British Poet,Historian, Essayist, Biographer, Secretary of War, Paymaster-General and Whig Politician
Thomas Macaulay, fully Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1st Baron Macaulay
British Poet,Historian, Essayist, Biographer, Secretary of War, Paymaster-General and Whig Politician
This contented despondency, this disposition to admire what has been done, and to expect that nothing more will be done, is strongly characteristic of all the schools which preceded the school of Fruit and Progress. Widely as the Epicurean and the Stoic differed on most points, they seem to have quite agreed in their contempt for pursuits so vulgar as to be useful. The philosophy of both was a garrulous, declaiming, canting, wrangling philosophy. Century after century they continued to repeat their hostile war-cries, Virtue and Pleasure; and in the end it appeared that the Epicurean had added as little to the quantity of pleasure as the Stoic to the quantity of virtue. It is on the pedestal of Bacon, not on that of Epicurus, that those noble lines ought to be inscribed:
Those who roused the people to resistance, who directed their measures through a long series of eventful years, who formed, out of the most unpromising materials, the finest army that Europe had ever seen, who trampled down King, Church, and Aristocracy, who, in the short intervals of domestic sedition and rebellion, made the name of England terrible to every nation on the face of the earth, were no vulgar fanatics. Most of their absurdities were mere external badges, like the signs of freemasonry, or the dresses of friars. We regret that these badges were not more attractive. We regret that a body to whose courage and talents mankind has owed inestimable obligations had not the lofty elegance which distinguished some of the adherents of Charles the First, or the easy good-breeding for which the court of Charles the Second was celebrated. But, if we must make our choice, we shall, like Bassanio in the play, turn from the specious caskets which contain only the Death’s head and the Fool’s head, and fix on the plain leaden chest which conceals the treasure.
To punish a man because we infer from the nature of some doctrine which he holds, or from the conduct of other persons who hold the same doctrines with him, that he will commit a crime, is persecution, and is, in every case, foolish and wicked.
We are free, we are civilized, to little purpose, if we grudge to any portion of the human race an equal measure of freedom and civilization.
We led them [the people of India] to believe that we attached no importance to the difference between Christianity and heathenism. Yet how vast that difference is! I altogether abstain from alluding to topics which belong to divines. I speak merely as a politician anxious for the morality and the temporal well-being of society. And, so speaking, I say that to countenance the Brahminical idolatry, and to discountenance that religion which has done so much to promote justice, and mercy, and freedom, and arts, and sciences, and good government, and domestic happiness, which has struck off the chains of the slave, which has mitigated the horrors of war, which has raised women from servants and playthings into companions and friends, is to commit high treason against humanity and civilization.
We think that, as civilization advances, poetry almost necessarily declines. Therefore, though we fervently admire those great works of imagination which have appeared in dark ages, we do not admire them the more because they have appeared in dark ages. On the contrary, we hold that the most wonderful and splendid proof of genius is a great poem produced in a civilized age. We cannot understand why those who believe in that most orthodox article of literary faith, that the earliest poets are generally the best, should wonder at the rule as if it were the exception. Surely the uniformity of the phenomenon indicates a corresponding uniformity in the cause.
When I was at Naples, I went with Signor Manso, a gentleman of excellent parts and breeding, who had been the familiar friend of that famous poet Torquato Tasso, to see the burning mountain Vesuvius. I wondered how the peasants could venture to dwell so fearlessly and cheerfully on its sides, when the lava was flowing from its summit; but Manso smiled, and told me that when the fire descends freely they retreat before it without haste or fear. They can tell how fast it will move, and how far; and they know, moreover, that, though it may work some little damage, it will soon cover the fields over which it hath passed with rich vineyards and sweet flowers. But, when the flames are pent up in the mountain, then it is that they have reason to fear; then it is that the earth sinks, and the sea swells; then cities are swallowed up, and their place knoweth them no more. So it is in politics: where the people is most closely restrained, there it gives the greatest shocks to peace and order; therefore would I say to all kings, Let your demagogues lead crowds, lest they lead armies; let them bluster, lest they massacre: a little turbulence is, as it were, the rainbow of the state; it shows indeed that there is a passing shower; but it is a pledge that there shall be no deluge.
Words, and more words, and nothing but words, had been all the fruit of all the toil of all the most renowned sages of sixty generations. But the days of this sterile exuberance were numbered.
The true distinction is perfectly obvious. To punish a man because we infer from the nature of some doctrine which he holds, or from the conduct of other persons who hold the same doctrines with him, that he will commit a crime, is persecution, and is, in every case, foolish and wicked.
