Some Thoughts On Biography by Thomas De Quincey

Story type: Essay

We have heard from a man who witnessed the failure of Miss Baillie’s ‘De Montford,’ notwithstanding the scenic advantages of a vast London theatre, fine dresses, fine music at intervals, and, above all, the superb acting of John Kemble, supported on that occasion by his incomparable sister, that this unexpected disappointment began with the gallery, who could not comprehend or enter into a hatred so fiendish growing out of causes so slight as any by possibility supposable in the trivial Rezenvelt. To feel teased by such a man, to dislike him, occasionally to present him with your compliments in the shape of a duodecimo kick–well and good, nothing but right. And the plot manifestly tended to a comic issue. But murder!–a Macbeth murder!–not the injury so much as the man himself was incommensurate, was too slight by a thousand degrees for so appalling a catastrophe. It reacts upon De Montford, making him ignoble that could be moved so profoundly by an agency so contemptible.

Something of the same disproportion there is, though in a different way, between any quarrel that may have divided us from a man in his life-time and the savage revenge of pursuing the quarrel after his death through a malicious biography. Yet, if you hated him through no quarrel, but simply (as we all hate many men that died a thousand years ago) for something vicious, or which you think vicious, in his modes of thinking, why must you, of all men, be the one to undertake an edition of his works, ‘with a life of the author’? Leave that to some neutral writer, who neither loves nor hates. And whilst crowds of men need better biographical records whom it is easy to love and not difficult to honour, do not you degrade your own heart or disgust your readers by selecting for your exemplification not a model to be imitated, but a wild beast to be baited or a criminal to be tortured? We privately hate Mr. Thomas Hobbes, of Malmsbury; we know much evil of him, and we could expose many of his tricks effectually. We also hate Dean Swift, and upon what we think substantial arguments. Some of our own contemporaries we hate particularly; Cobbett, for instance, and other bad fellows in fustian and corduroys. But for that very reason we will not write their lives. Or, if we should do so, only because they might happen to stand as individuals in a series, and after warning the reader of our own bias. For it is too odious a spectacle to imprison a fellow-creature in a book, like a stag in a cart, and turn him out to be hunted through all his doubles for a day’s amusement. It too much resembles that case of undoubted occurrence both in France and Germany, where ‘respectable’ individuals, simply as amateurs, and not at all with any view to the salary or fees of operating, have come forward as candidates for the post of public executioner. What is every man’s duty is no man’s duty by preference. And unless where a writer is thrust upon such a duty by an official necessity (as, if he contracts for a ‘Biographia Britannica,’ in that case he is bound by his contract to go through with the whole series–rogues and all), it is too painful to see a human being courting and wooing the task of doing execution upon his brother in his grave. Nay, even in the case where this executioner’s task arises spontaneously out of some duty previously undertaken without a thought of its severer functions, we are still shocked by any exterminating vengeance too rancorously pursued. Every reader must have been disgusted by the unrelenting persecution with which Gifford, a deformed man, with the spiteful nature sometimes too developed in the deformed, had undertaken ‘for our fathers in the Row’ an edition of Massinger. Probably he had not thought at the time of the criminals who would come before him for judgment. But afterwards it did not embitter the job that these perquisites of office accrued, lucro ponatur, that such offenders as Coxeter, Mr. Monck Mason, and others were to be ‘justified’ by course of law. Could he not have stated their errors, and displaced their rubbish, without further personalities? However, he does not, but makes the air resound with his knout, until the reader wishes Coxeter in his throat, and Monck Mason, like ‘the cursed old fellow’ in Sinbad, mounted with patent spurs upon his back.

