The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

II. Historians, Biographers and Political Orators

§ 7. Essays

His literary fame rests on his Essays and his History. The essays, taken as a whole, mark an epoch both in the literature of the essay, and in historical literature. As a rule, they consist of reviews, not of the book of which the title is prefixed to the essay, but of the subject with which the book is concerned, treated from whatever point of view may commend itself to the author. Thus, they are so many detached pieces of political or literary history, or of that combination of both in which Macaulay delighted and excelled, generally taking a narrative form and preferentially enclosed in a biographical framework. The qualities to which they owe their chief attractiveness may, without pedantry, be described as appertaining to the art, rather than to the science, of history. The style and general manner of treatment rise or fall in accordance with the subject and with the mood of the author, and that to which he desires to dispose the reader—“historical articles,” he says himself, “may rise to the highest altitude or sink to the levity and colloquial ease of Horace Walpole. This is my theory.” That he did not carry it out to the full, was due to the limitations of his own literary genius. Character-drawing was his forte; he had learnt this from the great masters in verse and prose of his favourite later seventeenth, and earlier eighteenth, centuries, and, at times, seemed almost to better the instruction. As to style, he was capable of gorgeous pomp of speech, of dazzling splendour of rhetorical ornament; to sublimity, he could not rise. His wit was trenchant and, at times, irresistible, and his satiric power was never at a loss; but his humour sometimes lacked delicacy and his sarcasm the more refined shades of irony. His essays have much to charm and even to fascinate; but to the psychological criticism of the later French masters they are strangers.

It would, of course, be a great error to regard Macaulay’s essays as uniformly open to such criticisms as the above; there are, necessarily, great differences between the earlier and the later in a collection extending over something like a score of years. The earliest of the Edinburgh articles—that on Milton—at once attracted attention to the new writer. Yet though the passionate tone both of admiration and of invective in Macaulay’s essay is that of youth, the gorgeous rhetoric and the audacious substitution of paradox for philosophical conclusion are not peculiar to this stage of his productivity. In one of the very last—though not quite the last—of these essays, that on Addison, Macaulay is manifestly master of a mellowness of tone and calm dignity signally appropriate to a subject to which his whole heart went forth. Yet, the same inexhaustible flow of illustration is here, again, accompanied by the same indiscriminate profusion of predetermined praise and blame—nothing, in literary, or in other, respects, can be too good for Addison, and nothing too bad for Pope. In an extremely acute, though not hyper-sympathetic estimate of Macaulay’s literary qualities, J. Cotter Morison divides the whole body of his essays and other small pieces into subject-groups; and, if we accept this distribution, there will hardly be any doubt as to which of these groups bears away the palm. Of the essays on English history, several may rank among his very finest work; and the essayist is on sure ground, and at his best, in the two essays on Chatham, separated, in their dates of production, by ten years, but forming, together, a biographical whole worthy of its great national theme. There is, however, one other section of the group which calls for even more special attention. These are the two essays on Warren Hastings and on Clive, to both of which historical criticism must take exception in particular points, but in which the genius of the historian for marshalling facts often remote and obscure, and for presenting the whole array with magnificent effect, achieves an almost unprecedented triumph. In the essays on foreign history, Macaulay was less successful; that on Frederick the great had little value before Carlyle, and less afterwards; while the subject of Ranke’s Popes made too great demands upon Macaulay’s powers as a philosophical historian. Finally, while, of the “controversial” essays, the author himself judiciously thought fit to exclude more than one from republication, the critical, especially if the delightful essay on Temple and one or two others of a mixed kind are included, form the most numerous series in the collection. Macaulay’s power of recalling not only the great figures of literature, but, also, the surroundings and very atmosphere of their lives, will keep such articles as that on Boswell’s Johnson favourites, though the censure of Croker may be fully discounted and the belief have become general that Boswell was no fool. In the article on Bacon, on the other hand, the essayist was at his worst, and, in the main argument of the philosophical portion of the essay, stands self-condemned. The whole indictment was, at first anonymously, refuted by James Spedding, in Evenings with a Reviewer, or Macaulay and Bacon (1848), and, in a more comprehensive sense, by the whole of that distinguished critic’s Life and Letters of Bacon (1861–74), one of the ablest as well as one of the most elaborate of English biographical monuments. In Macaulay’s contributions to The Encyclopaedia Britannica, written towards the close of his life, the historical element is dominant; but they show unabated literary power.