Part 5 out of 7
"Manners are not idle, but the fruit
Of noble nature and of loyal mind."--TENNYSON.
"A beautiful behaviour is better than a beautiful form; it gives a
higher pleasure than statues and pictures; it is the finest of the
"Manners are often too much neglected; they are most important to
men, no less than to women.... Life is too short to get over a
bad manner; besides, manners are the shadows of virtues."--THE
REV. SIDNEY SMITH.
Manner is one of the principal external graces of character. It
is the ornament of action, and often makes the commonest offices
beautiful by the way in which it performs them. It is a happy way
of doing things, adorning even the smallest details of life, and
contributing to render it, as a whole, agreeable and pleasant.
Manner is not so frivolous or unimportant as some may think it to
be; for it tends greatly to facilitate the business of life, as
well as to sweeten and soften social intercourse. "Virtue
itself," says Bishop Middleton, "offends, when coupled with a
Manner has a good deal to do with the estimation in which men are
held by the world; and it has often more influence in the
government of others than qualities of much greater depth and
substance. A manner at once gracious and cordial is among the
greatest aids to success, and many there are who fail for want of
it. (1) For a great deal depends upon first impressions; and
these are usually favourable or otherwise according to a man's
courteousness and civility.
While rudeness and gruffness bar doors and shut hearts, kindness
and propriety of behaviour, in which good manners consist, act as
an "open sesame" everywhere. Doors unbar before them, and they
are a passport to the hearts of everybody, young and old.
There is a common saying that "Manners make the man;" but this is
not so true as that "Man makes the manners." A man may be gruff,
and even rude, and yet be good at heart and of sterling character;
yet he would doubtless be a much more agreeable, and probably a
much more useful man, were he to exhibit that suavity of
disposition and courtesy of manner which always gives a finish
to the true gentleman.
Mrs. Hutchinson, in the noble portraiture of her husband, to which
we have already had occasion to refer, thus describes his manly
courteousness and affability of disposition:- "I cannot say
whether he were more truly magnanimous or less proud; he never
disdained the meanest person, nor flattered the greatest; he had a
loving and sweet courtesy to the poorest, and would often employ
many spare hours with the commonest soldiers and poorest
labourers; but still so ordering his familiarity, that it never
raised them to a contempt, but entertained still at the same time
a reverence and love of him." (2)
A man's manner, to a certain extent, indicates his character. It
is the external exponent of his inner nature. It indicates his
taste, his feelings, and his temper, as well as the society to
which he has been accustomed. There is a conventional manner,
which is of comparatively little importance; but the natural
manner, the outcome of natural gifts, improved by careful self-
culture, signifies a great deal.
Grace of manner is inspired by sentiment, which is a source of no
slight enjoyment to a cultivated mind. Viewed in this light,
sentiment is of almost as much importance as talents and
acquirements, while it is even more influential in giving the
direction to a man s tastes and character. Sympathy is the golden
key that unlocks the hearts of others. It not only teaches
politeness and courtesy, but gives insight and unfolds wisdom, and
may almost be regarded as the crowning grace of humanity.
Artificial rules of politeness are of very little use. What
passes by the name of "Etiquette" is often of the essence of
unpoliteness and untruthfulness. It consists in a great measure
of posture-making, and is easily seen through. Even at best,
etiquette is but a substitute for good manners, though it is often
but their mere counterfeit.
Good manners consist, for the most part, in courteousness and
kindness. Politeness has been described as the art of showing,
by external signs, the internal regard we have for others.
But one may be perfectly polite to another without necessarily
having a special regard for him. Good manners are neither
more nor less than beautiful behaviour. It has been well said,
that "a beautiful form is better than a beautiful face, and
a beautiful behaviour is better than a beautiful form; it gives
a higher pleasure than statues or pictures--it is the finest
of the fine arts."
The truest politeness comes of sincerity. It must be the outcome
of the heart, or it will make no lasting impression; for no amount
of polish can dispense with truthfulness. The natural character
must be allowed to appear, freed of its angularities and
asperities. Though politeness, in its best form, should (as St.
Francis de Sales says) resemble water--"best when clearest, most
simple, and without taste,"--yet genius in a man will always
cover many defects of manner, and much will be excused to the
strong and the original. Without genuineness and individuality,
human life would lose much of its interest and variety, as well as
its manliness and robustness of character.
True courtesy is kind. It exhibits itself in the disposition to
contribute to the happiness of others, and in refraining from all
that may annoy them. It is grateful as well as kind, and readily
acknowledges kind actions. Curiously enough, Captain Speke found
this quality of character recognised even by the natives of Uganda
on the shores of Lake Nyanza, in the heart of Africa, where, he
says. "Ingratitude, or neglecting to thank a person for a benefit
conferred, is punishable."
True politeness especially exhibits itself in regard for the
personality of others. A man will respect the individuality of
another if he wishes to be respected himself. He will have due
regard for his views and opinions, even though they differ from
his own. The well-mannered man pays a compliment to another, and
sometimes even secures his respect, by patiently listening to him.
He is simply tolerant and forbearant, and refrains from judging
harshly; and harsh judgments of others will almost invariably
provoke harsh judgments of ourselves.
The unpolite impulsive man will, however, sometimes rather lose
his friend than his joke. He may surely be pronounced a very
foolish person who secures another's hatred at the price of a
moment's gratification. It was a saying of Brunel the engineer--
himself one of the kindest-natured of men--that "spite and ill-
nature are among the most expensive luxuries in life." Dr.
Johnson once said: "Sir, a man has no more right to SAY an uncivil
thing than to ACT one--no more right to say a rude thing to
another than to knock him down."
A sensible polite person does not assume to be better or wiser or
richer than his neighbour. He does not boast of his rank, or his
birth, or his country; or look down upon others because they have
not been born to like privileges with himself. He does not brag
of his achievements or of his calling, or "talk shop" whenever he
opens his mouth. On the contrary, in all that he says or does, he
will be modest, unpretentious, unassuming; exhibiting his true
character in performing rather than in boasting, in doing rather
than in talking.
Want of respect for the feelings of others usually originates in
selfishness, and issues in hardness and repulsiveness of manner.
It may not proceed from malignity so much as from want of sympathy
and want of delicacy--a want of that perception of, and attention
to, those little and apparently trifling things by which pleasure
is given or pain occasioned to others. Indeed, it may be said
that in self-sacrificingness, so to speak, in the ordinary
intercourse of life, mainly consists the difference between being
well and ill bred.
Without some degree of self-restraint in society, a man may be
found almost insufferable. No one has pleasure in holding
intercourse with such a person, and he is a constant source of
annoyance to those about him. For want of self-restraint, many
men are engaged all their lives in fighting with difficulties of
their own making, and rendering success impossible by their own
crossgrained ungentleness; whilst others, it may be much less
gifted, make their way and achieve success by simple patience,
equanimity, and self-control.
It has been said that men succeed in life quite as much by their
temper as by their talents. However this may be, it is certain
that their happiness depends mainly on their temperament,
especially upon their disposition to be cheerful; upon their
complaisance, kindliness of manner, and willingness to oblige
others--details of conduct which are like the small-change in the
intercourse of life, and are always in request.
Men may show their disregard of others in various unpolite ways--
as, for instance, by neglect of propriety in dress, by the absence
of cleanliness, or by indulging in repulsive habits. The slovenly
dirty person, by rendering himself physically disagreeable, sets
the tastes and feelings of others at defiance, and is rude and
uncivil only under another form.
David Ancillon, a Huguenot preacher of singular attractiveness,
who studied and composed his sermons with the greatest care, was
accustomed to say "that it was showing too little esteem for the
public to take no pains in preparation, and that a man who should
appear on a ceremonial-day in his nightcap and dressing-gown,
could not commit a greater breach of civility."
The perfection of manner is ease--that it attracts no man's
notice as such, but is natural and unaffected. Artifice is
incompatible with courteous frankness of manner. Rochefoucauld
has said that "nothing so much prevents our being natural as the
desire of appearing so." Thus we come round again to sincerity
and truthfulness, which find their outward expression in
graciousness, urbanity, kindliness, and consideration for the
feelings of others. The frank and cordial man sets those about
him at their ease. He warms and elevates them by his presence,
and wins all hearts. Thus manner, in its highest form, like
character, becomes a genuine motive power.
"The love and admiration," says Canon Kingsley, "which that truly
brave and loving man, Sir Sydney Smith, won from every one, rich
and poor, with whom he came in contact seems to have arisen from
the one fact, that without, perhaps, having any such conscious
intention, he treated rich and poor, his own servants and the
noblemen his guests, alike, and alike courteously, considerately,
cheerfully, affectionately--so leaving a blessing, and reaping a
blessing, wherever he went."
Good manners are usually supposed to be the peculiar
characteristic of persons gently born and bred, and of persons
moving in the higher rather than in the lower spheres of society.
And this is no doubt to a great extent true, because of the more
favourable surroundings of the former in early life. But there is
no reason why the poorest classes should not practise good manners
towards each other as well as the richest.
Men who toil with their hands, equally with those who do not, may
respect themselves and respect one another; and it is by their
demeanour to each other--in other words, by their manners--that
self-respect as well as mutual respect are indicated. There is
scarcely a moment in their lives, the enjoyment of which might not
be enhanced by kindliness of this sort--in the workshop, in the
street, or at home. The civil workman will exercise increased
power amongst his class, and gradually induce them to imitate him
by his persistent steadiness, civility, and kindness. Thus
Benjamin Franklin, when a working-man, is said to have reformed
the habits of an entire workshop.
One may be polite and gentle with very little money in his purse.
Politeness goes far, yet costs nothing. It is the cheapest of all
commodities. It is the humblest of the fine arts, yet it is so
useful and so pleasure-giving, that it might almost be ranked
amongst the humanities.
Every nation may learn something of others; and if there be one
thing more than another that the English working-class might
afford to copy with advantage from their Continental neighbours,
it is their politeness. The French and Germans, of even the
humblest classes, are gracious in manner, complaisant, cordial,
and well-bred. The foreign workman lifts his cap and respectfully
salutes his fellow-workman in passing. There is no sacrifice of
manliness in this, but grace and dignity. Even the lowest poverty
of the foreign workpeople is not misery, simply because it is
cheerful. Though not receiving one-half the income which our
working-classes do, they do not sink into wretchedness and drown
their troubles in drink; but contrive to make the best of life,
and to enjoy it even amidst poverty.
Good taste is a true economist. It may be practised on small
means, and sweeten the lot of labour as well as of ease. It is
all the more enjoyed, indeed, when associated with industry and
the performance of duty. Even the lot of poverty is elevated
by taste. It exhibits itself in the economies of the household.
It gives brightness and grace to the humblest dwelling. It
produces refinement, it engenders goodwill, and creates an
atmosphere of cheerfulness. Thus good taste, associated with
kindliness, sympathy, and intelligence, may elevate and
adorn even the lowliest lot.
The first and best school of manners, as of character, is always
the Home, where woman is the teacher. The manners of society at
large are but the reflex of the manners of our collective homes,
neither better nor worse. Yet, with all the disadvantages of
ungenial homes, men may practise self-culture of manner as of
intellect, and learn by good examples to cultivate a graceful and
agreeable behaviour towards others. Most men are like so many
gems in the rough, which need polishing by contact with other and
better natures, to bring out their full beauty and lustre. Some
have but one side polished, sufficient only to show the delicate
graining of the interior; but to bring out the full qualities of
the gem needs the discipline of experience, and contact with the
best examples of character in the intercourse of daily life.
