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without the fun!

But the name set me thinking, and brought to mind a very different kind
of creature, from whom I have suffered much of late, the _Eagle-eating
Monkey_ by which I mean the writer of bad books about great people. I
had personally always supposed that I would rather read even a poor
book about a real human being than the cleverest of books about
imaginary people; at least I thought so till I was obliged to read a
large number of memoirs and biographies, written some by stupid
painstaking people, and some by clever aggravating people, about a
number of celebrated persons.

The stupid book is tiresome enough, because it ends by making one feel
that there is a real human being whom one cannot get at behind all the
tedious paragraphs, like some one stirring and coughing behind a
screen - or even more like the outline of a human figure covered up with
a quilt, so that one can just infer which is the head and which the
feet, but with the outlines all overlaid with a woolly padded texture
of meaningless words. Such biographers as these are hardly eagle-eating
monkeys. They are rather monkeys who would eat a live eagle if they
could catch one, and will mangle a dead one if they can find him. The
marvel is that with material at their command, with friends of their
victim to interrogate, and sometimes even with a personal knowledge of
him, they can yet contrive to avoid telling one anything interesting or
characteristic. The only points which seem to strike them are the
points in which their hero resembled other people, not the points in
which he differed from others. They tell you that they remember an
interesting conversation with the great man, and go on to say that no
words could do justice to the charm of his talk. Or they will tell you
his views on Free Trade or the Poor Law, and quote long extracts from
his speeches and public utterances. But they never admit one behind the
scenes, either because they were never there themselves, or did not
know it when they were. Or, worse still, they will say that they do not
think it decorous to violate the privacy of his domestic circle, with
the result that there comes out a figure like the statue of a statesman
in a public garden, in bronze frock-coat and trousers, with a roll of
paper in his hand, addressing the world in general, with the rain
dripping from his nose and his coat-tails.

That is a very bad kind of biography; and the worst of it is that it is
often the result of a pompous consciousness of virtue and fidelity,
which argues that because a man disliked personal paragraphs about his
favourite dishes and his private amusements, when he was alive, he
would therefore resent a picture of his real life being drawn when he
was dead; and this inconvenient decorum arises from a deep-seated
poverty of imagination, which regards death as converting all alike
into a species of angels, and which can only conceive of heaven as a
sort of cathedral, with the spirits of eminent men employed as canons
in perpetual residence. Thus it is bad biography because it is false
biography, emphasising virtues and omitting faults, and, what is almost
worse, omitting characteristic traits.

But it is not the worst kind of biography. The joy of the real
eagle-eating biographer is to do what Tennyson bluntly described as
ripping up people like pigs, and violating not privacy but decency;
sweeping together odious little anecdotes, recording meannesses and
weaknesses and sillinesses, all the things of which the subject himself
was no doubt heartily ashamed and discarded as eagerly as possible.
Such biographies give one the sense of a man diving in sewers, grubbing
in middens, prying into cupboards, peeping round corners. To try as far
as possible to surprise your hero, and to catch him off his guard, is a
very different thing from being frank and candid. I remember once
coming upon the track of one of these ghouls. He was writing a Life of
a somewhat eccentric politician, and wrote to me asking me to obtain
for him a sight of a certain document. I forwarded his letter to the
relatives of the man in question. What was my surprise when they
replied that the biographer was not only wholly unauthorised by
themselves, but that they had written to him to remonstrate against his
expressed intention, and to beg him to desist. I forwarded the letter
to him, and added some comments of my own. The only result was that he
replied regretting the opposition of the relatives, saying that the
life of a public man was public property, and that he thought it his
duty to continue his researches. The book appeared, and a vile rag-bag
it was, like the life of a man written by a private detective from the
reminiscences of under-servants. The worst of it is that such a
compilation brings a man money, because there are always plenty of
people who like to dabble in mud; and a ghoul is the most impervious of
beings, probably because a ghoul of this species regards himself merely
as an unprejudiced seeker after truth, and claims to be what he would
call a realist.

