1833 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir James Mackintosh

Allan Cunningham, in "Biographical and Critical History of the Literature of the last Fifty Years" The Athenaeum (30 November 1833) 814-15.



Few men have died with higher reputation for historic talent and eloquence than SIR JAMES MACKINTOSH. The words which he casually uttered in conversation were remembered to be repeated; his speeches were listened to as oracles which settled the destinies of nations; and his History of England was looked for as a brilliant consummation of all: a work that was to convict Clarendon of folly, and Hume of ignorance. There was much about him to raise high expectations: his defence of the French Revolution against the brilliant attack of Burke, was reckoned triumphant, at least by the republicans; abounded in opinions and positions, which reflection and intercourse with the world induced him afterwards to sober and modify. His defence of Pelletier, who was prosecuted for a libel on Napoleon, startled some who had sailed with the stream of his victorious eloquence in the cause of Burke: he seemed now desirous to rebuild what he tried before to pull down. His client, he says, "feels with me gratitude to the ruler of empires, that after the wreck of everything ancient and venerable in Europe — of all established forms and acknowledged principles — of all long subsisting laws and sacred institutions — we are met here administering justice after the manner of our forefathers, in this her ancient sanctuary." Nor was this the worst that he uttered against the Child and Champion of the Revolution. "Viewing this as I do, (he continued,) as the first of contests between the greatest power upon earth and the only press which is now free, I cannot help calling upon you to pause before the great earthquake swallow up all the freedom that remains among men. Every press on the Continent, from Palermo to Hamburgh, is enslaved. One place only remains where the press is free, protected by our government and our patriotism. It is an awfully proud consideration — that venerable fabric, raised by our ancestors, still stands unshaken amid the ruins that surround us." This was looked upon as apostacy by many — it was apostacy in Napoleon, not in Mackintosh: he defended liberty before, and he defended it still.

It is about twenty years since he first took his seat in the House of Commons. He soon after gave notice of a motion on the cession of Norway to Sweden; the crush was great to hear him, and the dread of the ministry was not a little, for the fame of his knowledge and eloquence was high. He rose, and discoursed with great fluency; his speech was long, full of historical illustration, and brightened with frequent flashes of eloquence and philosophical speculation: it was somewhat laboured in style, and wanted simple vigour and familiar force: but that was not the worst; it touched on all matters save the matter in hand, and set all nations of the earth right save Norway. No doubt, he pleaded her cause by inference; but that sort of refinement is for the few, not for the many; he had not the art or the power of grappling at once with his subject, and setting it in sunshine. I heard many members mutter "A complete failure," when he concluded his speech.

The hopes of his friends now rested on his promised History; and when any one inquired what he was about, they were told that he was collecting materials, and digging the foundations of his future structure. One saw him taking notes from the manuscripts in the British Museum; by another he was found consulting the records of the Commons, or the documents in the State Paper Office; while, by a third, he was overheard in consultation with Lord Holland, on the meaning of some dubious deed or dark undertaking in the days of William or Anne. All imagined that he was going on with his history, and many hoped for it soon, as the materials for framing it were of no remote date; he was to commence with the Revolution of 1688, and conclude with the overthrow of Napoleon and the return of peace to Europe. "A work," says Campbell, "which he meant to have been his monument for posterity."

For nearly twenty years his History was in hand; and yet I know not that a single volume was finished: he penned episodes, he wrote eloquent passages, bright bits, and delineated characters at full length; but he did no more. The two volumes which, in 1830 and 1831, he gave to Lardner's Cyclopaedia, are considered to be an expansion of the preface which was to usher in his great undertaking. They bear marks both of talent and research; but there is nothing in them which makes common readers pause, and say a new light has arisen in the land. In truth, the genius of Mackintosh belonged less to history than to oratory; he seemed to want that scientific power of combination, without which the brightest materials of history are but as a glittering mass: he was deficient in that patient but vigorous spirit which broods over scattered and unconnected things, and brings them into order and beauty. He lavished all his splendour upon secondary matters, and had nothing better to say about things of higher concernment. He was too speculative and philosophic; his eloquence wanted simplicity, and his language ease. He could make profound remarks on events which he could not describe, save in language rendered obscure by its loftiness. A clear, straightforward, consistent narrative, such as history demands, was a flight beyond him. He was a sayer of splendid things — a man of high talent, of varied attainments, but not an original, or even profound thinker. Had his genius been of the lion-like kind which his friends represent, it would have raged like a chained demon till it had produced something lofty and noble: genius of the epic order cannot be idle; the power to do is given to the head that conceives; and perhaps no such person ever existed as a "mute, inglorious Milton." In metaphysics, the name of Mackintosh stands high as well as in oratory.