« ForrigeFortsett »
who formed the circle of his friends while he resided in Lichfield; and the very singular and interesting history of one of them, well known in the lettered world, whose domestic history, remarkable as it is, has been unaccountably omitted by the gentleman who wrote his life.
Dr. Darwin's Letters make no part of these Memoirs. Possessing few of them myself, and those perfectly inconsequential, no effort has here been made to obtain them from others. He lived not, like Pope and Swift, Gray and Johnson, in exclusive devotion to abstract literature. During such hours of repose, compared to his busy and hurried life, he might have found leisure to pour his imagination and his knowledge on the epistolary page; but his epistles, though professionally numerous, were short from necessity, and by choice compressed. He has often said that he had not the talent of elegant letter-writing. Like all other distinguished acquirements, it can only obtain excel. lence from frequent and diffuse practice, unrestrained by the interfering pressure of extrinsic considerations.
It was also his frequent remark, that literary fame invariably suffers by the publication of every thing which is below the level of that celebrity which it has already gained. Letters, through
either wit scatters its scintillations, criticism its instruction, knowledge its treasures, or fancy its glow, are not beneath the dignity of the most eminent reputation; but since coercive circumstances in a great measure precluded those effusions to the letters of Darwin, there would be no kindness to his memory in obtruding them upon the public ; none to the public in swelling out books with materials of no intrinsic value. It is only zeal without judgment, and the enthusiasm of partiality, which can take pleasure in reading a great man's letters, which might have been those of any tolerably educated mind, on which genius had never shone.
Biography of recently departed Eminence is apt to want characteristic truth, since it is generally written either by a near relation,
Who writes to share the fame of the deceased,
So high in merit, and to him so dear!
or by an highly obliged friend, whom gratitude and affection render blindly partial, and who is influenced by a desire of gratifying, with a descrip
* Young's Night Thoughts.
tion of all-excelling endowment and angelic excellence, the surviving family of the author he commemorates; or by an editor who believes it highly conducive to his profits on the writings he publishes or republishes, to claim for their author the unqualified admiration and reverence of mankind. All these classes of biographers do for the person whom they commemorate, what our generally wise Queen Elizabeth had the weakness to request her painters would do for her portrait on the canvass; they draw a picture without shades.
But though people of credulous and efferves. cent zeal may be gratified by seeing a writer, whose works have charmed them, thus invested with unrivalled genius and super-human virtue, the judicious few, whose approbation is genuine honor, are aware of this truth, asserted by Mrs. Barbauld in her beautiful, her inestimable Essay against Inconsistency in our Expectations: “ Na“ ture is much too frugal to heap together all man
ner of shining qualities in one glaring mass *.” Every man has his errors, and the errors of public characters are too well known not to expose unfounded eulogium to the distaste of all who prefer truth to enthusiasm. They are conscious that the
* Aikin's and Barbauld's Essays.
mind, as well as the person, of a celebrated character, ought to be drawn with dispassionate fidelity, or not attempted; that though just biographic record will touch the failings of the good and the eminent with tenderness, it ought not to spread over them the veil of suppression. A portrait painter might as well omit each appropriate distinction of feature, countenance, and form, because it may not be elegant, and, like the Limner in Gay's Fables, finish his pictures from casts of the Venus and Apollo, as the historian conceal the faults, foibles, and weaknesses of the individual whom he delineates.
It is this fidelity of representation which makes Mrs. Piozzi's Memoirs, of Dr. Johnson, and Mr. Boswell's Tour, and his Life of that wonderful being, so valuable to those who wish not for an idol to worship, instead of a great man to contemplate, as nature, passion, and habit, compounded his character.
If those biographers had invested their deceased friend with excellence, which no sombre irritability had ever overshadowed;....with justice and candour, which no literary jealousy, no party prejudice, no bigot zeal had ever warped ;....the public might have been led, through boundless veneration of one, into injustice towards many. The world might have been induced to believe that all whose merit he has depreciated, whose talents he has undervalued, through the course of his Lives of the Poets, had deserved the fate they met on those pages. Then, to the injury of our national taste, and to the literary and moral character of the great English Classics, more universal confidence had been placed in the sophistries of those volumes, which seem to have put on the whole armour of truth by the force of their eloquence and the wit of their satire.
A paragraph which appeared in several of the late newspapers, and which contained a ridiculously false print, political for poetical, mentioned that these expected Memoirs were undertaken at the request of the late Dr. Darwin's family. A mistaken rumour; though they certainly had their rise in the expressed desire of Dr. Robert Darwin of Shrewsbury, that I would supply him with such anecdotes of his father's earlier life, as my intimacy with him, during that period, had enabled me to obtain, and which might assist in forming a biographic sketch, to be prefixed to his writings at some future time. In purposed obedience these records were begun, but they became too extended to form only materials for another person's composition; and too impartial to pass with propriety