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disappointments, is quick enough in wearing away the sanguine and ingenious bloom of our thoughts, which we bring with us at first into the commerce of mankind. · Let us leave it therefore untouched as long as we can, and reverence it as a testimony that does honour to our nature, and the original constitution of our minds.
No 11. SATURDAY, APRIL 14.
Ipse ordo annalium mediocriter nos retinet quasi enumeratione fasto
rum ; at viri sæpe excellen ancipites variique casus habent admirationem, expectationem, lætitiam, molestiam, spem, timorem.
CICERO. Annals, by their very nature, can interest us but little more
than almanacks; but the changes and distresses in the life of an excellent character, raise in our bosoms admiration, expectation, joy, sorrow, hope, fear.
It is a common custom with me, when my mother is gone to bed, to take up some entertaining book for a quarter of an hour, in order to steal my mind from the weight of this undertaking, which otherwise would so oppress my brain that I should not be able to take my due rest: for there is a sort of tenacity in one's thoughts, that makes them adhere to what they have been exercised upon, in spite of one's self; just as iron which has been rubbed upon a loadstone, is drawn towards it with a greater force of attraction.
The other night, feeling myself in the predicament I have been describing, I took up the first book that offered itself, which happened to be a volume of Tacitus. It opened itself at that passage which is at the end of the life of Juliụs Agricola, where the author pours forth his feelings in that pious apostrophe, and sums up, in a few sentences, all that is great or amiable in the human character. There is something in these unbought testimonies of genuine praise, that reaches to the hearts of those who are simple lookers-on; and I always feel that I have this advantage over the parties themselves, that whereas they can have but a single object of admiration or gratitude, I can venerate and admire both at the same time, and feel a double portion of sensibility and delight.
This is one among the many reasons, which render biography the most agreeable kind of reading in the world. It is the business of History to trace, through a long succession of events, the remote relations of cause and effect, to mark the different gradations in the progress of society, and to hold out to man the humiliating lesson of national vicissitude: but Biography is studious of finding out the paths which lead to our finest sensibilities, and, by acquainting us with the domestic transactions, introducing us to the private hours, and disclosing to us the secret propensities, enjoyments, and weaknesses of celebrated persons, increase our sympathy in proportion to our intimacy with the object held up to us, and heighten our curiosity with the touches of affection and interest.
Even in the contemplation of characters eminently flagitious, from this close inspection afforded us by the minuteness of biography, we feel a gloomy sort of satisfaction, in witnessing their moments of remorse and sorrow, and (as the heart is rarely abandoned to total depravity) in tracing out those so
litary features of humanity, which save the blank and hopeless extinction of all virtue. But if the character held up to our view be such as to call forth our love and admiration, our ardours and sympathies are excited with so much the greater vehemence, as they are accumulated upon one object, like the rays of the sun collected into a focus. Nothing is more pleasing than thus to gain a distinct and steady view of those of whom we have hitherto caught only a transient glimpse, through the medium of history, amidst a crowd of contending objects; to be able in a manner to erect for our favourite hero a separate altar, and to offer up at his shrine peculiar adoration and appropriate honours.
The advantages of biography in a moral view are no less apparent: for as our sympathies are more strongly excited, when our attention is drawn towards a single object, than in the more cursory and crowded prospects of human actions; in the same proportion is the simple and narrow course of biography more capable of aiding the cause of virtue, than the more extended and ostentatious plan of historical composition.
Our respect for biography is still further increased when we consider that a prevailing taste for it is some indication of the good dispositions of an age, as it
argues a spirit of emulation, and a general admiration of virtuous excellence: “ Virtutes iisdem temporibus optiniè estimantur quibus facillini gignuntur.' “ Virtues have most credit given to them in that age which is most fertile in producing them.” But these advantages do not of necessity arise out of biəgraphy, but depend entirely upon its proper management and cultivation. Its fairest opportunities and noblest designs may be defeated and lost, by a neglect of those rules and principles to which it
should ever conform, or without a competent share of genius and penetration. The choice of incidents, the developement of character, the arrangement of matter, the harmony of colouring, the seasonable introduction of subordinate actors, and the due gradation of importance bestowed upon
them, are essentials in this species of composition greatly beyond the reach of ordinary capacities; and the delicacy and difficulty which attends it have been signally proved in the many unsuccessful attempts which have been made to mould into an interesting and impressive form the memoirs of a very virtuous and wise, though partial and austere, character of the present age.
What at first view may appear to be a considerable advantage in the nature of biographical writings, may ultimately prove a source of much inconvenience. The exemption to which it seems entitled from the graver and chaster rules of history, has caused many to abuse this indulgence, and to fall into the extreme of irregularity and licentiousness. They have thought it enough to scrape together a loose and undigested mass of anecdotes, without attending to the great points of arrangement and colouring; they have heaped a pile of facts together, without troubling themselves to observe if they united in their conclusions: so that the reader is at last abandoned to his own unaided judgement and undecided opinions, unable to reconcile the multifarious collection of contradictory elements and incongruous parts.
It is true, the varieties of every man's conduct, when viewed at different times, and under different circumstances, present an unaccountable medley to the superficial observer; but such as study human nature attentively, and examine deeply into the motives and spirit of human actions, discover a latent order and analogy in these contradictory appearances, and perceive that the same passions of the human breast produce very different effects and phenomena in different situations, while the springs and principles are still the same; and that we still propose to ourselves the same ends and gratifications, while we frequently change our modes of pursuit, and adopt various and even opposite means, as expediency or humour directs.
To make up a perfect whole, and to afford the mind an opportunity of deducing those general conclusions on which it is ever so fond of reposing, to unfold the leading principles of action in the character under contemplation, and to single out those facts and incidents which exhibit the principal object in the fullest point of view, is the proper task of biography; our respect for which is heightened by thus considering its extent and importance; and we cannot but allow that it exercises a great portion of taste and imagination, and combines the excellencies of robust and solid parts, with those which spring from brilliant capacities and delicate perceptions.
It is worth while also to remark with what advantage this spirit of biography will sometimes enter into the plan of history, the most attractive and animated parts of which are often those partial delineations of select and favourite characters, where the vehemence of admiration overcomes the general sobriety, and equal tenour, of historical representation; and the heat of the writer's bosom prevails above the ceremony of rules, and shows itself in bold and enthusiastical touches of extraordinary splendor.
These hints upon the nature and rules of biography, came from
my friend Mr. Allworth's mouth, at the last meeting of our society, where the conversa