« PreviousContinue »
MACAULAY, in a well-known Essay, has pronounced that a good thing by a good writer is much better in its place than can even be conceived by those who see it detached from the context. His own good things are not excepted from this general rule; but the character of his work is such, that his productions lend themselves with unusual facility to the labours of the selector. Never forgetful of Cowper's precept, that 'perspicuity is more than half the battle,' he took care that anyone who opens his volumes shall be able to read forward, with pleasure and understanding, at whatever page or paragraph he may commence his studies. In the History, every scene is of itself a story,_finished, continuous, self-contained ; passing smoothly and swiftly on, from its first cause to its closing catastrophe. In the Essays, though, from the nature of that species of composition, picturesque episodes are less frequent than in the History, not a few narratives may easily be found which are perfect and complete in all their parts. The account of the Phalaris controversy ; of Jeremy Collier's attack upon the Dramatists; of the sufferings which Miss Burney endured in her capacity of waiting-woman to Queen Charlotte,—while they add not a little to the general effect of the reviews in which they severally occur,-might, one and all, have been published as separate articles in a monthly magazine. Macaulay's battles and sieges are so many ballads in prose; while his descriptions of State trials, hard-fought elections, or momentous debates in Parliament, would each stand out from the context like a purple patch, if the fabric which surrounds it were not as varied and brilliant as itself. Men have laughed for two thousand years at the foolish fellow who carried about a brick as a specimen of the house which he was building ; but every visitor to our national Museum who has gazed on the frieze of the Parthenon, or the sculptured column from the Temple of Diana at Ephesus, knows something about the nature of Greek architectural ornament; and anybody who has examined a fragment of Indian marble-work, blazing with jasper, and agate, and lapis-lazuli, may form at least a conception of the glories of Delhi and Agra.
All topics which have given just, or even plausible, ground for controversy have been carefully excluded from this volume. There is nothing in its pages that can wound the susceptibilities of any among the historian's countrymen. The staunchest Tory may feel an Englishman's pride as he reads how William of Orange covered the retreat from Landen, or led the charge across the ford of the Boyne. The sturdiest Whigs may be amused by Macaulay's epigrammatic comments upon the eccentricities of the Puritan ascetics, and touched by the couplets embodying the feelings with which, in an Italian cloister, he mused over the tombs of exiled