Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Sentimental Biography.

A periodical critic, probably one of the juniors, has thrown out a startling observation. “There is,” says this literary senator, “something melancholy in the study of biography, because it is — a history of the dead!” A truism and a falsity mixed up together is the temptation with some modern critics to commit that darling sin of theirs — novelty and originality! But we really cannot condole with the readers of Plutarch for their deep melancholy; we who feel our spirits refreshed, amidst the mediocrity of society, when we are recalled back to the men and the women who were! illustrious in every glory! Biography with us is a re-union with human existence in its most excellent state! and we find nothing dead in the past, while we retain the sympathies which only require to be awakened.

It would have been more reasonable had the critic discovered that our country has not yet had her Plutarch, and that our biography remains still little more than a mass of compilation.

In this study of biography there is a species which has not yet been distinguished — biographies composed by some domestic friend, or by some enthusiast who works with love. A term is unquestionably wanted for this distinct class. The Germans seem to have invented a Platonic one, drawn from the Greek, psyche, or the soul; for they call this the psychological life. Another attempt has been made, by giving it the scientific term of idiosyncrasy, to denote a peculiarity of disposition. I would call it sentimental biography!

It is distinct from a chronological biography, for it searches for the individual’s feelings amidst the ascertained facts of his life; so that facts, which occurred remotely from each other, are here brought at once together. The detail of events which completes the chronological biography, contains many which are not connected with the peculiarity of the character itself. The sentimental is also distinct from the autobiography, however it may seem a part of it. Whether a man be entitled to lavish his panegyric on himself, I will not decide; but it is certain that he risks everything by appealing to a solitary and suspected witness.

We have two Lives of Dante, one by Boccaccio and the other by Leonardo Aretino, both interesting: but Boccaccio’s is the sentimental life!

Aretino, indeed, finds fault, but with all the tenderness possible, with Boccaccio’s affectionate sketch, Origine, Vita, Studi e Costumi del clarissimo Dante, &c. “Origin, Life, Studies and Manners, of the illustrious Dante,” &c. “It seems to me,” he says, “that our Boccaccio, dolcissimo e suavissimo uomo, sweet and delightful man! has written the life and manners of this sublime poet as if he had been composing the Filocolo, the Filostrato, or the Fiametta,” the romances of Boccaccio —“for all breathes of love and sighs, and is covered with warm tears, as if a man were born in this world only to live among the enamoured ladies and the gallant youths of the ten amorous days of his hundred novels.”

Aretino, who wanted not all the feeling requisite for the delightful “costumi e studi” of Boccaccio’s Dante, modestly requires that his own life of Dante should be considered as a supplement to, not as a substitute for, Boccaccio’s. Pathetic with all the sorrows, and eloquent with all the remonstrances of a fellow-citizen, Boccaccio, while he wept, hung with anger over his country’s shame in its apathy for the honour of its long-injured exile. Catching inspiration from the breathing pages of Boccaccio, it inclines one to wish that we possessed two biographies of an illustrious favourite character; the one strictly and fully historical, the other fraught with those very feelings of the departed, which we may have to seek in vain for in the circumstantial and chronological biographer. Boccaccio, indeed, was overcome by his feelings. He either knew not, or he omits the substantial incidents of Dante’s life; while his imagination throws a romantic tinge on occurrences raised on slight, perhaps on no foundation. Boccaccio narrates a dream of the mother of Dante so fancifully poetical, that probably Boccaccio forgot that none but a dreamer could have told it. Seated under a high laurel-tree, by the side of a vast fountain, the mother dreamt that she gave birth to her son; she saw him nourished by its fruit, and refreshed by the clear waters; she soon beheld him a shepherd; approaching to pluck the boughs, she saw him fall! When he rose he had ceased to be a man, and was transformed into a peacock! Disturbed by her admiration, she suddenly awoke; but when the father found that he really had a son, in allusion to the dream he called him Dante — or given! e meritamente; perocché ottimamente, siccome si vedra procedendo, segui al nome l’effetto: “and deservedly! for greatly, as we shall see, the effect followed the name!” At nine years of age, on a May-day, whose joyous festival Boccaccio beautifully describes, when the softness of the heavens, re-adorning the earth with its mingled flowers, waved the green boughs, and made all things smile, Dante mixed with the boys and girls in the house of the good citizen who on that day gave the feast, beheld little Bricè, as she was familiarly called, but named Beatrice. The little Dante might have seen her before, but he loved her then, and from that day never ceased to love; and thus Dante nella pargoletta età fatto d’amore ferventissimo servidore; so fervent a servant to love in an age of childhood! Boccaccio appeals to Dante’s own account of his long passion, and his constant sighs, in the Vita Nuova. No look, no word, no sign, sullied the purity of his passion; but in her twenty-fourth year died “la bellissima Beatrice.” Dante is then described as more than inconsolable; his eyes were long two abundant fountains of tears; careless of life, he let his beard grow wildly, and to others appeared a savage meagre man, whose aspect was so changed, that while this weeping life lasted, he was hardly recognised by his friends; all looked on a man so entirely transformed with deep compassion. Dante, won over by those who could console the inconsolable, was at length solicited by his relations to marry a lady of his own condition in life; and it was suggested that as the departed lady had occasioned him such heavy griefs, the new one might open a source of delight. The relations and friends of Dante gave him a wife that his tears for Beatrice might cease.