We shall be interrupted, however, and that we certainly foresee, by the objection–that we are fighting with shadows, that neither the eloge in one extreme, nor the libel in the other extreme, finds a place in our literature. Does it not? Yes, reader, each of these biographical forms exists in favour among us, and of one it is very doubtful indeed whether it ought not to exist. The eloge is found abundantly diffused through our monumental epitaphs in the first place, and there every man will countersign Wordsworth’s judgment (see ‘The Excursion’ and also Wordsworth’s prose Essay on Epitaphs), that it is a blessing for human nature to find one place in this world sacred to charitable thoughts, one place at least offering a sanctuary from evil speaking. So far there is no doubt. But the main literary form, in which the English eloge presents itself, is the Funeral Sermon. And in this also, not less than in the churchyard epitaph, kind feeling ought to preside; and for the same reasons, the sanctity of the place where it is delivered or originally published, and the solemnity of the occasion which has prompted it; since, if you cannot find matter in the departed person’s character fertile in praise even whilst standing by the new-made grave, what folly has tempted you into writing an epitaph or a funeral sermon? The good ought certainly to predominate in both, and in the epitaph nothing but the good, because were it only for a reason suggested by Wordsworth, viz., the elaborate and everlasting character of a record chiselled out painfully in each separate letter, it would be scandalous to confer so durable an existence in stone or marble upon trivial human infirmities, such as do not enter into the last solemn reckoning with the world beyond the grave; whilst, on the other hand, all graver offences are hushed into ‘dread repose,’ and, where they happen to be too atrocious or too memorable, are at once a sufficient argument for never having undertaken any such memorial. These considerations privilege the epitaph as sacred to charity, and tabooed against the revelations of candour. The epitaph cannot open its scanty records to any breathing or insinuation of infirmity. But the Funeral Sermon, though sharing in the same general temper of indulgence towards the errors of the deceased person, might advantageously be laid open to a far more liberal discussion of those personal or intellectual weaknesses which may have thwarted the influence of character otherwise eminently Christian. The Oraison Funebre of the French proposes to itself by its original model, which must be sought in the Epideictic or panegyrical oratory of the Greeks, a purpose purely and exclusively eulogistic: the problem supposed is to abstract from everything not meritorious, to expand and develop the total splendour of the individual out of that one centre, that main beneficial relation to his own age, from which this splendour radiated. The incidents of the life, the successions of the biographical detail, are but slightly traced, no farther, in fact, than is requisite to the intelligibility of the praises. Whereas, in the English Funeral Sermon, there is no principle of absolute exclusion operating against the minutest circumstantiations of fact which can tend to any useful purpose of illustrating the character. And what is too much for the scale of a sermon literally preached before a congregation, or modelled to counterfeit such a mode of address, may easily find its place in the explanatory notes. This is no romance, or ideal sketch of what might be. It is, and it has been. There are persons of memorable interest in past times, of whom all that we know is embodied in a funeral sermon. For instance, Jeremy Taylor in that way, or by his Epistles Dedicatory, has brought out the characteristic features in some of his own patrons, whom else we should have known only as nominis umbras. But a more impressive illustration is found in the case of John Henderson, that man of whom expectations so great were formed, and of whom Dr. Johnson and Burke, after meeting and conversing with him, pronounced (in the Scriptural words of the Ethiopian queen applied to the Jewish king, Solomon) ‘that the half had not been told them.’ For this man’s memory almost the sole original record exists in Aguttar’s funeral sermon; for though other records exist, and one from the pen of a personal friend, Mr. Joseph Cottle, of Bristol, yet the main substance of the biography is derived from the fundus of this one sermon.[1] And it is of some importance to cases of fugitive or unobtrusive merit that this more quiet and sequestered current of biography should be kept open. For the local motives to an honorary biographical notice, in the shape of a Funeral Sermon, will often exist, when neither the materials are sufficient, nor a writer happens to be disposable, for a labour so serious as a regular biography.

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Here then, on the one side, are our English eloges. And we may add that amongst the Methodists, the Baptists, and other religious sectaries, but especially among the missionaries of all nations and churches, this class of eloges is continually increasing. Not unfrequently men of fervent natures and of sublime aspirations are thus rescued from oblivion, whilst the great power of such bodies as the Methodists, their growing wealth, and consequent responsibility to public opinion, are pledges that they will soon command all the advantages of colleges and academic refinement; so that if, in the manner of these funeral eloges, there has sometimes been missed that elegance which should have corresponded to the weight of the matter, henceforwards we may look to see this disadvantage giving way before institutions more thoroughly matured. But if these are our eloges, on the other hand, where are our libels?