A good deal of the success of manner consists in tact, and it is
because women, on the whole, have greater tact than men, that they
prove its most influential teachers. They have more self-
restraint than men, and are naturally more gracious and polite.
They possess an intuitive quickness and readiness of action, have
a keener insight into character, and exhibit greater
discrimination and address. In matters of social detail, aptness
and dexterity come to them like nature; and hence well-mannered
men usually receive their best culture by mixing in the society of
gentle and adroit women.
Tact is an intuitive art of manner, which carries one through a
difficulty better than either talent or knowledge. "Talent," says
a public writer, "is power: tact is skill. Talent is weight: tact
is momentum. Talent knows what to do: tact knows how to do it.
Talent makes a man respectable: tact makes him respected. Talent
is wealth: tact is ready-money."
The difference between a man of quick tact and of no tact whatever
was exemplified in an interview which once took place between Lord
Palmerston and Mr. Behnes, the sculptor. At the last sitting
which Lord Palmerston gave him, Behnes opened the conversation
with--"Any news, my Lord, from France? How do we stand with
Louis Napoleon?" The Foreign Secretary raised his eyebrows for an
instant, and quietly replied, "Really, Mr. Behnes, I don't know: I
have not seen the newspapers!" Poor Behnes, with many excellent
qualities and much real talent, was one of the many men who
entirely missed their way in life through want of tact.
Such is the power of manner, combined with tact, that Wilkes, one
of the ugliest of men, used to say, that in winning the graces of
a lady, there was not more than three days' difference between him
and the handsomest man in England.
But this reference to Wilkes reminds us that too much importance
must not be attached to manner, for it does not afford any genuine
test of character. The well-mannered man may, like Wilkes, be
merely acting a part, and that for an immoral purpose. Manner,
like other fine arts, gives pleasure, and is exceedingly agreeable
to look upon; but it may be assumed as a disguise, as men "assume
a virtue though they have it not." It is but the exterior sign of
good conduct, but may be no more than skin-deep. The most highly-
polished person may be thoroughly depraved in heart; and his
superfine manners may, after all, only consist in pleasing
gestures and in fine phrases.
On the other hand, it must be acknowledged that some of the
richest and most generous natures have been wanting in the graces
of courtesy and politeness. As a rough rind sometimes covers the
sweetest fruit, so a rough exterior often conceals a kindly and
hearty nature. The blunt man may seem even rude in manner, and
yet, at heart, be honest, kind, and gentle.
John Knox and Martin Luther were by no means distinguished for
their urbanity. They had work to do which needed strong and
determined rather than well-mannered men. Indeed, they were both
thought to be unnecessarily harsh and violent in their manner.
"And who art thou," said Mary Queen of Scots to Knox, "that
presumest to school the nobles and sovereign of this realm?"--
"Madam," replied Knox, "a subject born within the same." It is
said that his boldness, or roughness, more than once made Queen
Mary weep. When Regent Morton heard of this, he said, "Well, 'tis
better that women should weep than bearded men."
As Knox was retiring from the Queen's presence on one occasion, he
overheard one of the royal attendants say to another, "He is not
afraid!" Turning round upon them, he said: "And why should the
pleasing face of a gentleman frighten me? I have looked on the
faces of angry men, and yet have not been afraid beyond measure."
When the Reformer, worn-out by excess of labour and anxiety, was
at length laid to his rest, the Regent, looking down into the open
grave, exclaimed, in words which made a strong impression from
their aptness and truth--"There lies he who never feared the
face of man!"
Luther also was thought by some to be a mere compound of violence
and ruggedness. But, as in the case of Knox, the times in which
he lived were rude and violent; and the work he had to do could
scarcely have been accomplished with gentleness and suavity. To
rouse Europe from its lethargy, he had to speak and to write with
force, and even vehemence. Yet Luther's vehemence was only in
words. His apparently rude exterior covered a warm heart. In
private life he was gentle, loving, and affectionate. He was
simple and homely, even to commonness. Fond of all common
pleasures and enjoyments, he was anything but an austere man, or a
bigot; for he was hearty, genial, and even "jolly." Luther was
the common people's hero in his lifetime, and he remains so in
Germany to this day.
Samuel Johnson was rude and often gruff in manner. But he had
been brought up in a rough school. Poverty in early life had made
him acquainted with strange companions. He had wandered in the
streets with Savage for nights together, unable between them to
raise money enough to pay for a bed. When his indomitable courage
and industry at length secured for him a footing in society, he
still bore upon him the scars of his early sorrows and struggles.
He was by nature strong and robust, and his experience made him
unaccommodating and self-asserting. When he was once asked why he
was not invited to dine out as Garrick was, he answered, "Because
great lords and ladies did not like to have their mouths stopped;"
and Johnson was a notorious mouth-stopper, though what he said was
always worth listening to.
Johnson's companions spoke of him as "Ursa Major;" but, as
Goldsmith generously said of him, "No man alive has a more tender
heart; he has nothing of the bear about him but his skin." The
kindliness of Johnson's nature was shown on one occasion by the
manner in which he assisted a supposed lady in crossing Fleet
Street. He gave her his arm, and led her across, not observing
that she was in liquor at the time. But the spirit of the act was
not the less kind on that account. On the other hand, the conduct
of the bookseller on whom Johnson once called to solicit
employment, and who, regarding his athletic but uncouth person,
told him he had better "go buy a porter's knot and carry trunks,"
in howsoever bland tones the advice might have been communicated,
was simply brutal.
While captiousness of manner, and the habit of disputing and
contradicting everything said, is chilling and repulsive, the
opposite habit of assenting to, and sympathising with, every
statement made, or emotion expressed, is almost equally
disagreeable. It is unmanly, and is felt to be dishonest. "It may
seem difficult," says Richard Sharp, "to steer always between
bluntness and plain-dealing, between giving merited praise and
lavishing indiscriminate flattery; but it is very easy--good-
humour, kindheartedness, and perfect simplicity, being all that
are requisite to do what is right in the right way." (3)
At the same time, many are unpolite--not because they mean to be
so, but because they are awkward, and perhaps know no better.
Thus, when Gibbon had published the second and third volumes of
his 'Decline and Fall,' the Duke of Cumberland met him one day,
and accosted him with, "How do you do, Mr. Gibbon? I see you
are always AT IT in the old way--SCRIBBLE, SCRIBBLE, SCRIBBLE!"
The Duke probably intended to pay the author a compliment,
but did not know how better to do it, than in this blunt and
apparently rude way.
Again, many persons are thought to be stiff, reserved, and proud,
when they are only shy. Shyness is characteristic of most people
of Teutonic race. It has been styled "the English mania," but it
pervades, to a greater or less degree, all the Northern nations.
The ordinary Englishman, when he travels abroad, carries his
shyness with him. He is stiff, awkward, ungraceful,
undemonstrative, and apparently unsympathetic; and though he may
assume a brusqueness of manner, the shyness is there, and cannot
be wholly concealed. The naturally graceful and intensely social
French cannot understand such a character; and the Englishman is
their standing joke--the subject of their most ludicrous
caricatures. George Sand attributes the rigidity of the natives
of Albion to a stock of FLUIDE BRITANNIQUE which they carry about
with them, that renders them impassive under all circumstances,
and "as impervious to the atmosphere of the regions they traverse
as a mouse in the centre of an exhausted receiver." (4)
The average Frenchman or Irishman excels the average Englishman,
German, or American in courtesy and ease of manner, simply because
it is his nature. They are more social and less self-dependent
than men of Teutonic origin, more demonstrative and less reticent;
they are more communicative, conversational, and freer in their
intercourse with each other in all respects; whilst men of German
race are comparatively stiff, reserved, shy, and awkward. At the
same time, a people may exhibit ease, gaiety, and sprightliness of
character, and yet possess no deeper qualities calculated to
inspire respect. They may have every grace of manner, and yet be
heartless, frivolous, selfish. The character may be on the
surface only, and without any solid qualities for a foundation.
There can be no doubt as to which of the two sorts of people--the
easy and graceful, or the stiff and awkward--it is most agreeable
to meet, either in business, in society, or in the casual
intercourse of life. Which make the fastest friends, the truest
men of their word, the most conscientious performers of their
duty, is an entirely different matter.
The dry GAUCHE Englishman--to use the French phrase, L'ANGLAIS
EMPETRE--is certainly a somewhat disagreeable person to meet at
first. He looks as if he had swallowed a poker. He is shy
himself, and the cause of shyness in others. He is stiff, not
because he is proud, but because he is shy; and he cannot shake it
off, even if he would. Indeed, we should not be surprised to find
that even the clever writer who describes the English Philistine
in all his enormity of awkward manner and absence of grace, were
himself as shy as a bat.
When two shy men meet, they seem like a couple of icicles. They
sidle away and turn their backs on each other in a room, or when
travelling creep into the opposite corners of a railway-carriage.
When shy Englishmen are about to start on a journey by railway,
they walk along the train, to discover an empty compartment in
which to bestow themselves; and when once ensconced, they inwardly
hate the next man who comes in. So; on entering the dining-room
of their club, each shy man looks out for an unoccupied table,
until sometimes--all the tables in the room are occupied by
single diners. All this apparent unsociableness is merely shyness
--the national characteristic of the Englishman.
"The disciples of Confucius," observes Mr. Arthur Helps, "say that
when in the presence of the prince, his manner displayed
RESPECTFUL UNEASINESS. There could hardly be given any two words
which more fitly describe the manner of most Englishmen when in
society." Perhaps it is due to this feeling that Sir Henry
Taylor, in his 'Statesman,' recommends that, in the management of
interviews, the minister should be as "near to the door" as
possible; and, instead of bowing his visitor out, that he should
take refuge, at the end of an interview, in the adjoining room.
"Timid and embarrassed men," he says, "will sit as if they were
rooted to the spot, when they are conscious that they have to
traverse the length of a room in their retreat. In every case, an
interview will find a more easy and pleasing termination WHEN THE
DOOR IS AT HAND as the last words are spoken." (5)
The late Prince Albert, one of the gentlest and most amiable, was
also one of the most retiring of men. He struggled much against
his sense of shyness, but was never able either to conquer or
conceal it. His biographer, in explaining its causes, says: "It
was the shyness of a very delicate nature, that is not sure it
will please, and is without the confidence and the vanity which
often go to form characters that are outwardly more genial." (6)
But the Prince shared this defect with some of the greatest of
Englishmen. Sir Isaac Newton was probably the shyest man of his
age. He kept secret for a time some of his greatest discoveries,
for fear of the notoriety they might bring him. His discovery of
the Binomial Theorem and its most important applications, as well
as his still greater discovery of the Law of Gravitation, were not
published for years after they were made; and when he communicated
to Collins his solution of the theory of the moon's rotation round
the earth, he forbade him to insert his name in connection with
it in the 'Philosophical Transactions,' saying: "It would,
perhaps, increase my acquaintance--the thing which I chiefly
study to decline."
