1764 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Johnson

David Erskine Baker, in Companion to the Play-House (1764) 2:Sigs. S5v-Tv.



This excellent Writer, who is no less the Glory of the present Age than he will be the Admiration of all succeeding ones, received his Education and took his Degrees at the University of Oxford, after quitting which Place I have been informed he for some Time was Master of a private Academy at Litchfield. — A Genius like his, however, could not long content itself with that most disagreeable of all Drudgery, the mere classical Instruction of Youth, nor suffer its Brightness to be conceal'd in the dull Obscurity of a Country Academy. — He came up therefore to London, where he immediately gave Proofs how high a Rank in the World of Letters he deserved to hold. — Having conceived the Design of one of the noblest and most useful, tho' at the same Time the most laborious Works that could be possibly undertaken, viz. A compleat Grammar and Dictionary of our hitherto unsettled Language; he drew up a Plan of the said Design, in a Letter to the Right Honourable Earl of Chesterfield, which being published, gave the strongest Proof, in its own Composition, how great a Degree of grammatical Perfection and classical Elegance the English Tongue was capable of being brought to. — The Execution of this Plan cost him the Labour of many Years; but the Manner in which it was at last executed made ample Amends for all the Expectations of the Public in Regard to it for so long a Time; and the Honours paid him on the Occasion of its Publication by several of the foreign Academies, particularly the Academia della Crusca, leave all Encomium on the Work in this Place entirely unnecessary. — During some Intervals of Recess necessary to the Fatigue of this stupendous Undertaking, Mr. Johnson published many other Pieces which are most truly capital in their Kind; among which the Rambler, a Series of periodical Essays which came out twice a Week for two Years successively, stood in the foremost Rank. — In the Course of so great a Number of these Papers as this long Period demanded, the Number which the Undertaker of them was favoured with by others, was inconsiderable; and yet, on the whole, the Product of this single Genius, thus perpetually employed, proved at least equal, if not superior, to that of the Club of first-rate Wits, who were concerned in those celebrated Works the Spectator and Tatler. — Mr. Johnson's Stile in Prose is nervous and classically correct; in Verse his Numbers are harmonious and musical, yet bold and poignant, and on the whole approach nearer to Mr. Pope's Manner of Versification than that of any other Writer; and tho' he has favoured the World with but little in absolute Verse (for all his Prose is Poetry) yet that little, like Diamonds of the first Water, will ever be held in the highest Estimation, whilst Gems of larger Bulk, with less intrinsic Worth, are scarcely looked upon. — In short, while the Name of Juvenal shall be remember'd, this Gentleman's improved Imitations of him, in his two Poems, entitled London, and The Vanity of Human Wishes, must be read with Delight. — His Imagination is amazingly extensive, and his Knowledge of Men and Manners unbounded, as may be plainly traced in his Eastern Stories in the Rambler, in which he has not only supported to the utmost the Sublimity of the Eastern Manner of Expression, but even greatly excelled any of the Oriental Writers in the Fertility of his Invention, the Conduct of his Plots, and the Justice and Strength of his Sentiments. — His capital Work of that Kind, however, is a Novel entitled Rasselas Prince of Abyssinia, too well known and universally read to need any Comment here, and in which, as he does at present, so he probably ever will, stand without an equal.

Our Author has wrote only one dramatic Piece, the Success of which was not equal to its Merit, owing entirely to his having too strictly adhered to the Aristotelian Rules of the Drama to render his Piece agreeable to the Taste of our present theatrical Audiences, who look for little more than Plot and Incident, without paying any great Regard either to Character, Language, or Sentiment; it was performed at Drury-Lane Theatre, and entitled, IRENE. Trag. It would, however, be the highest Injustice, after bestowing these undeniable Encomiums on his Genius, were I not to observe, that nothing but that Genius can possibly exceed the Extent of his Erudition, and it would be adding a greater Injury to his still more valuable Qualities, were we to stop here, since, together with the ablest Head, he seems possessed of the very best Heart at present existing. — Every Line, every Sentiment, that issues from his Pen, tends to the great Centre of all his Views, the Promotion of Virtue, Religion and Humanity; nor are his Actions less pointed towards the same great End. — Benevolence, Charity and Piety are the most striking Features in his Character, and while his Writings point out to us what a good Man ought to be, his own Conduct sets us an Example of what he is.