1832 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Edmund Burke

John Taylor Esq., in Records of my Life (1832) 2:188-96.



I was present at one of the annual celebrations at Chelsea Hospital (indeed at both) when Mr. Burke was paymaster, and the elder Mr. Boswell was present. The conversation turned upon Sir Joseph Mawbey. After some animadversion upon the peculiarities of that gentleman, and during a short pause among the company, Monsey said, "It is curious to contemplate the immense difference among human beings, beginning with Sir Isaac Newton, and descending to Sir Joseph Mawbey." Boswell immediately said, "When you come to Sir Joseph, you are not far from the pigs," (alluding to Sir Joseph's business as a distiller.) "Yes," said Burke, "it is worse than the half-way-house." Young Burke, a delicate young man, added, "I have heard him called a pig of lead," and then the subject ended. But after all, however politics might bias opinions, Sir Joseph Mawbey was considered by his friends as a public-spirited character, and a man of taste, and in the latter capacity has displayed his talents in many poetical effusions. But what will not party do to sour the temper and corrupt the judgment!

Sir George Howard was the Governor of Chelsea Hospital at that time, and instead of giving scope to the powers of Mr. Burke, he bored the company with old military stories that are generally known, and much better related in all printed narrations. But he was the presiding authority, and as "a dog's obeyed in office," even the eloquence of a Burke, the playful exuberance of a Boswell, and the learned humour and odd eccentricities of a Monsey, were nullified by the garrulity of old age.

My admiration of Mr. Burke would induce me not to mention what passed previous to the dinner, if it did not tend to illustrate human nature, and to show that the greatest characters are not exempt from human weakness.

Mr. Burke, as Paymaster, had some accounts to settle with the officers of Chelsea Hospital before dinner. When they were settled, he had to pass about ten yards in the open air to the dinner-hall. He had not to pass through what might even be deemed a mist, but the moment he entered he desired some brandy to rub upon his elbow, as he feared he might otherwise suffer from cold. Every body was immediately on the alert to assist him. He pulled off his coat, (evidently a new one for the occasion,) gave the coat to one, pulled up his shirt sleeve, dipped his fingers into the cup with brandy held by another, and contrived to employ every one somehow or other all the time he rubbed his elbow. He, however, amused his volunteer servants with some jokes during the operation; and the sportive condescension of so great a man, he being also the Paymaster, seemed to be considered as a rich reward for their assiduity in his service.

I should not have mentioned this trifling incident, if it did not correspond with a similar circumstance which I had heard many years before upon unquestionable authority, and if it did not develope in some degree the private character of Mr. Burke. On some important debate which was expected in the House of Commons, Lord Rockingham was anxiously waiting for Mr. Burke, in order to hear what had passed, and when from the knocking at the door he had reason to believe that Mr. Burke had arrived, the noble lord could not restrain his solicitude, but actually went down into the hall to question him before he quitted the sedan-chair which conveyed him. Mr. Burke, instead of answering his noble patron, acted exactly the part of the nurse in Romeo and Juliet, when the young lady is impatient to know what message the former had brought from her lover. Mr. Burke turned about in the sedan-chair, complained of the fatigue he had endured, declared that he was unable to answer, and kept Lord Rockingham, in restless eagerness at the side of the chair, till Burke thought proper to quit it.

If this conduct, compared with the former instance, was not insolent pride, or at least gross affectation, to use the mildest term, it would be difficult to say what is. It may be asked what was Mr. Burke's motive; and perhaps it may he said, that people who rise in the world above their hopes, whatever may be their abilities, like to reduce their superiors, and to drive from their minds all humiliating recollections of their original condition. Such was the case with my father's old friend Hugh Kelly, who, instead of introducing ordinary names in his female comic characters, styled them Hortensias and Theodoras, and made one of his dramatic gentlemen address a letter to another by the name of Craggs Belville, Esq. as I have before observed. Poor Kelly could not help trying all expedients to efface every remembrance of the humility of his origin.

