In his essay entitled "History" Macaulay demanded that the historian must indicate changes of manners not merely by a few general [69/70] phrases, or in extracts from statistics, but by appropriate images presented in every line. When he came to write his History many years later, Macaulay followed his own prescription, always making explicit through concrete and familiar images what would otherwise have stood in danger of remaining distant and dull.

Here he is on the tenets ofthe Puritans: "It was a sin to hang garlands on a Maypole, to drink a friend's health, to fly a hawk, to hunt a stag, to play at chess, to wear lovelocks, to put starch into a ruff, to touch the virginals, to read the Faerie Queene." Here he is describing the Princess Mary skating on the Dutch canals, "poised on one leg, and clad in petticoats shorter than are generally worn by ladies so strictly decorous." And here on the profound submission and obedience of the Jesuit "whether he should live under the arctic circle or under the equator, whether he should pass his life in arranging gems and collating manuscripts at the Vatican or in persuading naked barbarians under the Southern Cross not to eat each other." Here on the country squires hurrying to London early in 1690 to oppose the Corporation Bill, which they interpreted as a retrospective penal law against the entire Tory party: "A hundred knights and squires left their halls hung with mistletoe and holly, and their boards groaning with brawn and plum porridge, and rode up post to town, cursing the short days, the cold weather, the miry road, and the villainous Whigs."

These examples could be multiplied indefinitely; and there is no need to comment on their visual and dramatic impact. What is worth noting is how often the historian's visual imagination is reinforced by what might be called his propulsive imagination. In other words, he demonstrates an instinctive ability to propel inert facts into motion — an ability closely akin to his private daydreaming and fantasy life in which he was able to propel himself into imaginary situations. At its simplest level this capacity means that when confronted with the statement "The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain," one at once visualizes the Spanish plain as soggy. The original statement describes only the process, leaving the effects to the imagination. The transition, once made, seems natural, logical, and obvious. But the ability to make it, regularly and as a matter of course, is rare and not to be despised. At a more complex level, it is this same capacity which enabled Macaulay to propel the lord of the manor of the late seventeenth century to London, and to see him there jostled by bullies, splashed by hackney coachmen, victimized by pickpockets and shopkeepers, and derided by fops; or to describe the effect on Englishmen


Clive, John. "Macaulay 's Historical Imagination" Not By Fact Alone: Essays on the Writing and Reading of History. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1989.

Last modified 2000