Samuel Johnson
Leslie Stephen

Part 3 out of 3

"She told me that to part was the greatest pain that she had ever felt,
and that she hoped we should meet again in a better place. I expressed,
with swelled eyes, and great emotion of kindness, the same hopes. We
kissed and parted--I humbly hope to meet again and part no more."

A man with so true and tender a heart could say serenely, what with some
men would be a mere excuse for want of sympathy, that he "hated to hear
people whine about metaphysical distresses when there was so much want
and hunger in the world." He had a sound and righteous contempt for all
affectation of excessive sensibility. Suppose, said Boswell to him,
whilst their common friend Baretti was lying under a charge of murder,
"that one of your intimate friends were apprehended for an offence for
which he might be hanged." "I should do what I could," replied Johnson,
"to bail him, and give him any other assistance; but if he were once
fairly hanged, I should not suffer." "Would you eat your dinner that
day, sir?" asks Boswell. "Yes, sir; and eat it as if he were eating with
me. Why there's Baretti, who's to be tried for his life to-morrow.
Friends have risen up for him upon every side; yet if he should be
hanged, none of them will eat a slice of plum-pudding the less. Sir,
that sympathetic feeling goes a very little way in depressing the mind."
Boswell illustrated the subject by saying that Tom Davies had just
written a letter to Foote, telling him that he could not sleep from
concern about Baretti, and at the same time recommending a young man who
kept a pickle-shop. Johnson summed up by the remark: "You will find
these very feeling people are not very ready to do you good. They _pay_
you by _feeling_." Johnson never objected to feeling, but to the waste
of feeling.

In a similar vein he told Mrs. Thrale that a "surly fellow" like
himself had no compassion to spare for "wounds given to vanity and
softness," whilst witnessing the common sight of actual want in great
cities. On Lady Tavistock's death, said to have been caused by grief for
her husband's loss, he observed that her life might have been saved if
she had been put into a small chandler's shop, with a child to nurse.
When Mrs. Thrale suggested that a lady would be grieved because her
friend had lost the chance of a fortune, "She will suffer as much,
perhaps," he replied, "as your horse did when your cow miscarried." Mrs.
Thrale testifies that he once reproached her sternly for complaining of
the dust. When he knew, he said, how many poor families would perish
next winter for want of the bread which the drought would deny, he could
not bear to hear ladies sighing for rain on account of their complexions
or their clothes. While reporting such sayings, she adds, that he loved
the poor as she never saw any one else love them, with an earnest desire
to make them happy. His charity was unbounded; he proposed to allow
himself one hundred a year out of the three hundred of his pension; but
the Thrales could never discover that he really spent upon himself more
than 70_l_., or at most 80_l_. He had numerous dependants, abroad as
well as at home, who "did not like to see him latterly, unless he
brought 'em money." He filled his pockets with small cash which he
distributed to beggars in defiance of political economy. When told that
the recipients only laid it out upon gin or tobacco, he replied that it
was savage to deny them the few coarse pleasures which the richer
disdained. Numerous instances are given of more judicious charity. When,
for example, a Benedictine monk, whom he had seen in Paris, became a
Protestant, Johnson supported him for some months in London, till he
could get a living. Once coming home late at night, he found a poor
woman lying in the street. He carried her to his house on his back, and
found that she was reduced to the lowest stage of want, poverty, and
disease. He took care of her at his own charge, with all tenderness,
until she was restored to health, and tried to have her put into a
virtuous way of living. His house, in his later years, was filled with
various waifs and strays, to whom he gave hospitality and sometimes
support, defending himself by saying that if he did not help them nobody
else would. The head of his household was Miss Williams, who had been a
friend of his wife's, and after coming to stay with him, in order to
undergo an operation for cataract, became a permanent inmate of his
house. She had a small income of some 40_l_. a year, partly from the
charity of connexions of her father's, and partly arising from a little
book of miscellanies published by subscription. She was a woman of some
sense and cultivation, and when she died (in 1783) Johnson said that for
thirty years she had been to him as a sister. Boswell's jealousy was
excited during the first period of his acquaintance, when Goldsmith one
night went home with Johnson, crying "I go to Miss Williams"--a phrase
which implied admission to an intimacy from which Boswell was as yet
excluded. Boswell soon obtained the coveted privilege, and testifies to
the respect with which Johnson always treated the inmates of his family.
Before leaving her to dine with Boswell at the hotel, he asked her what
little delicacy should be sent to her from the tavern. Poor Miss
Williams, however, was peevish, and, according to Hawkins, had been
known to drive Johnson out of the room by her reproaches, and Boswell's
delicacy was shocked by the supposition that she tested the fulness of
cups of tea, by putting her finger inside. We are glad to know that
this was a false impression, and, in fact, Miss Williams, however
unfortunate in temper and circumstances, seems to have been a lady by
manners and education.

The next inmate of this queer household was Robert Levett, a man who had
been a waiter at a coffee-house in Paris frequented by surgeons. They
had enabled him to pick up some of their art, and he set up as an
"obscure practiser in physic amongst the lower people" in London. He
took from them such fees as he could get, including provisions,
sometimes, unfortunately for him, of the potable kind. He was once
entrapped into a queer marriage, and Johnson had to arrange a separation
from his wife. Johnson, it seems, had a good opinion of his medical
skill, and more or less employed his services in that capacity. He
attended his patron at his breakfast; breakfasting, said Percy, "on the
crust of a roll, which Johnson threw to him after tearing out the
crumb." The phrase, it is said, goes too far; Johnson always took pains
that Levett should be treated rather as a friend than as a dependant.

Besides these humble friends, there was a Mrs. Desmoulins, the daughter
of a Lichfield physician. Johnson had had some quarrel with the father
in his youth for revealing a confession of the mental disease which
tortured him from early years. He supported Mrs. Desmoulins none the
less, giving house-room to her and her daughter, and making her an
allowance of half-a-guinea a week, a sum equal to a twelfth part of his
pension. Francis Barker has already been mentioned, and we have a dim
vision of a Miss Carmichael, who completed what he facetiously called
his "seraglio." It was anything but a happy family. He summed up their
relations in a letter to Mrs. Thrale. "Williams," he says, "hates
everybody; Levett hates Desmoulins, and does not love Williams;
Desmoulins hates them both; Poll (Miss Carmichael) loves none of them."
Frank Barker complained of Miss Williams's authority, and Miss Williams
of Frank's insubordination. Intruders who had taken refuge under his
roof, brought their children there in his absence, and grumbled if their
dinners were ill-dressed. The old man bore it all, relieving himself by
an occasional growl, but reproaching any who ventured to join in the
growl for their indifference to the sufferings of poverty. Levett died
in January, 1782; Miss Williams died, after a lingering illness, in
1783, and Johnson grieved in solitude for the loss of his testy
companions. A poem, composed upon Levett's death, records his feelings
in language which wants the refinement of Goldsmith or the intensity of
Cowper's pathos, but which is yet so sincere and tender as to be more
impressive than far more elegant compositions. It will be a fitting
close to this brief indication of one side of Johnson's character, too
easily overlooked in Boswell's pages, to quote part of what Thackeray
truly calls the "sacred verses" upon Levett:--

Well tried through many a varying year
See Levett to the grave descend,
Officious, innocent, sincere,
Of every friendless name the friend.

In misery's darkest cavern known,
His ready help was ever nigh;
Where hopeless anguish pour'd his groan,
And lonely want retired to die.

No summons mock'd by dull delay,
No petty gains disdain'd by pride;
The modest wants of every day,
The toil of every day supplied.

His virtues walk'd their narrow round,
Nor made a pause, nor left a void;
And sure the eternal Master found
His single talent well employed.

The busy day, the peaceful night,
Unfelt, uncounted, glided by;
His frame was firm, his eye was bright,
Though now his eightieth year was nigh.

Then, with no throbs of fiery pain,
No cold gradations of decay,
Death broke at once the vital chain,
And freed his soul the easiest way.

The last stanza smells somewhat of the country tombstone; but to read
the whole and to realize the deep, manly sentiment which it implies,
without tears in one's eyes is to me at least impossible.

There is one little touch which may be added before we proceed to the
closing years of this tender-hearted old moralist. Johnson loved little
children, calling them "little dears," and cramming them with
sweetmeats, though we regret to add that he once snubbed a little child
rather severely for a want of acquaintance with the _Pilgrim's
Progress_. His cat, Hodge, should be famous amongst the lovers of the
race. He used to go out and buy oysters for Hodge, that the servants
might not take a dislike to the animal from having to serve it
themselves. He reproached his wife for beating a cat before the maid,
lest she should give a precedent for cruelty. Boswell, who cherished an
antipathy to cats, suffered at seeing Hodge scrambling up Johnson's
breast, whilst he smiled and rubbed the beast's back and pulled its
tail. Bozzy remarked that he was a fine cat. "Why, yes, sir," said
Johnson; "but I have had cats whom I liked better than this," and then,
lest Hodge should be put out of countenance, he added, "but he is a very
fine cat, a very fine cat indeed." He told Langton once of a young
gentleman who, when last heard of, was "running about town shooting
cats; but," he murmured in a kindly reverie, "Hodge shan't be shot; no,
no, Hodge shall not be shot!" Once, when Johnson was staying at a house
in Wales, the gardener brought in a hare which had been caught in the
potatoes. The order was given to take it to the cook. Johnson asked to
have it placed in his arms. He took it to the window and let it go,
shouting to increase its speed. When his host complained that he had
perhaps spoilt the dinner, Johnson replied by insisting that the rights
of hospitality included an animal which had thus placed itself under the
protection of the master of the garden.

