The Great Melody

In Yeats’s description, Edmund Burke intoned a “Great Melody” against tyranny and oppression everywhere, and for religious freedom. There’s a great article on the philosopher and statesman this week at NRO. Here’s a sample:

Where did this reformist impulse originate? Some scholars trace it, in part, to Ireland, where Burke witnessed first-hand the tenuous situation of Catholics, whose prospects were circumscribed by the self-aggrandizing habits of Anglo-Irish landlords and the residual effects of the Penal Laws (watered-down since their passage in the late 17th century, they still prevented many Catholics from joining certain professions, acquiring property, voting, or holding elective office). All of this would have cut close to the bone for Burke. He was a Protestant and a member of the Established Church, like his father, Richard (who, incidentally, may have converted in order to become a lawyer), but his mother, Mary Nagle, was a Catholic from the Blackwater Valley in Cork, where he spent time as a youth and would have encountered a Gaelic culture straining to maintain its customs, its religion and its land. In 1761 he observed these conditions again when he returned to Ireland as private secretary to William Gerard Hamilton, a member of Parliament who had been appointed chief secretary for Ireland, the second-ranking official at Dublin Castle, the seat of the British administration in the country. Spending part of each year in his native land, he grew more agitated by the corrupt Anglo-Irish Ascendancy and the enduring restrictions on Catholics. During this time, he penned one of his early political pamphlets, entitled Tract Relative to the Laws Against Popery in Ireland, which was an attack against the Penal Laws.

Or was he, perhaps, a moral relatavist and even sympathetic to situational ethics?


  1. Rufus McCain says

    This ties into (maybe) our discussion of Greenblatt’s Will in the World (about which I’ve been meaning to post an entry). Greenblatt does a really great job of placing Shakespeare in the middle of the grotesqueness and violence (and violent grotesqueness) of the Catholic/Protestant divide of Elizabethan England. Shakespeare’s attitude, too, is complex and could be interpreted as infected with a sort of relativism.

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