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The Glory of English Prose / Letters to My Grandson By Stephen Coleridge Characters: 9591

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

My Dear Antony,

Some of the most eloquent orators in the world have been Irishmen, and among them Henry Grattan was supreme.

The Irish Parliament in the later half of the eighteenth century frequently sat spell-bound under the magic of his voice.

In 1782, at the age of thirty-two, he achieved by his amazing eloquence a great National Revolution in Ireland. But eighteen years later all that he had fought for and achieved was lost in the Act of Union. In these days I suppose few will be found to defend the means whereby that Act was passed; but the public assertions that the people of Ireland were in favour of it wrung from Grattan the following cry of indignation and wrath:-

"To affirm that the judgment of a nation is erroneous may mortify, but to affirm that her judgment against is for; to assert that she has said ay when she has pronounced no; to affect to refer a great question to the people; finding the sense of the people, like that of the parliament, against the question, to force the question; to affirm the sense of the people to be for the question; to affirm that the question is persisted in, because the sense of the people is for it; to make the falsification of the country's sentiments the foundation of her ruin, and the ground of the Union; to affirm that her parliament, constitution, liberty, honour, property, are taken away by her own authority,-there is, in such artifice, an effrontery, a hardihood, an insensibility, that can best be answered by sensations of astonishment and disgust, excited on this occasion by the British minister, whether he speaks in gross and total ignorance of the truth, or in shameless and supreme contempt for it.

"The constitution may be for a time so lost; the character of the country cannot be so lost. The ministers of the Crown will, or may, perhaps, at length find that it is not so easy to put down for ever an ancient and respectable nation, by abilities, however great, and by power and by corruption, however irresistible; liberty may repair her golden beams, and with redoubled heat animate the country; the cry of loyalty will not long continue against the principles of liberty; loyalty is a noble, a judicious, and a capacious principle; but in these countries loyalty, distinct from liberty, is corruption, not loyalty.

"The cry of the connexion will not, in the end, avail against the principles of liberty. Connexion is a wise and a profound policy; but connexion without an Irish Parliament is connexion without its own principle, without analogy of condition; without the pride of honour that should attend it; is innovation, is peril, is subjugation-not connexion.

"The cry of the connexion will not, in the end, avail against the principle of liberty.

"Identification is a solid and imperial maxim, necessary for the preservation of freedom, necessary for that of empire; but, without union of hearts-with a separate government, and without a separate parliament, identification is extinction, is dishonour, is conquest-not identification.

"Yet I do not give up the country-I see her in a swoon, but she is not dead-though in her tomb she lies helpless and motionless, still there is on her lips a spirit of life, and on her cheeks a glow of beauty-

"Thou art not conquered; beauty's ensign yet

Is crimson in thy lips, and in thy cheeks,

And death's pale flag is not advanced there."

"While a plank of the vessel sticks together, I will not leave her. Let the courtier present his flimsy sail, and carry the light bark of his faith, with every new breath of wind-I will remain anchored here-with fidelity to the fortunes of my country, faithful to her freedom, faithful to her fall."

Of another character, but not less admirable than his eloquence in the Senate, was Grattan's achievement with the pen. His description of the great Lord Chatham lives as one of the most noble panegyrics-it not the most noble-in the world. No writer, before or since, has offered anyone such splendid homage as this-that he never sunk "to the vulgar level of the great."

"The Secretary stood alone. Modern degeneracy had not reached him. Original and unaccommodating, the features of his character had the hardihood of antiquity, his august mind overawed majesty, and one of his sovereigns thought royalty so impaired in his presence that he conspired to remove him, in order to be relieved from his superiority. No state chicanery, no narrow systems of vicious politics, no idle contest for ministerial victories sunk him to the vulgar level of the great; but, overbearing, persuasive, and impracticable, his object was England,-his ambition was fame; without dividing, he destroyed party; without corrupting, he made a venal age unanimous; France sunk beneath him; with one hand

he smote the House of Bourbon, and wielded in the other the democracy of England. The sight of his mind was infinite, and his schemes were to affect, not England, not the present age only, but Europe and posterity. Wonderful were the means by which these schemes were accomplished, always seasonable, always adequate, the suggestions of an understanding animated by ardour, and enlightened by prophecy.