We must proceed, however, to a more serious event. The year 1781 brought
with it a catastrophe which profoundly affected the brief remainder of
Johnson's life. Mr. Thrale, whose health had been shaken by fits, died
suddenly on the 4th of April. The ultimate consequence was Johnson's
loss of the second home, in which he had so often found refuge from
melancholy, alleviation of physical suffering, and pleasure in social
converse. The change did not follow at once, but as the catastrophe of a
little social drama, upon the rights and wrongs of which a good deal of
controversy has been expended.

Johnson was deeply affected by the loss of a friend whose face, as he
said, "had never been turned upon him through fifteen years but with
respect and benignity." He wrote solemn and affecting letters to the
widow, and busied himself strenuously in her service. Thrale had made
him one of his executors, leaving him a small legacy; and Johnson took,
it seems, a rather simple-minded pleasure in dealing with important
commercial affairs and signing cheques for large sums of money. The old
man of letters, to whom three hundred a year had been superabundant
wealth, was amused at finding himself in the position of a man of
business, regulating what was then regarded as a princely fortune. The
brewery was sold after a time, and Johnson bustled about with an
ink-horn and pen in his button-hole. When asked what was the value of
the property, he replied magniloquently, "We are not here to sell a
parcel of boilers and vats, but the potentiality of growing rich beyond
the dreams of avarice." The brewery was in fact sold to Barclay,
Perkins, and Co. for the sum of 135,000_l_., and some years afterwards
it was the largest concern of the kind in the world.

The first effect of the change was probably rather to tighten than to
relax the bond of union with the Thrale family. During the winter of
1781-2, Johnson's infirmities were growing upon him. In the beginning of
1782 he was suffering from an illness which excited serious
apprehensions, and he went to Mrs. Thrale's, as the only house where he
could use "all the freedom that sickness requires." She nursed him
carefully, and expressed her feelings with characteristic vehemence in a
curious journal which he had encouraged her to keep. It records her
opinions about her affairs and her family, with a frankness remarkable
even in writing intended for no eye but her own. "Here is Mr. Johnson
very ill," she writes on the 1st of February;.... "What shall we do for
him? If I lose _him_, I am more than undone--friend, father, guardian,
confidant! God give me health and patience! What shall I do?" There is
no reason to doubt the sincerity of these sentiments, though they seem
to represent a mood of excitement. They show that for ten months after
Thrale's death Mrs. Thrale was keenly sensitive to the value of
Johnson's friendship.

A change, however, was approaching. Towards the end of 1780 Mrs. Thrale
had made the acquaintance of an Italian musician named Piozzi, a man of
amiable and honourable character, making an independent income by his
profession, but to the eyes of most people rather inoffensive than
specially attractive. The friendship between Mrs. Thrale and Piozzi
rapidly became closer, and by the end of 1781 she was on very intimate
terms with the gentleman whom she calls "my Piozzi." He had been making
a professional trip to the Continent during part of the period since her
husband's death, and upon his return in November, Johnson congratulated
her upon having two friends who loved her, in terms which suggest no
existing feeling of jealousy. During 1782 the mutual affection of the
lady and the musician became stronger, and in the autumn they had avowed
it to each other, and were discussing the question of marriage.

No one who has had some experience of life will be inclined to condemn
Mrs. Thrale for her passion. Rather the capacity for a passion not
excited by an intrinsically unworthy object should increase our esteem
for her. Her marriage with Thrale had been, as has been said, one of
convenience; and, though she bore him many children and did her duty
faithfully, she never loved him. Towards the end of his life he had made
her jealous by very marked attentions to the pretty and sentimental
Sophy Streatfield, which once caused a scene at his table; and during
the last two years his mind had been weakened, and his conduct had
caused her anxiety and discomfort. It is not surprising that she should
welcome the warm and simple devotion of her new lover, though she was of
a ripe age and the mother of grown-up daughters.

It is, however, equally plain that an alliance with a foreign fiddler
was certain to shock British respectability. It is the old story of the
quarrel between Philistia and Bohemia. Nor was respectability without
much to say for itself. Piozzi was a Catholic as well as a foreigner; to
marry him was in all probability to break with daughters just growing
into womanhood, whom it was obviously her first duty to protect. The
marriage, therefore, might be regarded as not merely a revolt against
conventional morality, but as leading to a desertion of country,
religion, and family. Her children, her husband's friends, and her whole
circle were certain to look upon the match with feelings of the
strongest disapproval, and she admitted to herself that the objections
were founded upon something more weighty than a fear of the world's

Johnson, in particular, among whose virtues one cannot reckon a
superiority to British prejudice, would inevitably consider the marriage
as simply degrading. Foreseeing this, and wishing to avoid the pain of
rejecting advice which she felt unable to accept, she refrained from
retaining her "friend, father, and guardian" in the position of
"confidant." Her situation in the summer of 1782 was therefore
exceedingly trying. She was unhappy at home. Her children, she
complains, did not love her; her servants "devoured" her; her friends
censured her; and her expenses were excessive, whilst the loss of a
lawsuit strained her resources. Johnson, sickly, suffering and
descending into the gloom of approaching decay, was present like a
charged thunder-cloud ready to burst at any moment, if she allowed him
to approach the chief subject of her thoughts. Though not in love with
Mrs. Thrale, he had a very intelligible feeling of jealousy towards any
one who threatened to distract her allegiance. Under such circumstances
we might expect the state of things which Miss Burney described long
afterwards (though with some confusion of dates). Mrs. Thrale, she says,
was absent and agitated, restless in manner, and hurried in speech,
forcing smiles, and averting her eyes from her friends; neglecting every
one, including Johnson and excepting only Miss Burney herself, to whom
the secret was confided, and the situation therefore explained.
Gradually, according to Miss Burney, she became more petulant to Johnson
than she was herself aware, gave palpable hints of being worried by his
company, and finally excited his resentment and suspicion. In one or two
utterances, though he doubtless felt the expedience of reserve, he
intrusted his forebodings to Miss Burney, and declared that Streatham
was lost to him for ever.

At last, in the end of August, the crisis came. Mrs. Thrale's lawsuit
had gone against her. She thought it desirable to go abroad and save
money. It had moreover been "long her dearest wish" to see Italy, with
Piozzi for a guide. The one difficulty (as she says in her journal at
the time), was that it seemed equally hard to part with Johnson or to
take him with her till he had regained strength. At last, however she
took courage to confide to him her plans for travel. To her extreme
annoyance he fully approved of them. He advised her to go; anticipated
her return in two or three years; and told her daughter that he should
not accompany them, even if invited. No behaviour, it may be admitted,
could be more provoking than this unforeseen reasonableness. To nerve
oneself to part with a friend, and to find the friend perfectly ready,
and all your battery of argument thrown away is most vexatious. The poor
man should have begged her to stay with him, or to take him with her; he
should have made the scene which she professed to dread, but which would
have been the best proof of her power. The only conclusion which could
really have satisfied her--though she, in all probability, did not know
it--would have been an outburst which would have justified a rupture,
and allowed her to protest against his tyranny as she now proceeded to
protest against his complacency.

Johnson wished to go to Italy two years later; and his present
willingness to be left was probably caused by a growing sense of the
dangers which threatened their friendship. Mrs. Thrale's anger appears
in her journal. He had never really loved her, she declares; his
affection for her had been interested, though even in her wrath she
admits that he really loved her husband; he cared less for her
conversation, which she had fancied necessary to his existence, than for
her "roast beef and plumb pudden," which he now devours too "dirtily for
endurance." She was fully resolved to go, and yet she could not bear
that her going should fail to torture the friend whom for eighteen years
she had loved and cherished so kindly.