This is likely to be a topic of offence, for many readers will start at hearing the upright Samuel Johnson and the good-humoured, garrulous Plutarch denounced as traffickers in libel. But a truth is a truth. And the temper is so essentially different in which men lend themselves to the propagation of defamatory anecdotes, the impulses are so various to an offence which is not always consciously perceived by those who are parties to it, that we cannot be too cautious of suffering our hatred of libel to involve every casual libeller, or of suffering our general respect for the person of the libeller to exonerate him from the charge of libelling. Many libels are written in this little world of ours unconsciously, and under many motives. Perhaps we said that before, but no matter. Sometimes a gloomy fellow, with a murderous cast of countenance, sits down doggedly to the task of blackening one whom he hates worse ‘than toad or asp.’ For instance, Procopius performs that ‘labour of hate’ for the Emperor Justinian, pouring oil into his wounds, but, then (as Coleridge expresses it in a ‘neat’ sarcasm), oil of vitriol. Nature must have meant the man for a Spanish Inquisitor, sent into the world before St. Dominic had provided a trade for him, or any vent for his malice–so rancorous in his malignity, so horrid and unrelenting the torture to which he subjects his sovereign and the beautiful Theodora. In this case, from the withering scowl which accompanies the libels, we may be assured that they are such in the most aggravated form–not malicious only, but false. It is commonly said, indeed, in our courts, that truth it is which aggravates the libel. And so it is as regards the feelings or the interests of the man libelled. For is it not insufferable that, if a poor man under common human infirmity shall have committed some crime and have paid its penalty, but afterwards reforming or out-growing his own follies, seeks to gain an honest livelihood for his children in a place which the knowledge of his past transgression has not reached, then all at once he is to be ruined by some creature purely malignant who discovers and publishes the secret tale? In such a case most undoubtedly it is the truth of the libel which constitutes its sting, since, if it were not true or could be made questionable, it would do the poor man no mischief. But, on the other hand, it is the falsehood of the libel which forms its aggravation as regards the publisher. And certain we are, had we no other voucher than the instinct of our hatred to Procopius, that his disloyal tales about his great lord and lady are odiously overcharged, if not uniformly false. Gibbon, however, chooses to gratify his taste for the luxury of scandal by believing at once in the perfect malice of the slanderer, and the perfect truth of his slanders.

Here then, in this Procopius, is an instance of the gloomy libeller, whose very gloom makes affidavit of his foul spirit from the first. There is also another form, less odious, of the hostile libeller: it occurs frequently in cases where the writer is not chargeable with secret malice, but is in a monstrous passion. A shower-bath might be of service in that case, whereas in the Procopius case nothing but a copious or a Procopius application of the knout can answer. We, for instance, have (or had, for perhaps it has been stolen) a biography of that same Parker, afterwards Bishop of Oxford, with whom Andrew Marvell ‘and others who called Milton friend’ had such rough-and-tumble feuds about 1666, and at whose expense it was that Marvell made the whole nation merry in his ‘Rehearsal Transprosed.’ This Parker had a ‘knack’ at making himself odious; he had a curiosa felicitas in attracting hatreds, and wherever he lodged for a fortnight he trailed after him a vast parabolic or hyperbolic tail of enmity and curses, all smoke and fire and tarnish, which bore the same ratio to his small body of merit that a comet’s tail, measuring billions of miles, does to the little cometary mass. The rage against him was embittered by politics, and indeed sometimes by knavish tricks; the first not being always ‘confounded,’ nor the last ‘frustrated.’ So that Parker, on the whole, was a man whom it might be held a duty to hate, and therefore, of course, to knout as often as you could persuade him to expose a fair extent of surface for the action of the lash. Many men purchased a knout for his sake, and took their chance for getting a ‘shy’ at him, as Parker might happen to favour their intentions. But one furious gentleman, who is resolved to ‘take his full change’ out of Parker, and therefore to lose no time, commences operations in the very first words of his biography: ‘Parker,’ says he, ‘the author of —-, was the spawn of Samuel Parker.’ His rage will not wait for an opportunity; he throws off a torrent of fiery sparks in advance, and gives full notice to Parker that he will run his train right into him, if he can come up with his rear. This man is not malicious, but truculent; like the elder Scaliger, of whom it was observed that, having been an officer of cavalry up to his fortieth year (when he took to learning Greek), he always fancied himself on horseback, charging, and cutting throats in the way of professional duty, as often as he found himself summoned to pursue and ‘cut up’ some literary delinquent. Fire and fury, ‘bubble and squeak,’ is the prevailing character of his critical composition. ‘Come, and let me give thee to the fowls of the air,’ is the cry with which the martial critic salutes the affrighted author. Yet, meantime, it is impossible that he can entertain any personal malice, for he does not know the features of the individual enemy whom he is pursuing. But thus far he agrees with the Procopian order of biographers–that both are governed, in whatever evil they may utter, by a spirit of animosity: one by a belligerent spirit which would humble its enemy as an enemy in a fair pitched battle, the other by a subtle spirit of malice, which would exterminate its enemy not in that character merely, but as an individual by poison or by strangling.

