The Search for Francis Bacon
Of all the famous men she has written about in her biographies, Mr. Justice Holmes, Tchaikovsky, young John Adams, Sir Edward Coke, and Francis Bacon, Catherine Drinker Bowen believes that Bacon was the most companionable, the one she would most have enjoyed spending an afternoon with. Here is why she thinks so.
by Catherine Drinker Bowen
WHEN, some years ago, I set out to write about Sir Francis Bacon, the undertaking loomed frighteningly large. Not only had Bacon been written about copiously for more than three hundred years, but I had chosen as subject a man who was a world in himself; a Renaissance man, as manysided as Da Vinci; at once a scientific thinker, an observer of human nature, and a writer of cool, quick, mellifluous prose which at its best is unmatched in our language.
Reading Bacon’s works, searching the libraries for contemporary evidence of his character and personality, I was once more reminded of the different approach that biographer and historian make to the facts of history. Historian and biographer cherish, I may say, an equal respect for the facts, an equal caution regarding accuracy and authenticity. But the two have different criteria for selection of their facts. The biographer is interested in the individual; he must discover personal material about a man or woman. This personal material can be interpreted only in the light of the biographer’s own knowledge of human nature — how else? It is well, therefore, if the biographer be by disposition a person interested in his fellow creatures and in what motivates them.
This lays on the biographer a double burden; he must do the historian’s work and his own work besides. The biographer must know the historical background against which his hero moves, the historical happenings of the times, just as the historian does — and he must know these matters intimately, like the back of his hand. Bacon’s biographer should understand, for instance, the facts and significance of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Even though Bacon took no part, as attorney, in the ensuing trials for treason, his biographer should feel and be moved by the intensity of religious and political bias which invited so desperate an attempt. Only when the biographer has read enough to be easily familiar with the times, the places, the crowd of persons concerned, only then does he dare place his hero in scene and begin actually to write about him.
For myself, in planning a biography, I work from the outside in, from the periphery of my biographical circle to the center. In the center stands my subject, my hero. From outside the circle I work my way inward slowly, carefully, through the known climate of the times, the known persons, social ideas, physical scenes. Not until I reach dead center do I allow myself to pore over the precious firsthand personal material; the diaries, letters, recorded conversations of my hero, the books he has written which reveal him, such as Lord Bacon’s private notebooks. The biographer must come upon this personal material altogether fresh in mind, yet fully equipped to recognize the names and to follow through with each allusion to person or events.
Who, for instance, are the protagonists in Francis Bacon’s biography? Sir Edward Coke is the chief one. For thirty years Coke and Bacon were bitter rivals — starting in the 1590s for the post of Attorney General and for the hand of Lady Hatton. Edward Coke won both these skirmishes. But that was only the beginning; down the decades the two fought like leopards, their feud was common knowledge. If I had not spent six years writing the life of Chief Justice Coke, I could never have attempted Lord Chancellor Francis Bacon. Another principal actor in Bacon’s drama is Lord Chancellor Ellesmere, who preceded Bacon in office — a handsome gentleman with an impressive presence. Ellesmere looked wonderful in his robes. He was innately conservative, known to contemporaries as a preserver of order in the law and thereby, through a nicely biased logic, the preserver of propertied interests, champion of the aristocracy, of “men of the better sort,” champion also of a strong central government and of King James I. Francis Bacon shared these political views. And the biographer must recognize it, must recognize also that belief in a strong sovereign was the “new” idea, the modern idea, which had come in with the Tudors. Even Edward Coke was a royalist, and the House of Commons members who sided with Coke were by no means against kingship. “No one can say,” Bacon wrote, “but I am a perfect and peremptory royalist.” And again, to a courtier, “I do not love the word People.”
