Saturday, June 23, 2007

Macaulay's Tinsel

To Macvey Napier, Esq.

50 Great Ormond Street, London:
January 25, 1830.

My dear Sir,--

I send off by the mail of to-day an article on Southey,--too long, I fear, to meet your wishes, but as short as I could make it.

There were, by the bye, in my last article a few omissions made, of no great consequence in themselves; the longest, I think, a paragraph of twelve or fourteen lines. I should scarcely have thought this worth mentioning, as it certainly by no means exceeds the limits of that editorial prerogative which I most willingly recognise, but that the omissions seemed to me, and to one or two persons who had seen the article in its original state, to be made on a principle which, however sound in itself, does not I think apply to compositions of this description. The passages omitted were the most pointed and ornamented sentences in the review. Now, for high and grave works, a history for example, or a system of political or moral philosophy, Doctor Johnson's rule,--that every sentence which the writer thinks fine ought to be cut out,--is excellent. But periodical works like ours, which unless they strike at the first reading are not likely to strike at all, whose whole life is a month or two, may, I think, be allowed to be sometimes even viciously florid. Probably, in estimating the real value of any tinsel which I may put upon my articles, you and I should not materially differ. But it is not by his own taste, but by the taste of the fish, that the angler is determined in his choice of bait.

Perhaps after all I am ascribing to system what is mere accident. Be assured, at all events, that what I have said is said in perfect good humour, and indicates no mutinous disposition . . .

Every yours truly,

-from The Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay by George Otto Trevelyan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978) p. 140-141.

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