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Libels, however, may be accredited and published where there is no particle of enmity or of sudden irritation. Such were the libels of Plutarch and Dr. Johnson. They are libels prompted by no hostile feelings at all, but adopted by mere blind spirit of credulity. In this world of ours, so far as we are acquainted with its doings, there are precisely four series–four aggregate bodies–of Lives, and no more, which you can call celebrated; which have had, and are likely to have, an extensive influence–each after its own kind. Which be they? To arrange them in point of time, first stand Plutarch’s lives of eminent Greeks and Romans; next, the long succession of the French Memoirs, beginning with Philippe de Commines, in the time of Louis XI. or our Edward IV., and ending, let us say, with the slight record of himself (but not without interest) of Louis XVIII.; thirdly, the Acta Sanctorum of the Bollandists; fourthly, Dr. Johnson’s ‘Lives of the Poets.’ The third is a biographical record of the Romish saints, following the order of the martyrology as it is digested through the Roman calendar of the year; and, as our own ‘Biographia Britannica’ has only moved forwards in seventy years to the letter ‘H,’ or thereabouts (which may be owing to the dissenting blight of Dr. Kippis), pari passu, the Acta Sanctorum will be found not much farther advanced than the month of May–a pleasant month certainly, but (as the Spectator often insinuates) perilous to saintship. Laying this work out of consideration, as being chiefly employed in eulogy such as could not be extravagant when applied to the glorious army of martyrs (although here also, we doubt not, are many libels against men concerning whom it matters little whether they were libelled or not), all the rest of the great biographical works are absolutely saturated with libels. Plutarch may be thought to balance his extravagant slanders by his impossible eulogies. He sees nothing wonderful in actions that were far beyond the level of any motives existing under pagan moralities; and, on the other hand, he traduces great men like Caesar, whose natures were beyond his scale of measurement, by tracing their policy to petty purposes entirely Plutarchian. But he was a Greekling in a degenerate age of Grecians. As to the French Memoirs, which are often so exceedingly amusing, they purchase their liveliness by one eternal sacrifice of plain truth. Their repartees, felicitous propos, and pointed anecdotes are but one rolling fire of falsehoods. And, generally, it may be laid down as a rule, that all collectors of happy retorts and striking anecdotes are careless of truth. Louis XIV. does seem to have had a natural gift of making brilliant compliments and happy impromptus; and yet the very best of his reputed mots were spurious. Some may be traced to Cicero, Hierocles, Diogenes; and some to his modern predecessors. That witty remark ascribed to him about the disposition of Fortune, as being a lady, to withdraw her favours from old men like himself and the Marechal Boufflers, was really uttered nearly two centuries before by the Emperor Charles V., who probably stole it from some Spanish collection of jests. And so of fifty in every hundred beside. And the French are not only apt beyond other nations to abuse the license of stealing from our predecessor quod licuit semperque licebit, but also, in a degree peculiar to themselves, they have a false de-naturalized taste in the humorous, and as to the limits of the extravagant. We have formerly illustrated this point, and especially we noticed it as a case impossible to any nation but the French to have tolerated the pretended ‘absences’ of La Fontaine–as, for instance, his affecting to converse with his own son as an entire stranger, and asking the lady who had presented him what might be the name of that amiable young man. The incredulus odi faces one in every page of a French memoir; veracity is an unknown virtue, and, wherever that is the taste, look for libels by wholesale. Too often even the unnatural and the monstrous is courted, rather than miss the object of arresting and startling. Now, Dr. Johnson’s calumnies or romances were not of that order. He had a healthy spirit of reverence for truth; but he was credulous to excess, and he was plagued by an infirmity not uncommon amongst literary men who have no families of young people growing up around their hearth–the hankering after gossip. He was curious about the domestic habits of his celebrated countrymen; inquisitive in a morbid degree about their pecuniary affairs: ‘What have you got in that pocket which bulges out so prominently?’ ‘What did your father do with that hundred guineas which he received on Monday from Jacob Jonson?’ And, as his ‘swallow’ was enormous–as the Doctor would believe more fables in an hour than an able-bodied liar would invent in a week–naturally there was no limit to the slanders with which his ‘Lives of the Poets’ are overrun.