The reason why such realism is bad art is not because the details are
untrue, but because the proportion is wrong. One cannot tell everything
in a biography, unless one is prepared to write on the scale of a
volume for each week of the hero's life. The art of the biographer is
to select what is salient and typical, not what is abnormal and
negligible; what he should aim at is to suggest, by skilful touches, a
living portrait. If the subject is bald and wrinkled, he must be
painted so. But there is no excuse for trying to depict his hero's
toe-nails, unless there is a very valid reason for doing so. And there
is still less excuse for painting them so big that one can see little
else in the picture! _Ex ungue leonem_, says the proverb; but it is a
scientific and not an artistic maxim.

One sometimes wonders what will be the future of biographies; how, as
libraries get fuller and records increase, it will be possible ever to
write the lives of any but men of prime importance. I suppose the
difficulty will solve itself in some perfectly simple and obvious
manner; but the obstacle is that, as reading gets more common, the
circle of trivial people who are interested in trousers and toe-nails
and in little else does undoubtedly increase. Moreover, instead of
fewer biographies being written, more and more people seem to be
commemorated in stodgy volumes; and further, the selection could not be
made by authority, because the kind of lives that are wanted are not
the lives of dull important people, but the lives of interesting and
unimportant people who have given their vividness and originality to
life itself, to talk and letters and complex relationships; we do not
want the lives of people who have prosed on platforms and bawled at the
openings of bazaars. They have said their say, and we have heard as
much as we need to hear of their views already. But I know half-a-dozen
people, of whose words and works probably no record whatever will be
made, whose lives, if they could be painted, would be more interesting
than any novel, and more inspiring than any sermon; who have not taken
things for granted, but have made up their own minds; and, what is
more, have really had minds to make up; who have said, day after day,
fine, humorous, tender, illuminating things; who have loved life better
than routine, and ideas-better than success; who have really enriched
the blood of the world, instead of feebly adulterating it; who have
given their companions zest and joy, trenchant memories and eager
emotions: but the whole process has been so delicate, so evasive, so
informal, that it seems impossible to recapture the charm in heavy
words. A man who would set himself to write the life of one of these
delightful people, instead of adding to the interminable stream of
tiresome romances which inundate us, might leave a very fine legacy to
the world. It would mean an immense amount of trouble, and the
cultivation of a Boswellian memory - for such a book would consist
largely of recorded conversations - but what a hopeful and uplifting
thing it would be to read and re-read!

The difficulty is that to a perceptive man - and none but a man of the
finest perception could do it, - an eagle-eating eagle, in fact - it
would seem a ghoulish and a treacherous business. He would feel like an
interviewer and like a spy. It would have to be done in a noble,
self-denying sort of secrecy, amassing and recording day by day; and he
would never be able to let his hero suspect what was happening, or the
gracious spontaneity would vanish; for the essence of such a life and
such talk as I have described is that they should be wholly frank and
unconsidered; and the thought of the presence of the note-taking
spectator would overshadow its radiance at once.

There is a task for a patient, unambitious, perceptive man! He must be
a man of infinite leisure, and he must be ready to take a large risk of
disappointment; for he must outlive his subject, and he must be willing
to sacrifice all other opportunities of artistic creation. But he might
write one of the great books of the world, and win a secure seat upon
the Muses' Hill.




