Full Online Books
Authors Authors Short Stories Short Stories Long Stories Long Stories Funny Stories Funny Stories Love Stories Love Stories Stories For Kids Stories For Kids Poems Poems Essays Essays Nonfictions Nonfictions Plays Plays Folktales Folktales Fairy Tales Fairy Tales Fables Fables Learning Kitchen Learning Kitchen
Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional Free Classified Website Without Registration Free Classified Website Daniel Company
Twitter Twitter Add book
Full Online Book HomeEssaysDr. Johnson
Famous Authors (View All Authors)
Dr. Johnson Post by :redryder Category :Essays Author :Augustine Birrell Date :October 2011 Read :2380

Click below to download : Dr. Johnson (Format : PDF)

Dr. Johnson

If we should ever take occasion to say of Dr. Johnson's Preface to Shakspeare what he himself said of a similar production of the poet Rowe, 'that it does not discover much profundity or penetration,' we ought in common fairness always to add that nobody else has ever written about Shakspeare one-half so entertainingly. If this statement be questioned, let the doubter, before reviling me, re-read the preface, and if, after he has done so, he still demurs, we shall be content to withdraw the observation, which, indeed, has only been made for the purpose of introducing a quotation from the Preface itself.

In that document, Dr. Johnson, with his unrivalled stateliness, writes as follows:--'The poet of whose works I have undertaken the revision may now begin to assume the dignity of an ancient, and claim the privilege of established fame and prescriptive veneration. He has long outlived his century, the term commonly fixed as the test of literary merit.'

The whirligig of time has brought in his revenges. The Doctor himself has been dead his century. He died on the 13th of December, 1784. Come, let us criticise him.

Our qualifications for this high office need not be investigated curiously.

'Criticism,' writes Johnson in the 60th Idler, 'is a study by which men grow important and formidable at a very small expense. The power of invention has been conferred by nature upon few, and the labour of learning those sciences which may by mere labour be obtained, is too great to be willingly endured; but every man can exert such judgment as he has upon the works of others; and he whom nature has made weak, and idleness keeps ignorant, may yet support his vanity by the name of a critick.'

To proceed with our task by the method of comparison is to pursue a course open to grave objection, yet it is forced upon us when we find, as we lately did, a writer in the Times newspaper, in the course of a not very discriminating review of Mr. Froude's recent volumes, casually remarking, as if it admitted of no more doubt than the day's price of consols, that Carlyle was a greater man than Johnson. It is a good thing to be positive. To be positive in your opinions and selfish in your habits is the best recipe, if not for happiness, at all events for that far more attainable commodity, comfort, with which we are acquainted. 'A noisy man,' sang poor Cowper, who could not bear anything louder than the hissing of a tea-urn, 'a noisy man is always in the right,' and a positive man can seldom be proved wrong. Still, in literature it is very desirable to preserve a moderate measure of independence, and we, therefore, make bold to ask whether it is as plain as the 'old hill of Howth,' that Carlyle was a greater man than Johnson? Is not the precise contrary the truth? No abuse of Carlyle need be looked for here or from me. When a man of genius and of letters happens to have any striking virtues, such as purity, temperance, honesty, the novel task of dwelling on them has such attraction for us, that we are content to leave the elucidation of his faults to his personal friends, and to stern, unbending moralists like Mr. Edmund Yates and the World newspaper. {1} To love Carlyle is, thanks to Mr. Froude's super-human ideal of friendship, a task of much heroism, almost meriting a pension; still, it is quite possible for the candid and truth-loving soul. But a greater than Johnson he most certainly was not.


{1} "The late Mr. Carlyle was a brute and a boor."--The World, October 29th, 1884.

There is a story in Lockhart's Life of Scott of an ancient beggar-woman, who, whilst asking an alms of Sir Walter, described herself, in a lucky moment for her pocket, as 'an old struggler.' Scott made a note of the phrase in his diary, and thought it deserved to become classical. It certainly clings most tenaciously to the memory--so picturesquely does it body forth the striving attitude of poor battered humanity. Johnson was 'an old struggler.' {2} So too, in all conscience, was Carlyle. The struggles of Johnson have long been historical; those of Carlyle have just become so. We are interested in both. To be indifferent would be inhuman. Both men had great endowments, tempestuous natures, hard lots. They were not amongst Dame Fortune's favourites. They had to fight their way. What they took they took by storm. But--and here is a difference indeed--Johnson came off victorious, Carlyle did not.


{2} In the first edition, by a strange and distressing freak of the imagination, I took the 'old struggler' out of Lockhart and put her into Boswell.

Boswell's book is an arch of triumph, through which, as we read, we see his hero passing into eternal fame, to take up his place with those--

'Dead but sceptred sovereigns who still rule
Our spirits from their urns.'

