Essays and Addresses/Samuel Johnson

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Samuel Johnson  (1894)  by Richard Claverhouse Jebb
Suidas on the Change ascribed to Sophocles in regard to Trilogies
From Essays and Addresses. A Lecture given at Newnham College, Cambridge, March 3, 1894.

SAMUEL JOHNSON[1].

Samuel Johnson was born at Lichfield on September i8, 1709, and died in London on December 13, 1784, in his 76th year. The time of his eminence begins shortly after the middle of the century, and covers about thirty years. Behind him lies the age of Pope and Swift, of Addison and Berkeley. After him comes the age of Wordsworth and Coleridge, of Walter Scott and Byron. In the interval he stands out, if not as the greatest writer, at least as the greatest literary personality.

Nothing about Johnson is more singular than the relation of his writings to his permanent fame. In 1755 he published his Dictionary, after seven years of labour; and was thenceforth regarded as the foremost literary man of his day. He was then only forty-six years of age. Before that time, he had written much, but always under stress of the direst poverty, and much of what he then did was mere hack-work. Among the best productions of this earlier period were his two poems in imitation of Juvenal,—viz. "London," written when he was twenty-nine, and "The Vanity of Human Wishes," when he was thirty-five. The Rambler, a series of more than two hundred essays, belongs to the years 1750–2. But after the appearance of the Dictionary, he wrote little. He had no longer the stimulus of necessity. In 1760, on George the Third's accession, Johnson was offered, and accepted, a pension of £300 a year. When Johnson called on Lord Bute to express his acknowledgments for this mark of royal favour, the Minister said, "It is not given to you for what you are to do, but for what you have done";—a sly glance, possibly, at Johnson's own definition of a pension in his Dictionary as "generally understood to mean pay given to a State hireling for treason to his country." The pension placed Johnson in easy circumstances. Then he was constitutionally indolent. It was only because he happened to need a small sum for an urgent purpose, that he wrote, in 1759, the most successful of his minor works, the story of Rasselas, that young prince who, with his sister, and the sage Imlac, sets forth from the happy valley in Abyssinia to survey the world, and returns to his valley, convinced that, outside of it, all is vanity. The evenings of a single week sufficed for the composition of Rasselas, which has been translated, as Mr Birkbeck Hill tells us, into ten languages. After Rasselas, his chief productions were the edition of Shakespeare in 1765 (which does not seem to have cost severe labour); the Tour in the Hebrides, published ten years later; and the Lives of the Poets, in 1779–81. The last-named work is far the most considerable achieved by him after 1755. The series of poets treated in it begins with Cowley, who died in 1667, and ends with George, Lord Lyttelton, who died in 1773. Notwithstanding some eccentricities in poetical criticism, it is, of all Johnson's writings, the work which can still be read with most sustained interest. The short biographies are full of the keenest insight into character and human nature. If any one of them were to be singled out, we might mention the sketch of that erratic and unhappy genius, Richard Savage, which Macaulay—long after his essay on Croker's Boswell in the Edinburgh Review—justly recognised as a masterpiece. As Boswell records, "a friend once observed to Dr Johnson that, in his opinion, the Doctor's literary strength lay in writing biography, in which he infinitely exceeded all his contemporaries. 'Sir,' said Dr Johnson, 'I believe that is true. The dogs don't know how to write trifles with dignity.'" Judged by the standards of our own day, Johnson is more successful as a biographer than as an essayist or a critic; partly because biography gives just the right scope for his powers of observation; and partly because the tendency of his style to be heavy and pompous, especially in abstract discussion, is held in check by the story itself; he may "write trifles with dignity," but at any rate he has to write them. Next to the Lives of the Poets, the writings of Johnson which are least neglected at the present day are probably the Tour in the Hebrides, and the two satires, "London," and "The Vanity of Human Wishes"; after these, perhaps, but at an interval, Rasselas. We know and estimate Johnson much less by his writings than by his talk; when we turn to his writings, it is rather to supplement our knowledge of the mind seen in his talk; to win further light, if possible, on the sources of that extraordinary influence which he undoubtedly wielded over the best of his contemporaries.

