Page images
PDF
EPUB

ESSAY XV.

ON THE KNOWLEDGE OF

CHARACTER.

!

ESSAY XV.

ON THE KNOWLEDGE OF CHARACTER.

It is astonishing, with all our opportunities and practice, how little we know of this subject. For myself, I feel that the more I learn, the less I understand it. : I remember, several years ago, a conversation in the Diligence coming from Paris, in which, on its being mentioned that a man had married his wife after thirteen years courtship, a fellowcountryman of mine observed, that “then, at least, he would be acquainted with her character;" when a Monsieur P inventor and proprietor of the Invisible Girl, made answer, No, not at all; for that the very next day she might turn out the very reverse of the character that she had appeared in during all the preceding time*.” I could not help admiring the superior sagacity of the French juggler, and it struck me then that we could never be sure when we had got at the bottom of this riddle.

*“ It is not a year or two shows us a man.”-ÆMILIA, in OTHELLO.

ጊ z

There are various ways of getting at a knowledge of character-by looks, words, actions. The first of these, which seems the most superficial, is perhaps the safest, and least liable to deceive: nay, it is that which mankind, in spite of their pretending to the contrary, most generally go by. Professions pass for nothing, and actions

may

be counterfeited: but a man cannot help his looks. “ Speech," said a celebrated wit, “was given to man to conceal his thoughts." Yet I do not know that the greatest hypocrites are the least silent. The mouth of Cromwell is pursed up in the portraits of him, as if he was afraid to trust himself with words. Lord Chesterfield advises us, if we wish to know the real sentiments of the person we are conversing with, to look in his face, for he can more easily command his words than his features. A man's whole life

may

be a lie to himself and others : and yet a picture painted of him by a great artist would probably stamp his true character on the canvas, and betray the secret to posterity. Men's opinions were divided, in their life-times, about such prominent personages as Charles V. and Ignatius Loyola, partly, no doubt, from passion and interest, but partly from contradictory evidence in their ostensible conduct: the spectator, who has ever seen their pictures by Titian, judges of them at once, and truly. I had rather leave a good portrait of myself behind me than have a fine epitaph. The face, for the most part, tells what we have thought and felt—the rest is nothing. I have a higher idea of Donne from a rude, half-effaced outline of him prefixed to his poems than from any thing he ever wrote. . Cæsar's Commentaries would not have redeemed him in my opinion,

, if the bust of him had resembled the Duke of

My old friend, Fawcett, used to say, that if Sir Isaac Newton himself had lisped, he could not have thought any thing of him. So I cannot persuade myself that any one is a great man, who looks like a fool. In this I wrong.

First impressions are often the truest, as we find (not unfrequently) to our cost, when we have been wheedled out of them by plausible professions br actions. A man's look is the work of years,

is stamped on his countenance by the events of his whole life, nay, more, by the hand of nature, and it is not to be got rid of easily. There is, as it has been remarked repeatedly, something in a person's appearance at first sight which we do not like, and that

may be

[ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »