1824 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Johnson

Walter Scott, "Samuel Johnson" 1824; Scott, Miscellaneous Prose Works (1829) 3:179-86.



Of all the men distinguished in this or any other age, Dr. JOHNSON has left upon posterity the strongest and most vivid impression, so far as person, manners, disposition, and conversation, are concerned. We do but name him, or open a book which he has written, and the sound and action recall to the imagination at once, his form, his merits, his peculiarities, nay, the very uncouthness of his gestures, and the deep impressive tone of his voice. We learn not only what he said, but form an idea how he said it; and have, at the same time, a shrewd guess of the secret motive why he did so, and whether he spoke in sport or in anger, in the desire of conviction, or for the love of debate. It was said of a noted wag, that his bon-mots did not give full satisfaction when published, because he could not print his face. But with respect to Dr. Johnson, this has been in some degree accomplished; and, although the greater part of the present generation never saw him, yet he is, in our eye, a personification as lively, as that of Siddons in Lady Macbeth, or Kemble in Cardinal Wolsey.

All this, as the world well knows, arises from Johnson having found in James Boswell such a biographer, as no man but himself ever had, or ever deserved to have. The performance, which chiefly resembles it in structure, is the life of the philosopher Demophon, in Lucian; but that slight sketch is far inferior in detail and in vivacity to Boswell's Life of Johnson, which, considering the eminent persons to whom it relates, the quantity of miscellaneous information and entertaining gossip which it brings together, may be termed, without exception, the best parlour-window book that ever was written. Accordingly, such has been the reputation which it has enjoyed, that it renders useless even the form of an abridgement, which is the less necessary in this work, as the great Lexicographer only stands connected with the department of fictitious narrative by the brief tale of Rasselas.

A few dates and facts may be shortly recalled, for the sake of uniformity of plan, after which we will venture to offer a few remarks upon Rasselas, and the character of its great author.

Samuel Johnson was born and educated in Litchfield, where his father was a country bookseller of some eminence, since he belonged to its magistracy. He was born 18th September 1709. His school days were spent in his native city, and his education completed at Pembroke College, Oxford. Of gigantic strength of body, and mighty powers of mind, he was afflicted with that nameless disease on the spirits, which often rendered the latter useless; and externally deformed by a scrofulous complaint, the scars of which disfigured his otherwise strong and sensible countenance. The indigence of his parents compelled him to leave College upon his father's death in 1731, when he gathered in a succession of eleven pounds sterling. In poverty, however, his learning and his probity secured him respect. He was received in the best society of his native place. His first literary attempt, the translation of Father Lobo's Voyage to Abyssinia, appeared during this period, and probably led him, at a later period, to lay in that remote kingdom the scene M his philosophical tale, which follows this essay. About the same time, he married a wife considerably older than himself, and attempted to set up a school in the neighbourhood of Litchfleld. The project proved unsuccessful; and in 1737, he set out to try to mend his fortunes in London, attended by David Garrick. Johnson had with him in manuscript his tragedy of Irene, and meant to commence dramatic author; Garrick was to be bred to the lawFate had different designs for both.

There is little doubt, that upon his outset in London, Johnson felt in full force the ills which assail the unprotected scholar, whose parts are yet unknown to the public, and who must write at once for bread and for distinction. His splendid imitation of Juvenal, London, a satire, was the first of his works which drew the attention of the public; yet, neither its celebrity, nor that of its more brilliant successor, the Vanity of Human Wishes, the deep and pathetic morality of which has often extracted tears from those whose eyes wander dry over pages professedly sentimental, could save the poet from the irksome drudgery of a writer of all work. His tragedy of Irene was, unfortunate on the stage, and his valuable hours were consumed in obscure labour. He was fortunate, however, in a strong and virtuous power of thinking, which prevented his plunging into those excesses, in which neglected genius, in catching at momentary gratification, is so apt to lose character land respectability. While his friend, Savage, was wasting considerable powers in temporary gratification, Johnson was advancing slowly but surely into a higher class of society. The powers of his pen were supported by those of his conversation; he lost no friend by misconduct, no respect by a closer approach to intimacy, and each new friend whom he made, continued still his admirer.

The booksellers, also, were sensible of his value as a literary labourer, and employed him in that laborious and gigantic task, a Dictionary of the language. How it is executed is well known, and sufficiently surprising, considering that the learned author was a stranger to the Northern languages, on which English is radically grounded, and that the discoveries in grammar, since made by Home Tooke, were then unknown. In the meantime, the publication of the Rambler, though not very successful during its progress, stamped the character of the author as one of the first moral writers of the age, and as eminently qualified to write, and even to improve, the English language.

In 1752, Johnson was deprived of his wife, a loss which he appears to have felt most deeply. After her death, society, the best of which was now open to a man who brought such stores to increase its pleasures, seems to have been his principal enjoyment, and his great resource when assailed by that malady of mind which embittered his solitary moments.

The Idler, scarcely so popular as the Rambler, followed in 1758. In 1759, Rasselas was hastily composed, in order to pay the expenses of his mother's funeral, and some small debts which she had contracted. This beautiful tale was written in one week, and sent in portions to the printer. Johnson told Sir Joshua Reynolds that he never afterwards read it over! The publishers paid the author an hundred pounds, with twenty-four more, when the work came to a second edition.

The mode in which Rasselas was composed, and the purposes for which it was written, show that the author's situation was still embarrassed. But his circumstances became more easy in 1762, when a pension of £300 placed him beyond the drudgery of labouring for mere subsistence. It was distinctly explained, that this grant was made on public grounds alone, and intended a homage to Johnson's services for literature. But two political pamphlets, The False Alarm, and that upon the Falkland Islands, afterwards showed that the author was grateful.

In 1765, pushed forward by the satire of Churchill, Johnson published his subscription Shakspeare, for which proposals had been long in circulation.

The author's celebrated Journey to the Hebrides was published in 1775. Whatever might be his prejudices against Scotland, its natives must concede, that his remarks concerning the poverty and barrenness of the country, tended to produce those subsequent exertions, which have done much to remedy the causes of reproach. The Scots were angry because Johnson was not enraptured with their scenery, which, from a defect of bodily organs, he could not appreciate, or even see; and they appear to have set rather too high a rate on the hospitality paid to a stranger, when they contended it should shut the mouth of a literary traveller upon all subjects but those of panegyric. Dr. Johnson took a better way of repaying the civilities he received, by exercising kindness and hospitality in London to all such friends as he had received attention from in Scotland.

His pamphlet, entitled Taxation no Tyranny, which drew upon him much wrath from those who supported the American cause, is written in a strain of high toryism, and tended to promote an event, pregnant with much good and evil, the separation of the mother country from the American colonies.

In 1777, he was engaged in one of his most pleasing as well as most popular works, The Lives of the British Poets, which he executed with a degree of critical force and talent which has seldom been concentrated.

Johnson's laborious and distinguished career terminated in 1783, when virtue was deprived of a steady supporter, society of a brilliant ornament, and literature of a successful cultivator. The latter part of his life was honoured with general applause, for none was more fortunate in obtaining and preserving the friendship of the wise and the worthy. Thus loved and venerated, Johnson might have been pronounced happy.. But Heaven, in whose eyes strength is weakness, permitted his faculties to be clouded occasionally with that morbid affection of the spirits, which disgraced his talents by prejudices, and his manners by rudeness.

When we consider the rank which Dr. Johnson held, not only in literature, but in society, we cannot help figuring him to ourselves as the benevolent giant of some fairy tale, whose kindnesses and courtesies are still mingled with a part of the rugged ferocity imputed to the fabulous sons of Anak; or rather, perhaps, like a Roman Dictator, fetched from his farm, whose wisdom and heroism still relished of his rustic occupation. And there were times when, with all Johnson's wisdom, and all his wit, this rudeness of disposition, and the sacrifices and submissions which he unsparingly exacted, were so great, that even his kind and devoted admirer, Mrs. Thrale, seems at length to have thought that the honour of being Johnson's hostess was almost counterbalanced by the tax which he exacted on her time and patience.