There are thus, it seems, two great truths which the Utilitarian philosophy is to communicate to mankind, two truths which are to produce a revolution in morals, in laws, in governments, in literature, in the whole system of life. The first of these is speculative; the second is practical. The speculative truth is, that the greatest happiness is the greatest happiness. The practical rule is very simple; for it imports merely that men should never omit, when they wish for anything, to wish for it, or, when they do anything, to do it! It is a great comfort to us to think that we readily assented to the former of these great doctrines as soon as it was stated to us; and that we have long endeavoured, as far as human frailty would permit, to conform to the latter in our practice. We are, however, inclined to suspect that the calamities of the human race have been owing less to their not knowing that happiness was happiness than to their not knowing how to obtain it,—less to their neglecting to do what they did, than to their not being able to do what they wished, or not wishing to do what they ought.
There is, in one respect, a remarkable analogy between the faces and the minds of men. No two faces are alike; and yet very few faces deviate very widely from the common standard. Among the eighteen hundred thousand human beings who inhabit London there is not one who could be taken by his acquaintance for another; yet we may walk from Paddington to Mile End without seeing one person in whom any feature is so overcharged that we turn round to stare at it. An infinite number of varieties lies between limits which are not very far asunder. The specimens which pass those limits on either side form a very small minority.
This distinction runs through all the imitative arts. Foote’s mimicry was exquisitely ludicrous, but it was all caricature. He could take off only some strange peculiarity, a stammer or a lisp, a Northumbrian burr or an Irish brogue, a stoop or a shuffle. If a man, said Johnson, hops on one leg, Foote can hop on one leg. Garrick, on the other hand, could seize those differences of manner and pronunciation which, though highly characteristic, are yet too slight to be described. Foote, we have no doubt, could have made the Haymarket theatre shake with laughter by imitating a conversation between a Scotchman and a Somersetshireman. But Garrick could have imitated a conversation between two fashionable men, both models of the best breeding, Lord Chesterfield, for example, and Lord Albemarle, so that no person could doubt which was which, although no person could say that, in any point, either Lord Chesterfield or Lord Albemarle spoke or moved otherwise than in conformity with the best usages of the best society.
Those who seem to lead the public taste, are, in general, merely outrunning it in the direction it is spontaneously pursuing.
To punish public outrages on morals and religion is unquestionably within the competence of rulers. But when a government, not content with requiring decency, requires sanctity, it oversteps the bounds which mark its proper functions. And it may be laid down as a universal rule that a government which attempts more than it ought will perform less.
We blame Dryden, not because the persons of his dramas are not Moors or Americans, but because they are not men and women;—not because love, such as he represents it, could not exist in a harem or in a wigwam, but because it could not exist anywhere. As is the love of his heroes, such are all their other emotions. All their qualities, their courage, their generosity, their pride, are on the same colossal scale. Justice and prudence are virtues which can exist only in a moderate degree, and which change their nature and their name if pushed to excess. Of justice and prudence, therefore, Dryden leaves his favourites destitute. He did not care to give them what he could not give without measure. The tyrants and ruffians are merely the heroes altered by a few touches, similar to those which transformed the honest face of Sir Roger de Coverley into the Saracen’s head. Through the grin and frown the original features are still perceptible.
We manage these things better in England. Sir Walter Scott gives us a novel; Mr. Hallam, a critical and argumentative history. Both are occupied with the same matter. But the former looks at it with the eye of a sculptor. His intention is to give an express and lively image of its external form. The latter is an anatomist. His task is to dissect the subject to its inmost recesses, and to lay bare before us all the springs of motion and all the causes of decay.
We will now proceed to examine the reply which Mr. Sadler has thought fit to make to our arguments. He begins by attacking our remarks on the origin of evil. They are, he says, too profound for common apprehension; and he hopes that they are too profound for our own. That they seem profound to him we can well believe. Profundity, in its secondary as in its primary sense, is a relative term. When Grilling was nearly drowned in the Brobdignagian cream-jug, he doubtless thought it very deep. But to common apprehension our reasoning would, we are persuaded, appear perfectly simple. The theory of Mr. Malthus, says Mr. Sadler, cannot be true, because it asserts the existence of a great and terrible evil, and is therefore inconsistent with the goodness of God. We answer thus: We know that there are in the world great and terrible evils. In spite of these evils, we believe in the goodness of God. Why may we not then continue to believe in his goodness, though another evil should be added to the list?
When it is said that Virgil, though he had less genius than Homer, was a more correct writer, what sense is attached to the word correctness? Is it meant that the story of the Æneid is developed more skilfully than that of the Odyssey? that the Roman describes the face of the external world, or the emotions of the mind, more accurately than the Greek? that the characters of Achates and Mnestheus are more nicely discriminated, and more consistently supported, than those of Achilles, of Nestor, and of Ulysses? The fact incontestably is that, for every violation of the fundamental laws of poetry which can be found in Homer, it would be easy to find twenty in Virgil.
