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STUDENTS of Ralegh's career cannot complain of a dearth of materials. For thirty-seven years he lived in the full glare of publicity. The social and political literature of more than a generation abounds in allusions to him. He appears and reappears continually in the correspondence of Burleigh, Robert Cecil, Christopher Hatton, Essex, Anthony Bacon, Henry Sidney, Richard Boyle, Ralph Winwood, Dudley Carleton, George Carew, Henry Howard, and King James. His is a very familiar name in the Calendars of Domestic State Papers. It holds its place in the archives of Venice and Simancas. No family muniment room can be explored without traces of him. Successive reports of the Historical Manuscripts Commission testify to the vigilance with which his doings were noted. No personage in two reigns was more a centre for anecdotes and fables. They were eagerly imbibed, treasured, and circulated alike by contemporary, or all but contemporary, statesmen and wits, and by the feeblest scandalmongers. A list comprising the names of Francis Bacon, Sir John Harington, Sir Robert Naunton, Drummond of Hawthornden, Thomas Fuller, Sir Anthony Welldon, Bishop Goodman, Francis Osborn, Sir Edward Peyton, Sir Henry Wotton, John Aubrey, Sir William Sanderson, David Lloyd, and James Howell, is far from exhausting the number of the very miscellaneous purveyors and chroniclers.
Antiquaries, from the days of John Hooker of Exeter, the continuer of Holinshed, Sir William Pole, Anthony à Wood, and John Prince, to those of Lysons, Polwhele, Isaac D'Israeli, Payne Collier, and Dr. Brushfield, have found boundless hunting-ground in his habits, acts, and motives. Sir John Hawles, Mr. Justice Foster, David Jardine, Lord Campbell, and Spedding have discussed the technical justice of his trials and sentences. No historian, from Camden and de Thou, to Hume, Lingard, Hallam, and Gardiner, has been able to abstain from debating his merits and deinerits. From his own age to the present the fascination of his career, and at once the copiousness of information on it, and its mysteries, have attracted a multitude of commentators. His character has been repeatedly analyzed by essayists, subtle as Macvey Napier, eloquent as Charles Kingsley. There has been no more favourite theme for biographers. Since the earliest and trivial account compiled by William Winstanley in 1660, followed by the anonymous and tolerably industrious narrative attributed variously to John, Benjamin, and James, Shirley in 1677, and Lewis Theobald's meagre sketch in 1719, a dozen or more lives with larger pretensions to critical research have been printed, by William Oldys in 1736, Thomas Birch in 1751, Arthur Cayley in 1805, Sir Samuel Egerton Brydges in 1813, Mrs. A. T. Thomson in 1830, Patrick Fraser Tytler in 1833, Robert Southey in 1837, Sir Robert Hermann Schomburgk in 1848, C. Whitehead in 1854, S. G. Drake, of Boston, U.S., in 1862, J. A. St. John in 1868, Edward Edwards in the same year, Mrs. Creighton in 1877, and Edmund Gosse in 1886.
Almost every one of this numerous company, down even to bookmaking Winstanley the barber, has shed light, much or little, upon dark recesses. By four, Oldys, Cayley, Tytler, and Edwards, the whole learning of the subject, so far as it was for their respective periods available, must be admitted to have
been most diligently accumulated. Yet it will scarcely be denied that there has always been room for a new presentment of Ralegh's personality. That the want has remained unsatisfied after all the efforts made to supply it is to be imputed less to defects in the writers, than to the intrinsic difficulties of the subject. Ralegh's multifarious activity, with the width of the area in which it operated, is itself a disturbing element. It is confusing for a biographer to be required to keep at once independent and in unison the poet, statesman, courtier, schemer, patriot, soldier, sailor, freebooter, discoverer, colonist, castle-builder, historian, philosopher, chemist, prisoner, and visionary. The variety of Ralegh's powers and tendencies, and of their exercise, is the distinctive note of him, and of the epoch which needed, fashioned, and used him. A whole band of faculties stood ready in him at any moment for action. Several generally were at work simultaneously. For the man to be properly visible, he should be shown flashing from more facets than a brilliant. Few are the pens which can vividly reflect versatility like his. The temptation to diffuseness and irrelevancy is as embarrassing and dangerous. At every turn Ralegh's restless vitality involved him in a web of other men's fortunes, and in national crises. A biographer is constantly being beguiled into describing an era as well as its representative, into writing history instead of a life. Within an author's legitimate province the perplexities are numberless and distracting. Never surely was there a career more beset with insoluble riddles and unmanageable dilemmas. At each step, in the relation of the most ordinary incidents, exactness of dates, or precision of events, appears unattainable. Fiction is ever elbowing fact, so that it might be supposed contemporaries had with one accord been conspiring to disguise the truth from posterity. The uncertainty is deepened tenfold when motives have to be measured and appraised. Ralegh
was the best hated personage in the kingdom. On a conscientious biographer is laid the burden of allowing just enough, and not too much, for the gall of private, political, and popular enmity. He is equally bound to remember and account, often on the adverse side, for inherent contradictions in his hero's own moral nature. While he knows it would be absurdly unjust to accept the verdict of Ralegh's jealous and envious world on his intentions, he has to beware of construing malicious persecution as equivalent to proof of angelic innocence.
One main duty of a biographer of Ralegh is to be strenuously on the guard against degenerating into an apologist. But, above all, he ought to be versed in the art of standing aside. While explanations of obscurities must necessarily be offered, readers should be put into a position to judge for themselves of their sufficiency, and to substitute, if they will, others of their own. Commonly they want not so much arguments, however unegotistical and dispassionate, as a narrative. They wish to view and hear Ralegh himself; to attend him on his quick course from one field of fruitful energy to another; to see him as his age saw him, in his exuberant vitality; not among the few greatest, but of all great, Englishmen the most universally capable. They desire facts, stated as such, simply, in chronological sequence, and, when it is at all practicable, in the actor's own words, not artificially carved, coloured, digested, and classified. As for failings and infirmities, they are more equitable and less liable to unreasonable disgusts than a biographer is inclined to fancy. They are content that a great man's faults, real or apparent, should be left to be justified, excused, or at all events harmonized, in the mass of good and ill.
No biographer of Ralegh need for lack of occupation stray from the direct path of telling his readers the plain story of an
eventful life. The rightful demands on his resources are enough to absorb the most plentiful stores of leisure, patience, and self-denial. He should be willing to spend weeks or months on loosing a knot visible to students alone, which others have not noticed, and, if they had, would think might as profitably have been left tied. He should collect, and weigh, and have the courage to refuse to use, piles of matter which do not enlighten. He should be prepared to devote years to the search for a clue to a career with a bewildering capacity for sudden transformation scenes. He should have the courage, when he has lost the trace, to acknowledge that he has wandered. He should feel an interest so supreme in his subject, in its shadows as in its lights, as neither to count the cost of labour in its service, nor to find affection for the man incompatible with the condemnation of his errors. Finally, after having arrived at a clear perception of the true method to be pursued, and ends to be aimed at, he should be able to recognize how very imperfectly he has succeeded in acting up to his theory.
W. S. LONDON : September, 1891.