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

I. Edmund Burke

§ 12. His Prose

This temper of Burke’s mind is reflected in his prose. In essential respects, in idiom, structure and diction, the prose of Burke is that of his period, the second half of the eighteenth century. To the direct, conversational prose of Dryden and Swift, changed social circumstances and the influence of Johnson had given a more oratorical cast, more dignity and weight, but, also, more of heaviness and conventional elegance. From the latter faults, Burke is saved by his passionate temperament, his ardent imagination and the fact that he was a speaker conscious always of his audience. Burke loves a generalisation as much as Johnson, and his generalisations are profounder, more philosophic, if, like Johnson’s, they begin in common sense. But Burke never fails to illuminate his generalisations by concrete and glowing imagery. And the splendour of his imagery, the nervous vigour of his style, its pregnancy, connect his prose with that of the great sixteenth and seventeenth century writers, Hooker and Milton and Browne and Clarendon. Though he does not abuse quotation, like some of the seventeenth century writers, he employs it with great effect, weaving the quotation with consummate skill into the texture of his own prose:

  • “Old religious factions,” he says, speaking of the unitarians, “are volcanoes burnt out. But when a new fire breaks out … when men come before us, and rise up like an exhalation from the ground, they come in a questionable shape, and we must exorcise them, and try whether their intents be wicked or charitable; whether they bring airs from Heaven or blasts from Hell.”
  • What Burke’s prose has not is the lyrical note of the, not more imaginative, but more romantic, prose of Wordsworth and Coleridge, of Carlyle and Ruskin; the note, not of exaltation, which was often Burke’s mood, but of exultation, a mood with which he never was acquainted.