XLVI


I have been reading all the old Shelley literature lately, Hogg and
Trelawny and Medwin and Mrs. Shelley, and that terrible piece of
analysis, _The Real Shelley_. Hogg's _Life of Shelley_ is an
incomparable book; I should put it in the first class of biographies
without hesitation. Of course, it is only a fragment; and much of it is
frankly devoted to the sayings and doings of Hogg; it is none the worse
for that. It is an intensely humorous book, in the first place. There
are marvellous episodes in it, splendid extravaganzas like the story of
Hogg's stay in Dublin, where he locked the door of his bedroom for
security, and the boy Pat crept through the panel of the door to get
his boots and keep them from him, and a man in the room below pushed up
a plank in the floor that he might converse, not with Hogg, but with
the man in the room above him; there is the anecdote of the little
banker who was convinced that Wordsworth was a poet because he had
trained himself to write in the dark if he woke up and had an
inspiration. There is the story of the Chevalier D'Arblay, and his
departure to France; and the description of his correspondence, in
which he said for years that he was inconsolable and suffering
inconceivable anguish at being obliged to absent himself from his wife;
yet never able to assign any reason for his stay. Then, too, the whole
book is written in the freshest and most crisp style, with a rare zest,
that gives the effect of the conversation of an irrepressibly impudent
and delightful person. The picture of Shelley himself is delightfully
drawn; it is a perfect mixture of rapturous admiration of Shelley's
fine qualities, with an acute perception of his absurdities. The
picture of Shelley at Oxford, asleep before the fire, toasting his
little curly head in the heat, or reading the _Iliad_ by the glow of
the embers, seems to bring one nearer to the poet than anything else
that is recorded of him. I cannot think why the book is not more
universally known; it seems to me one of the freshest pieces of
biography in the language.

Trelawny's Memorials are interesting, and contain the solemn and
memorable scene of the cremation of Shelley's remains - one of the most
vivid and impressive narratives I know. Then there are the chapters of
Leigh Hunt's Autobiography which deal with Shelley, a little
overwrought perhaps, but real biography for all that, and interesting
as bringing out the contrast between the simplicity and generosity of
Shelley and the affectation, bad breeding, and unscrupulous selfishness
of Byron. Medwin's Biography and Mrs. Shelley's Memorials are
worthless, because they attempt to idealise and deify the poet; and
then there is _The Real Shelley_, which is like a tedious legal
cross-examination of a highly imaginative and sensitive creature by a
shrewd and boisterous barrister.

It would be very difficult to compose a formal biography of Shelley,
because he was such a vague, imaginative, inconsistent creature. The
documentary evidence is often wholly contradictory, for the simple
reason that Shelley had no conception of accuracy. He did not, I am
sure, deliberately invent what was not true; but he had a very lively
imagination, and was capable of amplifying the smallest hints into
elaborate theories; his memory was very faulty, and he could construct
a whole series of mental pictures which were wholly inconsistent with
facts. It seems clear, too, that he was much under the influence of
opium at various times, and that his dreams and fancies, when he was
thus affected, presented themselves to him as objective facts. But, for
all that, it is not at all difficult to form a very real impression of
the man. He was one of those strange, unbalanced creatures that never
reach maturity; he was a child all his short life; he had the
generosity, the affection, the impulsiveness of a child, and he had,
too, the timidity, the waywardness, the excitability of a child. If a
project came into his mind, he flung himself into it with the whole
force of his nature; it was imperatively necessary that he should at
once execute his design. No considerations of prudence or common-sense
availed to check him; life became intolerable to him if he could not
gratify his whim. His abandonment of his first wife, his elopement with
Mary Godwin, are instances of this; what could be more amazing than his
deliberate invitation to his first wife, after his flight with Mary,
that she should come and join the party in a friendly way? He
preserved, too, that characteristic of the child, when confronted with
a difficult and disagreeable situation, of saying anything that came
into his head which seemed to offer a solution; the child does not
invent an elaborate falsification; it simply says whatever will untie
the knot quickest, without reference to facts. If we bear in mind this
natural and instinctive childlikeness in Shelley, we have the clue to
almost all his inconsistencies and entanglements. Most people, as they
grow up, and as the complicated fabric of society makes itself clear to
them, begin to arrange their life in sympathy with conventional ideals.
They learn that if they gratify their inclinations unreservedly, they
will have a heavy price to pay; and on the whole they find it more
convenient to recognise social limitations, and to get what pleasure
they can inside the narrow enclosure. But Shelley never grasped this
fact. He believed that all the difficulties of life and most of its
miseries would melt away if only people would live more in the light of
simple instinct and impulse. He never had any real knowledge of human
beings. The history of his life is the history of a series of
extravagant admirations for people, followed by no less extravagant
disillusionments. Of course, his circumstances fostered his tendencies.
Though he was often in money difficulties, he knew that there was
always money in the background; indeed, he was too fond of announcing
himself as the heir to a large property in Sussex. One cannot help
wondering what Shelley's life would have been if he had been born poor
and obscure, like Keats, and if he had been obliged to earn his living.
Still more curious it is to speculate what would have become of him if
he had lived to inherit his baronetcy and estates. He was anticipating
his inheritance so fast that he would probably have found himself a
poor man; but, on the other hand, his powers were rapidly maturing. He
would have been a terrible person to be responsible for, because one
could never have known what he would do next; all one could have felt
sure of would have been that he would carry out his purpose, whatever
it might be, with indomitable self-will. It is also curious to think
what his relations would have been with his wife. Mrs. Shelley was a
conventional woman, with a high ideal of social respectability. A woman
who used to make a great point of attending the Anglican services in
Italy was probably morbidly anxious to atone, if possible, for the one
error of her youth. It is difficult to believe that Shelley would have
continued to live with his wife for very long. Even his theory of free
love was a very inconsistent one. The essence of it is that the two
parties to the compact should weary of their union simultaneously.
Shelley seems to have felt that he had a right to break off relations
whenever he felt inclined; how he would have viewed it if his partner
had insisted on leaving him for another lover, while his own passion
was still unabated, is not so clear. He would no doubt have overwhelmed
her with moral indignation.

