1774 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Edmund Burke

Z., "An Account of the Character of Edmund Burke" Westminster Magazine 2 (August 1774) 387-89.



This Gentleman was born in Ireland, and derived from a very respectable family in that Kingdom; but of what patrimony we are ignorant. His father was a Protestant, a man of good character, and of considerable practice in his profession, which was that of an attorney, and he designed this son for the Bar.

The story of his being a Roman Catholic, and educated at St. Omer's, is a mere piece of news-paper calumny, thrown out against him by some of the Ministerial assassins, hired to destroy the credit of every member in the Opposition with the Public. The history of his supposed amours, too, rests upon no better authority; and the novels of them are as poorly invented, as they are wretchedly written.

Not that I would puritanically defend a man from the charge of having indulged himself in the too general licence of his sex; but only mean to say, that "une affaire decidee," any marked intrigue, worthy to be called an anecdote, was never fairly imputable to him. As Polonius says,

Marry, none so rank as may dishonour him;
But, Sir, such wanton, wild, and usual slips,
As are companions noted, and most known,
To youth and liberty.

Mr. Burke's genius was of too superior and commanding a nature, to be prescribed to; and while he was a student in the Temple, he neglected Lyttelton, and read Longinus; to which lucky circumstance the world is obliged for a very ingenious Tract of his, intitled, On the Sublime and Beautiful. The attempt was, no doubt, hardy. The old Grecian had considered these subjects as one and the same thing; but the young Hibernian has very philosophically proved a considerable difference between them.

But it has been thought that his talents were not such as might have served to distinguish him at the Bar. He is said to have more of declamation, than argument in him; more of the Orator, than the Lawyer; and consequently fitter for the rostrum, than Westminster-hall. His imagination is warm and precipitate, and takes its air flight aloft, "while panting logic toils after it in vain."

And yet, to shew how Nature is sometimes liable to contradict and counter-act itself, in certain anomalous Geniuses, his chief industry has been to make himself perfectly acquainted with all the old musty records, patents, and precedents, in the kingdom, so as to render him master of Office-business, merely; from which misapplication of his talents, though he may be deemed incapacitated to be himself a Minister, no man in England is thought to be better qualified for a Secretary to one.

On his first entrance into life, he happened to be connected in a particular intimacy and friendship with a Mr. Hamilton, known by the agnomen of "Single-Speech," from a remarkable good one he once delivered, in the English House of Commons; and as this Gentleman has never since distinguished himself in the British Senate, upon any other occasion, Mr. Burke has been hitherto supposed to have been the composer of that oration.

And what has served to confirm the Public in this opinion, is, that some time after, when Mr. Hamilton went over to Ireland, as Secretary to the late Lord Halifax, appointed Lord Lieutenant of that kingdom, he carried his Mentor along with him, and had him placed on the Establishment there, for a pension of three hundred pounds a year.

But Mr. Hamilton happened to distinguish himself, again, by a second Speech, in the Irish Parliament; on a measure then adopted by that Government, for suffering ten Papist regiments to be raised in that kingdom, in Portugal, against Spain, with whom he was then at war. Mr. Burke was likewise here supposed to have been "the prompting Priest behind the hanging;" and as this happened to be "a popish question," too, it gave rise to the fiction, above hinted, of his having received his education, and principles at the College of St. Omer.

Afterwards, when Lord Rockingham became Prime Minister here, he appointed Mr. Burke to be his Secretary, and had him brought into Parliament. At this time Mr. Hamilton being engaged in a different interest, and claiming his prior attachment, as having been his first friend and patron, he, from a spirited punctilio of honour, immediately resigned the pension which had been procured him through Mr. Hamilton's former favour, and remained steadily connected with the Rockingham Administration, not only during its continuance, but to the same party, ever since.

When this noble patron had quitted the Ministry, he offered Mr. Burke a bill of a thousand pounds, in acknowledgment of his active and faithful services; which he as generously refused the acceptance of; as he has likewise done that of several considerable employs, which have been since tendered to him, with a view of detaching him from that connection.

He has been supposed the author of the Letters published some time ago, under the signature of Junius; but this is a mistake; for they are in a quite different stile from Mr. Burke's manner, either of speaking or writing. He is diffuse and flowery: Junius was concise and epigrammatic. The coincidence of particular sentiments and images, remarked in some of his speeches and these Letters, from whence this surmise has arisen, may be otherwise accounted for; and can only prove that Junius might have heard him speak, and had borrowed them from him.

Nor was Mr. Hamilton, nor Lord George Germaine, nor any of the several other persons who have been hitherto named, the author of those letters. This secret has been ever admirably well preserved; nor, indeed, was it possible to have detected it, from the stile, at least; as that writer had never published any thing, before; nor is it likely to be discovered now, except by the consent of the "Junto, as he will never write a line, again."

This may be hint sufficient to the parties, that I have it in my power to name the person which, however, they may rest assured that I shall never do, while they themselves may chuse to keep the matter a mystery. For as I became acquainted with the secret, merely by having been accidentally present, when an unguarded expression, leading to the discovery, happened to be dropt in a private company, I think I have no more right to reveal it, than I should have to expose any private letter I had picked up by chance. What I cannot return to the owner, I ought at least "to hold in trust for him."

Mr. Burke is a person of a good natural understanding, and of both polite and philosophic literature; he has a warm mind, is endowed with a lively fancy, powerful imagery, and possessed also of a remarkable fluency of speech, and readiness of expression. He is good-natured, friendly, and affectionate; a man of worth, honour, and morals, and firmly attached to his connections. He "rises," I think, rather too often, in the House, because that is the way, perhaps, to "fall." I never thought so, however, when I heard him speak; but am only afraid it may lessen his consequence, when he does.

I shall now conclude my account of this very justly distinguished person, with the character given of him by the late Dr. Goldsmith, in his little poem stiled The Retaliation.

Here lies our good Edmund, whose genius was such,
We scarcely can praise it, or blame it, too much;
Who, born for the universe, narrowed his mind,
And to Party gave up what was meant for Mankind;
Tho' fraught with all learning, kept straining his throat,
To persuade Tommy Townsend to lend him a vote;
Who, too deep for his hearers, still went on refining,
And thought of convincing, while they thought of dining.
Tho' equal to all things, for all things unfit;
Too nice for a Statesman, too proud for a Wit;
For a Patriot too cool; for a Drudge disobedient;
And too fond of the right, to pursue the expedient—
In fine, 'twas his fate, unemployed, or in play, Sir,
To eat mutton cold, and cut blocks with a razor.