1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Babington Macaulay

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:468.



MR. THOMAS B. MACAULAY, who held an important office in the administration of Lord Melbourne, and is one of the most brilliant writers in the Edinburgh Review, gratified and surprised the public by a volume of poetry in 1842. He had previously, in his young collegiate days, thrown off a few spirited ballads (one of which, The War of the League, is here subjoined); and in all his prose works there are indications of strong poetical feeling and fancy. No man paints more clearly and vividly to the eye, or is more studious of the effects of contrast and the proper grouping of incidents. He is generally picturesque, eloquent, and impressive. His defects are a want of simplicity and tenderness, and an excessive love of what Izaak Walton called "strong writing." The same characteristics pervade his recent work, The Lays of Ancient Rome. Adopting the theory of Niebuhr (now generally acquiesced in as correct), that the heroic and romantic incidents related by Livy of the early history of Rome, are founded merely on ancient ballads and legends, he selects four of these incidents as themes for his verse. Identifying himself with the plebeians and tribunes, he makes them chant the martial stories of Horatius Cocles, the battle of the Lake Regillus, the death of Virginia, and the prophecy of Capys. The style is homely, abrupt, and energetic, carrying us along like the exciting narratives of Scott, and presenting brief but striking pictures of local scenery and manners. The truth of these descriptions is strongly impressed upon the mind of the reader, who seems to witness the heroic scenes so clearly and energetically described. The masterly ballads of Mr. Macaulay must be read continuously, to be properly appreciated; for their merit does not lie in particular passages, but in the rapid and progressive interest of the story, and the Roman spirit and bravery which animate the whole.