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Thomas Babington Macaulay was born of good, vigorous Scotch stock (upon the father's side); his great-grandfather, Aulay Macaulay, was minister of Coll, and had fourteen children; his grandfather, John, was minister of Inverary, and had twelve children. His father, Zachary, went to Jamaica when young, and brought thence experience and indignations which made him an efficient co-worker with Wilberforce. Through this latter, Zachary was made governor of the ill-fated colony of Sierra Leone, returning thence to London, there to establish himself as agent of the colony, and African merchant. In the year of his return, he married a pretty Quaker girl of Bristol (a protegee of Mistress Hannah More); and, in a twelvemonth thereafter, his oldest child — the subject of this sketch was born at Rothley, in a be iutiful valley of Leicestershire, where the young mother was visiting an aunt (elder sister of Zachary Macaulay), who presided over the charming old country-house of the Babingtons.
The child was sound in wind and limb, and continued exceptionally sound for a space of more than fifty years. The father's first London home was between Threadneedle and Lombard Streets; and the curious in those matters tell us of a bare spice Draper's Garden — near by, where the baby Macaulay was wheeled by his nurse, to catch sunshine. His boyish niemories, however, belonged tɔ a later home at Clapham, then an out-oftown village. There was his first schooling, under a private master (his father being fairly rich); and there he budded out into young poems and precocious talk. His pleasant biographer (Trevelyan) tells of a visit the bright boy made at Strawberry Hill – Walpole's old show-place. There
- was a spilling of hot drink during the visitation, that came near to scalding the lad; and when the sympathizing hostess asked after his suffering, “Thank you, madam,” said he: “the agony is abated.”
The story is eminently credible; and so are others of his reading his poetry to Miss Hannah More, and getting an approving nod of her gray curls and mob-cap.
At Cambridge, where he went at the usual age, he studied what he would, and disdained what he would as he did all through his life. Mathematics were a standing grief to him, and odious; or, if dwelling on them, twisting their certainties into probabilities, and so making them subject to the world of “ifs and buts” which he loved to start buzzing about the ears of those who loved the exact sciences. But, if he missed thus some of
the schedule honors, he won others. Up and down in those Cambridge coteries he was a man looked for, and listened to, and applauded. Scholastic honors did come in their time, too, in spite of his lunges outside the traces.
The first writings of Macaulay which came to public issue, were in Knights' Quarterly Magazine. Among them were criticisms on Italian writers (Dante and Petrarch); a remarkable imaginary conversation between Cowley and Milton; and the glittering, jingling “Battle of Ivry,”
full of that rush and verbal splendor which he loved all his life, and which he brought, in later years, to a re-heralding of the old “Lays of Rome.”
On the very next year after this “Battle of Ivry” had sparkled into print, appeared the paper on Milton.
Diarists of those days such as Crabb Robinson speak of a young man of five or six and twenty, who has emerged upon the dinner-giving public, and is astounding old habitues by his fulness and brilliancy of talk. He has not, to be sure, those lighter graces of conversation which shone shortly thereafter under the mirrors of Gore House and the smiles of Lady Bessington; but he comes to be a table-match for Sydney Smith, and is courted by Lady Holland, and sought after by the poet Rogers who is living on the honors of his “Memory” and his bank. His alliance with The Edinburgh Review makes him the pet of the great Whigs; and, through Lansdowne, he finds his way into Parliament, making speeches there which revived the memory of the younger Pitt. He lacked, indeed, the true oratorical manner: he scorned studied graces of utterance. Tory critics said he wrote his speeches, and committed them to memory. There was no need for that. Words tripped to his tongue as easily as to his pen.
Meanwhile the writing for the Review went on. An official position assured him a moderate income; but, his father's family being largely dependent on him, he needed more. A Whig government offered him place in India, which he accepted. No Oriental glamor allured him, and he was in chase of no “Light of Asia”; but the new position was worth ten thousand pounds per annum. He counted upon saving the half of it, and returning in five years with a moderate fortune. He did better even than this - shortening his period of exile by nearly a twelve-month, and bringing back thirty thousand pounds. His father died while Macaulay was upon
the voyage home
- a father wholly unlike the son in his rigidities and asperities, but always venerated, and in these latter years treated with a noble generosity.
A first visit to Italy was made shortly after the return from India, of which there is pleasant though fragmentary record in the Trevelyan biography. It is in Rome itself that he puts some of the last touches to the “Lays, goes to the site of the old bridge across the Tiber, that he may determine with his own eyes if Horatius could indeed see, from that scene of his “brave deed,” “his home upon the Aventine.”
