1766 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Edmund Burke

Horace Walpole, 1766; in Memoirs of the Reign of George III, ed. G. F. Russell Barker (1894) 2:193-95.



There appeared in this debate a new speaker, whose fame for eloquence soon rose high above the ordinary pitch. His name was Edmund Burke (whom I have just mentioned), an Irishman, of a Roman Catholic family, and actually married to one of that persuasion. He had been known to the public for a few years by his Essay on the Sublime and Beautiful, and other ingenious works; but the narrowness of his fortune had kept him down, and his best revenue had arisen from writing for booksellers. Lord Rockingham, on being raised to the head of the Treasury, had taken Burke for his private Secretary, as Mr. Conway had his cousin William. Edmund immediately proved a bitter scourge to George Grenville, whose tedious harangues he ridiculed with infinite wit, and answered with equal argument. Grenville himself was not more copious; but, with unexhausted fertility, Burke had an imagination that poured out new ideas, metaphors, and allusions, which came forth ready dressed in the most ornamental and yet the most correct language. In truth, he was so fond of flowers, that he snatched them, if they presented themselves, even from Ovid's Metamorphoses. His wit, though prepared, seldom failed him; his judgment often. Aiming always at the brilliant, and rarely concise, it appeared that he felt nothing really but the lust of applause. His knowledge was infinite, but vanity had the only key to it; and though no doubt he aspired highly, he seemed content when he had satisfied the glory of the day, whatever proved the event of the debate. This kind of eloquence contented himself; and often his party; but the House grew weary at length of so many essays. Having come too late into public life, and being too conceited to study men whom he thought his inferiors in ability, he proved a very indifferent politician — the case of many men I have known, who have dealt too much in books or a profession: they apply their knowledge to objects to which it does not belong, and think it as easy to govern men, when they rise above them, as they found when themselves were lower and led their superiors by flattery. It is perhaps more expedient for a man of mean birth to be humble after his exaltation than before. Insolence is more easily tolerated in an inferior, than in an inferior mounted above his superiors.

William Burke, the cousin of Edmund, wrote with ingenuity and sharpness; and both of them were serviceable to the new Administration, by party papers. But William, as an orator, had neither manner nor talents, and yet wanted little of his cousin's presumption. Edmund, though the idol of his party, had nothing of the pathetic and imposing dignity of Pitt, though possessed of far more knowledge, and more reasoning abilities. But Pitt could awe those whom he could no longer lead, and never seemed greater than when abandoned by all. Charles Townshend, who had studied nothing accurately or with attention, had parts that embraced all knowledge with such quickness, that he seemed to create knowledge instead of searching for it; and, ready as Burke's wit was, it appeared artificial when set by that of Charles Townshend, which was so abundant, that in him it seemed a loss of time to think. He had but to speak, and all he said was new, natural, and yet uncommon. If Burke replied extempore, his very answers, that sprang from what had been said by others, were so painted and artfully arranged, that they wore the appearance of study and preparation: like beautiful translations, they seemed to want the soul of the original author. Townshend's speeches, like the Satires of Pope, had a thousand times more sense and meaning than the majestic blank verse of Pitt; and yet, the latter, like Milton, stalked with a conscious dignity of pre-eminence, and fascinated his audience with that respect which always attends the pompous but often shallow idea of the sublime.