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From The National Review.

the few remarks which my experience BIOGRAPHY.

has taught me will be neither original THE most amusing book in the lan- nor profound. guage is “ The Dictionary of National Biography in the dictionary form has Biography." If any one doubts what certain peculiarities of its own. The appears to me to be a self-evident dictionary-maker-stands in awe of Dryproposition, he has only to buy the asdust. He must try to satisfy the work and to dip into it at odd moments. genealogist and the bibliographer. He He must be hard to please if he is not must, therefore, give number of deinterested in a collection of all that is tails which often have little bearing known about our countrymen of all upon the life of bis hero. It is imposages, including the dim personages sible to say what minute fact may not who “flourished” in an uncertain cen- have some incidental interest for the tury and the last M or N whose obit- historian, and a good deal of dry inforuary notice is in last year's newspapers. mation must be recorded which the Many volumes full of interesting anec- reader for amusement must be trusted dotes, every word of which is true, to skip. Still more has the dictionarymust surely fascinate every intelligent maker to trust to the reader to supply reader. As I had the fortune to be the flesh and blood to his dry bones. closely connected with this undertaking He must restrain his rhetoric and for some years, and was bound there- sentiment and philosophical reflection fore to read every article, I ought to within the narrowest bounds. Our speak with some authority, as I can critics — it is the only fault I can find now speak with impartiality. An ex- with them — sometimes do us too much cellent friend of mine, who ivferred honor by comparing us with literature that I must be overflowing with the of a more ambitious class. They take knowledge so imbibed, asked me the the show-lives - the Shakespeare or other day whether I had not become William the Conqueror

and ask a profound psychologist. Possibly I whether they have been adequately ought to have acquired what is called written, and whether the writers show

a knowledge of the human heart.” a sound judgment in their literary or But, in the first place, I find that I for- historical theories. Now, we cannot get all about the A's before I have got afford to expatiate about Shakespeare ; well into the C's. In the next place, we have to make room for the less conthe chief part of an editor's duties con- spicuous people, about whom it is hard sists in acting as Dryasdust. Ques- to get information elsewhere. The tions as to whether a date is given real test of the value of the book is in in the old style or the new, or as to the adequacy of these timid and thirdwhether two different titles refer to the rate lives. Nor, again, will a reader of same book or to two different books, or sense look to a dictionary to tell him (if to two different modifications of the he wants to be told) what he ought to same book, cannot be said to throw think of Shakespeare's plays, or of much light upon problems of psychol- William's position in the world's hisogy. Aud, finally, to say nothing else, tory. There are plenty of philosophers one has to study not life at first hand, who will gladly supply him with ideas but what has been said about lives by on those subjects. The dictionary. biographers, which is a very different maker can at most give a brief indithing. A study of biographies by the cation of the opinions held by good dozen, though it often leaves one pretty authorities and a reference to the books much in the dark as to the people biog- where they are discussed ; and, posraphized, ought perhaps to give one sibly, may intimate summarily his own some views as to the art of biography. conclusions. But to discuss or It is difficult, indeed, to say much that pound those conclusions at length is is true and that is not perfectly obvious impossible, and the critic, if he chooses about any art whatever, and I feel that I to take the article as a peg on which to

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hang his own theories, must not com- | content to be silent when there is plain if it pretends to be no more than nothing to be said. If facts are want

