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Macaulay's Essays In European History Post by :Kim_Standerline Category :Essays Author :George Hamlin Fitch Date :November 2011 Read :767

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Macaulay's Essays In European History

THE FOREMOST ESSAYIST IN ENGLISH LITERATURE--HIS
STYLE AND LEARNING HAVE MADE MACAULAY A FAVORITE
FOR OVER A HALF CENTURY.

Macaulay belonged to the nineteenth century, as he was born in 1800, but in his cast of mind, in his literary tastes and in his intense partisanship he belonged to the century that includes Swift, Johnson and Goldsmith. He stands alone among famous English authors by reason of his prodigious memory, his wide reading, his oratorical style and his singular ascendancy over the minds of young students. The only writers of modern times who can be classed with him as great personal forces in the development of young minds are Carlyle and Emerson, and of the three Macaulay must be given first place because of a certain dynamic quality in the man and his style which forces conviction on the mind of the immature reader. The same thing to a less extent is true of Carlyle, who suffers in his influence as one grows older. Emerson is in a class by himself. His appeal is that of pure reason and of high enthusiasm--an appeal that never loses its force with those who love the intellectual life.

Many famous men have testified to the mental stimulus which they received from Macaulay's essays. Upon these essays, contributed to the EDINBURGH REVIEW in its prime, Macaulay lavished all the resources of his vast scholarship, his discursive reading in the ancient and modern classics, his immense enthusiasm and his strong desire to prove his case. He was a great advocate before he was a great writer, and he never loses sight of the jury of his readers. He blackens the shadows and heightens the lights in order to make heroes out of Clive and Warren Hastings; he hammers Boswell and Boswell's editor, Croker, over the sacred head of old Dr. Johnson; he lampoons every eminent Tory, as he idealizes every prominent Whig in English political history. Macaulay's style is declamatory; he wrote as though he were to deliver his essays from the rostrum; he abounds in antithesis; he works up your interest in the course of a long paragraph until he reaches his smashing climax, in which he fixes indelibly in your mind the impression which he desires to create. It is all like a great piece of legerdemain; your eyes cannot follow the processes, but your mind is amazed and then convinced by the triumphant proof of the conjuror's skill.

Macaulay had one of the most successful of lives. His early advantages were ample. He had a memory which made everything he read his own, ready to be drawn upon at a moment's notice. He was famous as an author at the early age of twenty-five; he was already a distinguished Parliamentary orator at thirty; at thirty-three he had gained a place in the East Indian Council. He never married, but he had an ideal domestic life in the home of his sister, and one of his nephews, George Otto Trevelyan, wrote his biography, one of the best in the language, which reveals the sweetness of nature that lay under the hard surface of Macaulay's character. He made a fortune out of his books, and in ten years' service in India he gained another fortune, with the leisure for wide reading, which he utilized in writing his history of England. He died at the height of his fame, before his great mental powers had shown any sign of decay. Take it all in all, his was a happy life, brimful of work and enjoyment.

Thomas Babington Macaulay was born October 25, 1800, the son of a wealthy merchant who was active in securing the abolition of the slave trade. His precocity is almost beyond belief. He read at three years of age, gave signs of his marvelous memory at four, and when only eight years old wrote a theological discourse. He entered Trinity College, Cambridge, at eighteen, but his aversion to mathematics cost him college honors. He showed at Cambridge great fondness for Latin declamation and for poetry. At twenty-four he became a fellow of Trinity. He studied law, but did not practice. Literature and politics absorbed his attention. At twenty-five he made his first hit with his essay on Milton in the EDINBURGH REVIEW.

This was followed in rapid succession by the series of essays on which his fame mainly rests. In 1830 he was elected to Parliament, and in the following year he established his reputation as an orator by a great speech on the reform bill. But financial reverses came when he lost the lucrative post of Commissioner in Bankruptcy and his fellowship at Trinity lapsed. To gain an income he accepted the position of secretary of the Board of Control of Indian Affairs, and soon after was offered a seat in the Supreme Council of India at Calcutta at $50,000 a year. He lived in India four years, and it was mainly in these years that he did the reading which afterward bore fruit in his History of England.

At thirty-nine Macaulay began his History of England, which continued to absorb most of his time for the next twenty years. While he was working on his history he published Lays of Ancient Rome, that had a success scarcely inferior to that of Scott's Lady of the Lake or Byron's Childe Harold. He also published his essays, which had a remarkable sale. His history, the first two volumes of which appeared in 1848, scored a success that astounded all the critics. When the third volume appeared in 1855, no less than twenty-six thousand, five hundred copies were sold in ten weeks, which broke all records of that day. Macaulay received royalties of over $150,000 on history, a sum which would have been trebled had he secured payment on editions issued in the United States, where his works were more popular than in his own country. His last years were crowded with honors. He accepted a peerage two years before his death. When the end came he was given a public funeral and a place in Westminster Abbey.

With Carlyle, Macaulay shares the honor of being the greatest of English essayists. While he cannot compare with Carlyle in insight into character and in splendor of imagination, he appeals to the wider audience because of his attractive style, his wealth of ornament and illustration and his great clearness. Carlyle's appeal is mainly to students, but Macaulay appeals to all classes of readers.

Macaulay's style has been imitated by many hands, but no one has ever worked such miracles as he wrought with apparent ease. In the first place, his learning was so much a part of his mind that he drew on its stores without effort. Scarcely a paragraph can be found in all his essays which is not packed with allusions, yet all seem to illustrate his subject so naturally that one never looks upon them as used to display his remarkable knowledge.

Macaulay is a master of all the literary arts. Especially does he love to use antithesis and to make his effects by violent contrasts. Add to this the art of skilful climax, clever alliteration, happy illustration and great narrative power and you have the chief features of Macaulay's style. The reader is carried along on this flood of oratorical style, and so great is the author's descriptive power that one actually beholds the scenes and the personages which he depicts.

Of all his essays Macaulay shows his great powers most conspicuously in those on Milton, Clive, Warren Hastings and Croker's edition of Boswell's Johnson. In these he is always the advocate laboring to convince his hearers; always the orator filled with that passion of enthusiasm which makes one accept his words for the time, just as one's mind is unconsciously swayed by the voice of an eloquent speaker. It is this intense earnestness, this fierce desire to convince, joined to this prodigal display of learning, which stamps Macaulay's words on the brain of the receptive reader. Only when in cold blood we analyze his essays do we escape from this literary hypnotism which he exerts upon every reader.

The essays of Macaulay are full of meat and all are worth reading, but, of course, every reader will differ in his estimate of them according to his own tastes and sympathies. It is fine practice to take one of these essays and look up the literary and historical allusions. No more attractive work than this can be set before a reading club. It will give rich returns in knowledge as well as in methods of literary study. Macaulay's History is not read to-day as it was twenty years ago, mainly because historical writing in these days has suffered a great change, due to the growth of religious and political toleration. Macaulay is a partisan and a bigot, but if one can discount much of his bias and bitterness it will be found profitable to read portions of this history. Macaulay's verse is not of a high order, but his Lays are full of poetic fire, and they appeal to a wider audience than more finished verse.

Of all the English writers of the last century Macaulay has preserved the strongest hold on the reading public, and whatever changes time may make in literary fashions, one may rest assured that Macaulay will always retain his grip on readers of English blood.


(The end)
George Hamlin Fitch's essay on: Macaulay's Essays In European History

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