Edmund Burke's Early Life

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter XXXV

Burke entered Trinity College, Dublin, in 1744; Goldsmith entered college the following year, and Flood was a fellow-commoner; but these distinguished men knew little of each other in early life, and none of them were in any way remarkable during their academic career. In 1753 Burke arrived in London, and occupied himself in legal studies and the pursuit of literature. His colloquial gifts and his attractive manner won all hearts, while his mental superiority commanded the respect of the learned.

Even Johnson, who was too proud to praise others, much as he loved flattery himself, was fain to give his most earnest word of commendation to the young Irishman, and even admitted that he envied Burke for being "continually the same," though he could not refrain from having a fling at him for not being a "good listener"—a deadly sin in the estimation of one who seldom wished to hear any other voice but his own. Burke, sir, he exclaimed to the obsequious Boswell—Burke is such a man, that if you met him for the first time in the street, and conversed with him for not five minutes, he'd talk to you in such a manner, that, when you parted, you would say that is an extraordinary man.[4]

Some essays in imitation of Dr. Charles Lucas, and a translation of part of the second Georgic of Virgil, which, in finish of style, is, at least, not inferior to Dryden, were among the earliest efforts of his gifted pen; and, no doubt, these and other literary occupations gave him a faculty of expressing thought in cultivated language, which was still further developed by constant intercourse with Johnson, ever ready for argument, and his club, who were all equally desirous to listen when either spoke. His Essay on the Sublime and Beautiful, unfortunately better known in the present day by its title than by its contents, at once attracted immense attention, and brought considerable pecuniary help to the author.

But the constant pressure of intellectual labour soon began to tell upon a constitution always delicate. His health gave way entirely, and he appeared likely to sink into a state of physical debility, entirely incompatible with any mental exertion. He applied for advice to Dr. Nugent; the skilful physician saw at once that something more was required than medicine or advice. It was one of those cases of suffering to which the most refined and cultivated minds are especially subjected—one of those instances which prove, perhaps, more than any others, that poor humanity has fallen low indeed.

The master-mind was there, the brilliant gems of thought, the acute power of reasoning, that exquisitely delicate sense of feeling, which has never yet been accurately defined, and which probably never can be—which waits for some unseen mystic sympathy to touch it, and decide whether the chord shall be in minor or major key—which produces a tone of thought, now sublime, and now brimming over with coruscations of wit from almost the same incidents; and yet all those faculties of the soul, though not destroyed, are held in abeyance, because the body casts the dull shadow of its own inability and degradation over the spirit—because the spirit is still allied to the flesh, and must suffer with it.


[4] Man.—The exact words are: "If a man were to go by chance at the same time with Burke, under a shed to shun a shower, he would say: 'This is an extraordinary man. '"—Boswell's Johnson, vol. iv. p. 245. Foster's version is as above.