One other extract from the general remarks on Books in this essay, and we will turn to another:–
“In all our estimation of the various qualities of books, if it be true that our reading assists our life, it is true also that our life assists our reading. If we let our spirit talk to us in undistracted moments–if we commune with friendly, serious Nature, face to face, often–if we pursue honourable aims in a steady progress–if we learn how a man’s best work falls below his thought, yet how still his failure prompts a tenderer love of his thought–if we live in sincere, frank relations with some few friends, joying in their joy, hearing the tale and sharing the pain of their grief, and in frequent interchange of honest, household sensibility–if we look about us on character, marking distinctly what we can see, and feeling the prompting of a hundred questions concerning what is out of our ken:–if we live thus, we shall be good readers and critics of books, and improving ones.”
The second and third of these essays are on Biography and Fiction respectively and principally; treating, however, of collateral subjects as well. Deep is the relation between the life shadowed forth in a biography, and the life in a man’s brain which he shadows forth in a fiction–when that fiction is of the highest order, and written in love, is beheld even by the writer himself with reverence. Delightful, surely, it must be; yes, awful too, to read to-day the embodiment of a man’s noblest thought, to follow the hero of his creation through his temptations, contests, and victories, in a world which likewise is–
“All made out of the carver’s brain;”
and to-morrow to read the biography of this same writer. What of his own ideal has he realized? Where can the life-fountain be detected within him which found issue to the world’s light and air, in this ideal self? Shall God’s fiction, which is man’s reality, fall short of man’s fiction? Shall a man be less than what he can conceive and utter? Surely it will not, cannot end thus. If a man live at all in harmony with the great laws of being–if he will permit the working out of God’s idea in him, he must one day arrive at something greater than what now he can project and behold. Yet, in biography, we do not so often find traces of those struggles depicted in the loftier fiction. One reason may be that the contest is often entirely within, and so a man may have won his spiritual freedom without any outward token directly significant of the victory; except, if he be an artist, such expression as it finds in fiction, whether the fiction be in marble, or in sweet harmonies, or in ink. Nor can we determine the true significance of any living act; for being ourselves within the compass of the life-mystery, we cannot hold it at arm’s length from us and look at its lines of configuration. Nor of a life can we in any measure determine the success by what we behold of it. It is to us at best but a truncated spire, whose want of completion may be the greater because of the breadth of its base, and its slow taper, indicating the lofty height to which it is intended to aspire. The idea of our own life is more than we can embrace. It is not ours, but God’s, and fades away into the infinite. Our comprehension is finite; we ourselves infinite. We can only trust in God and do the truth; then, and then only, is our life safe, and sure both of continuance and development.
But the reviewer perhaps too often merely steals his author’s text and writes upon it; or, like a man who lies in bed thinking about a dream till its folds enwrap him and he sinks into the midst of its visions, he forgets his position of beholding, and passes from observation into spontaneous utterance. What says our author about “biography, autobiography, and history?” This lecture has pleased the reviewer most of the four. Reading it in a lonely place, under a tree, with wide fields and slopes around, it produced on his mind the two effects which perhaps Mr. Lynch would most wish it should produce–namely, first, a longing to lead a more true and noble life; and, secondly, a desire to read more biography. Nor can he but hope that it must produce the same effect on every earnest reader, on every one whose own biography would not be altogether a blank in what regards the individual will and spiritual aim.