1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Johnson

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:26-28.



In massive force of understanding, multifarious knowledge, sagacity, and moral intrepidity, no writer of the eighteenth century surpassed DR. SAMUEL JOHNSON. His various works, with their sententious morality and high-sounding sonorous periods — his manly character and appearance — his great virtues and strong prejudices — his early and severe struggles, illustrating his own noble verse — "Slow rises worth by poverty depressed" — his love of argument and society, into which he poured the treasures of a rich and full mind — his wit, repartee, and brow-beating — his rough manners and kind heart — his curious household, in which were congregated the lame, blind, and despised — his very looks, gesticulation, and dress — have all been brought so vividly before us by his biographer, Boswell, that to readers of every class Johnson is as well known as a member of their own family. His heavy form seems still to haunt Fleet Street and the Strand, and he has stamped his memory on the remote islands of the Hebrides. In literature his influence has been scarcely less extensive. No prose writer of that day escaped the contagion of his peculiar style. He banished for a long period the naked simplicity of Swift and the idiomatic graces of Addison; he depressed the literature and poetry of imagination, while he elevated that of the understanding; he based criticism on strong sense and solid judgment, not on scholastic subtleties and refinement; and though some of the higher qualities and attributes of genius eluded his grasp and observation, the withering scorn and invective with which he assailed all affected sentimentalism, immorality, and licentiousness, introduced a pure and healthful and invigorating atmosphere into the crowded walks of literature. These are solid and substantial benefits which should weigh down errors of taste or the caprices of a temperament constitutionally prone to melancholy and ill health, and which was little sweetened by prosperity or applause at that period of life when the habits are formed and the manners become permanent. As a man, Johnson was an admirable representative of the Englishman — as an author, his course was singularly pure, high-minded, and independent. He could boast with more truth than Burke, that "he had no arts but manly arts." At every step in his progress his passport was talent and virtue; and when the royal countenance and favour were at length extended to him, it was but a ratification by the sovereign of the wishes and opinions entertained by the best and wisest of the nation.

Johnson was born at Lichfield, September 18, 1709. His father was a bookseller, and in circumstances that enabled him to give his son a good education. In his nineteenth year he was placed at Pembroke college, Oxford. Misfortunes in trade happened to the elder Johnson, and Samuel was compelled to leave the university without a degree. He was a short time usher in a school at Market Bosworth; but marrying a widow, Mrs. Porter (whose age was double his own), he set up a private academy near his native city, he had only three pupils, one of whom was David Garrick. After an unsuccessful career of a year and a-half, Johnson went to London, accompanied by Garrick. He now commenced author by profession, contributing essays, reviews, &c., to the Gentleman's Magazine. In 1738 appeared his "London, a satire;" in 1744 his "Life of Savage;" in 1749 "The Vanity of Human Wishes," an imitation of Juvenal's tenth Satire, and the tragedy of "Irene;" in 1750-52 the Rambler, published in numbers; in 1755 his "Dictionary of the English Language," which had engaged him above seven years; in 175860 the "Idler", another series of essays; in 1759 "Rasselas;" in 1775 the "Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland;" and in 1781 the "Lives of the Poets." The high church and Tory predilections of Johnson led him to embark on the troubled sea of party politics, and he wrote some vigorous pamphlets in defence of the ministry and against the claims of the Americans. His degree of LL.D. was conferred upon him first by Trinity College, Dublin, and afterwards by the university of Oxford. His majesty, in 1762, settled upon him an annuity of £300 per annum. Johnson died on the 13th of December 1784.

As an illustration of Johnson's character, and incidentally of his prose style, we subjoin his celebrated letter to Lord Chesterfield. The courtly nobleman had made great professions to the retired scholar, but afterwards neglected him for some years. When his Dictionary was on the eve of publication, Chesterfield (hoping the work might be dedicated to him) attempted to conciliate the author by writing two papers in the periodical called "The World," in recommendation of the work. Johnson thought all was "false and hollow," and penned his indignant letter. He did Chesterfield injustice in the affair, as from a collation of the facts and circumstances is now apparent; but as a keen and dignified expression of wounded pride and surly independence, the composition is inimitable:—

"February 7, 1755.

My Lord — I have been lately informed by the proprietor of the 'World,' that two papers, in which my Dictionary is recommended to the public, were written by your lordship. To be so distinguished is an honour, which, being very little accustomed to favours from the great, I knew not well how to receive, or in what terms to acknowledge.

When, upon some slight encouragement, I first visited your lordship, I was overpowered, like the rest of mankind, by the enchantment of your address, and could not forbear to wish that I might boast myself 'le vainquer du vainquer de la terre;' — that I might obtain that regard for which I saw the world contending; but I found my attendance so little encouraged, that neither pride nor modesty would suffer me to continue it. When I had once addressed your lordship in public, I had exhausted all the art of pleasing which a retired and uncourtly scholar call possess. I had done all that I could; and no man is well pleased to have his all neglected, be it ever so little.

Seven years, my lord, have now passed since I waited in your outward rooms, or was repulsed from your door; during which time I have been pushing on my work through difficulties, of which it is useless to complain, and have brought it at last to the verge of publication, without one act of assistance, one word of encouragement, or one smile of favour. Such treatment I did net expect, for I never had a patron before.

The shepherd in Virgil grew at last acquainted with Love, and found him a native of the rocks.

Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and, when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent, and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary, and cannot impart it; till I am known, and do not want it. I hope it is no very cynical asperity not to confess obligations where no benefit has been received, or to be unwilling that the public should consider me as owing that to a patron which providence has enabled him to do for myself.

Having carried on my work thus far with so little obligation to any favourer of learning, I shall not be disappointed though I should conclude it, if less be possible, with less; for I have been long wakened from that dream of hope, in which I once boasted myself with so much exultation, my lord — Your lordship's most humble, most obedient servant — SAM. JOHNSON."

The poetry of Johnson forms but a small portion of the history of his mind or of his works. His imitations of Juvenal are, however, among the best imitations of a classic author which we possess; and Gray has pronounced an opinion, that "'London' (the first in time, and by far the inferior of the two) has all the ease and all the spirit of an original." Pope also admired the composition. In "The Vanity of Human Wishes," Johnson departs more from his original, and takes wider views of human nature, society, and mariners. His pictures of Wolsey and Charles of Sweden have a strength and magnificence that would do honour to Dryden, while the historical and philosophic paintings are contrasted by reflections on the cares, vicissitudes, and sorrows of life, so profound, so true, and touching, that they may justly be denominated "mottoes of the heart." Sir Walter Scott has termed this poem "a satire, the deep and pathetic morality of which has often extracted tears from those whose eyes wander dry over pages professedly sentimental." Johnson was too prone to indulge in dark and melancholy views of human life; yet those who have experienced its disappointments and afflictions, must subscribe to the severe morality and pathos with which the contemplative poet "Expatiates free o'er all this scene of man." The peculiarity of Juvenal, according to Johnson's own definition, "is a mixture of gaiety and stateliness, of pointed sentences and declamatory grandeur." He had less reflection and less moral dignity than his English imitator.

The other poetical pieces of Johnson are short and occasional; but his beautiful Prologue on the opening of Drury Lane, and his lines on the death of Levett, are in his best manner.