Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 14. A Letter to a Noble Lord

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

I. Edmund Burke

§ 14. A Letter to a Noble Lord

Fifteen years after this speech, the government of Pitt was attacked for granting a pension to Burke, and, in accepting it, he was said to have been false to the principles laid down by himself on the subject of economy. The chief critics of the pension in the House of Lords were the duke of Bedford and the earl of Lauderdale. Burke replied in A Letter to a Noble Lord, the finest example of his blended irony, philosophy, feeling and imagination. As a master of pure irony, Burke is surpassed by Swift, who is at once more unscrupulous and less elaborate, more inventive and venomous. Except when he had to deal with those whom he regarded as the enemies of the human race, the professors of “the cannibal philosophy of France,” Burke could never have attacked anyone with the venom with which Swift assailed Wharton. It is the truth which gives such deadly force to Burke’s ironical description of the duke of Bedford, this noble Champion of the rights of man, as himself the creature, the Leviathan, of royal favour and prescriptive right. Burke has but to elaborate the fact with the art of the rhetorician, and to point the contrast between the merits which earned these favours in the ancestor of the house of Russell and the services which he himself has rendered to his country and to the constitution on whose preservation depends the security of all the duke of Bedford’s inherited property and privileges. The pamphlet is a masterpiece of its kind, but is not untouched with the over-elaboration of Burke’s later rhetoric when the perils of Jacobinism had become something in the nature of a fixed idea.

Of the three chief means by which Cicero, following the Greeks, declares that the orator achieves his end of winning over men’s minds, docendo, conciliando, permovendo, tradition and the evidence of his works point to Burke’s having failed chiefly in the second. He could delight, astound and convince an audience. He did not easily conciliate and win them over. He lacked the first essential and index of the conciliatory speaker, lenitas vocis; his voice was harsh and unmusical, his gesture ungainly. The high qualities, artistic and intellectual, of his speeches are better appreciated by readers and students than by “even the most illustrious of those who watched that tall gaunt figure with its whirling arms, and listened to the Niagara of words bursting and shrieking from those impetuous lips.” And, even in the text of his speeches there is a strain of irony and scorn which is not well fitted to conciliate. The most persuasive of all his speeches are the American; yet, in these too, there is comparatively little effort to start from the point of view of his audience, to soothe and flatter them, to win them over by any artifice other than an appeal to the rare qualities of wisdom and magnanimity. And, when he speaks at Bristol on the eve of his rejection, the tone is the same, not egotistic or arrogant, but quite unyielding in his defence of principles, quite unsparing in his exposure of error and folly.

Of Burke’s power permovendi animos, of the passionate quality of his eloquence, there can be no question, yet here, too, it is necessary to distinguish. We have evidence that he could do both things on which Cicero lays stress—move his audience to tears and delight them by his wit. In the famous speech on the employment of Indian auxiliaries, he did both, the first by the manner in which he told the story of the murder of a Scottish girl on the eve of her marriage, the second by his parody of Burgoyne’s address to the Indians. Yet, neither pathos nor humour is Burke’s forte. His style wants the penetrating simplicity which is requisite to the highest effects in pathos. His tendency in the Indian speeches is to over-elaboration; his sensibility carries him away. There is more of sublime pathos alike in the image, and in the simplicity of the language in which it is conveyed, in Bright’s famous sentence on the Angel of Death than in all that Burke ever wrote. Of irony and scorn, again, there is abundance in Burke; of the cavillatio, the raillery which is diffused through the speech, there are examples in all the chief speeches; but, of pure wit, which conciliates an audience by delighting it, there is little or none in the speeches as we know them, and Johnson would never admit that, in conversation, Burke’s wit was felicitous.