Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 11. His Temperament

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

I. Edmund Burke

§ 11. His Temperament

We touch here on a trait of Burke’s character which is evident in his earliest pamphlet, the ironical reply to Bolingbroke, the want of any sanguine strain in his mental constitution, or, if one cares to put it so, of faith. Despite all that he had said of the wisdom latent in prejudice; despite the wonder and admiration with which, in the speech On Conciliation, he contemplated a people governing themselves when the machinery of government had been withdrawn; the advent of democracy inspired him with anxiety qualified neither by faith in the inherent good sense and rectitude of human nature, nor by any confidence in the durability of inherited sentiment and prejudice. Nothing, it seemed to him, but the overruling providence of God could have evolved from the weak and selfish natures of men the miracle of a free state with all its checks and balances and adjustments to the complex character and manifold wants of the physical and spiritual nature of man; and, in a moment, the work of ages might be undone, the “nice equipoise” overset, the sentiments and prejudices of ages destroyed, and “philosophy” and “Jacobinism” be among us, bringing with them anarchy and the “end of all things.” Nothing marks so clearly the interval between Burke’s temperament and that of the romantic revival as it is revealed in Wordsworth. What Burke has of the deeper spirit of that movement is seen not so much in the poetic imagery of his finest prose as in the philosophical imagination which informs his conception of the state, in virtue of which he transcends the rationalism of the century. His vision of the growth of society, his sense of something mysterious and divine at work in human institutions and prejudices, of something at once sacred and beautiful in the sentiments of chivalrous loyalty and honour, in the stately edifice of the British constitution with all its orders, in the ancient civilisation of India—all these have in them more than Sir Walter Scott’s love of a romantic and picturesque past. There is in them the same mood of mind as is manifest in Wordsworth’s sense of something mysterious and divine in the life of nature and the emotions of simple men, which links the eternal process of the stars to the moral admonitions of the human heart. But there is a difference. The illusion or faith, call it what one will, which made lyrical the prose of Rousseau and inspired the youthful Wordsworth when he hailed the French revolution as a new era in the history of the race,

  • Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
  • But to be young was very heaven,
  • was a stranger to Burke’s mind; nor has the stoicism with which he contemplates the successive defeat of all his undertakings anything in common with the soberer optimism, the cultivation of a steadfast hopefulness, which, in Wordsworth’s mind, succeeded to disillusionment, and rested on his faith in the invincibility of the moral reason. Wordsworth the postmaster did not remain a democrat, but Wordsworth the poet derived from his early experiences of the peasantry a faith in human nature, in those who go to make the people, which Burke’s experience of “the swinish multitude” at contested elections, and in Gordon riots, never permitted to his reflective mind and sensitive temperament. In his crusade against Jacobinism and a regicide peace, Burke appealed to kings and nobles and the duty of a government to guide the people; in continuing the crusade against Napoleon, Wordsworth delighted to note that the firmest opposition came from the peasantry of Spain and the Tyrol: “In the conduct of this argument,” he writes, in The Convention of Cintra, “I am not speaking to the humbler ranks of soceity: it is unnecessary: they trust in nature and are safe.”