1811 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Edmund Burke

Richard Cumberland, in Retrospection, a Poem (1811) 31-36.



Oh, thou my Muse! — (if yet I have a Muse),
Come, tho' on crutches, to thy vot'ry's aid,
And teach me by what answer to appease
This friend, who importunes me to decide,
If Burke or Johnson were the greater man.
He knew not either, and he knows not me,
Or surely be had sought an abler judge
To solve that question—
Nature gave to each
Pow'rs, that in some respects may be compar'd,
For both were Orators — and could we now
Canvass the social circles where they mix'd,
The palm for eloquence by general vote
Would rest with him, whose thunder never shook
The senate or the bar. When Burke harangu'd
The nation's representatives, methought
The fine machinery, that his fancy wrought,
Rich but fantastic, sometimes would obscure
That symmetry, which ever should uphold
The dignity and order of debate:
'Gainst orator like this had Johnson rose,
So clear was his perception of the truth,
So grave his judgment, and so high the swell
Of his full period, I must think his speech
Had charm'd as many, and enlighten'd more.

Yet that the sword of Burke could be as sharp
As it was shining, Hastings can attest,
Who thro' a siege of ten long years withstood
"Its huge two-handed sway," that stript him bare
Of fortune, and had cut him deeper still,
Had innocence not arm'd him with that shield,
Which turn'd the stroke aside, and sent him home
To seek repose in his paternal farm.

Johnson, if right I judge, in classic lore
Was more diffuse than deep: he did not dig
So many fathoms down as Bentley dug
In Grecian soil, but far enough to find
Truth ever at the bottom of his shaft.
Burke, borne by genius on a lighter wing,
Skim'd o'er the flow'ry plains of Greece and Rome,
And, like the bee returning to its hive,
Brought nothing home but sweets: Johnson would dash
Thro' sophist or grammarian ankle-deep,
And rummage in their mud to trace a date,
Or hunt a dogma down, that gave offence
To his philosophy—

Both had a taste
For contradiction, but in mode unlike:
Johnson at once would doggedly pronounce
Opinions false, and after prove them such:
Burke, not less critical, but more polite,
With ceaseless volubility of tongue
Play'd round and round his subject, till at length
Content to find you willing to admire;
He ceas'd to urge, or win you, to assent.

Burke of a rival's eminence would speak
With candour always, often with applause:
Johnson, tho' prone to pity, rarely prais'd.

The pun, which Burke encourag'd, Johnson spurn'd;
Yet none with louder glee would cheer the laugh,
That well-tim'd wit or cleanly humour rais'd;
And when no cloud obscur'd his mental sphere,
And all was sunshine in his friendly breast,
He would hold up a mirror to our eyes,
In which the human follies might be seen
in characters so comic, yet so true,
Description from his lips was like a charm,
That fix'd the hearers motionless and mute.

Burke by his senatorial pow'rs obtain'd
Ten times as much as Johnson by his pen;
But (thanks to Thurlow) I rejoice to own,
That learning and morality at last
Could earn a pittance, humble as it was.

Splendour of style, fertility of thought,
And the bold use of metaphor in both,
Strike us with rival beauty: Burke display'd,
A copious period, that, with curious skill
And ornamental epithet drawn out,
Was, like the singer's cadence, sometimes apt,
Although melodious, to fatigue the ear:
Johnson; with terms unnaturaliz'd and rude,
And Latinisms forc'd into his line,
Like raw undrill'd recruits, would load his text
High-sounding and uncouth; yet if you cull
His happier pages, you will find a style
Quintilian might have prais'd: still I perceive
Nearer approach to purity in Burke,
Tho' not the full accession to that grace,
That chaste simplicity, which is the last
And best attainment author can possess.