Page:The Harvard Classics Vol. 51; Lectures.djvu/177

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167
BIOGRAPHY

us find many contacts in their biographies. Often we are surprised by a thought or feeling or experience such as we have had and scarcely heeded, but which at once takes on dignity from being shared with the illustrious man. Still, the touchstone of biography is not merely greatness, but interest and significance; and herein it coincides with its twin art, portraiture. The finest portraits, assuming equal skill in the technique of their painting, are not of kings and grandees, but those which embody or suggest character. Queen Victoria's face, though a Leonardo had painted it, could never rivet the world's attention or pique the world's curiosity as Monna Lisa's has done. In ten minutes one has revealed the uncomplex and uninspired nature behind it; while after four hundred years the other still fascinates us by its suggestive and perpetually elusive expression.

So the lives of persons who were inconspicuous, measured on the scale of international or enduring fame, are sometimes packed with the charm of individuality. Such, for instance, is "The Story of My Heart," by Richard Jeffries. You may not like it—one friend to whom I recommended it told me he found it so exasperating that he threw it into the fire—but you cannot deny, if you are reasonably sympathetic, that it is the genuine utterance of a genuine man. Solomon Maimon's biography is another of this sort, in which we see an unusual personality shackled by the cruelty of caste. John Sterling had talent, but he died too young to achieve any work of lasting note; and yet, thanks to Carlyle's exuberantly vital memoir of him—which reminds me of one of Rembrandt's portraits—Sterling will live on for years.


THE DIFFICULTY OF BIOGRAPHICAL WRITING

These examples will suffice to prove that a great biography does not require a great man for its original; but it does require a great biographer. For biography is an art, a very high art; and, if we judge by the comparatively small number of its masterpieces, we must conclude that the consummate biographer is rarer than the poet, the novelist, or the historian of similar worth.

The belief that anybody can write a life is one of the widespread fallacies. As if anybody could paint a portrait or compose a sonata!