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Memoir of the Life and Character of the Right Honourable

Edmund Burke ; with specimens of his Poetry and Letters, and an Estimate of his Genius and Talents, compared with those of his great Contemporaries. With Autographs. By

James Prior, Esq. Philadelphia. 1825. 8vo. pp. 507. The life of Edmund Burke is a history of his times. His was an age of great men, and of great events. Himself, one of the greatest, he was the companion of the best. It was the companionship of opposition, as well as of sympathy. It brought him near to, and in contact with, all that was acting upon his age, and the influence of which he could not wholly escape. The events, amidst which he lived and moved, were the obvious effects of the various and strong powers, which were in action about him. He could not have escaped greatness, had he been ambitious of obscurity; for there was every thing present and acting, for all degrees of capability; and he who possessed the greatest, was hurried into the front, by the force of circumstances alone.

One cannot but be struck with the variety of power in that age. The English language had never before been put to more various uses. The language itself was then settled, and received its true and permanent defences from the whole legitimate literature of the preceding times. A very hasty enumeration of the great men of that age would give us, in almost every department of human learning, one or more individuals, who remain, and will remain, at the head of their calling; who have been exerting a vast influence upon all who have come after them, and who will continue to do it. It was then necessary to know much, to be known at all.

There was much aristocracy in the literature; we might call it a despotism. There was one individual, at least, in Burke's time, who virtually declared himself perpetual dictator, and lesser minds trembled before his. But even with this assumption, aided by much acquiescence, there was, perhaps, never a period, in which real power was more surely or more truly felt

. It made but little odds what direction the mind took, so

that there were mind. Garrick's course would hardly have made him the tolerated, much less the chosen companion of the first literary men of the age. But intellectual power did for him, what it did for all who possessed it. It gave a new and high character to his calling, and made intellectual, what with ordinary men is mere mechanical parade. He was a poet in his conception of character and passion, as given by other men; and used their language, because it was as natural as his own would have been. This accounts to us for his success in the variety of character which he brought to the stage. He was at home as well in farce as in tragedy ; because, though ever so much the compositions of different writers, they belong to the experience of every body.

Mr Reynolds, afterwards Sir Joshua, was the companion of Burke, and of the other great men of the time. He gave a fine and powerful mind to an art, which, like Garrick's, claims to communicate action and sentiment hy a sensible representation; and his success was great. A still higher effort of Reynolds was to settle the principles of taste in regard to his own art.

How successful he has been in this, we do not pretend to say

It is sufficient for our purpose to remark, that his “ Lectures” have lost none of their original value by the efforts of later men.

It has been said that Burke aided his friend in this work. It is not our purpose to inquire into the truth of this, though there is abundant proof in his “ Life,” that he was deeply learned in the best established principles of the art. Reynolds must have possessed the power in himself; for it was a time in which a great deal more was required than the bolstering of even the greatest men, and strongest friends, to keep one steadily at the point he might have reached, however elevated, and however it might have been attained.

We might mention Goldsmith in this connexion, the countryman and college acquaintance of Burke, who, with nothing but mind, did so much, and that so well, in his short and melancholy literary career.-And Johnson, too, were not a paragraph too short, and not a word necessary to make known one who is in the mouths of all who love his language, and who has his fame in the whole language

itself. Sheridan was one of the remarkable men of the time. He had relations with Burke which deserve notice. He was his countryman, his equal in birth, and educated in the same profession, the law. Like Burke, he sacrificed the law to general literature, and finally, like him, became a politician. He was with him for a long time in politics. Here the parallel closes.

Mr Prior, after alluding to Sheridan's useful and splendid talents, and to his neglect of them, observes :

Even as it was, indolent and dissipated, neglecting study and averse to business, his uncommon natural powers always placed him in the first rank. A good poet, be would not cultivate poetry; the first comic dramatist of the age, and almost in our language, he deserted the drama; a shrewd politician, he wanted that solidity of sentiment and conduct, which, after all, form the surest passports of public men to public favour; a powerful orator, he would not always cultivate that degree of knowledge which could alone render it effective and convincing; he was ready, shrewd, and remarkably cool in temper in debate, but like some advocates at the bar, whose example few prudent men would desire to imitate, he seemed often to pick up his case from the statements of the opposite side. Power, fortune, and distinction, all the inducements which usually work on the minds of men, threw out their lures in vain to detach him from pleasure, to which alone he was a constant votary.