To Francis Bacon’s biographer, the long, historic battle between the English common law and equity, or the Roman system, should be as familiar as the divisive influences in our Supreme Court of the 1930s are to a biographer of Franklin D. Roosevelt. In Bacon and Coke’s time there existed in England a powerful ecclesiastical court, known as the Court of High Commission, presided over by Archbishop Bancroft, then by Archbishop Abbot. Writing about this High Commission, I sank so deeply into the material, I thought I should never come up for air. (One has to go back, in such cases, a full century before one’s hero comes on the scene.) In the midst of it, I remember telling a law professor, “If ever I get this chapter written, and anybody so much as mentions the words ‘High Commission,’ I’ll mow him down.” Yet even as I said it, I had a hollow feeling. I realized that no neighbor of mine on the Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad was ever likely to mention the Ecclesiastical High Commission. And I was sorry.
WITH Francis Bacon, one searches not only for the legal and political contemporary scene but for the scientific scene, peopled by such men as Dr. William Harvey, who discovered the circulation of the blood, William Gilbert of the magnet, or Galileo in Italy, who had a philosophic dispute with Bacon in which both were mistaken. Bacon’s biographer must know what had been accomplished in the sciences to date, and the circumstances that might help or hinder scientific advance under Elizabeth and James I. In particular, one must study the contemporary religious climate and its effect upon science. The religious climate shifted, of course, with the sovereign and with foreign politics, as witness Prince Charles’s journey to Spain in 1623. Earlier still, what lay behind Sir Walter Ralegh’s execution in 1618? Francis Bacon sat as judge on the commission which finally condemned Ralegh to death. Why did James I fear and dislike Sir Walter? Why did England, before 1603, hate this valiant, adventurous poetic knight whom Elizabeth favored, and who had stood at her door in silver armor to guard her when she slept?
With Francis Bacon there is much ground to cover, a large acreage to search, more than the usual homework to get through before the biographer is ready to type out that awe-inspiring first line: “Chapter One. Birth, Childhood, and Education.” Yet the thing is not impossible, once the biographer has defined the limits of his book — once that biographical circle is narrowed to manageable proportions. It was not difficult to know the characters of Bacon’s fellow lawyers and colleagues in the House of Commons. One can make lists of them, write little sketches of each man, repecit their names and characteristics while driving the car or raking leaves in what New England calls the backyard. Sir Edwin Sandys, Heneage Finch, Noye, Hake will, Pym — tough ambitious Protestant, and protesting, lawyers in the House of Commons —• one had to know these men, as today’s journalist in Washington must know the personal characteristics of, say, Chief Justice Warren, or Senator Fulbright.
A biographer is, in effect, a historical journalist. As such, he cannot be forever halting his narrative to look in the biographical dictionaries. No matter if the names never enter one’s story and one’s book —one must know them. A biography is like the proverbial iceberg, three quarters or seven eighths under water, unseen.
Writing the lives of four lawyers, set in four centuries, if there is one thing I have ascertained, it is that in no century is the legal mind as objective as it likes to think it is.
In short, the legal biographer suspects that his hero’s decisions from the bench may be influenced by his character, background, and ambitions, as well as by judicial precedent. (Let me say that if he does not suspect it, he is a fool.) When men’s pockets are touched, the thrust goes through to the heart and is then conveniently translated into terms of great social principles. Observe Sir Edward Coke’s long fight against the Court of Chancery, which was presided over by Francis Bacon and Lord Ellesmere. Coke, sitting as Chief Justice in a common-law court, saw case after case removed from his court into Bacon’s, and hurled himself into the situation with all the strength of his nature. Against this tumult, Bacon stood fast, with all the coolness and cunning of his nature. “A kind of sickness of my Lord Coke,” Bacon called it, writing to King James. “Let the judges be lions,” Bacon wrote further, “but lions under the throne,” like the lions under the legendary throne of King Solomon.
Bacon and Coke, in this long battle, were motivated partly by principle, partly by self-interest. And thereby the story becomes, for the biographer, doubly interesting — and doubly comprehensible.