From all that can be learnt of Shakspeare, it is to be inferred
that he was an exceedingly shy man. The manner in which his plays
were sent into the world--for it is not known that he edited or
authorized the publication of a single one of them--and the dates
at which they respectively appeared, are mere matters of
conjecture. His appearance in his own plays in second and even
third-rate parts--his indifference to reputation, and even his
apparent aversion to be held in repute by his contemporaries--his
disappearance from London (the seat and centre of English
histrionic art) so soon as he had realised a moderate competency--
and his retirement about the age of forty, for the remainder of
his days, to a life of obscurity in a small town in the midland
counties--all seem to unite in proving the shrinking nature of
the man, and his unconquerable shyness.
It is also probable that, besides being shy--and his shyness may,
like that of Byron, have been increased by his limp--Shakspeare
did not possess in any high degree the gift of hope. It is a
remarkable circumstance, that whilst the great dramatist has, in
the course of his writings, copiously illustrated all other gifts,
affections, and virtues, the passages are very rare in which Hope
is mentioned, and then it is usually in a desponding and
despairing tone, as when he says:
"The miserable hath no other medicine, But only Hope."
Many of his sonnets breathe the spirit of despair and
hopelessness. (7) He laments his lameness; (8) apologizes for his
profession as an actor; (9) expresses his "fear of trust" in
himself, and his hopeless, perhaps misplaced, affection; (10)
anticipates a "coffin'd doom;" and utters his profoundly pathetic
cry "for restful death."
It might naturally be supposed that Shakspeare's profession of an
actor, and his repeated appearances in public, would speedily
overcome his shyness, did such exist. But inborn shyness, when
strong, is not so easily conquered. (11) Who could have believed
that the late Charles Mathews, who entertained crowded houses
night after night, was naturally one of the shyest of men? He
would even make long circuits (lame though he was) along the
byelanes of London to avoid recognition. His wife says of him,
that he looked "sheepish" and confused if recognised; and that his
eyes would fall, and his colour would mount, if he heard his name
even whispered in passing along the streets. (12)
Nor would it at first sight have been supposed that Lord Byron was
affected with shyness, and yet he was a victim to it; his
biographer relating that, while on a visit to Mrs. Pigot, at
Southwell, when he saw strangers approaching, he would instantly
jump out of the window, and escape on to the lawn to avoid them.
But a still more recent and striking instance is that of the late
Archbishop Whately, who, in the early part of his life, was
painfully oppressed by the sense of shyness. When at Oxford, his
white rough coat and white hat obtained for him the soubriquet of
"The White Bear;" and his manners, according to his own account of
himself, corresponded with the appellation. He was directed, by
way of remedy, to copy the example of the best-mannered men he met
in society; but the attempt to do this only increased his shyness,
and he failed. He found that he was all the while thinking of
himself, rather than of others; whereas thinking of others, rather
than of one's self, is of the true essence of politeness.
Finding that he was making no progress, Whately was driven to
utter despair; and then he said to himself: "Why should I endure
this torture all my life to no purpose? I would bear it still if
there was any success to be hoped for; but since there is not, I
will die quietly, without taking any more doses. I have tried my
very utmost, and find that I must be as awkward as a bear all my
life, in spite of it. I will endeavour to think as little about
it as a bear, and make up my mind to endure what can't be cured."
From this time forth he struggled to shake off all consciousness
as to manner, and to disregard censure as much as possible. In
adopting this course, he says: "I succeeded beyond my
expectations; for I not only got rid of the personal suffering of
shyness, but also of most of those faults of manner which
consciousness produces; and acquired at once an easy and natural
manner--careless, indeed, in the extreme, from its originating in
a stern defiance of opinion, which I had convinced myself must be
ever against me; rough and awkward, for smoothness and grace are
quite out of my way, and, of course, tutorially pedantic; but
unconscious, and therefore giving expression to that goodwill
towards men which I really feel; and these, I believe, are
the main points." (13)
Washington, who was an Englishman in his lineage, was also one in
his shyness. He is described incidentally by Mr. Josiah Quincy,
as "a little stiff in his person, not a little formal in his
manner, and not particularly at ease in the presence of strangers.
He had the air of a country gentleman not accustomed to mix much
in society, perfectly polite, but not easy in his address and
conversation, and not graceful in his movements."
Although we are not accustomed to think of modern Americans as
shy, the most distinguished American author of our time was
probably the shyest of men. Nathaniel Hawthorne was shy to the
extent of morbidity. We have observed him, when a stranger
entered the room where he was, turn his back for the purpose of
avoiding recognition. And yet, when the crust of his shyness was
broken, no man could be more cordial and genial than Hawthorne.
We observe a remark in one of Hawthorne's lately-published
'Notebooks,' (14) that on one occasion he met Mr. Helps in society,
and found him "cold." And doubtless Mr. Helps thought the same of
him. It was only the case of two shy men meeting, each thinking
the other stiff and reserved, and parting before their mutual film
of shyness had been removed by a little friendly intercourse.
Before pronouncing a hasty judgment in such cases, it would be
well to bear in mind the motto of Helvetius, which Bentham says
proved such a real treasure to him: "POUR AIMER LES HOMMES, IL
FAUT ATTENDRE PEU."
We have thus far spoken of shyness as a defect. But there is
another way of looking at it; for even shyness has its bright
side, and contains an element of good. Shy men and shy races are
ungraceful and undemonstrative, because, as regards society at
large, they are comparatively unsociable. They do not possess
those elegances of manner, acquired by free intercourse, which
distinguish the social races, because their tendency is to shun
society rather than to seek it. They are shy in the presence of
strangers, and shy even in their own families. They hide their
affections under a robe of reserve, and when they do give way to
their feelings, it is only in some very hidden inner-chamber. And
yet the feelings ARE there, and not the less healthy and genuine
that they are not made the subject of exhibition to others.
It was not a little characteristic of the ancient Germans, that
the more social and demonstrative peoples by whom they were
surrounded should have characterised them as the NIEMEC, or Dumb
men. And the same designation might equally apply to the modern
English, as compared, for example, with their nimbler, more
communicative and vocal, and in all respects more social
neighbours, the modern French and Irish.
But there is one characteristic which marks the English people, as
it did the races from which they have mainly sprung, and that is
their intense love of Home. Give the Englishman a home, and he is
comparatively indifferent to society. For the sake of a holding
which he can call his own, he will cross the seas, plant himself
on the prairie or amidst the primeval forest, and make for himself
a home. The solitude of the wilderness has no fears for him; the
society of his wife and family is sufficient, and he cares for no
other. Hence it is that the people of Germanic origin, from whom
the English and Americans have alike sprung, make the best of
colonizers, and are now rapidly extending themselves as emigrants
and settlers in all parts of the habitable globe.
The French have never made any progress as colonizers, mainly
because of their intense social instincts--the secret of their
graces of manner,--and because they can never forget that they
are Frenchmen. (15) It seemed at one time within the limits of
probability that the French would occupy the greater part of the
North American continent. From Lower Canada their line of forts
extended up the St. Lawrence, and from Fond du Lac on Lake
Superior, along the River St. Croix, all down the Mississippi, to
its mouth at New Orleans. But the great, self-reliant,
industrious "Niemec," from a fringe of settlements along the
seacoast, silently extended westward, settling and planting
themselves everywhere solidly upon the soil; and nearly all that
now remains of the original French occupation of America, is the
French colony of Acadia, in Lower Canada.
And even there we find one of the most striking illustrations of
that intense sociability of the French which keeps them together,
and prevents their spreading over and planting themselves firmly
in a new country, as it is the instinct of the men of Teutonic
race to do. While, in Upper Canada, the colonists of English and
Scotch descent penetrate the forest and the wilderness, each
settler living, it may be, miles apart from his nearest neighbour,
the Lower Canadians of French descent continue clustered together
in villages, usually consisting of a line of houses on either side
of the road, behind which extend their long strips of farm-land,
divided and subdivided to an extreme tenuity. They willingly
submit to all the inconveniences of this method of farming for the
sake of each other's society, rather than betake themselves to the
solitary backwoods, as English, Germans, and Americans so readily
do. Indeed, not only does the American backwoodsman become
accustomed to solitude, but he prefers it. And in the Western
States, when settlers come too near him, and the country seems to
become "overcrowded," he retreats before the advance of society,
and, packing up his "things" in a waggon, he sets out cheerfully,
with his wife and family, to found for himself a new home in
the Far West.
Thus the Teuton, because of his very shyness, is the true
colonizer. English, Scotch, Germans, and Americans are alike
ready to accept solitude, provided they can but establish a home
and maintain a family. Thus their comparative indifference to
society has tended to spread this race over the earth, to till and
to subdue it; while the intense social instincts of the French,
though issuing in much greater gracefulness of manner, has stood
in their way as colonizers; so that, in the countries in which
they have planted themselves--as in Algiers and elsewhere--they
have remained little more than garrisons. (16)
There are other qualities besides these, which grow out of the
comparative unsociableness of the Englishman. His shyness throws
him back upon himself, and renders him self-reliant and self-
dependent. Society not being essential to his happiness, he takes
refuge in reading, in study, in invention; or he finds pleasure in
industrial work, and becomes the best of mechanics. He does not
fear to entrust himself to the solitude of the ocean, and he
becomes a fisherman, a sailor, a discoverer. Since the early
Northmen scoured the northern seas, discovered America, and sent
their fleets along the shores of Europe and up the Mediterranean,
the seamanship of the men of Teutonic race has always been
in the ascendant.
The English are inartistic for the same reason that they are
unsociable. They may make good colonists, sailors, and mechanics;
but they do not make good singers, dancers, actors, artistes, or
modistes. They neither dress well, act well, speak well, nor
write well. They want style--they want elegance. What they have
to do they do in a straightforward manner, but without grace.
This was strikingly exhibited at an International Cattle
Exhibition held at Paris a few years ago. At the close of the
Exhibition, the competitors came up with the prize animals to
receive the prizes. First came a gay and gallant Spaniard, a
magnificent man, beautifully dressed, who received a prize of the
lowest class with an air and attitude that would have become a
grandee of the highest order. Then came Frenchmen and Italians,
full of grace, politeness, and CHIC--themselves elegantly
dressed, and their animals decorated to the horns with flowers and
coloured ribbons harmoniously blended. And last of all came the
exhibitor who was to receive the first prize--a slouching man,
plainly dressed, with a pair of farmer's gaiters on, and without
even a flower in his buttonhole. "Who is he?" asked the
spectators. "Why, he is the Englishman," was the reply. "The
Englishman!--that the representative of a great country!" was the
general exclamation. But it was the Englishman all over. He was
sent there, not to exhibit himself, but to show "the best beast,"
and he did it, carrying away the first prize. Yet he would have
been nothing the worse for the flower in his buttonhole.
To remedy this admitted defect of grace and want of artistic taste
in the English people, a school has sprung up amongst us for the
more general diffusion of fine art. The Beautiful has now its
teachers and preachers, and by some it is almost regarded in the
light of a religion. "The Beautiful is the Good"--"The Beautiful
is the True"--"The Beautiful is the priest of the Benevolent,"
are among their texts. It is believed that by the study of art
the tastes of the people may be improved; that by contemplating
objects of beauty their nature will become purified; and that by
being thereby withdrawn from sensual enjoyments, their character
will be refined and elevated.
