To quote one of his own favourite expressions, “every schoolboy knows” the outlines of Macaulay’s life and work. We have recited the Lays, probably read some of the History, possibly even heard of his eloquent and unmeasured attacks on those whose literary work incurred his displeasure. We know that his memory was phenomenal, if his statements were not always accurate. The biographers tell us further that no one could be more simple in private life, or more devoted to his own family: his nephews and nieces having no idea that their favourite “Uncle Tom” was a great man. Criticism, of course, is by no means so unanimous. Mr. Augustine Birrell has wittily remarked that his “style is ineffectual for the purpose of telling the truth about anything”; and James Thomson epitomised his political bias in a biting paragraph:—“Macaulay, historiographer in chief to the Whigs, and the great prophet of Whiggery which never had or will have a prophet, vehemently judged that a man who could pass over from the celestial Whigs to the infernal Tories must be a traitor false as Judas, an apostate black as the Devil.” Always a boy at heart, and singularly careless of his appearance, Macaulay was so phenomenally successful in every direction that envy may account for most personal criticism not inspired by recognised opponents. Those who called him a bore were most probably over-sensitive about their own inability to hold up against arguments, or opinions, they longed to combat.
He was a student at Lincoln’s Inn when the brilliant article on the translation of a newly-found treatise by Milton on Christian Doctrine appeared in the Edinburgh (1825), and inaugurated a new power in English prose. Macaulay himself declared that it was “overloaded with gaudy and ungraceful argument”; but it secured his literary reputation and determined much of his career. He became an influence on the Edinburgh, probably somewhat modifying its whole tone, and generally identified with its reputation. “The son of a Saint,” says Christopher North, “who seems himself to be something of a reviewer, is insidious as the serpent, but fangless, as the glow worm”; and the Tory press were, naturally, up in arms against the champion critic of their pet prodigies.
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Southey received, as we must now admit, more than his fair share of abuse from the Liberal press, for the comfortable conservatism of his maturity; and Macaulay did not love the Laureate. We note that Blackwood’s defended him with spirit, and Wilson’s protracted, and furious, attack on Macaulay for this particular review may be found in the Nodes Ambrosianae, April, 1830.
Croker, in all probability, deserved much of the scorn here poured upon his editorial labour (though it had merits which his critic deliberately ignores); Wilson, again (Noctes Ambrosianae, November, 1831), examines, and professes to confute, almost every criticism in the review. Croker himself found a convenient occasion for revenge in his review of Macaulay’s History printed below.