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The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography of Edmund Burke

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Statesman, political thinker, orator, and ardent campaigner, Edmund Burke was one of the most brilliant figures of the eighteenth century. This unorthodox biography focuses on Burke's thoughts, responses, and actions to the great events and debates surrounding Britain's tumultuous relationships with her three colonies—America, Ireland, and India—and archrival France. "In br Statesman, political thinker, orator, and ardent campaigner, Edmund Burke was one of the most brilliant figures of the eighteenth century. This unorthodox biography focuses on Burke's thoughts, responses, and actions to the great events and debates surrounding Britain's tumultuous relationships with her three colonies—America, Ireland, and India—and archrival France. "In bringing Burke to our attention, Mr. O'Brien has brought back a lost treasure. The Great Melody is a brilliant work of narrative sweep and analytical depth. Conor Cruise O'Brien on Edmund Burke is a literary gift to political thought."—John Patrick Diggins, New York Times Book Review "Serious readers of history are in for a treat: a book by the greatest living Irishman on the greatest Irishman who ever lived. . . . O'Brien's study is not merely a reconstruction of a fascinating man and period. It is also a tract for the times. . . . I cannot remember another time when I finished a book of more than 600 pages wishing it were longer."—Paul Johnson, The Independent "The Great Melody combines superb biography and fascinating history with a profound understanding of political philosophy."—Former President Richard Nixon


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Statesman, political thinker, orator, and ardent campaigner, Edmund Burke was one of the most brilliant figures of the eighteenth century. This unorthodox biography focuses on Burke's thoughts, responses, and actions to the great events and debates surrounding Britain's tumultuous relationships with her three colonies—America, Ireland, and India—and archrival France. "In br Statesman, political thinker, orator, and ardent campaigner, Edmund Burke was one of the most brilliant figures of the eighteenth century. This unorthodox biography focuses on Burke's thoughts, responses, and actions to the great events and debates surrounding Britain's tumultuous relationships with her three colonies—America, Ireland, and India—and archrival France. "In bringing Burke to our attention, Mr. O'Brien has brought back a lost treasure. The Great Melody is a brilliant work of narrative sweep and analytical depth. Conor Cruise O'Brien on Edmund Burke is a literary gift to political thought."—John Patrick Diggins, New York Times Book Review "Serious readers of history are in for a treat: a book by the greatest living Irishman on the greatest Irishman who ever lived. . . . O'Brien's study is not merely a reconstruction of a fascinating man and period. It is also a tract for the times. . . . I cannot remember another time when I finished a book of more than 600 pages wishing it were longer."—Paul Johnson, The Independent "The Great Melody combines superb biography and fascinating history with a profound understanding of political philosophy."—Former President Richard Nixon

30 review for The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography of Edmund Burke

