Εικόνες σελίδας
PDF
Ηλεκτρ. έκδοση

so long duration as did Samuel Johnson, who for many years of his life and long after his death was a sort of despot, from whom there was no appeal.

Of all the men of the past whose acquaintance we make through books, I do not remember one whom we know so

much about, or can see so vividly, as DR. SAMUEL 1709-1784

JOHNSON. Our thanks for this are due to the man who wrote his life, James Boswell, a Scotchman, familiarly called “Bozzy,” who for years was happy to stand in the background of Johnson's greatness, looking at him with reverent admiration, eagerly waiting upon every word that fell from his lips, that he might treasure it up to send down to posterity. Nothing was too trivial for Boswell; if Dr. Johnson sneezed, down went the fact in Boswell's notebook. The result is that Boswell's Life of Johnson is one of the most minute and most entertaining biographies ever written ; and although we laugh at the author, we shall be always grateful to him.

It was the strong and sterling forces of character that got Dr. Johnson his footing in the world. He had neither good looks, elegant manners, fine tact, nor any personal graces to help him. Lacking all these, he yet rose from obscurity to a very high place in his day and generation.

He was born in the little town of Lichfield, and was twenty-eight years old when he started for London, to begin there his literary career. David Garrick, afterwards the great actor, who had been Johnson's schoolfellow and later his pupil, was his companion in this journey. Johnson's capital in trade was his tragedy of Irene, which he carried in his pocket, while Garrick had little more than a gay heart and his dramatic genius to start with. The tragedy of Irene never made a success, even with Garrick's genius to uphold it; but Johnson climbed steadily to power.

His early days in London are pathetic to read about. He was very poor, sometimes so poor that he walked the streets at night because he had no money to pay his lodging. His clothes were often so shabby that he could not

appear in respectable society. After he had written some articles which attracted notice, in the Gentleman's Magazine, the publisher, Mr. Cave, invited him to dinner to meet some friends who were anxious to see a man who could write with such power. Johnson came to the dinner; but his clothes were so poor that he dined behind a screen out of sight of the guests. But nothing could crush him, although once in after life, when he was prosperous and honored, in recalling the miseries of a poor author he burst into tears at the sharp remembrance of them. By and by his articles, which he wrote for newspapers and magazines, began to attact attention. Pope praised him; Richardson the printer (who afterwards wrote Clarissa Harlowe) admired him; the publishers began to inquire him out; and soon his lot grew easier.

His first notable work was a Dictionary of the English Language, which his publisher engaged him to make, agreeing to pay him fifteen hundred and seventy-five pounds for the work, paid in instalments, a guinea at a time, as he furnished the copy. He agreed to complete the work in three years; but although begun in 1747, it was not published till 1755.

In the mean time he did other work. It occurred to him in his intervals of compiling the dictionary to edit a paper on the plan of Addison and Steele in The Spectator, and thus he began The Rambler, writing a series of two hundred papers by that name. Of all his works none was so popular as this. Goldsmith gives the general opinion about it in one of his essays called The Fame Machine, in which he represents a small carriage as taking passengers to the Temple of Fame. As Goldsmith is talking to the coachman, he says, a grave personage appeared,

“ Whom at some distance I took for one of the most reserved and even disagreeable figures I had ever seen; but as he approached, his appearance improved, and when I could distinguish him thoroughly, I perceived that in spite of the severity of his brow, he had one of the most good-natured countenances that could be imagined. Upon coming to open the stage-door,

[ocr errors]

he lifted a parcel of folios into the seat before him; but our inquisitorial coachman at once shoved them out again. “What, not take in my Dictionary?' exclaimed the other, in a rage. • Be patient, sir,' replied the coachman; “I have drove a coach, man and boy, these two thousand years; but I do not remember to have carried above one dictionary during the whole time. That little work which I perceive peeping from one of your pockets, may I presume to ask what it contains ?' 'A mere trifle,' replied the author ; 'it is called The Rambler.' "The Rambler!' cries the coachman; 'I beg, sir, you 'll take your place. I have heard our ladies in the court of Apollo frequently mention it with rapture, and Clio, who happens to be a little grave, has been heard to prefer it to The Spectator; though others have observed that the reflections, by being refined, sometimes become minute."

