« AnteriorContinuar »
That such a man should have written one of Fluellen. Of all confessors, Boswell is the I of the best books in the world, is strange most candid. Other men who have pretended enough. But this is not all. Many persons to lay open their own hearts-Rousseau, for who have conducted themselves foolishly in example, and Lord Byron-have evidently active life, and whose conversation has indi- written with a constant view to effect, and are cated no superior powers of mind, have writ- to be then most distrusted when they seem ten valuable books. Goldsmith was very just to be most sincere. There is scarcely any ly described by one of his contemporaries as man who would not rather accuse himself of an inspired idiot, and by another as a being, great crimes and of dark and tempestuous passions, than proclaim all his little vanities, and all his wild fancies. It would be easier to find a person who would avow actions like those of Caesar Borgia or Danton, than one who would publish a day-dream like those of Alnaschar and Malvolio. Those weaknesses which most men keep covered up in the most secret places of the mind, not to be disclosed to the eye of friendship or of love, were precisely the weaknesses which Boswell paraded before all the world. He was perfectly frank, because the weakness of his understanding and the tumult of his spirit prevented him from knowing when he made himself ridicu lous. His book resembles nothing so much as the conversation of the inmates of the Palace of Truth.
"Who wrote like an angel, and talked like poor Poll." La Fontaine was in society a mere simpleton. His blunders would not come in amiss among the stories of Hierocles. But these men at tained literary eminence in spite of their weaknesses. Boswell attained it by reason of his weaknesses. If he had not been a great fool, he would never have been a great writer. Without all the qualities which made him the jest and the torment of those among whom he lived-without the officiousness, the inquisitiveness, the effrontery, the toad-eating, the insensibility to all reproof, he never could have produced so excellent a book. He was a slave, proud of his servitude; a Paul Pry, convinced that his own curiosity and garrulity were virtues; an unsafe companion, who never scru- His fame is great, and it will, we have no J'ed to repay the most liberal hospitality by doubt, be lasting; but it is fame of a peculiar le basest violation of confidence; a man kind, and indeed marvellously resembles infawithout delicacy, without shame, without sense my. We remember no other case in which the enough to know when he was hurting the feel-world has made so great a distinction between ings of others, or when he was exposing him- a book and its author. In general, the book and self to derision; and because he was all this, the author are considered as one. To admire he has, in an important department of litera- the book is to admire the author. The case of ture, immeasurably surpassed such writers as Boswell is an exception, we think the only exTacitus, Clarendon, Alfieri, and his own idol ception, to this rule. His work is universally Johnson. allowed to be interesting, instructive, eminently original; yet it has brought him nothing but contempt. All the world reads it, all the world delights in it; yet we do not remember ever to have read or even to have heard any expression of respect and admiration for the man to whom we owe so much instruction and amuse ment. While edition after edition of his book was coming forth, his son, as Mr. Croker tells us, was ashamed of it, and hated to hear it mentioned. This feeling was natural and reasonable. Sir Alexander saw, that in proportion to the celebrity of the work was the degradation of the author. The very editors of this unfortunate gentleman's books have forgotten their allegiance, and, like those Puritan casuists who took arms by the authority of the king against his person, have attacked the writer while doing homage to the writings. Mr. Croker, for example, has published two thousand five hundred notes on the Life of Johnson, and yet scarcely ever mentions the biographer, whose performance he has taken such pains to illustrate, without some expression of contempt.
