1882 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Babington Macaulay

Epes Sargent, in Harper's Cyclopaedia of British and American Poetry (1882) 557.



One of the most brilliant and estimable of England's men of letters, Macaulay (1800-1859), who became Lord Macaulay in 1857, was born October 5th, at Rothley Temple, in Lincolnshire. His father was Zachary Macaulay, a Scottish Presbyterian. Thomas was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, and in 1819 gained the Chancellor's Medal for a poem entitled Pompeii — hardly above the average of similar prize poems. He was a devoted student, however, and his improvement was rapid. He wrote the best of his poems, The Battle of Ivry, in his twenty-fourth year; and was only twenty-five when he contributed his brilliant article on Milton to the Edinburgh Review. It was the first of a series of remarkable papers on distinguished characters. Having been admitted to the Bar, in 1830 he became a Member of Parliament. His speeches, which are very able, were carefully studied, and usually committed to memory, which was an easy task to him.

In 1834 he proceeded to India, as legal advisor to the Supreme Court of Calcutta. He returned to England in 1838; represented Edinburgh in Parliament up to the year 1847; held seats in the Cabinet; and in 1849 published the first two volumes of his great History of England. It commanded a larger and more rapid sale, both in England and America, than any historical work known to the trade. His Lays of Ancient Rome had appeared in 1842; eighteen thousand copies were sold in ten years. It was his last attempt at poetry. "Like a wise gamester," he writes, "I shall leave off while I am a winner, and not cry 'Double or Quits.'" In the extract which we give from the Lay of Horatius, thirty-one of the stanzas are omitted. Wordsworth denied that the Lays were poetry at all; and Leigh Hunt, in a letter asking Macaulay to lend him money, wrote him that he lamented that his "verses wanted the true poetical aroma which breathes from Spenser's Faery Queen." Upon which Macaulay says: "I am much pleased with him for having the spirit to tell me, in a begging letter, how little he likes my poetry."

Great as he was in literary execution, Macaulay, in one of his letters, remarks: "I never read again in the most popular passages of my own works without painfully feeling how far my execution has fallen short of the standard which is in my mind." It was as an essayist and a writer of history that his contemporary laurels were gained. His poetry is quite overshadowed by his prose; but had he been unknown as a prose writer, he would have enjoyed no ordinary fame as a poet. His conversational powers were the wonder of his hearers. He has been accused of talking too much; and Sydney Smith once said of him: "He is certainly more agreeable since his return from India. His enemies might perhaps have said before (though I never did so) that he talked rather too much; but now he has occasional flashes of silence that make his conversation perfectly delightful."

Take him for all in all, Macaulay was one of the noblest characters in English literature; generous to the needy, warm in the family affections, self-sacrificing and magnanimous, irreproachable in his habits and his life. He was never married. His mortal remains were deposited in Westminster Abbey, in Poets' Corner, his favorite haunt. An interesting Life of him, by his nephew G. O. Trevelyan, who has also edited a volume of selections from his writings, appeared in 1877.