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DISTINGUISHED as a descriptive poet by his fine Lays of Ancient Rome, and yet more distinguished as a master of English prose by his Essays and his noble History of England, Macaulay stands prominent among the highest literary names of the nineteenth century. When, amid the Christmas festivities of 1859, a mournful whisper crept into almost every bome in the land, telling of his death, there were few hearts so thoroughly engrossed by the pleasures of the passing hour as not to send a thought of affectionate sorrow into that quiet room at Kensington, where the great Historian and Essayist—the only man whom England ever made a lord for the power of his pen—lay mute and still among his cherished books and the half-written sheets of his unfinished volume.
Macaulay was of Scottish lineage, being a descendant of the Macaulays of Lewis in Ross-shire. His grandfather, John, was a Presbyterian minister. His father, Zachary, who spent part of his life in Jamaica, became well known for his exertions in opposition to the hateful slave-trade. At Rothley Temple in Leicestershire, the seat of Zachary's brother-in-law, a rich English merchant and member of Parliament, the future historian was born in 1800, and was named Thomas Babington, after the uncle in whose house he first saw the light.
Young Macaulay's career as a student of Trinity College, Cambridge, was crowned with high honours. Entering in 1818, he
obtained in the following year the Chancellor's medal for a poem called Pompeii; in 1821 he received a similar distinction for a poem on Evening, and was, besides, elected to the Craven scholarship; and he had been for a year Fellow of Trinity when, in 1825, he took his degree of Master of Arts. And in the arena of the Union Debating Society, where the keenest and brightest minds of Cambridge met to display their skill in fence, few could measure weapons with Babington Macaulay. Such honours formed no unfitting prelude for the career of literary and political renown upon which he entered without delay. While yet an undergraduate, he had contributed to The Etonian, a short-lived serial conducted by Praed, his most formidable rival at the Union; and had also, in company with that author of “Quince" and the “Red Fisherman," written for Knight's Quarterly Magazine. Here his first public laurels were won. But the young student of law—he was now working away at Lincoln's Inn in preparation for his call to the bar-before donning the legal robe, had achieved a success of which many older men might well be proud. Milton's newly-found treatise on "Christian Doctrine” having been rendered into English, Macaulay contributed to
an August number of the “Edinburgh Review” that 1825 article on Milton, which must be regarded as the
starting-point of his literary fame. It was brilliant
even to excess. The writer himself, when the added skill and taste of nearly twenty years had chastened his style, condemned this article, as being “overloaded with gaudy and ungraceful ornament.” But its appearance was felt, by all the reading public, to mark the rising of a new star of uncommon lustre above the horizon; and it is easier to forgive an excess of real brilliance, which, we know, coming years must purify and subdue, than to endure a poverty of light, or, still worse, that display of pinchbeck jewels, glittering with affected lustre, of wbich our young literature is too full.
About six months after the appearance of Milton, the writer was called to the English bar. We pass lightly over his professional and political career. His Whig friends soon made him a
MACAULAY'S POLITICAL CAREER.
Commissioner of Bankruptcy. He took his seat in 1830 as member for Calne. He spoke often and with great power in the battle of the Reform Bill, and won considerable reputation as an orator, although his delivery was monotonous and he lacked some of the physical qualities of a telling speaker. His orations were rather brilliant political essays than great outbursts of natural eloquence, like the speeches of Chatham or Burke. From 1832 to 1834 he was member for Leeds. And then he went out to India as legal adviser to the Supreme Council of Calcutta, his principal business there being the preparation of a new penal code of Indian law. The formation of this code led him to the investigation of Indian history, a study which bore fine fruit in his Essays on Lord Clive and Warren Hastings, the principal literary results of the two years and a half which he spent in the East. Many of his best articles in the “Edinburgh” came home by the Indian mail, recreations of his leisure at Calcutta, In 1839 Macaulay, then newly returned from India, became member for Edinburgh, upon taking office under Lord Melbourne as Secretary at War, and this connection with the Scottish capital lasted for eight years. Under Lord John (now Earl) Russell, he was in 1846 appointed Paymaster-General of the Forces; but, in the following year, his vote in favour of the Maynooth grant having given offence to some of the Edinburgh electors, he was beaten at the poll by Mr. Cowan.