An ill-natured man Boswell certainly was not. Yet the malignity of the most malignan. satirist could scarcely cut deeper than his Those parts of his book which, considered thoughtless loquacity. Having himself no abstractedly, are most utterly worthless, are sensibility to derision and contempt, he took is delightful when we read them as illustrations for granted that all others were equally callous of the character of the writer. Bad in them- He was not ashamed to exhibit himself to the selves, they are good dramatically, like the whole world as a common spy, a common tatConsense of Justice Shallow, the clipped Eng-tler, a humble companion without the excuse hish of Dr. Caius, or the misplaced consonants of poverty, to tell a hundred stories of his own
Of the talents which ordinarily raise men to eminence as writers, he had absolutely none. There is not, in all his books, a single remark of his own on literature, politics, religion, or society, which is not either commonplace or absurd. His dissertations on hereditary gentility, on the slave trade, and on the entailing of landed estates, may serve as examples. To say that these passages are sophistical, would be to pay them an extravagant compliment. They have no pretence to argument or even to meaning. He has reported innumerable observations made by himself in the course of conversation. Of those observations we do not remember one which is above the intellectual capacity of a boy of fifteen. He has printed many of his own letters, and in these letters he is always ranting or twaddling. Logic, eloquence, wit, taste, all those things which are generally considered as making a book valuable, were utterly wanting to him. He had, indeed, a quick observation and a retentive memory. These qualities, if he had been a man of sense and virtue, would scarcely of themselves have sufficed to make him conspicuous; but, as he was a dunce, a parasite, and a coxcomb, they have made him immortal.
Johnson came up to London precisely at the time when the condition of a man of letters was most miserable and degraded. It was a dark night between two sunny days. The age of Maecenases had passed away. The age of general curiosity and intelligence had not arrived. The number of readers is at present so great, that a popular author may subsist in comfort and opulence on the profits of his works. In the reigns of William the Third, of Anne, and of George the First, even such men Congreve and Addison would scarcely have been able to live like gentlemen by the mere sale of their writings. But the deficiency of the natural demand for literature was, at the close of the seventeenth and at the beginning of the eighteenth century, more than made up by artificial encouragement, by a vast system of bounties and premiums. There was, perhaps, never a time at which the rewards of literary merit were so splendid-at which men who could write well found such easy admit
Johnson grown old, Johnson in the fulness of his fame and in the enjoyment of a competent fortune, is better known to us than any other man in history. Every thing about him, his coat, his wig, his figure, his face, his scro-tance into the most distinguished society and fula, his St. Vitus's dance, his rolling walk, his to the highest honours of the state. The chiefs blinking eye, the outward signs which too of both the great parties into which the kingclearly marked his approbation of his dinner, dom was divided patronised literature with his insatiable appetite for fish-sauce and veal-emulous munificence. Congreve, when he had pie with plums, his inextinguishable thirst for scarcely attained his majority, was rewarded tea, his trick of touching the posts as he for his first comedy with places which made walked, his mysterious practice of treasuring him independent for life. Smith, though his up scraps of orange-peel, his morning slum- Hippolytus and Phaedra failed, would have bers, his midnight disputations, his contortions, been consoled with £300 a year, but for his his mutterings, his gruntings, his puffings, his own folly. Rowe was not only poet-laureate, vigorous, acute, and ready eloquence, his sar- but land-surveyor of the customs in the port castic wit, his vehemence, his insolence, his of London, clerk of the council to the Prince fits of tempestuous rage, his queer inmates, old of Wales, and secretary of the Presentations Mr. Levett and blind Mrs. Williams, the cat to the Lord Chancellor. Hughes was secretary Hodge and the negro Frank-all are as fami- to the Commissions of the