1830 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Babington Macaulay

William Maginn, in "Thomas Babington Macauley and Mr. Southey" Fraser's Magazine 1 (June 1830) 586-89.



When Mr. Thomas Babington Macauley commenced his series of contributions to the Edinburgh Review, the "sapphire and blue" was fast drivelling into its dotage. Its ancient spirit had evaporated — its youthful wit, from over-indulgence and dissipation, had fallen into a state of emasculation — its empire was tottering, its circulation was fast drawing in its horns of extended glory. Sydney Smith had grown too fat, too rubicund, and too well satisfied with the good things of this world — more especially since he became a pluralist; — Sir James Mackintosh had used so frequently his carefully collected store of international law, philosophy of history, and metaphysical sweepings from the late Professor Stewart's library, that he could use them no longer without raising against his own sagacious person a universal horse-laugh; — Mr. Henry Brougham had become an empty lawyer and a talkative member of the House of Commons; so that whatever he wrote for my "Great-Grandmother" smacked of the emptiness of the one and the frothiness of the other, and therefore was utterly unreadable, because it wanted consistency and novelty; — and Francissimus Jeffrey himself candidly confessed that he was utterly drained of all his good things — had lost all his effervescence and wit — had become like that little plaything which pyromachinists sell to little children, called a Catherine's wheel, after it has frisked through its gyrations and spent its every spark of sputtering and sulphureous compound. In this state was the Edinburgh when Mr. Thomas Babington Macauley wrote his initiatory article for the journal; immediately on the appearance of which, whigs, liberals and radicals, cantabs and anticolonists, saints, and the papers of all descriptions under the influence of their respective parties, lauded the young gentleman to the seventh heavens as a "second Daniel come to judgment."

For worldly purposes, and if principle were an unmeaning word, we could wish that not only our own lot, but the lot of all those whose worldly emolument is a source of anxiety to our hearts, had been cast amongst the Whigs; then should we have been sure to have improved rapidly in worldly circumstances, and to have fared sumptuously on the fat things of life. The Tories are the worst fosterers of talent in the universe — they look on a man religiously devoting his every hour and his earthly considerations to the advancement of their cause, with the most supercilious coolness and effrontery — imagining that every sacrifice made by the sacrificer results from the operation of conscience, and that, in point of moral reference, the actions of the sufferer, being for conscience sake, have not the slightest participation in their interests, or in the maintenance of their opinions. This has been the case more particularly since that low upstart and turncoat, the present Sir Robert Peel (of whom it has been too wofully true, "Sequitur patrem non passibus aequis") has been in power. Actuated with the spirit of the dog in the manger, because he never could himself stand pre-eminently distinguished for talent amongst his countrymen, he determined, in obedience to the malignant feelings of his paltry temper, to keep every man of talent or information from all opportunity of distinguishing himself. No wonder, then, that the ranks of the Tories and ultra-Tories should (with a few solitary exceptions) be so utterly devoid of men of ability.

But the Whigs are wiser in their generation. They assist one another, and boast of one another's achievements. Inconceivable is the cackle and row on the birth of a Whigling: — When he gives his first squeal, there is an expression of boisterous merriment — of robustious jollification: — When he first cocks his youthful eye with a knowing leer at any remarkable object, there is a clapping of hands, and shouts of Maenadic glorification: — When he accents the first syllables of the vernacular, the amazed listeners exclaim, "Behold a wonder!" — When he goes to school, they promise their doating hearts that a Phoenix is in the act of generation: — When he enters college, he is to turn out, even as it was assured unto the simple youth of Oviedo, the Eighth Wonder of the World: — When he is introduced into public life, he is to become as the Pillar of Fire amidst the surrounding darkness, to comfort the hearts and guide the errant footsteps of the benighted Israelitish multitude of Whigs and Liberals, and their open-mouthed and hungry retinue of trimmers and shufflers. The consequence is, that whenever this illuminato gentleman makes his appearance in public, he is hailed by his party with loud greetings of

Dii immortales, homini homo quid
praestat stulto intelligens
Quid interest!—

meaning thereby, that the wisdom of the whole world is as dust in the scale when poised against the wisdom of this fresh, full-fledged, self-important Whigling.

