1840 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Johnson

Thomas Carlyle, in "The Hero as Man of Letters" 1840; Works (1885) 1:400-406.



As for Johnson, I have always considered him to be, by nature, one of our great English souls. A strong and noble man; so much left undeveloped in him to the last: in a kindlier element what might he not have been, — Poet, Priest, sovereign Ruler! On the whole, a man must not complain of his "element," of his "time," or the like; it is thriftless work doing so. His time is bad: well then, he is there to make it better! — Johnson's youth was poor, isolated, hopeless, very miserable. Indeed, it does not seem possible that, in any the favorablest outward circumstances, life could have been other than a painful one. The world might have had more of profitable work out of him, or less; but his effort against the world's work could never have been a light one. Nature, in return for his nobleness, had said to him, Live in an element of diseased sorrow. Nay, perhaps the sorrow and the nobleness were intimately and even inseparably connected with each other. At all events, poor Johnson had to go about girt with continual hypochondria, physical and spiritual pain. Like a Hercules with the burning Nessus'-shirt on him, which shoots in on him dull incurable misery: the Nessus'-shirt not to be stript off, which is his own natural skin! In this manner he had to live. Figure him there, with his scrofulous diseases, with his great greedy heart, and unspeakable chaos of thoughts; stalking mournful as a stranger in this Earth; eagerly devouring what spiritual thing he could come at: school-languages and other merely grammatical stuff, if there were nothing better! The largest soul that was in all England; and provision made for it of "fourpence-halfpenny a day." Yet a giant invincible soul; a true man's. One remembers always that story of the shoes at Oxford: the rough, seamy-faced, rawboned College Servitor stalking about, in winter-season, with his shoes worn out; how the charitable Gentleman Commoner secretly places a new pair at his door; and the rawboned Servitor, lifting them, looking at them near, with his dim eyes, with what thoughts, — pitches them out of window! Wet feet, mud, frost, hunger or what you will; but not beggary: we cannot stand beggary! Rude stubborn self-help here; a whole world of squalor, rudeness, confused misery and want, yet of nobleness and manfulness withal. It is a type of the man's life, this pitching away of the shoes. An original man; — not a second-hand, borrowing or begging man. Let us stand on our own basis, at any rate! On such shoes as we ourselves can get. On frost and mud, if you will, but honestly on that; — on the reality and substance which Nature gives us, not on the semblance, on the thing she has given another than us!—

And yet with all this rugged pride of manhood and self-help, was there ever soul more tenderly affectionate, loyally submissive to what was really higher than he? Great souls are always loyally submissive, reverent to what is over them; only small mean souls are otherwise. I could not find a better proof of what I said the other day, That the sincere man was by nature the obedient man; that only in a World of Heroes was there loyal Obedience to the Heroic. The essence of originality is not that it be new: Johnson believed altogether in the old; he found the old opinions credible for him, fit for him; and in a right heroic manner lived under them. He is well worth study in regard to that. For we are to say that Johnson was far other than a mere man of words and formulas; he was a man of truths and facts. He stood by the old formulas; the happier was it for him that he could so stand: but in all formulas that he could stand by, there needed to be a most genuine substance. Very curious how, in that poor Paper-age, so barren, artificial, thick-quilted with Pedantries, Hearsays, the great Fact of this Universe glared in, forever wonderful, indubitable, unspeakable, divine-infernal, upon this man too! How he harmonized his Formulas with it, how he managed at all under such circumstances: that is a thing worth seeing. A thing "to be looked at with reverence, with pity, with awe." That Church of St. Clement Danes, where Johnson still worshipped in the era of Voltaire, is to me a venerable place.

It was in virtue of his sincerity, of his speaking still in some sort from the heart of Nature, though in the current artificial dialect, that Johnson was a Prophet. Are not all dialects "artificial"? Artificial things are not all false; — nay every true Product of Nature will infallibly shape itself; we may say all artificial things are, at the starting of them, true. What we call "Formulas" are not in their origin bad; they are indispensably good. Formula is method, habitude; found wherever man is found. Formulas fashion themselves as Paths do, as beaten Highways, leading toward some sacred or high object, whither many men are bent. Consider it. One man, full of heartfelt earnest impulse, finds out a way of doing somewhat, — were it of uttering his soul's reverence for the Highest, were it but of fitly saluting his fellow-man. An inventor was needed to do that, a poet; he has articulated the dim-struggling thought that dwelt in his own and many hearts. This is his way of doing that; these are his footsteps, the beginning of a "Path." And now see the second man travels naturally in the footsteps of his foregoer, it is the easiest method. In the footsteps of his foregoer; yet with improvements, with changes where such seem good; at all events with enlargements, the Path ever widening itself as more travel it — till at last there is a broad Highway whereon the whole world may travel and drive. While there remains a City or Shrine, or any Reality to drive to, at the farther end, the Highway shall be right welcome! When the City is gone, we will forsake the Highway. In this manner all Institutions, Practices, Regulated Things in the world have come into existence, and gone out of existence. Formulas all begin by being full of substance; you may call them the skin, the articulation into shape, into limbs and skin, of a substance that is already there: they had not been there otherwise. Idols, as we said, are not idolatrous till they become doubtful, empty for the worshipper's heart. Much as we talk against Formulas, I hope no one of us is ignorant withal of the high significance of true Formulas; that they were, and will ever be, the indispensablest furniture of our habitation in this world.—

