June 26, 2012


The Right Honourable Mr. Burke: Impassioned orator, eloquent statesman, esteemed writer--but who was Edmund Burke the man? (Brian Doyle, Summer 2012, American Scholar)

His words remain, but his voice is lost; and what a voice. "Vehement, rapid, and never checked by any embarrassment: for his ideas outran his powers of utterance, and he drew from an exhaustless source," wrote Nathaniel Wraxall, who listened to Burke for 14 years in the Commons. "A boundless imagination," "a memory of equal strength and tenacity," a "fancy so vivid that it seemed to light up by its own powers. ... [H]e could be, during the same evening, often within the space of a few minutes, pathetic and humorous, acrimonious and conciliating, now giving loose to his indignation or severity, and then, almost in the same breath, calling to his assistance wit and ridicule." The best orator ever, according to the American scholar Chauncey Goodrich; "no one ever poured forth such a flood of thought--so many original combinations of inventive genius ... all intermingled with the liveliest sallies of wit ... surpassed by no one in the richness and splendor of his eloquence." But Burke was also subject to, and all too capable of instant exhibitions of, remembers Wraxall (with an almost audible sigh), "petulance, impatience ... intractability ... anger ... irritability. ... [H]e was often intemperate and reprehensibly personal." "A vein of dark and saturnine temper," wrote the journalist William Godwin. And the later member of Parliament John Morley: "Though it is not wrong to say of Burke that as an orator he was transcendent ... he had sonorous but harsh tones ... and his utterance was often hurried and eager ... his banter ... nearly always ungainly, his wit blunt." And so very often, given Burke's general residence in the minority, and even in his own party and among admirers so often alone in his opinions, an unpersuasive voice:

"Mr. Burke, when posterity reads one of your speeches in Parliament, it will be difficult to believe that you took so much pains, knowing with certainty that it could produce no effect, that not one vote would be gained by it," observed Sir Joshua Reynolds.

But I find these detractions revelatory; don't they illuminate the man, not the glowing historic figure? Doesn't it make someone more interesting, more real, more understandable, more accessible, more amazing, if we know she--to take Teresa of Calcutta as an example--was testy, rude, blunt, dogmatic, and subject to endless dark nights of the soul? Perhaps the finest writer of his time, perhaps the bravest and wisest politician of his time, certainly the most famous of orators in the most powerful country of his time--yet he was hurried and harsh, impatient and intractable, his gestures clumsy, his Irish accent, which he never lost, growing stronger as his temper rose. I can see him, in the well of the Commons, in the heat of his second speech on conciliation with the American colonies, in 1775, furious at what was being lost, snarling at the terrible waste of money and lives such a loss would mean, mortified at the shallow greed of his fellow ministers, enraged at the way their snatching for the small coin of taxes would inevitably lead to the grievous loss of the cousin-colonies as a whole. He soared, he stumbled, he raged, he went on for hours; a member who was there that night reported that the performance "drove everybody away."

What did he read, this wonderful writer? Dryden's prose was Burke's great favorite, reported his friend Charles Fox; Demosthenes was his favorite orator, according to Chauncey Goodrich; "he delighted in Plutarch ... and was particularly fond of Virgil, Horace, and Lucretius, a large part of whose writings he committed to memory. ... Shakespeare was his daily study. ... But his highest reverence was reserved for Milton, whose 'richness of language, boundless learning, and Scriptural grandeur of conception' [said Burke], were the first and last themes of his applause." He read Bacon's essays again and again, and clearly had read Cicero closely; he read Gibbon and Sheridan, whom he knew from Parliament; Johnson, Goldsmith, and Boswell; and he either still regularly scoured, or had a ferocious memory for, the Bible--"the most valuable repository of rhetoric in the English language," as Burke's later editor Edward Payne remarked. Was this, too, how Burke expended his little time alone, in his root-house in Buckinghamshire, reading avidly, widely, hungrily, happily, delighted to swim in eloquence other than his own? I hear him laughing quietly at a wry and piercing passage from Plutarch, or reciting the swinging cadences of Cicero in sheer admiration of the music of the man, or chanting lines from Lear, or reading aloud, with a shiver of awe, the Lord declaiming to Job: Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Who laid the corner stone thereof, when the morning stars sang together? Who shut up the sea with doors, when it brake forth, as if it had issued out of the womb? Declare, if thou hast understanding ...

Perhaps the best and truest measure of a life is not fame or feats, power or pos- sessions, renown or reputation, but rather how you loved, how deeply, how unselfishly; did you savor and appreciate others, did you love a few well enough to help them rise and open, was your love a strong light and clean water for others? Here too is Burke the man; sometime between 1750 and 1756, when he was in his mid-20s, he drafted an essay in his notebook. Never published in his lifetime (the notebook itself was not discovered until the 1950s), the piece is surely about Jane Mary Nugent, the soon-to-be Mrs. Burke, and I can never read it without a smile at the sheer burstingness of it (not to mention the lovely careening casual capitalizing of the time):

I intend to give my Idea of a woman. If it at all answers any Original I shall be pleased; for if such a person really exists as I would describe, she must be far Superior to any Description. ... She is handsome; but it is a Beauty not arising from features, from Complexion and Shape. She has all these in an high degree [he hastens to say]; but ... '[t]is all the sweetness of Temper, Benevolence, Innocence, and Sensibility which a face can express, that forms her beauty. ... Her Eyes have a mild light, but they awe you when she pleases. ... Her stature is not tall. She is not to be the admiration of everybody, but the happiness of one [he says hopefully]. She has all the Delicacy that does not Exclude firmness. She has all the Softness that does not imply weakness. ... Her Smiles are ... inexpressible. Her Voice is a low, Soft musick; not formed to rule in publick Assemblies, but to charm those who can distinguish a Company from a Croud. It has this advantage, you must come Close to her to hear it [he says with nearly audible zest]. ... She has a true generosity of Temper. ... No person of so few years can know the world better; no person was ever less corrupted by that knowledge. ... She has a steady and firm mind. ... Who can see and know such a Creature and not love to Distraction? Who can know her, and himself, and entertain much hope?

Yet the doctor's daughter said yes when Burke proposed; they were married in 1757, when Ned was 28 and Jane 23, and moved to Battersea, on the south side of the Thames. A year later Jane delivered Richard in February, and Christopher in December. Two babies in a year, one hard on the heels of the other. Richard lived; Christopher did not. Died in infancy; what haunted words those are, how terse the fact, how endless the grief; did Burke sit quietly among his roots of trees, moss, and so forth, thinking of the mewling boy cradled in their hands, of the silent boy cradled in his casket? Surely he did; surely once in a while the mew of a fledgling would open the dark room in his memory; surely from time to time he murmured Mr. Christopher Burke, to bring the young man into this world, if only for a moment.

Everyone claims Edmund Burke, except me. I merely savor and celebrate him, and appreciate his piercing thought and ringing speech, and honor the service he rendered his bruised native land and his earnest adopted country, which tried, against great odds and the tide of history, to operate a generally reasonable and enlightened empire, except in the case of its neighboring island, where it destroyed an ancient culture with a thorough and strategic violence it did not inflict on any of its other many colonies around the world.
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Posted by at June 26, 2012 5:59 AM

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