; but it was hardly possible for him to be enough upon his guard against the distracting action of a faculty at once so vigorous, so crafty, and so pleasurable in its intense activity.  16
  Hence arose, it seems reasonable to believe, that charge of partisanship against Macaulay as a historian, on which much has been and probably much more will be said. He may not have possessed that scrupulously tender sense of obligation, that nice tact of exact justice, which is among the very rarest as well as the most precious of human virtues. But there never was a writer less capable of intentional unfairness. This during his lifetime was the belief of his friends, but was hardly admitted by opponents. His biographer has really lifted the question out of the range of controversy. He wrote for truth, but of course for truth such as he saw it; and his sight was colored from within. This color, once attached, was what in manufacture is called a mordant; it was a fast color: he could not distinguish between what his mind had received and what his mind had imparted. Hence, when he was wrong, he could not see that he was wrong; and of those calamities which are due to the intellect only, and not the heart, there can hardly be a greater….  17
  However true it may be that Macaulay was a far more consummate workman in the manner than in the matter of his works, we do not doubt that the works contain, in multitudes, passages of high emotion and ennobling sentiment, just awards of praise and blame, and solid expositions of principle, social, moral, and constitutional. They are pervaded by a generous love of liberty; and their atmosphere is pure and bracing, their general aim and basis morally sound. Of the qualifications of this eulogy we have spoken, and have yet to speak. But we can speak of the style of the works with little qualification. We do not indeed venture to assert that his style ought to be imitated. Yet this is not because it was vicious, but because it was individual and incommunicable. It was one of those gifts of which, when it had been conferred, Nature broke the mold. That it is the head of all literary styles we do not allege; but it is different from them all, and perhaps more different from them all than they are usually different from one another. We speak only of natural styles, of styles where the manner waits upon the matter, and not where an artificial structure has been reared either to hide or to make up for poverty of substance.  18
  It is paramount in the union of ease in movement with perspicuity of matter, of both with real splendor, and of all with immense rapidity and striking force. From any other pen, such masses of ornament would be tawdry; with him they are only rich. As a model of art concealing art, the finest cabinet pictures of Holland are almost his only rivals. Like Pascal, he makes the heaviest subject light; like Burke, he embellishes the barrenest. When he walks over arid plains, the springs of milk and honey, as in a march of Bacchus, seem to rise beneath his tread. The repast he serves is always sumptuous, but it seems to create an appetite proportioned to its abundance; for who has ever heard of the reader that was cloyed with Macaulay? In none, perhaps, of our prose writers are lessons such as he gives of truth and beauty, of virtue and of freedom, so vividly associated with delight. Could some magician but do for the career of life what he has done for the arm-chair and the study, what a change would pass on the face (at least) of the world we live in, what an accession of recruits would there be to the professing followers of virtue!…  19
  The truth is that Macaulay was not only accustomed, like many more of us, to go out hobby-riding, but from the portentous vigor of the animal he mounted was liable more than most of us to be run away with. His merit is that he could keep his seat in the wildest steeple-chase; but as the object in view is arbitrarily chosen, so it is reached by cutting up the fields, spoiling the crops, and spoiling or breaking down the fences needful to secure for labor its profit, and to man at large the full enjoyment of the fruits of the earth. Such is the overpowering glow of color, such the fascination of the grouping in the first sketches which he draws, that when he has grown hot upon his work he seems to lose all sense of the restraints of fact and the laws of moderation; he vents the strangest paradoxes, sets up the most violent caricatures, and handles the false weight and measure as effectively as if he did it knowingly. A man so able and so upright is never indeed wholly wrong. He never for a moment consciously pursues anything but truth. But truth depends, above all, on proportion and relation. The preterhuman vividness with which Macaulay sees his object, absolutely casts a shadow upon what lies around; he loses his perspective; and imagination, impelled headlong by the strong consciousness of honesty in purpose, achieves the work of fraud. All things for him stand in violent contrast to one another. For the shadows, the gradations, the middle and transition touches, which make up the bulk of human life, character, and action, he has neither eye nor taste. They are not taken account of in his practice, and they at length die away from the ranges of his vision.  20
  In Macaulay all history is scenic; and philosophy he scarcely seems to touch, except on the outer side, where it opens into action. Not only does he habitually present facts in forms of beauty, but the fashioning of the form predominates over, and is injurious to, the absolute and balanced presentation of the subject. Macaulay was a master in execution, rather than in what painting or music terms expression. He did not fetch from the depths, nor soar to the heights; but his power upon the surface was rare and marvelous, and it is upon the surface that an ordinary life is passed and that its imagery is found. He mingled, then, like Homer, the functions of the poet and the chronicler: but what Homer did was due to his time; what Macaulay did, to his temperament.  21
  The ‘History’ of Macaulay, whatever else it may be, is the work not of a journeyman but of a great artist, and a great artist who lavishly bestowed upon it all his powers. Such a work, once committed to the press, can hardly die. It is not because it has been translated into a crowd of languages, nor because it has been sold in hundreds of thousands, that we believe it will live; but because, however open it may be to criticism, it has in it the character of a true and very high work of art….  22
  Whether he will subsist as a standard and supreme authority is another question. Wherever and whenever read, he will be read with fascination, with delight, with wonder. And with copious instruction too; but also with copious reserve, with questioning scrutiny, with liberty to reject and with much exercise of that liberty. The contemporary mind may in rare cases be taken by storm; but posterity, never. The tribunal of the present is accessible to influence; that of the future is incorrupt. The coming generations will not give Macaulay up; but they will probably attach much less value than we have done to his ipse dixit. They will hardly accept from him his net solutions of literary, and still less of historic problems. Yet they will obtain, from his marked and telling points of view, great aid in solving them. We sometimes fancy that ere long there will be editions of his works in which his readers may be saved from pitfalls by brief, respectful, and judicious commentary; and that his great achievements may be at once commemorated and corrected by men of slower pace, of drier light, and of more tranquil, broad-set, and comprehensive judgment. For his works are in many respects among the prodigies of literature; in some, they have never been surpassed. As lights that have shone through the whole universe of letters, they have made their title to a place in the solid firmament of fame. But the tree is greater and better than its fruit; and greater and better yet than the works themselves are the lofty aims and conceptions, the large heart, the independent, manful mind, the pure and noble career, which in this Biography have disclosed to us the true figure of the man who wrote them.  23
Note 1. Potter [detests] potter. [back]

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