The cause of those deficiencies in temper and manners, was no ignorance of what was fit to be done in society, or how far each individual ought to suppress his own wishes in favour of those with whom he associates; for, theoretically, no man understood the rules of good breeding better than Dr. Johnson, or could act more exactly in conformity with them, when the high rank of those with whom he was in company for the time required that he should put the necessary constraint upon himself. But during the greater part of his life, he had been in a great measure a stranger to the higher society, in which such restraint is necessary; and it may be fairly presumed, that the indulgence of a variety of little selfish peculiarities, which it is the object of good breeding to suppress, became thus familiar to him. The consciousness of his own mental superiority in most companies which he frequented, contributed to his dogmatism; and when he had attained his eminence as a dictator in literature, like other potentates, he was not averse to a display of his authority resembling in this particular Swift, and one or two other men of genius, who have had the had taste to imagine that their talents elevated them above observance of the common rules of society. It must be also remarked, that in Johnson's time, the literary society of London was much more confined than at present, and that he sat the Jupiter of a little circle, sometimes indeed nodding approbation, but always prompt, on the slightest contradiction, to launch the thunders of rebuke and sarcasm. He was, in a word, despotic, and despotism will occasionally lead the best dispositions into unbecoming abuse of power. It is not likely that any one will again enjoy, or have an opportunity of abusing, the singular degree of submission which was rendered to Johnson by all around him. The unreserved communications of friends, rather than the spleen of enemies, have occasioned his character being exposed in all its shadows, as well as its lights. But those, when summed and counted, amount only to a few narrow-minded prejudices concerning country and party, from which few ardent tempers remain entirely free, an over-zeal in politics, which is an ordinary attribute of the British character, and some violences and solecisms in manners, which left his talents, morals, and benevolence, alike unimpeachable.

Of Rasselas, translated into so many languages, and so widely circulated through the literary world, the merits have been long justly appreciated. It was composed in solitude and sorrow; and the melancholy cast of feeling which it exhibits, sufficiently evinces the temper of the author's mind. The resemblance, in some respects, betwixt the tenor of the moral and that of Candide, is striking, and Johnson himself admitted, that if the authors could possibly have seen each other's manuscript, they could not have escaped the charge of plagiarism. But they resemble each other like a wholesome and a poisonous fruit. The object of the witty Frenchman is to induce a distrust of the wisdom of the great Governor of the Universe, by presuming to arraign him of incapacity before the creatures of his will. Johnson uses arguments drawn from the same premises, with the benevolent view of encouraging men to look to another and a better world, for the satisfaction of wishes, which in this seem only to be awakened in order to be disappointed. The one is a fiend — a merry devil, we grant-who scoffs at and derides human miseries; the other, a friendly though grave philosopher, who shows us the nothingness of earthly hopes, to teach us that our affections ought to be placed higher.

The work can scarce be termed a narrative, being in a great measure void of incident; it is rather a set of moral dialogues on the various vicissitudes of human life, its follies, its fears, its hopes, its wishes, and the disappointment in which all terminate. The style is in Johnson's best manner; enriched and rendered sonorous by the triads and quaternions which he so much loved, and balanced with an art which perhaps he derived from the learned Sir Thomas Brown. The reader may sometimes complain, with Boswell, that the unalleviated picture of human helplessness and misery, leaves sadness upon the mind after perusal. But the moral is to be found in the conclusion of the Vanity of Human Wishes, a poem which treats of the same melancholy subject, and closes with this sublime strain of morality:—

Pour forth thy fervours for a healthful mind,
Obedient passions, and a will resign'd;
For Love, which scarce collective man can rill;
For Patience, sovereign o'er transmuted ill;
For Faith, that, panting for a happier seat,
Counts death kind nature's signal of retreat:
These goods for man the laws of Heaven ordain;
These goods He grants, who grants the power to gain;
With these celestial Wisdom calms the mind,
And makes the happiness she cannot find.