It is the misfortune of men of genius that, while giving to the world works which speak of their higher aspirations, they are at the same time making their errors famous. Others, less brilliantly endowed than themselves, but with faults of character equally glaring, pass daily from among the busy groups with which they have mingled; yet, when these drop out of the roll of the living, we read the record of their virtues only inscribed upon their tombs, their failings being suffered to lie veiled beneath the darkness of the dust that covers them. The errors of the gifted only do we drag to light. This may be inevitable; but the condition is one which weighs somewhat heavily against the sons of genius.
The ideas which prevail upon the subject of biography are as various as the minds of men are various. There are some truths, however, which are little considered, but as to the force of which most people will agree when once they are suggested to them. No man should venture to write the life of his world-fellow until he has left his own youth far behind him. Neither should any man lay his hand to such work who is not conscious of that mind-progress in himself which is an essential condition of his power to judge of the intellectual and moral advance in another. The most profound regret is daily called forth in thinking minds by the fact that, taken in the mass, people do not grew. Most men, especially as to their opinions and judgments, seem never to advance one step, priding themselves rather on their consistency — which becomes thus an inconsistency, paradoxical as it may sound — than on their aptness to assimilate, and make their own such new convictions as years should bring in their train, if those years are to be considered worth the toil and waste gone through to attain to the sum of them. Growth of mind, therefore, being essential to a right judgment of any man who can be said to grow, — as men of genius almost invariably do, let no writer, unless he be at once mature enough and progressive enough, venture on biography.
In the face of these and like considerations, a mind at all sensitive or conscious of high responsibilities will shrink nervously from dealing with a life that is past, even as a novice in anatomy will shrink from applying the dissecting knife to the patient who has ceased to breathe, who can no more appeal to his forbearance, and who lies helplessly and forlornly at his mercy.
Autobiography, open as at first sight it appears to be to the suspicion of the probable suppression of some facts and the glossing of others, is still, with all its imperfections, the very best possible life-record. Let the writer of his own life-history write it how he will, we see him as he really is, in spite of him, through his work, simply in the manner of his doing it, if in nothing else. If he be truthful, his truth goes straight to the heart: if false, it is in vain that he is so. The very shadow he would interpose between our eyes and the object they would seek to trace, is the shadow of the man himself.
Where a genuine autobiography is unattainable, the next best record of a man lies in the works he leaves behind him to the world he has quitted. In these at least he speaks openly. If we have not all the man, we have at any rate the best part of him. We have, moreover, that which is not accidental or transitory; but that which is stable and for all time. We have his highest conceptions of what is good, if not his miserable life-mistakes. It is surely better to know that of him which is imperishable, rather than that which has passed away with all that was earthly of the creature God gave to this world. If one should bring a jewel-casket and leave it at our door, should we not carry it instantly inward to the choicest chamber of the house; content to receive so good a thing, heeding nothing of the dust and soil cast at our threshold by the owner and bearer thereof, who bore it with lifted face like a celestial messenger, knowing its worth, and laid graciously on our door-step? It were surely wise to do so.
Whatever it is desirable to know touching the — so called — education of the author of the poetical Works here first collected will be found best expressed in the following letter addressed by his eldest brother, Mr. Robert Hervey, to the widow of the poet, in answer to a request made by her for such particulars of his early career as were required for an obituary notice at the time of his death.
"MY DEAR SISTER:—
In reply to your letter asking for information respecting my poor brother's early career, I will give it you as far as in my power.
He was born, I believe, in Paisley, and was brought to Manchester somewhere about 1802 or 1803, by my father, who settled as a merchant there. He was educated in the first instance at a private school, and afterwards at the Manchester Free Grammar School, which was, and is, I believe, still, a school of great celebrity, having turned out many first-rate scholars. After he left school, he was articled to the eminent firm of Sharp, Eccles, & Co., solicitors, Manchester. At the proper time, he went up to London to the agents of that firm there, to learn their branch of practice. From them he went to Mr. (afterwards Sergeant) Scriven to study conveyancing. This gentleman was very kind to him, and was much struck with the great talents he displayed, and wrote to my father, as I understand, urging that with such talents he ought not to practise as an attorney, but should go to the bar. To this my father consented, and he was sent to Cambridge, and entered, I think, at Trinity College. At the end of the second year he published his poem of "Australia," and went up soon after that to London. This poem and other things brought him unfortunately very much into notice, and he began to lead a life of pleasure, mixed with literary pursuits, but never returned to take his degree at college, nor was he ever called to the bar. What year he went to London I do not know, but I should think it was somewhere about 1820. From the time I name, my brother never applied himself to any regular occupation that I am aware of, excepting during the time he edited the Athenaeum, but led a kind of literary life, sometimes writing, sometimes reviewing. In my opinion, and I am not alone in this, had my brother been a worker, and followed out his profession as a barrister, he could not have failed to have risen to the very highest place the law has to offer; for in addition to his other talents, he was, as a young man, extremely eloquent, and must have made his way, as he had friends who would have given him the opportunity of bringing himself into notice, by supplying him with briefs, for want of which many a clever man is never heard of.
