Thursday, September 29, 2011

Biographies


On September 29, 1844, Thomas Carlyle writes to Ralph Waldo Emerson concerning the death of Scottish author John Sterling, whose biography Carlyle would publish in 1851. 

Dear Emerson,
There should a Letter have come for you by that Steamer; for I wrote one duly, and posted it in good time myself: I will hope therefore it was but some delay of some subaltern official, such as I am told occasionally chances, and that you got the Letter after all in a day or two. It would give you notice, more or less, up to its date, of all the points you had inquired about: there is now little to be added; except concerning the main point, That the Catastrophe has arrived there, as we foresaw, and all is ended. 

John Sterling died at his house in Ventnor on the night of Wednesday 18th September, about eleven o'clock; unexpectedly at last, and to appearance without pain. His Sister-in-law, Mrs Maurice, had gone down to him from this place about a week before; other friends were waiting as it were in view of him; but he wished generally to be alone, to continue to the last setting his house and his heart more and more in order for the Great Journey. For about a fortnight back he had ceased to have himself formally dressed; had sat only in his dressinggown, but I believe was still daily wheeled into his Library, and sat very calmly sorting and working there. He sent me two Notes, and various messages, and gifts of little keepsakes to my Wife and myself: the Notes were brief, stern and loving; altogether noble; never to be forgotten in this world. His Brother Anthony, who had been in the Isle of Wight within call for several weeks, had now come up to Town again; but, after about a week, decided that he would run down again, and look. He arrived on the Wednesday night, about nine o'clock; found no visible change; the brave Patient calm as ever, ready to speak as ever,—to say, in direct words which he would often do, or indirectly as his whole speech and conduct did, “God is Great.” Anthony and he talked for a while, then took leave for the night; in few minutes more, Anthony was summoned to the bedside, and at 11 o'clock as I said the curtain dropt, and it was all ended.— Euge [Alas]! …’

Walter Scott penned several biographies himself.  Richard Holt Hutton compares Scott’s and Carlyle’s work in his biography “Sir Walter Scott”.

‘…The editing of Dryden alone would have seemed to most men of leisure a pretty full occupation for these eight years, and though I do not know that Scott edited with the anxious care with which that sort of work is often now prepared, that he went into all the arguments for a doubtful reading with the pains that Mr. Dyce spent on the various readings of Shakespeare, or that Mr. Spedding spent on a various reading of Bacon, yet Scott did his work in a steady, workmanlike manner, which satisfied the most fastidious critics of that day, and he was never, I believe, charged with hurrying or scamping it. His biographies of Swift and Dryden are plain solid pieces of work—not exactly the works of art which biographies have been made in our day—not comparable to Carlyle's studies of Cromwell or Frederick, or, in point of art, even to the life of John Sterling, but still sensible and interesting, sound in judgment, and animated in style.

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