An essayist, historian, and politician, Thomas Macaulay was one of the most influential writers in 19th-century England. He is remembered today less for his ideas (which were often wrongheaded) than for his biting wit, overpowering self-confidence, and vigorous prose style.
Macaulay's "brilliant and slashing" style is on display in these excerpts from his lengthy review of Michael Thomas Sadler's book The Law of Population (1830). Macaulay's merciless attack on the "bombastic" style and "foolish" substance of Sadler's book (which challenged the population doctrine espoused by Thomas Malthus) stands as a marvelous specimen of spirited invective.
I. from Sadler's Law of Population*
a review by Thomas Babington Macaulay
We did not expect a good book from Mr. Sadler: and it is well that we did not; for he has given us a very bad one. The matter of his treatise is extraordinary; the manner more extraordinary still. His arrangement is confused, his repetitions endless, his style everything which it ought not to be. Instead of saying what he has to say with the perspicuity, the precision, and the simplicity in which consists the eloquence proper to scientific writing, he indulges without measure in vague, bombastic declamation, made up of those fine things which boys of fifteen admire, and which everybody, who is not destined to be a boy all his life, weeds vigorously out of his compositions after five-and-twenty. That portion of his two thick volumes which is not made up of statistical tables, consists principally of ejaculations, apostrophes, metaphors, similes--all the worst of their respective kinds. His thoughts are dressed up in this shabby finery with so much profusion and so little discrimination, that they remind us of a company of wretched strolling players, who have huddled on suits of ragged and faded tinsel, taken from a common wardrobe, and fitting neither their persons nor their parts: and who then exhibit themselves to the laughing and pitying spectators, in a state of strutting, ranting, painted, gilded beggary. "Oh, rare Daniels!" "Political economist, go and do thou likewise!" "Population, if not proscribed and worried down by the Cerberean dogs of this wretched and cruel system, really does press against the level of the means of subsistence, and still elevating that level, it continues thus to urge society through advancing stages, till at length the strong and resistless hand of necessity presses the secret spring of human prosperity, and the portals of Providence fly open, and disclose to the enraptured gaze the promised land of contented and rewarded labor." These are specimens, taken at random, of Mr. Sadler's eloquence. We could easily multiply them; but our readers, we fear, are already inclined to cry for mercy.
Much blank verse and much rhyme is also scattered through these volumes, sometimes rightly quoted, sometimes wrongly--sometimes good, sometimes insufferable--sometimes taken from Shakespeare, and sometimes, for aught we know, Mr. Sadler's own. "Let man," cries the philosopher, "take heed how he rashly violates his trust" and thereupon he breaks forth into singing as follows:
What myriads wait in destiny's dark womb,If these lines are not Mr. Sadler's we heartily beg his pardon for our suspicion--a suspicion which, we acknowledge, ought not to be lightly entertained of any human being. We can only say that we never met with them before, and that we do not much care how long it may be before we meet with them, or with any others like them, again.
Doubtful of life or an eternal tomb!
'Tis his to blot them from the book of fate,
Or, like a second Deity, create;
To dry the stream of being in its source,
Or bid it, widening, win its restless course;
While, earth and heaven replenishing, the flood
Bolls to its Ocean fount, and rests in God.
The spirit of this work is as bad as its style. We never met with a book which so strongly indicated that the writer was in a good humor with himself, and in a bad humor with everybody else; which contained so much of that kind of reproach which is vulgarly said to be no slander, and of that kind of praise which is vulgarly said to be no commendation. Mr. Malthus is attacked in language which it would be scarcely decent to employ respecting Titus Oates. "Atrocious," "execrable," "blasphemous," and other epithets of the same kind, are poured forth against that able, excellent, and honorable man, with a profusion which in the early part of the work excites indignation, but, after the first hundred pages, produces mere weariness and nausea. In the preface, Mr. Sadler excuses himself on the plea of haste. Two-thirds of his book, he tells us, were written in a few months. If any terms have escaped him which can be construed into personal disrespect, he shall deeply regret that he had not more time to revise them. We must inform him that the tone of his book required a very different apology; and that a quarter of a year, though it is a short time for a man to be engaged in writing a book, is a very long time for a man to be in a passion. . . .
We could say much more; but we think it quite unnecessary at present. We have shown that Mr. Sadler is careless in the collection of facts--that he is incapable of reasoning on facts when he has collected them--that he does not understand the simplest terms of science--that he has enounced a proposition of which he does not know the meaning--that the proposition which he means to enounce, and which he tries to prove, leads directly to all those consequences which he represents as impious and immoral--and that, from the very documents to which he has himself appealed, it may be demonstrated that his theory is false. We may, perhaps, resume the subject when his next volume appears. Meanwhile, we hope that he will delay its publication until he has learned a little arithmetic, and unlearned a great deal of eloquence.
*Edinburgh Review, July 1830
Concluded on page two