1876 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Babington Macaulay

Robert Carruthers, in Chambers's Cyclopaedia of English Literature, 3rd ed. (1876; 1879) 6:65-69.



Thomas Babington Macaulay was born at Rothley Temple, the seat of his paternal uncle, on the 25th of October, 1800. At the age of twelve he was placed under the care of the Rev. Mr. Preston, first at Shelford, afterwards near Buntingford, in the neighborhood of Cambridge. As a schoolboy he was noted as being an insatiable reader; and he sent a defence of novel-reading to the serious journal of his father's friends, the Christian Observer. This passion for novel-reading adhered to him to the last. In his nineteenth year he was entered of Trinity College, Cambridge; he gained two prizes for English verse, one in 1819 on Pompeii, and one two years afterwards, on Evening. He gained the Craven scholarship in 1821, took his degree of B.A. in 1822, became Fellow of his college in 1824, and took his degree of M. A. in 1825. He had distinguished himself by contributions to Knight's Quarterly Magazine in 1823 and 1824; and in August, 1825 appeared his celebrated article on Milton in the Edinburgh Review. This essay, though afterwards condemned by its author as "containing scarcely a paragraph such as his matured judgment approved," and as "overloaded with gaudy and ungraceful ornament," arrested public attention in no ordinary degree, and was hailed as the precursor (which it proved to be) of a series of brilliant contributions to our critical literature. Having studied at Lincoln's Inn, Mr. Macaulay was called to the bar in 1826, and joined the Northern Circuit. In 1827, Lord Lyndhurst — generously discarding political feeling, as he did also in the case of Sydney Smith — appointed Macaulay Commissioner of Bankruptcy.

Three years afterwards, a distinguished Whig nobleman, the Marquis of Lansdowne, procured his return to Parliament for the borough of Calne, and he rendered effective service in the Reform debates of 1831 and 1832. The speeches of Macaulay were carefully studied and nearly all committed to memory, but were delivered with animation and freedom, though with too great rapidity and in too uniform a tone and manner to do full justice to their argument and richness of illustration. In 1832 he was appointed Secretary to the Board of Control, and the same year the citizens of Leeds returned him as their representative to the House of Commons. In 1834 he proceeded to India as legal advisor to the Supreme Council of Calcutta, and was placed at the head of a Commission for the reform of East India legislation. He took an active part in the preparation of the Indian criminal code, enriching it with explanatory notes, which are described as highly valuable. He returned to England in 1838, and in the following year was triumphantly and almost without expense returned to parliament for the city of Edinburgh, which he continued to represent until 1847. In the Melbourne administration he held the office of Secretary of War, and in that of Lord John Russell, Paymaster of the Forces, with a seat in the cabinet. During this time he had written most of his essays, and published his Lays of Ancient Rome.

As member for Edinburgh, his independence of character is said to have rendered him somewhat unaccommodating to certain of his constituents; his support of the Maynooth grant was resented by others; and his general political principles, so decidedly liberal, and so strongly and eloquently expressed, were opposed to the sentiments of the Conservative citizens of Edinburgh. Thus a combination of parties was formed against him, and it proved successful. He was rejected by his constituency at the general election of 1847. This defeat forms the subject of a striking copy of verses by Macaulay, but which were not published until after his death: part of these we subjoin. The electors of Edinburgh redeemed, or at least palliated, their error by returning Macaulay again to Parliament, free of expense, and without any movement on his part. This was in 1852. He had previously published the first two volumes of his History of England, which appeared in 1849, and were read with extraordinary avidity and admiration. Other two volumes were published in 1855, and a portion of a fifth volume after the death of the author. In 1849 he was elected Lord Rector of the university of Glasgow, and presented with the freedom of the city. While engaged on his History, Macaulay turned aside to confer a graceful and substantial favor on Mr. Adam Black, publisher, Edinburgh. Mr Black had solicited literary assistance from his distinguished friend for a new edition (the eighth) of his Encyclopedia Britannica. The request was complied with; "and," says Mr. Black, "it is but justice to his memory that I should record, as one of the many instances of his kindness and generosity of his heart, that he made it a stipulation of his contributing to the Encyclopedia that remuneration should not be so much as mentioned." On the generous footing, Macaulay contributed five carefully finished biographies — Atterbury, Bunyan, Goldsmith, Johnson, and Pitt — the last appearing in 1859. From failing health he withdrew from parliament in January 1856. In 1857 various honours were showered on the popular author; he was elected a foreign member of the French Academy, a member of the Prussian Order of Merit, High Steward of Cambridge, and a peer of Great Britain under the title of Baron Macaulay of Rothley. His health, however, was gone; he laboured under derangement of the action of the heart, and felt, says Dean Milman, "inward monitions: his ambition (as the historian of England) receded from the hope of reaching the close of the first Brunswicks; before his last illness he had reduced his plan to the reign of Queen Anne." His end, though not without warning to those who watched him with friendship and affection, was sudden and singularly quiet; on December 28, 1859, he fell asleep and woke not again. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, in Poets' Corner, his favourite haunt.