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Some Thoughts On Biography
by [?]

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.