"The ordinary feelings which make life amiable and indolent-those sensations which soften, and allure, and vulgarise-were unknown to him; no domestic difficulties, no domestic weakness reached him; but, aloof from the sordid occurrences of life, and unsullied by its intercourse, he came occasionally into our system to counsel and decide.

"A character so exalted, so strenuous, so various, so authoritative, astonished a corrupt age, and the Treasury trembled at the name of Pitt through all her classes of venality. Corruption imagined, indeed, that she had found defects in this statesman, and talked much of the inconsistency of his glory, and much of the ruin of his victories-but the history of his country, and the calamities of the enemy, answered and refuted her.

"Nor were his political abilities his only talents; his eloquence was an era in the senate, peculiar and spontaneous, familiarly expressing gigantic sentiments and instinctive wisdom-not like the torrent of Demosthenes, or the splendid conflagration of Tully; it resembled sometimes the thunder, and sometimes the music of the spheres. Like Murray, he did not conduct the understanding through the painful subtilty of argumentation; nor was he, like Townshend, for ever on the rack of exertion, but rather lightened upon the subject, and reached the point by the flashings of his mind, which, like those of his eye, were felt, but could not be followed.

"Yet he was not always correct or polished; on the contrary, he was sometimes ungrammatical, negligent, and unenforcing, for he concealed his art, and was superior to the knack of oratory. Upon many occasions he abated the vigour of his eloquence, but even then, like the spinning of a cannon ball, he was still alive with fatal, unapproachable activity.

"Upon the whole, there was in this man something that could create, subvert, or reform; an understanding, a spirit, and an eloquence to summon mankind to society, or to break the bonds of slavery asunder, and rule the wildness of free minds with unbounded authority; something that could establish or overwhelm empire, and strike a blow in the world that should resound through its history."

Grattan died in 1820, and twenty years later, in 1844, another great English writer, Lord Macaulay, wrote a world-famous passage upon the great Lord Chatham in the Edinburgh Review:-

"Chatham sleeps near the northern door of the church, in a spot which has ever since been appropriated to statesmen, as the other end of the same transept has long been to poets. Mansfield rests there, and the second William Pitt, and Fox, and Grattan, and Canning, and Wilberforce. In no other cemetery do so many great citizens lie within so narrow a space. High over those venerable graves towers the stately monument of Chatham, and, from above, his effigy, graven by a cunning hand, seems still, with eagle face and outstretched arm, to bid England be of good cheer, and to hurl defiance at her foes.

"The generation which reared that memorial of him has disappeared. The time has come when the rash and indiscriminate judgments which his contemporaries passed on his character may be calmly revised by history. And history, while, for the warning of vehement, high, and daring natures, she notes his many errors, will yet deliberately pronounce that, among the eminent men whose bones lie near his, scarcely one has left a more stainless and none a more splendid name."

It is a great race, Antony, that can produce a man of such a character as Chatham, and also writers who can dedicate to him such superb tributes as these.

Macaulay's prose has been much criticised as being too near to easy journalism to be classed among the great classic passages of English; but this much must be recognised to his great credit-he never wrote an obscure sentence or an ambiguous phrase, and his works may be searched in vain for a foreign idiom or even a foreign word. He possessed an infallible memory, absolute perspicuity, and a scholarly taste. He detested oppression wherever enforced, and never exercised his great powers in the defence of mean politics or unworthy practices.

Such a writer to-day would blow a wholesome wind across the tainted pools of political intrigue.

We can salute him, Antony, as a fine, manly, clean writer, who was an honour to letters.

Your loving old


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