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The biography of a man of genius ought to be the history of his thoughts. If he has been a man of action, the narrative of his life will necessarily consist in the chronicle of his deeds : if he has been a man of letters, his ideas must be sought for in his works; and the story of his life will best be told by accounting for these-how they came to be designed, and under what circumstances they were executed. Autobiography—which for clearness of outline and truth of colouring is generally regarded as the best often fails in the particular just mentioned. It is a true picture, but it is of the pre-Raphaelite school. The most faithful self-analyst, as he gazes intently at his own image in the glass, is apt to become unconscious or unmindful of the many incidents that have con
tributed to make him what he is. Artist though he be, he forgets perspective; and in the want of background we lose much of the reality of the portrait. A few of kindred spirit and quick fancy, may indeed supply at will the deficiency for themselves : but after all, it is for the unimaginative many that biography is written.
On the other hand, we seem to have fallen too much of late into the practice of enumerating commonplace details, which only serve to prove how numerous are the points of identity between the outward lot of those possessing high intellectual gifts, and that of those around them. I do not question the tendency of such proof to check the vanity of some who may, on insufficient grounds, persuade themselves that they too belong to nature's privileged class : and every day's observation shows how insatiable public curiosity becomes, when once accustomed to biographic catalogues of casual acquaintances, inventories of household stuff, and all the indescribable trivialities of social life. It seems to me that there is hardly time for reading such as this; and that what is chiefly worth knowing of remarkable men, is wherein they differed from their ordinary fellows, and how they came so much to differ, rather than an elaborate demonstration by the exhaustive method, of the flattening theory, that all are, in the main, pottery of the same clay.
My desire in the present work has been, as far as the materials placed at my disposal enabled me, to present in succession the feelings and ideas of my lamented friend as they occupied his mind, in his own way, and generally in his own words. With this view I have not hesitated to give numerous extracts from his speeches, plays, and essays, most of which are inaccessible to ordinary readers. Reminiscences of conversations with myself and others have enabled me to supply, in some degree, the want of correspondence upon subjects of importance. He was not what is called a letter-writer; and I have perused whole piles of written communications, addressed by him at various times to different persons, without being tempted to make a single quotation. The truth appears to have been that at all times, and more especially in his latter years, writing upon ordinary subjects was irksome to him: and hence the com
parative scarcity and the almost invariable brevity of his epistles. When excited by some sudden piece of news, he would sometimes sit down and indite to a friend in the country what he used to call “ a telegraphic despatch." But there were few, even of his intimates, to whom he wrote at any length on the topics that most interested him; and his happiest thoughts are to be gathered from recollections of social converse, and from his known compositions. My desire has been to collect and illustrate these by just so much of explanatory observation as might render them fully appreciable. In many of the opinions strikingly expressed throughout these volumes I entirely concur; while from others, were it necessary, I should be disposed to dissent. But I felt that it would have been an unpardonable intrusion if, as a biographer, I had sought to intermix my own sentiments unnecessarily with those, of which I had undertaken to give the substance and the sum.
W. T. M.