Peace. Ambrose liar to us as the objects by which we have been Philips was judge of the Prerogative Court in surrounded from childhood. But we have no Ireland. Locke was Commissioner of Appeals minute information respecting those years of and of the Board of Trade. Newton was Johnson's life during which his character and Master of the Mint. Stepney and Prior were his manners became immutably fixed. We employed in embassies of high dignity and know him not as he was known to the men of importance. Gay, who commenced life as his own generation, but as he was known to apprentice to a silk-mercer, became a secre men whose father he might have been. That tary of legation at five-and-twenty. It was to celebrated club of which he was the most dis- a poem on the Death of Charles II., and to the tinguished member contained few persons who City and Country Mouse, that Montague owed could remember a time when his fame was not his introduction into public life, his earldom, fully established and his habits completely his garter, and his auditorship of the Exche formed. He had made himself a name in lite- quer. Swift, but for the unconquerable prejurature while Reynolds and the Wartons were dice of the queen, would have been a bishop. still boys. He was about twenty years older Oxford, with his white staff in his hand, passed than Burke, Goldsmith, and Gerard Hamilton; through the crowd of his suitors to welcome about thirty years older than Gibbon, Beau- Parnell, when that ingenious writer deserted clerk, and Langton; and about forty years the Whigs. Steele was a commissioner of older than Lord Stowell, Sir William Jones, stamps and a member of Parliament. Arthur and Windham. Boswell and Mrs. Thrale, the Mainwaring was a commissioner of the cus two writers from whom we derive most of our toms and auditor of the imprest. Tickell was knowledge respecting him, never saw him till secretary to the Lords Justices of Ireland. Ad long after he was fifty years old, till most of dison was secretary of state. his great works had become classical, and till the pension bestowed on him by Lord Bute had placed him above poverty. Of those eminent men who were his most intimate associates towards the close of his life, the only one, as far as we remember, who knew him during the first ten or twelve years of his residence in the capital, was David Garrick; and it does not appear that, during those years, David Garrick saw much of his fellow-townsman.
This liberal patronage was brought into fashion, as it seems, by the magnificent Dorset, who alone, of all the noble versifiers in the court of Charles the Second, possessed talents for composition which would have made him eminent without the aid of a coronet. Montague owed his elevation to the favour of Dorset, and imitated through the whole course of his life the liberality to which he was himself so greatly indebted. The Tory leaders, Harley
pertness and folly, and of the insults which
and Bolingbroke in particular, vied with the chiefs of the Whig party in zeal for the encouragement of letters. But soon after the accession of the house of Hanover a change took place. The supreme power passed to a man who cared little for poetry or eloquence. The importance of the House of Commons was constantly on the increase. The government was under the necessity of bartering, for parliamentary support, much of that patronage which had been employed in fostering literary merit; and Walpole was by no means inclined to divert any part of the fund of corruption to purposes which he considered as idle. He had eminent talents for government and for debate; but he had paid little attention to books, and felt little respect for authors. One of the coarse jokes of his friend, Sir Charles Hanbury Williams, was far more pleasing to him than Thomson's Seasons or Richardson's Pamela. He had observed that some of the distinguished writers whom the favour of Halifax had turned into statesmen, had been mere encumbrances to their party, dawdlers in office, and mutes in Parliament. During the whole course of his administration, therefore, he scarcely patronised a single man of genius. The best writers of the age gave all their support to the opposition, and contributed to excite that discontent which, after plunging the nation into a foolish and unjust war, overthrew the minister to make room for men less able and equally unscrupulous. The opposition could reward its eulogists with little more than promises and caresses. St. James would give nothing, Leicester-house had nothing to give.