And then we are met by that curious phenomenon in English prose, Johnson's literary style. The first thing which strikes one about it is that it is so inferior, as a rule, to his best utterances in conversation; it frequently lacks their terseness, their point and vigour; it is generally ponderous, often involved, artificial, tedious—though, like his talk, it is invariably clear. The most obvious and frequent fault is the see-saw of long words, in balanced clauses; thus, where it would be enough to say, "from childhood to old age," Johnson says (in Rasselas), "from the sprightliness of infancy to the despondency of decrepitude"; or he speaks of "that levity and cheerfulness which disencumber all minds from awe and solicitude, invite the modest to freedom, and exalt the timorous to confidence." This style is of course least happy when it is too grand for the subject; as when, after criticising the windows in some Scotch houses, he apologises for noticing such trifles:—"These diminutive observations seem to take away something from the dignity of writing, and are never communicated but with hesitation, and a little fear of abasement and contempt." It is at its best when he is strongly moved: "That man is little to be envied whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona." Or take the first paragraph of his letter to Mr Macpherson, the author of Ossian, who had threatened him with summary vengeance:—"Mr James Macpherson, I received your foolish and impudent letter. Any violence offered me I shall do my best to repel; and what I cannot do for myself, the law shall do for me. I hope I shall never be deterred from detecting what I think a cheat by the menaces of a ruffian." It is a great mistake, however, to suppose that Johnson always wrote what is known as Johnsonese, or that the faults which we associate with Johnsonese do much to spoil the best things that he has written. It is not difficult to see that the worse side of his style answers to a physical infirmity of his nature, just as its better side answers to his mental strength. He had a powerful and clear mind, richly stored with knowledge; a high spirit; extraordinary depth and tenderness of feeling; and a sense, which his early miseries had only strengthened by touching his pride, that the vocation of literature is a high and noble one. Such a nature craved stately and ample utterance; he must be allowed to enforce each thought as it arises, to expand it, and to clothe it in language both exact and decorous. But then that powerful mind was subject to a lethargy against which he could not always strive successfully; it was part of his constitution. He was often sunk in reveries, when the expression of his face, we are told, was almost imbecile. The commonest faults of his style are largely to be explained by this lethargy; they indicate that, for the moment, the working of his mind is not really brisk, but painful, and half-mechanical. He himself gives us a glimpse of the labour which composition often cost him. "It is one of the common distresses of a writer," he says (in the Adventurer), "to be within a word of a happy period, to want only a single epithet to give amplification its full force, to require only a correspondent term in order to finish a paragraph with elegance, and make one of its members answer to the other: but these deficiencies cannot always be supplied; and after a long study and vexation, the passage is turned anew, and the web unwoven that was so nearly finished." There we see the grinding out of a cumbrous sentence. But when any one challenged Johnson to talk, especially by saying something with which he did not agree, the lethargy vanished; his mind was at once alert; the thoughts rolled forth without check, vigorous, incisive, set off with abundance of apt illustration; and in this respect his best talk had a great advantage over his average writing.

