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William Ewart Gladstone
Chapter 7 - Authorship


The best proof of his swiftness, his industry, and his skill in economizing time is to be found in the quantity of his literary work, which, considering the abstruse nature of the subjects to which most of it is related, would have been creditable to the diligence of a German professor sitting alone in his study. As to the merits of the work there has been some controversy. Mankind are slow to credit the same person with eminence in various fields. When they read the prose of a great poet, they try it by severer tests than would be applied to other prose-writers. When a painter wins fame by his portraits or his landscapes, they are apt to discourage any other kind of painting he may attempt. So Mr. Gladstone's reputation as an orator stood in his own light when he appeared as an author. He was read with avidity by thousands who would not have looked at the article or book had it borne any other name; but he was judged by the standard, not of his finest printed speeches, for his speeches were seldom models of composition, but rather by that of the impression which his speeches made on those who heard them. Since his warmest admirers could not claim for him as a writer of prose any such pre-eminence as belonged to him as a speaker, it followed that his written work was not duly appreciated. Had he been a writer and nothing else, he would have been famous and powerful by his pen.

He might, however, have failed to secure a place in the front rank. His style was forcible, copious, rich with various knowledge, warm with the ardor of his nature. But it had three serious defects. It was diffuse, apt to pursue a topic into details, when these might have been left to the reader's own reflection. It was redundant, employing more words than were needed to convey the substance. It was unchastened, indulging too freely in tropes and metaphors, in quotations and adapted phrases even when the quotation added nothing to the sense, but was due merely to some association in his own mind. Thus it seldom reached a high level of purity and grace, and though one might excuse its faults as natural to the work of a swift and busy man, they were sufficient to prevent readers from deriving much pleasure from the mere form and dress of his thoughts. Nevertheless there are passages, and not a few passages, both in the books and in the articles, of rare merit, among which may be cited (not as exceptionally good, but as typical of his strong points) the striking picture of his own youthful feeling toward the Church of England contained in the "Chapter of Autobiography," and the refined criticism of "Robert Elsmere," published in 1888. Almost the last thing he wrote, a pamphlet on the Greek and Cretan question, published in the spring of 1897, has all the force and cogency of his best days. Two things were never wanting to him: vigor of expression and an admirable command of appropriate words.

His writings fall into three classes: political, theological, and literary--the last including, and indeed chiefly consisting of, his books and articles upon Homer and the Homeric question. All the political writings, except his books on "The State in its Relations to the Church" and "Church Principles Considered in their Results," belong to the class of occasional literature, being pamphlets or articles produced with a view to some current crisis or controversy. They are valuable chiefly as proceeding from one who bore a leading part in the affairs they relate to, and as embodying vividly the opinions and aspirations of the moment, less frequently in respect of permanent lessons of political wisdom, such as one finds in Machiavelli or Tocqueville or Edmund Burke. Like Pitt and Peel, Mr. Gladstone had a mind which, whatever its original tendencies, had come to be rather practical than meditative. He was fond of generalizations and principles, but they were always directly related to the questions that came before him in actual politics; and the number of general maxims or illuminative suggestions to be found in his writings and speeches is not large in proportion to their sustained intellectual vigor. Even Disraeli, though his views were often fanciful and his epigrams often forced, gives us more frequently a brilliant (if only half true) historical apercu, or throws a flash of light into some corner of human character. Of the theological essays, which are mainly apologetic and concerned with the authenticity and authority of Scripture, it is enough to say that they exhibit the same general characteristics as the treatises dealing with Homer, which were the most serious piece of work that proceeded from Mr. Gladstone's pen. These Homeric treatises are in one sense worthless, in another sense admirable. Those parts of them which deal with early Greek mythology and religion, with Homeric geography and genealogy, and in a less degree with the use of Homeric epithets, have been condemned by the unanimous voice of scholars as fantastic. The premises are assumed without sufficient investigation, while the reasonings are fine-drawn and flimsy. Extraordinary ingenuity is shown in piling up a lofty fabric, but the foundation is of sand, and the edifice has hardly a solid wall or beam in it. A clever conjecture is treated as a fact; an inference possible but represented as probable is drawn from this conjecture; a second inference is based upon the first; we are made to forget that the probability of this second is at most only half the probability of the first; the process is continued in the same way; and when the whole superstructure is complete, the reader is provoked to perceive how much dialectical skill has been wasted upon a series of hypotheses which a breath of common-sense criticism dissipates. If one is asked to explain the weakness in this particular department of so otherwise strong a mind, the answer would seem to be that the element of fancifulness in Mr. Gladstone's intellect, and his tendency to mistake mere argumentation for verification, were checked in practical politics by constant intercourse with friends and colleagues as well as by the need of convincing visible audiences, while in theological or historical inquiries his ingenuity roamed with a dangerous freedom over wide plains where no obstacles checked its course. Something may also be due to the fact that his philosophical and historical education was received at a time when the modern critical spirit and the canons it recognizes had scarcely begun to assert themselves at Oxford. Similar defects may be discerned in other eminent writers of his own and preceding generations of Oxford men, defects which persons of equal or even inferior power in later generations would not display. In some of these, and particularly in Cardinal Newman, the contrast between dialectical acumen, coupled with surpassing rhetorical skill, and the vitiation of the argument by a want of the critical faculty, is even more striking than in Mr. Gladstone's case; and the example of that illustrious man suggests that the dominance of the theological view of literary and historical problems, a dominance evident in Mr. Gladstone, counts for something in producing the phenomenon noted.

