The first great figure, chronologically, in the period, and one of the most clearly-defined and striking personalities in English literature, is Thomas Babington Macaulay, who represents in the fullest degree the Victorian vigor and delight in material progress, but is quite untouched by the Victorian spiritual striving.
The publication of his 'Lays of Ancient Rome' and of his collected essays brought him immense fame as a writer, and in 1847 he began his labor on the 'History of England' as his crowning work. To it he thenceforth devoted most of his energies, reading and sifting the whole mass of LORD MACAULAY. available source-material and visiting the scenes of the chief historical events. The popular success of the five volumes which he succeeded in preparing and published at intervals was enormous.
Least noteworthy among Macaulay's works are his poems, of which the 'Lays of Ancient Rome' are chief. Here his purpose is to embody his conception of the heroic historical ballads which must have been current among the early Romans as among the medieval English--to recreate these ballads for modern readers. The 'Lays' present the simple characters, scenes, and ideals of the early Roman republican period. The power of LORD MACAULAY. Macaulay's prose works, as no critic has failed to note, rests on his genius as an orator. The great qualities, then, of his essays and his 'History' are those which give success to the best sort of popular oratory--dramatic vividness and clearness, positiveness, and vigorous movement and interest. He realizes characters and situations, on the external side, completely, and conveys his impression to his readers with scarcely any diminution of force. He sees and presents his subjects as wholes, enlivening them with realistic details and pictures, but keeping the subordinate parts subordinate and disposing of the less important events LORD MACAULAY. in rapid summaries.
Macaulay, however, manifests the defects even of his virtues. The very clearness and brilliancy of his style are often obtained at the expense of real truth; for the force of his sweeping statements and his balanced antitheses often requires much heightening or even distortion of the facts.
Macaulay's 'History of England' shows to some degree the same faults as the essays, but here they are largely corrected by the enormous labor which he devoted to the work. His avowed purpose was to combine with scientific accuracy the vivid picturesqueness of fiction, and LORD MACAULAY. to 'supersede the last fashionable novel on the tables of young ladies.' His method was that of an unprecedented fullness of details which produces a crowded pageant of events and characters extremely minute but marvelously lifelike. After three introductory chapters which sketch the history of England down to the death of Charles II, more than four large volumes are occupied with the following seventeen years; and yet Macaulay had intended to continue to the death of George IV, nearly a hundred and thirty years later. For absolute truthfulness of detail the 'History' cannot always be depended on, but to the general reader LORD MACAULAY. its great literary merits are likely to seem full compensation for its inaccuracies.