No one has a right at once to insist upon the compliance of his friends,
and to insist that it should be a painful compliance. Still Mrs.
Thrale's petulant outburst was natural enough. It requires notice
because her subsequent account of the rupture has given rise to attacks
on Johnson's character. Her "Anecdotes," written in 1785, show that her
real affection for Johnson was still coloured by resentment for his
conduct at this and a later period. They have an apologetic character
which shows itself in a statement as to the origin of the quarrel,
curiously different from the contemporary accounts in the diary. She
says substantially, and the whole book is written so as to give
probability to the assertion, that Johnson's bearishness and demands
upon her indulgence had become intolerable, when he was no longer under
restraint from her husband's presence. She therefore "took advantage" of
her lost lawsuit and other troubles to leave London, and thus escape
from his domestic tyranny. He no longer, as she adds, suffered from
anything but "old age and general infirmity" (a tolerably wide
exception!), and did not require her nursing. She therefore withdrew
from the yoke to which she had contentedly submitted during her
husband's life, but which was intolerable when her "coadjutor was no

Johnson's society was, we may easily believe, very trying to a widow in
such a position; and it seems to be true that Thrale was better able
than Mrs. Thrale to restrain his oddities, little as the lady shrunk at
times from reasonable plain-speaking. But the later account involves
something more than a bare suppression of the truth. The excuse about
his health is, perhaps, the worst part of her case, because obviously
insincere. Nobody could be more fully aware than Mrs. Thrale that
Johnson's infirmities were rapidly gathering, and that another winter or
two must in all probability be fatal to him. She knew, therefore, that
he was never more in want of the care which, as she seems to imply, had
saved him from the specific tendency to something like madness. She
knew, in fact, that she was throwing him upon the care of his other
friends, zealous and affectionate enough, it is true, but yet unable to
supply him with the domestic comforts of Streatham. She clearly felt
that this was a real injury, inevitable it might be under the
circumstances, but certainly not to be extenuated by the paltry evasion
as to his improved health. So far from Johnson's health being now
established, she had not dared to speak until his temporary recovery
from a dangerous illness, which had provoked her at the time to the
strongest expressions of anxious regret. She had (according to the
diary) regarded a possible breaking of the yoke in the early part of
1782 as a terrible evil, which would "more than ruin her." Even when
resolved to leave Streatham, her one great difficulty is the dread of
parting with Johnson, and the pecuniary troubles are the solid and
conclusive reason. In the later account the money question is the mere
pretext; the desire to leave Johnson the true motive; and the
long-cherished desire to see Italy with Piozzi is judiciously dropped
out of notice altogether.

The truth is plain enough. Mrs. Thrale was torn by conflicting feelings.
She still loved Johnson, and yet dreaded his certain disapproval of her
strongest wishes. She respected him, but was resolved not to follow his
advice. She wished to treat him with kindness and to be repaid with
gratitude, and yet his presence and his affection were full of
intolerable inconveniences. When an old friendship becomes a burden, the
smaller infirmities of manner and temper to which we once submitted
willingly, become intolerable. She had borne with Johnson's modes of
eating and with his rough reproofs to herself and her friends during
sixteen years of her married life; and for nearly a year of her
widowhood she still clung to him as the wisest and kindest of monitors.
His manners had undergone no spasmodic change. They became intolerable
when, for other reasons, she resented his possible interference, and
wanted a very different guardian and confidant; and, therefore, she
wished to part, and yet wished that the initiative should come from him.

The decision to leave Streatham was taken. Johnson parted with deep
regret from the house; he read a chapter of the Testament in the
library; he took leave of the church with a kiss; he composed a prayer
commending the family to the protection of Heaven; and he did not forget
to note in his journal the details of the last dinner of which he
partook. This quaint observation may have been due to some valetudinary
motive, or, more probably, to some odd freak of association. Once, when
eating an omelette, he was deeply affected because it recalled his old
friend Nugent. "Ah, my dear friend," he said "in an agony," "I shall
never eat omelette with thee again!" And in the present case there is an
obscure reference to some funeral connected in his mind with a meal. The
unlucky entry has caused some ridicule, but need hardly convince us that
his love of the family in which for so many years he had been an
honoured and honour-giving inmate was, as Miss Seward amiably suggests,
in great measure "kitchen-love."

No immediate rupture followed the abandonment of the Streatham
establishment. Johnson spent some weeks at Brighton with Mrs. Thrale,
during which a crisis was taking place, without his knowledge, in her
relations to Piozzi. After vehement altercations with her daughters,
whom she criticizes with great bitterness for their utter want of heart,
she resolved to break with Piozzi for at least a time. Her plan was to
go to Bath, and there to retrench her expenses, in the hopes of being
able to recall her lover at some future period. Meanwhile he left her
and returned to Italy. After another winter in London, during which
Johnson was still a frequent inmate of her house, she went to Bath with
her daughters in April, 1783. A melancholy period followed for both the
friends. Mrs. Thrale lost a younger daughter, and Johnson had a
paralytic stroke in June. Death was sending preliminary warnings. A
correspondence was kept up, which implies that the old terms were not
ostensibly broken. Mrs. Thrale speaks tartly more than once; and
Johnson's letters go into medical details with his customary plainness
of speech, and he occasionally indulges in laments over the supposed
change in her feelings. The gloom is thickening, and the old playful
gallantry has died out. The old man evidently felt himself deserted, and
suffered from the breaking-up of the asylum he had loved so well. The
final catastrophe came in 1784, less than six months before Johnson's

After much suffering in mind and body, Mrs. Thrale had at last induced
her daughters to consent to her marriage with Piozzi. She sent for him
at once, and they were married in June, 1784. A painful correspondence
followed. Mrs. Thrale announced her marriage in a friendly letter to
Johnson, excusing her previous silence on the ground that discussion
could only have caused them pain. The revelation, though Johnson could
not have been quite unprepared, produced one of his bursts of fury.
"Madam, if I interpret your letter rightly," wrote the old man, "you are
ignominiously married. If it is yet undone, let us once more talk
together. If you have abandoned your children and your religion, God
forgive your wickedness! If you have forfeited your fame and your
country, may your folly do no further mischief! If the last act is yet
to do, I, who have loved you, esteemed you, reverenced you, and served
you--I, who long thought you the first of womankind--entreat that before
your fate is irrevocable, I may once more see you! I was, I once was,
madam, most truly yours, Sam. Johnson."

Mrs. Thrale replied with spirit and dignity to this cry of blind
indignation, speaking of her husband with becoming pride, and resenting
the unfortunate phrase about her loss of "fame." She ended by declining
further intercourse till Johnson could change his opinion of Piozzi.
Johnson admitted in his reply that he had no right to resent her
conduct; expressed his gratitude for the kindness which had "soothed
twenty years of a life radically wretched," and implored her
("superfluously," as she says) to induce Piozzi to settle in England. He
then took leave of her with an expression of sad forebodings. Mrs.
Thrale, now Mrs. Piozzi, says that she replied affectionately; but the
letter is missing. The friendship was broken off, and during the brief
remainder of Johnson's life, the Piozzis were absent from England.

Of her there is little more to be said. After passing some time in
Italy, where she became a light of that wretched little Della Cruscan
society of which some faint memory is preserved by Gifford's ridicule,
now pretty nearly forgotten with its objects, she returned with her
husband to England. Her anecdotes of Johnson, published soon after his
death, had a success which, in spite of much ridicule, encouraged her to
some further literary efforts of a sprightly but ephemeral kind. She
lived happily with Piozzi, and never had cause to regret her marriage.
She was reconciled to her daughters sufficiently to renew a friendly
intercourse; but the elder ones set up a separate establishment. Piozzi
died not long afterwards. She was still a vivacious old lady, who
celebrated her 80th birthday by a ball, and is supposed at that ripe
age to have made an offer of marriage to a young actor. She died in May,
1821, leaving all that she could dispose of to a nephew of Piozzi's, who
had been naturalised in England.

Meanwhile Johnson was rapidly approaching the grave. His old inmates,
Levett and Miss Williams, had gone before him; Goldsmith and Garrick and
Beauclerk had become memories of the past; and the gloom gathered
thickly around him. The old man clung to life with pathetic earnestness.
Though life had been often melancholy, he never affected to conceal the
horror with which he regarded death. He frequently declared that death
must be dreadful to every reasonable man. "Death, my dear, is very
dreadful," he says simply in a letter to Lucy Porter in the last year of
his life. Still later he shocked a pious friend by admitting that the
fear oppressed him. Dr. Adams tried the ordinary consolation of the
divine goodness, and went so far as to suggest that hell might not imply
much positive suffering. Johnson's religious views were of a different
colour. "I am afraid," he said, "I may be one of those who shall be
damned." "What do you mean by damned?" asked Adams. Johnson replied
passionately and loudly, "Sent to hell, sir, and punished
everlastingly." Remonstrances only deepened his melancholy, and he
silenced his friends by exclaiming in gloomy agitation, "I'll have no
more on't!" Often in these last years he was heard muttering to himself
the passionate complaint of Claudio, "Ah, but to die and go we know not
whither!" At other times he was speaking of some lost friend, and
saying, "Poor man--and then he died!" The peculiar horror of death,
which seems to indicate a tinge of insanity, was combined with utter
fearlessness of pain. He called to the surgeons to cut deeper when
performing a painful operation, and shortly before his death inflicted
such wounds upon himself in hopes of obtaining relief as, very
erroneously, to suggest the idea of suicide. Whilst his strength
remained, he endeavoured to disperse melancholy by some of the old
methods. In the winter of 1783-4 he got together the few surviving
members of the old Ivy Lane Club, which had flourished when he was
composing the _Dictionary_; but the old place of meeting had vanished,
most of the original members were dead, and the gathering can have been
but melancholy. He started another club at the Essex Head, whose members
were to meet twice a week, with the modest fine of threepence for
non-attendance. It appears to have included a rather "strange mixture"
of people, and thereby to have given some scandal to Sir John Hawkins
and even to Reynolds. They thought that his craving for society,
increased by his loss of Streatham, was leading him to undignified

Amongst the members of the club, however, were such men as Horsley and
Windham. Windham seems to have attracted more personal regard than most
politicians, by a generous warmth of enthusiasm not too common in the
class. In politics he was an ardent disciple of Burke's, whom he
afterwards followed in his separation from the new Whigs. But, though
adhering to the principles which Johnson detested, he knew, like his
preceptor, how to win Johnson's warmest regard. He was the most eminent
of the younger generation who now looked up to Johnson as a venerable
relic from the past. Another was young Burke, that very priggish and
silly young man as he seems to have been, whose loss, none the less,
broke the tender heart of his father. Friendships, now more
interesting, were those with two of the most distinguished authoresses
of the day. One of them was Hannah More, who was about this time coming
to the conclusion that the talents which had gained her distinction in
the literary and even in the dramatic world, should be consecrated to
less secular employment. Her vivacity during the earlier years of their
acquaintance exposed her to an occasional rebuff. "She does not gain
upon me, sir; I think her empty-headed," was one of his remarks; and it
was to her that he said, according to Mrs. Thrale, though Boswell
reports a softened version of the remark, that she should "consider what
her flattery was worth, before she choked him with it." More frequently,
he seems to have repaid it in kind. "There was no name in poetry," he
said, "which might not be glad to own her poem"--the _Bas Bleu_.
Certainly Johnson did not stick at trifles in intercourse with his
female friends. He was delighted, shortly before his death, to "gallant
it about" with her at Oxford, and in serious moments showed a respectful
regard for her merits. Hannah More, who thus sat at the feet of Johnson,
encouraged the juvenile ambition of Macaulay, and did not die till the
historian had grown into manhood and fame. The other friendship noticed
was with Fanny Burney, who also lived to our own time. Johnson's
affection for this daughter of his friend seems to have been amongst the
tenderest of his old age. When she was first introduced to him at the
Thrales, she was overpowered and indeed had her head a little turned by
flattery of the most agreeable kind that an author can receive. The
"great literary Leviathan" showed himself to have the recently published
_Evelina_ at his fingers' ends. He quoted, and almost acted passages.
"La! Polly!" he exclaimed in a pert feminine accent, "only think! Miss
has danced with a lord!" How many modern readers can assign its place to
that quotation, or answer the question which poor Boswell asked in
despair and amidst general ridicule for his ignorance, "What is a
Brangton?" There is something pleasant in the enthusiasm with which men
like Johnson and Burke welcomed the literary achievements of the young
lady, whose first novels seem to have made a sensation almost as lively
as that produced by Miss Bronte, and far superior to anything that fell
to the lot of Miss Austen. Johnson seems also to have regarded her with
personal affection. He had a tender interview with her shortly before
his death; he begged her with solemn energy to remember him in her
prayers; he apologized pathetically for being unable to see her, as his
weakness increased; and sent her tender messages from his deathbed.

As the end drew near, Johnson accepted the inevitable like a man. After
spending most of the latter months of 1784 in the country with the
friends who, after the loss of the Thrales, could give him most domestic
comfort, he came back to London to die. He made his will, and settled a
few matters of business, and was pleased to be told that he would be
buried in Westminster Abbey. He uttered a few words of solemn advice to
those who came near him, and took affecting leave of his friends.
Langton, so warmly loved, was in close attendance. Johnson said to him
tenderly, _Te teneam moriens deficiente manu_. Windham broke from
political occupations to sit by the dying man; once Langton found Burke
sitting by his bedside with three or four friends. "I am afraid," said
Burke, "that so many of us must be oppressive to you." "No, sir, it is
not so," replied Johnson, "and I must be in a wretched state indeed
when your company would not be a delight to me." "My dear sir," said
Burke, with a breaking voice, "you have always been too good to me;" and
parted from his old friend for the last time. Of Reynolds, he begged
three things: to forgive a debt of thirty pounds, to read the Bible, and
never to paint on Sundays. A few flashes of the old humour broke
through. He said of a man who sat up with him: "Sir, the fellow's an
idiot; he's as awkward as a turnspit when first put into the wheel, and
as sleepy as a dormouse." His last recorded words were to a young lady
who had begged for his blessing: "God bless you, my dear." The same day,
December 13th, 1784, he gradually sank and died peacefully. He was laid
in the Abbey by the side of Goldsmith, and the playful prediction has
been amply fulfilled:--

Forsitan et nostrum nomen miscebitur istis.

The names of many greater writers are inscribed upon the walls of
Westminster Abbey; but scarcely any one lies there whose heart was more
acutely responsive during life to the deepest and tenderest of human
emotions. In visiting that strange gathering of departed heroes and
statesmen and philanthropists and poets, there are many whose words and
deeds have a far greater influence upon our imaginations; but there are
very few whom, when all has been said, we can love so heartily as Samuel



It remains to speak of Johnson's position in literature. For reasons
sufficiently obvious, few men whose lives have been devoted to letters
for an equal period, have left behind them such scanty and inadequate
remains. Johnson, as we have seen, worked only under the pressure of
circumstances; a very small proportion of his latter life was devoted to
literary employment. The working hours of his earlier years were spent
for the most part in productions which can hardly be called literary.
Seven years were devoted to the _Dictionary_, which, whatever its
merits, could be a book only in the material sense of the word, and was
of course destined to be soon superseded. Much of his hack-work has
doubtless passed into oblivion, and though the ordinary relic-worship
has gathered together fragments enough to fill twelve decent octavo
volumes (to which may be added the two volumes of parliamentary
reports), the part which can be called alive may be compressed into very
moderate compass. Johnson may be considered as a poet, an essayist, a
pamphleteer, a traveller, a critic, and a biographer. Among his poems,
the two imitations of Juvenal, especially the _Vanity of Human Wishes_,
and a minor fragment or two, probably deserve more respect than would be
conceded to them by adherents of modern schools. His most ambitious
work, _Irene_, can be read by men in whom a sense of duty has been
abnormally developed. Among the two hundred and odd essays of the
_Rambler_, there is a fair proportion which will deserve, but will
hardly obtain, respectful attention. _Rasselas_, one of the
philosophical tales popular in the last century, gives the essence of
much of the _Rambler_ in a different form, and to these may be added the
essay upon Soame Jenyns, which deals with the same absorbing question of
human happiness. The political pamphlets, and the _Journey to the
Hebrides_, have a certain historical interest; but are otherwise
readable only in particular passages. Much of his criticism is pretty
nearly obsolete; but the child of his old age--the _Lives of the
Poets_--a book in which criticism and biography are combined, is an
admirable performance in spite of serious defects. It is the work that
best reflects his mind, and intelligent readers who have once made its
acquaintance, will be apt to turn it into a familiar companion.

If it is easy to assign the causes which limited the quantity of
Johnson's work, it is more curious to inquire what was the quality which
once gained for it so much authority, and which now seems to have so far
lost its savour. The peculiar style which is associated with Johnson's
name must count for something in both processes. The mannerism is
strongly marked, and of course offensive; for by "mannerism," as I
understand the word, is meant the repetition of certain forms of
language in obedience to blind habit and without reference to their
propriety in the particular case. Johnson's sentences seem to be
contorted, as his gigantic limbs used to twitch, by a kind of mechanical
spasmodic action. The most obvious peculiarity is the tendency which he
noticed himself, to "use too big words and too many of them." He had to
explain to Miss Reynolds that the Shakesperian line,--

You must borrow me Garagantua's mouth,

had been applied to him because he used "big words, which require the
mouth of a giant to pronounce them." It was not, however, the mere
bigness of the words that distinguished his style, but a peculiar love
of putting the abstract for the concrete, of using awkward inversions,
and of balancing his sentences in a monotonous rhythm, which gives the
appearance, as it sometimes corresponds to the reality, of elaborate
logical discrimination. With all its faults the style has the merits of
masculine directness. The inversions are not such as to complicate the
construction. As Boswell remarks, he never uses a parenthesis; and his
style, though ponderous and wearisome, is as transparent as the smarter
snip-snap of Macaulay.

This singular mannerism appears in his earliest writings; it is most
marked at the time of the _Rambler_; whilst in the _Lives of the Poets_,
although I think that the trick of inversion has become commoner, the
other peculiarities have been so far softened as (in my judgment, at
least), to be inoffensive. It is perhaps needless to give examples of a
tendency which marks almost every page of his writing. A passage or two
from the _Rambler_ may illustrate the quality of the style, and the
oddity of the effect produced, when it is applied to topics of a trivial
kind. The author of the _Rambler_ is supposed to receive a remonstrance
upon his excessive gravity from the lively Flirtilla, who wishes him to
write in defence of masquerades. Conscious of his own incapacity, he
applies to a man of "high reputation in gay life;" who, on the fifth
perusal of Flirtilla's letter breaks into a rapture, and declares that
he is ready to devote himself to her service. Here is part of the
apostrophe put into the mouth of this brilliant rake. "Behold,
Flirtilla, at thy feet a man grown gray in the study of those noble arts
by which right and wrong may be confounded; by which reason may be
blinded, when we have a mind to escape from her inspection, and caprice
and appetite instated in uncontrolled command and boundless dominion!
Such a casuist may surely engage with certainty of success in
vindication of an entertainment which in an instant gives confidence to
the timorous and kindles ardour in the cold, an entertainment where the
vigilance of jealousy has so often been clouded, and the virgin is set
free from the necessity of languishing in silence; where all the
outworks of chastity are at once demolished; where the heart is laid
open without a blush; where bashfulness may survive virtue, and no wish
is crushed under the frown of modesty."