  1. 4 out of 5

    Antonio Nunez

    Everyone knows Edmund Burke's most famous quote: "for evil to triumph, it is only necessary for good men to do nothing". As a former lecturer in political science, I was mainly familiar with Burke as the founder of Anglo-conservatism (infinitely more nuanced and modern than his equivalent in Franco-conservatism, the Count Joseph de Maistre). I had also read an early work, namely "An Enquiry into the nature of the Beautiful and the Sublime", which I thought a brilliant little jewel. But there's m Everyone knows Edmund Burke's most famous quote: "for evil to triumph, it is only necessary for good men to do nothing". As a former lecturer in political science, I was mainly familiar with Burke as the founder of Anglo-conservatism (infinitely more nuanced and modern than his equivalent in Franco-conservatism, the Count Joseph de Maistre). I had also read an early work, namely "An Enquiry into the nature of the Beautiful and the Sublime", which I thought a brilliant little jewel. But there's much more about Burke than that. O'Brien, the great man of Irish diplomacy, shows in this extraordinary book that Burke, whom recently history has shown as a fawning servant to the political leaders of his time (Rockingham and Pitt), was at the heart of the great fight between George III's royal absolutism and the emerging English democracy. Burke was on the right side of virtually all the fights he picked. He advocated equality before the law for the Irish subjects of the king, first tolerance and then freedom for the American colonies, the end of the colonialist abuses of the East India company, and a quarantine on the infectious ideas of the French Revolution. The later one is still a contentious affair. Zhou En Lai famously opined that it was still too early (in the 1970s) to judge the French Revolution. Burke would have had none of that. As early as 1790, in the "benign" initial phase of the revolution, he foresaw the Terror, the execution of the Royal Family, the Consulate and the Empire, and the French banner covering all of the Europe, in the name of "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity". O'Brien shows the extraordinary situation of an Irish Protestant (always accused of crypto-Catholicism) having great informal influence on the politics of Great Britain, while holding menial offices or representing various "rotten boroughs" in Parliament (this is no aspersion on Burke's memory- that's how politics was done at the time, and anything that gave Burke a pulpit couldn't have been all bad). The "Great Melody" of the title provides the underlying themes around which O'Brien organizes the public part of Burke's life. Far from tiresome, this is a useful device that provides unity and coherence to Burke's thoughts and actions. O'Brien's attacks on mid-century historiography are perfectly adequate, given that much of what was written as that period was designed to regress Burke into irrelevancy, as a sycophant and a lackey. He never was that. He was a good and a great man, and O'Brien does him justice in his book. Perhaps the only fault that I could find in it is a tendency to assume the reader's prior knowledge of the arcanes of Irish history. But these are quibbles. If you can stomach a history of ideas, full of events and studded with memorable characters, this is the book for you.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Rob Hamer

    Quite an endurance test but worth the journey ! Certainly a thorough account of Burke’s impact on 4 key themes affecting the UK in the last quarter of the 18th century - the French and American revolutions , Ireland and India . A comprehensive explanation of Burke’s influence on politics and philosophy. An educational but not an easy read .

  3. 4 out of 5

    Russel Henderson

    A brilliant, indispensable political and intellectual biography, one of the best of the 20th Century.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Justin

    A good writer, politician and thinker has written a biography here of a great writer, politician and thinker. And you get generous portions of Burke's great writing too. The structure is wonderful, focusing on the causes on this most persistent and quite powerful and successful of cause-politicians. It highlights his consistency and ethics, and his astuteness as a working politician, even though he was never a party-leader. A good writer, politician and thinker has written a biography here of a great writer, politician and thinker. And you get generous portions of Burke's great writing too. The structure is wonderful, focusing on the causes on this most persistent and quite powerful and successful of cause-politicians. It highlights his consistency and ethics, and his astuteness as a working politician, even though he was never a party-leader.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Myles

    Edmund Burke led an amazing life and contributed a lot to our understanding of democracy. O'Brien has written a beautiful biography, one of the best ever. Edmund Burke led an amazing life and contributed a lot to our understanding of democracy. O'Brien has written a beautiful biography, one of the best ever.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Fergal

  7. 4 out of 5

    Brian

  8. 4 out of 5

    Markjpmcgahonyahoo.com

  9. 4 out of 5

    Dick Tinto

  10. 4 out of 5

    Paul Vittay

  11. 5 out of 5

    Cindy

    Excellent if biased study of Burke's beliefs. You wind up really liking Burke. Excellent if biased study of Burke's beliefs. You wind up really liking Burke.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Michelle

  13. 4 out of 5

    Mr P West

  14. 4 out of 5

    Ari

    Inspired by this review: https://www.newcriterion.com/issues/1... Inspired by this review: https://www.newcriterion.com/issues/1...

  15. 5 out of 5

    Andrew Schneider

  16. 4 out of 5

    Nooilforpacifists

  17. 4 out of 5

    Kevan Bowkett

  18. 4 out of 5

    Helen Andrews

  19. 5 out of 5

    Beornn McCarthy

  20. 4 out of 5

    Anthonyruggier

  21. 4 out of 5

    Chris Coffman

  22. 5 out of 5

    Ivan Mulcahy

  23. 5 out of 5

    Paul

  24. 5 out of 5

    GAW

  25. 5 out of 5

    Author Annette Dunlea

  26. 4 out of 5

    Bob Taylor

  27. 5 out of 5

    Clayton Cummings

  28. 5 out of 5

    Gerard Wilson

  29. 4 out of 5

    Steve

  30. 5 out of 5

    Jeff Samuelson

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