I believe I have here furnished you with all the information in my power respecting my brother....
Your affectionate brother,
LEE HALL, PRESTBURY near MACCLESFIELD,
4th March, 1859."
The remarks here added, bearing for the most part on the labors and social qualities of the poet, are drawn from the Art Journal.
"The poem entitled 'Australia' seems to have been commenced as a prize poem. But Mr. Hervey's muse having lured him considerably beyond the limits to which collegiate poets are ordinarily restricted, he resolved to work out his idea without reference to his original object; and his poetical honors appear to have fully compensated, in his estimation, for the absence of those to which he ought to have entitled himself at Cambridge. It contains passages which, for vigor, melody, and curious felicity of diction, have seldom been distanced by modern writers of the heroic couplet. 'The Convict Ship' first made its appearance in the Literary Souvenir for 1825, and in after years many charming lyrics from Mr. Hervey's pen were published from time to time in that periodical, the Amulet, and Friendship's Offering; of which last-mentioned annual he was for one year the editor. Many of his poems display an intimate acquaintance with the best models, and are graceful, melodious, and, what is not without significance in these days, intelligible. In 1829 Mr. Hervey published a third edition of his 'Australia,' and a series of his minor poems (including those which had appeared in the annuals) under the title of The Poetical Sketch-Book. About the same time, he produced a tasteful collection of fugitive poetry under the title of The English Helicon; and a volume of very graceful poetical illustrations of the chefs-d'oeuvre of some of the most eminent modern English sculptors. This work affords ample evidence of the cultivated taste, in matters of Art, of its author; and many of his essays in the Athenaeum and the Art Journal, several years afterwards, may be taken as conclusive proofs of his competency as an Art critic. For upwards of twenty years prior to 1854, Mr. Hervey had been an extensive contributor of critical essays to the Athenaeum, and for the last eight years of that interval he was its sole responsible editor. He was indeed the means of raising that publication to an enviable position in the periodical literature of the country; and were any considerable number of his articles to be reprinted in volumes of the ordinary size, they would present evidence of an amount of industry for which few people have hitherto given him credit. It is but fair to his memory to remark, that very many of these criticisms are characterized by a correctness of taste and an intimate acquaintance with the literature of his time, which has been exhibited to the same extent in few other contemporary periodicals. The knowledge which long experience and a love of literature for its own sake can alone supply, superadded to a sort of intuitive appreciation of what was good, would have rendered him the beau ideal of an editor for a literary periodical, had his perseverance and powers of application borne anything like a due relation to his critical taste and judgment. That his career was to a certain extent a 'vie manquee' can scarcely be denied; but those who have experienced the remorse which must sooner or later attend the issue of opportunities unimproved, and talents comparatively neglected, may readily understand how severely the consequences may have pressed upon him. Although an idler in one sense of the term, he was an indefatigable reader of English and French literature; and in poet-land, there was hardly a plot of ground into which it had not been his pleasure to penetrate. To his prose criticisms on books, it has been objected that they were sometimes too incisive; but his conversation was genial, good-humored, and, we may add, instructive, when the topic afforded him any opportunity of pouring forth the stores with which he could invest it from his extensive, if desultory, reading. We have, indeed, rarely encountered a literary man of the present day, the geniality of whose manner, or the charm of whose conversation were more fascinating than his."
At the close of 1853 Mr. Hervey became a very severe sufferer from the increase of an inveterate asthma to which he had at times been a martyr all his life. This, for a period of many months entirely prostrated him, and rendered literary work impossible. It was during this period of forced inaction, extending through a great part of 1854, that be lost the editorship of the Athenaeum.
"On the partial recovery of his health," continues the same writer, "Mr. Hervey became a contributor to the Art Journal, and during the last four years its pages have been enriched by many admirable papers on various Art topics from his pen. The death of Mr. Hervey took place on the 17th of February, 1859; on the 4th of which month he had completed his sixtieth year. Its immediate cause was a recurrence of the chronic disease which had so long oppressed him, arising from the effects of a severe cold. He was married on the 17th of October, 1843, to Miss Eleanora Louisa Montagu, herself a poet of no mean order, who, with their only child, Frederic Robert James, born the 11th of March, 1845, still survives him."
The immediate cause of Mr. Hervey's death was, in reality, bronchitis, brought on by exposure to cold upon the Thames on the 10th of February. From the commencement of the attack, he lingered only one week. His great dread had been lest, when the time came, he should die through suffocation during a fit of asthma. This he was happily spared. About noon on the day of his death, he fell into a state of collapse, and shortly afterwards ceased to breathe, passing away very peacefully in the presence of his wife and son.