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Burke was one of the few who could dispense with pedigrees and heralds; he was ennobled by genius. His works form his best emblazonry.
His father resided in Dublin, was an attorney by profession, and in extensive practice. His mother's maiden name was Nagle, of a respectable family residing near Castletown Roche. Edmund was one of a very numerous family; all of whom died in childhood, except four ;-himself, two brothers, whose names were Garrett and Richard, and a sister named Julia.
Garrett became a respectable attorney. Richard, following his brother's fortunes in London, obtained no mean reputation as a politician and a lawyer. Both possessed much of the brilliance of mind which so eminently distinguished Edmund: they died unmarried.
The father's extensive practice enabled him, if not to accumulate wealth, yet to provide no despicable competence for his family. Prior, in his life of Burke, declares that he has abundant authority for saying that Edmund received “ at one time or another not less than £20,000 ! from his family."
As a tendency to consumption betrayed itself in his early years, his parents kept him at home longer than is usual. The same reason at length induced them to send him away from Dublin (the air of which was thought injurious) to Castletown Roche. Here he was put to school, and spent several years, (some say five, under the discipline of a village schoolmaster. This spot was ever after sacred in the eyes of Burke; as, indeed, almost any place must necessarily be, which is sanctified by all the associations of a happy childhood. Near this spot were the ruins of Spenser's Castle, a circumstance which in afterlife tended powerfully to confirm Mr. Burke's early attachment. From Castletown Roche he was removed to Dublin; but did not stay long there, as his health further declined: his father was therefore resolved that the whole period of his boyhood should be spent in the country. The academy of Ballitore, a village in the county of Kildare, about thirty miles south of Dublin, being then in considerable repute, Edmund was sent there. It was conducted by Abraham Shackleton. - Young Burke was at this time in his twelfth year.
With the son of the master, Richard Shackleton, who afterwards became master himself, Edmund formed a most endeared friendship; it lasted through the whole of life,-neither chilled by time nor weakened by distance, nor even by the immeasurable interval, in point of station and pursuits, which Burke's genius and fame soon placed between them. Affectionate correspondence and mutual visits marked the whole course of it, till Mr. Shackleton's death, which took place in 1792. This sets Burke's character in a very amiable point of view. Boyish intimacies, the result generally of accident rather than knowledge of character, are seldom lasting: not so with this. Through the whole of his illustrious career, his early and humble friend found Burke still the same. The applauses of the senate, the still more flattering admiration of all that was splendid in the world of literature, could not diminish his relish for the society of the friend of his childhood.
From Mr. Shackleton most of the information, at best scanty, which has reached the world respecting the peculiarities of Mr. Burke's early years, was obtained. At school, it is said, he displayed little of that splendour and originality of genius for which he was afterwards so eminently distinguished ; indeed some of his peculiarities were such as are generally supposed to be dissociated from lofty intellect. A patient assiduity, a tenacious memory, and an unrivalled facility of acquisition,—these appear, in his early years, to have been his chief attributes of mind. It was, perhaps, well for his future fame that his more splendid faculties did thus veil themselves; he was saved, probably, from that indolence which is so often connected with a brilliant and precocious intellect. He was thus peripitted to spend the whole of his earliest years in the acquisition of knowledge ; in the accumulation of those copious materials which were to feed, for so many years, the fierce and prodigal blaze of his genius.
His social habits at this period were such as marked him more or less through life : he was rather fond of solitude, though of a warm and affectionate disposition ; good tempered, yet somewhat irritable; and always, not merely willing, but delighted, to impart what he knew. This was his great characteristic in after-years. He was fond of communicating knowledge. This was from no pedantic vanity; he could not help it; it was the mere exuberance of a mind full to overflowing. He was also early distinguished by a noble independence of mind, and an abhorrence of every species of oppression.
At the close of his stay at Ballitore, his imagination began to develope itself. His first efforts at composition were (as is so often the case) in verse. They consisted of a translation of the 30th Idyllium of Theocritus, and several scenes of a play, which are now lost.