Here is another passage, in which Johnson is speaking upon a topic more
within his proper province; and which contains sound sense under its
weight of words. A man, he says, who reads a printed book, is often
contented to be pleased without critical examination. "But," he adds,
"if the same man be called to consider the merit of a production yet
unpublished, he brings an imagination heated with objections to passages
which he has never yet heard; he invokes all the powers of criticism,
and stores his memory with Taste and Grace, Purity and Delicacy, Manners
and Unities, sounds which having been once uttered by those that
understood them, have been since re-echoed without meaning, and kept up
to the disturbance of the world by constant repercussion from one
coxcomb to another. He considers himself as obliged to show by some
proof of his abilities, that he is not consulted to no purpose, and
therefore watches every opening for objection, and looks round for every
opportunity to propose some specious alteration. Such opportunities a
very small degree of sagacity will enable him to find, for in every work
of imagination, the disposition of parts, the insertion of incidents,
and use of decorations may be varied in a thousand ways with equal
propriety; and, as in things nearly equal that will always seem best to
every man which he himself produces, the critic, whose business is only
to propose without the care of execution, can never want the
satisfaction of believing that he has suggested very important
improvements, nor the power of enforcing his advice by arguments, which,
as they appear convincing to himself, either his kindness or his vanity
will press obstinately and importunately, without suspicion that he may
possibly judge too hastily in favour of his own advice or inquiry
whether the advantage of the new scheme be proportionate to the labour."
We may still notice a "repercussion" of words from one coxcomb to
another; though somehow the words have been changed or translated.

Johnson's style is characteristic of the individual and of the epoch.
The preceding generation had exhibited the final triumph of common sense
over the pedantry of a decaying scholasticism. The movements represented
by Locke's philosophy, by the rationalizing school in theology, and by
the so-called classicism of Pope and his followers, are different phases
of the same impulse. The quality valued above all others in philosophy,
literature, and art was clear, bright, common sense. To expel the
mystery which had served as a cloak for charlatans was the great aim of
the time, and the method was to appeal from the professors of exploded
technicalities to the judgment of cultivated men of the world. Berkeley
places his Utopia in happy climes,--

Where nature guides, and virtue rules,
_Where men shall not impose for truth and sense
The pedantry of courts and schools_.

Simplicity, clearness, directness are, therefore, the great virtues of
thought and style. Berkeley, Addison, Pope, and Swift are the great
models of such excellence in various departments of literature.

In the succeeding generation we become aware of a certain leaven of
dissatisfaction with the aesthetic and intellectual code thus inherited.
The supremacy of common sense, the superlative importance of clearness,
is still fully acknowledged, but there is a growing undertone of dissent
in form and substance. Attempts are made to restore philosophical
conceptions assailed by Locke and his followers; the rationalism, of the
deistic or semi-deistic writers is declared to be superficial; their
optimistic theories disregard the dark side of nature, and provide no
sufficient utterance for the sadness caused by the contemplation of
human suffering; and the polished monotony of Pope's verses begins to
fall upon those who shall tread in his steps. Some daring sceptics are
even inquiring whether he is a poet at all. And simultaneously, though
Addison is still a kind of sacred model, the best prose writers are
beginning to aim at a more complex structure of sentence, fitted for the
expression of a wider range of thought and emotion.

Johnson, though no conscious revolutionist, shares this growing
discontent. The _Spectator_ is written in the language of the
drawing-room and the coffee-house. Nothing is ever said which might not
pass in conversation between a couple of "wits," with, at most, some
graceful indulgence in passing moods of solemn or tender sentiment.
Johnson, though devoted to society in his own way, was anything but a
producer of small talk. Society meant to him an escape from the gloom
which beset him whenever he was abandoned to his thoughts. Neither his
education nor the manners acquired in Grub Street had qualified him to
be an observer of those lighter foibles which were touched by Addison
with so dexterous a hand. When he ventures upon such topics he flounders
dreadfully, and rather reminds us of an artist who should attempt to
paint miniatures with a mop. No man, indeed, took more of interest in
what is called the science of human nature; and, when roused by the
stimulus of argument, he could talk, as has been shown, with almost
unrivalled vigour and point. But his favourite topics are the deeper
springs of character, rather than superficial peculiarities; and his
vigorous sayings are concentrated essence of strong sense and deep
feeling, not dainty epigrams or graceful embodiments of delicate
observation. Johnson was not, like some contemporary antiquarians, a
systematic student of the English literature of the preceding centuries,
but he had a strong affection for some of its chief masterpieces.
Burton's _Anatomy of Melancholy_ was, he declared, the only book which
ever got him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished. Sir Thomas
Browne was another congenial writer, who is supposed to have had some
influence upon his style. He never seems to have directly imitated any
one, though some nonsense has been talked about his "forming a style;"
but it is probable that he felt a closer affinity to those old scholars,
with their elaborate and ornate language and their deep and solemn tone
of sentiment, than to the brilliant but comparatively superficial
writers of Queen Anne's time. He was, one may say, a scholar of the old
type, forced by circumstances upon the world, but always retaining a
sympathy for the scholar's life and temper. Accordingly, his style
acquired something of the old elaboration, though the attempt to conform
to the canons of a later age renders the structure disagreeably
monotonous. His tendency to pomposity is not redeemed by the _naivete_
and spontaneity of his masters.

The inferiority of Johnson's written to his spoken utterances is
indicative of his divided life. There are moments at which his writing
takes the terse, vigorous tone of his talk. In his letters, such as
those to Chesterfield and Macpherson and in occasional passages of his
pamphlets, we see that he could be pithy enough when he chose to descend
from his Latinized abstractions to good concrete English; but that is
only when he becomes excited. His face when in repose, we are told,
appeared to be almost imbecile; he was constantly sunk in reveries, from
which he was only roused by a challenge to conversation. In his
writings, for the most part, we seem to be listening to the reverie
rather than the talk; we are overhearing a soliloquy in his study, not a
vigorous discussion over the twentieth cup of tea; he is not fairly put
upon his mettle, and is content to expound without enforcing. We seem to
see a man, heavy-eyed, ponderous in his gestures, like some huge
mechanism which grinds out a ponderous tissue of verbiage as heavy as it
is certainly solid.

The substance corresponds to the style. Johnson has something in common
with the fashionable pessimism of modern times. No sentimentalist of
to-day could be more convinced that life is in the main miserable. It
was his favourite theory, according to Mrs. Thrale, that all human
action was prompted by the "vacuity of life." Men act solely in the hope
of escaping from themselves. Evil, as a follower of Schopenhauer would
assert, is the positive, and good merely the negative of evil. All
desire is at bottom an attempt to escape from pain. The doctrine neither
resulted from, nor generated, a philosophical theory in Johnson's case,
and was in the main a generalization of his own experience. Not the
less, the aim of most of his writing is to express this sentiment in one
form or other. He differs, indeed, from most modern sentimentalists, in
having the most hearty contempt for useless whining. If he dwells upon
human misery, it is because he feels that it is as futile to join with
the optimist in ignoring, as with the pessimist in howling over the
evil. We are in a sad world, full of pain, but we have to make the best
of it. Stubborn patience and hard work are the sole remedies, or rather
the sole means of temporary escape. Much of the _Rambler_ is occupied
with variations upon this theme, and expresses the kind of dogged
resolution with which he would have us plod through this weary world.
Take for example this passage:--"The controversy about the reality of
external evils is now at an end. That life has many miseries, and that
those miseries are sometimes at least equal to all the powers of
fortitude is now universally confessed; and, therefore, it is useful to
consider not only how we may escape them, but by what means those which
either the accidents of affairs or the infirmities of nature must bring
upon us may be mitigated and lightened, and how we may make those hours
less wretched which the condition of our present existence will not
allow to be very happy.

"The cure for the greatest part of human miseries is not radical, but
palliative. Infelicity is involved in corporeal nature, and interwoven
with our being; all attempts, therefore, to decline it wholly are
useless and vain; the armies of pain send their arrows against us on
every side, the choice is only between those which are more or less
sharp, or tinged with poison of greater or less malignity; and the
strongest armour which reason can supply will only blunt their points,
but cannot repel them.

"The great remedy which Heaven has put in our hands is patience, by
which, though we cannot lessen the torments of the body, we can in a
great measure preserve the peace of the mind, and shall suffer only the
natural and genuine force of an evil, without heightening its acrimony
or prolonging its effects."

It is hardly desirable for a moralist to aim at originality in his
precepts. We must be content if he enforces old truths in such a manner
as to convince us of the depth and sincerity of his feeling. Johnson, it
must be confessed, rather abuses the moralist's privilege of being
commonplace. He descants not unfrequently upon propositions so trite
that even the most earnest enforcement can give them little interest.
With all drawbacks, however, the moralizing is the best part of the
_Rambler_. Many of the papers follow the precedent set by Addison in the
_Spectator_, but without Addison's felicity. Like Addison, he indulges
in allegory, which, in his hands, becomes unendurably frigid and clumsy;
he tries light social satire, and is fain to confess that we can spy a
beard under the muffler of his feminine characters; he treats us to
criticism which, like Addison's, goes upon exploded principles, but
unlike Addison's, is apt to be almost wilfully outrageous. His odd
remarks upon Milton's versification are the worst example of this
weakness. The result is what one might expect from the attempt of a
writer without an ear to sit in judgment upon the greatest master of
harmony in the language.