Thus at the time when Johnson commenced his literary career, a writer had little to hope from the patronage of powerful individuals. The patronage of the public did not yet furnish the means of comfortable subsistence. The prices paid by booksellers to authors were so low, that a man of considerable talents and unremitting industry could do little more than provide for the day which was passing over him. The lean kine had eaten up the fat kine. The thin and withered ears had devoured the good ears. The season of rich harvest was over, and the period of famine had begun. All that is squalid and miserable might now be summed up in the one word-Poet. That word denoted a creature dressed like a scare-man, than the unicorn could be trained to serve crow, familiar with compters and spunging- and abide by the crib. It was well if they did houses, and perfectly qualified to decide on the not, like beasts of a still fiercer race, tear the comparative merits of the Common Side in the hands which ministered to their necessities. King's Bench prison, and of Mount Scoundrel To assist them was impossible; and the most in the Fleet. Even the poorest pitied him; benevolent of mankind at length became weary and they well might pity him. For if their of giving relief, which was dissipated with the condition was equally abject, their aspirings wildest profusion as soon as it had been rewere not equally high, nor their sense of insult ceived. If a sum was bestowed on the wretchequally acute. To lodge in a garret up foured adventurer, such as, properly husbanded, pair of stairs, to dine in a cellar amongst foot- might have supplied him for six months, it was men out of place; to translate ten hours a day instantly spent in strange freaks of sensuality, for the wages of a ditcher; to be hunted by and before forty-eight hours had elapsed, the bailiffs from one haunt of beggary and pesti-poet was again pestering all his acquaintances lence to another, from Grub street to St. for twopence to get a plate of shin of beef at a George's Fields, and from St. George's Fields subterraneous cook-shop. If his friends gave to the alleys behind St. Martin's church; to him an asylum in their houses, those houses sleep on a bulk in June, and amidst the ashes were forthwith turned into bagnios and taverns, of a glasshouse in December, to die in an hos- All order was destroyed, all business was suspial, and to be buried in a parish vault, was pended. The most good-natured host began
the fate of more than one writer, who, if he had lived thirty years earlier, would have been admitted to the sittings of the Kit-Cat or the Scri blerus Club, would have sat in the Parliament, and would have been intrusted with embassies to the High Allies; who, if he had lived in our time, would have received from the booksellers several hundred pounds a year.
As every climate has its peculiar diseases, so every walk of life has its peculiar tempta tions. The literary character, assuredly, has always had its share of faults-vanity, jealousy, morbid sensibility. To these faults were now superadded all the faults which are commonly found in men whose livelihood is precarious, and whose principles are exposed to the trial of severe distress. All the vices of the gambler and of the beggar were blended with those of the author. The prizes in the wretched lottery of book-making were scarcely less ruinous than the blanks. If good fortune came, it came in such a manner that it was almost certain to be abused. After months of starvation and despair, a full third night, or a well-received dedication, filled the pocket of the lean, ragged, unwashed poet with guineas. He hastened to enjoy those luxuries with the images of which his mind had been haunted while sleeping amidst the cinders, and eating potatoes at the Irish ordinary in Shoe Lane. A week of taverns soon qualified him for another year of night cellars. Such was the life of Savage, of Boyce, and of a crowd of others. Sometimes blazing in gold-laced hats and waistcoats, sometimes lying in bed because their coats had gone to pieces, or wearing paper cravats because their linen was in pawn; sometimes drinking Champagne and Tokay with Betty Careless; sometimes standing at the window of an eating-house in Porridge island, to snuff up the scent of what they could not afford to taste;-they knew luxury; they knew beggary; but they never knew comfort. These men were irreclaimable. They looked on a regular and frugal life with the same aversion which an old gipsy or a Mohawk hunter feels for a stationary abode, and for the restraints and securities of civilized communities. They were as untameable, as much wedded to their desolate freedom, as the wild ass. They could no more be broken in to the offices of social
