On August 23 1815, Thomas Babington Macaulay writes to his mother.
My dear Mama,—You perceive already in so large a sheet, and so small a hand, the promise of a long, a very long, letter; longer, as I intend it, than all the letters which you send in a half-year together. I have again begun my life of sterile monotony, unvarying labour, the dull return of dull exercises in dull uniformity of tediousness. But do not think that I complain.
My mind to me a kingdom is,
Such perfect joy therein I find
As doth exceed all other bliss
That God or nature hath assigned.
Assure yourself that I am philosopher enough to be happy,—I meant to say not particularly unhappy, -in solitude; but man is an animal made for society. I was gifted with reason, not to speculate in Aspenden Park, but to interchange ideas with some person who can understand me. This is what I miss at Aspenden. There are several here who possess both taste and reading; who can criticise Lord Byron and Southey with much tact and “savoir du métier.” But here it is not the fashion to think. Hear what I have read since I came here. Hear and wonder I have in the first place read Boccacio’s Decameron, a tale of a hundred cantos. He is a wonderful writer. Whether he tells in humorous or familiar strains the follies of the silly Calandrino, or the witty pranks of Buffalmacco and Bruno, or sings in loftier numbers
Dames, knights, and arms, and love, the feats that spring
From courteous minds and generous faith,
or lashes with a noble severity and fearless independence the vices of the monks and the priestcraft of the established religion, he is always elegant, amusing, and, what pleases and surprises most in a writer of so unpolished an age, strikingly delicate and chastised. 1 prefer him infinitely to Chaucer. If you wish for a god specimen of Boccacio, as soon as you have finished my letter, (which will come, I suppose, by dinner-time,) send Jane up to the library for Dryden’s poems, and you will find among them several translations from Boccacio, particularly one entitled “Theodore and Honoria.” But, truly admirable as the bard of Florence is, I must not. permit myself to give him more than his due share of my letter. I have likewise read Gil Blas, with unbounded admiration of the abilities of Le Sage. Malden and I have read Thalaba together, and are proceeding to the Curse of Kehama. Do not think, however, that I am neglecting more important studies than either Southey or Boccacio. I have read the greater part of the History of James I. and Mrs. Montague’s essay on Shakspeare, and a great deal of Gibbon. I never devoured so. many books in a fortnight. John Smith, Bob Hankinson, and I, went over the Hebrew Melodies together. I certainly think far better of them than we used to do at Clapham. Papa may laugh, and indeed he did laugh me out of my taste at Clapham; but I think that there is a great deal of beauty in the first melody, “She walks in beauty,” though indeed who it is that walks in beauty is not very exactly defined. My next letter shall contain a production of my muse, entitled “An Inscription for the Column of Waterloo,” which is to be shown to Mr. Preston to-morrow. What he may think of it I do not know. But I am like my favourite Cicero about my own productions. It is all one to me what others think of them. I never like them a bit less for being disliked by the rest of mankind. Mr. Preston has desired me to bring him up this evening two or three subjects for a Declamation Those which I have selected are as follows: 1st, a speech in the character of Lord Coningsby, impeaching the Earl of Oxford; 2nd, an essay on the utility of standing armies; 3rd, an essay on the policy of Great Britain with regard to continental possessions. I conclude with sending my love to Papa, Selina, Jane, John, (“but he is not there,” as Fingal pathetically says, when in enumerating his sons who should accompany him to the chase he inadvertently mentions the dead Ryno,) Henry, Fanny, Hannah, Margaret, and Charles. Valete. T. B. MACAULAY.