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TELLECTUAL EXCELLENCE. BIRTH OF PORSON. CHARACTER OF HIS
HIS EDUCATION BY HIS FATHER, AND AT A VILLAGE
THE charms of fiction are much less forcible than those of truth. Histories of imaginary personages, however strikingly represented, are much less interesting than those of eminent characters that really existed. The man who read Robinson Crusoe as a true tale found much fewer attractions in it when he was told that it was an invention.
The desire to know how our fellow-creatures, especially the most distinguished of them, have lived, is the cause that biography gains so much attention.
Whoever relates the life, or any considerable portion of the life, of any remarkable person, has the satisfaction of expecting that his narrative, unless given in an absolutely repulsive style, will attract some share of regard.
But the pleasure which the biographer thus derives from his occupation is often somewhat diminished by the consciousness that, to satisfy those who seek his pages, he must tell the whole truth concerning the person of whom he writes, and that much of the truth cannot always be told without reluctance. No human character is perfect; and those who speak of the best of men have frequently to notice in them errors and deficiencies which they cannot but lament. Yet, unless the biographer offers a mere apology for a life, or produces a simple éloge after the fashion of the French, he must tell alike the evil and the good, and must adhere to the maxim, ne quid falsi dicere audeat, ne quid veri non audeat; he must, while he asserts nothing that is false, admit everything that is true; he must set forth whatever tends justly and fully to characterise the subject of his narrative.
The higher that subject rises in intellectual excellence, or in any particular department of it, the greater will sometimes be the failings or irregularities that the writer of his life will have to disclose. "Nature, apparently," said Styan Thirlby, as we are told by Mr. Nichols, in his "Literary Anecdotes,” “intended a kind of parity among her sons; but sometimes she deviates a little from her general purpose, and sends into the world a man of powers superior to the rest, of quicker intuition and wider comprehension; this man
INTRODUCTORY REMARKS. .
has all other men for his enemies, and would not be suffered to live his natural time, but that his excellences are balanced by his failings. He that by intellectual exaltation thus towers above his contemporaries, is drunken, or lazy, or capricious; or, by some defect or other, is hindered from exerting his sovereignty of mind; he is thus kept upon the level, and thus preserved from the destruction which would be the natural consequence of universal hatred."
Whether the mass of mankind would ever rise to destroy a fellow-creature possessed of unrivalled intellectual powers, may be doubted; for it might be expected that such a being would act so as to secure the approbation and esteem of at least a majority of those around him; but it is certain that men distinguished by eminent mental abilities are often drawn down, whether by the influence of others, or by their own imprudence and misconduct, to a condition far below that of many others who are too much their inferiors in mind to be able even to estimate their merits. It is not necessary to recur to the lives of Edmund Smith, or Samuel Boyse, or Edgar Poe, for examples of such degradation; for almost every man, whether high or low, whether of little education or of much, has seen something of the kind among his own connexions or acquaintance. Those who contemplate the lives and fortunes of mankind, too often, as they increase their knowledge, increase their sorrow. If they discover great merits in eminent characters, they find them, perhaps, the more they search, obscured by such defects as they could at one time have scarcely imagined. They find gold, but gold mingled with clay.
It might seem, indeed, that superior qualities of any kind are often bestowed upon their possessors only to their harm. Intellectual greatness is envied; the possessors of it are frequently denied, or unwillingly allowed, any other merit; and the virtues of independence of spirit, integrity, and honourable ambition, appear, in many cases, to obstruct the worldly progress of those who possess them in a high degree, while those who have but a small, or inconsiderable portion of them, make their way easily in the world, and rise unimpeded to offices of profit and distinction. Even if we look only to peace and quiet of life, it might seem that the less highly endowed have the advantage. It might seem that honour, with its frequent attendant disquiet, is ill gained by the sacrifice of tranquillity and ease. It might seem that those who are content to pursue the humble path of life, who feel and acknowledge the inferiority of their mental endowments, who seek no high position, and court no public applause, but who are satisfied to float along the stream of existence without trouble or exertion, pass their days far more happily than those who are incited from within to pursue honour and renown. It might be questioned whether he who remarked the antipathy of quick bosoms to quiet, had, in reality, more enjoyment of his existence than the tradesman who passes his forty or fifty years in sluggish quietude, who has no higher ambition than to pay his way, and who seeks no greater gratification than that of eating and drinking, or the leisure of a few days, which he knows not how to turn to account. If it be said that the higher mind. has the advantage in variety of thought, and frequently
of action, it may be questioned whether the course of life which resembles the smoothly-flowing river, is not preferable to that which may be compared to the swiftly-rushing flood, agitated and broken with rocks, trunks of trees, and other obstacles.
The man whose life we propose to relate was eminently distinguished for tenacity of memory, quickness of perspicacity, and accuracy of judgment; and we shall see how much these qualities appear to have contributed to his comfort.
RICHARD PORSON was born at the village of East Ruston, near North Walsham, in Norfolk, on Christmas Day 1759. His father, Huggin Porson, was a weaver, and clerk of the parish. Anne, his mother, was the daughter of Thomas Palmer, a shoemaker, of the neighbouring parish of Bacton. He was the second of a family of four, the others being a sister, the eldest, and two brothers, all possessed of considerable ability. Neither of his parents had had any education, beyond what might be gained at a village school; but his father was a man of great sense and strong memory, and appears to have attained a considerable knowledge of arithmetic, for he taught his son, while he was yet a child, to work sums in the common rules of arithmetic by memory only; and before he was nine years old enabled him, with the aid of an old book on arithmetic, to extract the cube root in that way. Being of a steady and sedate character, he bred up all his children in habits of frugality and order. His mother had a taste, limited as was her education, for poetry, and was familiar with the plays of Shakspeare, of which she could repeat many of the more popular and striking