Imágenes de página
PDF
ePub

factious but insignificant demagogue, whose importance was solely owing to the absurd and injudicious severity of government. It is said that, in this youthful effort, Burke refuted his antagonist by the very same species of argument, which he afterwards so successfully employed against Bolingbroke—the reductio ad absurdum. He ironically adopted the premises of his opponent, and then convicted them of leading to pernicious consequences.

Having been always designed, it is said, for the English bar, his name was entered at the Middle Temple so early as 1747. In 1750 he arrived in London to keep Terms. He has recorded the feelings with which he first visited the metropolis in certain letters to his friends, still preserved. They are written in a very lively manner, indicating a very intelligent and observant mind, and betraying in almost every sentence his intellectual tastes and peculiarities. He calls the House of Commons and Westminster Hall (those theatres on which he was destined to act a part so important) the “chosen temples of fame;" with his characteristic taste, speaks of the stage as sunk (as it assuredly was) in the lowest degree; while he breaks out into rapture when expressing the emotions with which he visited some of the more splendid monuments of art, especially Westminster Abbey. There is here and there a floridity, and in one or two instances even a degree of bombast about these letters, which Burke's more matured taste would have corrected. Thus in one part, when speaking of so plain a matter as the encouragement afforded to literature in England, he tells his correspondent.—“ Notwithstanding this discouragement, literature is cultivated in a high degree. Poetry raises her enchanting voice to heaven. History arrests the wings of Time in his flight to the gulf of oblivion. Philosophy, the queen of arts, and the daughter of heaven, is daily extending her intellectual empire. Fancy sports on airy wing like a meteor on the bosom of a summer cloud; and even Metaphysics spins her cobwebs, and catches some flies.”

This would not have been mentioned, were it not that Mr. Prior has observed that these letters, though“ really despatched off hand,” as he expresses it, were by many believed to be studied compositions. It is presumed that the biographer means by this, that the style was so excellent as to have passed for deliberate composition. If that be his meaning, few will agree with him. That these letters want altogether the simplicity and carelessness of expression, which will always characterize the genuine epistolary style, is, indeed, most true; but they have no other marks of deliberate composition. The deliberate composition of one, who was so soon to write the “ Vindication of Natural Society," could not have resembled the above extract. The fact is, the letters bear the marks of haste, but not of simplicity; of an imagination not yet sufficiently accustomed to the restraints of taste, to yield a uniform obedience to them, when careful composition did not demand it.

Burke, while in London, studied with his accustomed ardour and diligence; but it has been rightly conjectured, that his pursuits were somewhat too excursive to permit him to obtain a very profound knowledge of the law; not to mention that his health, still delicate, demanded frequent relaxation. From one or other of these causes, or more probably from both, he soon abandoned altogether the profession to which he had been destined ; a step, as may be imagined, not very agreeable to his father. The knowledge he had obtained, however, was respectable and of considerable use to him in after-life ; while the discipline which his legal studies afforded, exerted a most beneficial influence on the general character of his mind.

Meanwhile the character of his intellect was more unequivocally developing itself. This is obvious from the terms in which he expresses himself in certain letters to his college friends. It was at this time that he became acquainted with Arthur Murphy, then carrying on the Gray's Inn Journal.

About this period, it is said, he applied for the Logic chair at the University of Glasgow, then vacant. It has been plausibly conjectured, that he was encouraged to this act of youthful ambition by the fact that Dr. Hutcheson, formeriy professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow, was a native of Ireland. That he was a great admirer of Hutcheson is certain. It was, indeed, the “ Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue,” that suggested to Burke the “ Inquiry into our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.” Nevertheless, the story of this application for the Logic chair at Glasgow seems to rest on no sufficient foundations. Dugald Stewart, who certainly had access to the best sources of information, expressly declares that he knew of nothing to justify it.

He continued to pursue his studies with undiminished assiduity ; assiduity, in fact, just as great as though he had not been a genius. Nor was he free merely from that intellectual dissipation, which so often enervates minds of a superior order; he was equally free from excesses of a more serious character. Vice, scarcely less opposed to knowledge than to virtue, never withdrew him from his studies. Few men, indeed, who ventured within that magic circle where wit and genius were too frequently combined with profligacy, ever came out more untainted.—Garrick was now amongst his acquaintance.