Of the four great biographical works which we have mentioned, we hold Dr. Johnson’s to be by far the best in point of composition. Even Plutarch, though pardonably overrated in consequence of the great subjects which he treats (which again are ‘great’ by benefit of distance and the vast abstracting process executed by time upon the petty and the familiar), is loose and rambling in the principles of his nexus; and there lies the great effort for a biographer, there is the strain, and that is the task–viz., to weld the disconnected facts into one substance, and by interfusing natural reflections to create for the motions of his narrative a higher impulse than one merely chronologic. In this respect, the best of Dr. Johnson’s ‘Lives’ are undoubtedly the very best which exist. They are the most highly finished amongst all masterpieces of the biographic art, and, as respects the Doctor personally, they are, beyond comparison, his best work. It is a great thing in any one art or function, even though it were not a great one, to have excelled all the literature of all languages. And if the reader fancies that there lurks anywhere a collection of lives, or even one life (though it were the ‘Agricola’ of Tacitus), which as a work of refined art and execution can be thought equal to the best of Dr. Johnson’s, we should be grateful to him if he would assign it in a letter to Mr. Blackwood:

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‘And though the night be raw,
We’ll see it too, the first we ever saw.’

We say nothing of the Calmuck Tartars; they hold (see Bergmann’s ‘Streifereien’) that their ‘Dschangariade’ is the finest of all epic poems, past or coming; and, therefore, the Calmuck Lives of the Poets will naturally be inimitable. But confining our view to the unhappy literatures of Europe, ancient or modern, this is what we think of Dr. Johnson’s efforts as a biographer. Consequently, we cannot be taxed with any insensibility to his merit. And as to the critical part of his Lives, if no thoughtful reader can be expected to abide by his haughty decisions, yet, on the other hand, every man reads his opinions with pleasure, from the intellectual activity and the separate justice of the thoughts which they display. But as to his libellous propensity, that rests upon independent principles; for all his ability and all his logic could not elevate his mind above the region of gossip.

Take his ‘Life of Savage.’ This was the original nest-egg, upon which, as a basis, and perhaps as the occasional suggestion of such an enterprise, all the rest–allow us a pompous word–supervened. It was admirably written, because written con amore, and also because written con odio; and under either impulse is it possible to imagine grosser delusions? Johnson persuaded himself that Savage was a fine gentleman (a role not difficult to support in that age, when ceremony and a gorgeous costume were amongst the auxiliary distinctions of a gentleman), and also that he was a man of genius. The first claim was necessarily taken upon trust by the Doctor’s readers; the other might have been examined; but after a few painful efforts to read ‘The Wanderer’ and other insipid trifles, succeeding generations have resolved to take that upon trust also; for in very truth Savage’s writings are of that order which ‘do not let themselves be read.’ Why, then, had publishers bought them? Publishers in those days were mere tradesmen, without access to liberal society. Even Richardson, though a man of great genius, in his publisher’s character was an obsequious, nay, servile, admirer of the fine gentleman who wore a sword, embroidered clothes, and Mechlin ruffles about his wrists; above all things, he glorified and adored a Lovelace, with a fine person, who sang gaily to show his carelessness of low people, never came abroad except in a sedan-chair, and liberally distributed his curses to the right and the left in all respectable men’s shops. This temper, with her usual sagacity, Lady M. Wortley Montagu could detect in Richardson, and for this she despised him. But this it was, and some little vision of possible patronage from Lord Tyrconnel, which had obtained any prices at all for Savage from such knowing publishers as were then arising; but generally Savage had relied upon subscriptions, which were still common, and, in his case, as a man supposed unfortunate, were given purely as charity. With what astonishment does a literary foreigner of any judgment find a Savage placed amongst the classics of England! and from the scale of his life reasonably he must infer that he is ranked amongst the leaders, whilst the extent in which his works are multiplied would throw him back upon the truth–that he is utterly unknown to his countrymen. These, however, were the delusions of good nature. But what are we to think of Dr. Johnson’s abetting that monstrous libel against Lady Macclesfield? She, unhappily, as a woman banished without hope from all good society by her early misconduct as a wife (but, let it not be forgotten, a neglected wife), had nobody to speak a word on her behalf: all evil was believed of one who had violated her marriage vows. But had the affair occurred in our days, the public journals would have righted her. They would have shown the folly of believing a vain, conceited man like Savage and his nurse, with no vouchers whatever, upon a point where they had the deepest interest at stake; whilst on the opposite side, supposing their story true, spoke for them the strongest of all natural instincts–the pleading of the maternal heart, combated by no self-interest whatever. Surely if Lady Macclesfield had not been supported by indignation against an imposture, merely for her own ease and comfort, she would have pensioned Savage, or have procured him some place under Government–not difficult in those days for a person with her connections (however sunk as respected female society) to have obtained for an only son. In the sternness of her resistance to all attempts upon her purse we read her sense of the fraud. And, on the other hand, was the conduct of Savage that of a son? He had no legal claims upon her, consequently no pretence for molesting her in her dwelling-house. And would a real son–a great lubberly fellow, well able to work as a porter or a footman–however wounded at her obstinate rejection, have been likely, in pursuit of no legal rights, to have alarmed her by threatening letters and intrusions, for no purpose but one confessedly of pecuniary extortion? From the very mode of pursuing his claim it is plain that Savage felt it to be a false one. It seems, also, to be forgotten by most readers, that at this day real sons–not denied to be such–are continually banished, nay, ejected forcibly by policemen, from the paternal roof in requital of just such profligate conduct as Savage displayed; so that, grant his improbable story, still he was a disorderly reprobate, who in these days would have been consigned to the treadmill. But the whole was a hoax.