Froude's book is a tomb over which the lovers of Carlyle's genius will never cease to shed tender but regretful tears.

We doubt whether there is in English literature a more triumphant book than Boswell's. What materials for tragedy are wanting? Johnson was a man of strong passions, unbending spirit, violent temper, as poor as a church-mouse, and as proud as the proudest of church dignitaries; endowed with the strength of a coal-heaver, the courage of a lion, and the tongue of Dean Swift, he could knock down booksellers and silence bargees; he was melancholy almost to madness, 'radically wretched,' indolent, blinded, diseased. Poverty was long his portion; not that genteel poverty that is sometimes behindhand with its rent, but that hungry poverty that does not know where to look for its dinner. Against all these things had this 'old struggler' to contend; over all these things did this 'old struggler' prevail. Over even the fear of death, the giving up of this 'intellectual being,' which had haunted his gloomy fancy for a lifetime, he seems finally to have prevailed, and to have met his end as a brave man should.

Carlyle, writing to his wife, says, and truthfully enough, 'The more the devil worries me the more I wring him by the nose;' but then if the devil's was the only nose that was wrung in the transaction, why need Carlyle cry out so loud? After buffeting one's way through the storm- tossed pages of Froude's Carlyle--in which the universe is stretched upon the rack because food disagrees with man and cocks crow--with what thankfulness and reverence do we read once again the letter in which Johnson tells Mrs. Thrale how he has been called to endure, not dyspepsia or sleeplessness, but paralysis itself:

'On Monday I sat for my picture, and walked a considerable way with little inconvenience. In the afternoon and evening I felt myself light and easy, and began to plan schemes of life. Thus I went to bed, and, in a short time, waked and sat up, as has long been my custom; when I felt a confusion in my head which lasted, I suppose, about half a minute; I was alarmed, and prayed God that however much He might afflict my body He would spare my understanding. . . . Soon after I perceived that I had suffered a paralytic stroke, and that my speech was taken from me. I had no pain, and so little dejection, in this dreadful state, that I wondered at my own apathy, and considered that perhaps death itself, when it should come, would excite less horror than seems now to attend it. In order to rouse the vocal organs I took two drams. . . . I then went to bed, and, strange as it may seem, I think, slept. When I saw light it was time I should contrive what I should do. Though God stopped my speech He left me my hand. I enjoyed a mercy which was not granted to my dear friend Lawrence, who now perhaps overlooks me, as I am writing, and rejoices that I have what he wanted. My first note was necessarily to my servant, who came in talking, and could not immediately comprehend why he should read what I put into his hands. . . . How this will be received by you I know not. I hope you will sympathize with me; but perhaps--

'"My mistress, gracious, mild, and good,
Cries--Is he dumb? 'Tis time he shou'd."

'I suppose you may wish to know how my disease is treated by the physicians. They put a blister upon my back, and two from my ear to my throat, one on a side. The blister on the back has done little, and those on the throat have not risen. I bullied and bounced (it sticks to our last sand), and compelled the apothecary to make his salve according to the Edinburgh dispensatory, that it might adhere better. I have now two on my own prescription. They likewise give me salt of hartshorn, which I take with no great confidence; but I am satisfied that what can be done is done for me. I am almost ashamed of this querulous letter, but now it is written let it go.'

This is indeed tonic and bark for the mind.

If, irritated by a comparison that ought never to have been thrust upon us, we ask why it is that the reader of Boswell finds it as hard to help loving Johnson as the reader of Froude finds its hard to avoid disliking Carlyle, the answer must be that whilst the elder man of letters was full to overflowing with the milk of human kindness, the younger one was full to overflowing with something not nearly so nice; and that whilst Johnson was pre-eminently a reasonable man, reasonable in all his demands and expectations, Carlyle was the most unreasonable mortal that ever exhausted the patience of nurse, mother, or wife.

Of Dr. Johnson's affectionate nature nobody has written with nobler appreciation than Carlyle himself. 'Perhaps it is this Divine feeling of affection, throughout manifested, that principally attracts us to Johnson. A true brother of men is he, and filial lover of the earth.'

The day will come when it will be recognised that Carlyle, as a critic, is to be judged by what he himself corrected for the press, and not by splenetic entries in diaries, or whimsical extravagances in private conversation.

Of Johnson's reasonableness nothing need be said, except that it is patent everywhere. His wife's judgment was a sound one: 'He is the most sensible man I ever met.'

As for his brutality, of which at one time we used to hear a great deal, we cannot say of it what Hookham Frere said of Landor's immorality, that it was:

'Mere imaginary classicality
Wholly devoid of criminal reality.'