THIS ratio, this balance between history and personality, between outward event and the spiritual growth or decline of one’s hero, is not easy for the biographer to determine. Political biography in particular shifts from personal scene to historical scene. The question is how much of history to include. The answer is, exactly so much as relates to your hero and his progress through life. For myself, the temptation to keep on with one or another dramatic historical scene is almost irresistible. Consider the Overbury Murder. In the year 1613, Sir Thomas Overbury, a courtier, was done to death in the Tower of London; Lord Somerset and his beautiful countess were suspected of poisoning him. Bacon, then Attorney General, was chief prosecutor in the trials. I studied the case for days, wrote it out at length. It is a juicy tale, involving sorcery, necromancy, wax figures stuck with pins, and language by the witnesses which you would scarcely believe. In the end I threw out the whole beautiful drama because alas! it lay outside the fundamental line of the story I had to tell. In my biography of Bacon, the Overbury Murder has exactly twelve words.
This question of emphasis — of what to put in one’s book and what to leave out — in the end is resolved by that fundamental tool of both historian and biographer, that evasive quality called historical judgment. I don’t mean literary judgment, which is something else. I mean judgment of the relative importance to history of certain events which take place during the lifetime of one’s hero. For example, the Earl of Essex’s treason in February of 1601 —his wild attempt to capture London and storm the palace of Queen Elizabeth. Again, I was tempted by this story. I had to ask myself, how important was it, not only to Francis Bacon’s career but to England? How many men of influence did the attempt involve? After the Earl’s execution on Tower Hill, how long did the people of England cherish the memory of that unfortunate, spoiled darling of the Queen? And what did the people’s loyalty to Essex have to do with shaping the political factions when James I came to the throne three years later?
It is not enough to accept other historians’ interpretations of these matters, though the biographer must know what other historians say. In the light of his own acquired, firsthand facts and in the light of his hero’s involvement, the biographer must judge for himself. He need not necessarily express this judgment by telling his readers, I think this, or I believe that. Writing of Bacon’s impeachment by Parliament in 1621, I never said whether I considered him morally guilty, though by his own confession he was legally guilty. In so murky a question it seemed to me that the reader, having surveyed the evidence as presented, might better make his own decision. But I knew very well what I thought, and which side I was on.
Historical judgment derives in part from reading many books and digging in many research libraries. I think it derives also from the writer’s original chromosomes, from his outlook on living, the breadth or depth of his interests, his observation and judgment of things present as well as things past. Miss Veronica Wedgwood, author of altogether definitive as well as delightful books on Stuart England, has said that in the last analysis, the historian can reconstruct the past only by borrowing from, and applying, his own daily experience of life. And it was E. M. Forster, the novelist, who remarked a trifle caustically, “The historian must have some conception of how men who are not historians behave.”
Born a son of Queen Elizabeth’s Keeper of the Seal (Lord Chancellor), Francis Bacon rose to be Lord Chancellor himself, but not until after the longest, most harrowing period of waiting that a man of his birth and capacities has suffered. After he left the law school, it was twenty-seven years before Bacon attained a place in government or lawcourt. In 1607 he became Solicitor General under James I; in 1613, Attorney General; in 1617, Lord Keeper of the Seal; and not long afterward, Lord Chancellor. Bacon was, moreover, a Parliament man, who sat in every session from 1584 to 1621, when after four years as Lord Chancellor, he was charged by Parliament with accepting bribes in office, impeached, convicted, and dismissed from his high offices. After this he lived his last five years in seclusion, studying and writing, five years which a later century would describe as Lord Bacon’s nobile quinquennium, the noble five years.
A historian (it was Samuel Rawson Gardiner) declared that the immensity of Bacon’s genius has been a sore trial to his biographers. And indeed, Bacon’s was a career extraordinarily active and dramatic. This man, it seems, was born sophisticated, and I intended to say so, to say also that his is a story set in scenes of splendid color and fantastic luxury, out of which he characteristically erupts, now and again, burdened with debts, dyspepsia, and incipient failure; then regains balance, and with bounding optimism pursues his way.
IN BIOGRAPHICAL research one finds the big things at hand, set out in reference books and encyclopedias. But it’s the little things that bring a man alive, though the writer must be forever watchful to select only those details which drive the characterization forward rather than clutter up the page to no purpose. Concerning the importance of detail in biography, no less a person than Sir Walter Ralegh agrees with me. During his long years in prison, Ralegh wrote a History of the World; in the preface he says, “I think it not impertinent sometimes to relate such accidents as may seem no better than mere trifles; for even by trifles are the qualities of great persons as well disclosed as by their great actions.”