But in spite of all his faults there is something indescribably
attractive about the personality of Shelley. His eager generosity, his
loyalty, his tenderness are irresistible. One feels that he would have
always responded to a frank and simple appeal. A foil for his virtues
is provided by the character of Byron, whose nauseous affectations,
animal coarseness, niggardliness, except where his own personal comfort
was involved, and deep-seated snobbishness, makes Shelley into an angel
of light. Shelley seems to have been almost the only person who ever
evoked the true and frank admiration of Byron, and retained his regard.
On the other hand, Shelley, who began by idolising Byron, seems to have
gradually become aware of the ugly selfishness of his character.

But Shelley himself evokes a sort of deep compassionateness and
affection, such as is evoked by an impulsive, headstrong, engaging
child. One desires to have sheltered him, to have advised him, to have
managed his affairs for him; one ends by forgiving him all, or nearly
all. His character was essentially a noble one; he hated all
oppression, injustice, arrogance, selfishness, coarseness, cruelty.
When he erred, he erred like a child, not coldly and unscrupulously,
but carried away by intensity of desire. It may seem a curious image,
but one cannot help feeling that if Shelley had been contemporary with
and brought into contact with Christ, he would have been an ardent
follower and disciple, and would have been regarded with a deep
tenderness and love; his sins would have been swiftly forgiven. I do
not wish to minimise them; he behaved ungratefully, inconsiderately,
wilfully. His usage of his first wife is a deep blot on his character.
But in spite of his desertion of her, and his abduction of Mary Godwin,
his life was somehow an essentially innocent one. It is possible to
paint his career in dark colours; it is impossible to say that his
example is an inspiring one; he is the kind of character that society
is almost bound to take precautions against; he was indifferent to
social morality, he was regardless of truth, neglectful of commercial
honesty; but for all that one feels more hopeful about the race that
can produce a Shelley. We must be careful not to condone his faults in
the light of his poetical genius; but for all that, if Shelley had
never written a line of his exquisite poetry, I cannot help feeling
that if one had known him, one would have felt the same eager regard
for him. One cannot draw near to a personality by a process of logic.
But one fact emerges. There is little doubt that one of the most
oppressive, injurious, detestable forces in the world is the force of
conventionality, that instinct which makes men judge a character and an
action, not by its beauty or by its merits, but by comparing it with
the standard of how the normal man would regard it. This vast and
intolerable medium of dulness, which penetrates our lives like a thick,
dark mist, allowing us only to see the object in range of our immediate
vision, hostile to all originality, crushingly respectable, that
dictates our hours, our occupations, our amusements, our emotions, our
religion, is the most ruthless and tyrannical thing in the world.
Against this Shelley fought with all his might; his error was to hate
it so intensely as to fail to see the few grains of gold, the few
principles of kindness, of honesty, of consideration, of soberness,
that it contains. He paid dearly for his error, in the consciousness of
the contempt and infamy which were heaped upon his quivering spirit.
But he did undoubtedly love truth, beauty, and purity. One has to get
on the right side of his sins and indulgences, his grotesque political
theories, his inconsistencies; but when once one has apprehended the
real character, one is never in any doubt again.




