[Letter of John James Taylor to Francis William Newman.]
February 14th, 1849
Have you yet found time to read the book which all the world is talking of — Macaulay's two volumes? I should like to know what you think of them. A friend sent them as a present to my son in his absence; and though in general I give myself some credit for abstinence from books which do not fall within my present course of prescribed reading, I confess I was on this occasion overcome: the temptation was so constant and so near, that I could not refrain. Nor do I repent. For years I have not read a work of narrative with such unfailing interest to the very last page. I have felt myself borne along as with the attraction of a novel. In thinking of the book, now I have finished it, I find some difficulty in accounting for the singular charm which it possesses. I suppose it must in part arise from that sense of power and ease which his thorough mastery of his subject enables him to excite in the reader's mind. He never proses. His felicity in selection seems to me unrivalled. In continuous narration it is so difficult to hit the exact mean between the too little and the too much, and from mere weariness to avoid falling into the cumbrous and mechanical — becoming in fact the mere Chronicler. I do not remember that in a single instance this is ever the case with Macaulay. The whole man, with all his powers of choice discrimination and vivid apprehension, with all his predilections and antipathies, is ever present to the subject and infuses into it his vigour and earnestness. His characters strike me as his chefs d'œuvres, surpassing both his descriptions and his reflections. In this respect he is a worthy successor of Clarendon, and greatly superior to him in others. There is a sustained fire and animation in his narrative, a warmth and richness of colouring in his style, which has led me sometimes, while reading, to compare him among historians with Rubens among painters. Yet with these great and capital excellencies, I hesitate whether to call his history a work of genius. Genius, I admit, is a somewhat vague term, yet it is distinguished in most men's minds from talent even of the highest order: and I regard Macaulay's, as of the very highest. I think the rhetorician preponderates over the poet in his mental composition. He is always the friend of justice and humanity; yet I do not discern traces of very deep sensibility, or the power of sympathising with all the forms of human character. Are not even his sympathies in some degree controlled by conventional properties? Again I can hardly call his style graphic: it is rather dramatic. He does not paint very vividly to the eye, though he enables the understanding to comprehend clearly what he relates. In no part of his history do I meet with such pictures as some that I remember in Tacitus, or as those marvellous sketches in which Carlyle makes his reader see the very spot where Cromwell's battles were fought. If we compare the most finished description in Macaulay's volumes — the battle of Sedgmoor — with that which Carlyle has given of Dunbar (the most wonderful piece of historical painting I am acquainted with), we cannot but admit the inferiority of Macaulay to Carlyle in the poetry of history. I question further whether he can be called in the strict sense a philosophical historian. His reflections never seem to me to go down to the first elements of human nature or to the fundamental principles of society, but rather to terminate in certain axiomata media rising indeed far above the hasty prejudices of the mass of mankind, but not reaching the highest generalisations of a profound thinker on the laws and tendencies of humanity. This was the natural position for a Whig historian to take, who fixes his point of vision at the commencement of his narrative, and keeps true to it to the close. — I have no objection to a sincere man being a party man, and writing as he feels, for it gives interest to what he says, and we can always allow for the effect of his prejudices on his judgments. But then it is scarce possible for him to be also philosophical. — Macaulay has placed the character and policy of William in a very clear point of view. I do not think I ever understood them before. Both his eulogists and his revilers have been mistaken. There is clear evidence that he was high-minded and disinterested in the line of conduct which he took—but then it related more to Europe than to England; he no doubt wished to uphold the civil and religious liberties — or perhaps I should rather say, the Protestantism — of England (for his own principles inclined to high monarchy), but chiefly as this object was essential to the vaster project of sustaining the Protestantism of Europe against the despotism of France. We are indebted to him to the extent, that he was ardently attached to the cause of Protestantism, and that our national interests at that particular juncture (owing to the stupendous folly of James the Second) directly coincided with the great aim of his life. — Really, dear friend, looking back on the quantity I have written on this one topic, I feel that I am bound to apologise to you fro such an infliction. But my mind has been full of Macaulay since I finished his book, and I have had no one to whom I could express the many thoughts it has called up in me. You know what a relief it is, when a subject to fills the mind, to pour it forth. Had you been in Manchester, all this would have evaporated in the course of a walk, and some good paper might have been spared. I am by no means sure that I have rightly appreciated Macaulay, or done him full justice: for after all I profoundly admire him. One very delightful reflection remains with me from his book — what an immense improvement we have made in political morality since the days of the Stuarts! Such perfidy and venality, combined with such grossness and ferocity, one can scarcely imagine at this day. On the whole, I think the reigns of Charles and James the Second the foulest and vilest in our national annals. As far as the Government is concerned, there is not one redeeming feature. I am visionary enough to be haunted by a perpetual regret for the short glimpse of a better state of things just opened on our national prospects by the noble aims and comprehensive spirit of that greatest of all our rulers — Cromwell.