With Francis Bacon I aimed at a personal narrative — if possible, a truly intimate book. Here was a character, brilliant and complex, which over the centuries had become a riddle, an enigma; Francis Bacon lived on the dark side of the moon. Here were contradictions, following fast and furiously: evil and good, a dark side and a light, grand intellectual visions and wily schemes for personal advancement. I could not solve the riddle. But by taking pains, perhaps I could come closer to the man. Bacon’s writings are extraordinarily selfrevealing, a point which it seemed had not hitherto been thoroughly explored. Not only Bacon’s private notebooks lay bare his character, but also his letters to friends and enemies: the reckless tormented messages he sent to Sir Edward Coke, the fulsome dedicatory paragraphs to Queen Elizabeth and King James that preface his books, the shrewd and prescient summations of things political which from time to time Bacon offered — and vainly — to a sovereign who was not disposed to lend an ear to prophets. It would be well, I felt, to introduce Bacon’s writings in my book chronologically, at the time and in the circumstances when they were written; this would help to reveal the man. For instance, the essay Of Deformity. Bland, suave, seemingly impersonal, this essay is actually a devastating description of Bacon’s first cousin, Robert Cecil, the tiny hunchback, Lord Treasurer of England, whom Bacon looked on as his enemy.
I planned to call my book, in subtitle, “The Temper of a Man” — Francis Bacon, The Temper oj a Man — from Plutarch, who said, “Authority and place try the tempers of men, by moving every passion and discovering every frailty.” Because I had written much about Francis Bacon in Coke’s biography, and much also about the contemporary political and legal scene, I decided that I could now write a short book, putting into it only what truly interested me. I didn’t have to animadvert on the history of jury trials; I had done that in Coke’s biography. Nor need I go exhaustively into the difference between common law and the Roman system — between accusatory and inquisitory courtroom procedure. And if I were bored with, for instance, Bacon’s celebrated philosophic idols his idols of the tribe, of the marketplace, and so on — I could simply leave them out.
Nor did I plan my essays as comparative philosophy, discussions of what Bacon borrowed from the Greeks, what he repudiated, and what was his own. That had been done by writers far better equipped for it than I. Lord Campbell, writing in the nineteenth century his famous series entitled Lives of the Lord Chancellors, remarked that “no writer has yet presented Bacon to us familiarly and naturally, from boyhood to old age — shown us how this character was formed and developed — or explained his motives and feelings at different stages of his eventful career.”
I asked myself, Could I attempt that? Well, I was going to try. In my preface I would be frank about it, as Elizabeth Jenkins was in her biography of Elizabeth the Great. “The aim of this book,” says Miss Jenkins succinctly, “was to collect interesting personal information about Queen Elizabeth.”
Now, the moment a biographer makes this kind of decision, his entire search for material is thereby directed and influenced — subject, of course, to that preliminary, wider search for historical background upon which we have already touched. In Francis Bacon I had as subject a man articulate beyond any but the angels. How, therefore, did he speak? It was imperative that I know. What kind of words did he use in conversation? Was his way of talking quick, lively, witty or slow, quiet, deep? Could I find the tenor and timbre of his voice? I was aware that Walter Ralegh had a high, thin voice and spoke with a Devon burr; parliamentary reporters have noted voices calling to speak louder. We know something of Queen Elizabeth’s voice, which seems to have possessed a magnetic quality; her pronunciation of words was especially attractive. After one of her speeches in Parliament, a reporter wrote that he had been so entranced by Her Majesty’s manner of speech and her shaping of words that he forgot to write down much of what she said.