It was nothing of the sort. Dialectically the great Doctor was a great brute. The fact is, he had so accustomed himself to wordy warfare, that he lost all sense of moral responsibility, and cared as little for men's feelings as a Napoleon did for their lives. When the battle was over, the Doctor frequently did what no soldier ever did that I have heard tell of, apologized to his victims and drank wine or lemonade with them. It must also be remembered that for the most part his victims sought him out. They came to be tossed and gored. And after all, are they so much to be pitied? They have our sympathy, and the Doctor has our applause. I am not prepared to say, with the simpering fellow with weak legs whom David Copperfield met at Mr. Waterbrook's dinner-table, that I would sooner be knocked down by a man with blood than picked up by a man without any; but, argumentatively speaking, I think it would be better for a man's reputation to be knocked down by Dr. Johnson than picked up by Mr. Froude.

Johnson's claim to be the best of our talkers cannot, on our present materials, be contested. For the most part we have only talk about other talkers. Johnson's is matter of record. Carlyle no doubt was a great talker--no man talked against talk or broke silence to praise it more eloquently than he, but unfortunately none of it is in evidence. All that is given us is a sort of Commination Service writ large. We soon weary of it. Man does not live by curses alone.

An unhappier prediction of a boy's future was surely never made than that of Johnson's by his cousin, Mr. Cornelius Ford, who said to the infant Samuel, 'You will make your way the more easily in the world as you are content to dispute no man's claim to conversation excellence, and they will, therefore, more willingly allow your pretensions as a writer.' Unfortunate Mr. Ford! The man never breathed whose claim to conversation excellence Dr. Johnson did not dispute on every possible occasion, whilst, just because he was admittedly so good a talker, his pretensions as a writer have been occasionally slighted.

Johnson's personal character has generally been allowed to stand high. It, however, has not been submitted to recent tests. To be the first to 'smell a fault' is the pride of the modern biographer. Boswell's artless pages afford useful hints not lightly to be disregarded. During some portion of Johnson's married life he had lodgings, first at Greenwich, afterwards at Hampstead. But he did not always go home o' nights; sometimes preferring to roam the streets with that vulgar ruffian Savage, who was certainly no fit company for him. He once actually quarrelled with 'Tetty,' who, despite her ridiculous name, was a very sensible woman with a very sharp tongue, and for a season, like stars, they dwelt apart. Of the real merits of this dispute we must resign ourselves to ignorance. The materials for its discussion do not exist; even Croker could not find them. Neither was our great moralist as sound as one would have liked to see him in the matter of the payment of small debts. When he came to die, he remembered several of these outstanding accounts; but what assurance have we that he remembered them all? One sum of 10 pounds he sent across to the honest fellow from whom he had borrowed it, with an apology for his delay; which, since it had extended over a period of twenty years, was not superfluous. I wonder whether he ever repaid Mr. Dilly the guinea he once borrowed of him to give to a very small boy who had just been apprenticed to a printer. If he did not, it was a great shame. That he was indebted to Sir Joshua in a small loan is apparent from the fact that it was one of his three dying requests to that great man that he should release him from it, as, of course, the most amiable of painters did. The other two requests, it will be remembered, were to read his Bible, and not to use his brush on Sundays. The good Sir Joshua gave the desired promises with a full heart, for these two great men loved one another; but subsequently discovered the Sabbatical restriction not a little irksome, and after a while resumed his former practice, arguing with himself that the Doctor really had no business to extract any such promise. The point is a nice one, and perhaps ere this the two friends have met and discussed it in the Elysian fields. If so, I hope the Doctor, grown 'angelical,' kept his temper with the mild shade of Reynolds better than on the historical occasion when he discussed with him the question of 'strong drinks.'

Against Garrick, Johnson undoubtedly cherished a smouldering grudge, which, however, he never allowed anyone but himself to fan into flame. His pique was natural. Garrick had been his pupil at Edial, near Lichfield; they had come up to town together with an easy united fortune of fourpence--'current coin o' the realm.' Garrick soon had the world at his feet and garnered golden grain. Johnson became famous too, but remained poor and dingy. Garrick surrounded himself with what only money can buy, good pictures and rare books. Johnson cared nothing for pictures--how should he? he could not see them; but he did care a great deal about books, and the pernickety little player was chary about lending his splendidly bound rarities to his quondam preceptor. Our sympathies in this matter are entirely with Garrick; Johnson was one of the best men that ever lived, but not to lend books to. Like Lady Slattern, he had a 'most observant thumb.' But Garrick had no real cause for complaint. Johnson may have soiled his folios and sneered at his trade, but in life Johnson loved Garrick, and in death embalmed his memory in a sentence which can only die with the English language: 'I am disappointed by that stroke of death which has eclipsed the gaiety of nations, and impoverished the public stock of harmless pleasure.'