There is abundant reason to believe, that at this period of his life Burke wrote much and frequently for the various periodicals of the day. These early efforts are now, for the most part, unknown; nor has the public, probably, very much reason to regret their loss. Such productions are often hasty; frequently the more so, that, being anonymous,

their authors feel themselves secure from the severity of criticism. At the very best, they are written during a writer's apprenticeship to fame; and a tolerable exemption from faults, therefore, will generally be their highest merit. To the author himself, the discipline and exercise of mind they afford are exceedingly valuable; the more so, that he is not to answer for the follies of an inexperienced pen with his reputation. Thus protected, he can sustain failures without shame if not without disappointment, and can learn wisdom from experience at something less than the costly price at which experience usually sells her lessons. He can correct his faults and polish his style by practice and repeated effort, without sacrificing his future fame in the very process by which he is learning how to acquire it.

Burke's first important work was the celebrated “ Vindication of Natural Society," published in a large octavo pamphlet. It was written in imitation of the style and reasoning of Lord Bolingbroke. Some further remarks on it will be found at the close of this Introductory Essay, to which place we refer the reader for the observations it may be necessary to make on the other productions of our author. This biographical sketch will merely indicate the period and circumstances of their publication. This first effort excited considerable attention.

In the same year appeared his celebrated Essay, entitled“ A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.” The severe application which this publication demanded seriously injured his health, and compelled him to seek repose. For this purpose he visited Bath and Bristol, where he soon recovered. At Bath he was attended by his countryman, Dr. Christopher Nugent. This amiable man invited Mr. Burke to his house, where he remained till the re-establishment of his health ; and the consequence of this visit was an attachment between Burke and the daughter of his kind host, Miss Jane Mary Nugent. It has sometimes been asserted, that this lady was a catholic; and that Burke kept a priest in the house for her, on whom he was in the habit of“ playing off his sceptical raillery.” The fact is, that though Dr. Nugent was a catholic, his wife and daughter were both presbyterians.

This lady was well worthy of Burke's affections. To considerable endowments of intellect she added the utmost amiability of disposition. Proud of her conquest over such a man, proud of his genius, and still prouder of his affections, he was the object of almost idolatrous attachment; and to the promotion of his happiness she dedicated her whole life. It was well for him that it was so. Never did man need more than he did a sanctuary and a refuge in the quiet of domestic love from the incessant agitation of his public life; a spot of inviolable serenity, round which the storms of politics might roar and bluster, but never

[ocr errors]

enter. Such was his home, justifying his own strong and beautiful language, that

every care vanished the moment he entered beneath his own roof.” He was fully sensible of his wife's worth; as appears by the terms in which he always spoke of her, and the agony of affection with which he watched over her in moments of declining health.

In 1757 appeared, in two volumes octavo, “An account of the European Settlements in America." The authorship of this work has been long disputed; that Mr. Burke had something to do with it, however, is generally acknowledged. While many have attributed the whole of it to him, others contend that he only revised it, and that the whole or nearly the whole was the composition of his cousin William Bourke. The truth seems to be that it was a joint work, though it is now impossible to assign the exact proportions in which the labour was distributed. That Mr. Burke wrote a large portion of it, internal evidence will permit no reader of discernment to doubt; and that there was much he did not write, the same evidence proves quite as conclusively. His remarks on our North American colonies show how carefully he had, even at that early period, studied that portion of our dependencies. The attention he paid to this subject was not lost; it prepared him for the enlarged and accurate views he subsequently took of the policy adopted in reference to America; and which he so often and so eloquently expounded in parliament during the American war. The copy-right for this work is alleged to have brought only fifty guineas. His enemies have often urged, as though it were a stain on his character, that at this period of his life Burke wrote for subsistence. This charge, as it happens, is not true; but if it were, it could never be worth while to reply to it: the fools who can think there is any degradation in receiving honest remuneration for hard literary labour are not to be reasoned with.

In 1757 a new edition of the “ Essay on the Sublime and Beautiful” was called for, to which was prefixed the Introductory Chapter on Taste. A parent's displeasure can seldom stand out against a son's reputation. Accordingly, on Burke's presenting his father with a copy, he received a substantial proof of reconciliation, in the shape of £100.

