Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/Lord Macaulay
It is a common complaint among authors and lovers of literature in Great Britain that their country does not know how to honour and reward literary eminence and service. They bid us look to France, where authors are made peers and ministers of state; and to America, where the homage which we English pay to birth is paid to literary or forensic eminence; and to some of the German Courts, where great authors may be found in the cabinets of sovereigns. In England, it is said, there are no honours for literature; no rewards except its own earnings; whereas there are no natural reasons why offices requiring intellectual ability should not be assigned as prizes in the race of literature; and the deserts of laborious and devoted authorship are surely as good a ground for grace from the Fountain of Honour—the sovereign—as the services of eminent soldiers and seamen and lawyers, if not statesmen. In England, an author who has disclosed to the people at large the history of their country, or some kingdom of nature, or some glorious realm of imagination, may be worshipped by crowds wherever he turns, may be dear to the nation’s heart while living, and mourned by all its millions when dead; and yet have no notice from government, may never enter a royal palace, and may die untitled, and be buried in an ordinary family grave, leaving to his descendants no trace of his greatness but the fact and its natural results. Such is the view taken by a good many persons who ought to know something of literary life and literary men.
Others are of opinion that it would be a change for the worse, and a degradation of letters, to form an arbitrary connexion between authorship and office, between literary desert and conventional honours. They look towards France and America, and believe they see that great authors are by no means ennobled by a peerage, or truly rewarded by the possession of office. They believe that to make politicians and office-holders of men of letters is to spoil two vocations for no benefit whatever. The literary peer is out of his element at court or in council; and the student finds official business a sore burden—consuming his time and wearing out the energies he wants to devote to his own pursuit. It is no grace, these objectors say, to add a conventional, and therefore inferior, honour to the natural honour of popular homage; and it is no kindness to a man whose life is occupied by a favourite pursuit, requiring his whole mind, to impose upon him a different kind of business which must take just so much time from that which he prefers. Either the official place is a sinecure, and its emoluments a pension under a false name, or its business, which might as well be done by another man, deprives society of good books by breaking up the leisure and singleness of aim necessary to their production.
Such is the reply to the dissatisfied. For my part, I agree in the reply: and we ought to remember that Macaulay took the same view in his review of Fanny Burney’s Diary, expressing very plainly his disgust at the cruelty, vanity, and folly of placing her at court, as a reward for her novels, admirable in their day. The reviewer observed that Dr. Burney seems to have been as bad a father as a decently good man could be, in disregarding the natural tendencies and affections of his daughter, and that he seemed to think going to Court much the same thing as going to Heaven. So said Macaulay, wisely and truly, about a case which is only a strong example of what the dissatisfied are asking for—Macaulay himself being destined to afford a conspicuous illustration of the combination of literary and arbitrary distinction—of honours won by genius and those which are bestowed by state patronage and royal grace.
Persons who know that essay of Mrs. Barbauld on the “Inconsistency of Human Expectations,” which Charles James Fox declared to be the best essay in the English language, will inevitably be reminded of it as often as they hear any discussion on the subject of giving peerages or offices to illustrious authors. As the high-souled man who prefers self-respect to wealth ought not to grudge riches to the mean dirty fellow who made himself a mean and dirty fellow for the sake of riches; as the man of intellectual pursuits, refreshed by “a perpetual spring of fresh ideas,” ought not to be jealous of the fame and success of the man who lives in a crowd; so it is folly and want of spirit for the man of letters, and especially the author, to covet the objects of men who breathe a different atmosphere from his own, and do a very different kind of work, to earn the rewards they seek. So teaches Mrs. Barbauld’s essay; and, in the opinion of many wise men besides Fox, her doctrine is the true one. To each man his own work and its rewards. If the work be appointed by natural genius, its natural rewards will follow, transcending all others. If the work be conventional, let it win conventional rewards. The painful spectacle is seeing the winners of the higher recompense stooping to covet the lower, or their friends dishonouring them by complaining on their behalf.
In Lord Macaulay we have a very interesting illustration of the combination of the two orders of recompense; and it is one which we can contemplate and remark on without pain or reproach, because no sort of blame can attach to his memory on the score of infidelity to literature for the sake of ambition. Not only singularly gifted but singularly placed, his was a special case, and his honours had a double origin. The question hereafter will be,—as it is for us now,—not whether the illustrious man was lowered by his peerage and his state-offices, but whether he is not now, and will not always be, remembered for other things, when these incidents of his career drop out of sight. In an age when the rising generation of noblemen are not satisfied with being peers, but aspire to personal distinction of their own winning, as authors, statesmen, artists, or travellers, it cannot be but unreasonable to anticipate that society may forget that Macaulay was ever Secretary at War, or a peer, though his peerage is understood to have been a tribute to his literary eminence.
