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Any attempt to set down with some exactness a definition of a man of letters would doubtless give rise to considerable diversity of opinion. Such a result would, however, give value to the attempt. And yet, the class of men of letters is fairly distinct and understood. Time comes nearest judging well the virtues of those who write as well as of those who interpret what has been written. Whatever time holds out as thoughtful and beautiful and perpetually interesting among the writings of men and women is likely to be esteemed by the judgment of all as literature.
John Morley places Burke among men of letters. He gives especial distinction to Burke's speech on conciliation with America. Something that Morley says of Burke applies with aptness to Lincoln:
Out-arguing is not perhaps the right word for most of Burke's performances. He is at heart thinking more of the subject itself, than of those on whom it was his apparent business to impress a particular view of it. He surrenders himself wholly to the matter, and follows up, though with a strong and close tread, all the excursions to which it may give rise in an elastic intelligence—“motion,” as De Quincey says, “propagating motion, and throwing off life." But then this exuberant way of thinking, this willingness to let the subject lead, is less apt in public discourse than it is in literature, and from this comes the literary quality of Burke's speeches.
In debate, Burke surpasses Lincoln in an “exuberant way of thinking." He is more sweeping in range of imagination, and in great degree affects the scholarly, and rhetorical form of statement. In matters of public policy, his outstanding principle of conduct was like that held and practiced by Lincoln: “Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom."
Both men were face to face with a great national issue. Burke remains to us the greatest spokesman of the problem before him. Lincoln was not only the most important spokesman of his, but he was a powerful public leader and administrator as well. Burke wearied his audience; Lincoln captured his. Burke's prose maintains a Miltonic elevation and seriousness to the end of its long flight. Lincoln was more direct and economical in speech. He is as sure as Burke in his "willingness to let the subject lead.” But he could not, or would not, set for himself the stately pace that lured the talents of the other. In the fine art of English prose, Lincoln's contribution, though not large, belongs to the best in literature.
If we broaden our conception of English prose literature somewhat, we shall not find it necessary to limit Lincoln's contribution of importance to his masterpieces. We shall be able to assent to the estimate of the London Spectator, as it spoke of this subject:
Mr. Lincoln did not get his ability to handle prose through his gift of speech. That these are separate, though coördinate, faculties, is a matter beyond dispute, for many of the great orators of the world have proved themselves exceedingly inefficient in the matter of deliberate composition. Mr. Lincoln enjoyed both gifts. His letters, dispatches, memoranda, and written addresses are even better than his speeches; and in speaking thus of Mr. Lincoln's prose, we are not thinking merely of certain pieces of inspired rhetoric. ... Whatever the subject he has in hand, whether it be bold or impassioned, business-like or pathetic, we feel that we "lose no particle of the exact, characteristic, extreme expression” of the thing written about. We have it all, not merely a part. Every line shows that the writer is master of his materials; that he guides his words, never his words him. That is indeed the predominant note throughout all Mr. Lincoln's work.
The perspective of the years adds mightily to the meaning of the man whose personality and ideals were so vital to the perpetuity of America as the home of liberty,—of liberty for the New World and the Old. No explanation is needed for the unflagging interest in his life and work. It is because so many of his great utterances are as timely to-day as when they were first made.