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Title: Critical Miscellanies, Volume I (of 3) - Essay 4: Macaulay
Author: Morley, John, 1838-1923
Language: English
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MacMillan and Co., Limited
New York: The MacMillan Company


The Life of Macaulay                                              253

Macaulay's vast popularity                                        254

He and Mill, the two masters of the modern journalist             256

His marked quality                                                259

Set his stamp on style                                            260

His genius for narration                                          262

His copiousness of illustration                                   264

Macaulay's, the style of literary knowledge                       266

His use of generous commonplace                                   267

Perfect accord with his audience                                  271

Dislike of analysis                                               272

Not meditative                                                    273

Macaulay's is the prose of spoken deliverance                     276

Character of his geniality                                        278

Metallic hardness and brightness                                  279

Compared with Carlyle                                             281

Harsh modulations and shallow cadences                            283

Compared with Burke                                               283

Or with Southey                                                   285

Faults of intellectual conscience                                 286

Vulgarity of thought                                              289

Conclusion                                                        290


'After glancing my eye over the design and order of a new book,' says
Gibbon, 'I suspended the perusal till I had finished the task of
self-examination, till I had revolved in a solitary walk all that I knew
or believed or had thought on the subject of the whole work or of some
particular chapter; I was then qualified to discern how much the author
added to my original stock; and if I was sometimes satisfied by the
agreement, I was sometimes warned by the opposition of our ideas.' It is
also told of Strafford that before reading any book for the first time,
he would call for a sheet of paper, and then proceed to write down upon
it some sketch of the ideas that he already had upon the subject of the
book, and of the questions that he expected to find answered. No one who
has been at the pains to try the experiment, will doubt the usefulness
of this practice: it gives to our acquisitions from books clearness and
reality, a right place and an independent shape. At this moment we are
all looking for the biography of an illustrious man of letters, written
by a near kinsman, who is himself naturally endowed with keen literary
interests, and who has invigorated his academic cultivation by
practical engagement in considerable affairs of public business. Before
taking up Mr. Trevelyan's two volumes, it is perhaps worth while, on
Strafford's plan, to ask ourselves shortly what kind of significance or
value belongs to Lord Macaulay's achievements, and to what place he has
a claim among the forces of English literature. It is seventeen years
since he died, and those of us who never knew him nor ever saw him, may
now think about his work with that perfect detachment which is
impossible in the case of actual contemporaries.[1]

[Footnote 1: Since the following piece was written, Mr. Trevelyan's
biography of Lord Macaulay has appeared, and has enjoyed the great
popularity to which its careful execution, its brightness of style, its
good taste, its sound judgment, so richly entitle it. If Mr. Trevelyan's
course in politics were not so useful as it is, one might be tempted to
regret that he had not chosen literature for the main field of his
career. The portrait which he draws of Lord Macaulay is so irresistibly
attractive in many ways, that a critic may be glad to have delivered his
soul before his judgment was subject to a dangerous bias, by the picture
of Macaulay's personal character--its domestic amiability, its
benevolence to unlucky followers of letters, its manliness, its high
public spirit and generous patriotism. On reading my criticism over
again, I am well pleased to find that not an epithet needs to be
altered,--so independent is opinion as to this strong man's work, of our
esteem for his loyal and upright character.]

That Macaulay comes in the very front rank in the mind of the ordinary
bookbuyer of our day is quite certain. It is an amusement with some
people to put an imaginary case of banishment to a desert island, with
the privilege of choosing the works of one author, and no more than one,
to furnish literary companionship and refreshment for the rest of a
lifetime. Whom would one select for this momentous post? Clearly the
author must be voluminous, for days on desert islands are many and long;
he must be varied in his moods, his topics, and his interests; he must
have a great deal to say, and must have a power of saying it that shall
arrest a depressed and dolorous spirit. Englishmen, of course, would
with mechanical unanimity call for Shakespeare; Germans could hardly
hesitate about Goethe; and a sensible Frenchman would pack up the ninety
volumes of Voltaire. It would be at least as interesting to know the
object of a second choice, supposing the tyrant in his clemency to give
us two authors. In the case of Englishmen there is some evidence as to a
popular preference. A recent traveller in Australia informs us that the
three books which he found on every squatter's shelf, and which at last
he knew before he crossed the threshold that he should be sure to find,
were Shakespeare, the Bible, and Macaulay's Essays. This is only an
illustration of a feeling about Macaulay that has been almost universal
among the English-speaking peoples.

We may safely say that no man obtains and keeps for a great many years
such a position as this, unless he is possessed of some very
extraordinary qualities, or else of common qualities in a very uncommon
and extraordinary degree. The world, says Goethe, is more willing to
endure the Incongruous than to be patient under the Insignificant. Even
those who set least value on what Macaulay does for his readers, may
still feel bound to distinguish the elements that have given him his
vast popularity. The inquiry is not a piece of merely literary
criticism, for it is impossible that the work of so imposing a writer
should have passed through the hands of every man and woman of his time
who has even the humblest pretensions to cultivation, without leaving a
very decided mark on their habits both of thought and expression. As a
plain matter of observation, it is impossible to take up a newspaper or
a review, for instance, without perceiving Macaulay's influence both in
the style and the temper of modern journalism, and journalism in its
turn acts upon the style and temper of its enormous uncounted public.
The man who now succeeds in catching the ear of the writers of leading
articles, is in the position that used to be held by the head of some
great theological school, whence disciples swarmed forth to reproduce in
ten thousand pulpits the arguments, the opinions, the images, the
tricks, the postures, and the mannerisms of a single master.

Two men of very different kinds have thoroughly impressed the
journalists of our time, Macaulay and Mr. Mill. Mr. Carlyle we do not
add to them; he is, as the Germans call Jean Paul, _der Einzige_. And he
is a poet, while the other two are in their degrees serious and
argumentative writers, dealing in different ways with the great topics
that constitute the matter and business of daily discussion. They are
both of them practical enough to interest men handling real affairs, and
yet they are general or theoretical enough to supply such men with the
large and ready commonplaces which are so useful to a profession that
has to produce literary graces and philosophical decorations at an
hour's notice. It might perhaps be said of these two distinguished men
that our public writers owe most of their virtues to the one, and most
of their vices to the other. If Mill taught some of them to reason,
Macaulay tempted more of them to declaim: if Mill set an example of
patience, tolerance, and fair examination of hostile opinions, Macaulay
did much to encourage oracular arrogance, and a rather too thrasonical
complacency; if Mill sowed ideas of the great economic, political, and
moral bearings of the forces of society, Macaulay trained a taste for
superficial particularities, trivial circumstantialities of local
colour, and all the paraphernalia of the pseudo-picturesque.

