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I read the following in "The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Volume I":

A portrait from Mr. Carlyle's portfolio not regretted by any who loved the original, surely confers sufficient distinction to warrant a few words of notice, when the character it depicts is withdrawn from mortal gaze.

Many words are confusing (to me, at least); "confer", "distinction", "warrant" and "mortal gaze".

  • Does "confer" here mean "grant" or "bestow"?
  • Does "distinction" mean "Excellence or eminence"?
  • What does "warrant" and "mortal gaze" mean?

Does the speaker mean that Carlyle praised Erasmus Darwin? or the opposite?

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The sentence you quoted is from a letter by Julia Wedgwood to the magazine The Spectator, printed on 3rd September 1881, a week after the death of Erasmus Darwin on 26th August. (Julia Wedgwood was the first cousin, once removed, of Erasmus Darwin, who was the grandson of his more famous namesake and the brother of the naturalist Charles Darwin.)

The sentence explains why Wedgwood thought that Erasmus deserved an obituary notice in The Spectator. Her points were:

  1. Thomas Carlyle included a description of Erasmus in his Reminiscences. Wedgwood describes this metaphorically as a “portrait from Mr. Carlyle’s portfolio”, likening Carlyle’s memoirs to an artist’s portfolio, and his character descriptions to portraits. Reminiscences had been published earlier the same year, so Wedgwood could assume that her readers would know which work of Carlyle’s she was referring to.

  2. Carlyle’s description of Erasmus was “not regretted by any who loved the original”, that is, it was favourable.

  3. That the famous man of letters, Thomas Carlyle, wrote a favourable description of Erasmus, “confers distinction” on him. “Confer” means “give, grant, bestow” and “distinction” means “excellence or eminence that distinguishes from others”.

  4. This distinction is sufficient to “warrant” (meaning “justify”) “a few words of notice” (meaning an obituary).

  5. Eramus was “withdrawn from mortal gaze”, meaning that he died. Here “mortal” means “living”, in opposition to “immortal” meaning “dead” (since according to Christian belief, souls are immortal).

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