It is supposed that this marriage proved unhappy. Boccaccio, like a pathetic lover rather than biographer, exclaims, Oh menti cicche! Oh tenebrosi intelletti! Oh argomenti vani di molti mortali, quante sono le ruiscite in assai cose contrarie a’ nostri avvisi! &c. “Oh blind men! Oh dark minds! Oh vain arguments of most mortals, how often are the results contrary to our advice! Frequently it is like leading one who breathes the soft air of Italy to refresh himself in the eternal shades of the Rhodopean mountains. What physician would expel a burning fever with fire, or put in the shivering marrow of the bones snow and ice? So certainly shall it fare with him who, with a new love, thinks to mitigate the old. Those who believe this know not the nature of love, nor how much a second passion adds to the first. In vain would we assist or advise this forceful passion, if it has struck its root near the heart of him who long has loved.”

Boccaccio has beguiled my pen for half-an-hour with all the loves and fancies which sprung out of his own affectionate and romantic heart. What airy stuff has he woven into the “Vita” of Dante! this sentimental biography! Whether he knew but little of the personal history of the great man whom he idolised, or whether the dream of the mother — the May-day interview with the little Bricè, and the rest of the children — and the effusion on Dante’s marriage, were grounded on tradition, one would not harshly reject such tender incidents.1 But let it not be imagined that the heart of Boccaccio was only susceptible to amorous impressions — bursts of enthusiasm and eloquence, which only a man of genius is worthy of receiving, and only a man of genius is capable of bestowing — kindle the masculine patriotism of his bold, indignant spirit!

Half a century had elapsed since the death of Dante, and still the Florentines showed no sign of repentance for their ancient hatred of their persecuted patriot, nor any sense of the memory of the creator of their language, whose immortality had become a portion of their own glory. Boccaccio, impassioned by all his generous nature, though he regrets he could not raise a statue to Dante, has sent down to posterity more than marble, in the “Life.” I venture to give the lofty and bold apostrophe to his fellow-citizens; but I feel that even the genius of our language is tame by the side of the harmonised eloquence of the great votary of Dante!