Of course nothing so obviously untrue is meant as that this is an
account of Macaulay's own quality. What is empty pretension in the
leading article, was often a warranted self-assertion in Macaulay; what
in it is little more than testiness, is in him often a generous
indignation. What became and still remain in those who have made him
their model, substantive and organic vices, the foundation of literary
character and intellectual temper, were in him the incidental defects
of a vigorous genius. And we have to take a man of his power and vigour
with all his drawbacks, for the one are wrapped up in the other. Charles
Fox used to apply to Burke a passage that Quintilian wrote about Ovid.
'Si animi sui affectibus temperare quam indulgere maluisset,' quoted
Fox, 'quid vir iste præstare non potuerit!' But this is really not at
all certain either of Ovid, or Burke, or any one else. It suits
moralists to tell us that excellence lies in the happy mean and nice
balance of our faculties and impulses, and perhaps in so far as our own
contentment and an easy passage through life are involved, what they
tell us is true. But for making a mark in the world, for rising to
supremacy in art or thought or affairs--whatever those aims may be
worth--a man possibly does better to indulge, rather than to chide or
grudge, his genius, and to pay the penalties for his weakness, rather
than run any risk of mutilating those strong faculties of which they
happen to be an inseparable accident. Versatility is not a universal
gift among the able men of the world; not many of them have so many
gifts of the spirit, as to be free to choose by what pass they will
climb 'the steep where Fame's proud temple shines afar.' If Macaulay had
applied himself to the cultivation of a balanced judgment, of tempered
phrases, and of relative propositions, he would probably have sunk into
an impotent tameness. A great pugilist has sometimes been converted from
the error of his ways, and been led zealously to cherish gospel graces,
but the hero's discourses have seldom had the notes of unction and
edification. Macaulay, divested of all the exorbitancies of his spirit
and his style, would have been a Samson shorn of the locks of his

Although, however, a writer of marked quality may do well to let his
genius develop its spontaneous forces without too assiduous or vigilant
repression, trusting to other writers of equal strength in other
directions, and to the general fitness of things and operation of time,
to redress the balance, still it is the task of criticism in counting up
the contributions of one of these strong men to examine the mischiefs no
less than the benefits incident to their work. There is no puny carping
nor cavilling in the process. It is because such men are strong that
they are able to do harm; they may injure the taste and judgment of a
whole generation, just because they are never mediocre. That is implied
in strength. Macaulay is not to be measured now merely as if he were the
author of a new book. His influence has been a distinct literary force,
and in an age of reading, this is to be a distinct force in deciding the
temper, the process, the breadth, of men's opinions, no less than the
manner of expressing them. It is no new observation that the influence
of an author becomes in time something apart from his books: a certain
generalised or abstract personality impresses itself on our minds, long
after we have forgotten the details of his opinions, the arguments by
which he enforced them, and even, what are usually the last to escape
us, the images by which he illustrated them. Phrases and sentences are a
mask: but we detect the features of the man behind the mask. This
personality of a favourite author is a real and powerful agency.
Unconsciously we are infected with his humours; we apply his methods; we
find ourselves copying the rhythm and measure of his periods; we wonder
how he would have acted, or thought, or spoken in our circumstances.
Usually a strong writer leaves a special mark in some particular region
of mental activity: the final product of him is to fix some persistent
religious mood, or some decisive intellectual bias, or else some trick
of the tongue. Now Macaulay has contributed no philosophic ideas to the
speculative stock, nor has he developed any one great historic or social
truth. His work is always full of a high spirit of manliness, probity,
and honour; but he is not of that small band to whom we may apply
Mackintosh's thrice and four times enviable panegyric on the eloquence
of Dugald Stewart, that its peculiar glory consisted in having 'breathed
the love of virtue into whole generations of pupils.' He has painted
many striking pictures, and imparted a certain reality to our conception
of many great scenes of the past. He did good service in banishing once
for all those sentimental Jacobite leanings and prejudices which had
been kept alive by the sophistry of the most popular of historians, and
the imagination of the most popular of romance writers. But where he set
his stamp has been upon style; style in its widest sense, not merely on
the grammar and mechanism of writing, but on what De Quincey described
as its _organology_; style, that is to say, in its relation to ideas and
feelings, its commerce with thought, and its reaction on what one may
call the temper or conscience of the intellect.

Let no man suppose that it matters little whether the most universally
popular of the serious authors of a generation--and Macaulay was nothing
less than this--affects _style coupé_ or _style soutenu_. The critic of
style is not the dancing-master, declaiming on the deep ineffable things
that lie in a minuet. He is not the virtuoso of supines and gerundives.
The morality of style goes deeper 'than dull fools suppose.' When Comte
took pains to prevent any sentence from exceeding two lines of his
manuscript or five of print; to restrict every paragraph to seven
sentences; to exclude every hiatus between two sentences, or even
between two paragraphs; and never to reproduce any word, except the
auxiliary monosyllables, in two consecutive sentences; he justified his
literary solicitude by insisting on the wholesomeness alike to heart and
intelligence of submission to artificial institutions. He felt, after he
had once mastered the habit of the new yoke, that it became the source
of continual and unforeseeable improvements even in thought, and he
perceived that the reason why verse is a higher kind of literary
perfection than prose, is that verse imposes a greater number of
rigorous forms. We may add that verse itself is perfected, in the hands
of men of poetic genius, in proportion to the severity of this
mechanical regulation. Where Pope or Racine had one rule of metre,
Victor Hugo has twenty, and he observes them as rigorously as an
algebraist or an astronomer observes the rules of calculation or
demonstration. One, then, who touches the style of a generation acquires
no trifling authority over its thought and temper, as well as over the
length of its sentences.