that generation of authors whose abject misery and whose dissolute manners had furnished inexhaustible matter to the satirical genius of Pope. From nature, he had received an unA few eminent writers were more fortunate. couth figure, a diseased constitution, and an Pope had been raised above poverty by the irritable temper. The manner in which the active patronage which, in his youth, both earlier years of his manhood had been passed, the great political parties had extended to his had given to his demeanour, and even to his Homer. Young had received the only pension moral character, some peculiarities, appalling ever bestowed, to the best of our recollection, to the civilized beings who were the compaby Sir Robert Walpole, as the reward of mere nions of his old age. The perverse irregularity literary merit. One or two of the many poets of his hours, the slovenliness of his person, his who attached themselves to the opposition, fits of strenuous exertion, interrupted by long Thomson in particular, and Mallet, obtained, intervals of sluggishness; his strange abstiafter much severe suffering, the means of sub- nence, and his equally strange voracity; his sistence from their political friends. Richard-active benevolence, contrasted with the conson, like a man of sense, kept his shop, and stant rudeness and the occasional ferocity of his shop kept him, which his novels, admirable his manners in society, made him, in the as they are, would scarcely have done. But opinion of those with whom he lived during nothing could be more deplorable than the the last twenty years of his life, a complete state even of the ablest men, who at that time original. An original he was, undoubtedly, in depended for subsistence on their writings. some respects. But if we possessed full inJohnson, Collins, Fielding, and Thomson were formation concerning those who shared his certainly four of the most distinguished per- early hardships, we should probably find, that sons that England produced during the eight- what we call his singularities of manner, were, eenth century. It is well known that they were for the most part, failings which he had in all four arrested for debt. common with the class to which he belonged. He ate at Streatham Park as he had been used to eat behind the screen at St. John's Gate, when he was ashamed to show his ragged clothes. He ate as it was natural that a man should eat who, during a great part of his life, had passed the morning in doubt whether he should have food for the afternoon. The habits of his early life had accustomed him to bear privation with fortitude, but not to taste pleasure with moderation. He could fast; but when he did not fast, he tore his dinner like a famished wolf, with the veins swelling on his forehead, and the perspiration running down his cheeks. He scarcely ever took wine. But when he drank it, he drank it greedily, and in large tumblers. These were, in fact, mitigated symptoms of that same moral disease, which raged with such deadly malignity in his friends Savage and Boyce. The roughness and viobeenlence which he showed in society were to be expected from a man whose temper, not naturally gentle, had been long tried by the bitterest calamities-by the want of meat, of fire, and of clothes; by the importunity of creditors, by the insolence of booksellers, by the derision of fools, by the insincerity of patrons, by that bread which is the bitterest of all fool, by those stairs which are the most toilscrne of all paths, by that deferred hope which makes the heart sick. Through all these things the ill-dressed, coarse, ungainly pedant had strug gled manfully up to eminence and command. It was natural, that, in the exercise of his power, he should be "eo immitior, quia toleraverat"-that though his heart was undoubtedly generous and humane, his demeanour in so ciety should be harsh and despotic. For severe distress he had sympathy, and not only sympathy, but munificent relief. But for the suffering which a harsh word inflicts upon a delicate mind, he had no pity; for it was a kind of suffering which he could scarcely conceive. He would carry home on his shoulders a sick and starving girl from the streets. He turned
to repent of his eagerness to serve a man of genius in distress, when he heard his guest roaring for fresh punch at five o'clock in the morning.
Into calamities and difficulties such as these Johnson plunged in his twenty-eighth year. From that time, till he was three or four-andfifty, we have little information respecting him;-little, we mean, compared with the full and accurate information which we possess respecting his proceedings and habits towards the close of his life. He emerged at length from cocklofts and sixpenny ordinaries into the society of the polished and the opulent. His fame was established. A pension sufficient for his wants had been conferred on him; and he came forth to astonish a generation with which he had almost as little in common as with Frenchmen or Spaniards.
In his early years he had occasionally seen the great; but he had seen them as a beggar. He now came among them as a companion. The demand for amusement and instruction had, during the course of twenty years, gradually increasing. The price of literary labours had risen; and those rising men of letters, with whom Johnson was henceforth to associate, were for the most part persons widely different from those who had walked about with him all night in the streets, for want of a lodging. Burke, Robertson, the Wartons, Gray, Mason, Gibbon, Adam Smith, Beattie, Sir William Jones, Goldsmith, and Churchill were the most distinguished writers of what may be called the second generation of the Johnsonian age. Of these men, Churchill was the only one in whom we can trace the stronger lineaments of that character, which, when Johnson first came up to London, was common among authors. Of the rest, scarcely any had felt the pressure of severe poverty. All had been early admitted into the most respectable society on an equal footing. They were men of quite a different species from the dependants of Curll and Osborne.