In 1744 he quitted Ballitore, and, at the early age of fifteen, entered Trinity College, Dublin, as a pensioner. To his tutor, Dr. Pelissier, a man of little talent and as little knowledge, Burke owed nothing but the sage advice, that multifarious reading would be more advantageous to him than a sedulous attention to any particular pursuit; advice, which the excursiveness of Burke's mind rendered perfectly unnecessary. He passed through the usual routine of University education with credit, but nothing
He was still in his chrysalis state ; though just on the eve of his splendid transformation. Dr. Ireland, an unexceptionable witness, tells us that he was " known as a young man of superior, but unpretending talents; and more anxious to acquire knowledge than to display it." In 1746 he was elected scholar of the house, an honour which, as it could be obtained only by considerable proficiency in the classics, is at least a creditable testimony to his industry and attainments, if not to his genius. He commenced A. B. 1747, and proceeded A. M. 1751, in his twenty-first year. Tradition says, (and the character of his mind and his subsequent writings and pursuits afford strong confirmation of it,) that his most cherished studies were history, political and moral philosophy, polite literature, and metaphysics: the last formed an object of study, chiefly for the sake of the mental discipline they afforded, and were pursued only so far as they subserved this end. Some of his critical estimates of the comparative value of authors were not a little singular. He admired Plutarch beyond almost any other writer, preferred Euripides to Sophocles, and maintained the superiority of the Æneid to the Iliad. The opinions which great men have formed of the productions of kindred genius, are far from being always sound. Their concurrent opinion is, indeed, infallible ; but the admiration felt by celebrated individuals for particular works, is often the result merely of some accidental circumstances in their early history, or may be traced to some peculiarities of idiosyncrasy; it is, therefore, very frequently unsound. In the instances above mentioned, however Burke may have contradicted the judgment of universal criticism, he was at least true to the tastes and habitudes of his own mind. The philosophy of human nature, whether exhibited in the history of communities or in the peculiarities of individual character, was his favourite study: this accounts for his intense admiration of Plutarch, and his preference of Euripides to Sophocles. As to his preference of Virgil to Homer, can we wonder at it in a mind so highly distinguished by its elegance, possessed of a taste so polished, and so exquisitely alive to the more refined beauties of composition?
While at College, he composed a translation of the conclusion of the second Georgic of Virgil : this fragment still remains. The reader will, perhaps, be gratified by an extract or two. It shows poetical talent of no mean order.
“ Happy the man, who, versed in Nature's laws,
Black and relentless fate he tramples on,
Now winter's frozen band benumbs the plain,
Nor less than these, wait his domestic life,
Such manners made the ancient Sabines bold,
During his residence in the University he was in the habit of attending the meetings of the “ Historical Society,” then first established. It consisted of the students of Trinity College; it was kept up with considerable spirit, and numbered amongst its members many who afterwards ranked amongst the most celebrated men of Ireland. Burke commenced political writer while at the University, at the early age of nineteen. His first attempt was at the refutation of a too ambitious apothecary, named Dr. Charles Lucas; a factious but insignificant demagogue, whose importance was solely owing to the absurd and injudicious severity of government. It is said that, in this youthful effort, Burke refuted his antagonist by the very same species of argument, which he afterwards so successfully employed against Bolingbroke—the reductio ad absurdum. He ironically adopted the premises of his opponent, and then convicted them of leading to pernicious consequences.
Having been always designed, it is said, for the English bar, his name was entered at the Middle Temple so early as 1747. In 1750 he arrived in London to keep Terms. He has recorded the feelings with which he first visited the metropolis in certain letters to his friends, still preserved. They are written in a very lively manner, indicating a very intelligent and observant mind, and betraying in almost every sentence his intellectual tastes and peculiarities. He calls the House of Commons and Westminster Hall (those theatres on which he was destined to act a part so important) the “chosen temples of fame;" with his characteristic taste, speaks of the stage as sunk (as it assuredly was) in the lowest degree ; while he breaks out into rapture when expressing the emotions with which he visited some of the more splendid monuments of art, especially Westminster Abbey. There is here and there a floridity, and in one or two instances even a degree of bombast about these letters, which Burke's more matured taste would have corrected. Thus in one part, when speaking of so plain a matter as the encouragement afforded to literature in England, he tells his correspondent.—“ Notwithstanding this discouragement, literature is cultivated in a high degree. Poetry raises her enchanting voice to heaven. History arrests the wings of Time in his flight to the gulf of oblivion. Philosophy, the queen of arts, and the daughter of heaven, is daily extending her intellectual empire. Fancy sports on airy wing like a meteor on the bosom of a summer cloud; and even Metaphysics spins her cobwebs, and catches some flies.”
This would not have been mentioned, were it not that Mr. Prior has observed that these letters, though“ really despatched off hand,” as he expresses it, were by many believed to be studied compositions. It is presumed that the biographer means by this, that the style was so excellent as to have passed for deliberate composition. If that be his meaning, few will agree with him. That these letters want altogether the simplicity and carelessness of expression, which will always characterize the genuine epistolary style, is, indeed, most true; but they have no other marks of deliberate composition. The deliberate composition of one, who was so soon to write the “ Vindication of Natural Society,” could not have resembled the above extract. The fact is, the letters bear the marks of haste, but not of simplicity; of an imagination not yet sufficiently accustomed to the restraints of taste, to yield a uniform obedience to them, when careful composition did not demand it.