       *       *       *       *       *

The first and most obvious secret of Macaulay's place on popular
bookshelves is that he has a true genius for narration, and narration
will always in the eyes, not only of our squatters in the Australian
bush, but of the many all over the world, stand first among literary
gifts. The common run of plain men, as has been noticed since the
beginning of the world, are as eager as children for a story, and like
children they will embrace the man who will tell them a story, with
abundance of details and plenty of colour, and a realistic assurance
that it is no mere make-believe. Macaulay never stops to brood over an
incident or a character, with an inner eye intent on penetrating to the
lowest depth of motive and cause, to the furthest complexity of impulse,
calculation, and subtle incentive. The spirit of analysis is not in him,
and the divine spirit of meditation is not in him. His whole mind runs
in action and movement; it busies itself with eager interest in all
objective particulars. He is seized by the external and the superficial,
and revels in every detail that appeals to the five senses. 'The
brilliant Macaulay,' said Emerson, with slight exaggeration, 'who
expresses the tone of the English governing classes of the day,
explicitly teaches that _good_ means good to eat, good to wear, material
commodity.' So ready a faculty of exultation in the exceeding great
glories of taste and touch, of loud sound and glittering spectacle, is a
gift of the utmost service to the narrator who craves immense audiences.
Let it be said that if Macaulay exults in the details that go to our
five senses, his sensuousness is always clean, manly, and fit for honest
daylight and the summer sun. There is none of that curious odour of
autumnal decay that clings to the passion of a more modern school for
colour and flavour and the enumerated treasures of subtle indulgence.

Mere picturesqueness, however, is a minor qualification compared with
another quality which everybody assumes himself to have, but which is in
reality extremely uncommon; the quality, I mean, of telling a tale
directly and in straightforward order. In speaking of Hallam, Macaulay
complained that Gibbon had brought into fashion an unpleasant trick of
telling a story by implication and allusion. This provoking obliquity
has certainly increased rather than declined since Hallam's day. Mr.
Froude, it is true, whatever may be his shortcomings on the side of
sound moral and political judgment, has admirable gifts in the way of
straightforward narration, and Mr. Freeman, when he does not press too
hotly after emphasis, and abstains from overloading his account with
super-abundance of detail, is usually excellent in the way of direct
description. Still, it is not merely because these two writers are alive
and Macaulay is not, that most people would say of him that he is
unequalled in our time in his mastery of the art of letting us know in
an express and unmistakable way exactly what it was that happened;
though it is quite true that in many portions of his too elaborated
History of William the Third he describes a large number of events about
which, I think, no sensible man can in the least care either how they
happened, or whether indeed they happened at all or not.

Another reason why people have sought Macaulay is, that he has in one
way or another something to tell them about many of the most striking
personages and interesting events in the history of mankind. And he does
really tell them something. If any one will be at the trouble to count
up the number of those names that belong to the world and time, about
which Macaulay has found not merely something, but something definite
and pointed to say, he will be astonished to see how large a portion of
the wide historic realm is traversed in that ample flight of reference,
allusion, and illustration, and what unsparing copiousness of knowledge
gives substance, meaning, and attraction to that resplendent blaze of

Macaulay came upon the world of letters just as the middle classes were
expanding into enormous prosperity, were vastly increasing in numbers,
and were becoming more alive than they had ever been before to literary
interests. His Essays are as good as a library: they make an
incomparable manual and vade-mecum for a busy uneducated man, who has
curiosity and enlightenment enough to wish to know a little about the
great lives and great thoughts, the shining words and many-coloured
complexities of action, that have marked the journey of man through the
ages. Macaulay had an intimate acquaintance both with the imaginative
literature and the history of Greece and Rome, with the literature and
the history of modern Italy, of France, and of England. Whatever his
special subject, he contrives to pour into it with singular dexterity a
stream of rich, graphic, and telling illustrations from all these widely
diversified sources. Figures from history, ancient and modern, sacred
and secular; characters from plays and novels from Plautus down to
Walter Scott and Jane Austen; images and similes from poets of every age
and every nation, 'pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral,
tragical-historical;' shrewd thrusts from satirists, wise saws from
sages, pleasantries caustic or pathetic from humorists; all these throng
Macaulay's pages with the bustle and variety and animation of some
glittering masque and cosmoramic revel of great books and heroical men.
Hence, though Macaulay was in mental constitution one of the very least
Shakesperean writers that ever lived, yet he has the Shakesperean
quality of taking his reader through an immense gallery of interesting
characters and striking situations. No writer can now expect to attain
the widest popularity as a man of letters unless he gives to the world
_multa_ as well as _multum_. Sainte-Beuve, the most eminent man of
letters in France in our generation, wrote no less than twenty-seven
volumes of his incomparable _Causeries_. Mr. Carlyle, the most eminent
man of letters in England in our generation, has taught us that silence
is golden in thirty volumes. Macaulay was not so exuberantly copious as
these two illustrious writers, but he had the art of being as various
without being so voluminous.

There has been a great deal of deliberate and systematic imitation of
Macaulay's style, often by clever men who might well have trusted to
their own resources. Its most conspicuous vices are very easy to
imitate, but it is impossible for any one who is less familiar with
literature than Macaulay was, to reproduce his style effectively, for
the reason that it is before all else the style of great literary
knowledge. Nor is that all. Macaulay's knowledge was not only very wide;
it was both thoroughly accurate and instantly ready. For this stream of
apt illustrations he was indebted to his extraordinary memory, and his
rapid eye for contrasts and analogies. They come to the end of his pen
as he writes; they are not laboriously hunted out in indexes, and then
added by way of afterthought and extraneous interpolation. Hence
quotations and references that in a writer even of equal knowledge, but
with his wits less promptly about him, would seem mechanical and
awkward, find their place in a page of Macaulay as if by a delightful
process of complete assimilation and spontaneous fusion.