It was not until the year 1842 that he took courage to submit to print that solitary book of his verse; for he did hesitate did doubt the wisdom of putting in peril his literary reputation by such overture in rhyme. It extorted a pæan of praise from that muscular critic, Professor Wilson; while
the fastidious Leigh Hunt, representing the dilettanti, writes, begging for a little money, and regretting that the "Lays” have not the "true poetical aroma which breathes from The Faerie Queene.
At least, there is virility in them, and no maundering: There is, too, a scholarly handling, with high historic air blowing through; his prosody is up to the rules; the longs and shorts are split to a hair's-breadth jingling and merry where the sense calls for it, and sober and resonant where meaning is weighty, and flashing — where need is — with sword-play and spear-heads that glitter and waver over marching men.
Meantime that wonderful history had been written, and its roll of magniloquent periods made echo in every quarter of the literary world. Its success was phenomenal. After the issue of its second couplet of volumes, the publishers sent to the author a check for twenty thousand pounds on account. With its Macaulay indorsement, it is a trophy which is guarded, and which will find its way to the British Museum.
It was in the year 1856, when Macaulay had done his last work upon the history, that he moved away from his bachelor quarters in the Albany (Piccadilly), and established himself at Holly Lodge.
There was a bit of green lawn attached, which he came to love in those last days of his, though ise had been without strong rural proclivities. But now, and there, among the thorn-trees reddening into bloom, and the rhododendrons bursting their buds, the May mornings were “delicious.” He enjoys, too, the modest hospitalities he can show in a home of his own. There are notes in his journal or letters of “a goose for Michaelmas," and of “a chine and oysters for Christmas Eve," and excellent “audit ale” on Lord Mayor's Day. There, too, at Holly Lodge, comes to him in August, 1857, when he was very sad about India,
an offer of a peerage.
He accepts it, as he had accepted all the good things of life, cheerily and squarely and is thenceforward Baron Macaulay of Rothley.
He appears from time to time in the House of Lords, but never speaks there. His speaking-days are over. A little unwonted fluttering of the heart warns him that the end is not far off. A visit to the English lakes and to Scotland in 1859 does not give him any access of strength. He worries very much because his beloved sister, Lady Trevelyan, was to go away the next year, to join her husband at Madras. “This prolonged parting,” he says, “this slow sipping of the vinegar and the gall, is terrible.”
And the parting came earlier than he thought, and easier. For on a day of December, in the same year, he died in his library-chair. His nephew and biographer had parted from him in the morning, at which time "he was sitting, with his head bent forward on his chest, in a languid and drowsy reverie. In the evening, a little before seven, Lady Trevelyan was summoned. As we drove up to the porch of my uncle's house, the maids ran, crying, out into the darkness to meet us, and we knew that all was
The date was Dec. 28, and his age fifty-nine. He was buried in Westminster Abbey; and the stone which marks his tomb, is at the feet of the statue of Addison.
A LAY MADE ABOUT THE YEAR OF THE CITY CCLX
NOTE The story of Horatius is told by the historians Polybius, Dionysius, and Livy. It is Livy's version that Macaulay followed. The tyranny of the Tarquin house culminated in the outrage on Lucretia by Sextus, son of Tarquin the Proud, the seventh king of Rome. The Romans rose under Brutus, and drove the Tarquins into exile, electing two consuls as heads of the state. Tarquin retired to Etruria, where he succeeded in enlisting the arms of the Etruscan confederation on his behalf. Their defeat is told in the following ballad, which “is supposed to have been made about a hundred and twenty years after the war which it celebrates, and just before the taking of Rome by the Gauls."
Macaulay's ballads, and particularly Horatius, are among the most popular poems in English literature. He spent great pains on them, and they are models of pure versification and vigorous picturesque narrative. They have much of the freedom and power of the old English ballads, and often remind the reader of Scott. Macaulay knew the extent of his own abilities and never attempted higher fights in poetry. (Las Porsena has resolved to avenge the expelled Tarquins. At his
summons warriors flock from all quarters of his dominions. The Singer pictures the deserted countryside.]
Lars Porsena of Clusium
By the Nine Gods he swore
Should suffer wrong no more.
And named a trysting day,
To summon his array.
East and west and south and north
The messengers ride fast,
Have heard the trumpet's blast.
Shame on the false Etruscan 15
Who lingers in his home, * The date usually given for the founding of Rome is 753 B, C., and the ballad is therefore supposed to have been written about 394 B. C.