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ART. VII.- The Biographical Dictionary of the Society for the
Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. 8vo. Vol. I. Part I. London : 1842.
ALThough it is not our habit to notice any part of a new pub
lication until the undertaking, if it consist of successive volumes, is completed, we think it a duty not to pass unnoticed the first step which the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge has taken towards adequately supplying the want long felt in English literature, of a carefully prepared Universal Biography; because we consider this to be a work of paramount usefulness, and such as, in all probability, only an extensive Association could undertake. The design reflects the highest credit upon those who direct the concerns of the Body; and if it is honestly completed, and in a style corresponding to the sample before us, it will carry the name of the undertakers with merited honour to every quarter of the lettered world. That it will, at any rate, be completed, the fact of its being set on foot by such a Society, may be taken as a sufficient guarantee; and this is a circumstance of the utmost importance to the public, as it does away all the unpleasant apprehensions that must attend so extensive a publication, if commenced by one or a few individuals, It is on this account particularly that we now notice it, in order that it may have all the publicity, and, in as far as the design is concerned, all the recommendation that this Journal can afford it.
Down to the latter part of the seventeenth century, biographical works were confined to particular classes; the most elaborate of them relating to Ecclesiastics. Thus the Acta Sanctorum Omnium, written by Flemish Jesuits, and of which the first part appeared at Antwerp in 1643, extends to no less than fifty-three folio volumes; and Tillemont's Mémoires pour servir à l'Histoire Ecclesiastique des six premiers Siècles de l'Eglise, published at Paris in 1693, to sixteen quarto volumes.
Nor has English literature been altogether deficient in biographical works, limited to particular objects. Of these, the widest in its range is the Biographia Britannica, or the lives of the most eminent persons who have flourished in Great Britain and Ireland from the earliest ages to the present time. The first edition was completed in five volumes folio, in 1766 ; and about twelve years afterwards, Dr Andrew Kippis, with the aid of Lord Hardwicke, (the author of the Athenian Letters,) Lord Hailes, Dr Percy, Bishop of Dromore, Dr Douglas, Bishop of Salisbury, Sir William Blackstone, and other eminent persons, undertook a new edition, which was carried down to the letter F, but no further. The loss to our historical literature, by the failure of this greatly improved and extended edition, was considerable.
It was in the year 1673 that Moréri's Grand Dictionnaire, Historique et Critique, a work mainly biographical, appeared; and it was extended in twenty subsequent editions during the succeeding eighty years to ten times its original bulk. Bayle's Dictionnaire, Historique et Critique, so justly celebrated, was at first intended only as a supplement to Moréri : it is almost entirely biographical, and the last edition of it extends to seventeen octavo volumes. Of both Moréri and Bayle, translations or abridgements had been published in England before the middle of the last century ; and both were incorporated, with many additions, in the well-known • General Historical Dictionary, compiled by Dr Birch and others, and published in ten volumes folio.
At length there appeared in France, under the title of Biographie Universelle, a biographical dictionary aiming at universality, and aided by the literary contributions of the most distinguished writers in France, in fifty-two octavo volumes, completed in 1828. Since that time a supplement has been begun, of which twenty volumes have already appeared. Although unequal in the merit of its articles—an evil unavoidable in works of great extént by various authors – and although deficient in information concerning the obscurer persons whose lives one especially desires to find treated in a biographical dictionary, on account of the difficulty of finding elsewhere information concerning them, the Biographie Universelle is a work of which France has just reason to be proud--whether on account of the greatness of the undertaking, or the manner in which it has been executed.
We are reluctant to turn from this monument of the learning, talents, and assiduity of our neighbours, to the only corresponding publication which we can mention in our own language-namely, : Chalmers's Biographical Dictionary,' completed in 1817, after a hurried publication of only five years, in thirty-two octavo volumesma bulk into which it had grown from its original size in 1761-7, when, under the name of the English General Bio- . • graphical Dictionary,' it was published in twelve volumes.
Chalmers's compilation contains many lives valuable for their accuracy and their learning; but these were chiefly transferred from other works, particularly that on which his own was built; for the new contributions, though not invariably bad, are not such
as can satisfy either the learned or the general reader. They often evince a narrow and intolerant spirit, and have, in a word, no authority.
Far superior, in point of ability and execution, was a work which, though by a few years earlier, we mention after that of Chalmers, because not in its plan universal. We here refer to the work conducted by Dr John Aikin, and published under the title of • General Biography, or Lives, critical and historical, of • the most eminent persons of all ages, countries, conditions, and • professions, arranged according to alphabetical order. The Rev. Dr William Enfield, the learned and skilful abridger of Brucker’s • History of Philosophy,' had been originally associated in the editorship, but he died at an early period of the progress of the work; and most and the best of the lives were written by the surviving editor. But a great many, of very considerable ability, though perhaps of less elegance, were contributed by various other writers; particularly the Rev. Thomas Morgan, Mr Nicol. son, and Mr William Johnston. This work, which is by some thought to be a little tinged by sectarian prejudices, extended to eight quarto volumes; but these unfortunately did not complete it, by exhausting the alphabet, as the volume last published closes with the life of Samuel, the Hebrew judge and prophet. The first of these volumes appeared in the year 1799, the eighth in 1813.