But though such culture is calculated to be elevating and
purifying in a certain degree, we must not expect too much from
it. Grace is a sweetener and embellisher of life, and as such is
worthy of cultivation. Music, painting, dancing, and the fine
arts, are all sources of pleasure; and though they may not be
sensual, yet they are sensuous, and often nothing more. The
cultivation of a taste for beauty of form or colour, of sound or
attitude, has no necessary effect upon the cultivation of the mind
or the development of the character. The contemplation of fine
works of art will doubtless improve the taste, and excite
admiration; but a single noble action done in the sight of men
will more influence the mind, and stimulate the character to
imitation, than the sight of miles of statuary or acres of
pictures. For it is mind, soul, and heart--not taste or art--
that make men great.
It is indeed doubtful whether the cultivation of art--which
usually ministers to luxury--has done so much for human progress
as is generally supposed. It is even possible that its too
exclusive culture may effeminate rather than strengthen the
character, by laying it more open to the temptations of the
senses. "It is the nature of the imaginative temperament
cultivated by the arts," says Sir Henry Taylor, "to undermine the
courage, and, by abating strength of character, to render men more
easily subservient--SEQUACES, CEREOS, ET AD MANDATA DUCTILES."
(17) The gift of the artist greatly differs from that of the
thinker; his highest idea is to mould his subject--whether it be
of painting, or music, or literature--into that perfect grace of
form in which thought (it may not be of the deepest) finds its
apotheosis and immortality.
Art has usually flourished most during the decadence of nations,
when it has been hired by wealth as the minister of luxury.
Exquisite art and degrading corruption were contemporary in Greece
as well as in Rome. Phidias and Iktinos had scarcely completed
the Parthenon, when the glory of Athens had departed; Phidias died
in prison; and the Spartans set up in the city the memorials of
their own triumph and of Athenian defeat. It was the same in
ancient Rome, where art was at its greatest height when the people
were in their most degraded condition. Nero was an artist, as
well as Domitian, two of the greatest monsters of the Empire.
If the "Beautiful" had been the "Good," Commodus must have
been one of the best of men. But according to history he was
one of the worst.
Again, the greatest period of modern Roman art was that in which
Pope Leo X. flourished, of whose reign it has been said, that
"profligacy and licentiousness prevailed amongst the people and
clergy, as they had done almost uncontrolled ever since the
pontificate of Alexander VI." In like manner, the period at which
art reached its highest point in the Low Countries was that which
immediately succeeded the destruction of civil and religious
liberty, and the prostration of the national life under the
despotism of Spain. If art could elevate a nation, and the
contemplation of The Beautiful were calculated to make men The
Good--then Paris ought to contain a population of the wisest and
best of human beings. Rome also is a great city of art; and yet
there, the VIRTUS or valour of the ancient Romans has
characteristically degenerated into VERTU, or a taste for
knicknacks; whilst, according to recent accounts, the city itself
is inexpressibly foul. (18)
Art would sometimes even appear to have a close connection with
dirt; and it is said of Mr. Ruskin, that when searching for works
of art in Venice, his attendant in his explorations would sniff an
ill-odour, and when it was strong would say, "Now we are coming to
something very old and fine!"--meaning in art. (19) A little
common education in cleanliness, where it is wanting, would
probably be much more improving, as well as wholesome, than any
amount of education in fine art. Ruffles are all very well, but
it is folly to cultivate them to the neglect of the shirt.
Whilst, therefore, grace of manner, politeness of behaviour,
elegance of demeanour, and all the arts that contribute to make
life pleasant and beautiful, are worthy of cultivation, it must
not be at the expense of the more solid and enduring qualities of
honesty, sincerity, and truthfulness. The fountain of beauty must
be in the heart; more than in the eye, and if art do not tend to
produce beautiful life and noble practice, it will be of
comparatively little avail. Politeness of manner is not worth
much, unless accompanied by polite action. Grace may be but skin-
deep--very pleasant and attractive, and yet very heartless. Art
is a source of innocent enjoyment, and an important aid to higher
culture; but unless it leads to higher culture, it will probably
be merely sensuous. And when art is merely sensuous, it is
enfeebling and demoralizing rather than strengthening or
elevating. Honest courage is of greater worth than any amount of
grace; purity is better than elegance; and cleanliness of body,
mind, and heart, than any amount of fine art.
In fine, while the cultivation of the graces is not to be
neglected, it should ever be held in mind that there is something
far higher and nobler to be aimed at--greater than pleasure,
greater than art, greater than wealth, greater than power, greater
than intellect, greater than genius--and that is, purity and
excellence of character. Without a solid sterling basis of
individual goodness, all the grace, elegance, and art in the world
would fail to save or to elevate a people.
(1) Locke thought it of greater importance that an educator of youth
should be well-bred and well-tempered, than that he should be
either a thorough classicist or man of science. Writing to Lord
Peterborough on his son's education, Locke said: "Your Lordship
would have your son's tutor a thorough scholar, and I think it not
much matter whether he be any scholar or no: if he but understand
Latin well, and have a general scheme of the sciences, I think
that enough. But I would have him WELL-BRED and WELL-TEMPERED."
(2) Mrs. Hutchinson's 'Memoir of the Life of Lieut.-Colonel
Hutchinson,' p. 32.
(3) 'Letters and Essays,' p. 59.
(4) 'Lettres d'un Voyageur.'
(5) Sir Henry Taylor's 'Statesman,' p. 59.
(6) Introduction to the 'Principal Speeches and Addresses of His Royal
Highness the Prince Consort,' 1862.
(7) "When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beween my outcast state,
And troubled deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate;
WISHING ME LIKE TO ONE MORE RICH IN HOPE,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy, contented least;
Yet in these thoughts, MYSELF ALMOST DESPISING,
Haply I think on thee," &c.--SONNET XXIX.
"So I, MADE LAME by sorrow's dearest spite," &c.--SONNET XXXVI
(8) "And strength, by LIMPING sway disabled," &c.--SONNET LXVI.
"Speak of MY LAMENESS, and I straight will halt."--SONNET LXXXIX.
(9) "Alas! 'tis true, I have gone here and there,
And MADE MYSELF A MOTLEY TO THE VIEW,
Gored mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear,
Made old offences of affections new," &c.--SONNET CX.
"Oh, for my sake do you with fortune chide!
The guilty goddess of my harmful deeds,
That did not better for my life provide,
THAN PUBLIC MEANS, WHICH PUBLIC MANNERS BREED;
Thence comes it that my name receives a brand,
And almost thence my nature is subdued,
To what it works in like the dyer's hand," &c.--SONNET CXI.
(10) "In our two loves there is but one respect,
Though in our loves a separable spite,
Which though it alter not loves sole effect;
Yet doth it steal sweet hours from love's delight,
I may not evermore acknowledge thee,
Lest MY BEWAILED GUILT SHOULD DO THEE SHAME."--SONNET XXXVI.
(11) It is related of Garrick, that when subpoenaed on Baretti's trial,
and required to give his evidence before the court--though he had
been accustomed for thirty years to act with the greatest self-
possession in the presence of thousands--he became so perplexed
and confused, that he was actually sent from the witness-box by
the judge, as a man from whom no evidence could be obtained.
(12)Mrs. Mathews' 'Life and Correspondence of Charles Mathews,' (Ed.
1860) p. 232.
(13) Archbishop Whately's 'Commonplace Book.'
(14) Emerson is said to have had Nathaniel Hawthorne in his mind when
writing the following passage in his 'Society and Solitude:'--
"The most agreeable compliment you could pay him was, to imply
that you had not observed him in a house or a street where you had
met him. Whilst he suffered at being seen where he was, he
consoled himself with the delicious thought of the inconceivable
number of places where he was not. All he wished of his tailor
was to provide that sober mean of colour and cut which would never
detain the eye for a moment.... He had a remorse, running to
despair, of his social GAUCHERIES, and walked miles and miles to
get the twitchings out of his face, and the starts and shrugs out
of his arms and shoulders. 'God may forgive sins,' he said, 'but
awkwardness has no forgiveness in heaven or earth.'"
(15) In a series of clever articles in the REVUE DES DEUX MONDES,
entitled, 'Six mille Lieues a toute Vapeur,' giving a description
of his travels in North America, Maurice Sand keenly observed the
comparatively anti-social proclivities of the American compared
with the Frenchman. The one, he says, is inspired by the spirit
of individuality, the other by the spirit of society. In America
he sees the individual absorbing society; as in France he sees
society absorbing the individual. "Ce peuple Anglo-Saxon," he
says, "qui trouvait devant lui la terre, l'instrument de travail,
sinon inepuisable, du mons inepuise, s'est mis a l'exploiter sous
l'inspiration de l'egoisme; et nous autres Francais, nous n'avons
rien su en faire, parceque NOUS NE POUVONS RIEN DANS
L'ISOLEMENT.... L'Americain supporte la solitude avec un
stoicisme admirable, mais effrayant; il ne l'aime pas, il ne songe
qu'a la detruire.... Le Francais est tout autre. Il aime son
parent, son ami, son compagnon, et jusqu'a son voisin d'omnibus ou
de theatre, si sa figure lui est sympathetique. Pourquoi? Parce
qu'il le regarde et cherche son ame, parce qu'il vit dans son
semblable autant qu'en lui-meme. Quand il est longtemps seul, il
deperit, et quand il est toujours seul, it meurt."
All this is perfectly true, and it explains why the comparatively
unsociable Germans, English, and Americans, are spreading over the
earth, while the intensely sociable Frenchmen, unable to enjoy
life without each other's society, prefer to stay at home, and
France fails to extend itself beyond France.
(16) The Irish have, in many respects, the same strong social instincts
as the French. In the United States they cluster naturally in the
towns, where they have their "Irish Quarters," as in England.
They are even more Irish there than at home, and can no more
forget that they are Irishmen than the French can that they are
Frenchmen. "I deliberately assert," says Mr. Maguire, in his
recent work on 'The Irish in America,' "that it is not within the
power of language to describe adequately, much less to exaggerate,
the evils consequent on the unhappy tendency of the Irish to
congregate in the large towns of America." It is this intense
socialism of the Irish that keeps them in a comparatively hand-to-
mouth condition in all the States of the Union.
(17) 'The Statesman,' p. 35.
(18) Nathaniel Hawthorne, in his 'First Impressions of France and
Italy,' says his opinion of the uncleanly character of the modern
Romans is so unfavourable that he hardly knows how to express it
"But the fact is that through the Forum, and everywhere out of the
commonest foot-track and roadway, you must look well to your
steps.... Perhaps there is something in the minds of the people
of these countries that enables them to dissever small ugliness
from great sublimity and beauty. They spit upon the glorious
pavement of St. Peter's, and wherever else they like; they place
paltry-looking wooden confessionals beneath its sublime arches,
and ornament them with cheap little coloured prints of the
Crucifixion; they hang tin hearts, and other tinsel and trumpery,
at the gorgeous shrines of the saints, in chapels that are
encrusted with gems, or marbles almost as precious; they put
pasteboard statues of saints beneath the dome of the Pantheon;--
in short, they let the sublime and the ridiculous come close
together, and are not in the least troubled by the proximity."
(19) Edwin Chadwick's 'Address to the Economic Science and Statistic
Section,' British Association (Meeting, 1862).
CHAPTER X--COMPANIONSHIP OF BOOKS.
