Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 1. Early Life and Work

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

I. Edmund Burke

§ 1. Early Life and Work

EDMUND BURKE, the greatest of English orators, if we measure greatness not by immediate effect alone but by the durability and the diffusive power of that effect, and one of the profoundest, most suggestive and most illuminating of political thinkers, if we may not call a philosopher one who did not elaborate any system and who refrained on principle from the discussion of purely theoretical issues, was an Irishman of the usual blended native and English strain, born (1729) in a family which united the two creeds that divide Ireland more profoundly and fatefully than any distinction of race. His father, a small Dublin solicitor, was a protestant, his mother a catholic. Burke himself was educated in the protestant faith, but his sister adhered to the religion of her mother, and his wife was a catholic who conformed to the Anglican church after her marriage. Burke always professed his protestantism frankly and sincerely—“We are protestants not from indifference but from zeal’—and the charges that were brought against him of having, at one time or other, been a catholic are without foundation, but his attitude towards the catholic church was at once tolerant and sympathetic. To him, she and every other church were allies in the defence of the religious conception of life which was the centre of all his thought about morals and politics, and of which atheistical Jacobinism was the antithesis. In the last years of his life, he fought for the cause of catholic emancipation in Ireland no less ardently than he opposed a “regicide” peace with France. The “directory of Ireland” which upheld protestant ascendancy at Dublin was hardly less odious to him than the Jacobin directory in Paris.

Burke’s education was received at Ballitore, under a quaker, whose son, Richard Shackleton, became the chief friend of his early manhood, and at Trinity College, Dublin. Fox believed that Burke “had not any very nice critical knowledge even of Latin, still less of Greek,” but was well read in Latin authors, especially Cicero, Vergil, Ovid, Horace and Tacitus, and “that he imitated the first mentioned of these authors most particularly, as well in his turn of thinking as in his manner of expression.” What survive of Burke’s letters to Shackleton point to the same conclusion as Fox’s observation, that Burke was a wide and curious reader rather than a minute scholar. Mathematics, logic, history were, each in turn, he tells Shackleton, in one letter, a passion, and all, for a time, yielded to poetry. The letter affords a vivid glimpse into the education of one to whom knowledge, knowledge varied and detailed, was always to be a passion, and who was seldom or never to pen a sentence that has not something in its form to arrest the attention or to give delight. But Burke was not a poet. He could do many things that were beyond the power of his less strenuous and less profound fellow student, Oliver Goldsmith, but he could never have written The Deserted Village or The Vicar of Wakefield. Nor, magnificent as Burke’s prose was to be, picturesque, harmonious and full of cadence, is it ever the prose which affects us as poetry. It is always the prose of an orator, addressed to an audience and aiming at a practical effect. Beauty, as in the meditations of Browne or the oratory of Taylor, is never to Burke an end in itself.