Savage, however, is but a single case, in relation to which Dr. Johnson stood in a special position, that diseased his judgment. But look at Pope’s life, at Swift’s, at Young’s–at all the lives of men contemporary with himself: they are overrun with defamatory stories, or traits of that order which would most have stung them, had they returned to life. But it was an accident most beneficial to Dr. Johnson that nearly all these men left no near relatives behind to call him to account. The public were amused, as they always are by exhibitions of infirmity or folly in one whom otherwise they were compelled to admire; that was a sort of revenge for them to set off against a painful perpetuity of homage. Thus far the libels served only as jests, and, fortunately for Dr. Johnson, there arose no after-reckoning. One period, in fact, of thirty years had intervened between the last of these men and the publication of the Lives; it was amongst the latest works of Dr. Johnson: thus, and because most of them left no descendants, he escaped. Had the ordinary proportion of these men been married, the result would have been different; and whatever might have been thought of any individual case amongst the complaints, most undoubtedly, from the great number to which the Doctor had exposed himself, amongst which many were not of a nature to be evaded by any vouchers whatsoever, a fatal effect would have settled on the Doctor’s moral reputation. He would have been passed down to posterity as a dealer in wholesale scandal, who cared nothing for the wounded feelings of relatives. It is a trifle after that to add that he would frequently have been cudgelled.

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This public judgment upon Dr. Johnson and these cudgellings would have been too severe a chastisement for the offences, which, after all, argued no heavier delinquency than a levity in examining his chance authorities, and a constitutional credulity. Dr. Johnson’s easiness of faith for the supernatural, the grossness of his superstition in relation to such miserable impostures as the Cock Lane ghost, and its scratchings on the wall, flowed from the same source; and his conversation furnishes many proofs that he had no principle of resistance in his mind, no reasonable scepticism, when any disparaging anecdote was told about his nearest friends. Who but he would have believed the monstrous tale: that Garrick, so used to addressing large audiences extempore, so quick and lively in his apprehensions, had absolutely been dismissed from a court of justice as an idiot–as a man incapable of giving the court information even upon a question of his own profession? As to his credulity with respect to the somewhat harmless forgeries of Psalmanazer, and with respect to the villainous imposture of Lander, we imagine that other causes co-operated to those errors beyond mere facility of assenting. In the latter case we fear that jealousy of Milton as a scholar, a feeling from which he never cleansed himself, had been the chief cause of his so readily delivering himself a dupe to allegations not specious, backed by forgeries that were anything but ingenious. Dr. Johnson had a narrow escape on that occasion. Had Dr. Douglas fastened upon him as the collusive abettor of Lander, as the man whose sanction had ever won even a momentary credit for the obscure libeller, and as the one beyond all others of the age whose critical occupation ought most to have secured him against such a delusion, the character of Johnson would have suffered seriously. Luckily, Dr. Douglas spared him; and Johnson, seeing the infamy of the hoax, and the precipice near which he stood, hastened to separate himself from Lander, and to offer such reparation as he could, by dictating that unhappy letter of recantation. Lander must have consented to this step from hopes of patronage; and perhaps the obscure place of slave-driver in the West Indies, in which he died (after recanting his recantation), might be the unsatisfactory bait of his needy ambition. But assuredly Lander could have made out a better case for himself than that which, under his name, the Doctor addressed to the Bishop; it was a dark spot in Dr. Johnson’s life. A Scotsman, said he, must be a strange one who would not tell a falsehood in a case where Scotland was concerned; and we fear that any fable of defamation must have been gross indeed which Dr. Johnson would not have countenanced against Milton. His ‘Life of Milton,’ as it now stands, contains some of the grossest calumnies against that mighty poet which have ever been hazarded; and some of the deepest misrepresentations are coloured, to the unsuspecting reader, by an affectation of merriment. But in his ‘heart of hearts’ Dr. Johnson detested Milton. Gray, even though, as being little of a meddler with politics, he furnished no handle to the Doctor for wrath so unrelenting, was a subject of deep jealousy from his reputed scholarship. Never did the spite of the Doctor more emblazon itself than in his review of Gray’s lyrical compositions; the very affectation of prefacing his review by calling the two chief odes ‘the wonderful wonder of wonders’ betrays a female spite; and never did the arrogance of Dr. Johnson’s nature flame out so conspicuously as in some of the phrases used on this occasion. Perhaps it is an instance of self-inflation absolutely unique where he says, ‘My kindness for a man of letters’; this, it seems, caused him to feel pain at seeing Gray descending to what he, the Doctor (as a one-sided opinion of his own), held to be a fantastic foppery. The question we point at is not this supposed foppery–was it such or not? Milton’s having cherished that ‘foppery’ was a sufficient argument for detesting it. What we fix the reader’s eye upon is, the unparalleled arrogance of applying to Gray this extreme language of condescending patronage. He really had ‘a kindness’ for the little man, and was not ashamed, as some people would be, to own it; so that it shocked him more than else it would have done, to see the man disgracing himself in this way.