Johnson's literary style must also be considered in its relation to the English predecessors by whom he had been influenced. In his invariable clearness, and in the strict propriety which marks his use of words, we see the influence of the literary generation which came next before his own, the writers who were the standards of style in the reigns of Anne and George I.—such as Addison and Pope. That period had been characterised by a revolt from the pedantries of scholasticism, and the revolt had run to the other extreme; common sense was the new divinity; and everything that common sense could not explain, everything that savoured of a mystic profundity, was suspected of imposture, or at least of mental confusion. In style the great virtue was elegant correctness—the appropriate garb for penetrating and polished common sense. If we wished to illustrate this ideal by the opposite extreme, we might turn to Carlyle, hurling his amorphous language into space, and tormenting human speech in a struggle to body forth the Immensities. Johnson's age was remote enough from Carlyle's ways of thinking, but at least it was in process of outgrowing the deification of common sense and correctness; it was beginning to feel that there were more things in heaven and earth than had been comprehended by the literary law-givers of the age before it. This perception necessarily re-acted upon style; in Johnson's own ponderous sentences we can occasionally see that, like Thucydides, he labours under the difficulty that the things which he wishes to express are rather too complex for his instrument, in the form which recent usage had given to it, and that he must strive to draw some new tones out of that instrument in his own way. Compare Johnson with Addison, for instance. Addison had lived from earliest manhood in a polite world; the tone of the drawing-room and the coffee-house came naturally to him; it suited his gifts, and they, in their turn, raised and adorned it. Everything that Addison wished to say, grave or lively, could be said in this tone. As Johnson finely says of him, Addison "taught a succession of writers to bring elegance and gaiety to the aid of goodness." But Johnson had grown up to middle-life, a poor and recluse student struggling with adversity; "toil, envy, want, the patron, and the gaol"—he had known all of them except the last; and during the long years before the dweller in Grub Street became the oracle of society, his brooding mind had communed deeply with a scholar's natural friends, the great prose-writers of the preceding century. He used to say that Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy was the only book which ever got him out of bed two hours earlier than usual; another of his favourites was Sir Thomas Browne. These studies could not but affect his style; they furnished to it an element which tempers the tradition of Addison and Pope; we see it in the lofty diction, the ampler periods, and, generally, in that tone which suggests the study rather than the drawing-room. To make this clearer, let us place side by side a short passage from Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, and a like specimen of Addison. Here is Burton:—"Every man knows his own but not others' defects and miseries; and 'tis the nature of all men still to reflect upon themselves and their own misfortunes, not to examine or consider other men's, not to confer themselves with others: to recount their miseries, but not the good gifts, fortunes, benefits, which they have; to ruminate on their adversity, but not once to think on their prosperity, not what they have, but what they want; to look still on them that go before, but not on those infinite numbers that come after; whereas many a man would think himself in heaven, a petty prince, if he had but the least part of that fortune which thou so much repinest at, abhorrest, and accountest a most vile and wretched estate." Here is Addison, dealing with a similar subject, in The Mountain of Miseries:—"It is a celebrated thought of Socrates, that if all the misfortunes of mankind were cast into a public stock, in order to be equally distributed among the whole species, those who now think themselves the most unhappy would prefer the share they are already possessed of, before that which would fall to them by such a division. Horace has carried this thought a great deal further (Sat. i. 1, ver. 1), which implies that the hardships or misfortunes we lie under are more easy to us than those of any other person would be, in case we could change conditions with him."

There we have types of the two manners which mainly contributed to mould Johnson's style; the one, such as Burton's, learned, ample, diffuse; the other, like Addison's, pitched in the key of good conversation, correct, neat, transparently clear; but of these two manners, that which Burton represents was to Johnson by far the more congenial. Indeed, when Johnson enters upon the ground where the best writers of the preceding age were so peculiarly happy—the graceful treatment of light social themes—he is painfully elephantine; for instance, the defence of masquerades in the Rambler, in a letter addressed by a man of fashion to the lively Flirtilla, is an awful warning against ponderous levity. Nevertheless, Johnson is sometimes really good, even in a light vein, where he can bring his strong, though not very subtle, sense of humour to bear on some phase of life or character that he knows. Take, for instance, this description of "Tom Steady" in the Idler:—

"Tom Steady was a vehement assertor of uncontroverted truth; and by keeping himself out of the reach of contradiction, had acquired all the confidence which the consciousness of irresistible abilities could have given. I was once mentioning a man of eminence, and after having recounted his virtues, endeavoured to represent him fully, by mentioning his faults, 'Sir,' said Mr Steady, 'that he has faults I can easily believe, for who is without them? No man, Sir, is now alive, among the innumerable multitudes that swarm upon the earth, however wise, or however good, who has not, in some degree, his failings and his faults. If there be any man faultless, bring him forth into public view, shew him openly, and let him be known; but I will venture to affirm, and, until the contrary be plainly shewn, shall always maintain, that no such man is to be found. Tell not me, Sir, of impeccability and perfection; such talk is for those that are strangers in the world: I have seen several nations, and conversed with all ranks of people: I have known the great and the mean, the learned and the ignorant, the old and the young, the clerical and the lay; but I have never found a man without a fault; and I suppose shall die in the opinion that to be human is to be frail.' To all this nothing could be opposed. I listened with a hanging head; Mr Steady looked round on the hearers with triumph, and saw every eye congratulating his victory."