With these deficiencies, Mr. Gladstone's Homeric work had the great merit of being based on a full and thorough knowledge of the Homeric text. He had seen that Homer is not only a poet, but an "historical source" of the highest value, a treasure-house of data for the study of early Greek life and thought, an authority all the more trustworthy because an unconscious authority, addressing not posterity but his own contemporaries. With this thorough knowledge of the matter contained in the poems, Mr. Gladstone was able to present many interesting and permanently valuable pictures of the political and social life of Homeric Greece, while the interspersed literary criticisms are often subtle and suggestive, erring, when they do err, chiefly through what may be called the over-earnestness of his mind. He sometimes takes the poet too seriously; he is apt to read an ethical purpose into descriptive or dramatic touches which are merely descriptive or dramatic. But he has for his author not only that intense sympathy which is the best basis for criticism, but a real justness of poetic taste which the learned and painstaking German commentator frequently wants. That he was a sound and accurate scholar in that somewhat narrow sense of the word which denotes a grammatical and literary mastery of Greek and Latin, goes without saying. Men of his generation were more apt to keep up their familiarity with the ancient classics than is the present generation; and his habit of reading Greek for the sake of his Homeric studies, and Latin for the sake of his theological, made this familiarity more than usually thorough. Like most Etonians, he loved and knew the poets by preference. Theology claimed a place beside poetry; history came next, and was always a favorite branch of study. It seemed odd that the constitutional history of England was by no means one of his strong subjects, but the fact is that this was preeminently a Whig subject, and Mr. Gladstone never was a Whig, never learned to think upon the lines of the great Whigs of former days. His knowledge was not, perhaps, very wide, but it was generally exact; indeed, the accuracy with which he grasped facts that belonged to the realm of history proper was sometimes in strange contrast to the fanciful way in which he reasoned from them, or to the wildness of his conjectures in the prehistoric region. For metaphysics strictly so called he had apparently little turn-- his reading did not go far beyond those companions of his youth, Aristotle and Bishop Butler; and philosophical speculation interested him only so far as it bore on Christian doctrine. Neither, in spite of his eminence as a financier and an advocate of free trade, did he show much taste for economic studies. On practical topics, such as the working of protective tariffs, the abuse of charitable endowments, the development of fruit-culture in England, the duty of liberal giving by the rich, the utility of thrift among the poor, his remarks were always full of point, clearness, and good sense, but he seldom launched out into the wider sea of economic theory. He must have possessed mathematical talent, for he took a first class in mathematics at Oxford, at the same time as his first in classics, but it was a subject he soon dropped. Regarding the sciences of nature, the sciences of experiment and observation, he seemed to feel as little curiosity as any educated man who notes the enormous part they play in the modern world can feel. Sayings of his have been quoted which show that he imperfectly comprehended the character of the evidence they rely upon and of the methods they employ. On one occasion he astonished a dinner-table of younger friends by refusing to accept some of the most certain conclusions of modern geology. No doubt he belonged (as the famous Lord Derby once said of himself) to a pre-scientific age; still, it was hard to avoid thinking that he was unconsciously influenced by a belief that such sciences as geology and biology, for instance, were being worked in a sense hostile to revealed religion, and were therefore influences threatening the moral welfare of mankind.


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