Burke, while in London, studied with his accustomed ardour and diligence; but it has been rightly conjectured, that his pursuits were somewhat too excursive to permit him to obtain a very profound knowledge of the law; not to mention that his health, still delicate, demanded frequent relaxation. From one or other of these causes, or more probably from both, he soon abandoned altogether the profession to which he had been destined ; a step, as may be imagined, not very agreeable to his father. The knowledge he had obtained, however, was respectable and of considerable use to him in after-life ; while the discipline which his legal studies afforded, exerted a most beneficial influence on the general character of his mind.
Meanwhile the character of his intellect was more unequivocally developing itself. This is obvious from the terms in which he expresses himself in certain letters to his college friends. It was at this time that he became acquainted with Arthur Murphy, then carrying on the Gray's Inn Journal.
About this period, it is said, he applied for the Logic chair at the University of Glasgow, then vacant. It has been plausibly conjectured, that he was encouraged to this act of youthful ambition by the fact that Dr. Hutcheson, formeriy professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow, was a native of Ireland. That he was a great admirer of Hutcheson is certain. It was, indeed, the “ Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue," that suggested to Burke the “ Inquiry into our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.” Nevertheless, the story of this application for the Logic chair at Glasgow seems to rest on no sufficient foundations. Dugald Stewart, who certainly had access to the best sources of information, expressly declares that he knew of nothing to justify it.
He continued to pursue his studies with undiminished assiduity; assiduity, in fact, just as great as though he had not been a genius. Nor was he free merely from that intellectual dissipation, which so often enervates minds of a superior order; he was equally free from excesses of a more serious character. Vice, scarcely less opposed to knowledge than to virtue, never withdrew him from his studies. Few men, indeed, who ventured within that magic circle where wit and genius were too frequently combined with profligacy, ever came out more untainted.—Garrick was now amongst his acquaintance.
There is abundant reason to believe, that at this period of his life Burke wrote much and frequently for the various periodicals of the day. These early efforts are now, for the most part, unknown; nor has the public, probably, very much reason to regret their loss. Such productions are often hasty; frequently the more so, that, being anonymous, their authors feel themselves secure from the severity of criticism. At the very best, they are written during a writer's apprenticeship to fame; and a tolerable exemption from faults, therefore, will generally be their highest merit. To the author himself, the discipline and exercise of mind they afford are exceedingly valuable; the more so, that he is not to answer for the follies of an inexperienced pen with his reputation. Thus protected, he can sustain failures without shame if not without disappointment, and can learn wisdom from experience at something less than the costly price at which experience usually sells her lessons. He can correct his faults and polish his style by practice and repeated effort, without sacrificing his future fame in the very process by which he is learning how to acquire it.
Burke's first important work was the celebrated “ Vindication of Natural Society," published in a large octavo pamphlet. It was written in imitation of the style and reasoning of Lord Bolingbroke. Some further remarks on it will be found at the close of this Introductory Essay, to which place we refer the reader for the observations it may be necessary to make on the other productions of our author. This biographical sketch will merely indicate the period and circumstances of their publication. This first effort excited considerable attention.
In the same year appeared his celebrated Essay, entitled " A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.” The severe application which this publication demanded seriously injured his health, and compelled him to seek repose. For this purpose he visited Bath and Bristol, where he soon recovered. At Bath he was attended by his countryman, Dr. Christopher Nugent. This amiable man invited Mr. Burke to his house, where he remained till the re-establishment of his health ; and the consequence of this visit was an attachment between Burke and the daughter of his kind host, Miss Jane Mary Nugent. It has sometimes been asserted, that this lady was a catholic; and that Burke kept a priest in the house for her, on whom he was in the habit of “ playing off his sceptical raillery.” The fact is, that though Dr. Nugent was a catholic, his wife and daughter were both presbyterians.
This lady was well worthy of Burke's affections. To considerable endowments of intellect she added the utmost amiability of disposition. Proud of her conquest over such a man, proud of his genius, and still prouder of his affections, he was the object of almost idolatrous attachment; and to the promotion of his happiness she dedicated her whole life. It was well for him that it was so. Never did man need more than he did a sanctuary and a refuge in the quiet of domestic love from the incessant agitation of his public life; a spot of inviolable serenity, round which the storms of politics might roar and bluster, but never