This is another article from John O’London’s Unposted Letters, relating to one of the most famous images of ruin, of vanity, of the fragility of even the most powerful empires:
“No passage in Lord Macaulay’s writings is better known or more constantly associated with his name than the following – which occurs in his review-essay on Von-Ranke’s “History of the Popes.” He is writing of the antiquity and permanence of the Roman Catholic Church:-
“and she may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, n the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St Paul’s.”
It has long been known that this famous vision of the New Zeelander, solitary in a London solitude, was not of Macaulay’s invention. Writing to Sir Thomas Mann on November 24th, 1774 (Macaulay was born in 1800, and reviewed Walpole’s Letters to Sir Horace Man in 1833), Horace Walpole wrote:-
“Don’t tell me that I am grown old and peevish and supercilious – name the geniuses of 1774, and I submit. The next Augustan age will be dawn on the other side of the Atlantic. there will, perhaps, be a Thucydides at Boston, a Xenophon at New York, and, in time, A Virgil at Mexico and a Newton at Peru. At last, some curious traveller form Lima will visit England and give a description of the ruins of St Paul’s, like the editions of Balbec and Palmyra.”
This suggests that Macaulay only embellished Horace Walpole’s words.
But there is more to be said. the subject was thrashed out by correspondents of Notes and queries a long time ago, and one of these, Mr C. A. Ward, pointed out that before Horace Walpole wrote his letter a similar conceit had been produced by a famous French writer who pictured the future ruins of Versailles. In 1791 appeared Volney’s once famous, but now neglected “Ruins of Empires,” and in it the following passage:-
“Perhaps some traveller hereafter may sit down solitary on the banks of the Thames, the Seine, or the Zuyder Zee, and lament the departed glory of a people now inurned, and their greatness changed into an empty name.”
When Macaulay was 12 years old, Mrs Barbaud introduced a similar idea into her poem, “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven.” When he was only 19, Shelly wrote in his dedication to “Peter Bell the Third”:-
“In the firm expectation that, when London shall be an habitation of bitterns, when St Paul’s and Westminster Abbey shall stand, shapeless sand nameless ruins, in the midst of an unpeopled marsh, when the piers of Waterloo Bridge shall become the nuclei of islets of reeds and osiers, and cast the jagged shadows of their broken arches on the solitary stream; some Transatlantic commentator will be weighing in the scales of some new and now unimagined system of criticism the respective merits of the Bells and the Fudges and their historians.”
All this show that Macaulay’;s vision has so much in common with earlier ones that it cannot be called original, except in its happy rhetoric and striking application. Of course, there can be no question of plagiarism. He adapted an idea which in more or less similar shapes had drifted down the stream of literature.