1880 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Babington Macaulay

Thomas Humphry Ward, in The English Poets: Selections with Critical Introductions, ed. Thomas Humphry Ward (1880) 4:540.



"You are my right in admiring Macaulay," wrote Miss Elizabeth Barrrett to Mr. Horne in 1843; "he has a noble, clear, metallic note in his soul, and makes us ready by it for battle. I very much admire Mr. Macaulay, and could scarcely read his ballads and keep lying down. They seemed to draw me up to my feet as the mesmeric powers are said to do." This testimony from so competent a judge as Mrs. Browning is all the more valuable because, great as is still the popularity of the Lays with the mass of those who read poetry, the higher critical authorities have pronounced against them, and are even teaching us to wonder whether they can be called poetry at all. They find in the Lays the same faults which mar the author's prose — commonplaceness of ideas, cheapness of sentiment and imagery, made to prevail by dint of the writer's irresistible command of a new rhetorical force; in a word, eloquent Philistinism. Against this too exclusive judgment it is well to set Miss Barrett's frank recognition of the power, the spirit, the vividness of historical imagination that informs all Macaulay's writing. One of her epithets, which she uses "honoris causa," we may accept as fairly characterising the evil element in his mind — the epithet "metallic. "His ballads have the clear resonance of the trumpet: they have its hardness too.

The Lays are in everybody's hands: and they do not lend themselves easily to selection. We have preferred to print the less known Nasby, written in 1824; and the pathetic Epitaph on a Jacobite — a work of the author's maturity.