Before passing from Johnson's literary style, let me give one or two other examples of it, which, like the last, show him in an unfamiliar light. We know how devoted he was to the town: "A man who is tired of London," he said, "is tired of life"; again, he said, "No wise man will go to live in the country unless he has something to do which can be better done in the country. For instance: if he is to shut himself up for a year to study a science, it is better to look out to the fields than to an opposite wall. Then, if a man walks out in the country, there is nobody to keep him from walking in again; but if a man walks out in London he is not sure when he shall walk in again." The estimate of rural nature implied here was not very promising for the Tour in the Hebrides; and it is all the more interesting to find, in his record of that journey, such passages as these:—

He is in a valley in the Highlands:—"I sat down on a bank, such as a writer of romance might have delighted to feign. I had, indeed, no trees to whisper over my head, but a clear rivulet streamed at my feet. The day was calm, the air was soft, and all was rudeness, silence, and solitude. Before me, and on either side, were high hills, which, by hindering the eye from ranging, forced the mind to find entertainment for itself. Whether I spent the hour well, I know not; for here I first conceived the thought of this narration."—Remark here, in passing, the notes of the eighteenth century; first, the reference of nature to a standard of art, when the bank is said to be worthy of a romance, and the writer feels that trees ought to be whispering over his head; secondly, the word "rudeness," used to describe wild scenery, implying the contrast with nature as improved by art—what Johnson would have called civility.

It was Edmund Burke who said, "Boswell's Life is a greater monument to Johnson's fame than all his writings put together." Johnson himself could not be expected to foresee this. "Sir," he once said, "the good I can do by my conversation bears the same proportion to the good I can do by my writings that the practice of a physician, retired to a small town, does to his practice in a great city." But we know that Burke was right; it is by his spoken wisdom, far more than by the written, that Johnson lives. Let us remember, however, that this result would not have been attained by a mere record of Johnson's talk, however faithful. Boswell—whom Macaulay unduly depreciated as an abject toady, and whom Carlyle unduly exalted as a martyr to hero-worship—was a consummate artist in biography. The triumph of his art is that it eludes notice; but take a typical instance—take his account of the dinner-party at Mr Dilly's, the bookseller in the Poultry, where Johnson, by Boswell's ingenious diplomacy, was brought to meet John Wilkes, whom he detested, and had handled severely in his political pamphlets, called The False Alarm and The Patriot; the description shows Boswell's dramatic gift; and it is only one of a hundred scenes which do so. When Johnson and Boswell entered Mr Dilly's drawing-room, and Johnson found that the gentleman in lace was Mr John Wilkes, he took up a book; but he was ashamed to let Boswell see that he was disconcerted, and had recovered his composure by the time dinner was announced. Boswell must tell the rest in his own words. "Mr Wilkes found himself next to Dr Johnson, and behaved to him with so much attention and politeness that he gained upon him insensibly. No man eat more heartily than Johnson, or loved better what was nice and delicate. Mr Wilkes was very assiduous in helping him to some fine veal. 'Pray give me leave, sir—it is better here—a little of the brown—some fat, sir—a little of the stuffing, some gravy.—Let me have the pleasure of giving you some butter.—Allow me to recommend a squeeze of this orange; or the lemon perhaps may have more zest.'—'Sir, sir, I am obliged to you, sir,' cried Johnson, bowing and turning his head to him with a look for some time of 'surly virtue,' but in a short while of complacency."—It is by this dramatic power that Boswell gives us, not Johnson's talk merely, but Johnson himself; thanks to Boswell, we know Johnson, not as we know the subject of many another biography, but rather as we know some of the characters whom fiction has made to live for us—as we know Falstaff, or Don Quixote, for instance. Now, Johnson's talk itself profits somewhat, no doubt, in effect by Boswell's setting; this skilful dramatist nearly always contrives that the curtain shall fall on a victory of the hero. We cannot always repress a suspicion that Johnson is allowed to score rather easily, and that a fairly good antagonist might have made a better fight of it; the bowling seems to collapse before his batting. However, there is no doubt at all as to his extraordinary impressiveness for his contemporaries. There are many other contemporary witnesses besides Boswell. Probably no one except Johnson was ever the recipient of a round-robin signed by four names of such varied lustre as those of Burke, Joshua Reynolds, Gibbon, and Sheridan. It was a small incident perhaps in itself, but what a position it implies for Johnson, what a command of admiring affection from the strongest and brightest minds of that day! And this position, though the result partly of his writings and partly of his character, was principally due to the impression of sagacity and power which his associates were daily receiving from his talk.