These meagre notices are not introduced certainly as a completed piece of literary history, but merely as helping to show the magnitude of that desideratum in our literature which the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (never perhaps so well deserving the title) has undertaken to supply. It may now be expected that we should say a word or two in regard to that commencing portion of the undertaking bere presented to us.
It is, notwithstanding, scarcely possible, and it would, in fact, be extremely unsatisfactory, to select, in this half volume, any particular lives calculated to serve as samples of the whole. The space occupied by any one memoir, in a Biographical Dictionary which aims at universality and completeness, ought to be so small as to admit little of that discursiveness and dissertation which often destroys all proportion among the articles of the Biographie Universelle ; and if we here found long and elaborate lives, we should fear that they must extend the dictionary to an inconvenient bulk, or that to them must be sacrificed lives, without which it would have no claim to completeness. The lives, however, of Abelard, Pope Adrian, Sir Ralph Abercromby, the late Mr Abernethy, and President Adams, may be mentioned, among many others, as equally interesting by their fulness and
instructive by their accuracy. Among other peculiar recommendations which the practised enquirer will discover, may be mentioned the introduction of many lives on which little or no information is to be obtained elsewhere-as the oriental, and particularly the Arabic articles, the Hebrew and the Scriptural articles. The freedom from all party and sectarian bias, is a merit of a far higher order, here easily to be discerned ; thus furnishing a reasonable and strong presumption that the work will, throughout, possess this grand historical requisite.
One part of the Society's plan deserves peculiar commendation, on account both of its usefulness to the student, and of the security which it affords, that the authors have resorted to the best sources for their information—we mean the ample and exact list of authorities at the foot of each article. Although the name of the writer of a life is annexed to it, nothing can be less satisfactory to the reader than to find a number of facts related, without any means of ascertaining the truth within the author's reach ; and without any indication of the sources to which an inquisitive reader may wish to resort for further knowledge. The want of this is a cardinal defect in the Biographie Universelle, as well as in Chalmers. Some of that extensive selection of lives contained in the new edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica, furnish highly commendable examples of this great recommendation ; whilst others, particularly those contributed to that work by the late Dr Thomas Young-illustrious both as a man of Science and of Letters—may help to point out another most useful requisite, that of carefully indicating every acknowledged piece of an author, however small, and whether published separately, or in Transactions and Journals.
The greatest difficulty which the learned editor of this Dictionary (Professor Long) will have to encounter, is perhaps the acquiring of accurate and impartial information concerning persons who have lived in, or near our own times. In the lives of such persons, there will, too, be a perpetual tendency to give an undue extension, besides the greater danger of running into unfair censure or panegyric. On these tendencies, the eye of the Editor must be vigilantly fixed, and his authority to repress vigorously exercised. The lives of Lord Chief Justice Abbot, of his namesake the Speaker, of the ingenious and accomplished architects Robert and James Adam, and of their amiable and venerable kipsman the Lord Chief Commissioner of the Scottish Jury Court, may be pointed out as laudably avoiding these faults.
The great importance of this undertaking we have already adverted to; and it is one which in a peculiar manner recom.
mends it to this Society; as there can be no more effectual means devised of diffusing knowledge, in an agreeable form, in every department of human exertion.
The expediency of a numerous Association undertaking such a work has also been already stated. Not only must it occasion a heavy temporary loss, of which no individual can be expected to run the risk ; but the powers of inspection, and of correction, possessed by fifty or sixty persons, of various habits of thinking and kinds of information, give the public the best chance of truth being pursued and error avoided. Having thus hailed, with a hearty welcome, the appearance of a work which we had long wished, rather than hoped to see commenced by competent undertakers, we shall not fail to keep an eye upon its progress ; and to point out any failures or backslidings that may appear to be departures from its design and spirit, and likely to interfere with the objects of its enlightened promoters.
ART. VIII.-1. Financial Statement of Sir Robert Peel, made
11th March 1842. London, 1842. 2. Speech of Charles Wood, Esq., M.P., on the Duty on Foreign
Wool. 1842. 3. Speeches of Viscount Palmerston on Wednesday 10th May, and
21st July 1842. Ridgways, 1842. Political and party triumphs differ as much in principle as in
degree. By some, the mere possession of office, and the personal advantages either enjoyed or expected, are considered a party triumph. This is but low selfishness, however it may assume the disguise of public spirit. To others, party success is understood to represent the overthrow of a political opponent, and the acquisition of power by a friend. This, although raised above selfishness, is yet below true patriotism. It is the glory of the strife, and the exultation of victory :—la gloria maggior dopo il periglio. It resembles rather the reward . reaped in the iron harvests • of the field,' than the nobler crown which bears the inscription ob cives servatos. A higher and a nobler triumph is that, of which the accession of Lord Grey to power, in November 1830, affords the most brilliant example. On that occasion the change of the government was secondary to the alteration of policy; and the success of the Whigs was forgotten in the success of that cause which adopted as its principles Reform, Peace, and Retrenchment;-principles carried into effect by Lord Grey in every act of his administration. In a case like this, party
VOL. LXXVI. NO. CLIII.