His case was complex, as his powers were diversified. He was descended from the noted Scotch clan which possessed the island of Lewis, the line being carried down to him through the Presbyterian church, of which his grandfather was a minister in the Highlands. The religious element was strong in his ancestry; and hence his keen knowledge of the Puritan struggle in Great Britain and elsewhere; and hence also, most probably, his failure in apprehending the various phases of religious belief and feeling in India, and the consequent ill-success of his labours there. In no ancestor was the religious element stronger than in his own father, the venerable Zachary Macaulay, a devout member of the Clapham church, and one of the very best of the anti-slavery band which issued from that sect. During a long life he worked diligently, suffered much, and sacrificed everything that stood in the way of his advocacy of human freedom as the right of all human beings. With him it was no work of imagination. What he saw with his own eyes in Jamaica, in his youth, induced him to go to Sierra Leone, and live there for several years, operating against the slave-trade with all his might; and when he came home, it was to follow up the same work, which he did to his latest day. It seems as if his son had heard too much about it at an early age, when children become easily wearied of any subject which engrosses the family attention or conversation; or rather, on going out into the world they find that the home topic is only one of a wide range, and are tempted to neglect it in proportion to the previous over-estimate. Thus it seems to have been with Thomas Babington Macaulay, who once, when he was four-and-twenty, gratified his father by an eloquent and vehement anti-slavery speech, and then turned away from the subject for ever. It may be a good thing for society that he showed no sympathy with philanthropic aims and efforts. We have men enough to carry out that tendency of our time; and some of us may think that we are riding the hobby of the age too hard, and getting our minds into nets, and injuring the independence of other people’s minds and affairs. Macaulay turned his back on that phase of society, very early; and it was not long before he won away his generation from an exclusive attention to it.
His pursuits were literature and law, with a distant purpose of statesmanship. He had strong ambition; and the statesmanship was to gratify this. He must have a profession; and the law was to provide one. He had the literary faculties in rare excellence, and literature was therefore his passion at first, and his true calling and supreme glory afterwards. His oratory was literature; his conversation was literature, and if his most idolatrous admirers were wont to declare that he had early distinguished himself in every walk he could try,—in college study, as an orator, an essayist, a poet, an historian, a politician, and a lawyer, the claim might be admitted if it was understood that all this was done by treating each case in a literary method. By his college studies his marvellous memory was exercised to its full capacity, and his active but not profound or comprehensive imagination was gratified, and trained to singular flexibility. His poetry, then, and later, was no work of an imagination which had been born and fostered amidst deep thought and openness to the influences of nature; but rather a recitation of impressions derived from classical study. His speeches in parliament were historical or literary essays, and his conversation was full of every kind of material derivable from books. As to his law, the less said about it the better, except as an auxiliary to his study of history. He went to India to make laws for the people there, and the attempt was a failure. He could not have succeeded better in the administration than in the making of laws, for he had not the requisite accuracy of mind.
With all his activity of imagination, and stores of knowledge, and rapidity of utterance, he had an indolence of mind which impaired his wondrous powers, and spoiled his highest achievements. He accepted and used whatever his prodigious memory offered to his use; and thus was the greatest plagiarist of his time. If a notion struck his imagination, he adopted it, without scruple, and without testing it: hence his unsoundness in statement of cases, his misrepresentations of character (as in the notorious case of William Penn), and his daring preference of effect to truth, as in the story of the Glencoe massacre. The same indolence probably went a long way in deterring him from a fair acknowledgment of mistake, as in the Penn case, where candour would have given him much trouble in altering his history to suit the facts of the great Quaker’s real character. The same indolence manifested itself in the slovenly definitions and loose prescriptions of his Indian Code, which bears the impress of the rhetorician rather than the legislator. His brilliant historical speculations, suggestive to all, and fresh to most readers, are to be read as suggestion, and by no means as truth or philosophy. On close examination, each one is probably found wanting in the statement of some essential consideration which would modify the whole. Indolence here again hindered the necessary work of testing, which every speculation should undergo, to the extent of a man’s whole faculty, before it is committed to the general minds. Macaulay enjoyed the speculation, and knew that others would enjoy it; and he did not care to inquire whether it was sound. In parliament, the same want of a sound basis was more conspicuous than in his writings; as in the instance of his speech on the Copyright question, when, in defiance at once of equity, of reason, of sympathy with the literary class, and of the plainest common sense, he assailed the rights of literary property, in a speech which was an insult to the understandings of all listeners. As a hearer said at the time, it remained to be explained what motive could be sufficient to induce a man to stultify himself as Macaulay did on that occasion. The levity with which, on the next occasion, he shifted to another ground, and hailed an opposite conclusion, was an equal mystery. Probably he spoke on both occasions from fleeting impressions.
