John Morley calls the “Letter to a Noble Lord” “the most splendid repartee in the English language.” How could you critically analyze the essay in the light of this statement?
A scathing indictment of the excesses of the French Revolution and impassioned defense of the king’s agreement to provide a pension to the new-retired Edmund Burke, A Letter from the Right Honourable Edmund Burke to a Noble Lord is considered one of the finest examples of political discourse in the English language. Burke, a retired parliamentarian and forceful advocate of liberty and of the moral obligation to act in the defense of liberty, was provided a pension to help sustain him in his waning days (he would die a year after penning this statement).
The word “repartee” is generally defined as a dialogue between two individuals, usually occurring in a quick and easy manner among people of amiable disposition. John Morley’s use of that word to describe Burke’s letter is intended as laudatory while acknowledging the level of sarcasm prevalent throughout the letter. Anybody who as observed members of a democratic parliament or congress, such as exists in the United States, is accustomed to the routine formalities that pass as pleasantries during particularly impassioned debates when tempers are running high and partisanship reaches extremes. Displays of civility are frequently a façade behind which rests seething hatred and a fierce determination to undermine the intent of the other individual. Such is the case with the opening to Burke’s letter:
“I could hardly flatter myself with the hope that so very early in the season I should have to acknowledge obligations to the Duke of Bedford, and to the Earl of Lauderdale. These noble persons have lost no time in conferring upon me that sort of honour which it is alone within their competence, and which it is certainly most congenial to their nature, and their manners, to bestow.”
Burke is addressing the verbal attacks on the king’s decision to grant him a pension levied upon himself by his political opponents, particularly the Duke of Bedford. To the uninformed, it would appear as though the text that followed would be laudatory in its intent. The opposite, however, is the case. Letter to a Noble Lord proceeds to illuminate the hypocrisy inherent in his opponent’s position and the ignorance Burke perceives in the duke’s attacks. The French Revolution, Burke correctly observed, was anything but democratic as it evolved from its once noble causes to what would become known as “the Reign of Terror.” Unlike Burke, the Duke of Bedford, heir to a long and distinguished line of dukes, was wealthy and unfamiliar with the financial considerations common among those less fortunate. Burke rightly saw the bloody attacks upon the privileged classes of France as a warning to the privileged classes of Britain that political turbulence could deprive those classes of their wealth.
Burke’s letter is not a dialogue, let alone an example of “repartee.” That word is employed as sarcasm. The letter poses a number of rhetorical questions that Burke answers himself, thereby pretending to a discussion that involves but the one individual. When he inquires of his detractors, “Why will they not let me remain in obscurity and inaction? Are they apprehensive that if an atom of me remains, the sect has something to fear?” he fully intends to answer the questions himself.