“Ungrateful country! what madness urged thee, when thy dearest citizen, thy chief benefactor, thy only poet, with unaccustomed cruelty was driven to flight! If this had happened in the general terror of that time, coming from evil counsels, thou mightest stand excused; but when the passion ceased, didst thou repent? didst thou recall him? Bear with me, nor deem it irksome from me, who am thy son, that thus I collect what just indignation prompts me to speak, as a man more desirous of witnessing your amendment, than of beholding you punished! Seems it to you glorious, proud of so many titles and of such men, that the one whose like no neighbouring city can show, you have chosen to chase from among you? With what triumphs, with what valorous citizens, are you splendid? Your wealth is a removable and uncertain thing; your fragile beauty will grow old; your delicacy is shameful and feminine; but these make you noticed by the false judgments of the populace! Do you glory in your merchants and your artists? I speak imprudently; but the one are tenaciously avaricious in their servile trade; and Art, which once was so noble, and became a second nature, struck by the same avarice, is now as corrupted, and nothing worth! Do you glory in the baseness and the listlessness of those idlers, who, because their ancestors are remembered, attempt to raise up among you a nobility to govern you, ever by robbery, by treachery, by falsehood! Ah! miserable mother! open thine eyes; cast them with some remorse on what thou hast done, and blush, at least, reputed wise as thou art, to have had in your errors so fatal a choice! Why not rather imitate the acts of those cities who so keenly disputed merely for the honour of the birth-place of the divine Homer? Mantua, our neighbour, counts as the greatest fame which remains for her, that Virgil was a Mantuan! and holds his very name in such reverence, that not only in public places, but in the most private, we see his sculptured image! You only, while you were made famous by illustrious men, you only have shown no care for your great poet. Your Dante Alighieri died in exile, to which you unjustly, envious of his greatness, destined him! A crime not to be remembered, that the mother should bear an envious malignity to the virtues of a son! Now cease to be unjust! He cannot do you that, now dead, which living he never did do to you! He lies under another sky than yours, and you never can see him again, but on that day, when all your citizens shall view him, and the great Remunerator shall examine, and shall punish! If anger, hatred, and enmity are buried with a man, as it is believed, begin then to return to yourself; begin to be ashamed to have acted against your ancient humanity; begin, then, to wish to appear a mother, and not a cold negligent step-dame. Yield your tears to your son; yield your maternal piety to him whom once you repulsed, and, living, cast away from you! At least think of possessing him dead, and restore your citizenship, your award, and your grace, to his memory. He was a son who held you in reverence, and though long an exile, he always called himself, and would be called a Florentine! He held you ever above all others; ever he loved you! What will you then do? Will you remain obstinate in iniquity? Will you practise less humanity than the barbarians? You wish that the world should believe that you are the sister of famous Troy, and the daughter of Rome; assuredly the children should resemble their fathers and their ancestors. Priam, in his misery, bought the corpse of Hector with gold; and Rome would possess the bones of the first Scipio, and removed them from Linternum, those bones, which, dying, so justly he had denied her. Seek then to be the true guardian of your Dante, claim him! show this humane feeling, claim him! you may securely do this: I am certain he will not be returned to you; but thus at once you may betray some mark of compassion, and, not having him again, still enjoy your ancient cruelty! Alas! what comfort am I bringing you! I almost believe, that if the dead could feel, the body of Dante would not rise to return to you, for he is lying in Ravenna, whose hallowed soil is everywhere covered with the ashes of saints. Would Dante quit this blessed company to mingle with the remains of those hatreds and iniquities which gave him no rest in life? The relics of Dante, even among the bodies of emperors and of martyrs, and of their illustrious ancestors, is prized as a treasure, for there his works are looked on with admiration; those works of which you have not yet known to make yourselves worthy. His birthplace, his origin remains for you, spite of your ingratitude! and this Ravenna envies you, while she glories in your honours which she has snatched from you through ages yet to come!”

Such was the deep emotion which opened Boccaccio’s heart in this sentimental biography, and which awoke even shame and confusion in the minds of the Florentines; they blushed for their old hatreds, and, with awakened sympathies, they hastened to honour the memory of their great bard. By order of the city, the Divina Commedia was publicly read and explained to the people. Boccaccio, then sinking under the infirmities of age, roused his departing genius: still was there marrow in the bones of the aged lion, and he engaged in the task of composing his celebrated Commentaries on the Divina Commedia.

In this class of sentimental biography I would place a species which the historian Carte noticed in his literary travels on the Continent, in pursuit of his historical design. He found, preserved among several ancient families of France, their domestic annals. “With a warm, patriotic spirit, worthy of imitation, they have often carefully preserved in their families the acts of their ancestors.” This delight and pride of the modern Gauls in the great and good deeds of their ancestors, preserved in domestic archives, will be ascribed to their folly or their vanity; yet in that folly there may be so much wisdom, and in that vanity there may be so much greatness, that the one will amply redeem the other.

This custom has been rarely adopted among ourselves; we have, however, a few separate histories of some ancient families, as those of Mordaunt, and of Warren. One of the most remarkable is “A Genealogical History of the House of Yvery, in its different branches of Yvery, Luvel, Perceval, and Gournay.” Two large volumes, closely printed,2 expatiating on the characters and events of a single family with the grave pomp of a herald, but more particularly the idolatry of the writer for ancient nobility, and his contempt for that growing rank in society whom he designates as “New Men,” provoked the ridicule at least of the aspersed.3 This extraordinary work, notwithstanding its absurdities in its general result, has left behind a deep impression. Drawn from the authentic family records, it is not without interest that we toil through its copious pages; we trace with a romantic sympathy the fortunes of the descendants of the House of Yvery, from that not-forgotten hero le vaillant Perceval chevalier de la Table Ronde, to the Norman Baron Asselin, surnamed the Wolf, for his bravery or his ferocity; thence to the Cavalier of Charles the First, Sir Philip Perceval, who, having gloriously defended his castle, was at length deprived of his lordly possessions, but never of his loyalty, and died obscurely in the metropolis of a broken heart, till we reach the polished nobleman, the Lord Egmont of the Georges.

