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The Glory of English Prose / Letters to My Grandson By Stephen Coleridge Characters: 5697

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

My Dear Antony,

I have now come down, at last, to a great writer of English prose who is still with us.

Lord Morley at the present day is, I think, universally recognised as the greatest living man of letters in the British Empire; he has crowned a long record of distinguished literary achievement with his Life of Gladstone, which has taken its place among the noblest biographies of the world, where it is destined to remain into the far future acclaimed as a masterpiece. In his description of the veteran statesman launching in the House of Commons his great project of Home Rule for Ireland, he has surprised himself out of his own reserve, and painted the scene for succeeding generations in colours that can never die:-

"No such scene has ever been beheld in the House of Commons. Members came down at break of day to secure their places; before noon every seat was marked, and crowded benches were even arrayed on the floor of the House from the Mace to the Bar. Princes, ambassadors, great peers, high prelates, thronged the lobbies. The fame of the orator, the boldness of his exploit, curiosity as to the plan, poignant anxiety as to the party result, wonder whether a wizard had at last actually arisen with a spell for casting out the baleful spirits that had for so many ages made Ireland our torment and our dishonour-all these things brought together such an assemblage as no minister before had ever addressed within those world-renowned walls.

"The Parliament was new. Many of its members had fought a hard battle for their seats, and trusted they were safe in the haven for half a dozen good years to come. Those who were moved by professional ambition, those whose object was social advancement, those who thought only of upright public service, the keen party of men, the men who aspire to office, the men with a past and the men who looked for a future, all alike found themselves adrift on dark and troubled waters. The secrets of the Bill had been well kept. To-day the disquieted host were first to learn what was the great project to which they would have to say that Aye or No on which for them and for the State so much would hang.

"Of the chief comrades or rivals of the minister's own generation, the strong administrators, the eager and accomplished debaters, the sagacious leaders, the only survivor now comparable to him, in eloquence or in influence, was Mr. Bright. That illustrious man seldom came into the House in those distracted days; and on this memorable occasion his stern and noble head was to be seen in dim obscurity.

"Various as were the emotions in other regions of the House, in one quarter rejoicing was unmixed. There, at least, was no doubt and no misgiving. There, pallid and tranquil, sat the Irish leader, whose hard insight, whose patience, energy, and spirit of command, h

ad achieved this astounding result, and done that which he had vowed to his countrymen that he would assuredly be able to do. On the benches round him genial excitement rose almost to tumult. Well it might. For the first time since the Union the Irish case was at last to be pressed in all its force and strength, in every aspect of policy and of conscience by the most powerful Englishman then alive.

"More striking than the audience was the man; more striking than the multitude of eager onlookers from the shore was the rescuer, with deliberate valour facing the floods ready to wash him down; the veteran Ulysses, who, after more than half a century of combat, service, toil, thought it not too late to try a further 'work of noble note,' In the hands of such a master of the instrument the theme might easily have lent itself to one of those displays of exalted passion which the House had marvelled at in more than one of Mr. Gladstone's speeches on the Turkish question, or heard with religious reverence in his speech on the Affirmation Bill in 1883.

"What the occasion now required was that passion should burn low, and reasoned persuasion hold up the guiding lamp. An elaborate scheme was to be unfolded, an unfamiliar policy to be explained and vindicated. Of that best kind of eloquence which dispenses with declamation this was a fine and sustained example. There was a deep, rapid, steady, onflowing volume of arguments, exposition, exhortation. Every hard or bitter stroke was avoided. Now and again a fervid note thrilled the ear and lifted all hearts. But political oratory is action, not words-action, character, will, conviction, purpose, personality. As this eager muster of men underwent the enchantment of periods exquisite in their balance and modulation, the compulsion of his flashing glance and animated gesture, what stirred and commanded them was the recollection of national service, the thought of the speaker's mastering purpose, his unflagging resolution and strenuous will, his strength of thew and sinew well tried in long years of resounding war, his unquenched conviction that the just cause can never fail. Few are the heroic moments in our parliamentary politics, but this was one."

I will not trench upon politics in these letters; but I may hazard the belief that could those who rejected this noble effort, by the greatest statesman of the age, to assuage the everlasting Irish conflict, have looked into the future, few of them but would have supported it with relief and thanksgiving.

It is generally perhaps a blessing that the curtain that covers the future is impenetrable; but in this case, had it been lifted for us to gaze upon the appalling future, Gladstone's last effort for the peace of his country would surely not have been permitted to miscarry.

Your loving old


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