ing, he fills up the gap with mightI have given these hints because have-beens. He tells us that when they may indicate the true nature of the Robinson was born Brown was on his problem to be solved. The dictionary- death-bed and Jones prime minister, maker writes under the strictest lim- and speculates upon what would have itations. But art, as is often observed, happened if they had all been contemmay show itself best under such lim- poraries. When the poor dictionaryitations. The writer of a sonnet, if maker has to say briefly, is, “ John the comparison be not too ambitious, Smith was educated at the grammarknows that his success is due to the school of his native town” the writer difficulties which he has surmounted. of a graphic biography talks of the His gems are imperishable if he has Renaissance and the early system of fitted his thought precisely to the pre- scholastic training, and Dr. Busby and scribed form. Now, the writer of an corporal punishment, and the influence ideal dictionary life would achieve a of classical culture upon the human somewhat similar task. He would mind in general as well as upon Smith manage to say everything while appar- in particular. The dictionary-maker ently saying nothing; to give all the must trust that his reader will see all facts demanded from him; to give this between the lines ; take the philosnothing but the facts; and yet to make ophy and the pathos for granted, aud the facts tell their own story. If he is make his own picture of the small not allowed to comment or to criticise, Shakespeare creeping like a snail to the hc may put the narrative so that the Stratford school, instead of repeating comment or criticism is tacitly insinu- the well-known paragraph which beated into the mind of his reader. By gins, " The imagination loves to dwell.” skilful arrangement of his story by When I have had to read some of condensation of the less important these exuberant biographies I have parts, by laying due stress on the most wished that I could have had the writer essential, he should set the little drama under my charge for a time. Firmly, of a human life in the right point of if benevolently, I would have drilled view and reveal its most important him; cut out all his fine things, conaspects. A smart journalist knows densed his sentiment by a little cold how to beat out a single remark into a water, and squeezed his half-dozen column of epigrams and illustrations. pages into half a column. I have tried The dictionary-maker should aim at the the experiment, and it should be rereverse process, he should coax the corded, for the credit of human nature, column of smoke back into the original that a writer was once good enough to vase ; he should give the very pith and express a gratitude for my surgery. essence of the case, and, like the skilful Others mildly remonstrated ; yet surely, advocate, appear to be simply relating if I did not use the knife very clumsily, a plain: narrative, when he is really the discipline was a good one. In dictating the verdict. - Thou hast con- these days, when we have decided, as vinced me,” as Rasselas says, that 10- it seems, that nothing is to be forbody can write such an article. That gotten, two things are rapidly becomis perfectly true ; but to produce such ing essential — somme literary condensing an article may be the dream of the machine, and a system of indexing. writer, however conscious he may be Our knowledge, that is, requires to that ideals are rarely attainable in this be concentrated and to be arranged. world.

When I have been in the library of the I say this from the dictionary-maker's British Museum I have been struck point of view ; but it applies to biogra- with a not wholly, pleasing awe: I phers in general, and now more than went one day to the manuscript-room,

The modern biographer is not !ạnd there was invited to regale myself

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with three thick volumes of closely | and then try to smelt it and cast it into *written letters by the London agent of its natural mould. His first operation certain foreign booksellers, filled, in an is, of course, to take the lives already illegible land, with the smallest lit- written, and to boil them down into erary gossip of the days of George II. the necessary limits. Many lives must I extracted from it, after much pains, contain as much history as biography, the name of the university at which and of the historical aspects I do not Des Maiseaux had taken his degree, propose to speak. The life with which for which I hope my readers will be I am concerned is the record of what thankful. I went to the reading-room, happened to a single human being beand discovered there a college exercise tween his birth and his death ; and the printed in the seventeenth century at purpose of the narrator is to show what Leydon, which enabled me to reveal to he was and how he came to be what an inquisitive world the name of Ber- he was. It is only in a few cases that nard Mandeville's father. It is bewil- these questions can be said to have dering to think that a lad cannot print been adequately treated. The most a declamation in Holland without the really interesting problem — that of the thing being preserved for the benefit of development of the human character Englishmen two centuries later. The is generally the most inscrutable. If, mass of matter preserved on the as has been frequently said, any man shelves of that invaluable Museum is even the most commonplace, could be the externalized memory of the race. adequately explained ; if we could be There is nothing too petty or contempt- told with what qualities he started, and ible to be preserved. When one thinks what influences really moulded and

