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Extraordinary Man

Brian Doyle's profile-essay "The Right Honourable Mr. Burke" in the Summer 2012 American Scholar concludes with some striking personal anecdotes of his subject. Noteworthy in particular is the impression that Edmund Burke made on Dr Samuel Johnson (from James Boswell's Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides):

... if you met him for the first time in the street where you were stopped by a drove of oxen, and you and he stepped aside to take shelter for five minutes, he'd talk to you in such a manner, that, when you parted, you would say, this is an extraordinary man."

Doyle also tells about a time when Burke and a companion were touring an old cathedral (from James Prior's A Life of Edmund Burke):

... One of the Canons observing two respectable strangers making inquiries of the attendants, very politely came up to offer such explanations as they desired, when a few minutes only had elapsed before the feeling of superior information on such matters, with which he had met them, became changed to something like amazement at the splendor, depth, and variety of the conversation of one of the strangers. No matter what topic started, whether architecture, antiquities, ecclesiastical history, the revenues, persecutions, or the lives of the early ornaments and lives of the church; he touched upon them all with the readiness and accuracy of a master. They had not long separated when some friends of the Canon met him hurrying along the street: "I have had," said he, "quite an adventure; I have been conversing for this half hour past with a man of the most extraordinary powers of mind and extent of information, which it has ever been my fortune to meet, and I am now going to the inn to ascertain if possible who this stranger is." There he learnt that his late companion who had just set off, was the celebrated Mr. Burke. He regretted much that he had not known this sooner; and his friends that they had not had an opportunity of knowing or seeing him at all.

This is quite reminiscent of Ferdinand Mount's sketch of Sir Isaiah Berlin, gentleman and conversationalist — a combination of style and substance to which I can only dream of ascending. My actual volubility? Alas, more along the lines of the Mr. Know-It-All character played by Sir Ralph Richardson in the comic movie The Wrong Box. Perhaps I should take speech lessons ...

(cf. SelfAbsorption (2003-03-27), ...) - ^z - 2012-11-26

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