"Books, we know,
Are a substantial world, both pure and good,
Round which, with tendrils strong as flesh and blood,
Our pastime and our happiness can grow."-- WORDSWORTH.
"Not only in the common speech of men, but in all art too--which
is or should be the concentrated and conserved essence of what men
can speak and show--Biography is almost the one thing needful"
"I read all biographies with intense interest. Even a man without
a heart, like Cavendish, I think about, and read about, and dream
about, and picture to myself in all possible ways, till he grows
into a living being beside me, and I put my feet into his shoes,
and become for the time Cavendish, and think as he thought, and do
as he did."--GEORGE WILSON.
"My thoughts are with the dead; with them
I live in long-past years;
Their virtues love, their faults condemn;
Partake their hopes and fears;
And from their lessons seek and find
Instruction with a humble mind."--SOUTHEY.
A man may usually be known by the books he reads, as well as by
the company he keeps; for there is a companionship of books as
well as of men; and one should always live in the best company,
whether it be of books or of men.
A good book may be among the best of friends. It is the same to-
day that it always was, and it will never change. It is the most
patient and cheerful of companions. It does not turn its back
upon us in times of adversity or distress. It always receives us
with the same kindness; amusing and instructing us in youth, and
comforting and consoling us in age.
Men often discover their affinity to each other by the mutual love
they have for a book--just as two persons sometimes discover a
friend by the admiration which both entertain for a third. There
is an old proverb, "Love me, love my dog." But there is more
wisdom in this: "Love me, love my book." The book is a truer and
higher bond of union. Men can think, feel, and sympathise with
each other through their favourite author. They live in him
together, and he in them.
"Books," said Hazlitt, "wind into the heart; the poet's verse
slides into the current of our blood. We read them when young, we
remember them when old. We read there of what has happened to
others; we feel that it has happened to ourselves. They are to be
had everywhere cheap and good. We breathe but the air of books.
We owe everything to their authors, on this side barbarism."
A good book is often the best urn of a life, enshrining the best
thoughts of which that life was capable; for the world of a man's
life is, for the most part, but the world of his thoughts. Thus
the best books are treasuries of good words and golden thoughts,
which, remembered and cherished, become our abiding companions and
comforters. "They are never alone," said Sir Philip Sidney, "that
are accompanied by noble thoughts." The good and true thought may
in time of temptation be as an angel of mercy purifying and
guarding the soul. It also enshrines the germs of action, for
good words almost invariably inspire to good works.
Thus Sir Henry Lawrence prized above all other compositions
Wordsworth's 'Character of the Happy Warrior,' which he
endeavoured to embody in his own life. It was ever before him as
an exemplar. He thought of it continually, and often quoted it to
others. His biographer says: "He tried to conform his own life
and to assimilate his own character to it; and he succeeded, as
all men succeed who are truly in earnest." (1)
Books possess an essence of immortality. They are by far the most
lasting products of human effort. Temples crumble into ruin;
pictures and statues decay; but books survive. Time is of no
account with great thoughts, which are as fresh to-day as when
they first passed through their authors' minds ages ago. What was
then said and thought still speaks to us as vividly as ever from
the printed page. The only effect of time has been to sift and
winnow out the bad products; for nothing in literature can long
survive but what is really good. (2)
Books introduce us into the best society; they bring us into the
presence of the greatest minds that have ever lived. We hear what
they said and did; we see them as if they were really alive; we
are participators in their thoughts; we sympathise with them,
enjoy with them, grieve with them; their experience becomes ours,
and we feel as if we were in a measure actors with them in the
scenes which they describe.
The great and good do not die, even in this world. Embalmed in
books their spirits walk abroad. The book is a living voice. It
is an intellect to which one still listens. Hence we ever remain
under the influence of the great men of old:
"The dead but sceptred sovrans, who still rule
Our spirits from their urns."
The imperial intellects of the world are as much alive now as they
were ages ago. Homer still lives; and though his personal history
is hidden in the mists of antiquity, his poems are as fresh to-day
as if they had been newly written. Plato still teaches his
transcendent philosophy; Horace, Virgil, and Dante still sing as
when they lived; Shakspeare is not dead: his body was buried in
1616, but his mind is as much alive in England now, and his
thought as far-reaching, as in the time of the Tudors.
The humblest and poorest may enter the society of these great
spirits without being thought intrusive. All who can read have
got the ENTREE. Would you laugh?--Cervantes or Rabelais will
laugh with you. Do you grieve?--there is Thomas a Kempis or
Jeremy Taylor to grieve with and console you. Always it is to
books, and the spirits of great men embalmed in them, that we
turn, for entertainment, for instruction and solace--in joy and
in sorrow, as in prosperity and in adversity.
Man himself is, of all things in the world, the most interesting
to man. Whatever relates to human life--its experiences, its
joys, its sufferings, and its achievements--has usually
attractions for him beyond all else. Each man is more or less
interested in all other men as his fellow-creatures--as members
of the great family of humankind; and the larger a man's culture,
the wider is the range of his sympathies in all that affects the
welfare of his race.
Men's interest in each other as individuals manifests itself in a
thousand ways--in the portraits which they paint, in the busts
which they carve, in the narratives which they relate of each
other. "Man," says Emerson, "can paint, or make, or think,
nothing but Man." Most of all is this interest shown in the
fascination which personal history possesses for him. "Man s
sociality of nature," says Carlyle, "evinces itself, in spite of
all that can be said, with abundance of evidence, by this one
fact, were there no other: the unspeakable delight he takes
Great, indeed, is the human interest felt in biography! What are
all the novels that find such multitudes of readers, but so many
fictitious biographies? What are the dramas that people crowd to
see, but so much acted biography? Strange that the highest genius
should be employed on the fictitious biography, and so much
commonplace ability on the real!
Yet the authentic picture of any human being's life and experience
ought to possess an interest greatly beyond that which is
fictitious, inasmuch as it has the charm of reality. Every person
may learn something from the recorded life of another; and even
comparatively trivial deeds and sayings may be invested with
interest, as being the outcome of the lives of such beings
as we ourselves are.
The records of the lives of good men are especially useful. They
influence our hearts, inspire us with hope, and set before us
great examples. And when men have done their duty through life in
a great spirit, their influence will never wholly pass away. "The
good life," says George Herbert, "is never out of season."
Goethe has said that there is no man so commonplace that a wise
man may not learn something from him. Sir Walter Scott could not
travel in a coach without gleaning some information or discovering
some new trait of character in his companions. (3) Dr. Johnson
once observed that there was not a person in the streets but he
should like to know his biography--his experiences of life, his
trials, his difficulties, his successes, and his failures. How
much more truly might this be said of the men who have made their
mark in the world's history, and have created for us that great
inheritance of civilization of which we are the possessors!
Whatever relates to such men--to their habits, their manners,
their modes of living, their personal history, their conversation,
their maxims, their virtues, or their greatness--is always full
of interest, of instruction, of encouragement, and of example.
The great lesson of Biography is to show what man can be and do at
his best. A noble life put fairly on record acts like an
inspiration to others. It exhibits what life is capable of being
made. It refreshes our spirit, encourages our hopes, gives us new
strength and courage and faith--faith in others as well as in
ourselves. It stimulates our aspirations, rouses us to action,
and incites us to become co-partners with them in their work.
To live with such men in their biographies, and to be inspired
by their example, is to live with the best of men, and to mix
in the best of company.
At the head of all biographies stands the Great Biography, the
Book of Books. And what is the Bible, the most sacred and
impressive of all books--the educator of youth, the guide of
manhood, and the consoler of age--but a series of biographies of
great heroes and patriarchs, prophets, kings, and judges,
culminating in the greatest biography of all, the Life embodied in
the New Testament? How much have the great examples there set
forth done for mankind! How many have drawn from them their
truest strength, their highest wisdom, their best nurture and
admonition! Truly does a great Roman Catholic writer describe the
Bible as a book whose words "live in the ear like a music that can
never be forgotten--like the sound of church bells which the
convert hardly knows how he can forego. Its felicities often seem
to be almost things rather than mere words. It is part of the
national mind, and the anchor of national seriousness. The memory
of the dead passes into it, The potent traditions of childhood are
stereotyped in its verses. The power of all the griefs and trials
of man is hidden beneath its words. It is the representative of
his best moments, and all that has been about him of soft, and
gentle, and pure, and penitent, and good, speaks to him for ever
out of his English Bible. It is his sacred thing, which doubt
has never dimmed and controversy never soiled. In the length
and breadth of the land there is not a Protestant with one
spark of religiousness about him whose spiritual biography
is not in his Saxon Bible." (4)
It would, indeed, be difficult to overestimate the influence which
the lives of the great and good have exercised upon the elevation
of human character. "The best biography," says Isaac Disraeli,
"is a reunion with human existence in its most excellent state."
Indeed, it is impossible for one to read the lives of good men,
much less inspired men, without being unconsciously lighted and
lifted up in them, and growing insensibly nearer to what they
thought and did. And even the lives of humbler persons, of men of
faithful and honest spirit, who have done their duty in life well,
are not without an elevating influence upon the character of those
who come after them.
History itself is best studied in biography. Indeed, history is
biography--collective humanity as influenced and governed by
individual men. "What is all history," says Emerson, "but the
work of ideas, a record of the incomparable energy which his
infinite aspirations infuse into man?" In its pages it is always
persons we see more than principles. Historical events are
interesting to us mainly in connection with the feelings, the
sufferings, and interests of those by whom they are accomplished.
In history we are surrounded by men long dead, but whose speech
and whose deeds survive. We almost catch the sound of their
voices; and what they did constitutes the interest of history. We
never feel personally interested in masses of men; but we feel and
sympathise with the individual actors, whose biographies afford
the finest and most real touches in all great historical dramas.
Among the great writers of the past, probably the two that have
been most influential in forming the characters of great men of
action and great men of thought, have been Plutarch and Montaigne
--the one by presenting heroic models for imitation, the other by
probing questions of constant recurrence in which the human mind
in all ages has taken the deepest interest. And the works of both
are for the most part cast in a biographic form, their most
striking illustrations consisting in the exhibitions of character
and experience which they contain.
Plutarch's 'Lives,' though written nearly eighteen hundred years
ago, like Homer's 'Iliad,' still holds its ground as the greatest
work of its kind. It was the favourite book of Montaigne; and to
Englishmen it possesses the special interest of having been
Shakspeare's principal authority in his great classical dramas.
Montaigne pronounced Plutarch to be "the greatest master in
that kind of writing"--the biographic; and he declared that
he "could no sooner cast an eye upon him but he purloined
either a leg or a wing."
Alfieri was first drawn with passion to literature by reading
Plutarch. "I read," said he, "the lives of Timoleon, Caesar,
Brutus, Pelopidas, more than six times, with cries, with tears,
and with such transports, that I was almost furious.... Every time
that I met with one of the grand traits of these great men, I was
seized with such vehement agitation as to be unable to sit still."
Plutarch was also a favourite with persons of such various minds
as Schiller and Benjamin Franklin, Napoleon and Madame Roland.
The latter was so fascinated by the book that she carried it to
church with her in the guise of a missal, and read it
surreptitiously during the service.
