1832 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Johnson

John Taylor Esq., in Records of my Life (1832) 1:231-35.



Dr. JOHNSON. It is not improbable that my father might have been introduced to Dr. Johnson through the medium of Oldys, or even of Derrick, but of this I have no proof. I was too young for such an introduction, and if I had not, I should not have been more afraid of him than I was at first of Dr. Monsey, who was as rough in his manners, but by no means so domineering and brutal. I have often heard my friend Mr. Cooke the Barrister, who was rather a favourite with Johnson, say that there was no living with him except by yielding to him with slavish submission.

Johnson was inconsistent in his character, for how could his despotism and violence be reconciled with his reverence for Christianity, when his manners were totally opposite to those of its meek and gentle founder? He was also inconsistent in his opinions, of which one proof is sufficient in this place. In his "Life of Pope," he says, "His unjustifiable impression of The Patriot King, as it can be imputed to no particular motive, (why not?) must have proceeded from his general habit of secrecy and cunning; he caught an opportunity of a sly trick, and pleased himself with the thought of outwitting Bolingbroke." Here then he assigns a motive. But is it possible to suppose that Pope should be ambitious of so silly and contemptible a triumph? Yet a few pages after, he says, "His violation of the trust reposed in him by Bolingbroke, could have no motive inconsistent with the warmest affection; he either thought the action so near to indifferent that he forgot it, or so laudable that he expected his friend to approve it." At length he finally agrees with Warburton, who, he says, "supposes, with great appearance of reason, that the irregularity of his conduct proceeded wholly from his zeal for Bolingbroke, who might, perhaps, have destroyed the pamphlet, which Pope thought it his duty to preserve, even without its author's approbation." This motive might be supposed to occur at first to every man of plain understanding, for it never can be conceived that Pope desired the despicable profit of selling the copies, for which he must have waited till the author's death; nor that he wanted the reputation of having written the pamphlet, since it is probable that he gave to Bolingbroke the few copies which he required for his friends, and that Bolingbroke presented them as he intended. The same motive of zealous friendship might be expected to occur to Bolingbroke, whose rancour on the subject after Pope's death was wholly unjustifiable. Pope has gratified the world so much by his genius, that it is but a general duty to vindicate his memory.

Dr. Johnson was long a bigoted Jacobite. When he was walking with some friend in Kensington Gardens, one of them observed that it was a fine place. "Phoo," said Johnson, "nothing can be fine that belongs to a usurper." Dr. Monsey assured me, that once in company, when the conversation was on the age of King George the Third, he heard him say, "What does it signify when such an animal was born, or whether he ever existed?" Yet he afterwards said, in his account of his interview with His Majesty, that it was not for him "to bandy compliments with his sovereign."

Johnson was often too dogmatical and decisive to distinguish clearly. He says in his "Life of Pope," "Aristotle is praised for naming Fortitude first of the cardinal virtues, as that without which no other virtue can steadily be practised; but he might with equal propriety have placed Prudence and Justice before it, since without Prudence, Fortitude is mad; without Justice it is mischievous." The doctor here seems to consider Fortitude as active valour. Surely the proper arrangement would be Temperance to secure the power of acting, Prudence to act properly, Justice to respect the rights of others, and Fortitude to bear firmly the evils of life.

Mr. Godwin, I understand, has said that no original thought can be found in all the works of Johnson. Admitting this assertion to be well founded, it may, however, be justly urged in his favour, that, to use his own words, he has "recommended known truths by his manner of adorning them;" that he has "varied the dress and situation of common objects, so as to give them fresh grace and more powerful attractions." He has given dignity to the English language, and a body of criticism upon the English poets, written in a masterly style, and, with some exceptions, generally with acuteness, judgment, and liberality. But I may venture at least to say, that Mr. Godwin has overlooked one instance in which Johnson has shown a new, ingenious, and liberal vindication of a passage in Dryden, for which that great poet was annoyed by persevering ridicule, and appeared unable to defend himself.

The passage is as follows:

An horrid stillness first invades the ear,
And in that silence we a tempest fear.

"for which," says Johnson, "he was persecuted with perpetual ridicule, perhaps with more than was deserved. Silence is, indeed, mere privation; and so considered cannot invade; but privation likewise certainly is darkness, and probably cold; yet poetry has never been refused the right of ascribing effects or agency to them as to positive powers. No man scruples to say that darkness hinders him from his work; or that cold has killed the plants. Death is also privation, yet who has made any difficulty of assigning to death a dart and the power of striking?"

This is certainly a very ingenious defence of what it would be very difficult to justify in any other manner, but which, after all, may rather be considered as ingenious sophistry than sound argument: still, it is original.