1801 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Johnson

Anonymous, "Character of Samuel Johnson" Port Folio [Philadelphia] 1 (20 June 1801) 198-99.



Perhaps literary history does not afford a more striking instance of extraordinary talents, more happily and beneficially exerted, than in the mind of Samuel Johnson. An understanding, acute, poignant, forcible, and profound; an imagination rich, strong, and brilliant; a most retentive memory, stored with knowledge; were uniformly directed to promote the cause of wisdom, virtue, and religion. "His Essays (to use the words of his able biographer) form a body of ethics." In the usual progression of great minds, he became, as he advanced in years and knowledge more practical. His Rambler shewed more of man in his general nature, as he himself says of Dryden: his Idler, as he says of Pope, more of man in his local manners. His Rambler was the work of a profound, comprehensive philosopher: his Idler, a man of genius, experienced in life. The former describes men as they always are; the latter as they were then in England. As a critic, the world, since the time of Aristotle, has seen few, if any, equal to Johnson. Disregarding mere usage, he follows nature and reason. He considers not the mode in which the Greek tragedians arranged their performances, but the operation of passion, sentiment, and character, in real life. He estimates imitative works by their likeness to originals. As a biographer he stands unrivalled. He thoroughly knew the human understanding and heart; was perfectly acquainted with the kind of circumstances in which his subjects acted; with their individual history and character. In his literary portraits he ably marks the progress of mind; the incidents and causes which retarded or accelerated its movements, and the completion of its powers, attainments, and exertions. As a philologist, Johnson had not mere knowledge, but also science: he not only collected usages, but investigated principles. He has enriched our language; and improved it, if not in ease and elegance, in precision and force. In politics he shewed less advancement than in philology, criticism, biography, and ethics. We do not mean the erroneousness only of his particular notions, but the mode of his general reasoning. In his other writings he is practically wise; in his political, speculatively abstract.

From the whole of his works numerous and important additions have been made to the general mass of information; and still more momentous accessions to the general mass of instruction. Such have been the consequences of an extraordinary mind, exerted upon objects dependent for success on its intrinsic efforts. The moral character of Johnson was as estimable as his intellectual was admirable. He was temperate, intrepid, magnanimous, just, pious, benevolent, and beneficent. His head, his heart, his purse, were employed in doing good, and in dispensing happiness. His manners were less agreeable than his other qualities were valuable. His temper was irritable; — he was impatient of folly and frivolity. He had an INTOLERANCE TO NONSENSE, very unpleasing to numerous votaries, and very troublesome in the intercourse of fashionable life: he was peculiarly inimical to nonsense and folly, arrayed in the garb of sense and wisdom. But, with some defects in his social habits, he was, as a moral and religious being, far above common men.