« AnteriorContinuar »
[The essays on Milton and Addison form a convenient introduction to the study of Macaulay's writings; they serve also the immediate purpose of this series, by illustrating the lives of two authors whose works are to be studied during the course preparatory for college. Moreover, they have a general interest as being well-constructed and brilliantly successful "review-articles." This type of essay-writing one may almost assert to have been invented by the Edinburgh Reviewers, of which famous coterie Macaulay was one of the greatest, and these are classic specimens of the type.
Macaulay was not one of the founders of that periodical. It originated in 1802 among a number of young men of the generation before him, whose interests-social, literary, and political,-brought them together in Edinburgh. The most famous were Jeffrey, Sydney Smith, the witty divine who instigated the enterprise, Henry Brougham, and Francis Horner. They were Liberals or "Whigs " in politics, and full of fight for their side in all public questions. The merit of the work of these talented young "journalists," the novelty of the enterprise, and what was thought to be the daring of the views expressed in these articles on various questions of the day, made the Edinburgh a rallying point for the popular party in English politics, and gave to the "Buff and Blue" magazine a wide circulation. The Tory party started the Quarterly Review to meet it, and the Westminster Review was begun later by a new set of young "Radicals," who found the Edinburgh too slow for them; both thus paying it the flattery of imitation. Even to the present day the form of these essays to a great degree, followed in certain periodicals, especially in this particular, which it will interest young students to notice.
It was thought needful by the Edinburgh writers, while they were treating their subjects, in truth, in the most general way, to connect their discursive harangues with a criticism of some definite book lately published. Thus, Macaulay begins his essay on Milton with some
rather random remarks about a book of Milton's, and his essay on Addison with a hasty criticism of Miss Aikin's "Life of Addison." But once he gets into his article a little way, the reviewer abandons his intended task, and proceeds to develop his own opinions about the character and conduct of Milton and Addison from the standpoint of his own party, the "Whigs of 1832." In the process of treat ing these questions, he rambles off into short excursions upon kindred subjects, wholly ignoring the book review, and giving himself the privilege of unburdening his soul upon any political questions which interest him, or entering upon literary criticism or general topics of the day, as we should do in modern magazine articles, which are more frankly devoted to general discussions. Other likenesses and differences between the Edinburgh articles and their modern equivalents will interest the student of English literature in its present manifestations, but they are not essential to the understanding and appreciation of the text, and space does not allow us to discuss them here.]
1. THE Essay on Milton was published in the Edinburgh Review in August, 1825. The author was born in 1800, and was thus at the date of publication just twenty-five years old. Except for some papers in Knight's Quarterly, one of which, "Conversation between Mr. Abraham Cowley and Mr. John Milton touching the Great Civil War," covers some of the ground of this essay, there was practically as yet nothing of Macaulay's in print. Yet, though it was thus an experiment from a comparatively untried man, this article proved to be one of those astonishing successes which now and then befall new authors. Like Lord Byron, the young Macaulay "awoke one morning and found himself famous.” He became at once after the publication of this essay one of the best-known men in England. "The family breakfast-table in Bloomsbury," says his sister, was covered with cards of invitation to dinner from every quarter of London." He was made a friend by men of letters, scholars, and statesmen; and from this time his life ran on in that almost unbroken current of agreeable and well-rewarded industry which has been made the subject of one of the most charming
biographies in the world, Sir George Trevelyan's "Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay."
2. As we are thus dealing with what was practically Macaulay's first great work, we might naturally expect to find in it some of the characteristic weaknesses of a novice. Macaulay himself, in the preface to the collection of his essays made in 1843, found this fault with it. "The criticism on Milton," says he, "which was written when the author was just from college, contains scarcely a paragraph such as his matured judgment approves, and remains overloaded with faulty and ungraceful ornament." Now, blemishes of this sort, to be sure, do appear. Matthew Arnold, for instance, well objects to the description of Milton's "conception of love" (page 45) that it is, when analyzed, nothing but nonsense; Mr. Frederic Harrison well objects to his description of the Restoration (page 70) that it is really too much to say of the careless and goodnatured Charles II. that he was "a cruel idol propitiated by the best blood of England's children." Any careful reader of the essay will find almost anywhere other similar exaggerations of phrase. It is not true, for instance, that Milton died in a "hovel" or in "disgrace;" nor would Milton's daughters have "contested" with anybody the privilege of reading Greek to him. But, on the whole, considered as the work of a "young man just from college," the essay is particularly free from the faults of youth. Such faults as it has are at worst pleasing faults, characteristic of Macaulay's best writing all his life long. It is full of vivid color, smartly written, and showing already the certain touch of a master of historical composition.
3. But there are criticisms which have been made upon the essay with more justice than these. For one thing, critics have said that, considered as a literary study, it does not contain a thorough discussion of Milton's work. Very