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 prejudice_.”
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.
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