66 With all these deductions, his exertions in parliament were frequent and vigorous; his wit and ingenuity never failed to amuse and interest, if they did not persuade; with greater preparation for parliamentary discussion, few could be more effective. His speech on the Begum charge, of more than five hours' continuance, and considered one of the finest orations ever delivered in parliament, drew from Mr Burke, Mr Fox, and Mr Pitt, compliments of a high and unusual order; and from the house generally, and the galleries,-members, peers, strangers of all sorts by common consent, vehement shouts of applause and clapping of hands. With such powers, who but must regret their inadequate exercise, and uphonoured close ? For it is melancholy to remember that this admired man, the friend of the great, the pride of wits, the admiration of senates, the delight of theatres, the persevering apologist of his party for so many years, should at length be permitted to ter.. minate his career in distress; adding another to the many instances too familiar to us, of great talents destitute of the safeguard of ordinary prudence.

Burke belonged to this age. It is not our purpose to give an analysis of the volume, which contains his life, nor to attempt any thing like a full character of this great man. We have no room to do either. Such is the variety presented in his history and character--he was versed in so many things, and was profound in so many, that we should exceed our limits by fully dwelling on any one of them.

Burke holds his preeminence among his fellows, not so much for the extraordinary degree of intellectual power he possessed, as for its direction. He attained to distinction, not among lesser minds,--but among as great, and none greater,


than his own. It was political distinction too, and a very cursory glance at the circumstances, will serve to show that the obstacles he encountered were neither few nor small.

These are to be found in himself, and in his native country; in his condition, and in the nature of the institutions of England. He was without connexion or wealth, and was new to the country. He took, indeed, the popular side in politics, in which the want of external distinction may, at first view, be hardly regarded as a disability. But this view is a mistaken

The leaven of aristocracy was mixed in, and blended with, and acted upon, the whole English character; and it is a well known fact, that in his own party of whigs, it was not a pleasant matter of reflection, that a man without other distinctions, should by his inherent quality, his natural nobility alone, sweep away all that time and opinion had cooperated to preserve for many of them, and drive them back upon their intellectual resources alone, before they were allowed to think or to act with him. This is so strikingly true, that we cannot help adverting to it. It is not seen in the counter-currents, which are to be found setting in all parties, and which have their spring in merely personal views or interests. It is seen in the less obvious, but not less unequivocal bearing of the party with which he acted, and which he virtually led.

Burke was a commoner of Ireland. This single line is a volume of proof of the inherent disabilities with which he came to England. Ballitore, the scene of his infancy and earliest education, becomes St Omer's in England, and his fine English learning is but a translation from the French. The turbulence and anarchy of his native country were compendiously made to explain his pure love of freedom, and were, forsooth, the sole fountain of his equally pure and overwhelming eloquence.

How opposite to all this were the cases of his great rivals, Fox and Pitt, one of them in his own party, the other opposed to him. These were, in one sense, noblemen of England. They were at home in the country, and were allied to its best. With all this, they had the inherent distinctions of Burke, for their minds also were better than their privileges. Fox, however, loved pleasure as well as occupation, or rather, pleasure was his occupation. Hence, he was not always ready, or more correctly, was not always willing. This occasioned indolence, or habitual dissipation, kept his influence safer, by preventing its over-exertion. Pitt had the prudence of profound wisdom. He could not be committed, nor would he ever commit himself. Hence what he gained he never lost. Burke had an exhaustless zeal. He had industry, which was untired. He was always equal to, and, perhaps unfortunately for himself, sometimes greater than the occasion. When it was wanting to other men, either from interest or fear, he created the occasion. It was then, that he appeared in the fulness of his own mind, and of the minds of all others. He takes the guardianship of his country for the time into his own hands, without the formality of inquest or bond; and king and people are safe beneath his function.

This readiness to labour, in the cases from which less honest and less bold men shrink, while it was among the means of his earlier success, was also, we believe, among the causes of his faded influence at a later period.

The circumstances of his age afforded him perpetual opportunities to appear in public, as writer or speaker. The state of his party, too, furnished nutriment to his unfatigued spirit. It was divided. He ranked under the leader, whose principles accorded with his own. Hence he was forever working double tides. He was opposing the minister, a common cause with him and his party; but he was, at the same time, supporting a subdivision of the whigs, under a nominal leader. This goes far to explain his frequent, and sometimes almost fatiguing appearance in public. It helps to explain, along with his want of rank, the jealousies of friends as well as of foes, against which he had always to contend. plains, too, his diminished influence, and the progress and political elevation of those, who had rank and connexion ;rivals who were with him, and rivals who were against him. One other cause only needs at present be named. He was for a time, at least, if not always, the greatest man of his age, and it is claiming more persistency for public opinion, however elevated, and however deserved, than belongs to it, to suppose he would always continue the most popular.

It is natural to pass, at once, from the men, to the events of Burke's time. It is necessary to do so, if we would find an explanation of his intellectual power, and especially of its uses, among the circumstances of his age. Two events stand obviously in the foreground,—the revolution in America, and the revolution in France. But there was something in the state of England itself, at that time peculiarly interesting. It may be, that the revolutions, as matters of history, have lost

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