My meaning in recommending Biography for its attractive qualities (and among them the facility with which it is read is not the least) will perhaps be more obvious, if we try the effect of a few particulars extracted from the life of an individual, mentioned by Hawkins in his account of Johnson.
The unhappy and imprudent S. Boyce was a man of great talents: he was reduced to excessive misery, and in that state died at poor lodging in Shoe-Lane, London, in May, 1749, and was buried at the charge of the parish. In 1742, while confined in a spunging-house, the Crown Coffee-house, Grocer's Alley, Poultry, he solicited relief from Cave, the conductor of the Gentleman's Magazine, to whom he despatched the following horrible lines:
Hodie, teste coelo summo,
Sine pane, sine nummo,
Sorte positus infeste,
Scribo tibi dolens moeste.
Fame, bile, tumet jecur;
Urbane! Mitte opem precor:
Tibi enim cor humanum,
Non a malis alienum;
Mihi mens nec male grato
Pro a te favore dato.
Ex Gehenna debitoria,
Vulgo domo spongiatoria.
Which I venture to translate:
Be witness, heaven, that I this day
Of need and hunger am the prey;
And sinking under various woes,
My doleful case to you disclose;
With frenzy fill'd, with want opprest:
Urban! give ear to my request;
For thine's the truly generous mind
That feels for all of human kind;
Nor will my heart ungrateful be
For any goodness shown to me.
From debtor's hell, where I've been cramm'd,
A spunging-house by wretches nam'd.
Indigence had confined this profligate and luckless genius to a bed without sheets, and there, to procure food, he was accustomed to write, in a sitting posture; while his only covering was a blanket, in which a hole was made to admit of his employing his arm!
From this brief outline there certainly is not much to be learned; but it tells us a tale from which, notwithstanding, some good may be drawn. The dangers to which vice and improvidence expose their votaries, the afflictions with which poverty has to contend, and to which mental energy may be opposed, glare upon us while we read. We fancy, and cannot help fancying the scene this account refers to: the squalid, and sunless, and cheerless retreat of so much wretchedness appears before us; we picture to ourselves the pale face, the wasted form, and sunken eye of the sufferer; and can imagine the condition of his mind, who — with appetites for luxuries; with taste for every variety of intellectual gratification, and for all the pleasures society can afford, and sensibilities capable of feeling all the tenderness friendship can bestow — was destitute of food, raiment, liberty, friend and associate, the victim of remorse and despair, expiring in a dungeon.
Contrast with this article, the best contrived incident in the best written novel, or other work of fiction that can be found, and how spiritless and void of interest will it not seem! And how much more spiritless and uninteresting any passage from the history of merely national affairs and political events, how just soever the historian's observations, or however lucid the arrangement of his expressions!
Before you consult Hume or Robertson, and bring the remark to the test of a comparison, let us turn to an anecdote of a totally distinct complexion from the story of poor Boyce. It relates to a circumstance of general notoriety, and of recent date: I transcribe from the Courier newspaper of May, 1813.
"On the examination before a court-martial, of the surviving officers of his Majesty's ship, Java, Jones Humble, boatswain, deposed as follows:
"About an hour after the action commenced, (with an American ship of superior force,) I was wounded; I went down, and stopped near an hour; and when I got my arm put a little to rights, by a turniquet being clapped on it, for my hand was carried away, and my arm wounded above the elbow, I put the arm into the bosom of my shirt, and went up again; when I saw the enemy ahead of us repairing his damages.
"I had my orders from Lieutenant Chads, before the action began to cheer up the boarders with my pipe, that they might make a clear spring in boarding."—
This anecdote, you will observe, belongs to the department of history, but what renders it precious to the feelings is its being a feature in the biography of an individual, and calling forth a multiplicity of agreeable reflections: it exhibits a fine, and truly characteristic specimen of a very extraordinary class of people, British sailors.
Humble's hand is torn from his shattered arm; about which, however, he appears actually unconcerned; and is only anxious to regain his honourable station on the deck, and obey his officer's orders.
There is positively nothing in the annals of Grecian or Roman heroism superior to this instance of professional fidelity, and magnanimous contempt for personal sufferings: and it is a most striking proof of the loftiness of the English spirit, to find such a fact stealing modestly into public view through the channel of a newspaper; and there stated not as a surprising occurrence, but a matter of course, and a thing expected.