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T has been the fashion in these later days to depreciate Macaulay. “A mere rhetori
cian” has become almost a cant word in connection with him. Yet in his day he had a more decided and obvious influence on the style of young men of all conditions than any other writer of the nineteenth century.
Macaulay's style is the style of the orator adapted to the purposes of the essay writer. He is above all clear and simple. His ideas are neither many nor profound, but they are important of their kind. His special merit is that he illustrates his thought with all the arts of eloquence. His special rhetorical weapon is antithesis and the balanced-sentence structure. This has a simple cadence that readily catches and charms the ear. There is in it not only cadence, but movement, vivacity, and inspiration. We see how the hearer may be swept onward to almost any conclusion by the logical succession of the thoughts coupled with the sweep of the orator's magnetism. The art of eloquence is a fine one, and one well worth cultivating. It was the art made so famous by the speakers in the Athenian
agora, and it is to that art wholly that Aristotle's treatise on rhetoric is devoted.
Macaulay's methods of adapting the peculiar gifts of the public speaker to written prose are simple. First, the ideas are arranged in logical order, one leading up to and preparing the way for the next, so that the most cursory reader cannot fail to perceive the connection, and he who runs may read. Then all facts and conclusions are stated vividly by means of sharp contrasts, and each important point is repeated in many different ways until the reader has been forced by the mere reading of the words to take sufficient time to let it sink into his mind. The art of
proportioning the time and attention to be given to each essential point is one which the orator understands in perfection, but which the writer who is not constantly thinking of his audience usually fails to master. It is nevertheless one of the most important acquirements for every writer who wishes to be effective. In this especially Macaulay is our most useful model.
(Essay on Milton)
We would speak first of the Puritans, the most
remarkable body of men, perhaps, which the world has ever produced. The odious and ridiculous parts of their character lie on the surface. He that runs may read them; nor have there been wanting attentive and malicious observers to point them out. For many years after the Restoration, they were the theme of unmeasured invective and derision. They were exposed to the utmost licentiousness of the press and of the stage, at the time when the press and the stage were most licentious. They were not men of letters; they were, as a body, unpopular; they could not defend themselves; and the public would not take them under its protection. They were therefore abandoned, without reserve, to the tender mercies of the satirists and dramatists. The ostentatious simplicity of their dress, their sour aspect, their nasal twang, their stiff posture, their long graces, their Hebrew names, the Scriptural phrases which they introduced on every occasion, their contempt of human learning, their detestation of polite amusements, were indeed fair game for the laughers. But it is not from the laughers alone that the philosophy of history is to be learnt. And he who approaches this subject should carefully guard against the influence of that potent ridicule which has already misled so many excellent writers.
“Ecco il fonte del riso, ed ecco il rio
Those who roused the people to resistance, who directed their measures through a long series of eventful years, who formed, out of the most unpromising materials, the finest army that Europe had ever seen, who trampled down King, Church, and Aristocracy, who, in the short intervals of domestic sedition and rebellion, made the name of England terrible to every nation on the face of the earth, were no vulgar fanatics. Most of their absurdities were mere external badges, like the signs of freemasonry, or the dresses of friars. We regret that these badges were not more attractive. We regret that a body to whose courage and talents mankind has owed inestimable obligations had not the lofty elegance which distinguished some of the adherents of Charles the First, or the easy goodbreeding for which the court of Charles the Second was celebrated.
But, if we must make our choice, we shall, like Bassanio in the play, turn from the specious caskets which contain only the Death's head and the Fool's head, and fix on the plain leaden chest which conceals the treasure.
The Puritans were men whose minds had derived a peculiar character from the daily contemplation of superior beings and eternal interests. Not content with acknowledging, in general terms, an overruling Providence, they habitually ascribed every event to the will of the Great Being, for whose power nothing was too vast, for whose inspection nothing was too minute. To know him, to serve him, to enjoy him, was with them the great end of existence. They rejected with contempt the ceremonious homage which other sects substituted for the pure worship of the soul. Instead of catching occasional glimpses of the Deity through an obscuring veil, they aspired to gaze full on his intolerable brightness, and to commune with him face to face. Hence originated their contempt for terrestrial distinctions. The difference between the greatest and the meanest of mankind seemed to vanish, when compared with the boundless interval which separated the whole race from him on whom their own eyes were constantly fixed. They recognised no title to superiority but his favour; and, confident of that favour, they despised all the accomplishments and all the dignities of the world. If they were unacquainted with the works of philosophers and poets, they were deeply read in the oracles of God. If their names were not found in the registers of heralds, they were recorded in the Book of Life. If their steps were not accompanied by a splendid train of menials, legions of ministering angels had charge over them. Their palaces were houses not made with hands; their diadems crowns of glory which should never fade away. On the rich and the eloquent, on nobles and priests, they looked down with contempt: for they esteemed themselves rich in a more precious treasure, and eloquent in a more sublime language, nobles by the right of an earlier creation, and priests by the imposition of a mightier hand. The very meanest of them was a being to whose fate a mysterious and terrible importance belonged, on whose slightest action the spirits of light and darkness looked with anxious interest, who had been destined, before heaven and earth were created, to enjoy a felicity which should continue when heaven and earth should have passed away.
Events which short-sighted politicians ascribed to earthly causes, had been ordained on his account. For his sake empires had risen, and flourished, and decayed. For his sake the Almighty had proclaimed his will by the pen of the Evangelist, and the harp of the prophet. He had been wrested by no deliverer from the grasp of no common foe. He