Will it be believed that puny critics have been found to quarrel with this colossal compliment on the poor pretext of its falsehood? Garrick's death, urge these dullards, could not possibly have eclipsed the gaiety of nations, since he had retired from the stage months previous to his demise. When will mankind learn that literature is one thing, and sworn testimony another?

Johnson's relations with Burke were of a more crucial character. The author of Rasselas and The English Dictionary can never have been really jealous of Garrick, or in the very least desirous of 'bringing down the house;' but Burke had done nobler things than that. He had made politics philosophical, and had at least tried to cleanse them from the dust and cobwebs of party. Johnson, though he had never sat in the House of Commons, had yet, in his capacity of an unauthorized reporter, put into the mouths of honourable members much better speeches than ever came out of them, and it is no secret that he would have liked to make a speech or two on his own account. Burke had made many. Harder still to bear, there were not wanting good judges to say that, in their opinion, Burke was a better talker than the great Samuel himself. To cap it all, was not Burke a 'vile Whig'? The ordeal was an unusually trying one. Johnson emerges triumphant.

Though by no means disposed to hear men made much of, he always listened to praise of Burke with a boyish delight. He never wearied of it. When any new proof of Burke's intellectual prowess was brought to his notice, he would exclaim exultingly, 'Did we not always say he was a great man?' And yet how admirably did this 'poor scholar' preserve his independence and equanimity of mind! It was not easy to dazzle the Doctor. What a satisfactory story that is of Burke showing Johnson over his fine estate at Beaconsfield, and expatiating in his exuberant style on its 'liberties, privileges, easements, rights, and advantages,' and of the old Doctor, the tenant of 'a two-pair back' somewhere off Fleet Street, peering cautiously about, criticising everything, and observing with much coolness--

'Non equidem invideo, miror magis.'

A friendship like this could be disturbed but by death, and accordingly we read:

'Mr. Langton one day during Johnson's last illness found Mr. Burke and four or five more friends sitting with Johnson. Mr. Burke said to him, "I am afraid, sir, such a number of us may be oppressive to you." "No, sir," said Johnson, "it is not so; and I must be in a wretched state indeed when your company would not be a delight to me." Mr. Burke, in a tremulous voice, expressive of being very tenderly affected, replied: "My dear sir, you have always been too good to me." Immediately afterwards he went away. This was the last circumstance in the acquaintance of these two eminent men.'

But this is a well-worn theme, though, like some other well-worn themes, still profitable for edification or rebuke. A hundred years can make no difference to a character like Johnson's, or to a biography like Boswell's. We are not to be robbed of our conviction that this man, at all events, was both great and good.

Johnson the author is not always fairly treated. Phrases are convenient things to hand about, and it is as little the custom to inquire into their truth as it is to read the letterpress on banknotes. We are content to count banknotes, and to repeat phrases. One of these phrases is, that whilst everybody reads Boswell, nobody reads Johnson. The facts are otherwise. Everybody does not read Boswell, and a great many people do read Johnson. If it be asked, What do the general public know of Johnson's nine volumes octavo? I reply, Beshrew the general public! What in the name of the Bodleian has the general public got to do with literature? The general public subscribes to Mudie, and has its intellectual, like its lacteal sustenance, sent round to it in carts. On Saturdays these carts, laden with 'recent works in circulation,' traverse the Uxbridge Road; on Wednesdays they toil up Highgate Hill, and if we may believe the reports of travellers, are occasionally seen rushing through the wilds of Camberwell and bumping over Blackheath. It is not a question of the general public, but of the lover of letters. Do Mr. Browning, Mr. Arnold, Mr. Lowell, Mr. Trevelyan, Mr. Stephen, Mr. Morley, know their Johnson? 'To doubt would be disloyalty.' And what these big men know in their big way hundreds of little men know in their little way. We have no writer with a more genuine literary flavour about him than the great Cham of literature. No man of letters loved letters better than he. He knew literature in all its branches--he had read books, he had written books, he had sold books, he had bought books, and he had borrowed them. Sluggish and inert in all other directions, he pranced through libraries. He loved a catalogue; he delighted in an index. He was, to employ a happy phrase of Dr. Holmes, at home amongst books, as a stable-boy is amongst horses. He cared intensely about the future of literature and the fate of literary men. 'I respect Millar,' he once exclaimed; 'he has raised the price of literature.' Now Millar was a Scotchman. Even Horne Tooke was not to stand in the pillory: 'No, no, the dog has too much literature for that.' The only time the author of Rasselas met the author of the Wealth of Nations witnessed a painful scene. The English moralist gave the Scotch one the lie direct, and the Scotch moralist applied to the English one a phrase which would have done discredit to the lips of a costermonger; {3} but this notwithstanding, when Boswell reported that Adam Smith preferred rhyme to blank verse, Johnson hailed the news as enthusiastically as did Cedric the Saxon the English origin of the bravest knights in the retinue of the Norman king. 'Did Adam say that?' he shouted: 'I love him for it. I could hug him!' Johnson no doubt honestly believed he held George III. in reverence, but really he did not care a pin's fee for all the crowned heads of Europe. All his reverence was reserved for 'poor scholars.' When a small boy in a wherry, on whom had devolved the arduous task of rowing Johnson and his biographer across the Thames, said he would give all he had to know about the Argonauts, the Doctor was much pleased, and gave him, or got Boswell to give him, a double fare. He was ever an advocate of the spread of knowledge amongst all classes and both sexes. His devotion to letters has received its fitting reward, the love and respect of all 'lettered hearts.'