Mark, too, how little Johnson boasts of his "sincerity." He has no suspicion of his being particularly sincere, — of his being particularly anything! A hard-struggling, weary-hearted man, or "scholar" as he calls himself, trying hard to get some honest livelihood in the world, not to starve, but to live without stealing! A noble unconsciousness is in him. He does not "engrave Truth on his watch-seal;" no, but he stands by truth, speaks by it, works and lives by it. Thus it ever is. Think of it once more. The man whom Nature has appointed to do great things is, first of all, furnished with that openness to Nature which renders him incapable of being insincere! To his large, open, deep-feeling heart Nature is a Fact: all hearsay is hearsay; the unspeakable greatness of this Mystery of Life, let him acknowledge it or not, nay even though he seem to forget it or deny it, is ever present to him, — fearful and wonderful, on this hand and on that. He has a basis of sincerity; unrecognized, because never questioned or capable of question. Mirabeau, Mahomet, Cromwell, Napoleon: all the Great Men I ever heard of have this as the primary material of them. Innumerable commonplace men are debating, are talking everywhere their commonplace doctrines, which they have learned by logic, by rote, at secondhand: to that kind of man all this is still nothing. He must have truth; truth which he feels to be true. How shall he stand otherwise? His whole soul, at all moments, in all ways, tells him that there is no standing. He is under the noble necessity of being true. Johnson's way of thinking about this world is not mine, any more than Mahomet's was: but I recognize the everlasting element of heart-sincerity in both; and see with pleasure how neither of them remains ineffectual. Neither of them is as chaff sown; in both of them is something which the seedfield will grow.

Johnson was a Prophet to his people; preached a Gospel to them, — as all like him always do. The highest Gospel he preached we may describe as a kind of Moral Prudence: "in a world where much is to be done, and little is to be known," see how you will do it! A thing well worth preaching. "A world where much is to be done, and little is to be known:" do not sink yourselves in boundless bottomless abysses of Doubt, of wretched god-forgetting Unbelief; — you were miserable then, powerless, mad: how could you do or work at all? Such Gospel Johnson preached and taught; — coupled, theoretically and practically, with this other great Gospel, "Clear your mind of Cant!" Have no trade with Cant: stand on the cold mud in the frosty weather, but let it be in your own real torn shoes: "that will be better for you," as Mahomet says! I call this, I call these two things joined together, a great Gospel, the greatest perhaps that was possible at that time.

Johnson's Writings, which once had such currency and celebrity, are now as it were disowned by the young generation. It is not wonderful; Johnson's opinions are fast becoming obsolete: but his style of thinking and of living, we may hope, will never become obsolete. I find in Johnson's Books the indisputablest traces of a great intellect and great heart; ever welcome, under what obstructions and perversions soever. They are sincere words, those of his; he means things by them. A wondrous buckram style, — the best he could get to then; a measured grandiloquence, stepping or rather stalking along in a very solemn way, grown obsolete now; sometimes a tumid size of phraseology not in proportion to the contents of it: all this you will put up with. For the phraseology, tumid or not, has always something within it. So many beautiful styles and books, with nothing in them; — a man is a malefactor to the world who writes such! They are the avoidable kind! — Had Johnson left nothing but his Dictionary, one might have traced there a great intellect, a genuine man. Looking to its clearness of definition, its general solidity, honesty, insight and successful method, it may be called the best of all Dictionaries. There is in it a kind of architectural nobleness; it stands there like a great solid square-built edifice, finished, symmetrically complete: you judge that a true Builder did it.

One word, in spite of our haste, must be granted to poor Bozzy. He passes for a mean, inflated, gluttonous creature; and was so in many senses. Yet the fact of his reverence for Johnson will ever remain noteworthy. The foolish conceited Scotch Laird, the most conceited man of his time, approaching in such awe-struck attitude the great dusty irascible Pedagogue in his mean garret there: it is a genuine reverence for Excellence; a worship for Heroes, at a time when neither Heroes nor worship were surmised to exist. Heroes, it would seem, exist always, and a certain worship of them! We will also take the liberty to deny altogether that of the witty Frenchman, that no man is a Hero to his valet-de-chambre. Or if so, it is not the Hero's blame, but the Valet's: that his soul, namely, is a mean valet-soul! He expects his Hero to advance in royal stage-trappings, with measured step, trains borne behind him, trumpets sounding before him. It should stand rather, No man can be a Grand-Monarque to his valet-de-chambre. Strip your Louis Quatorze of his king-gear, and there is left nothing but a poor forked radish with a head fantastically carved; — admirable to no valet. The Valet does not know a Hero when he sees him! Alas, no: it requires a kind of Hero to do that; — and one of the world's wants, in this as in other senses, is for most part want of such.

On the whole, shall we not say, that Boswell's admiration was well bestowed; that he could have found no soul in all England so worthy of bending down before? Shall we not say, of this great mournful Johnson too, that he guided his difficult confused existence wisely; led it well, like a right-valiant man? That waste chaos of Authorship by trade; that waste chaos of Scepticism in religion and politics, in life-theory and life-practice; in his poverty, in his dust and dimness, with the sick body and the rusty coat: he made it do for him, like a brave man. Not wholly without a loadstar in the Eternal; he had still a loadstar, as the brave all need to have: with his eye set on that, he would change his course for nothing in these confused vortices of the lower sea of Time. "To the Spirit of Lies, bearing death and hunger, he would in nowise strike his flag." Brave old Samuel: ultimus Romanorum!