Page images

Mr. Roscoe; the Life of Burke, by Dr. BissetT; and the Life of Milton, by Mr. Haley, claim a distinction in this class of modern writings, which demands particular notice.

The Life of Dr. Johnson, by Mr. Boswell, is a curious and singular specimen of biography. Perhaps no character was ever so fully displayed in its alternate exhibitions of greatness and littleness as the illustrious subject of this work. Mr. Boswell, in the compilation, had in view as a model, the Memoirs of GRAY, by Mr. MASON;! but in the opinion of the best judges, the biographer of JOHNSON, with all his vanity and weakness, greatly exceeds Mr. Mason in the quantity, the variety, and the richness of his materials. In favour of this plan of biographical composition much

may be said. Had we memoirs of this ample and minute kind of every great benefactor to the interests of science, literature and virtue, they would form a most curious, and, in some respects, an invaluable treasure. But it may well be questioned whether dragging into public view, and placing on permanent record, the occasional follies, the temporary mistakes, and every unguarded sally of merriment or passion, into which a great mind may be led, ought to be approved or encouraged. To delineate a character faithfully in its leading features, whether great and honourable, or otherwise, is the duty of every good biographer; but to crowd the pages of an eminently wise and vir

; Works intended to do honour to learned and ingenious men, by collecting their wise and witty sayings, and giving familiar details of their conduct, were compiled many centuries anterior to the eighteenth. The earliest work of this kind now extant is the Memorabilia of XENOPHON. WOLFius, in his Causaboniana, tells us that the first of the books in ana, was that compiled in honour of the great Scaliger, and called Scaligerana, drawn from the papers of Vassant and VeRTUNIAN, who took the whole from the mouth of that celebrated scholar. In later times works of this nature have wonderfully multiplied. Monthly Review.

tuous man's life with the recital of every momentary error and ridiculous foible; to dwell with as much studious care on the trivial follies and prejudices of such a character, as on his sublime powers and excellence; and to record every vain or erroneous saying, or unjustifiable action, which cannot be considered as properly belonging to the character, may be safely pronounced to be a plan of biography which, though highly interesting, is neither useful nor wise.k

The manner of M. Bayle has been imitated by many subsequent writers. Of these the most remarkable compiler of individual Lives, in the English language, is Mr. Harris, whose biographical works, on JAMES I. Charles I. OLIVER CROMWELL, and CHARLES II. are generally known, and have been much applauded.

Many single Lives of eminent men, on different plans, and of various degrees of merit, appeared on the continent of Europe, in the course of the last age. Of these the Life of Petrarch, by the Abbé De la SADE; and the Life of Erasmus, by M. BURIGNI, deserve particular notice. They are both biographical works of great merit, and probably have few superiors of their kind in any language. Perhaps it might be added, that the plan

[ocr errors]

& There are two extremes into which biographers are apt to fall. The one is adopting a continued strain of eulogy, and endeavouring either wholly to keep out of view, or ingeniously to varnish over the errors and weaknesses of those whose lives they record. To this fault in biographical writing Mr. HALEY discovers, perhaps, too strong a tendency. If I do not greatly mistake, his Life of Milton and his Life of Cowper may both be justly impeached on this ground. The other, and a more mischievous extreme is, recording against departed worth, with studied amplitude, and disgusting minuteness, the momentary mistakes of forgetfulness, the occasional vagaries of levity, and the false opinions, expressed not as the result of sober reflection, but thrown out either in a mirthful hour, or in the heat of disputation. Of the latter fault Mr. BOSWELL’s Life of Johnson furnishes perhaps the most singular example. The proper course is between these extremes; and of chis course it is to be lamented that we have so few models. VOL. II.


on which they are composed is, on the whole, the best plan of biography now in use.

But these are only two specimens out of a very large list which, were the author sufficiently acquainted with them, might, with propriety, be mentioned with nearly equal honour. The Life of M. TURgot, by M. CONDORCET, and the Life of M. DE VOLTAIRE, by the same author, have also been much celebrated and admired, among a certain class of readers.

