1784 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Johnson

Anna Seward, "The late Dr. Johnson" General Evening Post (28 December 1784).



—Speak of him as he was;
Nothing extenuate, nor set down ought in malice.

It is right that mankind should form a just, rather than a partial and dazzled estimate of exalted genius. Such exclusive and hyperbolic praise is now poured on the public ear, concerning an illustrious, but a very mixed character, as seems likely to produce ideas of a judgment which could not err, and of a virtue which could not flatter. In believing thus partially of one great man, injury is done to others, whose worth he has depreciated, and to whose talents he has been unjust. Dr. Johnson's learning, and knowledge, were deep, and universal. His conception was so clear, and his intellectual stores were marshalled with such precision, that his style in common conversation equalled that of his moral essays. Whatever charge of pedantic stiffness may have been brought against those essays, by prejudice, or by personal resentment, they are certainly not less superior to all other English compositions of that sort, in the happy fertility and efflorescence of imagination, harmony of period, and luminous arrangement of ideas, than they are in strength of expression, and force of argument. His Latinisms, for which he has been much censured, have extended the limits of our native dialect, besides enriching its sounds with that sonorous sweetness, which the intermixture of words from a more harmonious language must necessarily produce; I mean in general, for it cannot be denied that they sometimes deform the Johnsonian page, though they much oftner adorn it. His LONDON is a very brilliant, and nervous satiric poem; and his VANITY OF HUMAN WISHES appears to me a much finer satire than the best of Pope's. Perhaps its poetic beauty is not excelled by any composition in heroic rhyme which this country can boast, rich as she is in that species of writing. As a Moralist, Dr. Johnson was respectable, splendid, sublime; but as a critic, the faults of his disposition have disgraced much of his fine writings with frequent paradox, unprincipled misrepresentation, mean and needless exposure of bodily infirmities, (as in the life of Pope) irreconcilable contradictions, and with decisions of the last absurdity. Dr. Johnson had strong affections, where literary envy did not interfere; but that envy was of such deadly potency, as to load his conversation, as it has loaded his biographic works, with the rancour of party-violence, with national aversion, bitter sarcasm, and unchristian-like invective. It is in vain to descant upon the improbability that Dr. Johnson, under the consciousness of abilities so great, and of a fame so extensive, should envy any man; since it is more than improbable, it is wholly impossible that an imagination so sublime and a judgment so correct, on all abstract subjects, should decide, as he has decided, upon the works of some, who were at least his equals, and upon one who is yet greater than himself. Dr. Johnson was a furious Jacobite, while one hope for the Stuart-line remained; and his politics, always leaning towards despotism, were inimical to liberty, and the natural rights of mankind. He was punctual in his devotions; but his religious faith had much more of bigot-fierceness, than of that gentleness which the Gospel inculcates. To those who had never entered the literary confines, or, entering them, had paid him the tribute of unbounded praise, and total subjection, he was an affectionate and generous friend; soothing in his behaviour to them, and active in promoting their domestic comforts; though, in some spleenful moments, he could not help speaking disrespectfully both of their mental powers, and of their virtues. His pride was infinite; yet, amidst all the over-bearing arrogance it produced, his heart melted at the sight, or at the representation of disease, and poverty; and, in the hours of affluence, his purse was ever open to relieve them. In several instances his affections seemed unaccountably engaged by people, of whose disposition and abilities he scrupled not to speak contemptuously at all times, and in all humours. To such he often devoted, and especially of late years, a large portion of that time, which might naturally be supposed to have been precious to him, who so well knew how to employ it. When his attention was called to modern writings, particularly if they were celebrated, and not written by any of his "little senate," he generally listened with angry impatience. "No, Sir, I shall not read the book," was his common reply. He turned from the compositions of rising genius with a visible horror, which too plainly proved, that envy was the bosom-serpent of this literary despot, whose life had been unpolluted by licentious crimes, and who had some great and noble qualities, accompanying a stupendous reach of understanding.