Montaigne’s Moment - The New York Times
The present writer enjoyed the conversation and friendship of that excellent man more than thirty years. He thought it an honour to be so connected, and to this hour he reflects on his loss with regret; but regret, he knows, has secret bribes, by which the judgment may be influenced, and partial affection may be carried beyond the bounds of truth.
In the present case, however, nothing needs to be disguised, and exaggerated praise is unnecessary. It is an observation of the younger Pliny, in his epistle to his friend Tacitus, that history ought never to magnify matters of fact, because worthy actions require nothing but the truth: Nam nec historia debet egredi veritatem, et honeste factis veritas sufficit. This rule, the present biographer promises, shall guide his pen throughout the following narrative. It may be said, the death of Dr. Johnson kept the public mind in agitation beyond all former example.
The plain truth shall be the answer. The proprietors of Johnson's works thought the life, which they prefixed to their former edition, too unwieldy for republication. The prodigious variety of foreign matter, introduced into that performance, seemed to overload the memory of Dr. Johnson, and, in the account of his own life, to leave him hardly visible. They wished to have a more concise, and, for that reason, perhaps, a more satisfactory account, such as may exhibit a just picture of the man, and keep him the principal figure in the foreground of his own picture.
To comply with that request is the design of this essay, which the writer undertakes with a trembling hand. He has no discoveries, no secret anecdotes, no occasional controversy, no sudden flashes of wit and humour, no private conversation, and no new facts, to embellish his work. Every thing has been gleaned. His fame has given importance even to trifles; and the zeal of his friends has brought every thing to light. What should be related, and what should not, has been published without distinction: Dicenda tacenda locuti!
Every thing that fell from him has been caught with eagerness by his admirers, who, as he says in one of his letters, have acted with the diligence of spies upon his conduct. To some of them the following lines, in Mallet's Poem on Verbal Criticism, are not inapplicable:. Whose name a Dutchman only knows to sound; Where'er the king of fish moves on before, This humble friend attends from shore to shore; With eye still earnest, and with bill inclin'd, He picks up what his patron drops behind, With those choice cates his palate to regale, And is the careful Tibbald of a whale.
S . His father, Michael Johnson, was a bookseller in that city; a man of large, athletic make, and violent passions; wrong-headed, positive, and, at times, afflicted with a degree of melancholy, little short of madness. His mother was sister to Dr. Ford, a practising physician, and father of Cornelius Ford, generally known by the name of Parson Ford , the same who is represented near the punch-bowl in Hogarth's Midnight Modern Conversation. Colley Cibber has recorded the anecdote.
Michael Johnson, the father, was chosen, in the year , under bailiff of Lichfield; and, in the year , he served the office of the senior bailiff. He had a brother of the name of Andrew, who, for some years, kept the ring at Smithfield, appropriated to wrestlers and boxers. Our author used to say, that he was never thrown or conquered. Michael, the father, died December , at the age of seventy-six: his mother at eighty-nine, of a gradual decay, in the year Of the family nothing more can be related worthy of notice.
Johnson did not delight in talking of his relations. Piozzi, "in relating the anecdotes of beggary. The Jacobites at that time believed in the efficacy of the royal touch, and, accordingly, Mrs. Johnson presented her son, when two years old, before queen Anne, who, for the first time, performed that office, and communicated to her young patient all the healing virtue in her power. He was afterwards cut for that scrophulous humour, and the under part of his face was seamed and disfigured by the operation.
It is supposed, that this disease deprived him of the sight of his left eye, and also impaired his hearing. At eight years old, he was placed under Mr. Hawkins, at the free school in Lichfield, where he was not remarkable for diligence or regular application. Whatever he read, his tenacious memory made his own. In the fields, with his schoolfellows, he talked more to himself than with his companions. In , when he was about sixteen years old, he went on a visit to his cousin Cornelius Ford, who detained him for some months, and, in the mean time, assisted him in the classics.
His reading was always desultory, seldom resting on any particular author, but rambling from one book to another, and, by hasty snatches, hoarding up a variety of knowledge. It may be proper, in this place, to mention another general rule laid down by Ford for Johnson's future conduct: "You will make your way the more easily in the world, as you are contented to dispute no man's claim to conversation excellence: they will, therefore, more willingly allow your pretensions as a writer.
Piozzi, "the features of peculiarity, which mark a character to all succeeding generations, are slow in coming to their growth. On Johnson's return from Cornelius Ford, Mr. Hunter, then master of the free school at Lichfield, refused to receive him again on that foundation. At this distance of time, what his reasons were, it is vain to inquire; but to refuse assistance to a lad of promising genius must be pronounced harsh and illiberal. It did not, however, stop the progress of the young student's education.
He was placed at another school, at Stourbridge in Worcestershire, under the care of Mr. Having gone through the rudiments of classic literature, he returned to his father's house, and was probably intended for the trade of a bookseller. He has been heard to say that he could bind a book. The college tutor, Mr. Jordan, was a man of no genius; and Johnson, it seems, shewed an early contempt of mean abilities, in one or two instances behaving with insolence to that gentleman. Of his general conduct at the university there are no particulars that merit attention, except the translation of Pope's Messiah, which was a college exercise imposed upon him as a task by Mr.
Corbet left the university in about two years, and Johnson's salary ceased. He was, by consequence, straitened in his circumstances; but he still remained at college. Jordan, the tutor, went off to a living; and was succeeded by Dr. Adams, who afterwards became head of the college, and was esteemed through life for his learning, his talents, and his amiable character. Johnson grew more regular in his attendance. Ethics, theology, and classic literature, were his favourite studies. He discovered, notwithstanding, early symptoms of that wandering disposition of mind, which adhered to him to the end of his life.
His reading was by fits and starts, undirected to any particular science. He received, at that time, an early impression of piety, and a taste for the best authors, ancient and modern. It may, notwithstanding, be questioned whether, except his bible, he ever read a book entirely through. Late in life, if any man praised a book in his presence, he was sure to ask, "Did you read it through? He continued at the university, till the want of pecuniary supplies obliged him to quit the place.
He obtained, however, the assistance of a friend, and, returning in a short time, was able to complete a residence of three years. The history of his exploits at Oxford, he used to say, was best known to Dr. Taylor and Dr. Wonders are told of his memory, and, indeed, all who knew him late in life can witness, that he retained that faculty in the greatest vigour.
From the university, Johnson returned to Lichfield. In this exigence, determined that poverty should neither depress his spirits nor warp his integrity, he became under-master of a grammar school at Market Bosworth, in Leicestershire. That resource, however, did not last long. Disgusted by the pride of Sir Wolstan Dixie, the patron of that little seminary, he left the place in discontent, and ever after spoke of it with abhorrence.