       *       *       *       *       *

We may be sure that no author could have achieved Macaulay's boundless
popularity among his contemporaries, unless his work had abounded in
what is substantially Commonplace. Addison puts fine writing in
sentiments that are natural without being obvious, and this is a true
account of the 'law' of the exquisite literature of the Queen Anne men.
We may perhaps add to Addison's definition, that the great secret of the
best kind of popularity is always the noble or imaginative handling of
Commonplace. Shakespeare may at first seem an example to the contrary;
and indeed is it not a standing marvel that the greatest writer of a
nation that is distinguished among all nations for the pharisaism,
puritanism, and unimaginative narrowness of its judgments on conduct and
type of character, should be paramount over all writers for the breadth,
maturity, fulness, subtlety, and infinite variousness of his conception
of human life and nature? One possible answer to the perplexity is that
the puritanism does not go below the surface in us, and that Englishmen
are not really limited in their view by the too strait formulas that are
supposed to contain their explanations of the moral universe. On this
theory the popular appreciation of Shakespeare is the irrepressible
response of the hearty inner man to a voice, in which he recognises the
full note of human nature, and those wonders of the world which are not
dreamt of in his professed philosophy. A more obvious answer than this
is that Shakespeare's popularity with the many is not due to those finer
glimpses that are the very essence of all poetic delight to the few, but
to his thousand other magnificent attractions, and above all, after his
skill as a pure dramatist and master of scenic interest and situation,
to the lofty or pathetic setting with which he vivifies, not the
subtleties or refinements, but the commonest and most elementary traits
of the commonest and most elementary human moods. The few with minds
touched by nature or right cultivation to the finer issues, admire the
supreme genius which takes some poor Italian tale, with its coarse plot
and gross personages, and shooting it through with threads of variegated
meditation, produces a masterpiece of penetrative reflection and high
pensive suggestion as to the deepest things and most secret parts of the
life of men. But to the general these finer threads are indiscernible.
What touches them in the Shakesperean poetry, and most rightly touches
them and us all, are topics eternally old, yet of eternal freshness, the
perennial truisms of the grave and the bride-chamber, of shifting
fortune, of the surprises of destiny, and the emptiness of the answered
vow. This is the region in which the poet wins his widest if not his
hardest triumphs, the region of the noble Commonplace.

A writer dealing with such matters as principally occupied Macaulay,
has not the privilege of resort to these great poetic inspirations. Yet
history, too, has its generous commonplaces, its plausibilities of
emotion, and no one has ever delighted more than Macaulay did, to appeal
to the fine truisms that cluster round love of freedom and love of
native land. The high rhetorical topics of liberty and patriotism are
his readiest instruments for kindling a glowing reflection of these
magnanimous passions in the breasts of his readers. That Englishman is
hardly to be envied who can read without a glow such passages as that in
the History, about Turenne being startled by the shout of stern
exultation with which his English allies advanced to the combat, and
expressing the delight of a true soldier when he learned that it was
ever the fashion of Cromwell's pikemen to rejoice greatly when they
beheld the enemy; while even the banished cavaliers felt an emotion of
national pride when they saw a brigade of their countrymen, outnumbered
by foes and abandoned by friends, drive before it in headlong rout the
finest infantry of Spain, and force a passage into a counterscarp which
had just been pronounced impregnable by the ablest of the marshals of
France. Such prose as this is not less thrilling to a man who loves his
country, than the spirited verse of the Lays of Ancient Rome. And the
commonplaces of patriotism and freedom would never have been so powerful
in Macaulay's hands, if they had not been inspired by a sincere and
hearty faith in them in the soul of the writer. His unanalytical turn
of mind kept him free of any temptation to think of love of country as a
prejudice, or a passion for freedom as an illusion. The cosmopolitan or
international idea which such teachers as Cobden have tried to impress
on our stubborn islanders, would have found in Macaulay not lukewarm or
sceptical adherence, but point-blank opposition and denial. He believed
as stoutly in the supremacy of Great Britain in the history of the good
causes of Europe, as M. Thiers believes in the supremacy of France, or
Mazzini believed in that of Italy. The thought of the prodigious
industry, the inventiveness, the stout enterprise, the free government,
the wise and equal laws, the noble literature, of this fortunate island
and its majestic empire beyond the seas, and the discretion, valour, and
tenacity by which all these great material and still greater intangible
possessions had been first won, and then kept, against every hostile
comer whether domestic or foreign, sent through Macaulay a thrill, like
that which the thought of Paris and its heroisms moves in the great poet
of France, or sight of the dear city of the Violet Crown moved in an
Athenian of old. Thus habitually, with all sincerity of heart, to offer
to one of the greater popular prepossessions the incense due to any
other idol of superstition, sacred and of indisputable authority, and to
let this adoration be seen shining in every page, is one of the keys
that every man must find, who would make a quick and sure way into the
temple of contemporary fame.

It is one of the first things to be said about Macaulay, that he was in
exact accord with the common average sentiment of his day on every
subject on which he spoke. His superiority was not of that highest kind
which leads a man to march in thought on the outside margin of the
crowd, watching them, sympathising with them, hoping for them, but
apart. Macaulay was one of the middle-class crowd in his heart, and only
rose above it by splendid attainments and extraordinary gifts of
expression. He had none of that ambition which inflames some hardy men,
to make new beliefs and new passions enter the minds of their
neighbours; his ascendency is due to literary pomp, not to fecundity of
spirit. No one has ever surpassed him in the art of combining resolute
and ostentatious common sense of a slightly coarse sort in choosing his
point of view, with so considerable an appearance of dignity and
elevation in setting it forth and impressing it upon others. The
elaborateness of his style is very likely to mislead people into
imagining for him a corresponding elaborateness of thought and
sentiment. On the contrary, Macaulay's mind was really very simple,
strait, and with as few notes in its register, to borrow a phrase from
the language of vocal compass, as there are few notes, though they are
very loud, in the register of his written prose. When we look more
closely into it, what at first wore the air of dignity and elevation, in
truth rather disagreeably resembles the narrow assurance of a man who
knows that he has with him the great battalions of public opinion. We
are always quite sure that if Macaulay had been an Athenian citizen
towards the ninety-fifth Olympiad, he would have taken sides with Anytus
and Meletus in the impeachment of Socrates. A popular author must, in a
thorough-going way, take the accepted maxims for granted. He must
suppress any whimsical fancy for applying the Socratic elenchus, or any
other engine of criticism, scepticism, or verification, to those
sentiments or current precepts of morals, which may in truth be very
equivocal and may be much neglected in practice, but which the public
opinion of his time requires to be treated in theory and in literature
as if they had been cherished and held sacred _semper, ubique, et ab

