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Outlines of English and American Literature
Edmund Burke
by Long, William J.

This brilliant Irishman came up to London as a young man of twenty-one. Within a few years--such was his character, his education, his genius--he had won a reputation among old statesmen as a political philosopher. Then he entered Parliament, where for twenty years the House listened with growing amazement to his rhythmic periods, and he was acclaimed the most eloquent of orators.

Among Burke's numerous works those on America, India and France are deservedly the most famous. Of his orations on American subjects a student of literature or history may profitably read "On Taxation" (1774) and "On Conciliation" (1775), in which Burke presents the Whig argument in favor of a liberal colonial policy. The Tory view of the same question was bluntly presented by Johnson in his essay "Taxation No Tyranny"; while like a reverberation from America, powerful enough to carry across the Atlantic, came Thomas Paine's "Common Sense," which was a ringing plea for colonial independence.

Of Burke's works pertaining to India "The Nabob of Arcot's Debts" (1785) and the "Impeachment of Warren Hastings" (1786) are interesting to those who can enjoy a long flight of sustained eloquence. Here again Burke presents the liberal, the humane view of what was then largely a political question; but in his Reflections on the French Revolution (1790) he goes over to the Tories, thunders against the revolutionists or their English sympathizers, and exalts the undying glories of the British constitution. The Reflections is the most brilliant of all Burke's works, and is admired for its superb rhetorical style.

Burke's Method

To examine any of these works is to discover the author's characteristic method: first, his framework or argument is carefully constructed so as to appeal to reason; then this framework is buried out of sight and memory by a mass of description, digression, emotional appeal, allusions, illustrative matter from the author's wide reading or from his prolific imagination. Note this passage from the French Revolution:

    "It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the Queen of
    France, then the Dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never
    lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more
    delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and
    cheering the elevated sphere she had just begun to move in,
    glittering like the morning star, full of life and splendor and
    joy. Oh, what a revolution! And what a heart must I have to
    contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall! Little
    did I dream, when she added titles of veneration to those of
    distant, enthusiastic, respectful love, that she should ever be
    obliged to carry the sharp antidote against disgrace concealed in
    that bosom; little did I dream that I should have lived to see such
    disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men, in a nation
    of men of honour and of cavaliers. I thought ten thousand swords
    must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that
    threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That
    of sophisters, economists and calculators has succeeded; and the
    glory of Europe is extinguished for ever. Never, never more shall
    we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud
    submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the
    heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an
    exalted freedom. The unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of
    nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise is
    gone! It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of
    honour, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage
    whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched,
    and under which vice itself lost half its evil by losing all its

That is finely expressed, but it has no bearing on the political matter in question; namely, whether the sympathy of England should be extended to the French revolutionists in their struggle for liberty. This irrelevancy of Burke suggests our first criticism: that he is always eloquent, and usually right; but he is seldom convincing, and his eloquence is a hindrance rather than a help to his main purpose. So we are not surprised to hear that his eloquent speech on Conciliation emptied the benches; or that after his supreme effort in the impeachment of Hastings--an effort so tremendously dramatic that spectators sobbed, screamed, were carried out in fits--the object of all this invective was acquitted by his judges. Reading the works now, they seem to us praiseworthy not for their sustained eloquence, which is wearisome, but for the brilliancy of certain detached passages which catch the eye like sparkling raindrops after a drenching shower. It was the splendor of such passages, their vivid imagery and harmonious rhythm, which led Matthew Arnold to assert that Burke was the greatest master of prose style in our literature. Anybody can make such an assertion; nobody can prove or disprove it.


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