XLVII


There can surely be few pieces of literary portraiture in the world
more unpleasant than the portrait drawn of Byron in 1822 by Leigh Hunt.
It gave great offence to Byron's friends, who insisted upon his noble
and generous qualities, and maintained that Leigh Hunt was taking a
spiteful revenge for what he conceived to be the indignity and
injustice with which Byron had treated him. Leigh Hunt was undoubtedly
a trying person in some ways. He did not mind dipping his hand into a
friendly pocket, and he had a way of flinging himself helplessly upon
the good nature of his friends, a want of dignity in the way he
accepted their assistance, which went far to justify the identification
of him with the very disagreeable portrait which Dickens drew of him,
as Harold Skimpole in _Bleak House_. But for all that he was an
affectionate, candid, and eminently placable person, and if it is true
that he darkened the shadows of Byron's temperament, and insisted too
strongly on his undesirable qualities, there is no reason to think that
the portrait he drew of Byron was not in the main a true one; and it
may be added that a vast amount of generosity and nobility require to
be thrown into the opposite scale before Byron can be rehabilitated or
made worthy of the least admiration and respect.

Byron had invited Leigh Hunt out to Italy, with the design of
producing, with his assistance, a monthly Review of a literary type.
Leigh Hunt came out with his wife and family, and accepted quarters
under Byron's roof. Byron had already tired of the scheme and repented
of his generosity. Leigh Hunt avers that Byron was an innately
avaricious man, and that, though he occasionally lavished money on some
favourite scheme, it was only because, though he loved money much, he
loved notoriety more. The good angel of the situation was Shelley, who
really made all the arrangements for Hunt's sojourn and presented him
with the necessary furniture for his rooms. Shelley was certainly
entirely indifferent to money, and profusely generous. He had begun by
admiring Byron, with all the enthusiasm of hero-worship, but a closer
acquaintance had revealed much that was distasteful and even repugnant
to him, and it may safely be said that if he had lived he would soon
have withdrawn from Byron's society. Shelley's ideas of morality were
not conventional; his affection and enthusiasm for people burnt
fiercely and waned, yet when he sinned, he sinned through a genuine
passion. But Byron, according to Leigh Hunt, was a cold-blooded
libertine, and had no conception of what love meant, except as a merely
animal desire, which he abundantly gratified.

The awkward _ménage_ was established. Byron was at the Casa Lanfranchi
at Pisa, and gave Leigh Hunt the ground floor. Leigh Hunt describes him
as lounging about half the day in a nankeen jacket and white duck
trousers, singing in a swaggering fashion, in a voice at once "thin and
veiled," a boisterous air of Rossini's, riding out with pistols
accompanied by his dogs, and sitting up half the night to write _Don
Juan_ over gin and water. He was living at the time with the Countess
Guiccioli, who had married a man four times her age, had obtained a
separation, and now lived as Byron's mistress, with her father and
brother in the same house.

That Hunt should have been willing to bring his wife and a growing
family under the same roof does not reflect much credit on him,
especially when he found that Byron was not averse to saying cynical
and even corrupting things to Hunt's boys, when Hunt himself was
absent. Mrs. Leigh Hunt took a stronger line; she cordially disliked
Byron from the first. On one occasion when Byron said to her that
Trelawny had been finding fault with his morals, Mrs. Leigh Hunt said
trenchantly that it was the first time she had ever heard of them.

Leigh Hunt soon perceived that he and Byron had very little in common.
Byron disliked his familiarity and his airs of equality; while he


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Online LibraryArthur Christopher BensonThe Silent Isle → online text (page 18 of 23)