{3} Anyone who does not wish this story to be true, will find good reasons for disbelieving it stated in Mr. Napier's edition of Boswell, vol. iv., p. 385.

Considering him a little more in detail, we find it plain that he was a poet of no mean order. His resonant lines, informed as they often are with the force of their author's character--his strong sense, his fortitude, his gloom--take possession of the memory, and suffuse themselves through one's entire system of thought. A poet spouting his own verses is usually a figure to be avoided; but one could be content to be a hundred and thirty next birthday to have heard Johnson recite, in his full sonorous voice, and with his stately elocution, The Vanity of Human Wishes. When he came to the following lines, he usually broke down, and who can wonder?--

'Proceed, illustrious youth,
And virtue guard thee to the throne of truth!
Yet should thy soul indulge the gen'rous heat
Till captive science yields her last retreat;
Should reason guide thee with her brightest ray,
And pour on misty doubt resistless day;
Should no false kindness lure to loose delight,
Nor praise relax, nor difficulty fright;
Should tempting novelty thy cell refrain,
And sloth effuse her opiate fumes in vain;
Should beauty blunt on fops her fatal dart,
Nor claim the triumph of a lettered heart;
Should no disease thy torpid veins invade,
Nor melancholy's phantoms haunt thy shade;
Yet hope not life from grief or danger free,
Nor think the doom of man revers'd for thee.
Deign on the passing world to turn thine eyes,
And pause a while from letters to be wise;
There mark what ills the scholar's life assail,
Toil, envy, want, the patron and the gaol.
See nations, slowly wise and meanly just,
To buried merit raise the tardy bust.
If dreams yet flatter, once again attend,
Hear Lydiat's life, and Galileo's end.'

If this be not poetry, may the name perish!

In another style, the stanzas on the young heir's majority have such great merit as to tempt one to say that the author of The Jolly Beggars, Robert Burns himself, might have written them. Here are four of them:

'Loosen'd from the minor's tether,
Free to mortgage or to sell;
Wild as wind and light as feather,
Bid the sons of thrift farewell.

'Call the Betseys, Kates, and Jennies,
All the names that banish care,
Lavish of your grandsire's guineas,
Show the spirit of an heir.

'Wealth, my lad, was made to wander,
Let it wander as it will;
Call the jockey, call the pander,
Bid them come and take their fill.

'When the bonny blade carouses,
Pockets full and spirits high--
What are acres? what are houses?
Only dirt--or wet or dry.'

Johnson's prologues, and his lines on the death of Robert Levet, are well known. Indeed, it is only fair to say that our respected friend, the General Public, frequently has Johnsonian tags on its tongue:

'Slow rises worth by poverty depressed.'

'The unconquered lord of pleasure and of pain.'

'He left the name at which the world grew pale
To point a moral or adorn a tale.'

'Death, kind nature's signal of retreat.'

'Panting Time toiled after him in vain.'

All these are Johnson's, who, though he is not, like Gray, whom he hated so, all quotations, is yet oftener in men's mouths than they perhaps wot of.

Johnson's tragedy, Irene, need not detain us. It is unreadable, and to quote his own sensible words, 'It is useless to criticise what nobody reads.' It was indeed the expressed opinion of a contemporary called Pot that Irene was the finest tragedy of modern times; but on this judgment of Pot's being made known to Johnson, he was only heard to mutter, 'If Pot says so, Pot lies,' as no doubt he did.

Johnson's Latin Verses have not escaped the condemnation of scholars. Whose have? The true mode of critical approach to copies of Latin verse is by the question--How bad are they? Croker took the opinion of the Marquess Wellesley as to the degree of badness of Johnson's Latin Exercises. Lord Wellesley, as became so distinguished an Etonian, felt the solemnity of the occasion, and, after bargaining for secrecy, gave it as his opinion that they were all very bad, but that some perhaps were worse than others. To this judgment I have nothing to add.