It has also been the nurture of heroic souls such as Henry IV. of
France, Turenne, and the Napiers. It was one of Sir William
Napier's favourite books when a boy. His mind was early imbued by
it with a passionate admiration for the great heroes of antiquity;
and its influence had, doubtless, much to do with the formation of
his character, as well as the direction of his career in life. It
is related of him, that in his last illness, when feeble and
exhausted, his mind wandered back to Plutarch's heroes; and he
descanted for hours to his son-in-law on the mighty deeds of
Alexander, Hannibal, and Caesar. Indeed, if it were possible to
poll the great body of readers in all ages whose minds have been
influenced and directed by books, it is probable that--excepting
always the Bible--the immense majority of votes would be cast in
favour of Plutarch.
And how is it that Plutarch has succeeded in exciting an interest
which continues to attract and rivet the attention of readers of
all ages and classes to this day? In the first place, because the
subject of his work is great men, who occupied a prominent place
in the world's history, and because he had an eye to see and a pen
to describe the more prominent events and circumstances in their
lives. And not only so, but he possessed the power of portraying
the individual character of his heroes; for it is the principle of
individuality which gives the charm and interest to all biography.
The most engaging side of great men is not so much what they do as
what they are, and does not depend upon their power of intellect
but on their personal attractiveness. Thus, there are men whose
lives are far more eloquent than their speeches, and whose
personal character is far greater than their deeds.
It is also to be observed, that while the best and most carefully-
drawn of Plutarch's portraits are of life-size, many of them are
little more than busts. They are well-proportioned but compact,
and within such reasonable compass that the best of them--such as
the lives of Caesar and Alexander--may be read in half an hour.
Reduced to this measure, they are, however, greatly more imposing
than a lifeless Colossus, or an exaggerated giant. They are not
overlaid by disquisition and description, but the characters
naturally unfold themselves. Montaigne, indeed, complained of
Plutarch's brevity. "No doubt," he added, "but his reputation is
the better for it, though in the meantime we are the worse.
Plutarch would rather we should applaud his judgment than commend
his knowledge, and had rather leave us with an appetite to read
more than glutted with what we have already read. He knew very
well that a man may say too much even on the best subjects....
Such as have lean and spare bodies stuff themselves out with
clothes; so they who are defective in matter, endeavour to make
amends with words. (5)
Plutarch possessed the art of delineating the more delicate
features of mind and minute peculiarities of conduct, as well as
the foibles and defects of his heroes, all of which is necessary
to faithful and accurate portraiture. "To see him," says
Montaigne, "pick out a light action in a man's life, or a word,
that does not seem to be of any importance, is itself a whole
discourse." He even condescends to inform us of such homely
particulars as that Alexander carried his head affectedly on one
side; that Alcibiades was a dandy, and had a lisp, which became
him, giving a grace and persuasive turn to his discourse; that
Cato had red hair and gray eyes, and was a usurer and a screw,
selling off his old slaves when they became unfit for hard work;
that Caesar was bald and fond of gay dress; and that Cicero (like
Lord Brougham) had involuntary twitchings of his nose.
Such minute particulars may by some be thought beneath the dignity
of biography, but Plutarch thought them requisite for the due
finish of the complete portrait which he set himself to draw; and
it is by small details of character--personal traits, features,
habits, and characteristics--that we are enabled to see before us
the men as they really lived. Plutarch's great merit consists in
his attention to these little things, without giving them undue
preponderance, or neglecting those which are of greater moment.
Sometimes he hits off an individual trait by an anecdote, which
throws more light upon the character described than pages of
rhetorical description would do. In some cases, he gives us
the favourite maxim of his hero; and the maxims of men often
reveal their hearts.
Then, as to foibles, the greatest of men are not visually
symmetrical. Each has his defect, his twist, his craze; and it is
by his faults that the great man reveals his common humanity. We
may, at a distance, admire him as a demigod; but as we come nearer
to him, we find that he is but a fallible man, and our brother. (6)
Nor are the illustrations of the defects of great men without
their uses; for, as Dr. Johnson observed, "If nothing but the
bright side of characters were shown, we should sit down in
despondency, and think it utterly impossible to imitate
them in anything."
Plutarch, himself justifies his method of portraiture by averring
that his design was not to write histories, but lives. "The most
glorious exploits," he says, "do not always furnish us with the
clearest discoveries of virtue or of vice in men. Sometimes a
matter of much less moment, an expression or a jest, better
informs us of their characters and inclinations than battles with
the slaughter of tens of thousands, and the greatest arrays of
armies or sieges of cities. Therefore, as portrait-painters are
more exact in their lines and features of the face and the
expression of the eyes, in which the character is seen, without
troubling themselves about the other parts of the body, so I must
be allowed to give my more particular attention to the signs and
indications of the souls of men; and while I endeavour by these
means to portray their lives, I leave important events and great
battles to be described by others."
Things apparently trifling may stand for much in biography as well
as history, and slight circumstances may influence great results.
Pascal has remarked, that if Cleopatra's nose had been shorter,
the whole face of the world would probably have been changed. But
for the amours of Pepin the Fat, the Saracens might have overrun
Europe; as it was his illegitimate son, Charles Martel, who
overthrew them at Tours, and eventually drove them out of France.
That Sir Walter Scott should have sprained his foot in running
round the room when a child, may seem unworthy of notice in his
biography; yet 'Ivanhoe,' 'Old Mortality,' and all the Waverley
novels depended upon it. When his son intimated a desire to enter
the army, Scott wrote to Southey, "I have no title to combat a
choice which would have been my own, had not my lameness
prevented." So that, had not Scott been lame, he might have
fought all through the Peninsular War, and had his breast covered
with medals; but we should probably have had none of those works
of his which have made his name immortal, and shed so much glory
upon his country. Talleyrand also was kept out of the army, for
which he had been destined, by his lameness; but directing his
attention to the study of books, and eventually of men, he at
length took rank amongst the greatest diplomatists of his time.
Byron's clubfoot had probably not a little to do with determining
his destiny as a poet. Had not his mind been embittered and made
morbid by his deformity, he might never have written a line--he
might have been the noblest fop of his day. But his misshapen
foot stimulated his mind, roused his ardour, threw him upon his
own resources--and we know with what result.
So, too, of Scarron, to whose hunchback we probably owe his
cynical verse; and of Pope, whose satire was in a measure the
outcome of his deformity--for he was, as Johnson described him,
"protuberant behind and before." What Lord Bacon said of
deformity is doubtless, to a great extent, true. "Whoever,"
said he, "hath anything fixed in his person that doth induce
contempt, hath also a perpetual spur in himself to rescue
and deliver himself from scorn; therefore, all deformed persons
are extremely bold."
As in portraiture, so in biography, there must be light and shade.
The portrait-painter does not pose his sitter so as to bring out
his deformities; nor does the biographer give undue prominence to
the defects of the character he portrays. Not many men are so
outspoken as Cromwell was when he sat to Cooper for his miniature:
"Paint me as I am," said he, "warts and all." Yet, if we would
have a faithful likeness of faces and characters, they must be
painted as they are. "Biography," said Sir Walter Scott, "the
most interesting of every species of composition, loses all its
interest with me when the shades and lights of the principal
characters are not accurately and faithfully detailed. I can no
more sympathise with a mere eulogist, than I can with a ranting
hero on the stage." (7)
Addison liked to know as much as possible about the person and
character of his authors, inasmuch as it increased the pleasure
and satisfaction which he derived from the perusal of their books.
What was their history, their experience, their temper and
disposition? Did their lives resemble their books? They thought
nobly--did they act nobly? "Should we not delight," says Sir
Egerton Brydges, "to have the frank story of the lives and
feelings of Wordsworth, Southey, Coleridge, Campbell, Rogers,
Moore, and Wilson, related by themselves?--with whom they lived
early; how their bent took a decided course; their likes and
dislikes; their difficulties and obstacles; their tastes, their
passions; the rocks they were conscious of having split upon;
their regrets, their complacencies, and their self-
When Mason was reproached for publishing the private letters of
Gray, he answered, "Would you always have my friends appear in
full-dress?" Johnson was of opinion that to write a man's life
truly, it is necessary that the biographer should have personally
known him. But this condition has been wanting in some of the
best writers of biographies extant. (9) In the case of Lord
Campbell, his personal intimacy with Lords Lyndhurst and Brougham
seems to have been a positive disadvantage, leading him to dwarf
the excellences and to magnify the blots in their characters.
Again, Johnson says: "If a man profess to write a life, he must
write it really as it was. A man's peculiarities, and even his
vices, should be mentioned, because they mark his character." But
there is always this difficulty,--that while minute details of
conduct, favourable or otherwise, can best be given from personal
knowledge, they cannot always be published, out of regard for the
living; and when the time arrives when they may at length be told,
they are then no longer remembered. Johnson himself expressed
this reluctance to tell all he knew of those poets who had been
his contemporaries, saying that he felt as if "walking upon ashes
under which the fire was not extinguished."
For this reason, amongst others, we rarely obtain an unvarnished
picture of character from the near relatives of distinguished men;
and, interesting though all autobiography is, still less can we
expect it from the men themselves. In writing his own memoirs, a
man will not tell all that he knows about himself. Augustine was
a rare exception, but few there are who will, as he did in his
'Confessions,' lay bare their innate viciousness, deceitfulness,
and selfishness. There is a Highland proverb which says, that if
the best man's faults were written on his forehead he would pull
his bonnet over his brow. "There is no man," said Voltaire, "who
has not something hateful in him--no man who has not some of the
wild beast in him. But there are few who will honestly tell us
how they manage their wild beast." Rousseau pretended to unbosom
himself in his 'Confessions;' but it is manifest that he held back
far more than he revealed. Even Chamfort, one of the last men to
fear what his contemporaries might think or say of him, once
observed:- "It seems to me impossible, in the actual state of
society, for any man to exhibit his secret heart, the details of
his character as known to himself, and, above all, his weaknesses
and his vices, to even his best friend."
An autobiography may be true so far as it goes; but in
communicating only part of the truth, it may convey an impression
that is really false. It may be a disguise--sometimes it is an
apology--exhibiting not so much what a man really was, as what he
would have liked to be. A portrait in profile may be correct, but
who knows whether some scar on the off-cheek, or some squint in
the eye that is not seen, might not have entirely altered the
expression of the face if brought into sight? Scott, Moore,
Southey, all began autobiographies, but the task of continuing
them was doubtless felt to be too difficult as well as delicate,
and they were abandoned.
French literature is especially rich in a class of biographic
memoirs, of which we have few counterparts in English. We refer
to their MEMOIRES POUR SERVIR, such as those of Sully, De Comines,
Lauzun, De Retz, De Thou, Rochefoucalt, &c., in which we have
recorded an immense mass of minute and circumstantial information
relative to many great personages of history. They are full of
anecdotes illustrative of life and character, and of details which
might be called frivolous, but that they throw a flood of light on
the social habits and general civilisation of the periods to which
they relate. The MEMOIRES of Saint-Simon are something more: they
are marvellous dissections of character, and constitute the most
extraordinary collection of anatomical biography that has ever
been brought together.
Saint-Simon might almost be regarded in the light of a posthumous
court-spy of Louis the Fourteenth. He was possessed by a passion
for reading character, and endeavouring to decipher motives and
intentions in the faces, expressions, conversation, and byplay of
those about him. "I examine all my personages closely," said he--
"watch their mouth, eyes, and ears constantly." And what he heard
and saw he noted down with extraordinary vividness and dash.
