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This item is taken from PN Review 5, Volume 5 Number 1, October - December 1978.

NO PASSAGE of Burke's Reflections is more famous, or more often quoted, or has given more offence, than what he wrote about Marie Antoinette:

It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the Queen of France, then the Dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she just began to move in-glittering like the morning-star full of life and splendour and joy. Oh! What a revolution! and what an heart must I have, to contemplate without emotion that elevation, and that fall! . . . Little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honour, and of cavaliers! I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom!

Conor Cruise-O'Brien, in a generous and brilliant essay with which he introduces his Pelican edition of the Reflections, quotes this to exemplify one of the several styles that Burke has recourse to. And Cruise-O'Brien calls this style `Jacobite'-which is characteristically witty and entertaining of him, and yet a little disingenuous. For although what is called 'Jacobite' is a feature of style, not of substance, yet the inevitable and surely intended effect of the word is to cast a shadow on the substance also; we are invited to think that monarchical sentiments such as these could be sincerely felt only for the exiled House of Stuart, not for the ruling Houses of Brunswick or of Bourbon. And one sees well enough why Cruise-O'Brien, an Irish nationalist, cannot admit the possibility that Burke the Irishman, with near kin among the oppressed Irish Catholics, might have felt for the King of England what he here claims to feel for the Queen of France. And indeed in all Cruise-O'Brien's splendidly flexible and humane account of Burke's book, there is surely this great lack: that he never acknowledges how Burke writes on page after page as a convinced monarchist, appealing time and again (though without saying so) to Montesquieu's judgment that whereas vertu politique is the spirit of republics, honneur is the spirit of monarchies. In the passage about the Queen, Burke's appeal to 'a nation of men of honour' is not a windy grandiloquent gesture, but rests solidly on Montesquieu. Though Burke is less concerned in the Reflections with France and the French than with pro-French agitators and associations in England, all the same his book originated in a letter to a young Frenchman; and Burke never loses sight of that, nor should we. A passage like this is addressed directly to the Frenchman, and its reproaches are directed at what Montesquieu the Frenchman had declared to be the motivating spirit of France under the monarchy-that is to say, to the Frenchman's honour. And thus we see that the passage about the Queen is not-what for good or ill it is usually thought to be-a detachable purple patch or pathetic digression; it is firmly of a piece with Burke's argument as a whole.

Cruise-O'Brien I think understands this, and even sympathizes.

Not many commentators can go so far. More typical is this:

Burke's closest friend, who was then associated with him in the impeachment of Hastings, made him angry by calling this writing 'pure foppery'. But what is the meaning, for example-the meaning to the French-of the assertion that some sentiments 'kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom'? Well might Burke's friend say, with rough scorn, `I wish you would let me teach you to write English.' However, the public liked the way that Burke wrote English. The public liked to weep, as Burke said that he had wept, over his sentences in praise of Marie Antoinette. And the public was now alarmed by the French Revolution. [Bronowski and Mazlish, The Western Intellectual Tradition from Leonardo to Hegel (1960)]

Bronowski and Mazlish, the two distinguished educators who wrote this, were no doubt emulating the 'rough scorn' which they so much admired in Philip Francis, when, having put a question, they paused not for an answer. Yet the answer surely is clear enough-to every one except 'sophisters, economists, and calculators'. What could it have meant to a Frenchman, they ask, to say that under the ancien regime some sentiments 'kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom'? Why, this: that France was sovereign; that as a Frenchman he did not have to dance to the tune of England or Spain or Austria; and that the splendour-even the conspicuous consumption-of the French monarchy was a fitting and invigorating emblem of just that quite genuine freedom which he, as a Frenchman, enjoyed. What sort of people can Bronowski and Mazlish have been, that they could not construe from Burke's words a meaning familiar to any man, however humbly placed, who has seen his nation's flag hoist to a mast-head, and broken open? What sort of people can they have been, and what sort of readers did they count on getting? Must we suppose that to them patriotic pride was unknown? Or is it not much more likely that they indeed experienced such a sentiment, but were ashamed of it because they thought that it testified to an unworthy prejudice? In the latter case we must ask them, as Burke does in other places, whether a prejudice in favour of one's parent or one's child is equally 'unworthy'. Some sophisters and calculators, in our day as in Burke's, are arid enough to answer, 'Yes'. And we can be sure that such people will not 'like to weep', on any occasion at all.

