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Some Thoughts On Biography
by [?]

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.