The nation has lost many a noble example of men and women acting a great part on great occasions, and then retreating to the shade of privacy; and we may be confident that many a name has not been inscribed on the roll of national glory only from wanting a few drops of ink! Such domestic annals may yet be viewed in the family records at Appleby Castle! Anne, Countess of Pembroke, was a glorious woman, the descendant of two potent northern families, the Veteriponts and the Cliffords. — She lived in a state of regal magnificence and independence, inhabiting five or seven castles; yet though her magnificent spirit poured itself out in her extended charities, and though her independence mated that of monarchs, yet she herself, in her domestic habits, lived as a hermit in her own castles; and though only acquainted with her native language, she had cultivated her mind in many parts of learning; and as Donne, in his way, observes, “she knew how to converse of everything, from predestination to slea-silk.” Her favourite design was to have materials collected for the history of those two potent northern families to whom she was allied; and at a considerable expense she employed learned persons to make collections for this purpose from the records in the Tower, the Rolls, and other depositories of manuscripts: Gilpin had seen three large volumes fairly transcribed. Anecdotes of a great variety of characters, who had exerted themselves on very important occasions, compose these family records — and induce one to wish that the public were in possession of such annals of the domestic life of heroes and of sages, who have only failed in obtaining an historian!4

A biographical monument of this nature, which has passed through the press, will sufficiently prove the utility of this class of sentimental biography. It is the Life of Robert Price, a Welsh lawyer, and an ancestor of the gentleman whose ingenuity, in our days, has refined the principles of the Picturesque in Art. This Life is announced as “printed by the appointment of the family;” but it must not be considered merely as a tribute of private affection; and how we are at this day interested in the actions of a Welsh lawyer in the reign of William the Third, whose name has probably never been consigned to the page of history, remains to be told.

Robert Price, after having served Charles the Second, lived latterly in the eventful times of William the Third — he was probably of Tory principles, for on the arrival of the Dutch prince he was removed from the attorney-generalship of Glamorgan. The new monarch has been accused of favouritism, and of an eagerness in showering exorbitant grants on some of his foreigners, which soon raised a formidable opposition in the jealous spirit of Englishmen. The grand favourite, William Bentinck, after being raised to the Earldom of Portland, had a grant bestowed on him of three lordships in the county of Denbigh. The patriot of his native country — a title which the Welsh had already conferred on Robert Price — then rose to assert the rights of his fatherland, and his speeches are as admirable for their knowledge as their spirit. “The submitting of 1500 freeholders to the will of a Dutch lord was,” as he sarcastically declared, “putting them in a worse posture than their former estate, when under William the Conqueror and his Norman lords. England must not be tributary to strangers — we must, like patriots, stand by our country — otherwise, when God shall send us a Prince of Wales, he may have such a present of a crown made him as a Pope did to King John, who was surnamed Sans-terre, and was by his father made Lord of Ireland, which grant was confirmed by the Pope, who sent him a crown of peacocks’ feathers, in derogation of his power, and the poverty of his country.” Robert Price asserted that the king could not, by the Bill of Rights, alien or give away the inheritance of a Prince of Wales without the consent of parliament. He concluded a copious and patriotic speech, by proposing that an address be presented to the king, to put an immediate stop to the grant now passing to the Earl of Portland for the lordships, &c.

This speech produced such an effect, that the address was carried unanimously; and the king, though he highly resented the speech of Robert Price, sent a civil message to the commons, declaring that he should not have given Lord Portland those lands, had he imagined the House of Commons could have been concerned; “I will therefore recall the grant!” On receiving the royal message, Robert Price drew up a resolution to which the house assented, that “to procure or pass exorbitant grants by any member of the privy council, &c. was a high crime and misdemeanour.” The speech of Robert Price contained truths too numerous and too bold to suffer the light during that reign; but this speech against foreigners was printed the year after King William’s death, with this title, “Gloria Cambriæ, or the speech of a bold Briton in parliament, against a Dutch Prince of Wales,” with this motto, Opposuit et Vicit. Such was the great character of Robert Price, that he was made a Welsh judge by the very sovereign whose favourite plans he had so patriotically thwarted.

