Coincidentally: The Cradles of 1809

Regardless of how frequently we have been inspired by the parliamentary exchanges between Thomas Babington Macaulay and William Ewart Gladstone on the civil disabilities of Jews, one more reading is never enough. Although Macaulay had the upper hand morally as well as rhetorically in the instance, as he also had in the earlier debate on slavery in the West Indies, he wrote in 1830 with application to our own nation: “We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality.” We shall have no such fits. Our subject is style.

Gladstone deplored the state, almost sacrosanct in modern politics, when “appearance annexes to substance,” but that does not discount appearance altogether. In his posthumously published Essay on Athenian Orators, Macaulay insisted that the object of oratory is not truth alone, but persuasion. His maxim may still hold, even though he was aware in another essay on Machiavelli that nothing is so useless as a maxim. Nothing is so useful as a maxim, then, to the bibliobibulist in his search for useless information. The clergyman Sydney Smith was succinct: “[Macaulay] not only overflowed with learning, but stood in the slop.”

The artistry of Macaulay and Gladstone thrills in the same revelation that makes what passes for persuasion in our day seem damp as a sponge at the bottom of a lukewarm bath. By comparison with their sonorous decibels, modern words belched by Boeotian blateroons in congressional hearings and academic assemblies are anemic aubades trilled on warped flutes.

Gladstone was born in 1809, nine years Macaulay’s junior. The year is sanguineous in the popular imagination: conjuring up the Battle of Wagram and the Massacre of the Mamelukes, let alone the Warsaw army’s conquest of Galicia, Turkish strife with Russia, and Sweden’s loss of Finland. People today probably confuse 1809’s achievement of the Treaty of Amritsar with the Riots of Amritsar which happened 110 years later. The brilliant fact is that 1809 gave rise to pens mightier than swords. Gladstone’s infant voice was not the only prodigy of the year that heard the newborn cries of Alfred Tennyson, Edgar Allen Poe, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Felix Mendelssohn, Charles Darwin, and Abraham Lincoln.

Let the infants of 1809 mature. In the year 1839 of the Macaulay-Gladstone debates, Tennyson was finishing Locksley Hall, Poe was preparing the Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, Holmes was teaching anatomy at Dartmouth College, Mendelssohn was conducting the Gewandhaus concerts in Leipzig, Darwin was marrying his cousin, and Lincoln was practicing law. Lincoln, who would cruelly be caricatured by cartoonists as an ape, shared his birthday of February 12 in 1809 with the quixotic author of The Descent of Man. And Lincoln’s years spent in New Salem, Illinois as a store clerk, mill manager, and rail splitter while educating himself, courting Ann Rutledge, and keeping a pet hound (1831-1837), were almost exactly coterminous with Darwin’s expedition on the “Beagle” to South America and Australasia.

The birth of all these men simul et simul is too much for albuminous sociologists to brush off. If they had all cried from the same nursery in the same land, one might trace their genius to the milk and their style to the air salubrious. That is not the way it was. Whatever it was, its voices poured out speeches and rhymes and music of empyreal cast. Gladstone was the last of them to die, in 1898, and when he did there was mould on the cradles of civilization: The Swiss nationalized their railways and Norway granted suffrage for everyone except women. Only Teddy Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill, the establishment of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and the birth of C. S. Lewis rescued 1898 from complete ignominy. A cacophonous century later, the great grown ghosts of 1809 loom in terrible judgment over cacoepistic politicians who whine their muddy diction, sham poets who slur doggerel on public occasions, and pithecoid rock singers who screech and scratch and find no finale. Style is dead.

Peeking into the cradles of 1809, one invokes William Johnson Cory’s translation of the epitaph on Heraclitus by Callimachus: “the pleasant voices” of such ghosts lift in the wind like nightingales. “For death he taketh all away/But them he cannot take.” Cory, like Tennyson, died in 1892, two years before Gladstone’s queen dismissed him with a brief chat about the weather and no thanks for the years that had turned him grey. Acta est fabula. Or as some of our modern orators might put it, “Lays ‘n gennelmin, ya know, that’s the way iddis.”


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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