Courtesy Reuters

The Future in Retrospect

Bagehot and the Fresh Eye

THE leading literary critic of the Victorian age foreshadowed the most brilliant political reporting of modern times in a letter to the editor of the National Review, dated October 12, 1856. In this letter Matthew Arnold concluded: "It was only a day or two ago that I read the article on Shelley in the last number; that article and one or two others (in which I imagine that I trace the same hand) seem to me to be of the very first quality, showing not talent only, but a concern for the simple truth which is rare in English literature as it is in English politics and English religion -- whatever zeal, vanity and ability may be exhibited by the performers in each of these three spheres."

The hand -- and the fresh eye -- that Arnold had shrewdly noted were Walter Bagehot's. In that day Shelley was seldom approached save in a mood of adulation or abuse, but the essay which Arnold had read was curiously cool. Its author was concerned to describe the nature of a real though very unusual man; and he made clear at the outset how he intended to proceed. The method was a practical one. Though as yet we have no accurate details of Shelley's life, said Bagehot, "we know something -- we know enough to check our inferences from his writings." It was this straightforward report on the evidence which won Matthew Arnold's accolade: "the simple truth."

Besides the essay on Shelley, three other articles by Bagehot appeared in the National Review that year -- one on Gibbon, one on Macaulay and one on Sir Robert Peel. They belonged to no literary school. Indeed, they were almost aggressively unliterary; the author was downright impatient with Macaulay, for example, because of his love of books. The essays were full of wit and high spirits. Gibbon, remarked Bagehot, did not know the difference between himself and the Roman Empire and "narrated his progressions from London to Buriton and

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