These defects have consigned the _Rambler_ to the dustiest shelves of
libraries, and account for the wonder expressed by such a critic as M.
Taine at the English love of Johnson. Certainly if that love were
nourished, as he seems to fancy, by assiduous study of the _Rambler_, it
would be a curious phenomenon. And yet with all its faults, the reader
who can plod through its pages will at least feel respect for the
author. It is not unworthy of the man whose great lesson is "clear your
mind of cant;"[1] who felt most deeply the misery of the world, but from
the bottom of his heart despised querulous and sentimental complaints on
one side, and optimist glasses upon the other. To him, as to some others
of his temperament, the affectation of looking at the bright side of
things seems to have presented itself as the bitterest of mockeries; and
nothing would tempt him to let fine words pass themselves off for
genuine sense. Here are some remarks upon the vanity in which some
authors seek for consolation, which may illustrate this love of
realities and conclude our quotations from the _Rambler_.

[Footnote 1: Of this well-known sentiment it may be said, as of some
other familiar quotations, that its direct meaning has been slightly
modified in use. The emphasis is changed. Johnson's words were "Clear
your _mind_ of cant. You may talk as other people do; you may say to a
man, sir, I am your humble servant; you are _not_ his most humble
servant.... You may _talk_ in this manner; it is a mode of talking in
society; but don't _think_ foolishly."]

"By such acts of voluntary delusion does every man endeavour to conceal
his own unimportance from himself. It is long before we are convinced of
the small proportion which every individual bears to the collective body
of mankind; or learn how few can be interested in the fortune of any
single man; how little vacancy is left in the world for any new object
of attention; to how small extent the brightest blaze of merit can be
spread amidst the mists of business and of folly; and how soon it is
clouded by the intervention of other novelties. Not only the writer of
books, but the commander of armies, and the deliverer of nations, will
easily outlive all noisy and popular reputation: he may be celebrated
for a time by the public voice, but his actions and his name will soon
be considered as remote and unaffecting, and be rarely mentioned but by
those whose alliance gives them some vanity to gratify by frequent
commemoration. It seems not to be sufficiently considered how little
renown can be admitted in the world. Mankind are kept perpetually busy
by their fears or desires, and have not more leisure from their own
affairs than to acquaint themselves with the accidents of the current
day. Engaged in contriving some refuge from calamity, or in shortening
their way to some new possession, they seldom suffer their thoughts to
wander to the past or future; none but a few solitary students have
leisure to inquire into the claims of ancient heroes or sages; and names
which hoped to range over kingdoms and continents shrink at last into
cloisters and colleges. Nor is it certain that even of these dark and
narrow habitations, these last retreats of fame, the possession will be
long kept. Of men devoted to literature very few extend their views
beyond some particular science, and the greater part seldom inquire,
even in their own profession, for any authors but those whom the present
mode of study happens to force upon their notice; they desire not to
fill their minds with unfashionable knowledge, but contentedly resign to
oblivion those books which they now find censured or neglected."

The most remarkable of Johnson's utterances upon his favourite topic of
the Vanity of Human Wishes is the story of _Rasselas_. The plan of the
book is simple, and recalls certain parts of Voltaire's simultaneous but
incomparably more brilliant attack upon Optimism in _Candide_. There is
supposed to be a happy valley in Abyssinia where the royal princes are
confined in total seclusion, but with ample supplies for every
conceivable want. Rasselas, who has been thus educated, becomes curious
as to the outside world, and at last makes his escape with his sister,
her attendant, and the ancient sage and poet, Imlac. Under Imlac's
guidance they survey life and manners in various stations; they make the
acquaintance of philosophers, statesmen, men of the world, and recluses;
they discuss the results of their experience pretty much in the style of
the _Rambler_; they agree to pronounce the sentence "Vanity of
Vanities!" and finally, in a "conclusion where nothing is concluded,"
they resolve to return to the happy valley. The book is little more than
a set of essays upon life, with just story enough to hold it together.
It is wanting in those brilliant flashes of epigram, which illustrate
Voltaire's pages so as to blind some readers to its real force of
sentiment, and yet it leaves a peculiar and powerful impression upon the

The general tone may be collected from a few passages. Here is a
fragment, the conclusion of which is perhaps the most familiar of
quotations from Johnson's writings. Imlac in narrating his life
describes his attempts to become a poet.

"The business of a poet," said Imlac, "is to examine not the individual,
but the species; to remark general properties and large appearances; he
does not number the streaks of the tulip or describe the different
shades in the verdure of the forest. He is to exhibit in his portraits
of nature such prominent and striking features as recall the original to
every mind; and must neglect the minute discriminations which one may
have remarked, and another have neglected for those characteristics
which are alike obvious to vigilance and carelessness."

"But the knowledge of nature is only half the task of a poet; he must be
acquainted likewise with all the modes of life. His character requires
that he estimate the happiness and misery of every condition; observe
the power of all the passions in all their combinations, and know the
changes of the human mind as they are modified by various institutions,
and accidental influences of climate or custom, from the sprightliness
of infancy to the despondency of decrepitude. He must divest himself of
the prejudices of his age or country; he must consider right and wrong
in their abstracted and invariable state; he must disregard present laws
and opinions, and rise to general and transcendental truths, which will
always be the same; he must therefore content himself with the slow
progress of his name; contemn the applause of his own time, and commit
his claims to the justice of posterity. He must write as the interpreter
of nature and the legislator of mankind, and consider himself as
presiding over the thoughts and manners of future generations, as a
being superior to time and place.

"His labours are not yet at an end; he must know many languages and many
sciences; and that his style may be worthy of his thoughts, must by
incessant practice familiarize to himself every delicacy of speech and
grace of harmony."

Imlac now felt the enthusiastic fit and was proceeding to aggrandize his
profession, when the prince cried out, "Enough, thou hast convinced me
that no human being can ever be a poet."

Indeed, Johnson's conception of poetry is not the one which is now
fashionable, and which would rather seem to imply that philosophical
power and moral sensibility are so far disqualifications to the true

Here, again, is a view of the superfine system of moral philosophy. A
meeting of learned men is discussing the ever-recurring problem of
happiness, and one of them speaks as follows:--

"The way to be happy is to live according to nature, in obedience to
that universal and unalterable law with which every heart is originally
impressed; which is not written on it by precept, but engraven by
destiny, not instilled by education, but infused at our nativity. He
that lives according to nature will suffer nothing from the delusions of
hope, or importunities of desire; he will receive and reject with
equability of temper, and act or suffer as the reason of things shall
alternately prescribe. Other men may amuse themselves with subtle
definitions or intricate ratiocinations. Let him learn to be wise by
easier means: let him observe the hind of the forest, and the linnet of
the grove; let him consider the life of animals whose motions are
regulated by instinct; they obey their guide and are happy.

"Let us, therefore, at length cease to dispute, and learn to live; throw
away the incumbrance of precepts, which they who utter them with so much
pride and pomp do not understand, and carry with us this simple and
intelligible maxim, that deviation from nature is deviation from

The prince modestly inquires what is the precise meaning of the advice
just given.

"When I find young men so humble and so docile," said the philosopher,
"I can deny them no information which my studies have enabled me to
afford. To live according to nature, is to act always with due regard to
the fitness arising from the relations and qualities of causes and
effects, to concur with the great and unchangeable scheme of universal
felicity; to co-operate with the general disposition and tendency of the
present system of things.

"The prince soon found that this was one of the sages, whom he should
understand less as he heard him longer."

Here, finally, is a characteristic reflection upon the right mode of
meeting sorrow.

"The state of a mind oppressed with a sudden calamity," said Imlac, "is
like that of the fabulous inhabitants of the new created earth, who,
when the first night came upon them, supposed that day would never
return. When the clouds of sorrow gather over us, we see nothing beyond
them, nor can imagine how they will be dispelled; yet a new day
succeeded to the night, and sorrow is never long without a dawn of ease.
But as they who restrain themselves from receiving comfort, do as the
savages would have done, had they put out their eyes when it was dark.
Our minds, like our bodies, are in continual flux; something is hourly
lost, and something acquired. To lose much at once is inconvenient to
either, but while the vital powers remain uninjured, nature will find
the means of reparation.

"Distance has the same effect on the mind as on the eye, and while we
glide along the stream of time, whatever we leave behind us is always
lessening, and that which we approach increasing in magnitude. Do not
suffer life to stagnate; it will grow muddy for want of motion; commit
yourself again to the current of the world; Pekuah will vanish by
degrees; you will meet in your way some other favourite, or learn to
diffuse yourself in general conversation."

In one respect _Rasselas_ is curiously contrasted with _Candide_.
Voltaire's story is aimed at the doctrine of theological optimism, and,
whether that doctrine be well or ill understood, has therefore an openly
sceptical tendency. Johnson, to whom nothing could be more abhorrent
than an alliance with any assailant of orthodoxy, draws no inference
from his pessimism. He is content to state the fact of human misery
without perplexing himself with the resulting problem as to the final
cause of human existence. If the question had been explicitly brought
before him, he would, doubtless, have replied that the mystery was
insoluble. To answer either in the sceptical or the optimistic sense was
equally presumptuous. Johnson's religious beliefs in fact were not such
as to suggest that kind of comfort which is to be obtained by explaining
away the existence of evil. If he, too, would have said that in some
sense all must be for the best in a world ruled by a perfect Creator,
the sense must be one which would allow of the eternal misery of
indefinite multitudes of his creatures.