Another marked event in the life of this English patriot was a second noble stand he made against the royal authority, when in opposition to the public good. The secret history of a quarrel between George the First and the Prince of Wales, afterwards George the Second, on the birth of a son, appears in this life; and when the prince in disgrace left the palace, his royal highness proposed taking his children and the princess with him; but the king detained the children, claiming the care of the royal offspring as a royal prerogative. It now became a legal point to ascertain “whether the education of his majesty’s grandchildren, and the care of their marriages, &c., belonged of right to his majesty as king of this realm, or not?” Ten of the judges obsequiously allowed of the prerogative to the full. Robert Price and another judge decided that the education, &c., was the right of the father, although the marriages was that of his majesty as king of this realm, yet not exclusive of the prince, their father. He assured the king, that the ten obsequious judges had no authority to support their precipitate opinion; all the books and precedents cannot form a prerogative for the king of this realm to have the care and education of his grandchildren during the life and without the consent of their father — a prerogative unknown to the laws of England! He pleads for the rights of a father, with the spirit of one who feels them, as well as with legal science and historical knowledge.

Such were the two great incidents in the life of this Welsh judge! Yet, had the family not found one to commemorate these memorable events in the life of their ancestor, we had lost the noble picture of a constitutional interpreter of the laws, an independent country gentleman, and an Englishman jealous of the excessive predominance of ministerial or royal influence.

Cicero, and others, have informed us that the ancient history of Rome itself was composed out of such accounts of private families, to which, indeed, we must add those annals or registers of public events which unquestionably were preserved in the archives of the temples by the priests. But the history of the individual may involve public interest, whenever the skill of the writer combines with the importance of the event. Messala, the orator, gloried in having composed many volumes of the genealogies of the nobility of Rome; and Atticus wrote the genealogy of Brutus, to prove him descended from Junius Brutus, the expulser of the Tarquins, and founder of the Republic, near five hundred years before.

Another class of this sentimental biography was projected by the late Elizabeth Hamilton. This was to have consisted of a series of what she called comparative biography, and an ancient character was to have been paralleled by a modern one. Occupied by her historical romance with the character of Agrippina, she sought in modern history for a partner of her own sex, and “one who, like her, had experienced vicissitudes of fortune;” and she found no one better qualified than the princess palatine, Elizabeth, the daughter of James the First. Her next life was to have been that of Seneca, with “the scenes and persons of which her Life of Agrippina had familiarised her;” and the contrast or the parallel was to have been Locke; which, well managed, she thought would have been sufficiently striking. It seems to me that it would rather have afforded an evidence of her invention! Such a biographical project reminds one of Plutarch’s Parallels, and might incur the danger of displaying more ingenuity than truth. The sage of Cheronea must often have racked his invention to help out his parallels, bending together, to make them similar, the most unconnected events and the most distinct feelings; and, to keep his parallels in two straight lines, he probably made a free use of augmentatives and diminutives to help out his pair, who might have been equal, and yet not alike!

Our fatherland is prodigal of immortal names, or names which might be made immortal; Gibbon once contemplated with complacency, the very ideal of SENTIMENTAL BIOGRAPHY, and we may regret that he has only left the project! “I have long revolved in my mind a volume of biographical writing; the lives or rather the characters of the most eminent persons in arts and arms, in church and state, who have flourished in Britain from the reign of Henry the Eighth to the present age. The subject would afford a rich display of human nature and domestic history, and powerfully address itself to the feelings of every Englishman.”

1 “A Comment on the Divine Comedy of Dante,” in English, printed in Italy, has just reached me. I am delighted to find that this biography of Love, however romantic, is true! In his ninth year, Dante was a lover and a poet! The tender sonnet, free from all obscurity, which he composed on Beatrice, is preserved in the above singular volume. There can be no longer any doubt of the story of Beatrice; but the sonnet and the passion must be “classed among curious natural phenomena,” or how far apocryphal, remains for future inquiry.

2 This work was published in 1742, and the scarcity of these volumes was felt in Granger’s day, for they obtained then the considerable price of four guineas; some time ago a fine copy was sold for thirty at a sale, and a cheap copy was offered to me at twelve guineas. These volumes should contain seventeen portraits. The first was written by Mr. Anderson, who, dying before the second appeared, Lord Egmont, from the materials Anderson had left, concluded his family history — con amore.

3 Mr. Anderson, the writer of the first volume, was a feudal enthusiast; he has thrown out an odd notion that the commercial, or the wealthy class, had intruded on the dignity of the ancient nobility; but as wealth has raised such high prices for labour, commodities, &c., it had reached its ne plus ultra, and commerce could be carried on no longer! He has ventured on this amusing prediction, “As it is therefore evident that new men will never rise again in any age with such advantages of wealth, at least in considerable numbers, their party will gradually decrease.”

4 Much curious matter about the old Countess of Westmoreland and her seven castles may be found in Whitaker’s History of Craven, and in Pennant.

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