As a writer of English prose, Johnson has always enjoyed a great, albeit a somewhat awful reputation. In childish memories he is constrained to be associated with dust and dictionaries, and those provoking obstacles to a boy's reading--'long words.' It would be easy to select from Johnson's writings numerous passages written in that essentially vicious style to which the name Johnsonese has been cruelly given; but the searcher could not fail to find many passages guiltless of this charge. The characteristics of Johnson's prose style are colossal good sense, though with a strong sceptical bias, good humour, vigorous language, and movement from point to point, which can only be compared to the measured tread of a well-drilled company of soldiers. Here is a passage from the preface to Shakspeare:

'Notes are often necessary, but they are necessary evils. Let him that is yet unacquainted with the powers of Shakspeare, and who desires to feel the highest pleasure that the drama can give, read every play from the first scene to the last, with utter negligence of all his commentators. When his fancy is once on the wing, let it not stoop at correction or explanation. When his attention is strongly engaged, let it disdain alike to turn aside to the name of Theobald and of Pope. Let him read on, through brightness and obscurity, through integrity and corruption; let him preserve his comprehension of the dialogue and his interest in the fable. And when the pleasures of novelty have ceased, let him attempt exactness and read the commentators.'

Where are we to find better sense, or much better English?

In the pleasant art of chaffing an author Johnson has hardly an equal. De Quincey too often overdoes it. Macaulay seldom fails to excite sympathy with his victim. In playfulness Mr. Arnold perhaps surpasses the Doctor, but then the latter's playfulness is always leonine, whilst Mr. Arnold's is surely, sometimes, just a trifle kittenish. An example, no doubt a very good one, of Johnson's humour must be allowed me. Soame Jenyns, in his book on the Origin of Evil, had imagined that, as we have not only animals for food, but choose some for our diversion, the same privilege may be allowed to beings above us, 'who may deceive, torment, or destroy us for the ends only of their own pleasure.'

On this hint writes our merry Doctor as follows:

'I cannot resist the temptation of contemplating this analogy, which I think he might have carried farther, very much to the advantage of his argument. He might have shown that these "hunters, whose game is man," have many sports analogous to our own. As we drown whelps or kittens, they amuse themselves now and then with sinking a ship, and stand round the fields of Blenheim, or the walls of Prague, as we encircle a cockpit. As we shoot a bird flying, they take a man in the midst of his business or pleasure, and knock him down with an apoplexy. Some of them perhaps are virtuosi, and delight in the operations of an asthma, as a human philosopher in the effects of the air-pump. Many a merry bout have these frolick beings at the vicissitudes of an ague, and good sport it is to see a man tumble with an epilepsy, and revive and tumble again, and all this he knows not why. The paroxysms of the gout and stone must undoubtedly make high mirth, especially if the play be a little diversified with the blunders and puzzles of the blind and deaf. . . . One sport the merry malice of these beings has found means of enjoying, to which we have nothing equal or similar. They now and then catch a mortal, proud of his parts, and flattered either by the submission of those who court his kindness, or the notice of those who suffer him to court theirs. A head thus prepared for the reception of false opinions, and the projection of vain designs, they easily fill with idle notions till, in time, they make their plaything an author; their first diversion commonly begins with an ode or an epistle, then rises perhaps to a political irony, and is at last brought to its height by a treatise of philosophy. Then begins the poor animal to entangle himself in sophisms and to flounder in absurdity.'

The author of the philosophical treatise, A Free Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil, did not at all enjoy this 'merry bout' of the 'frolick' Johnson.

The concluding paragraphs of Johnson's Preface to his Dictionary are historical prose, and if we are anxious to find passages fit to compare with them in the melancholy roll of their cadences and in their grave sincerity and manly emotion, we must, I think, take a flying jump from Dr. Johnson to Dr. Newman.

For sensible men the world offers no better reading than the Lives of the Poets. They afford an admirable example of the manner of man Johnson was. The subject was suggested to him by the booksellers, whom as a body he never abused. Himself the son of a bookseller, he respected their calling. If they treated him with civility, he responded suitably. If they were rude to him he knocked them down. These worthies chose their own poets. Johnson remained indifferent. He knew everybody's poetry, and was always ready to write anybody's Life. If he knew the facts of a poet's life--and his knowledge was enormous on such subjects--he found room for them; if he did not, he supplied their place with his own shrewd reflections and sombre philosophy of life. It thus comes about that Johnson is every bit as interesting when he is writing about Sprat, or Smith, or Fenton, as he is when he has got Milton or Gray in hand. He is also much less provoking. My own favourite Life is that of Sir Richard Blackmore.

The poorer the poet the kindlier is the treatment he receives. Johnson kept all his rough words for Shakspeare, Milton, and Gray.