It is impossible to avoid seeing that the heart, which is usually an attribute of genius, would have prevented both the indolence of mind and the looseness of conscience which these transactions prove only too clearly. But Macaulay lay under a disadvantage there. He heard too much of religious and benevolent sentiment at an untimely period of his life. He took refuge from weariness and satiety in these matters in literature and secular studies; and the life of sympathy was thenceforth closed to him. He was a man of a kindly nature when no special jealousy intervened; but he seemed not to need much human affection, within himself or towards himself. He never married; and he lived an intellectual life, except in as far as his ambition, and his somewhat Epicurean tendencies, were compatible with it. Hence his deficiency in the coherence of his reasoning, and in his interpretation of much of human conduct in history. The central fire which in such an intellectual constitution should have well fused the faculties, and rendered their work substantial, and its influences vital, was low and flickering. The organisation seemed to work rapidly and easily; but it was loose, and its produce, however brilliant, was superficial.
Singularly brilliant it was, however. The interest and charm of his Essays, especially, are quite out of the line of comparison with any others. While we had them as the exponent of the man, the fascination was irresistible; and we were tempted to overlook his unsoundness just as he was himself tempted to perpetrate it,—by the brilliancy and impetuosity of his conceptions and style. When his History began to appear, we were at first more enraptured than ever: then we wished for more of the repose of the true historical method; and when, by degrees, the inaccuracies were checked, and we observed that we were deprived of references, of dates, and of all the ordinary safeguards and tests of historical narration, we were compelled to regard the work as a romance of history, or eclectic presentment of it; and we lost half our pleasure in losing all our confidence. The effect was apparent in the reception of the second instalment; so that before we were aware of the extent to which the author’s health had failed, we doubted whether he would give us much more of his History. Not the less grieved are we now that it is for ever beyond our reach. No one can take up his work: no one can supply his place. The brightest genius of our time is extinguished; and his unfinished work will be the marvel of successive generations, for its pictures of character and action, its wealth of illustration, and the ingenuity and attractiveness of its speculations.
His oratory was very like his writings. His conversation was even more striking than either, because it evidenced a readiness of power scarcely believed in by those who saw how ill he succeeded in debate. The want was, not in readiness of command of his resources, but in sympathy which would enable him to meet the minds of opponents. He thought somewhat too well of himself, and much too contemptuously of antagonists, to make a successful debater.
Political life was, in fact, not the life for him. He was made for literature, and neither for law nor statesmanship. His splendid promise of thirty years ago issued in a certain amount of party service, in upholding an unpopular Whig administration, while he damaged his own position by fighting the battles of his friends through right and wrong with equal impetuosity. He was a Secretary of State for two years; but his work in the study has put that of the War Office out of sight. His peerage was bestowed when he had quitted political life; and it is therefore regarded as a royal acknowledgment of literary eminence. The case is complicated, however, by his services to successive Whig ministries; and, as it is not the habit of the present reign to honour literature, Lord Macaulay’s title will probably be ascribed, in the long run, to a political origin.
The best friends of literature will, perhaps, be those who thus regard the case. They may, at all events, confidently say that he will be remembered, and celebrated in future, as Macaulay, and not as a peer of the realm. If he had left heirs, his works would have been the most honoured of his offspring, though peers of his name were to sit as legislators for centuries to come. As no one grudged his honours, let no one now misinterpret them. He was favoured, on account of his talents, with early position and independence. He had the world before him to make out a career for himself, without drawback or hindrance. He had every opportunity,—every facility for doing what he would and could. What he did was to achieve a vast fame in literature, while substantially failing otherwise. He won intense and universal admiration; he indeed compelled it: but he did not engage much affection, nor inspire a deep interest, beyond that which always waits upon the working of rare faculties, and the achievement of a magnificent success.
Such was Macaulay. His life, its deeds and successes, rather tend to show the self-supporting and self-vindicating force of literature, than to encourage appeals to the Fountain of Honour and the treasury of recompense for the reward of its success. Macaulay would have been our most brilliant writer if he had never entered aristocratic society, or dreamed of entering either House of Parliament. And no author of any order of genius will be likely to illustrate his age and country, who aims at or desires adventitious honour, or who does not feel in the depth of his heart that literary toil is its own “exceeding great reward.”