1807 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Johnson

Percival Stockdale, in Lectures on the truly eminent English Poets (1807) 2:526-33.



The celebrated Dr. Johnson was a learned man; but his learning was far from being accurate, and masterly; how, indeed, could it deserve that praise; as he had but incompletely read (so he himself, to my surprize, acknowledged to me) several of those capital authours who deserve our most attentive perusal? And this unwarrantable habit had so foolish an effect on him, that he perversely imagined (as I have likewise heard him insist) that all other scholars read in the same slovenly manner. — Indeed in this great man, amongst his other uncommon inconsistences (for we are all, more, or less, inconsistent) long series of application, and indolence; of a collected, and dissipated mind, were alternately contrasted. Yet this incongruity may be a concomitant of genius; it may partly proceed from the different action of externals on great sensibility. In prose, as in verse, he was eloquent, vigorous, and splendid; but he was deficient in ease; in flow; in the pure, transparent, and gliding stream of attick elegance. He had the majesty (too often the affected majesty) of the monarch; which he could not soften and endear with the affable, and polite manner of the gentleman. We are apt to be in extremes: Johnson was absorbed in substantial, yet discursive thought; and Chesterfield sacrificed only to the graces. Necessarily congenial with his mode of thinking was the body, and colour of his style; the frame, and complexion of his incorporated thoughts. It kept a stately march in the panoply of learning; for it was animated by a soul of unbending dignity; while the style of Addison flowed in a finer, and more harmonious current; while the language of Burke was accelerated with the more intense ardour; and spangled with the more effulgent rays of a most vivid imagination. In justice to him, however, I must not omit the agreeable exceptions to this measured, and lordly walk: some of his productions are written with ease, and fluency; yet without relaxing from the native strength of their authour.

His practical morality, and his religion were mixed, and inconsistent, like his literary character. His uncommon humanity, benevolence, and charity, were discredited with a dictatorial, and insolent pride, which no talents call warrant, or expiate: instead of arguing only to establish truth, (which ought always to have been the paramount object with a christan philosopher) he often disputed with extreme heat, and rudeness, for what he knew to be sophistry; merely to extort an ignoble, indeed a very dishonourable victory. His heart melted at a tale of woe; and he was liberal of substantial relief to the poor, and distressed; yet this consummate hero in moral atchievements (so his satirical encomiasts, as I may call them, have described him) as he had not the least command of temper, would overwhelm the unfortunate with the most insulting, and mortifying language; if he was in a discontented humour; or if they had expressed their dissent from his opinion, in the most respectful terms.

His religion was vitiated with impure mixtures as well as his morality. His piety was infected with a gloomy, and monastick superstition. His desponding fancy armed the Deity with terrours; and formed the most tremendous ideas of a future state. Hence, that personal courage, which, in the vigorous days of his manhood, would have intrepidly resisted the most desperate assassin, was reversed with the fears of the old woman, whenever the invisible world was the object of his spiritual contemplation. From religious superstition, religious, and political bigotry are inseparable. He was an idolater of monarchical, and priestly tyranny; and the idolatry which impressed a dark severity in his mind, extended its baleful influence to his writings. It not only infected his moral, but his critical compositions; its noxious, but I hope, temporary vapour, clouded the laurels of some of our greatest men.

They, however, who know mankind, but who wish not to propagate seducing, and dangerous errours, by painting them better than they are, have a just, and lenient apology for these prejudices, and faults; when they recollect, and consider the hereditary, and deep melancholy, with which he was frequently oppressed. We need not wonder; and we ought not indiscriminately to censure; when we find that this disorder misleads, and perverts the judgement; for it even affects the understanding. Agreeably to the mixed, and contrasted creation, and economy, with which the Supreme Being hath constituted, and governs the universe, even the powerful melancholy of which I speak, has its advantages as well as its defects. If, at one time it excites, in great minds, resentful prejudices, and weak apprehensions; at another, it produces a virtuous solemnity, an awful sublimity of thought. Indeed there can be no true, and strongly effective genius, without the love, and habit of calm, contemplative, and severe thinking; without a moral, and refined pensiveness; abstracted from the material world; and intent on the ideas of instructive reason; and on the objects of virtuous imagination. These affections, and habits constitute that desirable, and amiable melancholy, which purifies, and exalts the faculties of the soul; and which a thoughtless, giddy, and tumultuous world, has the folly, and the presumption, to confound with moroseness; with madness. These affections, and habits disperse the light, and gay delusions of life; and collect, and concentrate substantial, and salutary truth. By their stimulating impulse, the mind works, and revolves on itself; and thus multiplies, invigorates, and brightens its operations.

As

—the fixed, and noble mind
Turns all occurrence to its own advantage;

even the rigour of adversity may be favourable to mental strength; as a keen air braces the corporeal nerves; expells indolence; and promotes an active, and lasting life. Genius may gain an additional, and propitious fire, from its determined, and heroick opposition to difficulties, and distress: jealous of its invaluable, indeprivable, and eternal privileges; and conscious of their force, it may rise above a desponding languour; it may resolve to penetrate through all its formidable hostilities; and to disappoint the triumphant, and satanick smile of envy. — Spurning the jilt fortune; eager to give one memorable proof more of her blind partiality; and to obtain a signal victory over her capricious empire; he changes the agitations of pain into the agitations of pleasure: heated with the stubborn conflict, he is the more heated with imagination: by the impetuosity with which he darts through his rude impediments, he makes more extensive conquests in the literary region than he would have gained if those impediments had not disputed his way. — Persevering labour accomplishes the objects of dullness; noble passions, those of genius. The friendly frowns of the world exalt his natural powers with a new, and irresistible enthusiasm; his atchievements are inspired by a moral, a practical, and glorious resentment. I have no doubt that Chatterton was thus impelled, while he struggled with circumstances most inauspicious to literature, and poetry; while the manly boy was under the tyranny of an undistinguishing, and stupid pedagogue; — While he copied the Norman, and Saxon jargon of Lambert; and while he suffered the pretended, and avaricious friendship; the half-faced fellowship, of a Calcott, and a Barrett. I have no doubt that Johnson was thus impelled, in the squalid, and solitary gloom of the temple; in his unprotected, unpensioned, unfashionable days; which were the days of his true dignity; of his true glory.