About this time, as appears by a letter to his friend Shackleton, he contemplated emigration to America. Various motives have been conjectured, but none entirely satisfactory. It was, in all probability, that which has led some other celebrated men to meditate the same step-the prospect of a family with inadequate means of providing for them. It may also be added, that Burke, as is well known, was through his whole life passionately fond of agriculture.

Who can help speculating on the singular events which might have taken place had he emigrated? He who took so warmly the side of the colonists at home,-what would he have done in the very thick of the conflict?

It was about this time that he commenced his “Essay towards an Abridgment of the English History.” Eight sheets were printed by Dodsley, in 1757. The work, from some cause or other, was thrown aside ; why, is not known; though it has been plausibly conjectured that he was induced to abandon it by hearing that Hume was engaged in a similar undertaking.

In the beginning of 1758 was born that child of many hopes and many sorrows, who was to be for so many years the object of almost idolatrous affection; the promise of whose genius and virtues filled the imagination of his father with visions never to be realized, and for whom, in the excess of parental love,-that only passion that can never be allied with envy,—he anticipated a fame that should eclipse his own.

The prospect of a family (though that prospect was never realized) roused the energies of his mind, which, indeed, at no time needed much stimulus, to still more strenuous exertion; and he now commenced the “ Annual Register.” This work, the design of which was excellent, was executed with corresponding ability for a long series of years, and will be

a

found the best record we have of the history, political and literary, of the times. Some of the early volumes passed through several editions. The earliest are, of course, those which are enriched with the most frequent contributions of Mr. Burke. He did not, however, wholly cease to write for it, even when engaged in all the arduous duties of his political life; he still often favoured it with occasional sketches, either actually written by himself or at his dictation.

There cannot be a doubt, that his connexion with the Annual Register was of signal service to him in relation to his subsequent history. It compelled him to study the political history of all Europe, and tended to familiarize him with all those questions which he was destined to discuss in the House of Commons, and on which he often displayed such minute and accurate knowledge.

Amongst the illustrious friends to whom Burke's talents had now procured him an introduction, may be mentioned Dr. Johnson, George Lord Littleton, Soame Jenyns, and Sir Joshua Reynolds. He was also introduced to Hume, with whom however, as might have been expected, he never became intimate; and to Adam Smith. About this period Mr.

; Burke resided occasionally at Plaistow, in Essex.

But the time was fast approaching when Edmund Burke was no longer to occupy a merely private station, or exhaust his wondrous talents in the laborious and inadequately remunerated drudgeries of periodical literature; and as though he anticipated his future destinies, his studies, at this time, were beginning to be wholly or chiefly of a political character.

The amiable and accomplished Lord Charlemont, of whom Burke constantly spoke with enthusiastic love and gratitude, was the man by whom he was immediately introduced to the attention of those in power. This nobleman recommended him to the well known “single-speech Hamilton,” who in 1761 had been appointed chief secretary to Lord Halifax, lord lieutenant of Ireland. This gentleman engaged Mr. Burke in a somewhat anomalous character,-of part friend, part secretary. What share Mr. Burke had in the councils of the government cannot now be ascertained; that his duties were arduous, however, is obvious, for he speaks of “ a long and laborious attendance." While in Ireland he spent some time amidst the scenes of his childhood and youth; and, when public duty permitted, visited England on those literary undertakings which his active mind could not be tempted wholly to forego. In 1763 he received a pension, on the Irish establishment, of £300 per annum, for which he was principally indebted to Mr. Hamilton. He enjoyed it, however, only a year and a half ;-it appears it was imparted with an expectation that it would be paid for by implicit political obedience. Mr. Burke, however, was not a man to do such fealty and homage to Mammon. His independent and lofty spirit could not stoop to such ignominy. Accordingly, unwilling to purchase his pension by such an enormous outlay of conscience, he offered to relinquish it. Mr. Hamilton, who managed the whole matter in the true spirit of a political huckster, had the meanness to accept this offer. The whole transaction is, in fact, highly honourable to Mr. Burke's character, though his enemies have generally represented it otherwise. The particulars have transpired within a few years only by the publication of a letter of Mr. Burke's to Mr. Flood, which we here publish.

a

* MY DEAR FLOOD, “ I thank you for your kind and most obliging letters; you are a person whose good offices are not sares, and to whom one may venture to be obliged without danger to his honour. As I depend upon your sincerity, so I shall most certainly call upon your friendship, if I should have any thing to do in Ireland; this, however, is not the case at present, at least in any way in which your interposition may be employed with a proper attention to yourself; a point which I shall always very tenderly consider in any application I make to my friends.

" It is very true that there is an eternal rupture between me and Hamilton, which was on my side neither sought nor provoked; for though his conduct in public affairs has been for a long time directly

contrary to my opinions, very reproachful to himself, and extremely disgustful to me; and though in private he has not justly fulfilled one of his engagements to me, yet I was so uneasy and awkward at coming to a breach, where I had once a close and intimate friendship, that I continued with a kind of desperate fidelity to adhere to his cause and person ; and when I found him greatly disposed to quarrel with me, I used such submissive measures as I never before could prevail upon myself to use to any man.

“ The occasion of our difference was not any act whatsoever on my part; it was entirely on his, by a voluntary but most insolent and intolerable demand, amounting to no less than a claim of servitude during the whole course of my life, without leaving me at any time a power either of getting forward with honour, or of retiring with tranquillity. This was really and truly the substance of his demand upon me, to which I need not tell you I refused, with some degree of indignation, to submit. On this we ceased to see each other, or to correspond, a good while before you left London. He then commenced, through the intervention of others, a negociation with me, in which he showed as much of meanness in his proposals as he had done of arrogance in his demands; but as all these proposals were vitiated by the taint of that servitude with which they were all mixed, his negociation came to nothing.

“ He grounded these monstrous claims (such as never were before heard of in this country) on that pension which he had procured for me through Colonel Cunninghame, the late primate, and Lord Halifax; for, through all that series of persons, this paltry business was contrived to pass. Now, though I was sensible that I owed this pension to the good will of the primate in a great degree, and though, if it had come from Hamilton's pocket, instead of being derived from the Irish treasury, I had earned it by a long and laborious attendance, and might, in any other than that unfortunate connexion, have got a much better thing; yet, to get rid of him completely, and not to carry a memorial of such a person about me, I offered to transmit it to his attorney in trust for him. This offer he thought proper to accept. I beg pardon, my dear Flood, for troubling you so long on a subject which ought not to employ a moment of your thoughts, and never shall again employ a moment of mine."

;

Mr. Burke's silence on this subject was as honourable as the independent part he had acted in the transaction itself. Here the connexion between the parties totally ceased.

While in Dublin, in 1763, his unfortunate friend Barry, (afterwards the well known painter, then an unfriended son of genius,) was recommended to him. He had come to exhibit a picture. Mr. Burke looked at it, approved it, and asked him what were his prospects. A curious occurrence, well worth relating, took place at this interview. Burke, as an experiment, thought proper to defend some questionable canon of taste by unsound but plausible argument. Barry contested it, and to justify himself in his position quoted from a certain anonymous essay, as he said, “ On the Sublime and Beautiful.” Burke with great gravity began to depreciate that performance as the production of some nameless scribbler, and as utterly unworthy of being cited as an authority. This provoked Barry, who was an ardent admirer of the essay, almost to fury. With the constitutional ardour of genius, which can never suffer self-interest to check its enthusiasm for its favourite pursuit, he quite forgot that Burke was his promised patron. Nor could Burke pacify him till he had told him that he was himself the author. The enthusiastic son of genius, starting from his seat, embraced Burke with ardour, and produced a very unexceptionable proof of his admiration for his unknown friend, in the shape of a MS. volume of the essay transcribed by himself! It was well, however, for Barry that the author and the critic happened to be the same person.

If ever indigent genius received munificent patronage, Barry received it from Burke ; patronage, the more munificent indeed, that Burke could ill afford it. He did not do as so many others have done,-utter a few words of very frigid advice or of inefficacious sympathy, nor content himself with the cheap, because insincere, promises of more substantial support. Though possessed of little himself, he aided him with a liberality most generously disproportionate to his means. Having paid his passage from Dublin to London, he invited him to his house; introduced him to all the most eminent artists, and procured him respect

a

a

« AnteriorContinuar »