In , he went on a visit to Mr. Hector, who had been his schoolfellow, and was then a surgeon at Birmingham, lodging at the house of Warren, a bookseller. This was the first literary work from the pen of Dr. The work was, probably, undertaken at the desire of Warren, the bookseller, and was printed at Birmingham; but it appears, in the Literary Magazine, or history of the works of the learned, for March, , that it was published by Bettesworth and Hitch, Paternoster row.
It contains a narrative of the endeavours of a company of missionaries to convert the people of Abyssinia to the church of Rome. In the preface to this work, Johnson observes, "that the Portuguese traveller, contrary to the general view of his countrymen, has amused his readers with no romantick absurdities, or incredible fictions. He appears, by his modest and unaffected narration, to have described things, as he saw them; to have copied nature from the life; and to have consulted his senses, not his imagination.
He meets with no basilisks, that destroy with their eyes; his crocodiles devour their prey, without tears; and his cataracts fall from the rock, without deafening the neighbouring inhabitants. The translation of Lobo's narrative has been reprinted lately in a separate volume, with some other tracts of Dr.
Johnson's, and, therefore, forms no part of this edition; but a compendious account of so interesting a work, as father Lobo's discovery of the head of the Nile, will not, it is imagined, be unacceptable to the reader. They arrived at Goa; and, in January , father Lobo set out on the mission to Abyssinia. Two of the Jesuits, sent on the same commission, were murdered in their attempt to penetrate into that empire. Lobo had better success; he surmounted all difficulties, and made his way into the heart of the country.
Then follows a description of Abyssinia, formerly the largest empire of which we have an account in history. At the time of Lobo's mission, it was not much larger than Spain, consisting then but of five kingdoms, of which part was entirely subject to the Emperor, and part paid him a tribute, as an acknowledgement. The provinces were inhabited by Moors, Pagans, Jews, and Christians. The last was, in Lobo's time, the established and reigning religion. Some of the people neither sowed their lands, nor improved them by any kind of culture, living upon milk and flesh, and, like the Arabs, encamping without any settled habitation.
In some places they practised no rites of worship, though they believed that, in the regions above, there dwells a being that governs the world. This deity they call, in their language, Oul. The Christianity, professed by the people in some parts, is so corrupted with superstitions, errors, and heresies, and so mingled with ceremonies borrowed from the Jews, that little, besides the name of Christianity, is to be found among them. The Abyssins cannot properly be said to have either cities or houses; they live in tents or cottages made of straw or clay, very rarely building with stone.
Ethiopia produces very near the same kinds of provision as Portugal, though, by the extreme laziness of the inhabitants, in a much less quantity. What the ancients imagined of the torrid zone being a part of the world uninhabitable, is so far from being true, that the climate is very temperate. The blacks have better features than in other countries, and are not without wit and ingenuity. Their apprehension is quick, and their judgment sound.
There are, in this climate, two harvests in the year; one in winter, which lasts through the months of July, August, and September; the other in the spring. They have, in the greatest plenty, raisins peaches pomegranates, sugar-canes, and some figs. Most of these are ripe about lent, which the Abyssins keep with great strictness. The animals of the country are the lion, the elephant, the rhinoceros, the unicorn, horses, mules, oxen, and cows without number.
They have a very particular custom, which obliges every man, that has a thousand cows, to save every year one day's milk of all his herd, and make a bath with it for his relations. It is called, by the natives, Abavi , the Father of Water. It rises in Sacala , a province of the kingdom of Goiama , the most fertile and agreeable part of the Abyssinian dominions. On the eastern side of the country, on the declivity of a mountain, whose descent is so easy, that it seems a beautiful plain, is that source of the Nile, which has been sought after, at so much expense and labour.
This spring, or rather these two springs, are two holes, each about two feet diameter, a stone's cast distant from each other. One of them is about five feet and a half in depth. Lobo was not able to sink his plummet lower, perhaps, because it was stopped by roots, the whole place being full of trees. A line of ten feet did not reach the bottom of the other. These springs are supposed, by the Abyssins, to be the vents of a great subterraneous lake. Their priest calls them together to this place once a year; and every one sacrifices a cow, or more, according to the different degrees of wealth and devotion.
Hence we have sufficient proof, that these nations always paid adoration to the deity of this famous river.
The Nile, from its source, proceeds with so inconsiderable a current that it is in danger of being dried up by the hot season; but soon receiving an increase from the Gemma , the Keltu , the Bransa , and the other smaller rivers, it expands to such a breadth in the plains of Boad, which is not above three days' journey from its source, that a musket-ball will scarcely fly from one bank to the other.
Here begins the greatness of the Nile. Fifteen miles farther, in the land of Alata , it rushes precipitately from the top of a high rock, and forms one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the world. Lobo says, he passed under it without being wet, and resting himself, for the sake of the coolness, was charmed with a thousand delightful rainbows, which the sunbeams painted on the water, in all their shining and lively colours .
After the cataract, the Nile collects its scattered stream among the rocks, which are so near each other, that, in Lobo's time, a bridge of beams, on which the whole imperial army passed, was laid over them. Sultan Sequed has since built a stone bridge of one arch, in the same place, for which purpose he procured masons from India.
Here the river alters its course, and passes through various kingdoms, such as Amhara, Olaca, Choaa, Damot , and the kingdom of Goiama , and, after various windings, returns within a short day's journey of its spring. To pursue it through all its mazes, and accompany it round the kingdom of Goiama , is a journey of twenty-nine days. From Abyssinia, the river passes into the countries of Fazulo and Ombarca , two vast regions little known, inhabited by nations entirely different from the Abyssins.
Their hair, like that of the other blacks in those regions, is short and curled. Lobo knows nothing of the Nile in the rest of its passage, except that it receives great increase from many other rivers, has several cataracts like that already described, and that few fish are to be found in it: that scarcity is to be attributed to the river-horse , and the crocodile , which destroy the weaker inhabitants of the river.
Something, likewise, must be imputed to the cataracts , where fish cannot fall without being killed. Some theorists ascribe it to the high winds, that stop the current, and force the water above its banks. Others pretend a subterraneous communication between the ocean and the Nile, and that the sea, when violently agitated, swells the river.
To the immense labours of the Portuguese mankind is indebted for the knowledge of the real cause of these inundations, so great and so regular. The different degrees of this flood are such certain indications of the fruitfulness or sterility of the ensuing year, that it is publickly proclaimed at Cairo how much the water hath gained during the night. Such is the account of the Nile and its inundations, which, it is hoped, will not be deemed an improper or tedious digression, especially as the whole is an extract from Johnson's translation.
He is, all the time, the actor in the scene, and, in his own words, relates the story. The book to be printed in thirty octavo sheets, price five shillings. It is to be regretted that this project failed for want of encouragement. Johnson, it seems, differed from Boileau, Voltaire, and D'Alembert, who had taken upon them to proscribe all modern efforts to write with elegance in a dead language.