In Johnson's talk we seem to distinguish two leading aspects, which imply essentially different qualities; though of course the two are sometimes combined, or melt into each other. The first of these is controversial, or at least competitive; the other is didactic. When Johnson describes the delight of dining with friends at an inn, he says: "I dogmatise and am contradicted; and in this conflict of opinions and sentiments I find delight." So elsewhere he says: "That people should endeavour to excel in conversation I do not wonder, because in conversation praise is instantly reverberated." Johnson was usually able to produce, on the spur of the moment, some argument to which no one present saw the answer; some argument which, whether quite valid or not, sufficed for victory; and in a conversing age, like his, this was a fertile source of renown. Indeed, it will always be a source of some reputation; for good debaters will always be rare. The other aspect of Johnson's talk may again be described in his own words: "that is the happiest conversation where there is no competition, no vanity, but a calm quiet interchange of sentiments." The elements of permanent interest and value in Johnson's talk generally occur under this latter condition; when, instead of being busy with thrust and parry, he has leisure to unfold his practical wisdom.

Johnson, in his latter years, when we hear him talk, was indeed rich in the wisdom of life; he had gone through much and known all sorts of people; he had, in Rousseau's phrase, "that rarest kind of philosophy which consists in observing what we see every day"; moreover, his nature was keenly sensitive and profoundly kind; a quality which is a better ally for common sense than is always supposed. It has been said, not without justice, that he sometimes abuses the moralist's privilege of being commonplace; still—imbedded, it may sometimes be, in commonplace—the searcher will find many an acute remark, so pithily or forcibly worded as to be well worthy of remembrance. This is ground on which his writings and his talk come into a single view; both alike exemplify this practical wisdom, and both must be laid under contribution, if we would appreciate its scope.