This is just what Macaulay does, and it is commonly supposed to be no
heavy fault in him or any other writer for the common public. Man cannot
live by analysis alone, nor nourish himself on the secret delights of
irony. And if Macaulay had only reflected the more generous of the
prejudices of mankind, it would have been well enough. Burke, for
instance, was a writer who revered the prejudices of a modern society as
deeply as Macaulay did; he believed society to be founded on prejudices
and held compact by them. Yet what size there is in Burke, what fine
perspective, what momentum, what edification! It may be pleaded that
there is the literature of edification, and there is the literature of
knowledge, and that the qualities proper to the one cannot lawfully be
expected from the other, and would only be very much out of place if
they should happen to be found there. But there are two answers to this.
First, Macaulay in the course of his varied writings discusses all sorts
of ethical and other matters, and is not simply a chronicler of party
and intrigue, of dynasties and campaigns. Second, and more than this,
even if he had never travelled beyond the composition of historical
record, he could still have sown his pages, as does every truly great
writer, no matter what his subject may be, with those significant images
or far-reaching suggestions, which suddenly light up a whole range of
distant thoughts and sympathies within us; which in an instant affect
the sensibilities of men with a something new and unforeseen; and which
awaken, if only for a passing moment, the faculty and response of the
diviner mind. Tacitus does all this, and Burke does it, and that is why
men who care nothing for Roman despots or for Jacobin despots, will
still perpetually turn to those writers almost as if they were on the
level of great poets or very excellent spiritual teachers.

One secret is that they, and all such men as they were, had that of
which Macaulay can hardly have had the rudimentary germ, the faculty of
deep abstract meditation and surrender to the fruitful 'leisures of the
spirit.' We can picture Macaulay talking, or making a speech in the
House of Commons, or buried in a book, or scouring his library for
references, or covering his blue foolscap with dashing periods, or
accentuating his sentences and barbing his phrases; but can anybody
think of him as meditating, as modestly pondering and wondering, as
possessed for so much as ten minutes by that spirit of inwardness, which
has never been wholly wanting in any of those kings and princes of
literature, with whom it is good for men to sit in counsel? He seeks
Truth, not as she should be sought, devoutly, tentatively, and with the
air of one touching the hem of a sacred garment, but clutching her by
the hair of the head and dragging her after him in a kind of boisterous
triumph, a prisoner of war and not a goddess.

All this finds itself reflected, as the inner temper of a man always is
reflected, in his style of written prose. The merits of Macaulay's prose
are obvious enough. It naturally reproduces the good qualities I of his
understanding, its strength, manliness, and directness. That exultation
in material goods and glories of which we have already spoken, makes his
pages rich in colour, and gives them the effect of a sumptuous
gala-suit. Certainly the brocade is too brand-new, and has none of the
delicate charm that comes to such finery when it is a little faded.
Again, nobody can have any excuse for not knowing exactly what it is
that Macaulay means. We may assuredly say of his prose what Boileau says
of his own poetry--'Et mon vers, bien ou mal, dit toujours quelque
chose.' This is a prodigious merit, when we reflect with what fatal
alacrity human language lends itself in the hands of so many performers
upon the pliant instrument, to all sorts of obscurity, ambiguity,
disguise, and pretentious mystification. Scaliger is supposed to have
remarked of the Basques and their desperate tongue: ''Tis said the
Basques understand one another; for my part, I will never believe it.'
The same pungent doubt might apply to loftier members of the hierarchy
of speech than that forlorn dialect, but never to English as handled by
Macaulay. He never wrote an obscure sentence in his life, and this may
seem a small merit, until we remember of how few writers we could say
the same.

Macaulay is of those who think prose as susceptible of polished and
definite form as verse, and he was, we should suppose, of those also who
hold the type and mould of all written language to be spoken language.
There are more reasons for demurring to the soundness of the latter
doctrine, than can conveniently be made to fill a digression here. For
one thing, spoken language necessarily implies one or more listeners,
whereas written language may often have to express meditative moods and
trains of inward reflection that move through the mind without trace of
external reference, and that would lose their special traits by the
introduction of any suspicion that they were to be overheard. Again,
even granting that all composition must be supposed to be meant, by the
fact of its existence, to be addressed to a body of readers, it still
remains to be shown that indirect address to the inner ear should follow
the same method and rhythm as address directly through impressions on
the outer organ. The attitude of the recipient mind is different, and
there is the symbolism of a new medium between it and the speaker. The
writer, being cut off from all those effects which are producible by the
physical intonations of the voice, has to find substitutes for them by
other means, by subtler cadences, by a more varied modulation, by firmer
notes, by more complex circuits, than suffice for the utmost perfection
of spoken language, which has all the potent and manifold aids of
personality. In writing, whether it be prose or verse, you are free to
produce effects whose peculiarity one can only define vaguely, by saying
that the senses have one part less in them than in any other of the
forms and effects of art, and the imaginary voice one part more. But the
question need not be laboured here, because there can be no dispute as
to the quality of Macaulay's prose. Its measures are emphatically the
measures of spoken deliverance. Those who have made the experiment,
pronounce him to be one of the authors whose works are most admirably
fitted for reading aloud. His firmness and directness of statement, his
spiritedness, his art of selecting salient and highly coloured detail,
and all his other merits as a narrator, keep the listener's attention,
and make him the easiest of writers to follow.

Although, however, clearness, directness, and positiveness are master
qualities and the indispensable foundations of all good style, yet does
the matter plainly by no means end with them. And it is even possible
to have these virtues so unhappily proportioned and inauspiciously mixed
with other turns and casts of mind, as to end in work with little grace
or harmony or fine tracery about it, but only overweening purpose and
vehement will. And it is overweeningness and self-confident will that
are the chief notes of Macaulay's style. It has no benignity. Energy is
doubtless a delightful quality, but then Macaulay's energy is perhaps
energy without momentum, and he impresses us more by a strong volubility
than by volume. It is the energy of interests and intuitions, which
though they are profoundly sincere if ever they were sincere in any man,
are yet in the relations which they comprehend, essentially superficial.