But, in truth, it was characteristic of Johnson to turn away his mind
from such topics. He was interested in ethical speculations, but on the
practical side, in the application to life, not in the philosophy on
which it might be grounded. In that direction, he could see nothing but
a "milking of the bull"--a fruitless or rather a pernicious waste of
intellect. An intense conviction of the supreme importance of a moral
guidance in this difficult world, made him abhor any rash inquiries by
which the basis of existing authority might be endangered.

This sentiment is involved in many of those prejudices which have been
so much, and in some sense justifiably ridiculed. Man has been wretched
and foolish since the race began, and will be till it ends; one chorus
of lamentation has ever been rising, in countless dialects but with a
single meaning; the plausible schemes of philosophers give no solution
to the everlasting riddle; the nostrums of politicians touch only the
surface of the deeply-rooted evil; it is folly to be querulous, and as
silly to fancy that men are growing worse, as that they are much better
than they used to be. The evils under which we suffer are not skin-deep,
to be eradicated by changing the old physicians for new quacks. What is
to be done under such conditions, but to hold fast as vigorously as we
can to the rules of life and faith which have served our ancestors, and
which, whatever their justifications, are at least the only consolation,
because they supply the only guidance through this labyrinth of
troubles? Macaulay has ridiculed Johnson for what he takes to be the
ludicrous inconsistency of his intense political prejudice, combined
with his assertion of the indifference of all forms of government.
"If," says Macaulay, "the difference between two forms of government be
not worth half a guinea, it is not easy to see how Whiggism can be viler
than Toryism, or the Crown can have too little power." The answer is
surely obvious. Whiggism is vile, according to the doctor's phrase,
because Whiggism is a "negation of all principle;" it is in his view,
not so much the preference of one form to another, as an attack upon the
vital condition of all government. He called Burke a "bottomless Whig"
in this sense, implying that Whiggism meant anarchy; and in the next
generation a good many people were led, rightly or wrongly, to agree
with him by the experience of the French revolution.

This dogged conservatism has both its value and its grotesque side. When
Johnson came to write political pamphlets in his later years, and to
deal with subjects little familiar to his mind, the results were
grotesque enough. Loving authority, and holding one authority to be as
good as another, he defended with uncompromising zeal the most
preposterous and tyrannical measures. The pamphlets against the Wilkite
agitators and the American rebels are little more than a huge
"rhinoceros" snort of contempt against all who are fools enough or
wicked enough to promote war and disturbance in order to change one form
of authority for another. Here is a characteristic passage, giving his
view of the value of such demonstrators:--

"The progress of a petition is well known. An ejected placeman goes down
to his county or his borough, tells his friends of his inability to
serve them and his constituents, of the corruption of the government.
His friends readily understand that he who can get nothing, will have
nothing to give. They agree to proclaim a meeting. Meat and drink are
plentifully provided, a crowd is easily brought together, and those who
think that they know the reason of the meeting undertake to tell those
who know it not. Ale and clamour unite their powers; the crowd,
condensed and heated, begins to ferment with the leaven of sedition. All
see a thousand evils, though they cannot show them, and grow impatient
for a remedy, though they know not what.

"A speech is then made by the Cicero of the day; he says much and
suppresses more, and credit is equally given to what he tells and what
he conceals. The petition is heard and universally approved. Those who
are sober enough to write, add their names, and the rest would sign it
if they could.

"Every man goes home and tells his neighbour of the glories of the day;
how he was consulted, and what he advised; how he was invited into the
great room, where his lordship caressed him by his name; how he was
caressed by Sir Francis, Sir Joseph, and Sir George; how he ate turtle
and venison, and drank unanimity to the three brothers.

"The poor loiterer, whose shop had confined him or whose wife had locked
him up, hears the tale of luxury with envy, and at last inquires what
was their petition. Of the petition nothing is remembered by the
narrator, but that it spoke much of fears and apprehensions and
something very alarming, but that he is sure it is against the

"The other is convinced that it must be right, and wishes he had been
there, for he loves wine and venison, and resolves as long as he lives
to be against the government.

"The petition is then handed from town to town, and from house to house;
and wherever it comes, the inhabitants flock together that they may see
that which must be sent to the king. Names are easily collected. One man
signs because he hates the papists; another because he has vowed
destruction to the turnpikes; one because it will vex the parson;
another because he owes his landlord nothing; one because he is rich;
another because he is poor; one to show that he is not afraid; and
another to show that he can write."

The only writing in which we see a distinct reflection of Johnson's talk
is the _Lives of the Poets_. The excellence of that book is of the same
kind as the excellence of his conversation. Johnson wrote it under
pressure, and it has suffered from his characteristic indolence. Modern
authors would fill as many pages as Johnson has filled lines, with the
biographies of some of his heroes. By industriously sweeping together
all the rubbish which is in any way connected with the great man, by
elaborately discussing the possible significance of infinitesimal bits
of evidence, and by disquisition upon general principles or the whole
mass of contemporary literature, it is easy to swell volumes to any
desired extent. The result is sometimes highly interesting and valuable,
as it is sometimes a new contribution to the dust-heaps; but in any case
the design is something quite different from Johnson's. He has left much
to be supplied and corrected by later scholars. His aim is simply to
give a vigorous summary of the main facts of his heroes' lives, a pithy
analysis of their character, and a short criticism of their productions.
The strong sense which is everywhere displayed, the massive style, which
is yet easier and less cumbrous than in his earlier work, and the
uprightness and independence of the judgments, make the book agreeable
even where we are most inclined to dissent from its conclusions.

The criticism is that of a school which has died out under the great
revolution of modern taste. The booksellers decided that English poetry
began for their purposes with Cowley, and Johnson has, therefore,
nothing to say about some of the greatest names in our literature. The
loss is little to be regretted, since the biographical part of earlier
memoirs must have been scanty, and the criticism inappreciative.
Johnson, it may be said, like most of his contemporaries, considered
poetry almost exclusively from the didactic and logical point of view.
He always inquires what is the moral of a work of art. If he does not
precisely ask "what it proves," he pays excessive attention to the
logical solidity and coherence of its sentiments. He condemns not only
insincerity and affectation of feeling, but all such poetic imagery as
does not correspond to the actual prosaic belief of the writer. For the
purely musical effects of poetry he has little or no feeling, and allows
little deviation from the alternate long and short syllables neatly
bound in Pope's couplets.

To many readers this would imply that Johnson omits precisely the poetic
element in poetry. I must be here content to say that in my opinion it
implies rather a limitation than a fundamental error. Johnson errs in
supposing that his logical tests are at all adequate; but it is, I
think, a still greater error to assume that poetry has no connexion,
because it has not this kind of connexion, with philosophy. His
criticism has always a meaning, and in the case of works belonging to
his own school a very sound meaning. When he is speaking of other
poetry, we can only reply that his remarks may be true, but that they
are not to the purpose.

The remarks on the poetry of Dryden, Addison, and Pope are generally
excellent, and always give the genuine expression of an independent
judgment. Whoever thinks for himself, and says plainly what he thinks,
has some merit as a critic. This, it is true, is about all that can be
said for such criticism as that on _Lycidas_, which is a delicious
example of the wrong way of applying strong sense to inappropriate
topics. Nothing can be truer in a sense, and nothing less relevant.

"In this poem," he says, "there is no nature, for there is no truth;
there is no art, for there is nothing new. Its form is that of a
pastoral, easy, vulgar, and therefore disgusting; whatever images it can
supply are easily exhausted, and its inherent improbability always
forces dissatisfaction on the mind. When Cowley tells of Hervey that
they studied together, it is easy to suppose how much he must miss the
companion of his labours and the partner of his discoveries; but what
image of tenderness can be excited by these lines?--

We drove afield, and both together heard
What time the gray fly winds her sultry horn,
Battening our flocks with the fresh dews of night.

We know that they never drove a-field and had no flocks to batten; and
though it be allowed that the representation may be allegorical, the
true meaning is so uncertain and remote that it is never sought, because
it cannot be known when it is found.

"Among the flocks and copses and flowers appear the heathen deities:
Jove and Phoebus, Neptune and Aeolus, with a long train of mythological
imagery such as a college easily supplies. Nothing can less display
knowledge or less exercise invention than to tell how a shepherd has
lost his companion, and must now feed his flocks alone, without any
judge of his skill in piping; how one god asks another god what has
become of Lycidas, and neither god can tell. He who thus grieves will
excite no sympathy; he who thus praises will confer no honour."

This is of course utterly outrageous, and yet much of it is undeniably
true. To explain why, in spite of truth, _Lycidas_ is a wonderful poem,
would be to go pretty deeply into the theory of poetic expression. Most
critics prefer simply to shriek, being at any rate safe from the errors
of independent judgment.