Many of his shrewdest sayings concern social intercourse. Thus he observes that there are excellent people who have never done any wrong to their neighbours, and who cannot understand why they are not more popular; the reason being, as he puts it, that "they neglect all those arts by which men are endeared to one another." "They wrap themselves up in their innocence, and enjoy the congratulations of their own hearts, without knowing or suspecting that they are every day deservedly incurring resentments by withholding from those with whom they converse that regard, or appearance of regard, to which every one is entitled by the customs of the world." Observe his phrase; it reminds us of another saying of his, that "politeness is fictitious benevolence." Nor has he failed to observe that his countrymen sometimes forget this principle. "Sir," he says, "two men of any other nation who are shown into a room together at a house where they are both visitors will immediately find some conversation. But two Englishmen will probably go each to a different window, and remain in obstinate silence. Sir, we as yet do not enough understand the common rights of humanity." Is it not sad to think that this was said a century and a quarter ago, and that it is generally as true—by the consent of all foreigners—to-day, as it was then? After this reproof, let us take a little crumb of comfort: Johnson defends—magnificently defends—our good old custom of talking about the weather; a custom which may languish, but which, we must earnestly hope, will never disappear. After pointing out the interesting uncertainty of our climate, and referring to some other available topics, such as gossip, the state of the stock-market, and continental wars, Johnson concludes:—"The weather is a nobler and more interesting subject; it is the present state of the skies and of the earth, on which plenty and famine are suspended, on which millions depend for the necessaries of life."—For persons who affect singularity of behaviour, Johnson has a useful hint: "Singularity, as it implies a contempt of the general practice, is a kind of defiance which justly provokes the hostility of ridicule; he therefore who indulges peculiar habits is worse than others if he be not better." And how admirably does Johnson demolish that fallacy to which English people are peculiarly prone—that a person of rough manners is therefore more likely to be honest—in this terse sentence:—"Honesty is not greater where elegance is less." "The difference between a well-bred and ill-bred man," he says, "is this; one immediately attracts your liking, the other your aversion. You love the one till you find reason to hate him; you hate the other till you find reason to love him." Johnson well knew how much of the happiness of life depends upon friendship, and all young people would do well to remember one of his counsels on this subject. "In youth," he says, "we are apt to be too rigorous in our expectations, and to suppose that the duties of life are to be performed with unfailing exactness and regularity; but in our progress through life we are forced to abate much of our demands, and to take friends such as we can find them, not as we would make them." "Every wise man,...when he remembers how often he fails in the observance of a cultivation of his best friends, is willing to suppose that his friends may in their turn neglect him without any intention to offend him." And so, when Boswell was hurt because Johnson had not lately written to him, Johnson says: "Do not fancy that an intermission of writing is a decay of kindness. No man is always in a disposition to write; nor has any man at all times something to say." Distrust of friends, he adds, is not only foolish; it is criminal, because it impairs one's fitness for one's duties. It is in home-life that Johnson places the true centre of happiness. "To be happy at home," he says, "is the ultimate result of all ambition, the end to which every enterprise and labour tends, and of which every desire prompts the prosecution."

Johnson was an expert in that very difficult part of life, the management of one's own mind. He knew, with his constitutional melancholy, what it was to be ridden by the nightmare of mental trouble. "A man so afflicted," he said, "must divert distressing thoughts, and not combat with them." Boswell. "May he not think them down, Sir?" Johnson. "No, Sir. The attempt to think them down is madness." So it is that he says, in the Rambler: "The safe and general antidote against sorrow is employment. It is commonly observed that, among soldiers and seamen, though there is much kindness, there is little grief: they see their friend fall without any of that lamentation which is indulged in security and idleness, because they have no leisure to spare from the care of themselves." He reminds us, too, that there are some troubles on which we ought to be silent. Talking of Dryden's open resentment of hostile criticism, he remarks, "The writer who thinks his works formed for duration mistakes his interest when he mentions his enemies." And elsewhere he comments on the unwise outcry of some writers whom Pope had pilloried in the Dunciad. "No man," he remarks, "sympathises with the sorrows of vanity." Many of Johnson's thoughts on conduct and character are epigrammatic in form, and felicitous. For example: "Gratitude is a species of Justice." "Want of tenderness is want of parts, and is no less a proof of stupidity than depravity." "Men are wrong for want of sense; but they are wrong by halves for want of spirit." When he is excusing the eulogists of Halifax's poetry, he observes that unmerited praise is not necessarily flattery, since it may be swayed by affection, and neatly puts the case thus:—"Very near to admiration is the wish to admire." It befell Johnson, in the course of his long dictatorship, to administer many a rebuff, and some of these rebuffs have no more to do with wit than a knock-down blow with skill on the violin; but some of them are of a finer order. There was a pertinacious visitor, of little education, who harassed Johnson, and a friend ventured to plead that this gentleman was at least desirous of amending his ignorance. "Sir," said Johnson, "his ignorance is so great that I am afraid to show him the bottom of it." Then there is a story preserved, not by Boswell, but by Hannah More. Mrs Brooke, a novelist and dramatist, had written a tragedy called the Siege of Sinope, and pressed Johnson to look over it. After some evasion, and finally a refusal, he suggested that she herself was entirely competent to revise it. "But, Sir," said the lady, "I have no time: I have already so many irons in the fire." "Why, then, Madam," said Johnson, "the best thing I can advise you to do is to put your tragedy along with your irons."

