was right in saying that every man was a citizen of his age as well as of his country, there can be no doubt that in order to understand the motives and conduct of the man we must first make ourselves intimate with the time in which he lived.
We have therefore no fault to find with the thoroughness of Mr. Masson
's ‘historical inquiries.’
The more thorough the better, so far as they were essential to the satisfactory performance of his task.
But it is only such contemporary events, opinions, or persons as were really operative on the character of the man we are studying that are of consequence, and we are to familiarize ourselves with them, not so much for the sake of explaining them as of understanding him. The biographer, especially of a literary man, need only mark the main currents of tendency, without being officious to trace out to its marshy source every runlet that has cast in its tiny pitcherful with the rest.
Much less should he attempt an analysis of the stream and to classify every component by itself, as if each were ever effectual singly and not in combination.
Human motives cannot be thus chemically cross-examined, nor do we arrive at any true knowledge of character by such minute subdivision of its ingredients.
Nothing is so essential to a biographer as an eye that can distinguish at a glance between real events that are the levers of thought and action, and what Donne calls ‘unconcerning things, matters of fact,’—between substantial personages, whose contact or even neighborhood is influential, and the supernumeraries that serve first to fill up a stage and afterwards the interstices of a biographical dictionary.
Time hath a wallet at his hack
Wherein he puts alms for Oblivion.
Let the biographer keep his fingers off that sacred