The defeat was a victory. Macaulay the member for Edinburgh, sinking out of public view for two years, emerges as Macaulay the historian of England. Living chiefly at the Albany, and spending many of his mornings among the literary treasures of the British Museum, quartering himself for weeks at a country ale-house in the village of Weston Zoyland, that he might write his stirring and vivid description of the battle of Sedgemoor on the very spot, he devoted all his strength to more enduring work than Essays in the “ Edinburgh Review.” The first two volumes of The History of England from the Accession of James the Second, published in 1849, were received with an 1849 enthusiasm fully equal to the reception of Gibbon's
Decline and Fall. The plan was a great one. “I purpose to write the history of England from the accession of King James the Second down to a time which is within the memory of men still living,” are the opening words of the opening chapter. He has brought the work down only to the death of William the Third, and that with gaps in the concluding and imperfect volume. We cannot say that a History from the time of James the Second down to the battle of Waterloo or the death of blind old King George, written by so great a pen within the compass of half-a-dozen volumes, would have been a book of little interest to the general reader, for we know what brilliant summaries of historical periods, all glowing with colour and filled with life, the Essayist has given us ;
but a summarized History would greatly lack the charm with which the volumes of Macaulay enchain us, as we pass in review the panorama of court and camp and council-room and country-house, unfolded to our delighted gaze. To condense the Rebellion of Monmouth, the Trial of the Bishops, the Siege of Derry, the Battle of the Boyne, or the Massacre of Glencoe into fewer pages, would be to squeeze out most of the splendid colouring that reminds us of Titian or Tintoretto, and scatter to the winds those little traits of personal appearance and individual action—those glimpses of weather, scenery, costume, and domestic life-- which make authentic history read, in his pictured pages, like a tale of romance. One of Macaulay's favourite maxims-how greatly in description the particular excels the general—is finely exemplified by all his writings. The third and fourth volumes of the History were published in 1855. Cartloads of copies left the publisher's ware-room, and the presses could hardly work quickly enough to keep pace with the demand. The last volume, published two years after the historian's death, is formed of such manuscripts as were found among his papers, partly revised, partly in original roughness (which, however, surpasses the elaborate smoothness of most other men). The death-bed of Dutch William is the last scene described; but the narrative of the fifth volume is not continuous, it having been thought better to leave the fragments as the artist's hand had left them, than to
DEATH OF LORD MACAULAY.
link these fragments together with pieces of inferior workmanship:
The first chapter of this noble work contains a rapid but masterly view of earlier English history, becoming more detailed and picturesque as that period of which Cromwell is the central figure widens on the historian's view. The second chapter depicts the shameful reign of the second Charles.
The third-among all, most characteristic of Macaulay's historical treatment—shows us the cabbages and gooseberry bushes growing close to the country squire's hall door in 1685 ; leads us through the shrub-wood, with here and there a woodcock, which covered the site of now brilliant, busy Regent Street; introduces us to the literary gossips at Will's Corfee-house, and the grave surgeons who clustered round Garraway's tables; carries us in a Flying Coach at the wonderful rate of forty miles a day along roads thick with quagmires and infested with highwaymen; brings us even into the crowded jails, festering with dirt, disease, and crime ;-gives us, in short, such a picture of old England in the days of the Stuarts as no writer had ever given us before. From novels, plays, pictures, maps, poems, diaries, letters, and a hundred other such sources, with patient industry he collected his materials for this remarkable view of English life. Then, after an overture so magnificent, the brilliant drama, on which the black curtain fell sadly soon, opens with the death of King Charles the Second.
The slight put upon Macaulay by the electors of Edinburgh was somewhat atoned for in 1852, when they returned him as their member, although he issued no address and stooped to solicit no vote. For four years he continued to represent that city in Parliament; but his day of public life was nearly over,—he was fast breaking prematurely down. Resigning his seat in 1856, he entered the Upper House in the following year as Baron Macaulay of Rothley Temple, having received his peerage chiefly as a fitting tribute to his eminent literary merit. 1859 He wore the coronet little more than two years, dying on the 28th of December 1859.
We have spoken of Macaulay's prose. The little poetry he has (15)