If we look for just such a tearless and serenely unprejudiced thinker in Burke's day, we find him at once-where Burke found him, in the Welshman Richard Price who asked, in his Discourse on the Love of our Country (1789): 'What has it been but a love of domination; a desire of conquest, and a thirst for grandeur and glory, by extending territory and enslaving surrounding countries?' One is tempted to say that Price embodies all that Burke abominated; but one cannot say that, because BODY is precisely what we do not find in Price, neither in his writings nor his life. Price at times was intellectually dishonest, but for the most part the judgment we pass on him can be charitable: he appears to have been a man whose corporeal being was so etherealized that he quite genuinely could not understand how the bulk of mankind is moved by loyalties, sentiments, passions-by everything that he called 'prejudice'. He seems to have thought that mankind should, and could, be persuaded into a cool serenity like his own. And to such a temperament the very notion of 'embodying', of 'embodiment', is incomprehensible. For him and those who think like him (they include I'm afraid the present Poet Laureate in his unfortunate 'Jubilee Hymn'), it is impossible to distinguish between the woman and the Queen; impossible therefore to say of Marie Antoinette, as Burke did, that she `is not to be cured of the spirit of Court Intrigue even by a prison', and yet to evoke her, in her Queenly capacity, as embodying the patriotic pride of the French nation. Metaphor, symbol, even emblem-these signify fields of experience that are forever closed to minds of this cast; allegory is as high as they can reach. Most of us, I dare say, count such people among our friends; often they are gentle and appealingly eager, even a standing reproach to those of us whose mode of life is much more turbulent and unsteady. The most touching instance known to me is Henri Laboucheix, who wrote the most winning of modern apologies for Richard Price, and sees the spirit of Price surviving into the modern world in . . . the United Nations! We can give him the point; in which case the history of that institution should give us pause.

However, what is particularly deplorable about Price is that he should walk on to the stage of history as a priest, a dissenting pastor; that is to say, as the representative of a religion which depends crucially on embodiment, Incarnation. The Christian sacraments are metaphorical, or they are symbolic, or they are emblematic; and much learned ink has been spilt, debating which of these modes is the right one. But in any of these cases, embodiments is what they are-all of them, Marriage and Baptism no less than the Eucharist. How then can Christianity be professed, and the priestly function taken on, by one to whom all sorts of embodiment are a closed book? We need not think that Richard Price was a hypocrite;; the particular sort of Arianism which he settled on as a theological position was countenanced as a respectable variant, not indeed by a majority of Christians nor by the law of the realm, but by an influential and sufficiently numerous minority in his time. Already then people hesitated to say, what they hesitate to say today, that when Unitarians deny the Incarnation, they deny the first and crucial tenet of the religion they claim to subscribe to. But in any case our concern is not to say that Price missed the point about Christianity, but to point out that he misunderstood-he had to misunderstand-the nature of monarchy. The same is true of any one who thinks that in his altercation with Burke, Price was in the right of it. Bronowski and Mazlish seem to have thought this-Price and Tom Paine, they say admiringly and absurdly, were 'the last heirs of the age of reason'. The monarchy is a poetic and religious institution, or it is nothing; in the Queen's Jubilee year, that seems to be worth thinking about. Remarks that the present monarch has been very dutiful, or that the monarchical establishment is 'cheap at the price', are impertinent, in both senses of the word. We live under a monarchical constitution, which is precious precisely because it makes sense to the imagination and the passions; it can never make sense to 'economists, and calculators'.
-Donald Davie

This item is taken from PN Review 5, Volume 5 Number 1, October - December 1978.

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