Acute, keen, and observant, he pierced the masks of the courtiers,
and detected their secrets. The ardour with which he prosecuted
his favourite study of character seemed insatiable, and even
cruel. "The eager anatomist," says Sainte-Beuve, "was not more
ready to plunge the scalpel into the still-palpitating bosom in
search of the disease that had baffled him."
La Bruyere possessed the same gift of accurate and penetrating
observation of character. He watched and studied everybody about
him. He sought to read their secrets; and, retiring to his
chamber, he deliberately painted their portraits, returning to
them from time to time to correct some prominent feature--hanging
over them as fondly as an artist over some favourite study--
adding trait to trait, and touch to touch, until at length the
picture was complete and the likeness perfect.
It may be said that much of the interest of biography, especially
of the more familiar sort, is of the nature of gossip; as that of
the MEMOIRES POUR SERVIR is of the nature of scandal, which is no
doubt true. But both gossip and scandal illustrate the strength
of the interest which men and women take in each other's
personality; and which, exhibited in the form of biography, is
capable of communicating the highest pleasure, and yielding the
best instruction. Indeed biography, because it is instinct of
humanity, is the branch of literature which--whether in the form
of fiction, of anecdotal recollection, or of personal narrative--
is the one that invariably commends itself to by far the largest
class of readers.
There is no room for doubt that the surpassing interest which
fiction, whether in poetry or prose, possesses for most minds,
arises mainly from the biographic element which it contains.
Homer's 'Iliad' owes its marvellous popularity to the genius which
its author displayed in the portrayal of heroic character. Yet he
does not so much describe his personages in detail as make them
develope themselves by their actions. "There are in Homer," said
Dr. Johnson, "such characters of heroes and combination of
qualities of heroes, that the united powers of mankind ever since
have not produced any but what are to be found there."
The genius of Shakspeare also was displayed in the powerful
delineation of character, and the dramatic evolution of human
passions. His personages seem to be real--living and breathing
before us. So too with Cervantes, whose Sancho Panza, though
homely and vulgar, is intensely human. The characters in Le
Sage's 'Gil Blas,' in Goldsmith's 'Vicar of Wakefield,' and in
Scott's marvellous muster-roll, seem to us almost as real as
persons whom we have actually known; and De Foe's greatest works
are but so many biographies, painted in minute detail, with
reality so apparently stamped upon every page, that it is
difficult to believe his Robinson Crusoe and Colonel Jack to have
been fictitious instead of real persons.
Though the richest romance lies enclosed in actual human life, and
though biography, because it describes beings who have actually
felt the joys and sorrows, and experienced the difficulties and
triumphs, of real life, is capable of being made more attractive,
than the most perfect fictions ever woven, it is remarkable that
so few men of genius have been attracted to the composition of
works of this kind. Great works of fiction abound, but great
biographies may be counted on the fingers. It may be for the same
reason that a great painter of portraits, the late John Philip,
R.A., explained his preference for subject-painting, because, said
he, "Portrait-painting does not pay." Biographic portraiture
involves laborious investigation and careful collection of facts,
judicious rejection and skilful condensation, as well as the art
of presenting the character portrayed in the most attractive and
lifelike form; whereas, in the work of fiction, the writer's
imagination is free to create and to portray character, without
being trammelled by references, or held down by the actual details
of real life.
There is, indeed, no want among us of ponderous but lifeless
memoirs, many of them little better than inventories, put together
with the help of the scissors as much as of the pen. What
Constable said of the portraits of an inferior artist--"He takes
all the bones and brains out of his heads"--applies to a large
class of portraiture, written as well as painted. They have no
more life in them than a piece of waxwork, or a clothes-dummy at a
tailor's door. What we want is a picture of a man as he lived,
and lo! we have an exhibition of the biographer himself. We
expect an embalmed heart, and we find only clothes.
There is doubtless as high art displayed in painting a portrait in
words, as there is in painting one in colours. To do either well
requires the seeing eye and the skilful pen or brush. A common
artist sees only the features of a face, and copies them; but the
great artist sees the living soul shining through the features,
and places it on the canvas. Johnson was once asked to assist the
chaplain of a deceased bishop in writing a memoir of his lordship;
but when he proceeded to inquire for information, the chaplain
could scarcely tell him anything. Hence Johnson was led to
observe that "few people who have lived with a man know what to
remark about him."
In the case of Johnson's own life, it was the seeing eye of
Boswell that enabled him to note and treasure up those minute
details of habit and conversation in which so much of the interest
of biography consists. Boswell, because of his simple love and
admiration of his hero, succeeded where probably greater men would
have failed. He descended to apparently insignificant, but yet
most characteristic, particulars. Thus he apologizes for
informing the reader that Johnson, when journeying, "carried in
his hand a large English oak-stick:" adding, "I remember Dr. Adam
Smith, in his rhetorical lectures at Glasgow, told us he was glad
to know that Milton wore latchets in his shoes instead of
buckles." Boswell lets us know how Johnson looked, what dress he
wore, what was his talk, what were his prejudices. He painted him
with all his scars, and a wonderful portrait it is--perhaps the
most complete picture of a great man ever limned in words.
But for the accident of the Scotch advocate's intimacy with
Johnson, and his devoted admiration of him, the latter would not
probably have stood nearly so high in literature as he now does.
It is in the pages of Boswell that Johnson really lives; and but
for Boswell, he might have remained little more than a name.
Others there are who have bequeathed great works to posterity, but
of whose lives next to nothing is known. What would we not give
to have a Boswell's account of Shakspeare? We positively know
more of the personal history of Socrates, of Horace, of Cicero, of
Augustine, than we do of that of Shakspeare. We do not know what
was his religion, what were his politics, what were his
experiences, what were his relations to his contemporaries. The
men of his own time do not seem to have recognised his greatness;
and Ben Jonson, the court poet, whose blank-verse Shakspeare was
content to commit to memory and recite as an actor, stood higher
in popular estimation. We only know that he was a successful
theatrical manager, and that in the prime of life he retired to
his native place, where he died, and had the honours of a village
funeral. The greater part of the biography which has been
constructed respecting him has been the result, not of
contemporary observation or of record, but of inference. The best
inner biography of the man is to be found in his sonnets.
Men do not always take an accurate measure of their
contemporaries. The statesman, the general, the monarch of to-day
fills all eyes and ears, though to the next generation he may be
as if he had never been. "And who is king to-day?" the painter
Greuze would ask of his daughter, during the throes of the first
French Revolution, when men, great for the time, were suddenly
thrown to the surface, and as suddenly dropt out of sight again,
never to reappear. "And who is king to-day? After all," Greuze
would add, "Citizen Homer and Citizen Raphael will outlive those
great citizens of ours, whose names I have never before heard of."
Yet of the personal history of Homer nothing is known, and of
Raphael comparatively little. Even Plutarch, who wrote the lives
of others: so well, has no biography, none of the eminent Roman
writers who were his contemporaries having so much as mentioned
his name. And so of Correggio, who delineated the features of
others so well, there is not known to exist an authentic portrait.
There have been men who greatly influenced the life of their
time, whose reputation has been much greater with posterity
than it was with their contemporaries. Of Wickliffe, the
patriarch of the Reformation, our knowledge is extremely small.
He was but as a voice crying in the wilderness. We do not
really know who was the author of 'The Imitation of Christ'
--a book that has had an immense circulation, and exercised
a vast religious influence in all Christian countries. It
is usually attributed to Thomas a Kempis but there is reason
to believe that he was merely its translator, and the book that
is really known to be his, (10) is in all respects so inferior,
that it is difficult to believe that 'The Imitation' proceeded
from the same pen. It is considered more probable that the
real author was John Gerson, Chancellor of the University of Paris,
a most learned and devout man, who died in 1429.
Some of the greatest men of genius have had the shortest
biographies. Of Plato, one of the great fathers of moral
philosophy, we have no personal account. If he had wife and
children, we hear nothing of them. About the life of Aristotle
there is the greatest diversity of opinion. One says he was a
Jew; another, that he only got his information from a Jew: one
says he kept an apothecary's shop; another, that he was only the
son of a physician: one alleges that he was an atheist; another,
that he was a Trinitarian, and so forth. But we know almost as
little with respect to many men of comparatively modern times.
Thus, how little do we know of the lives of Spenser, author of
'The Faerie Queen,' and of Butler, the author of 'Hudibras,'
beyond the fact that they lived in comparative obscurity, and died
in extreme poverty! How little, comparatively, do we know of the
life of Jeremy Taylor, the golden preacher, of whom we should like
to have known so much!
The author of 'Philip Van Artevelde' has said that "the world
knows nothing of its greatest men." And doubtless oblivion has
enwrapt in its folds many great men who have done great deeds, and
been forgotten. Augustine speaks of Romanianus as the greatest
genius that ever lived, and yet we know nothing of him but his
name; he is as much forgotten as the builders of the Pyramids.
Gordiani's epitaph was written in five languages, yet it sufficed
not to rescue him from oblivion.
Many, indeed, are the lives worthy of record that have remained
unwritten. Men who have written books have been the most
fortunate in this respect, because they possess an attraction for
literary men which those whose lives have been embodied in deeds
do not possess. Thus there have been lives written of Poets
Laureate who were mere men of their time, and of their time only.
Dr. Johnson includes some of them in his 'Lives of the Poets,'
such as Edmund Smith and others, whose poems are now no longer
known. The lives of some men of letters--such as Goldsmith,
Swift, Sterne, and Steele--have been written again and again,
whilst great men of action, men of science, and men of industry,
are left without a record. (11)
We have said that a man may be known by the company he keeps in
his books. Let us mention a few of the favourites of the best-
known men. Plutarch's admirers have already been referred to.
Montaigne also has been the companion of most meditative men.
Although Shakspeare must have studied Plutarch carefully, inasmuch
as he copied from him freely, even to his very words, it is
remarkable that Montaigne is the only book which we certainly know
to have been in the poet's library; one of Shakspeare's existing
autographs having been found in a copy of Florio's translation of
'The Essays,' which also contains, on the flyleaf, the autograph
of Ben Jonson.
Milton's favourite books were Homer, Ovid, and Euripides. The
latter book was also the favourite of Charles James Fox, who
regarded the study of it as especially useful to a public speaker.
On the other hand, Pitt took especial delight in Milton--whom Fox
did not appreciate--taking pleasure in reciting, from 'Paradise
Lost,' the grand speech of Belial before the assembled powers of
Pandemonium. Another of Pitt's ,favourite books was Newton's
'Principia.' Again, the Earl of Chatham's favourite book was
'Barrow's Sermons,' which he read so often as to be able to repeat
them from memory; while Burke's companions were Demosthenes,
Milton, Bolingbroke, and Young's 'Night Thoughts.'
Curran's favourite was Homer, which he read through once a year.
Virgil was another of his favourites; his biographer, Phillips,
saying that he once saw him reading the 'Aeneid' in the cabin
of a Holyhead packet, while every one about him was prostrate
Of the poets, Dante's favourite was Virgil; Corneille's was Lucan;
Schiller's was Shakspeare; Gray's was Spenser; whilst Coleridge
admired Collins and Bowles. Dante himself was a favourite with
most great poets, from Chaucer to Byron and Tennyson. Lord
Brougham, Macaulay, and Carlyle have alike admired and eulogized
the great Italian. The former advised the students at Glasgow
that, next to Demosthenes, the study of Dante was the best
preparative for the eloquence of the pulpit or the bar. Robert
Hall sought relief in Dante from the racking pains of spinal
disease; and Sydney Smith took to the same poet for comfort and
solace in his old age. It was characteristic of Goethe that his
favourite book should have been Spinoza's 'Ethics,' in which he
said he had found a peace and consolation such as he had been able
to find in no other work. (12)
Barrow's favourite was St. Chrysostom; Bossuet's was Homer.
