A French student of English letters (M. Paul Oursel) has written the following lines:
"Depuis deux siecles les Essais forment une branche importante de la litterature anglaise; pour designer un ecrivain de cette classe, nos voisons emploient un mot qui n'a pas d'equivalent en francais; ils disent: un essayist. Qu'est-ce qu'un essayist? L'essayist se distingue du moraliste, de l'historien, du critique litteraire, du biographe, de l'ecrivain politique; et pourtant il emprunte quelque trait a chacun d'eux; il ressemble tour a tour a l'un ou a l'autre; il est
aussi philosophe, il est satirique, humoriste a ses heures; il reunit en sa personne des qualities multiples; il offre dans ses ecrits un specimen de tous les genres. On voit qu'il n'est pas facile de definir l'essayist; mais l'exemple suppleera a la definition. On connaitra exactement le sens du mot quand on aura etudie l'ecrivain qui, d'apres le jugement de ces compatriotes, est l'essayist par excellence, ou, comme on disait dans les anciens cours de litterature, le Prince
Macaulay is indeed the prince of essayists, and his reign is unchallenged. "I still think--says Professor Saintsbury (Corrected Impressions, p. 89 f.)--that on any subject which Macaulay has touched, his survey is unsurpassable for giving a first bird's-eye view, and for creating interest in the matter. . . . And he certainly has not his equal anywhere for covering his subject in the pointing-stick fashion. You need not--you had much better not--pin your faith on his details,
but his Pisgah sights are admirable. Hole after hole has been picked in the "Clive" and the "Hastings," the "Johnson" and the "Addison," the "Frederick" and the "Horace Walpole," yet every one of these papers contains sketches, summaries, precis, which have not been made obsolete or valueless by all the work of correction in detail."
Two other appreciations from among the mass of critical literature that has accumulated round Macaulay's work may be fitly cited, This from Mr. Frederic Harrison:-
"How many men has Macaulay succeeded in reaching, to whom all other history and criticism is a sealed book, or a book in an unknown tongue! If he were a sciolist or a wrongheaded fanatic, this would be a serious evil. But, as he is substantially right in his judgments, brimful of saying common-sense and generous feeling, and profoundly well read in his own periods and his favorite literature, Macaulay has conferred most memorable services on the readers of English throughout
the world. He stands between philosophic historians and the public very much as journals and periodicals stand between the masses and great libraries. Macaulay is a glorified journalist and reviewer, who brings the matured results of scholars to the man in the street in a form that he can remember and enjoy, when he could not make use of a merely learned book. He performs the office of the ballad-maker or story-teller in an age before books were known or were common. And it
is largely due to his influence that the best journals and periodicals of our day are written in a style so clear, so direct, so resonant."
And this from Mr. Cotter Morison
"Macaulay did for the historical essay what Haydn did for the sonata, and Watt for the steam engine; he found it rudimentary and unimportant, and left it complete and a thing of power. . . . To take a bright period or personage of history, to frame it in a firm outline, to conceive it at once in article-size, and then to fill in this limited canvas with sparkling anecdote, telling bits of color, and facts, all fused together by a real genius for narrative, was the sort of
genre-painting which Macaulay applied to history. . . . And to this day his essays remain the best of their class, not only in England, but in Europe. . . . The best would adorn any literature, and even the less successful have a picturesque animation, and convey an impression of power that will not easily be matched. And, again, we need to bear in mind that they were the productions of a writer immersed in business, written in his scanty moments of leisure, when most men
would have rested or sought recreation. Macaulay himself was most modest in his estimate of their value. . . . It was the public that insisted on their re-issue, and few would be bold enough to deny that the public was right."
It is to Mr. Morison that the plan followed in the present edition of the Essays is due. In his monograph on Macaulay (English Men of Letters series) he devotes a chapter to the Essays and "with the object of giving as much unity as possible to a subject necessarily wanting it," classifies the Essays into four groups, (1)English history, (2)Foreign history, (3)Controversial, (4)Critical and Miscellaneous. The articles in the first group are equal in bulk to those of the three
other groups put together, and are contained in the first volume of this issue. They form a fairly complete survey of English history from the time of Elizabeth to the later years of the reign of George III, and are fitly introduced by the Essay on Hallam's History, which forms a kind of summary or microcosm of the whole period.
The scheme might be made still more complete by including certain articles (and especially the exquisite biographies contributed by Macaulay to the Encyclopedia Britannica) which are published in the volume of "Miscellaneous Writings and Speeches." Exigencies of space have, however, compelled the limitation of the present edition to the "Essays" usually so-called. These have also been reprinted in the chronological arrangement ordinarily followed (see below) in The Temple
Classics (5 vols. 1900), where an exhaustive bibliography, etc., has been appended to each Essay.
Critical and Historical Essays, Volume I
Critical and Historical Essays, Volume I, Thomas Babbington Macaulay,