of all the records preserved up and developed them, we should have a · down Europe in the archives of various book of unsurpassable interest. But it · States, of all the materials in private is rare to find any approach to such an hands, of the infinitesimal portion which account. Few facts are preserved till any reader could get through in a life- a man has become well known, and by time, and then of the enormously ac- that time his character is generally celerated rate at which information is formed. Nothing is more striking to now being compiled and amassed in the biographer than the rapidity with safe repositories, one stands agliast. If which all possibility of satisfactory pora fire should take place at the Record traiture vanishes. Nobody, as Johnson Office or the British Museum I would somewhere says, could write a satisfacgive all the strength I possess to work- tory life of a man who had not lived ing the engines. But if fire were a dis- iu habits of intimacy with him. Now, · creet element, which could be trusted it is rare for a man to preserve the to burn only the rubbish, I could find intimates of his early years ; school it in my heart to applaud a conflagra- friendships are transitory, and schooltion.

boys are not generally keen psycholoThis is a digression ; but it gives the gists. All they can generally remember reflection which is constantly before is the best score made in a cricketthe dictionary-maker. He is a toiler match or the prize at an examination. among those gigantic piles of “shot They generally see nothing of their rubbish " of which Carlyle complained schoolfellow's real life, and they are so bitterly when he too was a slave of divided between the wish to show that Dryasdust. He is trying to bring into they recognized genius early, and the some sort of order, alphabetical at pleasure of supporting the paradox least, the chaos of materials which is that the genius was originally stupid. already so vast and so rapidly accumu- If the father or mother or schoolmaster lating. To write a life is to collect the survive, the 'schoolmaster has an eye particular heap of rubbish in which his to the merits of his school ; the father material is contained, to sift the rele- probably thought more of the schoolvant from the superincumbent mass, bills thani of the boy's work ; and the

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mother- - was a mother. The friends when they are of the scantiest. They who survive are generally those who stimulate the imagination to realize one have been attracted in later years ; and of the hardest of all truths to accept'even if they are keen of penetration that the existence of a “Hamlet” now -and of power of telling what they have proves that there must actually have perceived - both rare qualities and fre- once been a William Shakespeare. quently disjoined - they only tell us of The lives written in that period, inthe finished product. The few biog- deed, seem to leave the case almost raphies which give a really instructive doubtful. They are so vague, perfuncaccount of mental and moral growth tory, and unsubstantial, that we are are autobiographies. After making half inclined to regard the heroes as obvious allowances, they are always mere phantoms, vague X's and Y's instructive, and they generally dwell who never trod the solid earth. The with natural fondness upon the carly actors upon the great stage of politics years, in which the critical process was here, of course, come down to us with undergone. Without such a narrative sufficient vividness. A man who has or letters or diaries which are in some cut off other men's heads, or had his respects à better, because a more un- own cut off, has impressed his reality .conscious and less modified, autobiog- upon the world ; but the mere author, raphy, the life of a famous man is philosopher, or poet, has vanished, like often an insoluble problem even at his Aubrey's famous spirit, leaving nothdeath. I could mention men whom I ing behind but a “twang” and a sweet, have known, who were known to very or perhaps not sweet, savor. The biwide circles, and who were survived by ographers at most were content to many contemporaries, whose early his- amplify the conventional epitaph ; or tory, except so far as the bare external at times, like the excellent Izaak Walfacts are concerned, must remain purely ton, they wrote most charming little conjectural, simply because no compe- idylls, beautiful to read, but curiously tent witness has survived them. Those empty of facts, and tinged with a rosewho were in a position to know were color calculated to rouse suspicions. unobservant, or stupid, or dull, or for- For some biographies the main authorgetful.

ity is a funeral sermon; and the typical We can now generally ascertain — it funeral sermon is one which an elois a rather melancholy reflection - all quent divine constructed out of an the external facts; but whatever can- elaborate parallel between the characnot be inferred from them vanishes ters of King David and George II. If “ like the smoke of the guns on a wind- we had only known of George the swept hill !” School registers and the points in which he resembled the Helike will supply us with an ample brew monarch, our information would framework of dates ; but the history obviously have been defective. A of the mind and character evaporates, writer to whom all readers of sevenand is vaguely supplied by conjecture. teenth-century biography often owe Do we even remember our own history, their fullest kuowledge is Anthony à or did we even know at the time what Wood, one of the most thorough and was really happening to us? Some satisfactory of antiquaries. His inestipeople with powerful memories seem mable collection is charming not only to preserve a detailed map of the past; from its good workmanship within its but in my own case, which is, I sus- own limits, but also for the delightful pect, the commonest, I should be growls of disgust extracted from the reduced to mere guessing as to my old High Church don at every mention motives and the influences which af- of a Nonconformist or a Whig - espefected me almost as much as though I cially if the wretch claims to possess were writing of a stranger. And yet, any virtues. But Wood can only give, with all such necessary imperfections, and only professes to give, data for biographies have a fascination, even 'lives, not the finished product. As

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time goes on we get the biography | and, with obvious limitations, investi-
which serves as a preface to collective gating it with remarkable insight. Of
works. The author is haunted by the the immortal Boswell, it is happily
modest conviction that his readers are needless to speak. Since his book, no
anxious to get at the author's own writ- writer has been at a loss for a model;
ings, and is content with pronouncing and many most delightful books are its
a graceful éloge, without defiling his descendants, though none has eclipsed
elegant phrases by the earthly material its ancestor. Boswell founded biog-
of facts. Toland wrote a life of Mil-raphy in England as much as Gibbon
ton, when a dozen people were extant founded history and Adam Sinith polit-
who could have described for him the ical economy. He produces that effect
domestic life of his hero. He felt, of which Carlyle often made such
· however, that to go into such details powerful use, the sudden thrill which
would compromise his dignity, and comes to us when we find ourselves
leave no room for his judicious obser- in direct communication with human
vations upon epic poetry. Of Toland feeling in the arid wastes of conven-
himself we are told by a biographer tional history ; when we perceive that
that he was forced to leave the court at a real voice is speaking out of “the
Berlin “ by an incident too ludicrous to dark backward and abysm” of the past,
mention." We vainly feel that we and a little island of light, with moving
would give more for that incident than and feeling figures, still standing out
for all the other facts mentioned. This amidst the gathering shades of obliv-
dignified style survived till the end of ion. Perhaps there are no books in
the last century, and we have a grudge which the imagination is so often stim-
against Dugald Stewart, otherwise an ulated in that way as in Carlyle's own
excellent person, for writing a life of “ Cromwell” and Spedding's" Bacon.”
Adain Smith in the spirit of a continu- The “Bacon” is to me a singularly
ous rebuff to impertinent curiosity. attractive book, to which, indeed, the
The main purpose of such biographies only objection is that it is not properly
seems to be to prevent posterity from a book, but a collection of documents.
knowing anything about a man which It is therefore the mass of raw material
they could not discover from other from which I hope that a book may

There is a biography famous some day be constructed. Such a book for not giving a single date, and an might be a masterpiece of applied psyautobiography in which the hero apol- chology. It would give the portrait of ogizes for once using the word “1." a man of marvellous and most versatile The biographer of modern times may intellect, full of the noblest ambitions be often indiscreet in his revelations; and the most extensive sympathies, but so far as the interest of the book combined with all the weaknesses goes the opposite pole is certainly the which we are accustomed to class as most repulsive. We want the man in “human nature.” Spedding's herohis ordinary dress, if not stripped worship led him to apologize for all naked; and these dignified persons Bacon's errors ; and, though the very will only show him in a full-bottomed ingenuity of the pretexts is characterwig and a professor's robes. Johnson istic both of the hero and his biogchanged all this as author and subject rapher, we are sensible that a more of biography.

disengaged attitude would have enabled In the “Lives of the Poets," we Spedding to produce a more genuine have at least a terse record of the portrait. He has provoked later writessential facts seen through a medium ers to air their virtuous indignation: a of shrewd masculine observation. The little too freely. We want the writer writer is really interested in life, not capable of developing the character in simply recording dates or taking a text the Shakespearian spirit; showing the for exhibiting his own skill in pero- facts with absolute impartiality, not rating. He is investigating character, displaying his moral sense, if that be

sources.

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