Edmund Burke

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:227-29.

As an orator, politician, and author, the name of EDMUND BURKE stood high with his contemporaries, and time has abated little of its lustre. He is still by far the most eloquent and imaginative of all our writers on public affairs, and the most philosophical of English statesmen. Burke was born in Dublin, the second son of an attorney, in 1730. After his education at Trinity college, he removed to London, where he entered himself as a student of the Middle Temple, and laboured in periodical works for the booksellers. His first conspicuous work was a parody on the style and manner of Bolingbroke, a Vindication of Natural Society, in which the paradoxical reasoning of the noble sceptic is pushed to a ridiculous extreme, and its absurdity very happily exposed. In 1757 he published A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, which soon attracted considerable attention, and paved the way for the author's introduction to the society of Johnson, Reynolds, Goldsmith, and the other eminent men of the day. Burke, however, was still struggling with difficulties, and compiling for booksellers. He suggested to Dodsley the plan of an Annual Register, which that spirited publisher adopted, Burke furnishing the whole of the original matter. He continued for several years to write the historical portion of this valuable compilation. In 1761 Burke accompanied the Earl of Halifax to Ireland as one of his secretaries; and four years afterwards, he was fairly launched into public life as a Whig politician, by becoming private secretary to the Marquis of Rockingham, then appointed first lord of the treasury. A seat in parliament next followed, and Burke became a leading speaker in the House of Commons. His first seat was for Wendover, and he was afterwards member for Bristol and Malton. His speeches on American affairs were among his most vigorous and felicitous appearances: his most important public duty was the part he took in the prosecution of Warren Hastings, and his opposition to the regency bill of Mr. Pitt. Stormier times, however, were at hand: the French Revolution was then "blackening the horizon" (to use one of his own metaphors), and he early predicted the course it would take. He strenuously warned his countrymen against the dangerous influence of French principles, and published his memorable treatise, Reflections on the French Revolution. A rupture now took place between him and his Whig friends, Mr. Fox in particular; but with characteristic ardour Burke went on denouncing the doctrines of the revolution, and published his Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, his Letters to a Noble Lord, and his Letters on the Proposals for Peace with the Regicide Directory of France. The splendour of these compositions, the various knowledge which they display, the rich imagery with which they abound, and the spirit of philosophical reflection which pervades them all, stamp them among the first literary productions of their time. Judged as political treatises, they may in some instances be considered as exaggerated in their tone and manner: the imagination of the orator transported him beyond the bounds of sober prudence and correct taste; but in all his wanderings there is genius, wisdom, and eloquence. Such a flood of rich illustration had never before been poured on questions of state policy and government. At the same time Burke was eminently practical in his views. His greatest efforts will be found directed to the redress of some existing wrong, or the preservation of some existing good — to hatred of actual oppression, to the removal of useless restrictions, and to the calm and sober improvement of the laws and government which he venerated, without "coining to himself Whig principles from a French die, unknown to the impress of our fathers in the constitution." Where inconsistencies are found in his writings between his early and later opinions, they will be seen to consist chiefly in matters of detail or in expression. The leading principles of his public life were always the same. He wished, as he says, to preserve consistency, but only by varying his means to secure the unity of his end: "when the equipoise of the vessel in which he sails may be endangered by overloading it upon one side, he is desirous of carrying the small weight of his reasons to that which may preserve its equipoise." When the revolution broke out, his sagacity enabled him "to foresee the dreadful consequences which it would entail upon France and the world, and his enthusiastic temperament led him to state his impressions in language sometimes overcharged and almost bombastic, sometimes full of prophetic fire, and always with an energy and exuberance of fancy in which, among philosophical politicians, he was unrivalled. In the clash of party strife, so eminent a person could not escape animadversion or censure; his own ardour excited others, and the vehemence of his manner naturally provoked and aggravated discussion. Thus he stood aloof from most of his old associates, when, like a venerable tower, he was sinking into ruin and decay. Posterity, however, has done ample justice to his genius and character, and has confirmed the opinion of one of his contemporaries, that if (as he did not attempt to conceal) Cicero was the model on which he laboured to form his own character in eloquence, in policy, in ethics, and philosophy, he infinitely surpassed the original. Burke retired from parliament in 1794. The friendship of the Marquis of Rockingham had enabled him to purchase an estate near Beaconsfield, in Buckinghamshire, and there the orator spent exclusively his few remaining years. In 1795 he was rewarded with a handsome pension from the civil list. It was in contemplation to elevate him to the peerage, but the death of his only son (who was his colleague in the representation of Malton) rendered him indifferent, if not averse, to such a distinction. The force and energy of his mind, and the creative richness of his imagination, continued with him to the last. His Letter to a Noble Lord on his Pension (1796), his Letters on a Regicide Peace (1796 and 1797), and his Observations, on the Conduct of the Minority (1797), bear no trace of decaying vigour, though written after the age of sixty-seven. The keen interest with which he regarded passing events, particularly the great political drama then in action in France, is still manifest in these works, with general observations and reflections that strike from their profundity and their universal application. "He possessed," says Coleridge, "and had sedulously sharpened that eye which sees all things, actions, and events, in relation to the laws which determine their existence and circumscribe their possibility. He referred habitually to principles — he was a scientific statesman." This reference to principles in the writings and speeches of Burke (and his speeches were all carefully prepared for the press), renders them still popular and valuable, when the circumstances and events to which they relate have long passed away, and been succeeded by others not less important; while their grander passages, their imagery and profusion of illustration, make them interesting to the orator and literary student. His imagination, it is admitted, was not always guided by correct taste; some of his images are low, and even border on disgust. His language and his conceptions are often hyperbolical; or it may be said, his mind, like the soil of the East, which he loved to paint, threw up a rank and luxuriant vegetation, in which unsightly weeds were mingled with the choicest flowers and the most precious fruit. He was at once a poet, an orator, a philosopher, and practical statesman; and his knowledge, his industry, and perseverance, were as remarkable as his genius. The protracted and brilliant career of this great man was terminated on the 9th of July 1797, and he was interred in the church at Beaconsfield.