For a decision pronounced in so high a tone, no good reason can be assigned. The interests of learning require, that the diction of Greece and Rome should be cultivated with care; and he who can write a language with correctness, will be most likely to understand its idiom, its grammar, and its peculiar graces of style.
What man of taste would willingly forego the pleasure of reading Vida , Fracastorius , Sannazaro , Strada , and others, down to the late elegant productions of bishop Lowth? His next expedient was to offer his assistance to Cave, the original projector of the Gentleman's Magazine. For this purpose he sent his proposals in a letter, offering, on reasonable terms, occasionally to fill some pages with poems and inscriptions, never printed before; with fugitive pieces that deserved to be revived, and critical remarks on authors, ancient and modern.
Cave agreed to retain him as a correspondent and contributor to the magazine. What the conditions were cannot now be known; but, certainly, they were not sufficient to hinder Johnson from casting his eyes about him in quest of other employment. Accordingly, in , he made overtures to the reverend Mr. Budworth, master of a grammar school at Brerewood, in Staffordshire, to become his assistant. This proposition did not succeed. Budworth apprehended, that the involuntary motions, to which Johnson's nerves were subject, might make him an object of ridicule with his scholars, and, by consequence, lessen their respect for their master.
Another mode of advancing himself presented itself about this time. It is said, that she had about eight hundred pounds; and that sum, to a person in Johnson's circumstances, was an affluent fortune. A marriage took place; and, to turn his wife's money to the best advantage, he projected the scheme of an academy for education. Gilbert Walmsley, at that time, registrar of the ecclesiastical court of the bishop of Lichfield, was distinguished by his erudition, and the politeness of his manners. He was the friend of Johnson, and, by his weight and influence, endeavoured to promote his interest.
The celebrated Garrick, whose father, captain Garrick, lived at Lichfield, was placed in the new seminary of education by that gentleman's advice. An accession of seven or eight pupils was the most that could be obtained, though notice was given by a public advertisement  , that at Edial, near Lichfield, in Staffordshire, young gentlemen are boarded and taught the Latin and Greek languages, by Samuel Johnson.
Johnson, having now abandoned all hopes of promoting his fortune in the country, determined to become an adventurer in the world at large. His young pupil, Garrick, had formed the same resolution; and, accordingly, in March, , they arrived in London together. Two such candidates for fame, perhaps never, before that day, entered the metropolis together.
Their stock of money was soon exhausted. In his visionary project of an academy, Johnson had probably wasted his wife's substance; and Garrick's father had little more than his half-pay. They brought with them genius, and powers of mind, peculiarly formed by nature for the different vocations to which each of them felt himself inclined.
They acted from the impulse of young minds, even then meditating great things, and with courage anticipating success. Their friend, Mr. Walmsley, by a letter to the reverend Mr. Colson, who, it seems, was a great mathematician, exerted his good offices in their favour. Johnson is a very good scholar and a poet, and, I have great hopes, will turn out a fine tragedy-writer. If it should be in your way, I doubt not but you will be ready to recommend and assist your countrymen.
Walmsley's merit, and the excellence of his character, Johnson has left a beautiful testimonial at the end of the life of Edmund Smith. It is reasonable to conclude, that a mathematician, absorbed in abstract speculations, was not able to find a sphere of action for two men, who were to be the architects of their own fortune. In three or four years afterwards, Garrick came forth with talents that astonished the public. He began his career at Goodman's fields, and there, monstratus fatis Vespasianus! Johnson was left to toil in the humble walks of literature.
This, most probably, was Irene ; but, if then finished, it was doomed to wait for a more happy period. It was offered to Fleetwood, and rejected. Johnson looked round him for employment. Having, while he remained in the country, corresponded with Cave, under a feigned name, he now thought it time to make himself known to a man, whom he considered as a patron of literature.
Cave had announced, by public advertisement, a prize of fifty pounds for the best poem on life, death, judgment, heaven, and hell; and this circumstance diffused an idea of his liberality. Johnson became connected with him in business, and in a close and intimate acquaintance. Of Cave's character it is unnecessary to say any thing in this place, as Johnson was afterwards the biographer of his first and most useful patron.
To be engaged in the translation of some important book was still the object which Johnson had in view. For this purpose, he proposed to give the history of the council of Trent, with copious notes, then lately added to a French edition. Nichols, the compiler of that entertaining and useful work, The Gentleman's Magazine. Johnson's translation was never completed: a like design was offered to the public, under the patronage of Dr.
Zachary Pearce; and, by that contention, both attempts were frustrated. Johnson had been commended by Pope, for the translation of the Messiah into Latin verse; but he knew no approach to so eminent a man. With one, however, who was connected with Pope, he became acquainted at St. John's gate; and that person was no other than the well-known Richard Savage, whose life was afterwards written by Johnson with great elegance, and a depth of moral reflection. Savage was a man of considerable talents.
His address, his various accomplishments, and, above all, the peculiarity of his misfortunes, recommended him to Johnson's notice. They became united in the closest intimacy. Both had great parts, and they were equally under the pressure of want. Sympathy joined them in a league of friendship. Savage, it is true, had many vices; but vice could never strike its roots in a mind like Johnson's, seasoned early with religion, and the principles of moral rectitude. His first prayer was composed in the year He had not, at that time, renounced the use of wine; and, no doubt, occasionally enjoyed his friend and his bottle.
The love of late hours, which followed him through life, was, perhaps, originally contracted in company with Savage. However that may be, their connexion was not of long duration. In the year , Savage was reduced to the last distress. This plan, though finally established, took more than a year before it was carried into execution. In the mean time, the intended retreat of Savage called to Johnson's mind the third satire of Juvenal, in which that poet takes leave of a friend, who was withdrawing himself from all the vices of Rome.
Struck with this idea, he wrote that well-known poem, called London. The first lines manifestly point to Savage. David one true Briton more. Johnson, at that time, lodged at Greenwich. The poem, when finished, was offered to Cave. It happened, however, that the late Mr. Dodsley was the purchaser, at the price of ten guineas. It was published in ; and Pope, we are told, said, "The author, whoever he is, will not be long concealed;" alluding to the passage in Terence, Ubi, ubi est, diu celari non potest.
Notwithstanding that prediction, it does not appear that, besides the copy-money, any advantage accrued to the author of a poem, written with the elegance and energy of Pope. Johnson, in August, , went, with all the fame of his poetry, to offer himself a candidate for the mastership of the school at Appleby, in Leicestershire. The statutes of the place required, that the person chosen should be a master of arts. To remove this objection, the then lord Gower was induced to write to a friend, in order to obtain for Johnson a master's degree in the university of Dublin, by the recommendation of Dr.
The letter was printed in one of the magazines, and was as follows:. Samuel Johnson, author of London, a satire, and some other poetical pieces, is a native of this county, and much respected by some worthy gentlemen in the neighbourhood, who are trustees of a charity-school, now vacant; the certain salary of which is sixty pounds per year, of which they are desirous to make him master; but, unfortunately, he is not capable of receiving their bounty, which would make him happy for life, by not being a master of arts, which, by the statutes of the school, the master of it must be.
Now these gentlemen do me the honour to think, that I have interest enough in you, to prevail upon you to write to dean Swift, to persuade the university of Dublin to send a diploma to me, constituting this poor man master of arts in their university. They highly extol the man's learning and probity; and will not be persuaded, that the university will make any difficulty of conferring such a favour upon a stranger, if he is recommended by the dean.
I fear there is more difficulty in this affair than these good-natured gentlemen apprehend, especially as their election cannot be delayed longer than the eleventh of next month. If you see this matter in the same light that it appears to me, I hope you will burn this, and pardon me for giving you so much trouble about an impracticable thing; but, if you think there is a probability of obtaining the favour asked, I am sure your humanity and propensity to relieve merit, in distress, will incline you to serve the poor man, without my adding any more to the trouble I have already given you, than assuring you, that I am, with great truth, Sir,.
There is reason to think, that Swift declined to meddle in the business; and, to that circumstance, Johnson's known dislike of Swift has been often imputed. It is mortifying to pursue a man of merit through all his difficulties; and yet this narrative must be, through many following years, the history of genius and virtue struggling with adversity. Having lost the school at Appleby, Johnson was thrown back on the metropolis.
Bred to no profession, without relations, friends, or interest, he was condemned to drudgery in the service of Cave, his only patron. In November, , was published a translation of Crousaz's Examen of Pope's Essay on Man; containing a succinct view of the system of the fatalists, and a confutation of their opinions; with an illustration of the doctrine of free will; and an enquiry, what view Mr. Pope might have in touching upon the Leibnitzian philosophy, and fatalism: by Mr.
Crousaz, professor of philosophy and mathematics at Lausanne. Elizabeth Carter has acknowledged it to be one of her early performances. It is certain, however, that Johnson was eager to promote the publication. He considered the foreign philosopher as a man zealous in the cause of religion; and with him he was willing to join against the system of the Fatalists, and the doctrine of Leibnitz. It is well known, that Warburton wrote a vindication of Mr. Pope; but there is reason to think, that Johnson conceived an early prejudice against the Essay on Man; and what once took root in a mind like his, was not easily eradicated.
His letter to Cave on this subject is still extant, and may well justify sir John Hawkins, who inferred that Johnson was the translator of Crousaz. The conclusion of the letter is remarkable: "I am yours, Impransus. With a mind naturally vigorous, and quickened by necessity, Johnson formed a multiplicity of projects; but most of them proved abortive. By Probus Britannicus.
This was a pamphlet against sir Robert Walpole. According to sir John Hawkins, a warrant was issued to apprehend the author, who retired, with his wife, to an obscure lodging near Lambeth marsh, and there eluded the search of the messengers. But this story has no foundation in truth. Johnson was never known to mention such an incident in his life; and Mr. Steele, late of the treasury, caused diligent search to be made at the proper offices, and no trace of such a proceeding could be found. In the same year the lord chamberlain prohibited the representation of a tragedy, called Gustavus Vasa , by Henry Brooke.
Under the mask of irony, Johnson published, A Vindication of the Licenser from the malicious and scandalous Aspersions of Mr. The lives of Boerhaave, Blake, Barratier, father Paul, and others, were, about that time, printed in the Gentleman's Magazine. The subscription of fifty pounds a year for Savage was completed; and, in July , Johnson parted with the companion of his midnight hours, never to see him more.
The separation was, perhaps, an advantage to him, who wanted to make a right use of his time, and even then beheld, with self-reproach, the waste occasioned by dissipation. His abstinence from wine and strong liquors began soon after the departure of Savage. What habits he contracted in the course of that acquaintance cannot now be known. The ambition of excelling in conversation, and that pride of victory, which, at times, disgraced a man of Johnson's genius, were, perhaps, native blemishes.
A fierce spirit of independence, even in the midst of poverty, may be seen in Savage; and, if not thence transfused by Johnson into his own manners, it may, at least, be supposed to have gained strength from the example before him. Johnson loved her, and showed his affection in various modes of gallantry, which Garrick used to render ridiculous by his mimicry.
The affectation of soft and fashionable airs did not become an unwieldy figure: his admiration was received by the wife with the flutter of an antiquated coquette; and both, it is well known, furnished matter for the lively genius of Garrick. It is a mortifying reflection, that Johnson, with a store of learning and extraordinary talents, was not able, at the age of thirty, to force his way to the favour of the public.
Slow rises worth by poverty depress'd. The first lines,. The Polish poet was, probably, at that time, in the hands of a man, who had meditated the history of the Latin poets. Guthrie, the historian, had, from July, , composed the parliamentary speeches for the magazine; but, from the beginning of the session, which opened on the 19th of November, , Johnson succeeded to that department, and continued it from that time to the debate on spirituous liquors, which happened in the house of lords, in February, The eloquence, the force of argument, and the splendor of language, displayed in the several speeches, are well known, and universally admired.
That Johnson was the author of the debates, during that period, was not generally known; but the secret transpired several years afterwards, and was avowed, by himself, on the following occasion. Johnson, Dr. Francis, the translator of Horace, the present writer, and others, dined with the late Mr. An important debate, towards the end of sir Robert Walpole's administration, being mentioned, Dr.
Francis observed, "that Mr. Pitt's speech, on that occasion, was the best he had ever read. During the ardour of conversation, Johnson remained silent. As soon as the warmth of praise subsided, he opened with these words: "That speech I wrote in a garret in Exeter street. After staring at each other in silent amaze, Dr. Francis asked, "how that speech could be written by him? Cave had interest with the door-keepers. He, and the persons employed under him, gained admittance; they brought away the subject of discussion, the names of the speakers, the side they took, and the order in which they rose, together with notes of the arguments advanced in the course of the debate.
The whole was afterwards communicated to me, and I composed the speeches in the form which they now have in the parliamentary debates. Francis made answer: "Then, sir, you have exceeded Demosthenes himself; for to say, that you have exceeded Francis's Demosthenes, would be saying nothing. From that time the magazine was conducted by Dr. In , Osborne, the bookseller, who kept a shop in Gray's -Inn, purchased the earl of Oxford's library, at the price of thirteen thousand pounds. He projected a catalogue in five octavo volumes, at five shillings each. Johnson was employed in that painful drudgery.
He was, likewise, to collect all such small tracts as were, in any degree, worth preserving, in order to reprint and publish the whole in a collection, called The Harleian Miscellany. The catalogue was completed; and the miscellany, in , was published in eight quarto volumes. In this business Johnson was a day-labourer for immediate subsistence, not unlike Gustavus Vasa, working in the mines of Dalecarlia. What Wilcox, a bookseller of eminence in the Strand, said to Johnson, on his first arrival in town, was now almost confirmed.
