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empty generality the most deserving of blame. For, on reviewing those narratives of every kind to which the world has been most indebted for information and amusement, it will be found that we owe far more to those who have left little untold, than to those who have scrupled to relate too much.
The practice of suppressing the minute and familiar circumstances of a life, and delivering only the general result of their testimony, according to those conclusions which the Biographer himself has drawn from it, may be considered favorable to the elegance, dignity, and uniformity of a work, but must always detract from its beauty and utility as a biographical portrait. The writer who adopts this method, instead of permitting his readers to become acquainted with the person whose life he traces, informs them only of the opinion which he himself entertains of a man whose conduct he had opportunities of observing. But the most elaborate and highly finished delineation of a character is infinitely weaker and less instructive than a few well chosen sketches from the open and easy intercourse of private life; and the powers of genius are often as justly estimated by the irregular brilliancy of conversation, as by the steadier and more concentrated lustre of published writings.
To illustrate character by abundant extracts from correspondence, is a practice in Biography which has been sanctioned by several eminent examples; and it is not unreasonably supposed, that the comparison of a number of letters, from whatever hand, will assist materially in estimating the disposition as well as talents of the writer. Yet should we avoid relying too implicitly on a criterion of this nature. Affectation and insincerity in the correspondent are obvious sources of deception: and the effusions even of the most candid and ingenuous writer, who accustoms himself to expatiate on his own feelings, are not to be considered an unquestion
I Mason's Life of Gray; Lord Teignmouth's Life of Sir William Jones. Biography has been much disgraced in late years, by the indiscriminate publication of all correspondence, without any consideration of general utility, and without sufficient regard for the reputation of the writers. The following passage from Bishop Sprat's Life of Cowley might serve as a reproof to some modern Biographers. "I know you agree with me, that nothing of this nature should be published: and herein you have always consented to approve of the modest judgment of our countrymen above the practice of some of our neighbours, and chiefly of the French. I make no manner of question but the English at this time are infinitely improved in this way, above the skill of fornier ages, nay of all countries round about us, that pretend to greater eloquence. Yet they have been always judiciously sparing in printing such composures, while some other witty nations have tired all their presses and readers with them.". Life of Cowley, prefixed to his Works. ed. 1669.
able index of character. In the calm and placid moments of confidential communication, the mind, delighted with its task and with itself, is naturally open to every amiable and disinterested sentiment: then faults and follies are ingenuously avowed; then schemes of purposed improvement, and hopes of future perfection, and aspirations after more than mortal excellence, begin to crowd upon the pen; the imagination warms with its own exertion; and the heart, unrestrained for the moment by any sordid passion or low solicitude, indulges in its natural and original bent, and feels itself earnestly and sincerely virtuous.2
The writer of his own history, while he enjoys the advantage of a perfect and indisputable acquaintance with every fact essential to his work, has yet a difficult task to perform in maintaining the character of impartiality. A cold reserve only leaves curiosity unsatisfied, and few readers are conciliated by humble professions. The most becoming and manly course, perhaps, which he can adopt, and the most respectful to the judgment of mankind, is to abandon all such expedients, and without attempting that which exceeds human wisdom, to pass an equitable decision on his own merits, assume that chastened confidence which Tacitus has called, fiduciam potius morum, quam arrogantiam," and at once, with truth and with simplicity, proceed to the events which he has purposed to relate. The man who has voluntarily undertaken to lay his history before the world, must at least be persuaded that its general tenor is not dishonorable to him; he would else be doubly
But in illustrating and connecting facts, a series of correspondence (like that of Cicero or Erasmus) is often of the highest value.
2"It is easy to awaken generous sentiments in privacy; to despise death when there is no danger; to glow with benevolence when there is nothing to be given. While such ideas are formed they are felt, and self-love does not suspect the gleam of virtue to be the meteor of fancy." Johnson's Life of Pope.
3 The narratives of their own lives, given by two of our greatest historians, present a striking contrast; that of Hume, composed with singular chasteness and simplicity, but with a dryness and brevity which disappoint the inquisitive reader; and that of Gibbon, in which every event is the subject of a pompous, but often eloquent amplification."
The warmth of religious feelings has sometimes led men to describe with great force and frankness their own infirmities, transgressions, and mental struggles:-the confessions of St. Augustine are a well-known instance.
5 The learned and visionary Cardan, though he appears to have entertained no humble opinion of his own character, has pointed out its repulsive features with an unshrinking boldness which few would dare to imitate. Among the faults avowed are the following. Sævitia, pertinacia contentiosa, asperitas, imprudentia, iracundia, ultionis desiderium etiam ultra
disgraced in such a memorial of his ignominy. And the exaggerated humility with which a writer speaks of himself, suggests a reasonable suspicion, that he will avail himself of that pretended frankness to assume a more unbounded licence of depreciating others: More honest, as well as more dignified, yet rather to be admired than imitated, was the pride of that romantic English nobleman,* who, professing to write for the instruction and example of his descendants, has magnificently and circumstantially set forth the extraordinary incidents of his life, and declares, in one of his earliest pages, that from his first infancy until that hour he never willingly told any thing that was false. The writer, whatever may be his talents, who will candidly and diligently apply himself to the task of recording his own history, has these great and certain advan tages; that the vivid impression left upon his mind by the events he is to relate, will enable him to describe with that peculiar energy which only experience can inspire; and that if a man be capable of any just, great, wise, or pathetic reflection, the retrospect of his own past years can scarcely fail to suggest it.