Above all other intellectual qualities, Sir Francis Bacon valued clarity, or said he did. Yet Bacon indulged at times in the most bizarre collection of words, all but incomprehensible and never, so far as I can learn, used before or since — words like spinosity, assenlatorily, illaqueation. Bacon spoke of the ways and ambages of God. (We do find ambage in the King James Bible.) “The more subtle forms of sophistry,” Bacon writes, “with their illaqueations and redargutions.” Redargution is a word from old logic. “Now rare,” the dictionary says.
In 1584, a young lawyer wrote that he had been to court to hear Bacon argue his first case, and that Bacon had “spangled his speech with unusual words, somewhat obscure, and as it were, presuming on the judges’ capacities.” There is small doubt that our hero liked to show off, indoors and out — a not unattractive trait, if a man’s mind sparkles, though deplorable in duller souls. William Camden, a contemporary historian, writes that Lord Bacon “was of a high-flying and lively wit, striving in some things to be rather admired than understood.” Bacon’s fancy phrases irritated his mother, that redoubtable lady, who was herself fluent in both Greek and Latin. Writing to Bacon’s brother, Lady Bacon once enclosed a letter of Francis’, with the comment, “Construe the interpretation. I do not understand his enigmatical, folded language.”
Yet we know that in conversation, Bacon eventually learned to be silent, a good listener. After Bacon’s death, his secretary wrote of him that he was “no dashing man, to put others down as some men do, nor one that would appropriate the speech wholly to himself or delight to outview others. He would draw a man on, to allure him to speak upon such a matter as wherein he was peculiarly skilful. And for himself he condemned no man’s observation, but would light his torch at every man’s candle.”
We don’t know whether Bacon’s voice was low or high. But we know that he spoke quickly; I think he stuttered. In his private notebooks he cautions against “hasty speech,” which he says “drives a man to a non-plus or unseemly stammering.” He cautions himself also against making faces, or moving the head and hand while talking.
From all this one gains some notion of Bacon’s bearing and manner, or, as his own century would have phrased it, his carriage and address. Here was a mind so quick, with perceptions so rapid that their owner must discipline himself, hold back, hold back while lesser minds had time to grind their way upward to meet him. “Always,” wrote Francis Bacon, talking to himself, “Always let losers have their words.” How many times Francis Bacon must have out-thought his adversary, talked him down! And how many times, told himself afterward — though in his own peerless vernacular — “Oh, for God’s sake, why didn’t I let the man have his say, and get it all out of his system?”
“Always let losers have their words.” Francis Bacon in his thirties had much to learn before he arrived at that mature conversational hospitality which would “light [its] torch at every man’s candle.” The notebooks speak often of his being ill, and suggest a variety of wild nostrums and remedies. Was poor health, then, constitutional with Bacon, part of his sensitive disposition? Or did he merely imagine ill health? Above all, what spiritual or emotional weakness led so brilliant and effectual a gentleman to be forever in debt, and in the end, to ruin his reputation and career by nothing more, or less, than a complete inability to manage money?
I asked myself, What is a spendthrift? Is the spendthrift, as is said of the compulsive gambler, motivated by a desire for love? A desire for revenge — perhaps revenge upon himself, self-punishment, the death wish? The ability to stay out of debt, to keep careful financial accounts — is this the trait of a noble nature or an ignoble one, or is it merely a convenience in a money-oriented society? I went to the psychiatric library at the University of Pennsylvania and read everything I could find about money, its meaning and symbolism. And when one plunges into that, one swims in muddy waters.
AND now the question of how Bacon looked. First of all, we betake ourselves to the National Portrait Gallery in London, and walk through the rooms until we come to our hero. But the trouble with Tudor and Elizabethan portraits, unless they are painted by very great artists — say a Holbein — is that they all look alike, they are no more than costume pictures. We see a pointed beard, a laced ruff, doublet and hose and a handsome leg, a sword, a short cloak thrown back. It could be Sir Walter Ralegh, or it could be anybody. Ten steps farther, however, and we come upon our man, glorious in the Lord Chancellor’s robes of office, a black steeple hat squarely on his head. (Nothing is less becoming than those steeple hats.) This is the best-known portrait of Bacon, a copy of the Van Somer portrait of 1617. The Lord Chancellor
stands at full length by a table, on which rests the Great Seal of his office.
