1830 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Edmund Burke

Thomas Babington Macaulay, in "Southey's Colloquies" Edinburgh Review 50 (January 1830) 528-29.



Mr. Burke, assuredly, possessed an understanding admirably fitted for the investigation of truth, — an understanding stronger than that of any statesman, active or speculative, of the eighteenth century, — stronger than every thing, except his own fierce and ungovernable sensibility. Hence, be generally chose his side like a fanatic, and defended it like philosopher. His conduct, in the most important events of his life, — at the time of the impeachment of Hastings, for example, and at the time of the French Revolution, — seems to have been prompted by those feelings and motives, which Mr. Coleridge as so happily described:

Stormy pity, and the cherish'd lure
Of pomp, and proud precipitance of soul.

Hindostan, with its vast cities, its gorgeous pagodas, its infinite swarms of dusky population, its long-descended dynasties, its stately etiquette, excited in a mind so capacious, so imaginative, and so susceptible, the most intense interest. The peculiarities of the costume, of the manners, and of the laws, the very mystery which hung over the language and origin of the people, seized his imagination. To plead in Westminster Hall, in the name of the English people, at the bar of the English nobles, for great nations and kings separated from him by half the world, seemed to him the height of human glory. Again, it is not difficult to perceive, that his hostility to the French Revolution principally arose from the vexation which he felt, at having all his old political associations disturbed, at seeing the well-known boundary-marks of states obliterated, and the names and distinctions with which the history of Europe had been filled for ages, swept away. He felt like an antiquarian whose shield had been scoured, or a connoisseur, who found his Titian retouched. But however he came by an opinion, he had no sooner got it, than he did his best to make out a legitimate title to it. His reason, like a spirit in the service of an enchanter, though spell-bound, was still mighty. It did whatever work his passions and his imagination might impose. But it did that work, however arduous, with marvellous dexterity and vigour. His course was not determined by argument; but he could defend the wildest course by arguments more plausible, than those by which common men support opinions which they have adopted, after the fullest deliberation. Reason has scarcely ever displayed, even in those well-constituted minds of which she occupies the throne, so much power and energy as in the lowest offices of that imperial servitude.