The general effect of the book, however, is not to be inferred from this
or some other passages of antiquated and eccentric criticism. It is the
shrewd sense everywhere cropping up which is really delightful. The keen
remarks upon life and character, though, perhaps, rather too severe in
tone, are worthy of a vigorous mind, stored with much experience of many
classes, and braced by constant exercise in the conversational arena.
Passages everywhere abound which, though a little more formal in
expression, have the forcible touch of his best conversational sallies.
Some of the prejudices, which are expressed more pithily in _Boswell_,
are defended by a reasoned exposition in the _Lives_. Sentence is passed
with the true judicial air; and if he does not convince us of his
complete impartiality, he at least bases his decisions upon solid and
worthy grounds. It would be too much, for example, to expect that
Johnson should sympathize with the grand republicanism of Milton, or
pardon a man who defended the execution of the blessed Martyr. He
failed, therefore, to satisfy the ardent admirers of the great poet. Yet
his judgment is not harsh or ungenerous, but, at worst, the judgment of
a man striving to be just, in spite of some inevitable want of sympathy.

The quality of Johnson's incidental remarks may be inferred from one or
two brief extracts. Here is an observation which Johnson must have had
many chances of verifying. Speaking of Dryden's money difficulties, he
says, "It is well known that he seldom lives frugally who lives by
chance. Hope is always liberal, and they that trust her promises, make
little scruple of revelling to-day on the profits of the morrow."

Here is another shrewd comment upon the compliments paid to Halifax, of
whom Pope says in the character of Bufo,--

Fed with soft dedications all day long,
Horace and he went hand and hand in song.

"To charge all unmerited praise with the guilt of flattery, or to
suppose that the encomiast always knows and feels the falsehoods of his
assertions, is surely to discover great ignorance of human nature and of
human life. In determinations depending not on rules, but on reference
and comparison, judgment is always in some degree subject to affection.
Very near to admiration is the wish to admire.

"Every man willingly gives value to the praise which he receives, and
considers the sentence passed in his favour as the sentence of
discernment. We admire in a friend that understanding that selected us
for confidence; we admire more in a patron that bounty which, instead of
scattering bounty indiscriminately, directed it to us; and if the patron
be an author, those performances which gratitude forbids us to blame,
affection will easily dispose us to exalt.

"To these prejudices, hardly culpable, interest adds a power always
operating, though not always, because not willingly, perceived. The
modesty of praise gradually wears away; and, perhaps, the pride of
patronage may be in time so increased that modest praise will no longer

"Many a blandishment was practised upon Halifax, which he would never
have known had he no other attractions than those of his poetry, of
which a short time has withered the beauties. It would now be esteemed
no honour by a contributor to the monthly bundles of verses, to be told
that, in strains either familiar or solemn, he sings like Halifax."

I will venture to make a longer quotation from the life of Pope, which
gives, I think, a good impression of his manner:--

"Of his social qualities, if an estimate be made from his letters, an
opinion too favourable cannot easily be formed; they exhibit a perpetual
and unclouded effulgence of general benevolence and particular fondness.
There is nothing but liberality, gratitude, constancy, and tenderness.
It has been so long said as to be commonly believed, that the true
characters of men may be found in their letters, and that he who writes
to his friend lays his heart open before him.

"But the truth is, that such were the simple friendships of the Golden
Age, and are now the friendships only of children. Very few can boast of
hearts which they dare lay open to themselves, and of which, by whatever
accident exposed, they do not shun a distinct and continued view; and
certainly what we hide from ourselves, we do not show to our friends.
There is, indeed, no transaction which offers stronger temptations to
fallacy and sophistication than epistolary intercourse.

"In the eagerness of conversation, the first emotions of the mind often
burst out before they are considered. In the tumult of business,
interest and passion have their genuine effect; but a friendly letter is
a calm and deliberate performance in the cool of leisure, in the
stillness of solitude, and surely no man sits down by design to
depreciate his own character.

"Friendship has no tendency to secure veracity; for by whom can a man so
much wish to be thought better than he is, as by him whose kindness he
desires to gain or keep? Even in writing to the world there is less
constraint; the author is not confronted with his reader, and takes his
chance of approbation among the different dispositions of mankind; but a
letter is addressed to a single mind, of which the prejudices and
partialities are known, and must therefore please, if not by favouring
them, by forbearing to oppose them. To charge those favourable
representations which men give of their own minds, with the guilt of
hypocritical falsehood, would show more severity than knowledge. The
writer commonly believes himself. Almost every man's thoughts while they
are general are right, and most hearts are pure while temptation is
away. It is easy to awaken generous sentiments in privacy; to despise
death when there is no danger; to glow with benevolence when there is
nothing to be given. While such ideas are formed they are felt, and
self-love does not suspect the gleam of virtue to be the meteor of

"If the letters of Pope are considered merely as compositions, they seem
to be premeditated and artificial. It is one thing to write, because
there is something which the mind wishes to discharge; and another to
solicit the imagination, because ceremony or vanity requires something
to be written. Pope confesses his early letters to be vitiated with
_affectation and ambition_. To know whether he disentangles himself
from these perverters of epistolary integrity, his book and his life
must be set in comparison. One of his favourite topics is contempt of
his own poetry. For this, if it had been real, he would deserve no
commendation; and in this he was certainly not sincere, for his high
value of himself was sufficiently observed; and of what could he be
proud but of his poetry? He writes, he says, when 'he has just nothing
else to do,' yet Swift complains that he was never at leisure for
conversation, because he 'had always some poetical scheme in his head.'
It was punctually required that his writing-box should be set upon his
bed before he rose; and Lord Oxford's domestic related that, in the
dreadful winter of '40, she was called from her bed by him four times in
one night, to supply him with paper lest he should lose a thought.

"He pretends insensibility to censure and criticism, though it was
observed by all who knew him that every pamphlet disturbed his quiet,
and that his extreme irritability laid him open to perpetual vexation;
but he wished to despise his critics, and therefore hoped he did despise
them. As he happened to live in two reigns when the court paid little
attention to poetry, he nursed in his mind a foolish disesteem of kings,
and proclaims that 'he never sees courts.' Yet a little regard shown him
by the Prince of Wales melted his obduracy; and he had not much to say
when he was asked by his Royal Highness, 'How he could love a prince
while he disliked kings.'"

Johnson's best poetry is the versified expression of the tone of
sentiment with which we are already familiar. The _Vanity of Human
Wishes_ is, perhaps, the finest poem written since Pope's time and in
Pope's manner, with the exception of Goldsmith's still finer
performances. Johnson, it need hardly be said, has not Goldsmith's
exquisite fineness of touch and delicacy of sentiment. He is often
ponderous and verbose, and one feels that the mode of expression is not
that which is most congenial; and yet the vigour of thought makes itself
felt through rather clumsy modes of utterance. Here is one of the best
passages, in which he illustrates the vanity of military glory:--

On what foundation stands the warrior's pride,
How just his hopes let Swedish Charles decide;
A frame of adamant, a soul of fire,
No dangers fright him and no labours tire;
O'er love, o'er fear, extends his wide domain,
Unconquer'd lord of pleasure and of pain;
No joys to him pacific sceptres yield,
War sounds the trump, he rushes to the field;
Behold surrounding kings their powers combine,
And one capitulate, and one resign:
Peace courts his hand, but spreads her charms in vain.
"Think nothing gain'd," he cries, "till nought remain;
On Moscow's walls till Gothic standards fly,
And all be mine beneath the polar sky?"
The march begins in military state,
And nations on his eye suspended wait;
Stern Famine guards the solitary coast,
And Winter barricades the realms of Frost.
He comes, nor want nor cold his course delay--
Hide, blushing glory, hide Pultowa's day!
The vanquish'd hero leaves his broken bands,
And shows his miseries in distant lands;
Condemn'd a needy supplicant to wait,
While ladies interpose and slaves debate--
But did not Chance at length her error mend?
Did no subverted empire mark his end?
Did rival monarchs give the fatal wound?
Or hostile millions press him to the ground?
His fall was destined to a barren strand,
A petty fortress and a dubious hand;
He left the name at which the world grew pale,
To point a moral and adorn a tale.

The concluding passage may also fitly conclude this survey of Johnson's
writings. The sentiment is less gloomy than is usual, but it gives the
answer which he would have given in his calmer moods to the perplexed
riddle of life; and, in some form or other, it is, perhaps, the best or
the only answer that can be given:--

Where, then, shall Hope and Fear their objects find?
Must dull suspense corrupt the stagnant mind?
Must helpless man, in ignorance sedate,
Roll darkling down the torrent of his fate?
Must no dislike alarm, no wishes rise?
No cries invoke the mercies of the skies?
Inquirer cease; petitions yet remain
Which Heaven may hear, nor deem religion vain;
Still raise for good the supplicating voice,
But leave to Heaven the measure and the choice
Safe in His power whose eyes discern afar
The secret ambush of a specious prayer.
Implore His aid, in His decisions rest,
Secure whate'er He gives--He gives the best.
Yet when the scene of sacred presence fires,
And strong devotion to the skies aspires,
Pour forth thy fervours for a healthful mind,
Obedient passions and a will resign'd;
For Love, which scarce collective men can fill;
For Patience, sovereign o'er transmuted ill;
For Faith, that panting for a happier seat,
Counts Death kind nature's signal of retreat.
These goods for man the laws of Heaven ordain,
These goods He grants who grants the power to gain;
With these Celestial Wisdom calms the mind,
And makes the happiness she does not find.



Back to Full Books