Still, trenchancy whether in speaker or writer is a most effective tone
for a large public. It gives them confidence in their man, and prevents
tediousness--except to those who reflect how delicate is the poise of
truth, and what steeps and pits encompass the dealer in unqualified
propositions. To such persons, a writer who is trenchant in every
sentence of every page, who never lapses for a line into the contingent,
who marches through the intricacies of things in a blaze of certainty,
is not only a writer to be distrusted, but the owner of a doubtful and
displeasing style. It is a great test of style to watch how an author
disposes of the qualifications, limitations, and exceptions that clog
the wings of his main proposition. The grave and conscientious men of
the seventeenth century insisted on packing them all honestly along with
the main proposition itself, within the bounds of a single period.
Burke arranges them in tolerably close order in the paragraph. Dr.
Newmann, that winning writer, disperses them lightly over his page. Of
Macaulay it is hardly unfair to say that he despatches all
qualifications into outer space before he begins to write, or if he
magnanimously admits one or two here and there, it is only to bring them
the more imposingly to the same murderous end.

We have spoken of Macaulay's interests and intuitions wearing a certain
air of superficiality; there is a feeling of the same kind about his
attempts to be genial. It is not truly festive. There is no abandonment
in it. It has no deep root in moral humour, and is merely a literary
form, resembling nothing so much as the hard geniality of some clever
college tutor of stiff manners, entertaining undergraduates at an
official breakfast-party. This is not because his tone is bookish; on
the contrary, his tone and level are distinctly those of the man of the
world. But one always seems to find that neither a wide range of
cultivation, nor familiar access to the best Whig circles, had quite
removed the stiffness and self-conscious precision of the Clapham Sect.
We would give much for a little more flexibility, and would welcome ever
so slight a consciousness of infirmity. As has been said, the only
people whom men cannot pardon are the perfect. Macaulay is like the
military king who never suffered himself to be seen, even by the
attendants in his bed-chamber, until he had had time to put on his
uniform and jack-boots. His severity of eye is very wholesome; it makes
his writing firm, and firmness is certainly one of the first qualities
that good writing must have. But there is such a thing as soft and
considerate precision, as well as hard and scolding precision. Those
most interesting English critics of the generation slightly anterior to
Macaulay,--Hazlitt, Lamb, De Quincey, Leigh Hunt,--were fully his equals
in precision, and yet they knew how to be clear, acute, and definite,
without that edginess and inelasticity which is so conspicuous in
Macaulay's criticisms, alike in their matter and their form.

To borrow the figure of an old writer, Macaulay's prose is not like a
flowing vestment to his thought, but like a suit of armour. It is often
splendid and glittering, and the movement of the opening pages of his
History is superb in its dignity. But that movement is exceptional. As a
rule there is the hardness, if there is also often the sheen, of
highly-wrought metal. Or, to change our figure, his pages are composed
as a handsome edifice is reared, not as a fine statue or a frieze 'with
bossy sculptures graven' grows up in the imaginative mind of the
statuary. There is no liquid continuity, such as indicates a writer
possessed by his subject and not merely possessing it. The periods are
marshalled in due order of procession, bright and high-stepping; they
never escape under an impulse of emotion into the full current of a
brimming stream. What is curious is that though Macaulay seems ever to
be brandishing a two-edged gleaming sword, and though he steeps us in an
atmosphere of belligerency, yet we are never conscious of inward
agitation in him, and perhaps this alone would debar him from a place
among the greatest writers. For they, under that reserve, suppression,
or management, which is an indispensable condition of the finest
rhetorical art, even when aiming at the most passionate effects, still
succeed in conveying to their readers a thrilling sense of the strong
fires that are glowing underneath. Now when Macaulay advances with his
hectoring sentences and his rough pistolling ways, we feel all the time
that his pulse is as steady as that of the most practised duellist who
ever ate fire. He is too cool to be betrayed into a single phrase of
happy improvisation. His pictures glare, but are seldom warm. Those
strokes of minute circumstantiality which he loved so dearly, show that
even in moments when his imagination might seem to be moving both
spontaneously and ardently, it was really only a literary instrument, a
fashioning tool and not a melting flame. Let us take a single example.
He is describing the trial of Warren Hastings. 'Every step in the
proceedings,' he says, 'carried the mind either backward through many
troubled centuries to the days when the foundations of our constitution
were laid; or far away over boundless seas and deserts, to dusky nations
living under strange stars, worshipping strange gods, and writing
strange characters from right to left. The odd triviality of the last
detail, its unworthiness of the sentiment of the passage, leaves the
reader checked, what sets out as a fine stroke of imagination dwindles
down to a sort of literary conceit. And this puerile twist, by the way,
is all the poorer, when it is considered that the native writing is
really from left to right, and only takes the other direction in a
foreign, that is to say, a Persian alphabet. And so in other places,
even where the writer is most deservedly admired for gorgeous
picturesque effect, we feel that it is only the literary picturesque, a
kind of infinitely glorified newspaper-reporting. Compare, for instance,
the most imaginative piece to be found in any part of Macaulay's
writings with that sudden and lovely apostrophe in Carlyle, after
describing the bloody horrors that followed the fall of the Bastille in
1789:--'O evening sun of July, how, at this hour, thy beams fall slant
on reapers amid peaceful woody fields; on old women spinning in
cottages; on ships far out in the silent main; on balls at the Orangerie
at Versailles, where high-rouged dames of the Palace are even now
dancing with double-jacketed Hussar officers;--and also on this roaring
Hell-porch of a Hôtel de Ville!' Who does not feel in this the breath of
poetic inspiration, and how different it is from the mere composite of
the rhetorician's imagination, assiduously working to order?