As a literary critic, Johnson is not highly rated at the present day. The main reason of this is that he is known chiefly as a critic of poetry; and the school of criticism which he represents tried poetry by rules which are no longer accepted. It is not to be expected that Johnson's reputation in this respect should now experience much change, and yet I venture to think that it deserves to stand somewhat higher. The great fault of his school was that they judged poetry too much by its moral value and its logical coherence, and too little by its qualities as a work of art. For instance, Johnson is exceedingly severe on Gray's odes; and in summing up against one of them, The Bard, he delivers himself as follows:—"I do not see that The Bard promotes any truth, moral or political." But in the same essay he does justice to the Elegy in a Country Churchyard, because the sentiments are those to which, as he says, "every bosom returns an echo." "Had Gray written often thus," he adds, "it had been vain to blame, and useless to praise him." For Milton he had the highest veneration; he has even described him as "that poet whose works may possibly be read when every other monument of British greatness shall be obliterated"; yet he grotesquely disparages Lycidas, because it wears the garb of classical allegory, and he even proceeds to this strange generalisation:—"Milton never learned the art of doing little things with grace." It would have been truer to say that Milton's short poems were seldom little. Then he wishes that Paradise Lost had been written in rhyming heroic couplet; "The variety of pauses," he says, "so much boasted by the lovers of blank verse, changes the measures of an English poet to the periods of a declaimer." But then turn to his criticism on those poets whose theory of poetry agreed with his own—such as Pope and Dryden—and you will find that it is excellent; so just, so acute, and so discriminating that it will always repay study. And even when his criticism of a writer is unfavourably biased—as it is in the case of Swift—he sometimes ends by laying his finger on some distinctive merit; as when, in concluding his estimate of Swift, he says, "perhaps no writer can easily be found that has borrowed so little, or that, in all his excellencies and all his defects, has so well maintained his claim to be considered original." His judgments on Shakespeare sometimes seem to us inadequate; but it would be hard to find a more penetrating criticism on Shakespeare's prose dialogue than is contained in the following passage—one less known than it deserves to be. He has just been saying that every nation has a style of its own which never dies out—a mode of speech so native to the language that it survives all changes of fashion; and this lives on in the mouths of the people. "The polite," he continues, "are always catching modish innovations, and the learned depart from established forms of speech, in hope of finding or making better; those who wish for distinction forsake the vulgar when the vulgar is right; but there is a conversation above grossness and below refinement where propriety resides, and where this poet (Shakespeare) seems to have gathered his comic dialogue. He is therefore more agreeable to the ears of the present age than any other author equally remote, and among his other excellencies deserves to be studied as one of the original masters of our language."

All Johnson's criticism has one great merit; it is thoroughly independent. It is also marked, almost everywhere, by strong good sense; and though good sense does not necessarily mean good taste, at any rate there can be no good taste without it.