All very well, but is this really Francis Bacon? I for one do not believe it, though the portrait is labeled correctly. There is a flat quality to this painting; the face and figure do not resemble anyone alive. And Francis Bacon, whether you love him or hate him, was a man alive to his fingertips. One thinks of him — and on firsthand evidence — as always in motion, his hand raised in gesture, his body tense with eagerness. This pompous, important monster on Van Somer’s canvas is an offense against biographical truth. Francis Bacon loathed self-important people. “Grave solemn wits,” he wrote, “have more dignity than felicity.” Could a man who was himself pompous say a thing like that? No! Bacon surely possessed the quality of felicity; all his works bear witness to it.
Painted portraits of famous men unfortunately are apt to show their subjects in middle age or older, at the time of glory. This is very natural; only in success has a man money to pay a painter. Only then do his colleagues subscribe to a fund, so that the Lord Chancellor may ornament some wall in solemn effigy. But the biographer does not set out to write about a middle-aged man. Where, we ask indignantly, is the youth? Where is the young man, striving for position? Where is “Mr. Bacon, of Gray’s Inn,” as he was called in early reports of law cases, before he became a knight and long, long before he was Lord Verulam and Viscount St. Albans. The young strong, ambitious “Mr. Bacon, of Gray’s Inn” — where is he?
To my mind, the best, most revealing likeness of Francis Bacon was made when he was about ten years old, perhaps twelve. We are very, very fortunate to have it. It is a terra cotta bust, done from life, and it sits today on a library shelf at Gorhambury Manor in Hertfordshire, where Bacon lived. The sculpture is brightly colored, and so alive that to be left alone in the room with it raises the hackles on the back of one’s neck. The custodian, Mrs. King, later told me that others, including herself, had experienced the sensation.
On shelves nearby are the matching busts of Francis’ father and mother, done by the same artist, whose name we do not know. We know, however, that Bacon’s father, Sir Nicholas, ordered the three likenesses sculptured, circa 1572, probably by some traveling Tuscan artist who had come north to earn money by fashioning statues for noblemen’s gardens; Italian statuary was much in vogue at the time.
One sees a striking likeness between the boy Francis and his mother, except in the direction of their glance. Lady Bacon looks out upon her world as if in her Puritan conscience she defied it to be wicked; her blue eyes are fearless, candid. Whereas Francis’ glance is a little down, and sidewise. When I saw the boy’s oblique, questioning look, I exclaimed aloud, because I had seen it before, in every portrait of Bacon, even the monstrous Van Somer in the steeple hat. Plainly, that glance was authentic, and how characteristic of the man whom this boy was to become! The boy’s forehead is wide, jutting above arched, even eyebrows. There is a startling width from back of head to forehead; one observes there was room for brains inside this skull case. It is a face attractive rather than handsome; it has a quality of fascination, of magnetism.
The next portrait we have of Bacon was done when he was eighteen, a law student at Gray’s Inn, in London. It is a miniature, painted by Hilliard, the fashionable miniaturist who painted Queen Elizabeth, and it is a vague, insubstantial thing, not to be relied on, and rather too pretty, I would think. The most revealing thing about it is an inscription the artist wrote around the edge, in Latin: “Oh, that I had a canvas to paint his mind!” Now, an artist does not customarily paint in such an inscription, especially for an eighteen-year-old subject. During those sittings the conversation must have been memorable, and certainly, amusing. One recalls what Bacon’s close friend of later life, Tobie Matthew, said of Lord Chancellor Bacon when visiting him at Gorhambury. “We passed our time together in much gusto, for there was not such a companion in the world.”
BIOGRAPHERS, in their search, are likely to come upon their best bits in unexpected places. Therefore it is well to keep the eye, as the saying goes, peeled. While reading for Bacon’s biography, I happened to go out to California, lecturing on a subject lamentably remote from Francis Bacon. On a certain campus I was housed in the new faculty club. As I entered my bedroom door I saw, out the window, across not more than thirty feet of greensward, a small elegant brick building, over whose doorway were engraved the words “Bacon Library.” I kept right on going, out the back door and into the building. (I knew the library existed, but I had forgotten where it was.)