He lent our author five guineas, and then asked him, "How do you mean to earn your livelihood in this town? Nichols: but he said, "Wilcox was one of my best friends, and he meant well. He paused occasionally to peruse the book that came to his hand. Osborne thought that such curiosity tended to nothing but delay, and objected to it with all the pride and insolence of a man who knew that he paid daily wages.
In the dispute that of course ensued, Osborne, with that roughness which was natural to him, enforced his argument by giving the lie. Johnson seized a folio, and knocked the bookseller down. This story has been related as an instance of Johnson's ferocity; but merit cannot always take the spurns of the unworthy with a patient spirit. That the history of an author must be found in his works is, in general, a true observation; and was never more apparent than in the present narrative.
As a prelude to that design, he published, in , Miscellaneous Observations on the Tragedy of Macbeth, with remarks on sir Thomas Hanmer's edition; to which were prefixed, Proposals for a new Edition of Shakespeare, with a Specimen. A new undertaking, however, was soon after proposed; namely, an English dictionary upon an enlarged plan. Several of the most opulent booksellers had meditated a work of this kind; and the agreement was soon adjusted between the parties.
He had lodged with his wife in courts and alleys about the Strand; but now, for the purpose of carrying on his arduous undertaking, and to be nearer his printer and friend, Mr. Strahan, he ventured to take a house in Gough square, Fleet street. He was told, that the earl of Chesterfield was a friend to his undertaking; and, in consequence of that intelligence, he published, in , The Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language, addressed to the right honourable Philip Dormer, earl of Chesterfield, one of his Majesty's principal secretaries of state.
Whitehead, afterwards poet laureate, undertook to convey the manuscript to his lordship: the consequence was an invitation from lord Chesterfield to the author. A stronger contrast of characters could not be brought together; the nobleman, celebrated for his wit, and all the graces of polite behaviour; the author, conscious of his own merit, towering in idea above all competition, versed in scholastic logic, but a stranger to the arts of polite conversation, uncouth, vehement, and vociferous.
The coalition was too unnatural. No patronage, no assistance followed. Johnson, one day, was left a full hour, waiting in an anti-chamber, till a gentleman should retire, and leave his lordship at leisure. This was the famous Colley Cibber. Johnson saw him go, and, fired with indignation, rushed out of the house. What lord Chesterfield thought of his visitor may be seen in a passage in one of that nobleman's letters to his son . His figure without being deformed seems made to disgrace or ridicule the common structure of the human body.
His legs and arms are never in the position which, according to the situation of his body, they ought to be in, but constantly employed in committing acts of hostility upon the graces. He throws any where, but down his throat, whatever he means to drink; and mangles what he means to carve. He disputes with heat indiscriminately, mindless of the rank, character, and situation of those with whom he disputes. Absolutely ignorant of the several gradations of familiarity and respect, he is exactly the same to his superiors, his equals, and his inferiors; and, therefore, by a necessary consequence, is absurd to two of the three.
Is it possible to love such a man? The utmost I can do for him is, to consider him a respectable Hottentot. After the incident of Colley Cibber, Johnson never repeated his visits. In his high and decisive tone, he has been often heard to say, "lord Chesterfield is a wit among lords, and a lord among wits. In the course of the year , Garrick, in conjunction with Lacy, became patentee of Drury lane playhouse. For the opening of the theatre, at the usual time, Johnson wrote, for his friend, the well-known prologue, which, to say no more of it, may, at least, be placed on a level with Pope's to the tragedy of Cato.
That play was, accordingly, put into rehearsal in January, As a precursor to prepare the way, and to awaken the public attention, The Vanity of Human Wishes , a poem in imitation of the tenth satire of Juvenal, by the author of London , was published in the same month. In the Gentleman's Magazine , for February, , we find that the tragedy of Irene was acted at Drury lane, on Monday, February the 6th, and, from that time, without interruption, to Monday, February the 20th, being in all thirteen nights.
Since that time, it has not been exhibited on any stage. Irene may be added to some other plays in our language, which have lost their place in the theatre, but continue to please in the closet. During the representation of this piece, Johnson attended every night behind the scenes.
Conceiving that his character, as an author, required some ornament for his person, he chose, upon that occasion, to decorate himself with a handsome waistcoat, and a gold-laced hat. The late Mr. Some years afterwards, when the present writer was intimate with Garrick, and knew Johnson to be in distress, he asked the manager, why he did not produce another tragedy for his Lichfield friend?
Garrick's answer was remarkable: "When Johnson writes tragedy, declamation roars, and passion sleeps: when Shakespeare wrote, he dipped his pen in his own heart. He was now forty years old, and had mixed but little with the world. He followed no profession, transacted no business, and was a stranger to what is called a town life. We are now arrived at the brightest period, he had hitherto known. His name broke out upon mankind with a degree of lustre that promised a triumph over all his difficulties.
The life of Savage was admired, as a beautiful and instructive piece of biography. The two imitations of Juvenal were thought to rival even the excellence of Pope; and the tragedy of Irene , though uninteresting on the stage, was universally admired in the closet, for the propriety of the sentiments, the richness of the language, and the general harmony of the whole composition.
His fame was widely diffused; and he had made his agreement with the booksellers for his English dictionary at the sum of fifteen hundred guineas; a part of which was to be, from time to time, advanced, in proportion to the progress of the work. This was a certain fund for his support, without being obliged to write fugitive pieces for the petty supplies of the day. This is the first scene of social life to which Johnson can be traced, out of his own house.
The members of this little society were, Samuel Johnson; Dr. Salter, father of the late master of the Charter house; Dr. Hawkesworth; Mr. Ryland, a merchant; Mr. Payne, a bookseller, in Paternoster row; Mr. Samuel Dyer, a learned young man; Dr. William M'Ghie, a Scotch physician; Dr. Edmund Barker, a young physician; Dr. Bathurst, another young physician; and Sir John Hawkins. This list is given by Sir John, as it should seem, with no other view than to draw a spiteful and malevolent character of almost every one of them.
Dyer, whom sir John says he loved with the affection of a brother, meets with the harshest treatment, because it was his maxim, that to live in peace with mankind, and in a temper to do good offices, was the most essential part of our duty. That notion of moral goodness gave umbrage to sir John Hawkins, and drew down upon the memory of his friend, the bitterest imputations. Dyer, however, was admired and loved through life. Johnson loved to enter with him into a discussion of metaphysical, moral, and critical subjects; in those conflicts, exercising his talents, and, according to his custom, always contending for victory.
Bathurst was the person on whom Johnson fixed his affection. He hardly ever spoke of him without tears in his eyes. It was from him, who was a native of Jamaica, that Johnson received into his service Frank, the black servant, whom, on account of his master, he valued to the end of his life. At the time of instituting the club in Ivy lane, Johnson had projected the Rambler. The title was most probably suggested by the Wanderer ; a poem which he mentions, with the warmest praise, in the life of Savage. With the same spirit of independence with which he wished to live, it was now his pride to write.