In considering impartiality as one of the duties required of the Biographer, it is impossible not to turn the attention for a moment to some beautiful and justly admired examples in which the history of a life is conducted throughout in a strain of elevated panegyric. At the head of these appears that illustrious effusion of eloquence which immortalised Agricola. The same uniform tone of praise, exalting its subject almost above the perfections of humanity, appears in the life of Atticus by Cornelius Nepos; and (to take an instance from modern times) in the elegant sketches of the French academicians by Fontenelle. But works like these must rather be considered as professed eulogies moulded in the form of Biography, than as the literal and circumstantial records of events occurring in human life. It was the object of those writers to raise monuments to the glory of the men whom they celebrated; to applaud, not weigh illustrious characters; and to impress mankind with the admiration of virtue by displaying her in unobstructed splendor.
vires." "Frigidi sum cordis, timidus, et cerebri calidi." "Illud inter vitia mea singulare et magnum agnosco, et sequor, ut libentius nihil dicam quam quod audientibus displiceat.-Hoc autem in meis benefactoribus devito, atque potentibus." "Sed alea etiam longe deterius cessit, filiis ad aleam instructis, et domo aleatoribus sæpe patefacta." Cardanus De Vita sua, cap. 13, &c.
Lord Herbert of Cherbury.
2 Thus Gibbon has related the incident of his writing the last lines of his history in the garden at Lausanne, with an eloquence which rises to poetry. Another Biographer must have been content to express the facts in cold and general terms.
These are examples rarely and cautiously to be imitated; the Biographer ought to keep in mind the nature of his appointed task, lest he should desert the fidelity which so well becomes him, without arriving at the sublimity he would emulate; lest his anxiety to celebrate with unusual honor the excellencies which awaken his enthusiasm, should be likened to that senseless prodigality which sought to bestow new lustre on the perfect statue, by encrusting the marble with gold.'
It should also be remembered, that unvaried praise soon wearies the attention; that the works of this description which have obtained distinguished success, are short; and that the mind which turns with satiety from the graceful eulogies of Fontenelle, feels itself braced and invigorated by the manly truth and dignified austerity of the Biographer of our own poets.
To present to his contemporaries the history of one who is now no more, is a task which most naturally devolves upon those who have enjoyed means of tracing in its growth, and observing in its maturity, the character to be described. Yet these are the persons to whom the duty of impartiality is most difficult and ungrateful. While the fondness so long cherished is yet florishing in their bosoms; while affection is raised to the highest pitch of enthusiasm by the loss of its object; when every sense of imperfection, every remembrance of past bitterness, and every topic of reproach, are almost obliterated from the mind, it is difficult for the writer even to form to himself, much more to communicate to the world, an impartial and accurate idea of the infirmities and errors which mingled with the virtues of his friend and early associate. But whatever indulgence or even respect may be entertained for these natural and amiable feelings, we must remember that Biography, as partaking of the character of history, is subject to the same inflexible rules, and that deviations from truth even in favor of the warmest friendship are blemishes to be atoned for, not refinements to be applauded.
Had the melancholy history of Savage been traced with a palliating hand, posterity might have thought him less culpable, but would have viewed his fate with more indifference. It is not only the eloquence of Johnson that moves us irresistibly to pity and indiguation, but we lend our sympathy to the Biographer, because we are convinced of his sincerity; and, satisfied with the tribute paid to justice, we permit ourselves to indulge in unreserved compassion.
The great virtue of impartiality is not, however, to be con
Some instances of this practice may be found in Pliny, Nat. Hist. b. xxxiv. c. 19, xxxvi. c. 4, and Grævius, Thes. Ant. Rom. vol. iii. p. 88.
founded with that mistaken or pretended candor which is only the instrument of detraction. The survivor of his friend may justly hesitate to reveal facts yet unknown, which, while they illustrated his character, would dishonor his memory. He who professes to inform mankind, is bound to inform them truly; but it is better to renounce the office of Biography, when it offers only the alternative of dishonest concealment or hateful disclosure, than to become the accuser of him who no longer exists, and to raise up from obscurity the imperishable evidence of his faults. Vainly would it be urged, that a duty to society requires the sacrifice of private feeling to the interests of moral and historical knowledge. No public claim can have power to violate the sanctity of that reserve which affection and good faith alike enjoin; and he whose weakness or depravity can avail itself of such a pretext, will more probably corrupt men by his example, than improve them by his information.
In whatever point of view we contemplate Biography, a multitude of interesting topics press on our attention. From those which have been selected as illustrative of the objects and duties of the Biographer, we may sufficiently estimate the difficulties of his task, its dignity and usefulness. To perpetuate the fame of heroes and sages, and to render those actions which have astonished whole states a familiar study and a salutary source of practical instruction; to awaken emulation or repress confidence in aspiring genius, by conspicuous examples in letters, arts, or sciences; to record the excellencies of those honored individuals in every class of society, whose virtues are held most worthy of imitation, and whose memory is most affectionately cherished, are labors worthy of the most exalted ambition: but to seize upon that sound and manly style of narration which at once gratifies and sustains curiosity, and which neither wastes itself in frigid generality, nor dwindles into frivolous minuteness; to discharge honestly that rigorous duty of impartial representation in which the moral character of the Biographer himself is so deeply interested; to dismiss prejudice, to suppress fondness, to banish affectation even when his own history is the subject, are difficulties which the most accomplished mind may glory in surmounting. The writer who has approached perfection in a species of historical composition more powerful than any other in awakening the sympathies, and disposing the heart to profound and useful reflection, may claim a place in the highest rank of literature; and while we yield this distinction to the Biographer, we may without exaggeration pronounce, that the successful cultivation and general encouragement of Biography affords an honorable testimony to the genius and character of a nation.
JOHN LEYCESTER ADOLPHUS, B.A.