Ye diners out from whom we guard our spoons.
He had a wonderful talent for packing thought close, and rendering it portable.
History, at least in its state of ideal perfection, is a compound of poetry and philosophy. It impresses general truths on the mind by a vivid representation of particular characters and incidents. But, in fact, the two hostile elements of which it consists have never been known to form a perfect amalgamation; and, at length, in our own time, they have been completely and professedly separated. Good histories, in the proper sense of the word, we have not. But we have good historical romances, and good historical essays. The imagination and the reason, if we may use a legal metaphor, have made partition of a province of literature of which they were formerly seised per my et per tout; and now they hold their respective portions in severalty, instead of holding the whole in common.
I turn with pleasure from these wretched performances to Mr. Cary’s translation. It is a work which well deserves a separate discussion, and on which, if this article were not already too long, I could dwell with great pleasure. At present I will only say that there is no other version in the world which so fully proves that the translator is himself a man of poetical genius. Those who are ignorant of the Italian language should read it to become acquainted with the Divine Comedy. Those who are most intimate with Italian literature should read it for its original merits; and I believe that they will find it difficult to determine whether the author deserve; most praise for his intimacy with the language of Dante, or for his extraordinary mastery over his own.
If we consider merely the subtlety of disquisition, the force of imagination, the perfect energy and elegance of expression, which characterize the great works of Athenian history, we must pronounce them intrinsically most valuable; but what shall we say when we reflect that from hence have sprung directly or indirectly all the noblest creations of the human intellect; that from hence were the vast accomplishments and the brilliant fancy of Cicero; the withering fire of Juvenal; the plastic imagination of Dante; the humour of Cervantes; the comprehension of Bacon; the wit of Butler; the supreme and universal excellence of Shakespeare? All the triumphs of truth and genius over prejudice and power, in every country and in every age, have been the triumphs of Athens. Wherever a few great minds have made a stand against violence and fraud, in the cause of liberty and reason, there has been her spirit in the midst of them; inspiring, encouraging, consoling;—by the lonely lamp of Erasmus; by the restless bed of Pascal; in the tribune of Mirabeau; in the cell of Galileo; on the scaffold of Sidney. But who shall estimate her influence on private happiness? Who shall say how many thousands have been made wiser, happier, and better, by those pursuits in which she has taught mankind to engage: to how many the studies which took their rise from her have been wealth in poverty,—liberty in bondage,—health in sickness,—society in solitude? Her power is indeed manifested at the bar, in the senate, in the field of battle, in the schools of philosophy. But these are not her glory. Wherever literature consoles sorrow, or assuages pain,—wherever it brings gladness to eyes which fail with wakefulness and tears, and ache for the dark house and the long sleep,—there is exhibited, in its noble form, the immortal influence of Athens.
In our time, the audience of a member of Parliament is the nation. The three or four hundred persons who may be present while a speech is delivered may be pleased or disgusted by the voice and action of the orator; but, in the reports which are read the next day by hundreds of thousands, the difference between the noblest and the meanest figure, between the richest and the shrillest tones, between the most graceful and the most uncouth gesture, altogether vanishes. A hundred years ago scarcely any report of what passed within the walls of the House of Commons was suffered to get abroad. In those times, therefore, the impression which a speaker might make on the persons who actually heard him was everything. His fame out of doors depended entirely on the report of those who were within the doors. In the Parliaments of that time, therefore, as in the ancient commonwealths, those qualifications which enhance the immediate effect of a speech were far more important ingredients in the composition of an orator than at present. All those qualifications Pitt possessed in the highest degree. On the stage he would have been the finest Brutus or Coriolanus ever seen.
In what sense, then, is the word correctness used by those who say, with the author of the Pursuits of Literature, that Pope was the most correct of English poets, and that next to Pope came the late Mr. Gifford? What is the nature and value of that correctness, the praise of which is denied to Macbeth, to Lear, and to Othello, and given to Hoole’s translations and to all the Seatonian prize-poems? We can discover no eternal rule, no rule founded in reason and in the nature of things, which Shakespeare does not observe much more strictly than Pope. But if by correctness he meant the conforming to a narrow legislation which, while lenient to the mala in se, multiplies, without the show of a reason, the mala prohibita, if by correctness he meant a strict attention to certain ceremonious observances, which are no more essential to poetry than etiquette to good government, or than the washings of a Pharisee to devotion, then, assuredly, Pope may be a more correct poet than Shakespeare; and, if the code were a little altered, Colley Cibber might be a more correct poet than Pope. But it may well be doubted whether this kind of correctness be a merit, nay, whether it be not an absolute fault.