A complete edition of Burke's works has been published in sixteen volumes. His political, and not his philosophical writings, are now chiefly read. His Disquisition on the Sublime and Beautiful is incorrect in theory and in many of its illustrations, though containing some just remarks and elegant criticism. His mighty understanding, as Sir James Mackintosh observed, was best employed in "the middle region, between the details of business and the generalities of speculation." In this department, his knowledge of men as well as of books, of passions as well as principles, was called into action, and his imagination found room for its lights and shadows among the varied realities and shifting scenes of life. A generous political opponent, and not less eloquent (though less original and less powerful) writer, has time sketched the character of Burke:—

"It is pretended," says Robert Hall, "that the moment we quit a state of nature, as we have given up the control of our actions in return for the superior advantages of law and government, we can never appeal again to any original principles, but must rest content with the advantages that are secured by the terms of the society. These are the views which distinguish the political writings of Mr. Burke, an author whose splendid and unequal powers have given a vogue and fashion to certain tenets which, from any other pen, would have appeared abject and contemptible In the field of reason the encounter would not be difficult, but who can withstand the fascination and magic of his eloquence? The excursions of his genius are immense. His imperial fancy has laid all nature under tribute, and has collected riches from every scene of the creation and every walk of art. His eulogium on the queen of France is a master-piece of pathetic composition; so select are its images, so fraught with tenderness, and so rich with colours 'dipt in heaven,' that he who can read it without rapture may have merit as a reasoner, but must resign all pretensions to taste and sensibility. His imagination is, in truth, only too prolific: a world of itself, where be dwells in the midst of chimerical alarms — is the dupe of his own enchantments, and starts, like Prospero, at the spectres of his own creation. His intellectual views in general, however, are wide and variegated, rather than distinct; and the light he has let in on the British constitution, in particular, resembles the coloured effulgence of a painted medium, a kind of mimic twilight, solemn and soothing to the senses, but better fitted for ornament than use."

Sir James Mackintosh considered that Burke's best style was before the Indian business and the French Revolution had inflamed him. It was more chaste and simple; but his writings and speeches at this period can hardly be said to equal his later productions in vigour, fancy, or originality. The excitement of the times seemed to give a new development to his mental energies. The early speeches have most constitutional and practical value — the late ones most genius. The former are a solid and durable structure, and the latter its "Corinthian columns."