This remark is no disparagement of Macaulay's genius, but a
classification of it. We are interrogating our own impressions, and
asking ourselves among what kind of writers he ought to be placed.
Rhetoric is a good and worthy art, and rhetorical authors are often more
useful, more instructive, more really respectable than poetical authors.
But it is to be said that Macaulay as a rhetorician will hardly be
placed in the first rank, by those who have studied both him and the
great masters. Once more, no amount of embellishment or emphasis or
brilliant figure suffices to produce this intense effect of agitation
rigorously restrained; nor can any beauty of decoration be in the least
a substitute for that touching and penetrative music, which is made in
prose by the repressed trouble of grave and high souls. There is a
certain music, we do not deny, in Macaulay, but it is the music of a man
everlastingly playing for us rapid solos on a silver trumpet, never the
swelling diapasons of the organ, and never the deep ecstasies of the
four magic strings. That so sensible a man as Macaulay should keep clear
of the modern abomination of dithyrambic prose, that rank and sprawling
weed of speech, was natural enough; but then the effects which we miss
in him, and which, considering how strong the literary faculty in him
really was, we are almost astonished to miss, are not produced by
dithyramb but by repression. Of course the answer has been already
given; Macaulay, powerful and vigorous as he was, had no agitation, no
wonder, no tumult of spirit to repress. The world was spread out clear
before him; he read it as plainly and as certainly as he read his books;
life was all an affair of direct categoricals.

This was at least one secret of those hard modulations and shallow
cadences. How poor is the rhythm of Macaulay's prose we only realise by
going with his periods fresh in our ear to some true master of harmony.
It is not worth while to quote passages from an author who is in
everybody's library, and Macaulay is always so much like himself that
almost any one page will serve for an illustration exactly as well as
any other. Let any one turn to his character of Somers, for whom he had
so much admiration, and then turn to Clarendon's character of
Falkland;--'a person of such prodigious parts of learning and knowledge,
of that inimitable sweetness and delight in conversation, of so flowing
and obliging a humanity and goodness to mankind, and of that primitive
simplicity and integrity of life, that if there were no other brand upon
this odious and accursed civil war than that single loss, it must be
most infamous and execrable to all posterity.' Now Clarendon is not a
great writer, not even a good writer, for he is prolix and involved, yet
we see that even Clarendon, when he comes to a matter in which his heart
is engaged, becomes sweet and harmonious in his rhythm. If we turn to a
prose-writer of the very first place, we are instantly conscious of a
still greater difference. How flashy and shallow Macaulay's periods
seem, as we listen to the fine ground-base that rolls in the melody of
the following passage of Burke's, and it is taken from one of the least
ornate of all his pieces:--

   You will not, we trust, believe that, born in a civilised country,
   formed to gentle manners, trained in a merciful religion, and living
   in enlightened and polished times, where even foreign hostility is
   softened from its original sternness, we could have thought of
   letting loose upon you, our late beloved brethren, these fierce
   tribes of savages and cannibals, in whom the traces of human nature
   are effaced by ignorance and barbarity. We rather wished to have
   joined with you in bringing gradually that unhappy part of mankind
   into civility, order, piety, and virtuous discipline, than to have
   confirmed their evil habits and increased their natural ferocity by
   fleshing them in the slaughter of you, whom our wiser and better
   ancestors had sent into the wilderness with the express view of
   introducing, along with our holy religion, its humane and charitable
   manners. We do not hold that all things are lawful in war. We should
   think every barbarity, in fire, in wasting, in murders, in tortures,
   and other cruelties, too horrible and too full of turpitude for
   Christian mouths to utter or ears to hear, if done at our
   instigation, by those who we know will make war thus if they make it
   at all, to be, to all intents and purposes, as if done by ourselves.
   We clear ourselves to you our brethren, to the present age, and to
   future generations, to our king and our country, and to Europe, which
   as a spectator, beholds this tragic scene, of every part or share in
   adding this last and worst of evils to the inevitable mischiefs of a
   civil war.

   We do not call you rebels and traitors. We do not call for the
   vengeance of the crown against you. We do not know how to qualify
   millions of our countrymen, contending with one heart for an
   admission to privileges which we have ever thought our own happiness
   and honour, by odious and unworthy names. On the contrary, we highly
   revere the principles on which you act, though we lament some of
   their effects. Armed as you are, we embrace you, as our friends and
   as our brethren by the best and dearest ties of relation.

It may be said that there is a patent injustice in comparing the prose
of a historian criticising or describing great events at second hand,
with the prose of a statesman taking active part in great events, fired
by the passion of a present conflict, and stimulated by the vivid
interest of undetermined issues. If this be a well-grounded plea, and it
may be so, then of course it excludes a contrast not only with Burke,
but also with Bolingbroke, whose fine manners and polished gaiety give
us a keen sense of the grievous garishness of Macaulay. If we may not
institute a comparison between Macaulay and great actors on the stage of
affairs, at least there can be no objection to the introduction of
Southey as a standard of comparison. Southey was a man of letters pure
and simple, and it is worth remarking that Macaulay himself admitted
that he found so great a charm in Southey's style, as nearly always to
read it with pleasure, even when Southey was talking nonsense. Now, take
any page of the Life of Nelson or the Life of Wesley; consider how easy,
smooth, natural, and winning is the diction and the rise and fall of the
sentence, and yet how varied the rhythm and how nervous the phrases; and
then turn to a page of Macaulay, and wince under its stamping emphasis,
its over-coloured tropes, its exaggerated expressions, its unlovely
staccato. Southey's History of the Peninsular War is now dead, but if
any of my readers has a copy on his highest shelves, I would venture to
ask him to take down the third volume, and read the concluding pages,
of which Coleridge used to say that they were the finest specimen of
historic eulogy he had ever read in English, adding with forgivable
hyperbole, that they were more to the Duke's fame and glory than a
campaign. 'Foresight and enterprise with our commander went hand in
hand; he never advanced but so as to be sure of his retreat; and never
retreated but in such an attitude as to impose upon a superior enemy,'
and so on through the sum of Wellington's achievements. 'There was
something more precious than these, more to be desired than the high and
enduring fame which he had secured by his military achievements, the
satisfaction of thinking to what end those achievements had been
directed; that they were for the deliverance of two most injured and
grievously oppressed nations; for the safety, honour, and welfare of his
own country; and for the general interests of Europe and of the
civilised world. His campaigns were sanctified by the cause; they were
sullied by no cruelties, no crimes; the chariot-wheels of his triumphs
have been followed by no curses; his laurels are entwined with the
amaranths of righteousness, and upon his death-bed he might remember his
victories among his good works.'