The admirers of great talents, and particularly of Mr. Burke, can have no reason to be displeased with the record of these trifling incidents; as they not only serve to develope human nature, but to console mankind in general for the vast superiority of those who seem as if they belong to a higher order of beings, though they must participate in all the infirmities of their fellow-creatures.

There are, however, charges of a more serious kind which the pen of history will record, which cast an indelible stain upon the life of that illustrious statesman.

It is evident from Mr. Burke's character, that he did not possess the feelings of a liberal and gentlemanly mind. His conduct towards Mr. Hastings may be cited as a proof. It has been said that a great man struggling with adversity, is a sight worthy of the gods; and why? Because it is to be supposed that the gods would look on him with pity, and with a disposition to remove his sufferings. Who can deny that Mr. Hastings was a great man? and what could he a greater fall than, after having reigned with almost boundless authority in his Eastern government, to be reduced to the necessity of kneeling before a number of his fellow-creatures, and of receiving their permission to rise? Did Mr. Burke emulate the gods in his treatment of this great man in adversity? On the contrary, he treated him with the savage malignity of a fiend.

I remember, when I was one day present in the House of Lords during the impeachment, Mr. Burke, after uttering the most abusive epithets against Mr. Hastings, made some assertion, which affected the latter so strongly, that human patience was exhausted, and in an audible whisper he, in merely a word, contradicted the virulent declaimer. Mr. Burke happened to hear him, and immediately turning round, exclaimed with vehemence, "I care not what is said by the culprit at the bar; he is in the condition of an ordinary culprit, who, when the officers of justice are conducting him through the streets to prison, insults every person who comes near him as he passes." This brutal insult seemed to excite general disgust, but that feeling did not mitigate the rancour of Mr. Burke.

I was present at this scene of brutality, and was shocked to see the indifference with which Mr. Burke appeared to treat the general sentiments of the assembly, who seemed indignantly and deeply to feel the pitiable situation of the victim of his persecution.

The following article I recently saw in a public newspaper, and I insert it literally in this place, to justify my opinion of Mr. Burke, not having the least doubt that it was founded on fact: — "The celebrated Edmund Burke was one of the members appointed by the House of Commons to enforce the charges of crime against Mr. Warren Hastings, and one day when he had been pouring out all his splendid talents in a rich display of oratory against the accused, he addressed the assembly of peers, ladies, and gentlemen, in the following terms: 'When I look round this glorious circle, bright with all that is high in rank, all that is powerful in talent, all that is amiable in virtue, all that is brilliant in beauty, and then turn my eyes to the criminal at the bar, my mind is convulsed with horror, and I sicken at the sight.' The orator then placed his hands on the table before him, and dropped his head into them, as if overwhelmed by the dreadful contemplation."

On coming out of Westminster Hall after this splendid oration, Burke could not find his carriage, and Lord Yarborough's having just drawn up, the peer offered to take him home. The ebullition of Burke's mind had not subsided, and on the way, without considering the indelicacy of appealing to one who was ultimately to pronounce judgment on the case, he proceeded to re-urge the arguments on his noble auditor, concluding with the eager inquiry, "Do you not think this man a great criminal?" Lord Yarborough, whose correctness of intellect was known to all who had the opportunity of knowing him, immediately answered, "Burke, all I can say at present is, that either you or Hastings deserve to be hanged, but I cannot now tell which of the two." This answer is as honourable to the noble lord, as it is disgraceful to the person who gave occasion to it. But the whole persecution of Mr. Hastings arose from party feelings, if not wholly from the vindictive rancour of Mr. Burke.