Bunyan's was the old legend of Sir Bevis of Southampton, which in
all probability gave him the first idea of his 'Pilgrim's
Progress.' One of the best prelates that ever sat on the English
bench, Dr. John Sharp, said--"Shakspeare and the Bible have made
me Archbishop of York." The two books which most impressed John
Wesley when a young man, were 'The Imitation of Christ' and Jeremy
Taylor's 'Holy Living and Dying.' Yet Wesley was accustomed to
caution his young friends against overmuch reading. "Beware you
be not swallowed up in books," he would say to them; "an ounce of
love is worth a pound of knowledge."
Wesley's own Life has been a great favourite with many thoughtful
readers. Coleridge says, in his preface to Southey's 'Life of
Wesley,' that it was more often in his hands than any other in his
ragged book-regiment. "To this work, and to the Life of Richard
Baxter," he says, "I was used to resort whenever sickness and
languor made me feel the want of an old friend of whose company I
could never be tired. How many and many an hour of self-oblivion
do I owe to this Life of Wesley; and how often have I argued with
it, questioned, remonstrated, been peevish, and asked pardon; then
again listened, and cried, 'Right! Excellent!' and in yet heavier
hours entreated it, as it were, to continue talking to me; for
that I heard and listened, and was soothed, though I could
make no reply!" (13)
Soumet had only a very few hooks in his library, but they were of
the best--Homer, Virgil, Dante, Camoens, Tasso, and Milton. De
Quincey's favourite few were Donne, Chillingworth, Jeremy Taylor,
Milton, South, Barrow, and Sir Thomas Browne. He described these
writers as "a pleiad or constellation of seven golden stars, such
as in their class no literature can match," and from whose works
he would undertake "to build up an entire body of philosophy."
Frederick the Great of Prussia manifested his strong French
leanings in his choice of books; his principal favourites being
Bayle, Rousseau, Voltaire, Rollin, Fleury, Malebranche, and one
English author--Locke. His especial favourite was Bayle's
Dictionary, which was the first book that laid hold of his mind;
and he thought so highly of it, that he himself made an abridgment
and translation of it into German, which was published. It was a
saying of Frederick's, that "books make up no small part of true
happiness." In his old age he said, "My latest passion will
be for literature."
It seems odd that Marshal Blucher's favourite book should have
been Klopstock's 'Messiah,' and Napoleon Buonaparte's favourites,
Ossian's 'Poems' and the 'Sorrows of Werther.' But Napoleon's
range of reading was very extensive. It included Homer, Virgil,
Tasso; novels of all countries; histories of all times;
mathematics, legislation, and theology. He detested what he
called "the bombast and tinsel" of Voltaire. The praises of Homer
and Ossian he was never wearied of sounding. "Read again," he
said to an officer on board the BELLEROPHO--"read again the poet
of Achilles; devour Ossian. Those are the poets who lift up the
soul, and give to man a colossal greatness." (14)
The Duke of Wellington was an extensive reader; his principal
favourites were Clarendon, Bishop Butler, Smith's 'Wealth of
Nations,' Hume, the Archduke Charles, Leslie, and the Bible. He
was also particularly interested by French and English memoirs--
more especially the French MEMOIRES POUR SERVIR of all kinds.
When at Walmer, Mr. Gleig says, the Bible, the Prayer Book,
Taylor's 'Holy Living and Dying,' and Caesar's 'Commentaries,' lay
within the Duke's reach; and, judging by the marks of use on them,
they must have been much read and often consulted.
While books are among the best companions of old age, they are
often the best inspirers of youth. The first book that makes a
deep impression on a young man's mind, often constitutes an epoch
in his life. It may fire the heart, stimulate the enthusiasm, and
by directing his efforts into unexpected channels, permanently
influence his character. The new book, in which we form an
intimacy with a new friend, whose mind is wiser and riper than
our own, may thus form an important starting-point in the
history of a life. It may sometimes almost be regarded
in the light of a new birth.
From the day when James Edward Smith was presented with his first
botanical lesson-book, and Sir Joseph Banks fell in with Gerard's
'Herbal'--from the time when Alfieri first read Plutarch, and
Schiller made his first acquaintance with Shakspeare, and Gibbon
devoured the first volume of 'The Universal History'--each dated
an inspiration so exalted, that they felt as if their real lives
had only then begun.
In the earlier part of his youth, La Fontaine was distinguished
for his idleness, but hearing an ode by Malherbe read, he is said
to have exclaimed, "I too am a poet," and his genius was awakened.
Charles Bossuet's mind was first fired to study by reading, at an
early age, Fontenelle's 'Eloges' of men of science. Another work
of Fontenelle's--'On the Plurality of Worlds'--influenced the
mind of Lalande in making choice of a profession. "It is with
pleasure," says Lalande himself in a preface to the book, which be
afterwards edited, "that I acknowledge my obligation to it for
that devouring activity which its perusal first excited in me at
the age of sixteen, and which I have since retained."
In like manner, Lacepede was directed to the study of natural
history by the perusal of Buffon's 'Histoire Naturelle,' which he
found in his father's library, and read over and over again until
he almost knew it by heart. Goethe was greatly influenced by the
reading of Goldsmith's 'Vicar of Wakefield,' just at the critical
moment of his mental development; and he attributed to it much of
his best education. The reading of a prose 'Life of Gotz
vou Berlichingen' afterwards stimulated him to delineate his
character in a poetic form. "The figure of a rude, well-meaning
self-helper," he said, "in a wild anarchic time, excited
my deepest sympathy."
Keats was an insatiable reader when a boy; but it was the perusal
of the 'Faerie Queen,' at the age of seventeen, that first lit the
fire of his genius. The same poem is also said to have been the
inspirer of Cowley, who found a copy of it accidentally lying on
the window of his mother's apartment; and reading and admiring it,
he became, as he relates, irrecoverably a poet.
Coleridge speaks of the great influence which the poems of Bowles
had in forming his own mind. The works of a past age, says he,
seem to a young man to be things of another race; but the writings
of a contemporary "possess a reality for him, and inspire an
actual friendship as of a man for a man. His very admiration is
the wind which fans and feeds his hope. The poems themselves
assume the properties of flesh and blood." (15)
But men have not merely been stimulated to undertake special
literary pursuits by the perusal of particular books; they
have been also stimulated by them to enter upon particular
lines of action in the serious business of life. Thus Henry
Martyn was powerfully influenced to enter upon his heroic career
as a missionary by perusing the Lives of Henry Brainerd and
Dr. Carey, who had opened up the furrows in which he went
forth to sow the seed.
Bentham has described the extraordinary influence which the
perusal of 'Telemachus' exercised upon his mind in boyhood.
"Another book," said he, "and of far higher character (than a
collection of Fairy Tales, to which he refers), was placed in my
hands. It was 'Telemachus.' In my own imagination, and at the
age of six or seven, I identified my own personality with that of
the hero, who seemed to me a model of perfect virtue; and in my
walk of life, whatever it may come to be, why (said I to myself
every now and then)--why should not I be a Telemachus? .... That
romance may be regarded as THE FOUNDATION-STONE OF MY WHOLE
CHARACTER--the starting-post from whence my career of life
commenced. The first dawning in my mind of the 'Principles of
Utility' may, I think, be traced to it." (16)
Cobbett's first favourite, because his only book, which he bought
for threepence, was Swift's 'Tale of a Tub,' the repeated perusal
of which had, doubtless, much to do with the formation of his
pithy, straightforward, and hard-hitting style of writing. The
delight with which Pope, when a schoolboy, read Ogilvy's 'Homer'
was, most probably, the origin of the English 'Iliad;' as the
'Percy Reliques' fired the juvenile mind of Scott, and stimulated
him to enter upon the collection and composition of his 'Border
Ballads.' Keightley's first reading of 'Paradise Lost,' when a
boy, led to his afterwards undertaking his Life of the poet.
"The reading," he says, "of 'Paradise Lost' for the first
time forms, or should form, an era in the life of every one
possessed of taste and poetic feeling. To my mind, that time
is ever present.... Ever since, the poetry of Milton has formed
my constant study--a source of delight in prosperity, of strength
and consolation in adversity."
Good books are thus among the best of companions; and, by
elevating the thoughts and aspirations, they act as preservatives
against low associations. "A natural turn for reading and
intellectual pursuits," says Thomas Hood, "probably preserved me
from the moral shipwreck so apt to befal those who are deprived in
early life of their parental pilotage. My books kept me from the
ring, the dogpit, the tavern, the saloon. The closet associate of
Pope and Addison, the mind accustomed to the noble though silent
discourse of Shakspeare and Milton, will hardly seek or put up
with low company and slaves."
It has been truly said, that the best books are those which most
resemble good actions. They are purifying, elevating, and
sustaining; they enlarge and liberalize the mind; they preserve it
against vulgar worldliness; they tend to produce highminded
cheerfulness and equanimity of character; they fashion, and shape,
and humanize the mind. In the Northern universities, the schools
in which the ancient classics are studied, are appropriately
styled "The Humanity Classes." (17)
Erasmus, the great scholar, was even of opinion that books were
the necessaries of life, and clothes the luxuries; and he
frequently postponed buying the latter until he had supplied
himself with the former. His greatest favourites were the works
of Cicero, which he says he always felt himself the better for
reading. "I can never," he says, "read the works of Cicero on
'Old Age,' or 'Friendship,' or his 'Tusculan Disputations,'
without fervently pressing them to my lips, without being
penetrated with veneration for a mind little short of inspired by
God himself." It was the accidental perusal of Cicero's
'Hortensius' which first detached St. Augustine--until then a
profligate and abandoned sensualist--from his immoral life, and
started him upon the course of inquiry and study which led to his
becoming the greatest among the Fathers of the Early Church. Sir
William Jones made it a practice to read through, once a year, the
writings of Cicero, "whose life indeed," says his biographer, was
the great exemplar of his own."
When the good old Puritan Baxter came to enumerate the valuable
and delightful things of which death would deprive him, his mind
reverted to the pleasures he had derived from books and study.
"When I die," he said, "I must depart, not only from sensual
delights, but from the more manly pleasures of my studies,
knowledge, and converse with many wise and godly men, and from all
my pleasure in reading, hearing, public and private exercises of
religion, and such like. I must leave my library, and turn over
those pleasant books no more. I must no more come among the
living, nor see the faces of my faithful friends, nor be seen of
man; houses, and cities, and fields, and countries, gardens, and
walks, will be as nothing to me. I shall no more hear of the
affairs of the world, of man, or wars, or other news; nor see what
becomes of that beloved interest of wisdom, piety, and peace,
which I desire may prosper."
It is unnecessary to speak of the enormous moral influence which
books have exercised upon the general civilization of mankind,
from the Bible downwards. They contain the treasured knowledge of
the human race. They are the record of all labours, achievements,
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