However, it is probable that all the misstatements of Dr. Johnson, the invidious impressions, and the ludicrous or injurious anecdotes fastened ad libitum upon men previously open to particular attacks, never will be exposed; and for this, amongst other reasons, that sometimes the facts of the case are irrecoverable, though falsehood may be apparent; and still more because few men will be disposed to degrade themselves by assuming a secondary and ministerial office in hanging upon the errors of any man. Pope was a great favourite with Dr. Johnson, both as an unreflecting Tory, who travelled the whole road to Jacobitism–thus far resembling the Doctor himself; secondly, as one who complimented himself whilst yet a young man, and even whilst wearing a masque–complimented him under circumstances which make compliments doubly useful, and make them trebly sincere. If any man, therefore, he would have treated indulgently Pope: yet his life it is which has mainly fixed upon Pope that false impression which predominates at this day–that doubtless intellectually he was a very brilliant little man; but morally a spiteful, peevish, waspish, narrow-hearted cynic. Whereas no imputation can be more unfounded. Pope, unless in cases when he had been maddened by lampoons, was a most benignant creature; and, with the slightest acknowledgment of his own merit, there never lived a literary man who was so generously eager to associate others in his own honours–those even who had no adequate pretensions. If you, reader, should, like ourselves, have had occasion to investigate Pope’s life, under an intention of recording it more accurately or more comprehensively than has yet been done, you will feel the truth of what we are saying. And especially we would recommend to every man, who wishes to think justly of Pope in this respect, that he should compare his conduct towards literary competitors with that of Addison. Dr. Johnson, having partially examined the lives of both, must have been so far qualified to do justice between them. But justice he has not done; and to him chiefly we repeat that at this day are owing the false impressions of Pope’s selfish, ungenial, or misanthropic nature; and the humiliating associations connected with Pope’s petty manoeuvring in trivial domestic affairs, chiefly through Dr. Johnson’s means, will never be obliterated. Let us turn, however, from Dr. Johnson, whom, with our general respect for his upright nature, it is painful to follow through circumstances where either jealousy (as sometimes) or credulity and the love of gossip (as very often) has misled him into gratifying the taste of the envious at a great sacrifice of dignity to the main upholders of our literature. These men ought not to have been ‘shown up’ for a comic or malicious effect. A nation who value their literature as we have reason to value ours ought to show their sense of this value by forgetting the degrading infirmities (not the venial and human infirmities) of those to whose admirable endowments they owe its excellence.