Mr. Cooke, a native of Cork, and a barrister-at-law, who came to this country in the year 1766, with letters of recommendation to the two Burkes, to Oliver Goldsmith, and other distinguished persons of that day, was particularly well acquainted with the characters of Edmund and Richard Burke, and he spoke of them with severe reprobation. He said that he was once induced to accept a bill for the latter of forty pounds, to pay for some wine which the Burkes had jointly consumed. Richard Burke kept out of the way, and Cooke was threatened with arrest for the forty pounds, when he had not forty shillings at command. Feeling for his situation, the holder of the bill agreed to wait till Cooke had made application to Edmund Burke, that he might induce his brother to honour the bill. Edmund at first said that it was his brother's concern, though he had partaken of the wine; but when Cooke, who at that time subsisted by his connexion with newspapers, and was a proprietor of one, threatened to make the matter public, Mr. Burke desired that he would send the creditor to him, and he would arrange the matter one way or other. Cooke did so, and never heard any more of the business.

Mr. Cooke, whose veracity I had no reason to distrust, after an intercourse of nearly forty years, assured me that he always considered the impeachment of Mr. Hastings as the result of personal rancour on the part of Mr. Burke, the reason of which has been already noticed.

Mr. Burke, with all his talents, all his knowledge, and all the splendour of his reputation, had but a vulgar mind. What must be thought of the mere taste of a man, who spoke of Mr. Hastings "falling from his high estate," when he was in helpless submission before him, in the following terms: "He lay down in his stye of infamy, wallowing in the filth of disgrace, and fattened upon the offals and excrements of dishonour."

Mr. Burke's pamphlet against the late Duke of Bedford, was written more in the style of a carcase-butcher than of a gentleman. The Duke had objected to the grant of an enormous pension to Mr. Burke, and what were the merits that deserved it? His bill for the reduction of the national expenditure went upon abuses, the growth of time and negligence, which were generally mentioned, and which national wisdom and national necessity would have "known without a prompter," and would no doubt in due season have corrected. I do not pretend to be much of a politician, but presume to say, nevertheless, of his famous "Reflections on the French Revolution," a work of more importance to society than any of his other compositions, that there was a great parade of speculative reasoning on those political theories of the French usurpers, which were too likely to be transient in duration, to call for such elaborate discussion and excursive declamation.

I remember, soon after the publication of this work, I had the pleasure of dining with Sir Joshua Reynolds at his house in Leicester Square, and the convivial disposition of the elder Mr. Boswell, who had not received his due proportion of wine, obliged the great artist to give us a supper. The party at dinner consisted of the late Lord Stowell, then Sir William Scott; the late Mr. Courtenay, the Irish wit of the House Of Commons; the elder Mr. Boswell; a nephew of Dr. Robertson, the historian; and myself. After dinner, cards were introduced, and at the end of a few rubbers, Sir William and Mr. Courtenay retired, leaving Mr. Boswell, Dr. Robertson's nephew, and myself. It was my wish to follow the example of those gentlemen and retire, not to break in upon the regular habits of our host, lest I should preclude myself from the chance of a future invitation to so very agreeable a society; but Mr. Boswell assured me that Sir Joshua had ordered a supper from respect to the young Scotsman's uncle, and that I should be thought ungracious in leaving him to entertain a total stranger. I therefore remained without reluctance, as I wished as much as possible, consistently with propriety, to prolong my intercourse with our courteous, well-bred, and intelligent host.

In the course of the supper, Mr. Burke's "Reflections on the French Revolution" happening to become a topic of conversation, I ventured to observe that I thought if Dr. Johnson had been alive, and had written on the subject, he would not have devoted so much time to the examination of evanescent theories, but would have treated the matter with a deeper knowledge of human nature, and more philosophical energy. Sir Joshua did not agree with me, but spoke highly of the work as a masterly effusion of political eloquence. With the highest respect for the judgment of the great artist, it may not be improper to observe, that he was a shrewd practical politician. It was a maxim with him, that praises of the dead were useless, and ought to be avoided when they were likely to offend the living. That the dead were nothing and the living everything. His policy therefore would probably have been puzzled, if Johnson had been living, and had employed his great powers on the same subject.