The building itself was charming inside as well as out. But the books had been chosen and placed by members of that magnificently imaginative tribe which calls itself Baconian, and believes that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays. So-called Baconian collections are highly spiced with volumes on Rosicrucianism, cipherology, and demonology in general. However, one usually finds there first editions of Bacon’s works and other treasures that might better be housed elsewhere.
The librarian, a hospitable young woman, showed me her treasures, then pulled out a folder of photographs. Now, in England, in the little church at St. Albans where Bacon is buried, there is a marble statue of him in the chancel. Bacon’s faithful secretary and friend, Thomas Meautys, had it made after Bacon’s death and put it up at his own expense. I had visited this little church and had seen the sculpture. Indeed, I had stood long, gazing at it; upon this statue I was to base my idea of how Bacon looked after he was sixty, though at the time I was unaware of this. Thomas Meautys, who adored his master, wrote a brief, lively biography of him, and edited several of his books posthumously. In short, Meautys was a scholar and a gentleman; I knew he would not have permitted a monument that did not do his master justice, especially after paying for it himself. There, above the chancel, Bacon sits at ease in his garden chair. Plainly, he is meditating. A soft slouch hat is on his head; one hand supports his chin, the other hangs carelessly over the chair arm. Meautys must often have seen his master sit like this. Below is an inscription in Latin. “Sic sedebat,” it says in part. “Thus he used to sit.”
In the church the sculpture is placed so that one can see it only from the front, by no means the most advantageous view. This I did not know at the time. I learned it in, of all places, the little Bacon Library in California. The librarian produced her folder and took out a photograph of the statue. To my surprise it was a side view, probably the only such view taken in centuries. “How did you get this?” I exclaimed. “Oh,” the librarian said, “the monument was lifted down to be cleaned last year, for the quadricentennial celebration of Bacon’s birth. And somebody snapped it.”
Seen from the side, the sculpture had a different quality, much more lifelike. At once, I saw how correct had been Thomas Meautys’ inscription, “Sic sedebat”: “Thus he used to sit.” Thus he meditated, I thought, looking at the picture. Thus he wrote his books, thus propounded his philosophy of learning, so new to his world, so little to be believed and credited in his time. When I got home to Bryn Mawr, a reproduction of the photograph was waiting, sent me by the California librarian. Here at home I could study the picture at leisure, alone in my room, always a good practice for biographers. This, then, was what the Lord Chancellor had become in full maturity; this was what he had made of himself. At ease in his garden, thoughtful. In the set of the head is a touch of humility which in earlier years he may not have shown, but which misfortune and tragedy have taught him. There is sadness, too, in this pose, a gentle melancholy.
How much of this could I put on paper? Very little, I decided; I had better lean to fact rather than surmise. Fortunately, a man so famous as Francis Bacon was bound to be described by contemporaries who knew him. Dr. Harvey wrote that Bacon had “a delicate, lively hazel eye, like the eye of a viper.” I brooded long over this. In our Philadelphia zoo are no English vipers; the keeper of the reptile house says he doesn’t think any vipers have hazel eyes. What could Dr. Harvey have possibly meant? William Camden the historian testified that Bacon’s forehead was “indented with age before he was old.” In short, Bacon early wore the scholar’s frown. Someone else who knew him wrote that when conversing, Bacon looked away from the person addressed — to me the trait of a man for whom ideas are more interesting than persons. In my book I said so.
To describe a man so that others will see him presents great difficulty, not so much in one’s choice of words as in acquiring the initial understanding of one’s subject, one’s hero. It is a long journey the biographer makes, for myself a journey of excitement from start to finish. While engaged in it I think often of what the young John Adams said when his friends remarked that his studies of law and government must be dull, fatiguing. So much memorizing of detail, so tedious a search after the facts! Adams was indignant. “To me,” he wrote, “no romance is more entertaining.”