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Some Thoughts On Biography
by [?]

Libels, however, may be accredited and published where there is no particle of enmity or of sudden irritation. Such were the libels of Plutarch and Dr. Johnson. They are libels prompted by no hostile feelings at all, but adopted by mere blind spirit of credulity. In this world of ours, so far as we are acquainted with its doings, there are precisely four series–four aggregate bodies–of Lives, and no more, which you can call celebrated; which have had, and are likely to have, an extensive influence–each after its own kind. Which be they? To arrange them in point of time, first stand Plutarch’s lives of eminent Greeks and Romans; next, the long succession of the French Memoirs, beginning with Philippe de Commines, in the time of Louis XI. or our Edward IV., and ending, let us say, with the slight record of himself (but not without interest) of Louis XVIII.; thirdly, the Acta Sanctorum of the Bollandists; fourthly, Dr. Johnson’s ‘Lives of the Poets.’ The third is a biographical record of the Romish saints, following the order of the martyrology as it is digested through the Roman calendar of the year; and, as our own ‘Biographia Britannica’ has only moved forwards in seventy years to the letter ‘H,’ or thereabouts (which may be owing to the dissenting blight of Dr. Kippis), pari passu, the Acta Sanctorum will be found not much farther advanced than the month of May–a pleasant month certainly, but (as the Spectator often insinuates) perilous to saintship. Laying this work out of consideration, as being chiefly employed in eulogy such as could not be extravagant when applied to the glorious army of martyrs (although here also, we doubt not, are many libels against men concerning whom it matters little whether they were libelled or not), all the rest of the great biographical works are absolutely saturated with libels. Plutarch may be thought to balance his extravagant slanders by his impossible eulogies. He sees nothing wonderful in actions that were far beyond the level of any motives existing under pagan moralities; and, on the other hand, he traduces great men like Caesar, whose natures were beyond his scale of measurement, by tracing their policy to petty purposes entirely Plutarchian. But he was a Greekling in a degenerate age of Grecians. As to the French Memoirs, which are often so exceedingly amusing, they purchase their liveliness by one eternal sacrifice of plain truth. Their repartees, felicitous propos, and pointed anecdotes are but one rolling fire of falsehoods. And, generally, it may be laid down as a rule, that all collectors of happy retorts and striking anecdotes are careless of truth. Louis XIV. does seem to have had a natural gift of making brilliant compliments and happy impromptus; and yet the very best of his reputed mots were spurious. Some may be traced to Cicero, Hierocles, Diogenes; and some to his modern predecessors. That witty remark ascribed to him about the disposition of Fortune, as being a lady, to withdraw her favours from old men like himself and the Marechal Boufflers, was really uttered nearly two centuries before by the Emperor Charles V., who probably stole it from some Spanish collection of jests. And so of fifty in every hundred beside. And the French are not only apt beyond other nations to abuse the license of stealing from our predecessor quod licuit semperque licebit, but also, in a degree peculiar to themselves, they have a false de-naturalized taste in the humorous, and as to the limits of the extravagant. We have formerly illustrated this point, and especially we noticed it as a case impossible to any nation but the French to have tolerated the pretended ‘absences’ of La Fontaine–as, for instance, his affecting to converse with his own son as an entire stranger, and asking the lady who had presented him what might be the name of that amiable young man. The incredulus odi faces one in every page of a French memoir; veracity is an unknown virtue, and, wherever that is the taste, look for libels by wholesale. Too often even the unnatural and the monstrous is courted, rather than miss the object of arresting and startling. Now, Dr. Johnson’s calumnies or romances were not of that order. He had a healthy spirit of reverence for truth; but he was credulous to excess, and he was plagued by an infirmity not uncommon amongst literary men who have no families of young people growing up around their hearth–the hankering after gossip. He was curious about the domestic habits of his celebrated countrymen; inquisitive in a morbid degree about their pecuniary affairs: ‘What have you got in that pocket which bulges out so prominently?’ ‘What did your father do with that hundred guineas which he received on Monday from Jacob Jonson?’ And, as his ‘swallow’ was enormous–as the Doctor would believe more fables in an hour than an able-bodied liar would invent in a week–naturally there was no limit to the slanders with which his ‘Lives of the Poets’ are overrun.