He communicated his plan to none of his friends: he desired no assistance, relying entirely on his own fund, and the protection of the divine being, which he implored in a solemn form of prayer, composed by himself for the occasion. Having invoked the special protection of heaven, and by that act of piety fortified his mind, he began the great work of the Rambler. The first number was published on Tuesday, March the 20th, ; and from that time was continued regularly every Tuesday and Saturday, for the space of two years, when it finally closed on Saturday, March 14, As it began with motives of piety, so it appears that the same religious spirit glowed, with unabating ardour, to the last.
His conclusion is: "The essays professedly serious, if I have been able to execute my own intentions, will be found exactly conformable to the precepts of Christianity, without any accommodation to the licentiousness and levity of the present age. I shall never envy the honours which wit and learning obtain in any other cause, if I can be numbered among the writers who have given ardour to virtue, and confidence to truth. Addison's, in the Spectator, are more in number, but not half in point of quantity: Addison was not bound to publish on stated days; he could watch the ebb and flow of his genius, and send his paper to the press, when his own taste was satisfied.
Johnson's case was very different. He wrote singly and alone. In the whole progress of the work he did not receive more than ten essays. This was a scanty contribution. His generosity and perseverance deserve to be commended; and happily, when the collection appeared in volumes, were amply rewarded. Johnson lived to see his labours nourish in a tenth edition. His posterity, as an ingenious French writer has said, on a similar occasion, began in his life-time.
In the beginning of , soon after the Rambler was set on foot, Johnson was induced, by the arts of a vile impostor, to lend his assistance, during a temporary delusion, to a fraud not to be paralleled in the annals of literature. One Lauder , a native of Scotland, who had been a teacher in the University of Edinburgh , had conceived a mortal antipathy to the name and character of Milton. Fired with resentment, and willing to reap the profits of a gross imposition, this man collected, from several Latin poets, such as Masenius the jesuit, Staphorstius, a Dutch divine, Beza, and others, all such passages as bore any kind of resemblance to different places in the Paradise Lost; and these he published, from time to time, in the Gentleman's Magazine, with occasional interpolations of lines, which he himself translated from Milton.
The public credulity swallowed all with eagerness; and Milton was supposed to be guilty of plagiarism from inferior modern writers. The fraud succeeded so well, that Lauder collected the whole into a volume, and advertised it under the title of " An Essay on Milton's Use and Imitation of the Moderns, in his Paradise Lost; dedicated to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. The charge was believed, and the contriver of it found his way to Johnson, who is represented, by sir John Hawkins, not indeed as an accomplice in the fraud, but, through motives of malignity to Milton, delighting in the detection, and exulting that the poet's reputation would suffer by the discovery.
More malice to a deceased friend cannot well be imagined. Hawkins adds, " that he wished well to the argument must be inferred from the preface, which, indubitably, was written by him. But if Johnson approved of the argument, it was no longer than while he believed it founded in truth. Let us advert to his own words in that very preface. What reader of taste, what man of real knowledge, would not think his time well employed in an enquiry so curious, so interesting, and instructive? If Lauder's facts were really true, who would not be glad, without the smallest tincture of malevolence, to receive real information?
It is painful to be thus obliged to vindicate a man who, in his heart, towered above the petty arts of fraud and imposition, against an injudicious biographer, who undertook to be his editor, and the protector of his memory. Another writer, Dr. Towers, in an Essay on the Life and Character of Dr.
Johnson, seems to countenance this calumny. These words would seem to describe an accomplice, were they not immediately followed by an express declaration, that Johnson was unacquainted with the imposture.
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Towers adds, It seems to have been, by way of making some compensation to the memory of Milton, for the share he had in the attack of Lauder, that Johnson wrote the prologue, spoken by Garrick, at Drury-lane theatre, , on the performance of the Masque of Comus, for the benefit of Milton's grand-daughter. Towers is not free from prejudice; but, as Shakespeare has it, "he begets a temperance, to give it smoothness. When Johnson wrote the prologue, it does appear that he was aware of the malignant artifices practised by Lauder. In the postscript to Johnson's preface, a subscription is proposed, for relieving the granddaughter of the author of Paradise Lost.
That alacrity showed itself again, in the letter printed in the European Magazine, January, , and there said to have appeared originally in the General Advertiser, 4th April, , by which the public were invited to embrace the opportunity of paying a just regard to the illustrious dead, united with the pleasure of doing good to the living. The letter adds, "To assist industrious indigence, struggling with distress, and debilitated by age, is a display of virtue, and an acquisition of happiness and honour.
Whoever, therefore, would be thought capable of pleasure, in reading the works of our incomparable Milton, and not so destitute of gratitude, as to refuse to lay out a trifle, in a rational and elegant entertainment, for the benefit of his living remains, for the exercise of their own virtue, the increase of their reputation, and the consciousness of doing good, should appear at Drury lane theatre, to-morrow, April 5, when Comus will be performed, for the benefit of Mrs. Elizabeth Foster, granddaughter to the author, and the only surviving branch of his family.
It is true, that the malevolence of Lauder, as well as the impostures of Archibald Bower, were fully detected by the labours, in the cause of truth, of the reverend Dr. Douglas, the late lord bishop of Salisbury. But the pamphlet, entitled, Milton vindicated from the Charge of Plagiarism brought against him by Mr. Lauder, and Lauder himself convicted of several forgeries, and gross impositions on the public, by John Douglas, M. In that work, p. Johnson, throughout the whole of that vile transaction. What was the consequence of the requisition made by Dr. Johnson, whose ruling passion may be said to be the love of truth, convinced Lauder, that it would be more for his interest to make a full confession of his guilt, than to stand forth the convicted champion of a lie; and, for this purpose, he drew up, in the strongest terms, a recantation, in a letter to the reverend Mr.
Douglas, which Lauder signed, and published in the year That piece will remain a lasting memorial of the abhorrence, with which Johnson beheld a violation of truth. He read the libellous passage with attention, and instantly wrote on the margin: "In the business of Lauder I was deceived, partly by thinking the man too frantic to be fraudulent.
Of the poetical scale , quoted from the magazine, I am not the author. I fancy it was put in after I had quitted that work; for I not only did not write it, but I do not remember it. In March, , he felt a severe stroke of affliction in the death of his wife. The last number of the Rambler, as already mentioned, was on the 14th of that month.
The loss of Mrs. Johnson was then approaching, and, probably, was the cause that put an end to those admirable periodical essays. It appears that she died on the 28th of March, in a memorandum, at the foot of the Prayers and Meditations, that is called her Dying Day. She was buried at Bromley, under the care of Dr.