Turning away, therefore, from those modes of biography which have hitherto pursued any vicious extreme, let us now briefly explain our own ideal of a happier, sounder, and more ennobling biographical art, having the same general objects as heretofore, but with a more express view to the benefit of the reader. Looking even at those memoirs which, like Hayley’s of Cowper, have been checked by pathetic circumstances from fixing any slur or irreverential scandal upon their subject, we still see a great fault in the mass of biographic records; and what is it? It is–that, even where no disposition is manifested to copy either the eloge or the libellous pasquinade, too generally the author appears ex officio as the constant ‘patronus’ or legal advocate for the person recorded. And so he ought, if we understand that sort of advocacy which in English courts the judge was formerly presumed to exercise on behalf of the defendant in criminal trials. Before that remarkable change by which a prisoner was invested with the privilege of employing separate counsel, the judge was his counsel. The judge took care that no wrong was done to him; that no false impression was left with the jury; that the witnesses against him should not be suffered to run on without a sufficient rigour of cross-examination. But certainly the judge thought it no part of his duty to make ‘the worse appear the better reason’; to throw dust into the eyes of the jury; or to labour any point of equivocation for the sake of giving the prisoner an extra chance of escaping. And, if it is really right that the prisoner, when obviously guilty, should be aided in evading his probable conviction, then certainly in past times he had less than justice. For most undoubtedly no judge would have attempted what we all saw an advocate attempting about a year ago, that, when every person in court was satisfied of the prisoner’s guilt, from the proof suddenly brought to light of his having clandestinely left the plate of his murdered victim in a particular party’s safe keeping, at that moment the advocate (though secretly prostrated by this overwhelming discovery) struggled vainly to fix upon the honourable witness a foul stigma of self-contradiction and perjury for the single purpose of turning loose a savage murderer upon society. If this were not more than justice, then assuredly in all times past the prisoner had far less. Now, precisely the difference between the advocacy of the judge, and the advocacy of a special counsel retained by the prisoner, expresses the difference which we contemplate between the biographer as he has hitherto protected his hero and that biographer whom we would substitute. Is he not to show a partiality for his subject? Doubtless; but hitherto, in those lives which have been farthest from eloges, the author has thought it his duty to uphold the general system, polity, or principles upon which his subject has acted. Thus Middleton and all other biographers of Cicero, whilst never meditating any panegyrical account of that statesman, and oftentimes regretting his vanity, for instance, have quite as little thought it allowable to condemn the main political views, theories, and consequently actions, of Cicero. But why not? Why should a biographer be fettered in his choice of subjects by any imaginary duty of adopting the views held by him whose life he records? To make war upon the man, to quarrel with him in every page, that is quite as little in accordance with our notions; and we have already explained above our sense of its hatefulness. For then the question recurs for ever: What necessity forced you upon a subject whose conduct you thoroughly disapprove? But let him show the tenderness which is due to a great man even when he errs. Let him expose the total aberrations of the man, and make this exposure salutary to the pathetic wisdom of his readers, not alimentary to their self-conceit, by keeping constantly before their eyes the excellence and splendour of the man’s powers in contrast with his continued failures. Let him show such patronage to the hero of his memoir as the English judge showed to the poor prisoner at his bar, taking care that he should suffer no shadow of injustice from the witnesses; that the prisoner’s own self-defence should in no part be defeated of its effect by want of proper words or want of proper skill in pressing the forcible points on the attention of the jury; but otherwise leaving him to his own real merits in the facts of his case, and allowing him no relief from the pressure of the hostile evidence but such as he could find either in counter-evidence or in the intrinsic weight of his own general character. On the scheme of biography there would be few persons in any department of life who would be accompanied to the close by a bowing and obsequious reporter; there would be far less of uniform approbation presumable in memoirs; but, on the other hand, there would be exhibited pretty generally a tender spirit of dealing with human infirmities;
a large application of human errors to the benefit of succeeding generations; and, lastly, there would be an opening made for the free examination of many lives which are now in a manner closed against criticism; whilst to each separate life there would be an access and an invitation laid bare for minds hitherto feeling themselves excluded from approaching the subject by imperfect sympathy with the principles and doctrines which those lives were supposed to illustrate.

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But our reformed view of biography would be better explained by a sketch applied to Cicero’s life or to Milton’s. In either case we might easily show, consistently with the exposure of enormous errors, that each was the wisest man of his own day. And with regard to Cicero in particular, out of his own letters to Atticus, we might show that every capital opinion which he held on the politics of Rome in his own day was false, groundless, contradictory. Yet for all that, we would engage to leave the reader in a state of far deeper admiration for the man than the hollow and hypocritical Middleton ever felt himself, or could therefore have communicated to his readers.

EDITOR’S NOTE.–The reference on p. 122 is to the famous case of Courvoisier, in 1840, and this fixes 1841 as the date of the essay. Courvoisier was a valet who murdered and robbed his master, putting the plate into the care of an old woman, and making it appear a burglary. He was defended by a barrister named Philips, who received from the prisoner a confession of his guilt, and afterwards, in court, took Heaven to witness that he believed him innocent, though the woman, by accident almost, had been found, and given evidence. Philips was disbarred.


[1] In Mrs. Hannah More’s drawing-room at Barley Wood, amongst the few pictures which adorned it, hung a kit-kat portrait of John Henderson. This, and our private knowledge that Mrs. H. M. had personally known and admired Henderson, led us to converse with that lady about him. What we gleaned from her in addition to the notices of Aguttar and of some amongst Johnson’s biographers may yet see the light.

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