Edmund Burke's : Literary Contribution

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      Edmund Burke (1729-1797) : is, recognized as one of the masters of English prose. Burke shares with Gibbon the place of the greatest prose stylist of the period now under review.

      His Life : Born in Dublin, Burke was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, and then removed to London to study law in the Middle Temple. He soon showed that his real bent lay toward politics and literature, and it was not long before he published some books that attracted a good deal of attention and admitted him into the famous Johnson Club. In politics he attached himself to the Whig party, obtained some small appointments, and became member for Wendover (1765). In 1774 the citizens of Bristol invited him to represent them as their Member of Parliament. Though his support of Catholic emancipation and of free trade with Ireland cost him his seat six years later, a statue which stands in Bristo records to this day the city's pride in the connexion. Both as an orator and as a pamphleteer he was a powerful advocate for his party, and very soon his splendid gifts won for him a leading place in the House of Commons.

Born in Dublin, Burke was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, and then removed to London to study law in the Middle Temple. He soon showed that his real bent lay toward politics and literature, and it was not long before he published some books that attracted a good deal of attention and admitted him into the famous Johnson Club.
Edmund Burke

      Burke's style of oratory, often laboured, rhetorical, and theatrical, exposed him to much censure and ridicule, and his speeches were frequently prolonged to the point of dullness. But at its best his eloquence was powerful in attack and magnificent in appeal, rising to the very summit of the orator's art. When the Whigs attained to office in 1782 Burke was appointed Paymaster of the Forces. He was leader in the prosecution of Warren Hastings, making a speech of immense length and power (1788). On the outbreak of the French. Revolution in 1789 he left his party and attacked the revolutionaries with all his great energy. In 1794, broken in health, he retired from Parliament, but continued to publish pamphlets till his death in 1797.

      His Works : The considerable sum of Burke's achievement can for the sake of convenience be divided into two groups: his purely philosophical writings, and his political pamphlets and speeches.

(a) His philosophical writings, which comprise the smaller division of his product, were composed in the earlier portion of his career. A Vindication of Watural Society (1756) is a parody of the style and ideas of Bolingbroke, and, though it possesses much ingenuity, it has not much importance as an original work. A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756) is his most considerable attempt at philosophy. As philosophy the book is only middling, for its theory and many of its examples are questionable, but it has the sumptuous dressing of Burke's language and style.

(b) His political works are by far his most substantial claim to fame. In variety, breadth of view, and illuminating power of vision they are unsurpassed in the language. They fall, broadly, into two groups, the speeches and the pamphlets. It is in the former that Burke's artistry and power are at their best. The greatest of them, his speeches On American Taxation (1774) and on Conciliation with the Colonies (1775); are passionate in their pleading and conviction, rich in rhetorical effect, and brilliant in their marshalling of material and in the statesmanlike insight which underlies their arguments. Burke was always at his best when deeply moved, and the rights of the American colonists gave him a subject worthy of his mettle. His speeches during the trial of Warren Hastings (1788-1794), though they lack the discerning judgment of his American speeches, are also of a high level. He certainly does less than justice to the motives of Hastings, but the speeches show all his usual power and elan. Of his best-knowm pamphlets, the first to be produced was Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770), a resounding attack on the Tory Government then in power, which, though it falls below his other pamphlets as political thinking, shows all his peculiar qualities of style and method. Then, between 1790 and 1797, appeared a number of pamphlets, of which Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), A Letter to a Noble Lord (1795), and Letters on a Regicide Peace (1797) are the most noteworthy. All three show some falling away from the level reached in his great speeches, perhaps because, as pamphlets, they lacked the stimulus of an immediate audience. Reflections on the Revolution in France, a fierce challenge to the atheistical, revolutionary ideas of the Jacobins, is a fine exposition of his own principles, and, though it lacks some thing of the architectural skill of his American speeches, it has many fine passages of, moving eloquence. A Letter to a Noble Lord, in which Burke defends his right to receive a state pension, is a masterpiece of irony, but Letters on a Regicide Peace is marred by an almost hysterical anger, which impairs much of the judgment and breadth of vision for which he is so renowned.

      Features of his Work : Though the occasion of Burke's political writings has vanished, the books can still be read with profit and pleasure. Burke was the practical politician, applying to the problems of his day the light of a clear and forcible intelligence; yet, above this, he had an almost supreme faculty for discerning the eternal principles lying behind the shifting and troubled scenes of his time. He could distil from the muddy liquid of contemporary party strife the clear wine of wisdom, and so deduce ideas of unshakable, permanence. Thus pages of his disquisition, scores of his dicta, can still be applied almost without qualification to the problems of any civilized state and time.

      We have, in addition, the permanent attraction of Burke's style. Dignified rather than graceful, it is the most powerful prose of his day, and is marked by all the devices of the orator-much repetition, careful arrangement and balance of parts, copious use of rhetorical figures (such as metaphor, simile, epigram, and exclamation), variation of the sentence structure, homely illustrations, and a swift, vigorous rhythm. It is full of colour and splendour, and is fired by an impassioned imagination. The skilful ordering of his ideas indicates a mind of extraordinary powers, and he makes effective use of his wide knowledge. Significant reference and quotation, besides much unacknowledged verbal reminiscence, are a marked feature of his prose. Burke lacks the gentler, persuasive tones of pathos and genuine humour, but his sarcasm and irony can be formidable At its best his prose is vigorous and sinewy, at its worst it becomes heavy, extravagant, and, on occasion, almost hysterical.

      In the extract now given, note that the actual vocabulary does not abound in long Latinized words as in the case of Johnsonese. The ornate effect is produced father by the elevation of the sentiment and the sweeping cadence of the style.

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