Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Books, poems, drama…

Burke by John Morley

Part 4 out of 4

Adobe PDF icon
Download this document as a .pdf
File size: 0.4 MB
What's this? light bulb idea Many people prefer to read off-line or to print out text and read from the real printed page. Others want to carry documents around with them on their mobile phones and read while they are on the move. We have created .pdf files of all out documents to accommodate all these groups of people. We recommend that you download .pdfs onto your mobile phone when it is connected to a WiFi connection for reading off-line.

them, we will out-argue them."

Out-arguing is not perhaps the right word for most of Burke's
performances. He is at heart thinking more of the subject itself than
of those on whom it was his apparent business to impress a particular
view of it. He surrenders himself wholly to the matter, and follows
up, though with a strong and close tread, all the excursions to which
it may give rise in an elastic intelligence--"motion," as De Quincey
says, "propagating motion, and life throwing off life." But then this
exuberant way of thinking, this willingness to let the subject lead,
is less apt in public discourse than it is in literature, and from
this comes the literary quality of Burke's speeches.

With all his hatred for the book-man in politics, Burke owed much of
his own distinction to that generous richness and breadth of judgment
which had been ripened in him by literature and his practice in it.
Like some other men in our history, he showed that books are a better
preparation for statesmanship than early training in the subordinate
posts and among the permanent officials of a public department.
There is no copiousness of literary reference in his works, such
as over-abounded in civil and ecclesiastical publicists of the
seventeenth century. Nor can we truly say that there is much, though
there is certainly some, of that tact, which literature is alleged to
confer on those who approach it in a just spirit and with the true
gift. The influence of literature on Burke lay partly in the direction
of emancipation from the mechanical formulae of practical politics;
partly in the association which it engendered, in a powerful
understanding like his, between politics and the moral forces of the
world, and between political maxims and the old and great sentences of
morals; partly in drawing him, even when resting his case on prudence
and expediency, to appeal to the widest and highest sympathies;
partly, and more than all, in opening his thoughts to the many
conditions, possibilities, and "varieties of untried being" in human
character and situation, and so giving an incomparable flexibility to
his methods of political approach.

This flexibility is not to be found in his manner and composition.
That derives its immense power from other sources; from passion,
intensity, imagination, size, truth, cogency of logical reason. If any
one has imbued himself with that exacting love of delicacy, measure,
and taste in expression, which was until our own day a sacred
tradition of the French, then he will not like Burke. Those who insist
on charm, on winningness in style, on subtle harmonies and exquisite
suggestion, are disappointed in Burke; they even find him stiff and
over-coloured. And there are blemishes of this kind. His banter is
nearly always ungainly, his wit blunt, as Johnson said of it, and
very often unseasonable. We feel that Johnson must have been right in
declaring that though Burke was always in search of pleasantries, he
never made a good joke in his life. As is usual with a man who has not
true humour, Burke is also without true pathos. The thought of wrong
or misery moved him less to pity for the victim than to anger against
the cause. Then, there are some gratuitous and unredeemed vulgarities;
some images whose barbarity makes us shudder, of creeping ascarides
and inexpugnable tapeworms. But it is the mere foppery of literature
to suffer ourselves to be long detained by specks like these.

The varieties of Burke's literary or rhetorical method are very
striking. It is almost incredible that the superb imaginative
amplification of the description of Hyder Ali's descent upon the
Carnatic should be from the same pen as the grave, simple, unadorned
_Address to the King_ (1777), where each sentence falls on the ear
with the accent of some golden-tongued oracle of the wise gods. His
stride is the stride of a giant, from the sentimental beauty of the
picture of Marie Antoinette at Versailles, or the red horror of the
tale of Debi Sing in Rungpore, to the learning, positiveness, and cool
judicial mastery of the _Report on the Lords' Journals_ (1794), which
Philip Francis, no mean judge, declared on the whole to be the "most
eminent and extraordinary" of all his productions. Even in the coolest
and dryest of his pieces, there is the mark of greatness, of grasp, of
comprehension. In all its varieties Burke's style is noble, earnest,
deep-flowing, because his sentiment was lofty and fervid, and went
with sincerity and ardent disciplined travail of judgment. Fox told
Francis Horner that Dryden's prose was Burke's great favourite, and
that Burke imitated him more than any one else. We may well believe
that he was attracted by Dryden's ease, his copiousness, his gaiety,
his manliness of style, but there can hardly have been any conscious
attempt at imitation. Their topics were too different. Burke had
the style of his subjects, the amplitude, the weightiness, the
laboriousness, the sense, the high flight, the grandeur, proper to a
man dealing with imperial themes, the freedom of nations, the justice
of rulers, the fortunes of great societies, the sacredness of law.
Burke will always be read with delight and edification, because in
the midst of discussions on the local and the accidental, he scatters
apophthegms that take us into the regions of lasting wisdom. In
the midst of the torrent of his most strenuous and passionate
deliverances, he suddenly rises aloof from his immediate subject, and
in all tranquillity reminds us of some permanent relation of things,
some enduring truth of human life or society. We do not hear the
organ tones of Milton, for faith and freedom had other notes in the
seventeenth century. There is none of the complacent and wise-browed
sagacity of Bacon, for Burke's were days of eager personal strife
and party fire and civil division. We are not exhilarated by the
cheerfulness, the polish, the fine manners of Bolingbroke, for Burke
had an anxious conscience, and was earnest and intent that the good
should triumph. And yet Burke is among the greatest of those who have
wrought marvels in the prose of our English tongue.