6

Besides the works which I have mentioned, Johnson wrote a series of Lives of the Poets, which were written as prefaces to an edition of the works of the English poets. These were so much esteemed as criticism that they took their place in literature as critical biographies, independent of the work for which they were written. They included the lives of Milton, Parnell, Waller, Dryden, Pope, Thomson, Gray, and many others. He also edited Shakespeare, with criticisms on the plays. Of the poets of his own time, and of the school which he had been educated to believe was the correct school in poetry, he could write with excellent judgment; but Milton, Shakespeare, the poets of the Elizabethan age, were too great for him, and the present age does not accept his criticism of them.

His story of Rasselas, a little work which has taken a place among English classics, is the most readable of all his works. It is the account of an Eastern prince who is reared in a happy valley and guarded from all knowledge of evil, but finally grows weary of the monotony of his life, and wanders through the world in the vain search after happiness. It was written, so Johnson said, to pay the funeral expenses of his mother and some little debts she left at death, and the author got for it one hundred and twenty-five pounds.

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

morrow.

Here is a short extract from Rasselas, the speech of the young prince when he discovers that, in spite of the felicities of the “Happy Valley," he is not content with it, nor with himself:

What,' said he, “makes the difference between man and all the rest of the animal creation ? Every beast that strays beside me has the same corporeal necessities with myself; he is hungry, and crops the grass; he is thirsty, and drinks the stream; his thirst and hunger are appeased; he is satisfied, and sleeps; he arises again, and is hungry; he is again fed, and is at rest. I am hungry and thirsty like him; but when thirst and hunger cease, I am not at rest; I am, like him, pained with want, but am not, like him, satisfied with fulness. The inter. mediate hours are tedious and gloomy; I long again to be hungry, that I may again quicken my attention. The birds peck the berries or the corn, and fly away to the groves, where they sit in seeming happiness on the branches, and waste their lives in tuning an unvaried series of sounds. I likewise can call the lutanist and the singer; but the sounds that pleased me yesterday weary me to-day, and will grow yet more wearisome to

I can discover within me no power of perception which is not glutted with its proper pleasure, yet I do not feel myself delighted. Man surely has some latent sense for which this place affords no gratification; or he has some desires, distinct from sense, which must be satisfied before he can be happy.'...

“ With observations like these the prince amused himself as he returned, uttering them with a plaintive voice, yet with a look that discovered him to feel some complacence in his own perspicuity, and to receive some solace of the miseries of life from consciousness of the delicacy with which he felt, and the eloquence with which he bewailed them.”

The Johnsonian style is in pompous and long-syllabled words, overloaded with words of Latin origin. Johnson underrated the value of strong, homely English ; and when he had expressed himself in plain, direct words, he was apt to translate himself into a more verbose style. Boswell gives some good instances, as once when the great Doctor had said vigorously, speaking of one of the comedies of the time of Charles II. : “It had not wit enough to keep itself sweet ;' and immediately changed it to “ It had not enough vitality to preserve it from putrefaction." Macaulay finds a still

. better instance from one of Johnson's familiar letters when he was travelling in the Hebrides. He writes : “ When we were taken upstairs, a dirty fellow bounced out of the bed in which we were to lie.” Afterwards, when he printed the journal of these travels, he gave the account thus : “Out of one of the beds in which we were to repose, started up, at our entrance, a man black as Cyclops from the forge." This is what Macaulay wittily calls “putting a sentence out

a of English into Johnsonese."

In person Johnson was awkward, stooping, with shambling gait, head rolling from side to side, and face disfigured with marks of scrofula. In manners he must have been very disagreeable, as he was often intolerant, overbearing in conversation, and regardless of the feelings of others. He was extremely narrow-minded in some of his views : a Tory who could hardly bear the name of Whig; an Englishman who hated all foreigners, and declared the Americans, at the outbreak of their Revolution, “ A party of convicts who ought to be hanged;" a Churchman who had no sympathy with Dissenters; and a partisan in most of his literary opinions. Yet, with so much to be disliked, he was a generous man, whose house was filled with poor people who lived on his bounty; he was very tender to distress, and was a truthful, honest, independent man.

Johnson was the centre of the Literary Club started in his day, which had Goldsmith, Edmund Burke, Joshua Reynolds the artist, David Garrick, and other famous men among its members. This club was one of his haunts, and another was the house of Mr. Thrale, a wealthy gentleman who befriended him, where he took tea once a week, till for a time he took up his abode in the house altogether. Mrs. Thrale, who was a lively, sweet-tempered woman,

made much of him and poured his tea cheerfully, — not a light

office ; for he drank a dozen cups at a sitting, and once took twenty-five at one tea-drinking, — rather to the disgust of his hostess.

« ΠροηγούμενηΣυνέχεια »