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With the singularity of his prayers for his deceased wife, from that time to the end of his days, the world is sufficiently acquainted. Went to church. After sermon I recommended Tetty in a prayer by herself; and my father, mother, brother, and Bathurst, in another. I did it only once, so far as it might be lawful for me. In this habit he persevered to the end of his days.
The reverend Mr. Strahan, the editor of the Prayers and Meditations, observes, "that Johnson, on some occasions, prays that the Almighty may have had mercy on his wife and Mr. Strahan adds, "that, in praying for the regretted tenants of the grave, Johnson conformed to a practice which has been retained by many learned members of the established church, though the liturgy no longer admits it.
If where the tree, falleth, there it shall be ; if our state, at the close of life, is to be the measure of our final sentence, then prayers for the dead, being visibly fruitless, can be regarded only as the vain oblations of superstition. But of all superstitions this, perhaps, is one of the least unamiable, and most incident to a good mind. If our sensations of kindness be intense, those, whom we have revered and loved, death cannot wholly seclude from our concern.
It is true, for the reason just mentioned, such evidences of our surviving affection may be thought ill judged; but surely they are generous, and some natural tenderness is due even to a superstition, which thus originates in piety and benevolence. Strahan's preface, if they are not a full justification, are, at least, a beautiful apology.
It will not be improper to add what Johnson himself has said on the subject. Boswell  , what he thought of purgatory, as believed by the Roman Catholics? They are of opinion, that the generality of mankind are neither so obstinately wicked, as to deserve everlasting punishment; nor so good as to merit being admitted into the society of blessed spirits; and, therefore, that God is graciously pleased to allow a middle state, where they may be purified by certain degrees of suffering.
You see there is nothing unreasonable in this; and if it be once established, that there are souls in purgatory, it is as proper to pray for them, as for our brethren of mankind, who are yet in this life. Johnson's guess into futurity; and to guess is the utmost that man can do: Shadows, clouds, and darkness, rest upon it. Johnson left a daughter, Lucy Porter, by her first husband.
She had contracted a friendship with Mrs. His letters to lord Halifax, and the lords of the admiralty, partly corrected and partly written by Dr. Johnson, are still extant in the hands of Mr. Nichols . We there find Dr. Williams, in the eighty-third year of his age, stating, that he had prepared an instrument, which might be called an epitome or miniature of the terraqueous globe, showing, with the assistance of tables, constructed by himself, the variations of the magnetic needle, and ascertaining the longitude, for the safety of navigation.
It appears that this scheme had been referred to sir Isaac Newton; but that great philosopher excusing himself on account of his advanced age, all applications were useless, till , when the subject was referred, by order of lord Anson, to Dr. Bradley, the celebrated professor of astronomy. His report was unfavourable  , though it allows that a considerable progress had been made. Williams, after all his labour and expense, died in a short time after, a melancholy instance of unrewarded merit. To relieve and appease melancholy reflexions, Johnson took her home to his house in Gough square.
In , Garrick gave her a benefit play, which produced two hundred pounds. In , she published, by subscription, a quarto volume of miscellanies, and increased her little stock to three hundred pounds. That fund, with Johnson's protection, supported her, through the remainder of her life. During the two years in which the Rambler was carried on, the Dictionary proceeded by slow degrees. In May, , having composed a prayer, preparatory to his return from tears and sorrow to the duties of life, he resumed his grand design, and went on with vigour, giving, however, occasional assistance to his friend, Dr.
Hawkesworth, in the Adventurer, which began soon after the Rambler was laid aside. Some of the most valuable essays in that collection were from the pen of Johnson. In May, , that great work was published. Johnson was desirous that it should come from one who had obtained academical honours; and for that purpose his friend, the Rev. Thomas Warton, obtained for him, in the preceding month of February, a diploma for a master's degree, from the university of Oxford. Garrick, on the publication of the Dictionary, wrote the following lines.
Honeycomb are not a whit behind their friend, Sir Roger, in delicacy and felicity. The delightful simplicity and good-humored officiousness in the one, are set off by the graceful affectation and courtly pretension in the other. How long since I first became acquainted with these two characters in the Spectator! What old-fashioned friends they seem, and yet I am not tired of them, like so many other friends, nor they of me! What a pity that we cannot find the reality, and yet if we did, the dream would be over.
I once thought I knew a Will. Wimble, and a Will. Honeycomb, but they turned out but indifferently; the originals in the Spectator still read, word for word, the same that they always did. We have only to turn to the page, and find them where we left them! I do not know whether the picture of the family of an old college acquaintance, in the Tatler , where the children run to let Mr. Several of the incidents related there by Steele have never been surpassed in the heart-rending pathos of private distress. I might refer to those of the lover and his mistress, when the theatre, in which they were, caught fire; of the bridegroom, who by accident kills his bride on the day of their marriage; the story of Mr.
Eustace and his wife; and the fine dream about his own mistress when a youth. What has given its superior reputation to the Spectator , is the greater gravity of its pretensions, its moral dissertations and critical reasonings, by which I confess myself less edified than by other things, which are thought more lightly of.
Systems and opinions change, but nature is always true. Many of his moral Essays are, however, exquisitely beautiful and quite happy. Such are the reflections on cheerfulness, those in Westminster Abbey, on the Royal Exchange, and particularly some very affecting ones on the death of a young lady in the fourth volume. These, it must be allowed, are the perfection of elegant sermonising.
His critical Essays are not so good. The best criticism in the Spectator , that on the Cartoons of Raphael, of which Mr. Fuseli has availed himself with great spirit in his Lectures, is by Steele. I owed this acknowledgment to a writer who has so often put me in good humour with myself, and every thing about me, when few things else could, and when the tomes of casuistry and ecclesiastical history, with which the little duodecimo volumes of the Tatler were overwhelmed and surrounded, in the only library to which I had access when a boy, had tried their tranquillizing effects upon me in vain.
I had not long ago in my hands, by favour of a friend, an original copy of the quarto edition of the Tatler , with a list of the subscribers. One literary name lasts as long as a whole race of heroes and their descendants! The Guardian , which followed the Spectator , was, as may be supposed, inferior to it. The dramatic and conversational turn which forms the distinguishing feature and greatest charm of the Spectator and Tatler , is quite lost in the Rambler by Dr.
The Tatler and Spectator are, as it were, made up of notes and memorandums of the events and incidents of the day, with finished studies after nature, and characters fresh from the life, which the writer moralizes upon, and turns to account as they come before him: the Rambler is a collection of moral Essays, or scholastic theses, written on set subjects, and of which the individual characters and incidents are merely artificial illustrations, brought in to give a pretended relief to the dryness of didactic discussion.
The Rambler is a splendid and imposing common-place-book of general topics, and rhetorical declamation on the conduct and business of human life. In this sense, there is hardly a reflection that had been suggested on such subjects which is not to be found in this celebrated work, and there is, perhaps, hardly a reflection to be found in it which had not been already suggested and developed by some other author, or in the common course of conversation.
The mass of intellectual wealth here heaped together is immense, but it is rather the result of gradual accumulation, the produce of the general intellect, labouring in the mine of knowledge and reflection, than dug out of the quarry, and dragged into the light by the industry and sagacity of a single mind. I am not here saying that Dr. He opened no new vein of precious ore, nor did he light upon any single pebbles of uncommon size and unrivalled lustre. We seldom meet with any thing to give us pause; he does not set us thinking for the first time.
An Essay on the Life and Genius of Samuel Johnson
His reflections present themselves like reminiscences; do not disturb the ordinary march of our thoughts arrest our attention by the stateliness of their appearance, and the costliness of their garb, but pass on and mingle with the throng of our impressions. Such, for instance, are many of the passages to be found in Burke, which shine by their own light, belong to no class, have neither equal nor counterpart, and of which we say that no one, but the author could have written them!
There is neither the same boldness of design, nor mastery of execution in Johnson. In the one, the spark of genius seems to have met with its congenial matter: the shaft is sped; the forked lightning dresses up the face of nature in ghastly smiles, and the loud thunder rolls far away from the ruin that is made. There is a wide difference, however, between perfect originality and perfect common-place: neither ideas nor expressions are trite or vulgar because they are not quite new. Johnson has as much originality of thinking as Addison; but then he wants his familiarity of illustration, knowledge of character, and delightful humour.
Johnson from other writers is the pomp and uniformity of his style. All his periods are cast in the same mould, are of the same size and shape, and consequently have little fitness to the variety of things he professes to treat of. His subjects are familiar, but the author is always upon stilts. He has neither ease nor simplicity, and his efforts at playfulness, in part, remind one of the lines in Milton:. His Letters from Correspondents , in particular, are more pompous and unwieldy than what he writes in his own person.
This want of relaxation and variety of manner has, I think, after the first effects of novelty and surprise were over, been prejudicial to the matter. It takes from the general power, not only to please, but to instruct. The monotony of style produces an apparent monotony of ideas. What is really striking and valuable, is lost in the vain ostentation and circumlocution of the expression; for when we find the same pains and pomp of diction bestowed upon the most trifling as upon the most important parts of a sentence or discourse, we grow tired of distinguishing between pretension and reality, and are disposed to confound the tinsel and bombast of the phraseology with want of weight in the thoughts.
The fault of Dr. It destroys all shades of difference, the association between words and things. It is a perpetual paradox and innovation. He condescends to the familiar till we are ashamed of our interest in it: he expands the little till it looks big. The structure of his sentences, which was his own invention, and which has been generally imitated since his time, is a species of rhyming in prose, where one clause answers to another in measure and quantity, like the tagging of syllables at the end of a verse; the close of the period follows as mechanically as the oscillation of a pendulum, the sense is balanced with the sound; each sentence, revolving round its centre of gravity, is contained with itself like a couplet, and each paragraph forms itself into a stanza.
Johnson is also a complete balance-master in the topics of morality. He never encourages hope, but he counteracts it by fear; he never elicits a truth, but he suggests some objection in answer to it. He seizes and alternately quits the clue of reason, lest it should involve him in the labyrinths of endless error: he wants confidence in himself and his fellows. He dares not trust himself with the immediate impressions of things, for fear of compromising his dignity; or follow them into their consequences, for fear of committing his prejudices.
His timidity is the result, not of ignorance, but of morbid apprehension. Out of the pale of established authority and received dogmas, all is skeptical, loose, and desultory: he seems in imagination to strengthen the dominion of prejudice, as he weakens and dissipates that of reason; and round the rock of faith and power, on the edge of which he slumbers blindfold and uneasy, the waves and billows of uncertain and dangerous opinion roar and heave for evermore. His Rasselas is the most melancholy and debilitating moral speculation that ever was put forth.
Doubtful of the faculties of his mind, as of his organs of vision, Johnson trusted only to his feelings and his fears. He cultivated a belief in witches as an out-guard to the evidences of religion; and abused Milton, and patronized Lauder, in spite of his aversion to his countrymen, as a step to secure the existing establishment in church and state. This was neither right feeling nor sound logic. The man was superior to the author.
The life and dramatic play of his conversation forms a contrast to his written works. His natural powers and undisguised opinions were called out in convivial intercourse. Goldsmith asked, Does he wind into a subject like a serpent, as Burke does? And when exhausted with sickness, he himself said, If that fellow Burke were here now, he would kill me.
As when Topham Beauclerc and Langton knocked him up at his chambers, at three in the morning, and he came to the door with the poker in his hand, but seeing them, exclaimed, What, is it you, my lads? His good deeds were as many as his good sayings. He had faults, but they lie buried with him.
He had his prejudices and his intolerant feelings; but he suffered enough in the conflict of his own mind with them. For if no man can be happy in the free exercise of his reason, no wise man can be happy without it. His were not time-serving, heartless, hypocritical prejudices; but deep, inwoven, not to be rooted out but with life and hope, which he found from old habit necessary to his own peace of mind, and thought so to the peace of mankind. I do not hate, but love him for them. They were between himself and his conscience; and should be left to that higher tribunal, where they in trembling hope repose, the bosom of his Father and his God.
In a word, he has left behind him few wiser or better men. The herd of his imitators shewed what he was by their disproportionate effects. The Periodical Essayists, that succeeded the Rambler , are, and deserve to be, little read at present. The sentences are often absolutely unmeaning; and one half of each might regularly be left blank. It does not go about to cozen reputation without the stamp of merit. He is more observing, more original, more natural and picturesque than Johnson.
His work is written on the model of the Persian Letters ; and contrives to give an abstracted and somewhat perplexing view of things, by opposing foreign prepossessions to our own, and thus stripping objects of their customary disguises. Whether truth is elicited in this collision of contrary absurdities, I do not know; but I confess the process is too ambiguous and full of intricacy to be very amusing to my plain understanding. For light summer reading, it is like walking in a garden full of traps and pitfalls.
It necessarily gives rise to paradoxes, and there are some very bold ones in the Essays, which would subject an author less established to no very agreeable sort of censura keraria. There is a striking difference in this respect between him and Addison, who, if he attacked authority, took care to have common sense on his side, and never hazarded any thing offensive to the feelings of others, or on the strength of his own discretional opinion.
There is another inconvenience in this assumption of an exotic character and tone of sentiment, that it produces an inconsistency between the knowledge which the individual has time to acquire, and which the author is bound to communicate. Thus the Chinese has not been in England three days before he is acquainted with the characters of the three countries which compose this kingdom, and describes them to his friend at Canton, by extracts from the newspapers of each metropolis.
We are positive when we say, that Sanders Macgregor, lately executed for horse-stealing, is not a native of Scotland, but born at Carrickfergus.
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