The devil has two horns

J.G.A. Pocock

  • The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography and Commented Anthology of Edmund Burke by Conor Cruise O’Brien
    Minerva, 692 pp, £8.99, September 1993, ISBN 0 7493 9721 7

Conor Cruise O’Brien’s majestic study takes rise from two lines of Yeats:

American colonies, Ireland, France and India
Harried, and Burke’s great melody against it.

The problem is how to use the first line to answer two questions: how did the ‘great melody’ come to be uttered; and what exactly was ‘it’? Yeats answered the latter:

Whether they knew or not,
Goldsmith and Burke, Swift and the Bishop of Cloyne
All hated Whiggery; but what is Whiggery?
A levelling, rancorous, rational sort of mind
That never looked out of the eye of a saint
Or out of a drunkard’s eye.

But Yeats was in trouble here, and showed he knew it by making these lines the reply to an objection: ‘Burke was a Whig.’ He was; and his Whiggery was not Benthamite utilitarianism, but an aristocratically formed, neo-classical and enlightened, intensely oratorical and theatrical culture (in this sense Yeats was a Whig), out of which came a large part of what Yeats and O’Brien mean by ‘Burke’s great melody’. By this wonderful term, purely Yeats’s, both mean Burke’s prose style, formed in oratory but known to us through print, and the poetic vision of human society, the moral passion and the tormented personality behind it. Though they are founded on the intense factual research to which he was given, his published works speak to us through their language, style and vision, as much as through their informational or even their rhetorical content. He was not the only actor of his age to have developed a ‘great melody’ – Edward Gibbon was another – but he has to be known in this way, and Dr O’Brien has set out to depict the ‘great melody’ as formed by what he was and by the grand issues – the themes to which the subtitle alludes – to which he gave himself. This is not a post-modernist study, in which the author vanishes into the text and the text is decomposed into the several acts of power discerned by an omniscient if self-destructive reader. However deep the tensions and contradictions which O’Brien finds in the ‘melody’, he finds them also in Burke; and it is a consequence that they existed because of the complexities of ‘it’, and of Burke’s attitudes toward ‘it’. What then was ‘it’, and can it be discovered through a pursuit of the four major themes set out in Yeats’s first line?

If Yeats got ‘Whiggery’ wrong, and was wrong to identify Whiggery as ‘it’ (if he meant to), he knew what subsequent scholars have known: that a key to Burke is to be found in the ambivalences of his Irish attitudes towards ‘Whiggery’. But he also went wrong in identifying Burke’s Irishness as that of the Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendancy, which could generate its own nationalism and with which Yeats sought to identify. Dr O’Brien makes it clear beyond doubt that Burke belonged, not to this ethnic-political entity, the ‘New English’, but to the ‘Old English’, of Anglo-Norman descent like the family names of Burke, Nagle and Nugent, and historically Catholic. His family were converts to the Church of Ireland, much like the conversos or ‘New Christians’ of 16th-century Spain, who maintained in private the religion they were required to disavow in public. There is a case for thinking that the crucial conversion was that of Edmund Burke’s father Richard, and that Burke grew up knowing that his father had publicly renounced as an ignoble superstition the Catholic religion which Edmund’s Nagle mother, and later his Nugent wife, continued to practise. O’Brien eloquently and convincingly argues that there lie here the sources of a deep ambivalence towards the English Protestant and Whig culture which Burke served all his life in England, while continuing to denounce it as oppressive in Ireland. The same ambivalence was detected and explored by Isaac Kramnick in a book called The Rage of Edmund Burke (1977), and both historians are right in seeing it as the key to much in Burke. O’Brien’s explanation employs historical concepts more real and convincing than Kramnick’s, which blends Marx and Freud in an ultimately clumsy synthesis; and it points correctly to Yeats’s third mistake. Burke did not ‘hate Whiggery’: he loved it and hated it.

Dr O’Brien is at his least satisfying when he does not really explain what ‘Whiggery’ was – meaning by the term that highly oratorical and literary Parliamentary culture in which Burke immersed himself, with all his extraordinary intellectual and emotional energy, when he left Ireland and pursued a career in England. As David Bromwich has already pointed out, there is an English Burke whom O’Brien never makes known to his readers. He understands, and can excitingly depict, the oratory and politics of Burke’s House of Commons; but since he is intent on arguing that the ghosts on Burke’s ancestral stair were ‘Irish Jacobites, not English Whigs’ – a statement typical of much recent revisionism – the English Whiggery with which Burke so passionately sought to identify never receives parity of esteem or depth of treatment. Rather too often we are told, when Burke launches into some flight of rhetoric drawn direct from English Parliamentary culture, that this passage doesn’t ring true or must have caused its author concealed distress. We may admit the tensions, and accept O’Brien’s explanation of them: but an ambivalence has two sides, the devil has two horns, and what Burke both loved and hated requires as attentive a treatment as what made him hate and love it. And is this ‘it’ Yeats’s ‘it’, of which O’Brien is constantly in search? There is a danger that the ‘great melody’ will be heard in full diapason only when Burke is denouncing his own party as oppressors of Ireland or India, or as feeble fellow-travellers with the French Revolution. All of these things he did; but the ‘great melody’ – of whose historical reality there is no doubt – is certainly to be heard in the Reflections on the Revolution in France, and O’Brien has not taken enough account of recent work (I have to include my own in it)[1] which has disentangled the wealth of strictly English rhetoric, Tory as well as Whig, Anglican as well as Parliamentary, ‘country’ as well as ‘court’, which is at the heart of Reflections and makes up part of its ‘melody’.[2] Let us agree that a profound crisis of feeling converts ‘rhetoric’ into ‘melody’; but English Parliamentary culture, at a high level of articulation and a particular moment of development, was what Burke loved and hated and is therefore one of the major themes with which Dr O’Brien is concerned. That he does not allow it parity with Yeats’s four themes – American colonies, Ireland, France and India – tends to exclude it from the make-up of Burke’s personality and his own book, and leave it to appear only as part of the ‘it’ which the ‘great melody’ was ‘against’. To say that he relegates ‘Whiggery’ to an adversary role would be an absurd exaggeration, but because he does not give it ‘thematic’ status, his treatment of both Burke’s ambivalence and his melody suffers.

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[1] ‘The Political Economy of Burke’s Analysis of the French Revolution’ in Virtue, Commerce and History (1985); edition of Reflections on the Revolution in France, cited by O’ Brien (1987); ‘Edmund Burke and the Redefinition of Enthusiasm: The Context as Counter-Revolution’, in The French Revolution and the Creation of Modern Political Culture, Vol. II, edited by François Furet and Mona Ozouf (1989).

[2] In particular Burke’s ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France’ by F. P. Lock (1985).

[3] In general, he examines only those of Burke’s writings which contribute to the ‘great melody’; the question is whether this is sufficient.

[4] The Life and Mind of Oriental Jones: Sir William Jones, the Father of Modern Linguistics by Garland Cannon (1991).