The influence of Burke on the publicists of the generation after the
Revolution was much less considerable than might have been expected.
In Germany, where there has been so much excellent writing about
_Staatswissenschaft_, with such poverty and darkness in the wisdom of
practical politics, there is a long list of writers who have drawn
their inspiration from Burke. In France, publicists of the sentimental
school, like Chateaubriand, and the politico-ecclesiastical school,
like De Maistre, fashioned a track of their own. In England Burke made
a deep mark on contemporary opinion during the last years of his life,
and then his influence underwent a certain eclipse. The official Whigs
considered him a renegade and a heresiarch, who had committed the
deadly sin of breaking up the party; and they never mentioned his
name without bitterness. To men like Godwin, the author of _Political
Justice_, Burke was as antichrist. Bentham and James Mill thought of
him as a declaimer who lived upon applause, and who, as one of them
says, was for protecting everything old, not because it was good
but because it existed. In one quarter only did he exert a profound
influence. His maxim that men might employ their sagacity in
discovering the latent wisdom which underlies general prejudices and
old institutions, instead of exploding them, inspired Coleridge, as
I have already said; and the Coleridgian school are Burke's direct
descendants, whenever they deal with the significance and the
relations of Church and State. But they connected these views so
closely with their views in metaphysics and theology, that the
association with Burke was effectually disguised.

The only English writer of that age whom we can name along with
Burke in the literature of enduring power, is Wordsworth, that great
representative in another and a higher field, and with many rare
elements added that were all his own of those harmonising and
conciliatory forces and ideas that make man's destiny easier to him,
through piety in its oldest and best sense; through reverence for
the past, for duty, for institutions. He was born in the year of the
_Present Discontents_ (1770), and when Burke wrote the _Reflections_,
Wordsworth was standing, with France "on the top of golden hours,"
listening with delight among the ruins of the Bastille, or on the
banks of the Loire, to "the homeless sound of joy that was in the
sky." When France lost faith and freedom, and Napoleon had built his
throne on their grave, he began to see those strong elements which for
Burke had all his life been the true and fast foundation of the
social world. Wide as is the difference between an oratorical and a
declamatory mind like Burke's, and the least oratorical of all poets,
yet under this difference of form and temper there is a striking
likeness in spirit. There was the same energetic feeling about moral
ideas, the same frame of counsel and prudence, the same love for the
slowness of time, the same slight account held of mere intellectual
knowledge, and even the same ruling sympathy with that side of the
character of Englishmen which Burke exulted in, as "_their awe
of kings and reverence for priests," "their sullen resistance
of innovation" "their unalterable perseverance in the wisdom of

The conservative movement in England ran on for many years in the
ecclesiastical channel rather than among questions where Burke's
writings might have been brought to bear. On the political side
the most active minds, both in practice and theory, worked out the
principles of liberalism, and they did so on a plan and by methods
from which Burke's utilitarian liberalism and his historic
conservatism were equally remote. There are many signs around us that
this epoch is for the moment at an end. The historic method, fitting
in with certain dominant conceptions in the region of natural science,
is bringing men round to a way of looking at society for which Burke's
maxims are exactly suited; and it seems probable that he will be more
frequently and more seriously referred to within the next twenty years
than he has been within the whole of the last eighty.


_Printed by_ R. & R. CLARK, LIMITED, _Edinburgh_.

Book of the day: