The Right Honourable Mr. BurkePrint
Impassioned orator, eloquent statesman, esteemed writer—but who was Edmund Burke the man?
By Brian Doyle
June 1, 2012
Everyone claims Edmund Burke as his patron saint, political forefather, lodestar and compass point, ancestral bulwark against the tide of whatever seething modern ill he despises. The right wing trumpets Burke, who excoriated the murderous rebellion in France; the left wing salutes Burke, who excoriated his imperial colleagues for their overweening and rapacious greed in India and America; Christians celebrate Burke, who considered religion a crucial and indispensable pillar of civic life; the Irish savor a native son who became, as Hazlitt noted, “the chief boast and ornament of the English House of Commons”; the English honor the writer and orator of “transcendant greatness,” as Coleridge wrote, with his usual casual attention to spelling.
But Edmund Burke the actual man is faded away—the man his wife called Ned, fond of vulgar puns and lewd jokes, an ample man, thin as a lad and then never again; the chatterbox “never unwilling to begin to talk, nor in haste to leave off,” as Samuel Johnson said (probably with a tinge of self-recognition); the man whose first schooling was in a ruined castle in rural Cork, because Catholics were forbidden education under imperial law; the man who lost one son early and the other too soon; the man who would launch into such furious and vituperative speech in Parliament that his friends would have to haul him down into his seat by his coattails; the man “quick to offend [but] ready to atone,” in his own words; the man whose one refuge from politics and creditors, friends and enemies, passions and plots, was a tiny “root-house,” as he called it, a mile from his heavily mortgaged estate house through the Buckinghamshire woods—a “tea-house,” as a young friend described the place, set amid “roots of trees, moss, and so forth, with a … little kitchen behind and an ice-house under it.”
Let us visit him there, late on a summer afternoon, the burble of hawfinch and warbler in the close walls of the woods, the keening of kite and hobby overhead. The tea is ready; he leans back in his battered chair, a gift from one of the men who work his farm; he runs a hand through his hair, bright red until the end of his days; he adjusts the spectacles he has worn since he was young; he says with a smile that at dusk he is due at the big house for dinner with his beloved Jane and their boy Richard and two or three esteemed guests from London; but for an hour shall we converse, shall we talk, shall we let loose our minds to ramble free, and ride ideas where they take us? “The roving flight of genius,” Hazlitt called Burke’s speech, “never [more] himself … but when … forgetful of the idle clamours of party, and of the little views of little men.”
For all his rise to political fame, and nearly to power, in the greatest imperial corridors of his time, he never forgot that his native land was essentially enslaved by the very government for which he labored with such skill and flair. On the January day he was born Éamon de Búrca, in the old tongue, in 1729, on Arran Quay on the River Liffey in Dublin, the English penal laws forbade Catholics from holding public office, marrying Protestants, owning weapons, serving in the military or as a lawyer or judge, voting, receiving public education of any sort or redress from arrest without cause by a representative of the king, purchasing land, inheriting land from Protestants, leasing land for more than 31 years, owning a horse worth more than five pounds, speaking their native Irish language, and building churches. (In the few cases where churches were allowed to be built, imperial law forbade the use of stone.) The subtlety of such laws, the devious genius! If you set out to destroy a culture, could you do better than that? A system of “vicious perfection,” wrote Burke many years later; “I must do it justice: it was a complete system, full of coherence and consistency, well digested and well composed in all its parts” for the purpose, as he elsewhere wrote, of making “three millions of people … enslaved, beggard, insulted, degraded.”
But the penal laws were not uniformly enforced, especially when a boy’s father was a noted Protestant attorney, and only his mother popish; and the boy, thought to be too delicate to endure the fetid mists and vapors of the muddy Liffey, was sent first to a Catholic “hedge school” in Cork, convened in the wreck of his mother’s family’s ancestral castle, and then to a Quaker school in County Kildare, where he shone in history and poetry, read the Bible morning, noon, and night, and was “ever the better man for it.” By 15 he had been accepted at Trinity College in Dublin. At 20 he was studying law in London and dreaming of America. At 30 he was married with one son living and the winter infant Christopher dead. At 35 he was the renowned tablemate of Johnson and Boswell, Goldsmith and Gibbon, Garrick and Joshua Reynolds; a newly elected member of Parliament; and, finally, a salaried man, as secretary to the prime minister. So strolls onto the stage the Edmund Burke of history, a stage he would not leave for 30 years, a stage that was perhaps essential to him, for when he left it, in 1794, he lived only three years more; but again let us glance not at Burke the politician but at Burke the man, that summer he retired.
