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26 June, 2013
The Glory Of English Prose
26. Lord Macaulay Again
by Coleridge, Stephen


My Dear Antony,

I have in a former letter quoted a short but noble passage from Lord Macaulay on the great Lord Chatham.

But I feel that the writer who was perhaps the greatest essayist that England has ever produced must not in these letters be fobbed off with so slight a notice and quotation.

What has always seemed to me the supremest passage that flowed from his wonderful pen is to be found in his paper on Warren Hastings which appeared originally in the Edinburgh Review.

His description in that essay of the opening of the great impeachment, has given all succeeding generations a vision of one of the most majestic scenes in the whole history of man.
"There have been spectacles more dazzling to the eye, more gorgeous with jewellery and cloth of gold, more attractive to grown-up children, than that which was then exhibited at Westminster; but, perhaps, there never was a spectacle so well calculated to strike a highly cultivated, a reflecting, an imaginative mind. All the various kinds of interest which belong to the near and to the distant, to the present and to the past, were collected on one spot and in one hour. All the talents and all the accomplishments which are developed by liberty and civilisation were now displayed, with every advantage that could be derived both from co-operation and from contrast. Every step in the proceedings carried the mind either backward, through many troubled centuries, to the days when the foundations of our constitution were laid; or far away, over boundless seas and deserts, to dusky nations living under strange stars, worshipping strange gods, and writing strange characters from right to left. The High Court of Parliament was to sit, according to forms handed down from the days of the Plantagenets, on an Englishman accused of exercising tyranny over the lord of the holy city of Benares, and over the ladies of the princely house of Oude.

"The place was worthy of such a trial. It was the great hall of William Rufus, the hall which had resounded with acclamations at the inauguration of thirty kings, the hall which had witnessed the just sentence of Bacon and the just absolution of Somers, the hall where the eloquence of Strafford had for a moment awed and melted a victorious party inflamed with just resentment, the hall where Charles had confronted the High Court of Justice with the placid courage which has half redeemed his fame. Neither military nor civil pomp was wanting. The avenues were lined with grenadiers. The streets were kept clear by cavalry. The peers, robed in gold and ermine, were marshalled by the heralds under Garter King-at-Arms. The judges in their vestments of state attended to give advice on points of law. Near a hundred and seventy lords, three-fourths of the Upper House as the Upper House then was, walked in solemn order from their usual place of assembling to the tribunal. The junior Baron present led the way, George Eliot, Lord Heathfield, recently ennobled for his memorable defence of Gibraltar against the fleets and armies of France and Spain. The long procession was closed by the Duke of Norfolk, Earl Marshal of the realm, by the great dignitaries, and by the brothers and sons of the King. Last of all came the Prince of Wales, conspicuous by his fine person and noble bearing. The grey old walls were hung with scarlet. The long galleries were crowded by an audience such as has rarely excited the fears or the emulation of an orator. There were gathered together, from all parts of a great, free, enlightened, and prosperous empire, grace and female loveliness, wit and learning, the representatives of every science and of every art. There were seated round the Queen the fair-haired young daughters of the House of Brunswick. There the Ambassadors of great Kings and Commonwealths gazed with admiration on a spectacle which no other country in the world could present. There Siddons, in the prime of her majestic beauty, looked with emotion on a scene surpassing all the imitations of the stage. There the historian of the Roman Empire thought of the days when Cicero pleaded the cause of Sicily against Verres, and when, before a senate which still retained some show of freedom, Tacitus thundered against the oppressor of Africa. There were seen, side by side, the greatest painter and the greatest scholar of the age. The spectacle had allured Reynolds from that easel which has preserved to us the thoughtful foreheads of so many writers and statesmen, and the sweet smiles of so many noble matrons. It had induced Parr to suspend his labours in that dark and profound mine from which he had extracted a vast treasure of erudition, a treasure too often buried in the earth, too often paraded with injudicious and inelegant ostentation, but still precious, massive, and splendid. There appeared the voluptuous charms of her to whom the heir of the throne had in secret plighted his faith. There too was she, the beautiful mother of a beautiful race, the Saint Cecilia, whose delicate features, lighted up by love and music, art has rescued from the common decay. There were the members of that brilliant society which quoted, criticised, and exchanged repartees, under the rich peacock hangings of Mrs. Montague. And there the ladies whose lips, more persuasive than those of Fox himself, had carried the Westminster election against palace and treasury, shone round Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.

"The Serjeants made proclamation. Hastings advanced to the bar, and bent his knee. The culprit was indeed not unworthy of that great presence. He had ruled an extensive and populous country, had made laws and treaties, had sent forth armies, had set up and pulled down princes. And in his high place he had so borne himself, that all had feared him, that most had loved him, and that hatred itself could deny him no title to glory, except virtue. He looked like a great man, and not like a bad man. A person small and emaciated, yet deriving dignity from a carriage which, while it indicated deference to the court, indicated also habitual self-possession and self-respect, a high and intellectual forehead, a brow pensive, but not gloomy, a mouth of inflexible decision, a face pale and worn, but serene, on which was written, as legibly as under the picture in the council-chamber at Calcutta, Mens æqua in arduis; such was the aspect with which the great Proconsul presented himself to his judges. "
Such a scene can only find its appropriate enactment at the centre of a great empire and amid a people with an august history behind them, conscious of present magnificence and confident of future glory.

We are now far into the second century since that memorable spectacle filled to the walls the great Hall of Westminster.

What was an oligarchy permeated by a fine spirit of liberty and adorned by the sacred principle of personal freedom, has been superseded by a socialistic democracy under which personal freedom suffers frequent curtailments, and liberty is severely abridged by the mandates of trade unions, the prohibitions of urban potentates, and the usurpations of medicine men.

Under these cramping and crippling deprivations we have lost the collective sense of greatness as a race that infused every participator in the splendid pageant of such an event as the Impeachment of Warren Hastings. One has but to imagine an impeachment to-day with the dominant personages in it chosen from the strike leaders and labour delegates of the proletariat, assisted by promoted railway porters and ennobled grocers, to perceive what a distance, and down what a declivity we have travelled since those days when it was impossible for any great public function to take place without its becoming naturally and without conscious effort the occasion for a manifestation of the pomp, circumstance, and splendour inseparable from the solemn acts of a great people performed by their greatest men.

But I am one, Antony, who look forward with steadfast hope and belief to a reaction from our present vulgarity, and to a reascension of England to a greater dignity, honour, and nobleness both in its public and private life than is observable to-day.

Your loving old
G.P.

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