Critical and Historical Essays — Volume 1 eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 1,030 pages of information about Critical and Historical Essays — Volume 1.



AJ Grieve

A French student of English letters (M.  Paul Oursel) has written the following lines: 

“Depuis deux siecles les Essais forment une branche importante de la litterature anglaise; pour designer un ecrivain de cette classe, nos voisons emploient un mot qui n’a pas d’equivalent en francais; ils disent:  un essayist.  Qu’est-ce qu’un essayist?  L’essayist se distingue du moraliste, de l’historien, du critique litteraire, du biographe, de l’ecrivain politique; et pourtant il emprunte quelque trait a chacun d’eux; il ressemble tour a tour a l’un ou a l’autre; il est aussi philosophe, il est satirique, humoriste a ses heures; il reunit en sa personne des qualities multiples; il offre dans ses ecrits un specimen de tous les genres.  On voit qu’il n’est pas facile de definir l’essayist; mais l’exemple suppleera a la definition.  On connaitra exactement le sens du mot quand on aura etudie l’ecrivain qui, d’apres le jugement de ces compatriotes, est l’essayist par excellence, ou, comme on disait dans les anciens cours de litterature, le Prince des essayists.”

Macaulay is indeed the prince of essayists, and his reign is unchallenged.  “I still think—­says Professor Saintsbury (Corrected Impressions, p. 89 f.)—­that on any subject which Macaulay has touched, his survey is unsurpassable for giving a first bird’s-eye view, and for creating interest in the matter. . . .  And he certainly has not his equal anywhere for covering his subject in the pointing-stick fashion.  You need not—­you had much better not—­pin your faith on his details, but his Pisgah sights are admirable.  Hole after hole has been picked in the “Clive” and the “Hastings,” the “Johnson” and the “Addison,” the “Frederick” and the “Horace Walpole,” yet every one of these papers contains sketches, summaries, precis, which have not been made obsolete or valueless by all the work of correction in detail.”

Two other appreciations from among the mass of critical literature that has accumulated round Macaulay’s work may be fitly cited, This from Mr. Frederic Harrison:-

“How many men has Macaulay succeeded in reaching, to whom all other history and criticism is a sealed book, or a book in an unknown tongue!  If he were a sciolist or a wrongheaded fanatic, this would be a serious evil.  But, as he is substantially right in his judgments, brimful of saying common-sense and generous feeling, and profoundly well read in his own periods and his favourite literature, Macaulay has conferred most memorable services on the readers of English throughout the world.  He stands between philosophic historians and the public very much as journals and periodicals stand between the masses and great libraries.  Macaulay is a glorified journalist and reviewer, who brings the matured results of scholars to the man in the street in a form that he can remember and enjoy, when he could not make use of a merely learned book.  He performs the office of the ballad-maker or story-teller in an age before books were known or were common.  And it is largely due to his influence that the best journals and periodicals of our day are written in a style so clear, so direct, so resonant.”

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Critical and Historical Essays — Volume 1 from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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