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The authorities in favour of Biographical Works are so numerous and exalted, that it is difficult to conceive the case of a modern reader, who is unable to adduce some well-known recommendation by which he may enforce the many services to be derived from the perusal of such volumes. Upon these reasons, preface to Biography is unnecessary, and apology for the task superfluous. After these admissions, it may seem strange that an advertisement is considered prudent in the present case: it is suggested, however, not because the nature of the book requires explanation, nor because its objects stand in need of favour ; but as the peculiar combination of its contents, and the purposes of their compilation, may not, at a single view, be completely inferred from the matter of a title-page, the reader is here troubled with an explanation.
Biography is the handmaid to History, and stands related to that style of composition by the same links through which the artist aids the higher productions of painting, when delineating the distinct features of separate portraits. A few mortals only have ever existed and been celebrated, respecting whom we do not possess some general accounts, embracing both the peculiarities of their persons, the character of their actions, and the nature of their fortunes. Of those of our countrymen, who have left a name behind them on earth, the records are various enough; and the only difficulty, as well in their cases, as in the cases of others, which interpose between a reader and his information, is the doubt he must necessarily labour under amidst such a multitude of subjects, lest he should not select the most profitable, and acquire the most useful particulars connected with his object. As for the inclination to know all that has been well done by individuals, and is well related of them, the ambition certainly deserves praise. Few, however, have leisure for the pursuit, and of those who are the masters of their own time, one and all may find that a single life is not sufficiently long to learn all that the millions who have breathed before its day may have achieved. Here it is that the contrarieties which perplex the views of a student in making choice of the best models for instruction rise thick and fast upon the mind. What deepens this confusion still more, is, that upon no one rank of human professions or studies can a reader be at a loss to find authors, who prefer one chief class to all the rest, as the most engaging and beneficial. In fact, every writer labours to make the character he has undertaken to portray, the highest and most valuable; and, as every character has been written on over and over again, it would follow from these representations, that all are alike exemplary and heroic.
But objections to all in their turns are equally common, and every where to be met with. Thus, if inclined to investigate the career of those great men who directed the events of history, subverted kingdoms, and then laid the foundations of new dynasties ; we are told that the actions of such persons help no one to regulate the affairs of private life ; and that such information is in general more adapted to the purposes of ostentation than utility. If the exploits of war or the intrigues of courts gave occupation to the person described, the same objection still applies; and we are thereupon farther apprised that the greater part of mankind read such things with indifference: being remote from the experience of the reader, they are viewed with the wonder of a fable from antiquity, or a fairy tale. In the same manner, the life of an author is undervalued; it is barren, because retired; and the study of his works is recommended in preference to the krowledge of those circumstances by which he was enabled to render his writings meritorious. The painter too, according to those who form such objections, is best seen on his canvass; and the biography of the actor is set aside as idle, because the effect which he produced was ephemeral; and no words can preserve powers which, to be felt, must be witnessed. Nay, more: if a man tells the story of his own life, he is said to magnify trifles; and if it is detailed by another, he must be either an admirer or an enemy, and, by consequence, either prejudiced or partial.
Such and so cynical are the multiplied obstacles which block up the paths of biographical information to the young and inquisitive; and thus acrimonious are the contradictions which the compiler of any volume upon the subject has to reconcile. To do this, it is only necessary to revert to the first principle, which, though all seem to incommode, still all are forward to admit, namely, that in biography are sure to be found unqualified advantage and fixed interest. The axiom above all others upon which this truth rests, is the general admission, that there is no life, however humble, from which something might not be learned, if every event of its course was faithfully preserved by the living subject. The clue to all the conflicting opinions already noticed, must therefore be sought for principally in the selections which have been made of the characters for biography. Upon this ground it becomes the prominent merit and most conciliative feature of these volumes, that the many
different names which figure throughout their pages, have been chosen for celebrity by no single being, and no one age. The strong voice of Antiquity proclaimed the dead of Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's Cathedral illustrious and commendable ; and the echo of latter years, as they arose from the revolutions of time, confirmed the dictation. This book does not commemorate those lives which, it is the bare opinion of the writer, deserve praise ard example; it records those mortals whom their country and the world concur to make immortal. The graves of Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's Cathedral were only sunk that the remains deposited in them should continue to survive in holiness for the wonder and admiration of generations upon generations. With this combination, then, let the doubtful rest satisfied, and the querulous be reconciled ; and if none can deny that there is a moral to be drawn from biography, so let all confess that it cannot be extracted from a better collection than the present.
But there is another point of view in which this work deserves to be particularly regarded. Architecture and sculpture are among those fine arts which afford the most durable testimony of the civilization and attainments of past ages. From no source does history derive surer knowledge than from statuary and architectural relics : upon no subject therefore can learning be more advantageously employed than in illustrating the merits incidental to those labours. The plates devoted to
this feature of the book will be found peculiarly interesting. Independent of their connexion with the bright names insczibed upon them, they are intrinsically entitled to particular examination, as so many specimens of the progress of those arts which have been greatly neglected amongst us, though well deserving of a better care. Any one line that may be fortunate enough to revive a feeling of devotion for them, will not have been written in vain. And here a word, perhaps, may be spared for the present state of those monuments. All that has been defaced from them should be reset, and all that has been mutilated, supplied. Time and expense will both need to be largely drawn on for the purpose; but the end is above the consideration of mere money, and worth the labour of any time. Inferior as they may seem apart, these are the remains that constitute the chief glory of St. Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Abbey : the magnificence of the structure itself, and the holiness of its consecration, are both incomparably deepened by the solemnity which expands over the bones of the mighty dead commemorated along their aisles. Why then should the stone of the church be refitted with care, and the marble of the tomb be left to crumble in neglect ? Both are sacred alike, and should alike be preserved in piety; for the interest of the one must be greatly diminished, when the beauties of the other have ceased to exist.