Imágenes de página

English pen. The pomposity and inflation of Johnson's style abated considerably in his own later writings, and as the cumbering flesh fell off, the nerve and spirit increased: the most happily executed parts of the Lives of the Poets offer almost a contrast to the oppressive rotundity of the Ramblers, produced thirty years before ; and some eminent writers of a subsequent date, who have yet evidently formed their style upon his, have retai little or nothing of what, to a superficial inspection, seem the most marked characteristics of his manner of expression. Indeed, as we have said, there is perhaps no subsequent English prose-writer upon whose style that of Johnson has been altogether without its effect.


But the greatest, undoubtedly, of all our writers of this age was Burke, one of the most remarkable men of any age. Edmund Burke was born in Dublin, in 1730; but he came over in 1750 to the British metropolis, and he mostly resided in this country till his death, in 1797. In 1756 he published his celebrated Vindication of Natural Society, an imitation of the style, and a parody on the philosophy, of Lord Bolingbroke; and the same year his Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. In 1757 appeared anonymously his Account of the European Settlements in America. In 1759 came out the first volume of The Annual Register, of which he is known to have written, or superintended the writing of, the historical part for several years. His public life commenced in 1761, with the appointment of private secretary to the chief secretary for Ireland, an office which carried him back for about three years to his native country. In 1766 he became a member of the English House of Commons; and from that date almost to the hour of his death, besides his exertions as a front figure in the debates and other business of parliament, from which he did not retire till 1794, '

he continued to dazzle the world by a succession of political writings such as certainly had never before been equalled in brilliancy and power. We can mention only those of greatest note :his Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, published in 1770; his Reflections on the Revolution in France, published in 1790; his Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, in 1792 ; his Letter to a Noble Lord on his Pension, in 1796.; "his Letters on a Regicide Peace, in 1796 and 1797 ; his Observations on the Conduct of the Minority, in 1797 ; besides his several great speeches, revised and sent to the press by himself; that on American Taxation, in 1774; that on Conciliation with America, in 1775; that on the Fconomical Reform Bill, in 1780.; that delivered in the Guildhall at Bristol previous to his election, the same year; that on Mr. Fox's India Bill, in 1783; and that on the Nabob of Arcot's Debts, in 1785: those, perhaps the most splendid of all, which he delivered at the bar of the House of Lords, in 1789, on the impeachment of Mr. Hastings, have also been printed since his death from his own manuscript. Burke was our first, and is still our greatest, writer on the philosophy of practical politics. The mere metaphysics of that science, or what we may call by that term for want of a better, meaning thereby all abstract speculation and theorizing on the general subject of government without reference to the actual circumstances of the particular country and people to be governed, he held: from the beginning to the end of his life in undisguised, perhaps in undue, contempt. This feeling is as strongly manifested in his very first publication, his covert attack on Bolingbroke, as either in his writings and speeches on the contest with the American colonies, or in those of the French Revolution. He was, as we have said, emphatically a practical politician, and, above all, an English politician. In discussing questions of domestic politics, he constantly refused to travel beyond the landmarks of the constitution as he found it established; and the views he took of the politics of other countries were as far as possible regulated by the same principle. The question of a revolution, in so far as England was concerned, he did not hold to be one with which he had anything to do. Not only had it never been actually presented to him by the circumstances of the time; he did not conceive that it ever could come before him. He was, in fact, no believer in the possibility of any sudden and complete re-edification of the institutions of a great country; he left such transformations to Harlequin's wand and the machinists of the stage; he did not think they could take place in a system so mighty and so infinitely complicated as that of the political organization of a nation. A constitution, too, in his idea, was not a thing, like a steam-engine, or a machine for threshing corn, that could be put together and set up in a few weeks or months, and that would work equally well wherever it was set up; he looked upon it rather as something that must in every case grow and gradually evolve itself out of the soil of the national mind and character, that must take its shape in a great measure from the prevalent habits and feelings to which it was to be accommodated, that would not work or stand at all unless it thus formed an integral part of the social system to which it belonged. The notion of a constitution artificially constructed, and merely as it were fastened upon a country by bolts and screws, him much the same as the notion of a human body performing the functions of life with no other than such a separate artificial head stuck upon it. A constitution was with him a thing of life. It could no more be set up of a sudden than a full-grown tree could be ordered from the manufacturer's and so set up. Like a tree, it must have its roots intertwisted with the earth on which it stands, even as it has its branches extended over it. Or rather, the constitution is to him the earth itself—the one solid enduring basis on which alone any

rational or useful speculation can be reared. At the least, it is his Bible, the great authoritative text-book of his political religion, which he no more looks for anything to contradict or supersede than the theologian looks for a new revelation. It may be observed that Burke's peculiar faculties did not fit him, any more than his tastes, for nice and subtle inquisition into the essences of things; as may be perceived, to go no farther, from his early work on the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, which, elegant and ingenious as it is, must be deemed a failure in so far as respects its professed object, and the spirit of which, as has been observed, is, on the whole, certainly rather critical than metaphysical.* In

非 *

See art. on Burke in · Penny Cyclopædia,' vi. 31.. See also an examination and refutation of Burke's theory in an article in the same work, vol. xxiii. pp. 186-189, on Sublimity, which is not only the best disquisition that has been the great fields of politics and religion, besides, occupied as they are with men's substantial interests, he regarded inquiries into first principles as worse than vain and worthless, as much more likely to mislead and pervert than to afford instruction or right guidance; and it is remarkable that this feeling, too, though deepened and strengthened by the experience of his after-life, and, above all, exasperated by the events to which his attention was most strongly directed in his latest days into an intense dread and horror of the confusion and wide-spread ruin that might be wrought by the assumption of so incompetent a power as mere human ratiocination to regulate all things according to its own conceit, was entertained and expressed by him with great distinctness at the outset of his career. It was in this spirit, indeed, that he wrote his Vindication of Natural Society, with the design of showing how anything whatever might be either attacked or defended with great plausibility by the method in which the highest and most intricate philosophical questions were discussed by Lord Bolingbroke. He “is satisfied,” he says in his Preface, “ that a mind which has no restraint from a sense of its own weakness, of its subordinate rank in the creation, and of the extreme danger of letting the imagination loose upon some subjects, may very plausibly attack everything the most excellent and venerable; that it would not be difficult to criticise the Creation itself; and that, if we were to examine the divine fabrics by our ideas of reason and fitness, and to use the same method of attack by which some men have assaulted revealed religion, we might, written on the philosophy of that subject, but almost the only one of any value.

« AnteriorContinuar »