Pushed early into public life, with the eyes of all his party, — of his parents, and kinsmen, and friends, and patrons, and college, and university, fixed upon him, and watchful of his every movement, the young Whig begins, after the fashion of a green bantam cock, to settle his feathers into neat order, to arch his neck, to erect his crest, to outspread his wings, to strengthen the wiry sinews of his bandy legs to their utmost power of tension, in order to attain the highest point of altitude, and gain an imposing attitude, ere he gives the shrill crowing cock-a-doodle-do note of defiance to all his feathered opponents of the barn-yard. And, then, the phoenix-Whig commences butting against this man, tilting against the second man, boxing with the third man, bullying the fourth man, bragging over the fifth man, and vituperating and scoundrelising the sixth man, merely to satisfy the spectators on his side that his courage has not subsided from its fulness of measure, that his heart is stout and unflinching, and that, like Diomed, he is ever ready and impetuous in action. Thus has Mr. Thomas Babington Macauley acted; but has he thereby extended the circle of his reputation in the world? Alas! for the futility of human expectations — he is never, save by the few who know him personally, even mentioned by name; and though he was cheered by his own set in the House of Commons on the night of his inauguratory speech; still, who remembers that inauguratory speech, or Mr. Thomas Babington Macauley's exhibition on that, to him, so memorable an occasion? Who quotes (except always his own immediate set) his articles on the Utilitarian school in the Edinburgh Review, saving only to laugh at the sophisms and abortions of wit with which they overflow? Who talks of his concoctions on Dryden, Milton, or even Machiavelli, the best of all his productions, though shining with foreign and borrowed light? The man of genius or talent, and the charlatan or man of mere pretension, proceed inversely as regards the relation of one with the other. The first, because his sense tells him not to attempt too much until the fulness of his destined strength is attained, commences his career of life and literature cautiously, and moderately, and modestly; the consequence is, that each successive effort adds to his powers, and progressively fortifies his efficiency, until in the end he bursts forth a luminary of unexceptionable brilliancy. The second, big with the idea of that self-importance which from his earliest years is dunned into his ear, is hot and eager to do something to place his name amongst the preeminent individuals of his age and country; like the son of Peleus, he is for early fame, though an early grave should be his mortal consummation; like that same Homeric hero he is "Impiger — iracundus — inexorabilis acer," and he commences his feats with an improvident energy, and generally sinks exhausted before his more prudential and temperate antagonist. A young man, though possessed of the most robust constitution. cannot plunge at once into the hottest dissipation without falling an early martyr to his excesses. To speak only of his feats of drinking, without a word on other indulgences, he may, by reliance on his strength of stomach and soundness of lungs, begin by being a four-bottle man. Will he long continue so? Should he be mad enough to hold on in his course of inebriety, ere the years of his spring of manhood have been numbered, he will lose the physical energies of a man, waste away to a pallid, tottering anatomy, his mental vigor will be speedily exhausted, he will dwindle into a poor, crazy, chattering idiot, and sink without being perceived into the grave, but too long hankering after its emasculated and puny prey. In this argument the mind will afford a fitting parallel to the body; and for this reason the very thought of an early reputation is to be eschewed. Of all this we, unfortunately, have too many instances on record; and, notwithstanding our political and other hostility to Mr. Thomas Babington Macauley, we shall sincerely regret if his name is to be added to the gloomy list of those who, although they in their first hours of existence shed around them an extraordinary brilliancy, yet very speedily, "Like the Lost Pleiad, sunk to rise no more."

Mr. Thomas Babington Macauley has acted incautiously and without foresight; yet two remarkable instances hung immediately before him, which he was constrained to see, — and which might have served him for beacons whereby to guide his own course, had he not been actuated by that headstrong vanity and all-engrossing conceit which, alas! have ever been the characteristics of his race. The first was in Mr. Henry Brougham, who, when he began his political life, dashed at every thing like an ill-trained whelp, and, at one time, by his all-meddling spirit, sunk so low in common estimation, as absolutely to become a subject for laughter and jeers; but who, when he had grown more wary, piloted his way with such regard for character, that he at length stood forth as the leader of his own party in St. Stephen's. The second was in Mr. Macauley's patron, Lord Lansdowne, who, as Lord Henry Petty, promised to win golden opinions of all men during the whole course of his life; but behold his reputation has flown aloft, like other similar trivial things of this world, to find a resting-place in that "limbo broad and large," of which such pleasant mention is made in the pages of the Paradise Lost. After these warnings, the enacting a more considerate part was a matter of some moment to Mr. Thomas Babington Macauley: — but the ancient sin of his tribe was too strong for resistance. — He does not seem to be sensible that his powers have been diminishing in real value — and no friend or adviser has been near to give him assurance that, for originality, point, vigour, and promise, nothing has exceeded — nay, nothing has, within a hundred degrees, approximated to what he wrote as a literary freshman for Knight's Quarterly Magazine.

Would that this freshman had been well advised and persuaded of the fact, or that, by some memorable circumstance, he had been early taught to take heed of the silly adulations of his father's clerks and dependents, and of that blind partiality of friends which swills youthful vanity generally, and which swilled it most egregiously in the particular instance of Mr. Thomas Babington Macauley. He would then have cut a more respectable figure, because his aim would have been more moderate, his purposes less assuming, his inferiority of strength, resulting from original mal-conformation of parts, less apparent. But, alas for him! it has been otherwise. Proud of the strength which he has been told he possesses, he has run a-tilt at every thing with which he has ever met. If there is one object held in great regard — no matter by what sector party — against that most especially has he bent his aim, to bring it down from the "high top-gallant of its pride." If there is one man more reverenced than another — it signifies little of what party, save his own — (for of the great man of his own party he has ever been the humble lacquey and adept) — he has attacked him tooth and nail, in the hope of an easy victory. Alack for the impulses of silly vanity! he was miserably defeated by Mr. Mill in the "Greatest Happiness" controversy, though we do not know whether Mr. Southey will consider it worth his trouble to answer the gentleman's insolence: we rather think, however, that he will not: it were, if he did so, waste of time, which, we know, the Laureate values too highly to throw away on such unimportant trifles. The true knight would couch lance, or take buckler and shield, perchance, against the rampant lion; but will, without movement, allow the puppy-dog to bark at his figure, or even defile his person with those tricks with which petulant puppy-dogs are wont to soil more majestic creatures than their puny selves. In his conduct, then, not only in matters which have excited his abusive faculties, but even where he has been induced to praise, the gentleman in question has become too great a nuisance to be endured:

Tristius haud illo monstrum, nec saevior ulla
Pestis, et ira Deum Stygiis sede extulit undis, &c.

This being the case, it is time that the pernicious influence of the gentleman should be forced into abatement.