At the close of the eighteenth century a species of biographical writing came into vogue, of which, it is believed, no example ever appeared in any preceding age. This is the Accounts of distinguished Living Characters, with which, for some years past, Europe has abounded. It is not

whether this species of writing is more useful or injurious in its tendency. Like almost every other kind of literary work, however, its effect must depend on the mode in which it is executed. If this be impartial, skilful, and just, it will, doubtless, tend to satisfy curiosity, to encourage rising genius, to correct the foibles of public men, and to extend general knowledge. Means were adopted, during the last age,

fot facilitating the acquisition and retention of biographical knowledge, similar to those which were before mentioned

as belonging to the department of history. Biographical Charts were first formed on the continent of Europe, where they have appeared in various forms. This contrivance, it is believed, was first introduced into Great-Britain by Dr. PRIESTLEY.

easy to

to say



FICTITIOUS narrative, as a medium of instruction or entertainment, has been employed from the earliest ages of which we have any knowledge. Of this kind of composition, we have some interesting specimens in the sacred writings. Bụt, like every thing else in the hands of depraved man, it has been unhappily perverted and abused. For many centuries the only form of fictitious history in vogue was that of Romance,' or descriptions of the characters and manners of former times, mingled with many extravagant and improbable circumstances, and calculated to meet that fondness for the marvellous, which so strongly characterizes the human mind.

One of the earliest writers of this class, of whom we have any distinct account, but by no means one of the most extravagant of them, was HELIODORUS, Bishop of Tricca, in Thessaly, who lived in the fourth century." His work was entitled Ethiopics, from the scene of the adventures being laid in Ethiopia. And although it was a decent and moral performance, and the inhabitants of Antioch attested that it had reformed the females of their city; yet the author, for writing, and refusing to suppress it, was deprived of his Bishopric, and deposed from the clerical office. M. BAYLE humorously observes, that the marriage of Theagines and Chariclea, the hero and heroine of this romance, was the most prolific of any that he had read of; having produced all the romances which have been written since that time.

i The word Romance is of Spanish origin, and signifies the Spanish tongue; the greater part of which is derived from the ancient Latin or Roman language. It seenis the first Spanish books were fabulous, and be. ing called Romance, on account of the tongue in which they were written, the same name was afterwards given, by the other nations of Europe, not to Spanish books, which is the proper application of the term, but to a certain class of fabulous writings. See Beattie On Fable and Romance.

m Doubts have been entertained whether the work of HelioDORU 3 were really the first romance. Some suppose that instances of this kind of writing may be traced back as far as the time of ARISTOTLE. Others have thought that, from the Asiatic Researches, and other modern publications on Oriental literature, there is reason to believe that the native country of Romance is the East, which seems to have produced many extravagant specimens, from time immemorial. See Curiosities of Literature, by D'ISRAELI.

After the time of HELIODORUS romances became still more extravagant and absurd in their character. The times and principles of Chivalry conferred upon them new features, and gave

them a different cast from all the fictitious writings which had before appeared. In these performances the reader was continually presented with the wild absurdities, and the heroic exploits of knight-errantry. Giants, dragons, enchanted castles, fairies, ghosts, and all the tribes of imaginary wonders were constantly passing before him. Probability, and even possibility, were little consulted. To arrest, astonish, and intoxicate the mind, seem to have been their principal objects. But extravagance was not the only fault of the old romantic writings. They were often grossly immoral in their nature and tendency, abounding in every species of impure and corrupting exhibition of vice. They were also, in general, tediously diffuse, extending to many volumes, and fatiguing the reader with their unnecessary prolixity.

Romance retained its empire in every literary part of Europe, until the beginning of the seventeenth century, about which time MIGUEL DE CERVANTES, a native of Madrid, published his celebrated satirical romance, entitled The History of

[ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »