1762 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Johnson

William Rider, in Living Authors of Great Britain (1762) 7-10.



Samuel Johnson, M. A. after having studied at Oxford, kept for some Time a private Academy at Litchfield, but being by Nature endowed with a Genius which shews him to have been born to instruct Mankind, and not teach Boys, he came to London, where he soon acquired a distinguished Character in the Republic of Letters. That excellent Collection of Essays, which he published in periodical Papers, under the Title of The Rambler, would be sufficient to immortalize his Name. It is by many (and in my Opinion not without Reason) preferred to the Spectator; and indeed, if it was only equal to it (which it is universally allowed to be) it would reflect the highest Honour upon its Author; for he that alone has composed a Work equal in Merit to one produced by a Coalition of the brightest Geniuses, is doubtless worthy of the highest Encomiums. Mr. Johnson has likewise composed another Work of the same Kind, entitled, The Idler. This, tho' superior to most of the Productions of other modern Essay Writers, does not equal the Rambler, and several of the Papers, which turn upon Subjects before treated in the latter, tho' in different Words, give Room to think, that the Author had almost exhausted his Stock of subjects in the first Work. But Mr. Johnson's Genius is as various as prolific; he does not derive his Reputation as an Author from one Species of Composition. His Tragedy of Irene, though it was played without Success, discovers the true Spirit of Poetry, and is allowed by all judicious Critics to be the best that has been wrote these last twenty Years. As this Piece is not now generally known, I shall beg Leave to cite one Passage of it, as a Proof of the Truth of what I have advanced, and a Specimen of this Author's Genius for Poetry. At a Meeting of Conspirators, one of which is known to be deeply in Love with a certain Lady, an old Visir reproaches the Lover with proposing a Measure favourable to the Interest of his Passion, tho' it ran counter to the Dictates of Reason; whereupon the amorous Conspirator makes the following spirited Reply.

Hast thou grown old amidst the Wiles of Courts,
And turn'd the instructive Page of human Life,
To cant at last of Reason to a Lover?
Know'st thou not yet, when Love invades the Soul,
That all her Faculties receive its Chains?
That Reason yields Submission to its Empire,
Or else but struggles to be more enslaved?

A little lower he speaks of Reason in the following Terms.

Reason, the hoary Dotard, that to shun
The Rocks of Life, must ever miss the Port.

Nothing can be more strong and pathetic than the Exclamations made by the Emperor upon being informed that Irene, whom he passionately loved, had been put to Death, particularly the following.

Such Beauty, Sweetness, Worth were cheaply bought
With half the groveling Slaves that load the Earth.

Besides this Tragedy Mr. Johnson has wrote a Poem entitled London, which gave high Satisfaction to all Persons of Taste. About three Years ago he published Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, a Novel in the oriental Way, a Species of Writing, which is near of Kin to Poetry, and in which Mr. Johnson is allowed to surpass all English Authors. The Life of Salvage, wrote by him, is looked upon as a Masterpiece of Biography, and shews that he is possessed of considerable Talents for writing History, tho' he has not thought proper to attach himself to that Branche of Literature. To conclude Mr. Johnson's Character as an Author, he is endowed with a Genius at once both penetrating and sublime: The Sagacity of his Criticisms sufficiently proves his Penetration; the noble Enthusiasm that runs through his allegorical and oriental Compositions equally demonstrates his Turn to the sublime. From these two Qualities united, we may reasonably expect that his Commentary upon Shakespear will do Justice to that great Author, who has hitherto suffered so much by Editors. With Regard to Mr. Johnson's private Character, he seems to be entirely of Mr. Pope's Opinion, that

All Praise is foreign but of true Desert,
Plays round the Head, but comes not to the Heart.

Not contented with surpassing other Men in Genius, he makes it his Study to surpass them in Virtue, and all that Humanity and that sincere Attachment to Religion, which shine thro' his Writings, are equally conspicuous in his Life. Though by no Means in Affluence, he is always ready to assist the indigent; and being of a truly philosophical Disposition, he is satisfied with a Competency, tho' by the Superiority of his Talents, he might have long since made a Fortune.