His character was a noble one—generous, brave, unswervingly honest, and, above all, wonderfully kind. He had no patience for people grumbling about petty or sentimental troubles; but where there was real trouble, his bounty and his self-sacrifice were signal. Two thirds of his income went in charity. His dependents were numerous. In his later years his own house was full of permanent inmates who were either partly or wholly supported by him. Johnson describes, in a letter to Mrs Thrale, how his guests got on with each other; "Williams," he says, "hates everybody; Levett hates Desmoulins, and does not love Williams; Desmoulins hates them both; Poll (Miss Carmichael) loves none of them." Then Frank Barber resented the authority of Miss Williams, and she complained of Barber's insubordination. And in this circle Johnson voluntarily made his home for years. His acts of goodness to the outcasts of society, to the most forlorn waifs and strays of humanity, were past counting, "A decent provision for the poor," he said, "is the true test of civility"; and he regarded it as the chief distinction of his own age that it had given new examples of charity. Among such examples, others may have been more conspicuous in men's eyes, and more often on their lips; but assuredly few can have been nobler. The eighteenth century had not come to see what the more prosperous classes can and ought to do towards making the lives of the poor brighter; but the feeling which moved Johnson when he met with misery in the London streets was as keen as stirs any worker at the East End to-day, and his benevolence, if less systematic and less refined, was as practical in spirit. Johnson's large sympathies are seen again in his warm appreciation of his friends. Men of the most diverse characters and abilities have received from him a tribute of praise which sets forth some shining quality in each of them. Thus he pronounced David Garrick "the first man in the world for sprightly conversation"; and, in referring to the great actor's death, wrote that it had "eclipsed the gaiety of nations, and diminished the public stock of harmless pleasures." His estimate of the novelist Richardson, whom he somewhat unduly preferred to Fielding, appears in his saying that "Fielding can tell the hour by looking at the clock, whilst Richardson knows how the clock was made." It was through Johnson's good offices that the Vicar of Wakefield passed from manuscript into print; and intimately though he knew the foibles of Goldsmith's character, he did the amplest justice to his peculiar literary genius. "Goldsmith," he said, "was a man who, whatever he wrote, always did it better than any other man could do"—a judgment which stands in the Latin of his famous epitaph on Goldsmith as nihil tetigit quod non ornavit, "he touched nothing which he did not adorn." Horace Walpole described Johnson as "the representative in epitome of all the contradictions in human nature." This gives a rather superficial view of him. No doubt there was sometimes an odd disproportion in his likings and dislikes; it might seem strange, for instance, that he could not tolerate the mention of a man so estimable as Joseph Priestley, and yet be ready to dine at the table of the sedition-monger Jack Wilkes. Macaulay dwells on the contrast between Johnson's reluctance to credit the account of the Lisbon earthquake, and his readiness to believe in the Cock-Lane ghost. But Macaulay puts the case here in a somewhat misleading perspective. Johnson was slow to credit reports of extraordinary incidents in the ordinary course of nature, when he had no means of verifying such reports, because he was keenly alive to the various sources of falsehood in human life. In regard to alleged supernatural occurrences, he was not weakly credulous; it was he, for example, who demolished this very Cock-Lane ghost in the Gentleman s Magazine; but he wished to keep his mind open. Believing firmly in the existence of the soul after death, he was not prepared to deny the possibility of such communications from the unseen world. Once more, there was sometimes, no doubt, an odd contrast between his pursuits and his associates; it might seem incongruous that the great lexicographer should spend the small hours of the morning in brewing a bowl of bishop at a tavern with such young men as the elegant Mr Bennet Langton and the gay Mr Topham Beauclerc, and in helping them to surprise the early fruiterers in Covent Garden; but we may remember that all history attests the magnetic attraction of bright mind for bright mind—however different their bodily dwellings—from the days when Socrates fascinated Alcibiades, and at cock-crow, after the night-long banquet, was still trying to convince the drowsy Aristophanes that Comedy is of the same essence as Tragedy. Johnson was a great man to his contemporaries, and, if we judge soundly, he must appear a great man to us; although we estimate in a somewhat different proportion the elements which constitute his greatness. To us he is no longer the literary oracle or the profound sage; he is rather a man of singularly robust intellect; a most keen and sane observer of character; a man wise in the wisdom of life, who knew the evil and the misery that must be always in the world, but never wasted in idle repining the strength that should be reserved for combating and, so far as possible, alleviating them; a man to be honoured for his intellectual gifts, but who deserves at least equal honour for his moral qualities and his goodness. We in England have him all to ourselves. The best biography in all English literature has never been translated into any foreign language. An eminent French writer, who has shown a power, unusual in his countrymen, of comprehending England,—Monsieur Taine,—is obliged to confess that he cannot understand the English love of Johnson. And yet we shall continue to love him.

Notes[edit]

  1. A Lecture given at Newnham College, Cambridge, March 3, 1894.