In this trait, surely an amiable one, he was much resembled by that eminent man the late Sir George Jessel, whose civility to a barrister was always in inverse ratio to the barrister's practice; and whose friendly zeal in helping young and nervous practitioners over the stiles of legal difficulty was only equalled by the fiery enthusiasm with which he thrust back the Attorney and Solicitor General and people of that sort.

As a political thinker Johnson has not had justice. He has been lightly dismissed as the last of the old-world Tories. He was nothing of the sort. His cast of political thought is shared by thousands to this day. He represents that vast army of electors whom neither canvasser nor caucus has ever yet cajoled or bullied into a polling-booth. Newspapers may scold, platforms may shake; whatever circulars can do may be done, all that placards can tell may be told; but the fact remains that one- third of every constituency in the realm shares Dr. Johnson's 'narcotic indifference,' and stays away.

It is, of course, impossible to reconcile all Johnson's recorded utterances with any one view of anything. When crossed in conversation or goaded by folly he was capable of anything. But his dominant tone about politics was something of this sort. Provided a man lived in a State which guaranteed him private liberty and secured him public order, he was very much of a knave or altogether a fool if he troubled himself further. To go to bed when you wish, to get up when you like, to eat and drink and read what you choose, to say across your port or your tea whatever occurs to you at the moment, and to earn your living as best you may--this is what Dr. Johnson meant by private liberty. Fleet Street open day and night--this is what he meant by public order. Give a sensible man these, and take all the rest the world goes round. Tyranny was a bugbear. Either the tyranny was bearable, or it was not. If it was bearable, it did not matter; and as soon as it became unbearable the mob cut off the tyrant's head, and wise men went home to their dinner. To views of this sort he gave emphatic utterance on the well-known occasion when he gave Sir Adam Ferguson a bit of his mind. Sir Adam had innocently enough observed that the Crown had too much power. Thereupon Johnson:

'Sir, I perceive you are a vile Whig. Why all this childish jealousy of the power of the Crown? The Crown has not power enough. When I say that all governments are alike, I consider that in no government power can be abused long; mankind will not bear it. If a sovereign oppresses his people, they will rise and cut off his head. There is a remedy in human nature against tyranny that will keep us safe under every form of government.'

This is not, and never was, the language of Toryism. It is a much more intellectual 'ism.' It is indifferentism. So, too, in his able pamphlet, The False Alarm, which had reference to Wilkes and the Middlesex election, though he no doubt attempts to deal with the constitutional aspect of the question, the real strength of his case is to be found in passages like the following:

'The grievance which has produced all this tempest of outrage, the oppression in which all other oppressions are included, the invasion which has left us no property, the alarm that suffers no patriot to sleep in quiet, is comprised in a vote of the House of Commons, by which the freeholders of Middlesex are deprived of a Briton's birthright--representation in Parliament. They have, indeed, received the usual writ of election; but that writ, alas! was malicious mockery; they were insulted with the form, but denied the reality, for there was one man excepted from their choice. The character of the man, thus fatally excepted, I have no purpose to delineate. Lampoon itself would disdain to speak ill of him of whom no man speaks well. Every lover of liberty stands doubtful of the fate of posterity, because the chief county in England cannot take its representative from a gaol.'

Temperament was of course at the bottom of this indifference. Johnson was of melancholy humour and profoundly sceptical. Cynical he was not--he loved his fellow-men; his days were full of

'Little, nameless, unremembered acts
Of kindness and of love.'

But he was as difficult to rouse to enthusiasm about humanity as is Mr. Justice Stephen. He pitied the poor devils, but he did not believe in them. They were neither happy nor wise, and he saw no reason to believe they would ever become either. 'Leave me alone,' he cried to the sultry mob, bawling 'Wilkes and Liberty.' 'I at least am not ashamed to own that I care for neither the one nor the other.'

No man, however, resented more fiercely than Johnson any unnecessary interference with men who were simply going their own way. The Highlanders only knew Gaelic, yet political wiseacres were to be found objecting to their having the Bible in their own tongue. Johnson flew to arms: he wrote one of his monumental letters; the opposition was quelled, and the Gael got his Bible. So too the wicked interference with Irish enterprise, so much in vogue during the last century, infuriated him. 'Sir,' he said to Sir Thomas Robinson, 'you talk the language of a savage. What, sir! would you prevent any people from feeding themselves, if by any honest means they can do so?'

Were Johnson to come to life again, total abstainer as he often was, he would, I expect, denounce the principle involved in 'Local Option.' I am not at all sure he would not borrow a guinea from a bystander and become a subscriber to the 'Property Defence League;' and though it is notorious that he never read any book all through, and never could be got to believe that anybody else ever did, he would, I think, read a larger fraction of Mr. Spencer's pamphlet, 'Man versus the State,' than of any other 'recent work in circulation.' The state of the Strand, when two vestries are at work upon it, would, I am sure, drive him into open rebellion.