What is worse than want of depth and fineness of intonation in a period,
is all gross excess of colour, because excess of colour is connected
with graver faults in the region of the intellectual conscience.
Macaulay is a constant sinner in this respect. The wine of truth is in
his cup a brandied draught, a hundred degrees above proof, and he too
often replenishes the lamp of knowledge with naphtha instead of fine
oil. It is not that he has a spontaneous passion for exuberant
decoration, which he would have shared with more than one of the
greatest names in literature. On the contrary, we feel that the
exaggerated words and dashing sentences are the fruit of deliberate
travail, and the petulance or the irony of his speech is mostly due to a
driving predilection for strong effects. His memory, his directness, his
aptitude for forcing things into firm outline, and giving them a sharply
defined edge,--these and other singular talents of his all lent
themselves to this intrepid and indefatigable pursuit of effect. And the
most disagreeable feature is that Macaulay was so often content with an
effect of an essentially vulgar kind, offensive to taste, discordant to
the fastidious ear, and worst of all, at enmity with the whole spirit of
truth. By vulgar we certainly do not mean homely, which marks a wholly
different quality. No writer can be more homely than Mr. Carlyle, alike
in his choice of particulars to dwell upon, and in the terms or images
in which he describes or illustrates them, but there is also no writer
further removed from vulgarity. Nor do we mean that Macaulay too
copiously enriches the tongue with infusion from any Doric dialect. For
such raciness he had little taste. What we find in him is that quality
which the French call brutal. The description, for instance, in the
essay on Hallam, of the licence of the Restoration, seems to us a coarse
and vulgar picture, whose painter took the most garish colours he could
find on his palette, and then laid them on in untempered crudity. And
who is not sensible of the vulgarity and coarseness of the account of
Boswell? 'If he had not been a great fool he would not have been a great
writer ... he was a dunce, a parasite, and a coxcomb,' and so forth, in
which the shallowness of the analysis of Boswell's character matches the
puerile rudeness of the terms. Here again, is a sentence about
Montesquieu. 'The English at that time,' Macaulay says of the middle of
the eighteenth century, 'considered a Frenchman who talked about
constitutional checks and fundamental laws as a prodigy not less
astonishing than the learned pig or musical infant.' And he then goes on
to describe the author of one of the most important books that ever were
written, as 'specious but shallow, studious of effect, indifferent to
truth--the lively President,' and so forth, stirring in any reader who
happens to know Montesquieu's influence, a singular amazement. We are
not concerned with the judgment upon Montesquieu, nor with the truth as
to contemporary English opinion about him, but a writer who devises an
antithesis to such a man as Montesquieu in learned pigs and musical
infants, deliberately condescends not merely to triviality or levity,
but to flat vulgarity of thought, to something of mean and ignoble
association. Though one of the most common, this is not Macaulay's only
sin in the same unfortunate direction. He too frequently resorts to
vulgar gaudiness. For example, there is in one place a certain
description of an alleged practice of Addison's. Swift had said of
Esther Johnson that 'whether from easiness in general, or from her
indifference to persons, or from her despair of mending them, or from
the same practice which she most liked in Mr. Addison, I cannot
determine; but when she saw any of the company very warm in a wrong
opinion, she was more inclined to confirm them in it than to oppose
them. It prevented noise, she said, and saved time.'[2] Let us behold
what a picture Macaulay draws on the strength of this passage. 'If his
first attempts to set a presuming dunce right were ill-received,'
Macaulay says of Addison, 'he changed his tone, "assented with civil
leer," and lured the flattered coxcomb deeper and deeper into
absurdity.' To compare this transformation of the simplicity of the
original into the grotesque heat and overcharged violence of the copy,
is to see the homely maiden of a country village transformed into the
painted flaunter of the city.

One more instance. We should be sorry to violate any sentiment of
[Greek: to semnon] about a man of Macaulay's genius, but what is a
decorous term for a description of the doctrine of Lucretius's great
poem, thrown in parenthetically, as the 'silliest and meanest system of
natural and moral philosophy!' Even disagreeable artifices of
composition may be forgiven, when they serve to vivify truth, to
quicken or to widen the moral judgment, but Macaulay's hardy and
habitual recourse to strenuous superlatives is fundamentally
unscientific and untrue. There is no more instructive example in our
literature than he, of the saying that the adjective is the enemy of the

[Footnote 2: Forster's _Swift_, i. 265.]

       *       *       *       *       *

In 1837 Jeffrey saw a letter written by Macaulay to a common friend, and
stating the reasons for preferring a literary to a political life.
Jeffrey thought that his illustrious ally was wrong in the conclusion to
which he came. 'As to the tranquillity of an author's life,' he said, 'I
have no sort of faith in it. And as to fame, if an author's is now and
then more lasting, it is generally longer withheld, and except in a few
rare cases it is of a less pervading or elevating description. A great
poet or a great _original_ writer is above all other glory. But who
would give much for such a glory as Gibbon's? Besides, I believe it is
in the inward glow and pride of consciously influencing the destinies of
mankind, much more than in the sense of personal reputation, that the
delight of either poet or statesman chiefly consists.' And Gibbon had at
least the advantage of throwing himself into a religious controversy
that is destined to endure for centuries. He, moreover, was specifically
a historian, while Macaulay has been prized less as a historian proper
than as a master of literary art. Now a man of letters, in an age of
battle and transition like our own, fades into an ever-deepening
distance, unless he has while he writes that touching and impressive
quality,--the presentiment of the eve; a feeling of the difficulties and
interests that will engage and distract mankind on the morrow. Nor can
it be enough for enduring fame in any age merely to throw a golden halo
round the secularity of the hour, or to make glorious the narrowest
limitations of the passing day. If we think what a changed sense is
already given to criticism, what a different conception now presides
over history, how many problems on which Macaulay was silent are now the
familiar puzzles of even superficial readers, we cannot help feeling
that the eminent man whose life we are all about to read, is the hero of
a past which is already remote, and that he did little to make men
better fitted to face a present of which, close as it was to him, he
seems hardly to have dreamed.

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