On July 18, young Richard Burke, age 36, was elected to succeed his father, Edmund, as member of Parliament for the borough of Malton (in Yorkshire), the culmination of much dreaming and hard work by father and son. On August 2, Richard died, sinking back “into the arms of his parents,” as a friend reported. Jane Burke and her haggard husband buried their second son in the fields near their home. “[I]n several senses and to many purposes, I am dead,” wrote Burke soon after. And: “I am in a state of mind as near compleat despair as a man can be in.” And: “Mine is the face of a man marked by the hand of God.” Out of work, both sons dead, his nation losing an endless war against the despised French, his native Ireland roiling with violence and little less enslaved than it had been the day he was born, Burke spent many hours in his root-house, a mile through the patient woods from the grave of his son. “I have been obliged to go into the open air from time to time, to refresh myself,” he wrote to a friend, “and thus the time went away.” Imagine him there amid roots and moss, his red hair askew, his spectacles laid aside, his head in his hands, even the birds silent for a moment, as if in hushed prayer. He must have spent thousands of hours in that root-house, over his 30 years in Buckinghamshire; thousands of times he walked through the flittering light amid beech and rowan, ash and yew, alder and bramble; here and there a scuttle of badger, a startle of fox, a flutter of bats, a corncrake sprinting across the path, an otter slipping back into the muttering river; here and there perhaps he found thickets of mushrooms, and knelt to fill his pockets; during the day heard kite and hobby, kings of the air, lovely and savage; in the evening the first owls on their silent expeditions for dormice. So very many hours, a book in hand or jammed in pocket, a tin of tea, a song to sing, a prayer to chant; an hour or two to be alone for a man who otherwise hardly ever was. Who was he then, sipping tea in his root-house, attended only by the curious hawfinches in his mortgaged woods? Did he write his exquisite essays, make notes for speeches, write love letters to his sweet Jane, draw silly pictures for their boy Richard, dream of who their boy Christopher might have been? Did he still dream of the fresh green breast of the New World, and imagine himself a new man there? Or did he lean back, with his steaming tea, and stare for hours at the hobbies, the lark-falcons above, wondering how beings so brilliant and beautiful could be so attuned to blood, so creative in their violence?
Here’s a moment that shows Ned Burke the man. It was 1780. The Irish question had arisen yet again, this time in economic form, because the Americans had essentially won their war for independence, and the British government, drained by war with France and wishing to be sure Ireland did not also rise in rebellion, contemplated relaxing some of the many harsh sanctions and suppressions on the Irish economy. Burke approved of this, for several reasons, and, being Irish and clear about his opinions—“Ireland, after almost a century of persecution, is at this hour full of penalties. ... [N]othing is defensible which renders miserable millions of men coexistent with one- self. … [We have made] our fellow-creatures wretched”—he and his Whig party were vilified by increasingly large and violent Protestant mobs all over England. In June a week of riots burst out in London—the Gordon Riots, named for the virulently anti-Catholic Lord George Gordon, who led a mob 50,000 strong to the Houses of Parliament to oppose any measure that would bring relief to Catholic Ireland. The rioters broke into the House of Commons, smashed Catholic churches and chapels, looted Catholic homes, set fire to one prison and opened others to set prisoners free, and attacked the Bank of England.
Some 12,000 British Army soldiers were called in, perhaps 500 people died, and the houses of leading Whig politicians were threatened; Jane spent the week with a friend, while Ned spent several nights standing guard at his friends’ houses, and then, after having their books and possessions moved from their own house, set forth “in the street amidst this wild assembly, into whose hands I deliverd myself, informing them who I was. Some of them were malignant and fanatical, but I think the far greater part … were rather dissolute and unruly than very illdisposd. I even found friends and well wishers amongst [them]. … [F]or one, I was neither to be forced nor intimidated from the strait line of what was right; and I returned, on foot, quite through the multitude to the House [where] I spoke my sentiments in such a way that I do not think I have ever on any occasion seemd to affect the house more forcibly.”
This was no mere chaotic street protest—people were roasted to death, beaten to death, shot to death, for being Catholic, or sympathetic to Catholics—and no more identifiable pro-Catholic figure existed in the epicenter of the riot than Mr. Edmund Burke. He was 51 years old that year, portly, bespectacled, unarmed, and infamous, the very man the mob wanted to injure or worse, the very man you would think would convey himself and his gentle bride to a town far away and there await the return of law, or hide somewhere safe, or don disguise, or at least sensibly take refuge in a carriage escorted by His Majesty’s soldiers to Parliament, if he was so intent on executing his sworn duty as a minister. But no—he waded grimly into the murderous crowd, incredibly identifying himself to all he encountered, and made his way, on foot, quite through the multitude, to the very building first attacked by a mob responsible for hundreds of deaths. The brass of the man, the confidence that his voice and his courage, his belief in the strait line of what was right, would see him through!
His words remain, but his voice is lost; and what a voice. “Vehement, rapid, and never checked by any embarrassment: for his ideas outran his powers of utterance, and he drew from an exhaustless source,” wrote Nathaniel Wraxall, who listened to Burke for 14 years in the Commons. “A boundless imagination,” “a memory of equal strength and tenacity,” a “fancy so vivid that it seemed to light up by its own powers. … [H]e could be, during the same evening, often within the space of a few minutes, pathetic and humorous, acrimonious and conciliating, now giving loose to his indignation or severity, and then, almost in the same breath, calling to his assistance wit and ridicule.” The best orator ever, according to the American scholar Chauncey Goodrich; “no one ever poured forth such a flood of thought—so many original combinations of inventive genius … all intermingled with the liveliest sallies of wit … surpassed by no one in the richness and splendor of his eloquence.” But Burke was also subject to, and all too capable of instant exhibitions of, remembers Wraxall (with an almost audible sigh), “petulance, impatience … intractability … anger … irritability. … [H]e was often intemperate and reprehensibly personal.” “A vein of dark and saturnine temper,” wrote the journalist William Godwin. And the later member of Parliament John Morley: “Though it is not wrong to say of Burke that as an orator he was transcendent … he had sonorous but harsh tones … and his utterance was often hurried and eager … his banter … nearly always ungainly, his wit blunt.” And so very often, given Burke’s general residence in the minority, and even in his own party and among admirers so often alone in his opinions, an unpersuasive voice:
“Mr. Burke, when posterity reads one of your speeches in Parliament, it will be difficult to believe that you took so much pains, knowing with certainty that it could produce no effect, that not one vote would be gained by it,” observed Sir Joshua Reynolds.
But I find these detractions revelatory; don’t they illuminate the man, not the glowing historic figure? Doesn’t it make someone more interesting, more real, more understandable, more accessible, more amazing, if we know she—to take Teresa of Calcutta as an example—was testy, rude, blunt, dogmatic, and subject to endless dark nights of the soul? Perhaps the finest writer of his time, perhaps the bravest and wisest politician of his time, certainly the most famous of orators in the most powerful country of his time—yet he was hurried and harsh, impatient and intractable, his gestures clumsy, his Irish accent, which he never lost, growing stronger as his temper rose. I can see him, in the well of the Commons, in the heat of his second speech on conciliation with the American colonies, in 1775, furious at what was being lost, snarling at the terrible waste of money and lives such a loss would mean, mortified at the shallow greed of his fellow ministers, enraged at the way their snatching for the small coin of taxes would inevitably lead to the grievous loss of the cousin-colonies as a whole. He soared, he stumbled, he raged, he went on for hours; a member who was there that night reported that the performance “drove everybody away.”
What did he read, this wonderful writer? Dryden’s prose was Burke’s great favorite, reported his friend Charles Fox; Demosthenes was his favorite orator, according to Chauncey Goodrich; “he delighted in Plutarch … and was particularly fond of Virgil, Horace, and Lucretius, a large part of whose writings he committed to memory. … Shakespeare was his daily study. … But his highest reverence was reserved for Milton, whose ‘richness of language, boundless learning, and Scriptural grandeur of conception’ [said Burke], were the first and last themes of his applause.” He read Bacon’s essays again and again, and clearly had read Cicero closely; he read Gibbon and Sheridan, whom he knew from Parliament; Johnson, Goldsmith, and Boswell; and he either still regularly scoured, or had a ferocious memory for, the Bible—“the most valuable repository of rhetoric in the English language,” as Burke’s later editor Edward Payne remarked. Was this, too, how Burke expended his little time alone, in his root-house in Buckinghamshire, reading avidly, widely, hungrily, happily, delighted to swim in eloquence other than his own? I hear him laughing quietly at a wry and piercing passage from Plutarch, or reciting the swinging cadences of Cicero in sheer admiration of the music of the man, or chanting lines from Lear, or reading aloud, with a shiver of awe, the Lord declaiming to Job: Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Who laid the corner stone thereof, when the morning stars sang together? Who shut up the sea with doors, when it brake forth, as if it had issued out of the womb? Declare, if thou hast understanding …
Perhaps the best and truest measure of a life is not fame or feats, power or pos- sessions, renown or reputation, but rather how you loved, how deeply, how unselfishly; did you savor and appreciate others, did you love a few well enough to help them rise and open, was your love a strong light and clean water for others? Here too is Burke the man; sometime between 1750 and 1756, when he was in his mid-20s, he drafted an essay in his notebook. Never published in his lifetime (the notebook itself was not discovered until the 1950s), the piece is surely about Jane Mary Nugent, the soon-to-be Mrs. Burke, and I can never read it without a smile at the sheer burstingness of it (not to mention the lovely careening casual capitalizing of the time):
I intend to give my Idea of a woman. If it at all answers any Original I shall be pleased; for if such a person really exists as I would describe, she must be far Superior to any Description. … She is handsome; but it is a Beauty not arising from features, from Complexion and Shape. She has all these in an high degree [he hastens to say]; but … ’[t]is all the sweetness of Temper, Benevolence, Innocence, and Sensibility which a face can express, that forms her beauty. … Her Eyes have a mild light, but they awe you when she pleases. … Her stature is not tall. She is not to be the admiration of everybody, but the happiness of one [he says hopefully]. She has all the Delicacy that does not Exclude firmness. She has all the Softness that does not imply weakness. … Her Smiles are … inexpressible. Her Voice is a low, Soft musick; not formed to rule in publick Assemblies, but to charm those who can distinguish a Company from a Croud. It has this advantage, you must come Close to her to hear it [he says with nearly audible zest]. … She has a true generosity of Temper. … No person of so few years can know the world better; no person was ever less corrupted by that knowledge. … She has a steady and firm mind. … Who can see and know such a Creature and not love to Distraction? Who can know her, and himself, and entertain much hope?
Yet the doctor’s daughter said yes when Burke proposed; they were married in 1757, when Ned was 28 and Jane 23, and moved to Battersea, on the south side of the Thames. A year later Jane delivered Richard in February, and Christopher in December. Two babies in a year, one hard on the heels of the other. Richard lived; Christopher did not. Died in infancy; what haunted words those are, how terse the fact, how endless the grief; did Burke sit quietly among his roots of trees, moss, and so forth, thinking of the mewling boy cradled in their hands, of the silent boy cradled in his casket? Surely he did; surely once in a while the mew of a fledgling would open the dark room in his memory; surely from time to time he murmured Mr. Christopher Burke, to bring the young man into this world, if only for a moment.
Everyone claims Edmund Burke, except me. I merely savor and celebrate him, and appreciate his piercing thought and ringing speech, and honor the service he rendered his bruised native land and his earnest adopted country, which tried, against great odds and the tide of history, to operate a generally reasonable and enlightened empire, except in the case of its neighboring island, where it destroyed an ancient culture with a thorough and strategic violence it did not inflict on any of its other many colonies around the world. Why that was so, what demons drove the English to so detest and crush the Irish, is a mystery to many, as surely it was to Burke; but he fought the destruction with his capacious intellect, his silver tongue, his bounding heart, even as he rose to become, as Hazlitt said, the chief boast and ornament of the Commons. It was Hazlitt too who wrote that Burke’s wisdom was greater than his eloquence.
“Such was the strength and exuberance of his intellect,” as Henry Buckle noted in his epic unfinished History of Civilization in England, “that it bore fruit in all directions.” Could it be that one steady quiet thrumming theme of his public life was the saving of Ireland? Could it be that Éamon de Búrca chose to work in the government of the oppressor not as a secret agent but a trusted voice close to vast power? Could it be that he saw that he could do more to ameliorate imperial cruelty by influencing and even creating ministerial policy, if he could rise that high? Could it be that his fury at the rape of India, his gloom at the loss of the American colonies, his rage at the blood-thirsty madness of the Terror in France were all fed and fueled by a tide of worry about his own island? “I can never persuade myself that any thing … is worth making three millions of [Irish] people Slaves.”
He never advocated independence for Ireland, but autonomy and self-regulation as a mature colony of the Crown, the same vision he had for all the colonies, India included, long before many others envisioned an India governed by Indians. For Ireland, all his life, he argued passionately for religious, economic, and cultural—if not political—freedom; but it must have been a great sadness of his last years to see his native land slide toward the violence that would afflict it steadily for two more centuries. He died in 1797, just before Éirí Amach na nÉireannach Aontaithe, the rebellion of the United Irishmen in 1798, in which Irish rebels led by Wolfe Tone invited French troops to Ireland to fight the British—a ploy Burke had both feared and foreseen.
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Burke the writer is that he apparently did not write his speeches out before he delivered them, but spoke impromptu, from the heart, and only afterward wrote out what he had said, from memory; there are no reports of him carrying or referring to notes as he spoke, no accounts of him outlining or writing his speeches (some of them as long as five hours) beforehand. Perhaps he jotted notes when he sat down, often exhausted, from a peroration, and perhaps his friends or journalist acquaintances kept notes as well, and handed them to Burke as he repaired to his office, to his London home, or to the house in Buckinghamshire, there to write out his words longhand; but it always amazes me, when savoring the long swing and click and snick and stitched cadences of his prose, that he was, it seems, writing freely from memory what he had said that day in the well of Parliament, before he lost the memory of its music, its twists and turns, the pulsing geometry of not only what he had said but also how he had said it. An amazing enough feat once or twice; imagine doing it regularly for 30 years; and imagine how delicious it must have been for Burke occasionally to sit at his desk at home, or in his root-house sipping tea, and write out an essay from scratch, without having to strain and milk his memory.
Burke is also that rara avis, a great writer with no single great work; he wrote no indispensible books, in the usual sense of books, and the works he did publish as books—his Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, written in his mid-20s primarily to make a literary and social name for himself; his Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, a mere political white paper, however graceful its prose; and his Reflections on the Revolution in France, which is famous for its eloquence and heat but is essentially a political call to arms by a social conservative leery of rebellion, not just the one nearby that would very soon, as Burke foresaw, turn especially murderous—are none of them wholly revelatory of the complex qualities of the writer. Probably the closest to a single work that catches his wit, fury, complexity of thought, and lucidity is the late Letter to a Noble Lord, the one extended piece of prose—it was never a speech—in which all of Burke’s virtues are not only on display but in full flower, as well; and this was in 1795, when he was 67 years old, a year from his death, still mourning his son, and horrified by the still-rising tide of blood in France.
“The finest piece of invective in the English language,” said W. Somerset Maugham of the Letter to a Noble Lord, which was occasioned by the objections of two young members of the House of Lords to King George’s granting Burke a pension, on his retirement from the House, in gratitude for service to the empire. Opening with the suavest of insults (“I could hardly flatter myself with the hope, that so very early in the session I should have to acknowledge obligations to [the two Lords]”), he soars into a long essay that in essence sums up his life, his work, his innermost convictions and emotions. It alternates sly ridicule with ringing passages about the genius of the English constitution, the murderous nature of the French government after the Terror, and, poignantly, himself:
It would ill become me to boast of anything. It would as ill become me … to depreciate the value of a long life, spent with unexampled toil in the service of my country. … [I am] an invalid servant of the public … a desolate old man. … Had it pleased God to continue to me the hopes of succession, I should have been … a sort of founder of a family. I should have left a son … but a Disposer whose power we are little able to resist, and whose wisdom it behoves us not at all to dispute, has ordained it in another manner. … The Storm has gone over me; and I lie like one of those old oaks which the late hurricane has scattered about me. I am stripped of all my honours, I am torn up by the roots, and lie prostrate on the earth! … But whilst I humble myself before God, I do not know that it is forbidden to repel the attacks of unjust and inconsiderate men. … I live in an inverted order. They who ought to have succeeded me are gone before me. They who should have been to me as posterity are in the place of ancestors.
Yet however piercing and sad his Letter to a Noble Lord, collections or selections of his speeches come closer to showing his eloquence and passion; selections of his vast correspondence come closer still; and it may be that the world a century from now will have The Greatest Hits of Edmund Burke as the standard text—a download from the Cloud that excerpts his speeches and letters, includes the best of his essays and pamphlets, scatters in some of the more remarkable encomia pronounced upon him, flashes paintings and drawings of the London and Paris and Dublin and Boston of his time, contains stentorian readings of his work by Irish actors, and has accessible imaginary soundtracks of Burke’s time and life—the cheerful murmur of his dinner table, the low Soft musick of Mrs. Burke’s voice, the shouting and laughter in Parliament, the clang and smash of the Gordon Riots, the high piping of warblers in his woods.
I tiptoe cautiously around his political life and political philosophy, partly because I am a poor student of the clash of Whig and Tory under King George III, and partly because Burke himself was an eminently practical politician, utterly uninterested in theory and eternally absorbed by fact, anchoring his political and personal life on a general reverence for church, constitution, and fair play; and partly because what made Burke a great man was not his politics, but his eloquence and wisdom about what politics was for. Not a few of his friends and admirers thought he wasted his capacious gifts in Parliament. Had he spent his oceanic energy on prose rather than politics, he might well have taken a place beside Johnson and Goldsmith as a leading writer of his day. And yet, for one thing, he seems to have had little or no fictive impulse, and what little poetic urge he had, displayed in the juvenilia of his notebooks, withered as he matured, probably for the best; for another, he felt the powerful urge to use what gifts he had in service first to his adopted country and attendant empire, second to his native land, and finally—for all his unquestioned respect and general admiration for nobility—to those who were neither rich nor landed.
In his essence he believed, as he often wrote, that human beings, for all our heroic and graceful pinnacles, were also troubled, flawed, greedy, selfish, violent, and webbed with prejudices of the most ridiculous and dangerous sort, and that the role of a dominant religion (which should be state religion, he thought; he had no problem with Hindu or “Mahometan” nations, as he had no objection to his own Christian empire) and a powerful government was to trammel the worst impulses and foment the best. Thus Burke earns his modern hagiography as hero of Christian conservatives, who seethe at the muddle and stalemate and chaos of a liberal democracy.
For two centuries people with every sort of idea have picked over Burke’s writings for their own benefit and justification; and the lesson of their success is not that Burke was mercurial and changeable, but that he was relentlessly interested only in what worked, what was best for the most, what was real and what was high-flown nonsense or worse. “Again and again, revert to your own principles—seek peace and ensure it,” he roared in Parliament, during the bitter debates about America. “I do not enter into … metaphysical distinctions; I hate the very sound of them.” It is ironic that a man who wrote and spoke with such imaginative flair, with such moving eloquence, was himself unmoved, as a rule, by flights of fancy.
Everyone claims Edmund Burke, except me. I just see flashes of his life, as if shown on a screen in a darkened theater, the pain and poignancy and poetry of his existence needing no subtitles: the thin quiet boy, all of six years old, exiled across Ireland from his city home, sitting in the dim light of a ruined castle in rural Cork, hearing the moaning of crows, trying to learn his letters, trying not to weep from loneliness; the pudgier boy in Kildare, age 12, hearing nighthawks in the dusk, poring over the Bible morning, noon, and night, beginning to write poetry; the college boy, all of 15, at Trinity College, in the “noise and smoak” of Dublin town; the law student in London, noted for his dancing, if not for the perspicacity of his legal studies; the youth in his 20s, a guest and patient (possibly for the hip problem that made him limp slightly all his life) of Doctor Christopher Nugent, in Bath, whose daughter had Smiles inexpressible, and a Voice of low, Soft musick; the new father, not yet 30, sobbing over the tiny corpse of his son Christopher.
And so many flashes of the later man: the evening when he accidentally overdosed a feverish Mrs. Burke with laudanum, and shivered with horror and guilt until she recovered, weeks later; the moment in Parliament when he suddenly pulled a dagger from his coat, and waving it aloft, shouted that this is what Britain would get if it was friendly to the French rebellion; the man who was elected to Parliament for the first time, at age 36, and “got very drunk”; the man who stood in Parliament, four months after the Boston Tea Party, and “foamed like Niagara,” as Boswell noted, against the empire’s “wading up to [its] eyes in blood” in America, nearly fainting and having to stop—“My voice fails me … all is confusion”; the man who said of Americans, eerily and accurately, that they were “stubborn … litigious … acute, inquisitive, dexterous, prompt in attack, ready in defence, full of resources”; the man who said of the denizens of India, long before many other pale people considered people of other skin colors equally human, that they “are the images of the great Pattern, as well as you and I”; the man who accepted an honorary doctorate from an Irish university but declined one from Oxford; the man, aged 66, “rolling about with [children] on the carpet” at Christmas-time in Buckinghamshire, entering with “cordial glee” into children’s games, and amazing a visitor with the “astonishing effusions of his mind in conversation,” out of which poured “the sublimest images mingled with the most wretched puns”; the man whose last official act as imperial paymaster (the only government job he ever had, other than member of Parliament) was to grant a pension to a musician so that he could play the organ to patients in a hospital; the man who, at age 67, took the time and effort to write a booklet on farming, his “only amusement,” as his brother said; the man who stood up to speak at the funeral of his dear friend the painter Joshua Reynolds, and sat down again silent, too overcome by tears for words; the moment in Parliament when, baited by a pack of young political opponents, his temper snapped, and he shouted a line from King Lear: “The little dogs and all … see, they bark at me!”; the night he broke for good and all from his ally and dear friend Charles Fox over the French Revolution, and drove home in “stern and inflexible silence … and in a paroxysm of passion, paced up and down the room, until nearly four o’clock in the morning”; the man who, even when near penniless, sent money to his aged Irish cousins, on the condition that they never tell anyone whence it came; the man who started, as one of the last acts of his life, a school three miles from his home for the sons of French refugees, for whom he cheerfully bought uniforms.
Did he sometimes stroll from his root-house to the school through the woods and fields, contemplating what texts to assign the boys, what kitchen supplies to obtain, what examinations and competitions he might set for them, so that they would know their Cicero, their Milton, their Bible? And in the years after his death, did the students read the Right Honourable Mr. Burke, and remember the burly smiling red-haired neighbor who paid for their tea mugs and jackets?
One last Burke story. Johnson, who both admired Burke and several times bemoaned his low humor, once told Boswell that “no man of sense could meet Mr Burke by accident under a gateway to avoid a shower, without being convinced—‘this is an extraordinary man.’ If Burke should go into a stable to see his horse drest, the ostler would say, ‘we have had an extraordinary man here.’ ” Years later, Burke happened to be passing through Litchfield, in Staffordshire, where Johnson had been born. Curious about the famous cathedral there, built on what is supposed to have been a sacred site long before Christianity, Burke stepped into the church, where he struck up a conversation with a clergyman. Soon enough Burke had to move on, and he and the clergyman parted. A few minutes after separating, reported the ever-attentive Johnson, the clergyman was met hurrying through the street. “ ‘I have had,’ said he, ‘quite an adventure. I have been conversing for this half hour past with a man of the most extraordinary powers of mind and extent of information which it has ever been my fortune to meet with, and I am now going to the inn to ascertain if possible who this stranger is.’ ”
But he was gone, the Right Honourable Mr. Burke, gone ahead, leaving only the shimmering memory of his remarkable mind and eager, hurried voice, his accent “as strong as if he had never quitted the banks of the Shannon,” as Nathaniel Wraxall remembered; and he is gone for us too, leaving only his remarkable prose and the plaudits and brick-bats of those who knew and heard and loved or detested him; and on dark days I wonder if soon even his beautifully cadenced prose will cease to be read by anyone other than fervid souls eager to find their own convictions affirmed by the patron saint of whatever political motley they wear. I have tried to bring him to life again, to resurrect a riveting man, a brilliant and tumultuous soul, one of the wonderful writers in our language, and perhaps even better a thinker and moral compass, so that you would know him too as Ned Burke, beloved husband of Jane, beloved father of two squirming boys, dear friend to many, a man addicted to low puns and vulgar jokes; and let the last image of Burke be the man in his root-house, sipping his tea, his books sprawled about him, the wheedle and whistle of hawfinches in his ears, and overhead, a lark-falcon soaring …
Brian Doyle is the editor of the University of Portland’s Portland magazine and the author of many books, most recently the novel The Mighty Currawongs & Other Stories.