As a letter-writer Johnson has great merits. Let no man despise the epistolary art. It is said to be extinct. I doubt it. Good letters were always scarce. It does not follow that, because our grandmothers wrote long letters, they all wrote good ones, or that nobody nowadays writes good letters because most people write bad ones. Johnson wrote letters in two styles. One was monumental--more suggestive of the chisel than the pen. In the other there are traces of the same style, but, like the old Gothic architecture, it has grown domesticated, and become the fit vehicle of plain tidings of joy and sorrow--of affection, wit, and fancy. The letter to Lord Chesterfield is the most celebrated example of the monumental style. From the letters to Mrs. Thrale many good examples of the domesticated style might be selected One must suffice:

'Queeney has been a good girl, and wrote me a letter. If Burney said she would write, she told you a fib. She writes nothing to me. She can write home fast enough. I have a good mind not to tell her that Dr. Bernard, to whom I had recommended her novel, speaks of it with great commendation, and that the copy which she lent me has been read by Dr. Lawrence three times over. And yet what a gipsy it is. She no more minds me than if I were a Branghton. Pray, speak to Queeney to write again. . . . Now you think yourself the first writer in the world for a letter about nothing. Can you write such a letter as this? So miscellaneous, with such noble disdain of regularity, like Shakspeare's works; such graceful negligence of transition, like the ancient enthusiasts. The pure voice of Nature and of Friendship. Now, of whom shall I proceed to speak? of whom but Mrs. Montague? Having mentioned Shakspeare and Nature, does not the name of Montague force itself upon me? Such were the transitions of the ancients, which now seem abrupt, because the intermediate idea is lost to modern understandings.'

But the extract had better end, for there are, (I fear) 'modern understandings who will not perceive the intermediate idea' between Shakspeare and Mrs. Montague, and to whom even the name of Branghton will suggest no meaning.

Johnson's literary fame is, in our judgment, as secure as his character. Like the stone which he placed over his father's grave at Lichfield, and which, it is shameful to think, has been removed, it is 'too massy and strong' to be ever much affected by the wind and weather of our literary atmosphere. 'Never,' so he wrote to Mrs. Thrale, 'let criticisms operate upon your face or your mind; it is very rarely that an author is hurt by his critics. The blaze of reputation cannot be blown out; but it often dies in the socket. From the author of Fitzosborne's Letters I cannot think myself in much danger. I met him only once, about thirty years ago, and in some small dispute soon reduced him to whistle.' Dr. Johnson is in no danger from anybody. None but Gargantua could blow him out, and he still burns brightly in his socket.

How long this may continue who can say? It is a far cry to 1985. Science may by that time have squeezed out literature, and the author of the Lives of the Poets may be dimly remembered as an odd fellow who lived in the Dark Ages, and had a very creditable fancy for making chemical experiments. On the other hand, the Spiritualists may be in possession, in which case the Cock Lane Ghost will occupy more of public attention than Boswell's hero, who will, perhaps, be reprobated as the profane utterer of these idle words: 'Suppose I know a man to be so lame that he is absolutely incapable to move himself, and I find him in a different room from that in which I left him, shall I puzzle myself with idle conjectures, that perhaps his nerves have by some unknown change all at once become effective? No, sir, it is clear how he got into a different room--he was carried.'

We here part company with Johnson, bidding him a most affectionate farewell, and leaving him in undisturbed possession of both place and power. His character will bear investigation, and some of his books perusal. The latter, indeed, may be submitted to his own test, and there is no truer one. A book, he wrote, should help us either to enjoy life or to endure it. His frequently do both.

(The end)
Augustine Birrell's essay: Dr. Johnson

If you like this book please share to your friends :

Edmund Burke Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke
A Lecture delivered before the Edinburgh Philosophical Society. Mr. John Morley, who amongst other things has written two admirable books about Edmund Burke, is to be found in the Preface to the second of them apologizing for having introduced into the body of the work extracts from his former volume--conduct which he seeks to justify by quoting from the Greek (always a desirable thing to do when in difficulty), to prove that, though you may say what you have to say well once, you cannot so say it twice. A difficulty somewhat of the same kind cannot fail to be felt

John Milton John Milton

John Milton
It is now more than sixty years ago since Mr. Carlyle took occasion to observe, in his Life of Schiller, that, except the Newgate Calendar, there was no more sickening reading than the biographies of authors. Allowing for the vivacity of the comparison, and only remarking, with reference to the Newgate Calendar, that its compilers have usually been very inferior wits, in fact attorneys, it must be owned that great creative and inventive genius, the most brilliant gifts of bright fancy and happy expression, and a glorious imagination, well-nigh seeming as if it must be inspired, have too often been found