Johnson came among them the solitary specimen of a past age-the last survivor of a genuine race of Grub-street hacks; the last of VOL. II.-19
his house into a place of refuge for a crowd of | statue had overshadowed the whole seacoast, and whose might seemed equal to a contest with armies, contract himself to the dimensions of his small prison, and lie there the helpless slave of the charm of Solomon.
wretched old creatures who could find no other asylum; nor could all their peevishness and ingratitude weary out his benevolence. But the pangs of wounded vanity seemed to him ridiculous; and he scarcely felt sufficient compassion even for the pangs of wounded affection. He had seen and felt so much of sharp misery, that he was not affected by paltry vexations; and he seemed to think that everybody ought to be as much hardened to those vexations as himself. He was angry with Boswell for complaining of a headache; with Mrs. Thrale for grumbling about the dust on the road, or the smell of the kitchen. These were, in his phrase, "foppish lamentations," which people ought to be ashamed to utter in a world so full of misery. Goldsmith crying because the Goodnatured Man had failed, inspired him with no pity. Though his own health was not good, he detested and despised valetudinarians. Even great pecuniary losses, unless they reduced the loser absolutely to beggary, moved him very little. People whose hearts had been softened by prosperity might cry, he said, for such events; but all that could be expected of a plain man was not to laugh.
Johnson was in the habit of sifting with extreme severity the evidence for all stories which were merely odd. But when they were not only odd but miraculous, his severity relaxed. He began to be credulous precisely at the point where the most credulous people begin to be skeptical. It is curious to observe, both in his writings and in his conversation, the contrast between the disdainful manner in which he rejects unauthenticated anecdotes, even when they are consistent with the general laws of nature, and the respectful manner in which he mentions the wildest stories relating to the invisible world. A man who told him of a waterspout or a meteoric stone generally had the lie direct given him for his pains. A man who told him of a prediction or a dream wonderfully accomplished, was sure of a courteous hearing. Johnson," observes Hogarth, "like King David, says in his haste that all men are liars." "His incredulity," says Mrs. Thrale, "amounted almost to disease." She tells us how A person who troubled himself so little he browbeat a gentleman, who gave him an about the smaller grievances of human life, account of a hurricane in the West Indies, and was not likely to be very attentive to the feel- a poor Quaker, who related some strange cirings of others in the ordinary intercourse of cumstance about the red-hot balls fired at the society. He could not understand how a sar-siege of Gibraltar. "It is not so. It cannot casm or a reprimand could make any man be true. Don't tell that story again. You really unhappy. "My dear doctor," said he to cannot think how poor a figure you make in Goldsmith, "what harm does it do to a man to telling it." He once said, half jestingly wa call him Holofernes ?" "Poh, ma'am," he suppose, that for six months he refused to exclaimed to Mrs. Carter, “who is the worse credit the fact of the earthquake at Lisbon, for being talked of uncharitably?" Politeness and that he still believed the extent of the calahas been well defined as benevolence in small mity to be greatly exaggerated. Yet he related things. Johnson was impolite, not because he with a grave face how old Mr. Cave of St. wanted benevolence, but because small things John's Gate saw a ghost, and how this ghost appeared smaller to him than to people who was something of a shadowy being. He went had never known what it was to live for four- himself on a ghost-hunt to Cock-lane, and was pence half-penny a day. angry with John Wesley for not following up another scent of the same kind with proper spirit and perseverance. He rejects the Celtic genealogies and poems without the least hesi tation; yet he declares himself willing to believe the stories of the second sight. If he had examined the claims of the Highland seers with half the severity with which he sifted the evidence for the genuineness of Fingal, he would, we suspect, have come away from Scotland with a mind fully made up. In his Lives of the Poets, we find that he is unwilling to give credit to the accounts of Lord Roscommon's early proficiency in his studies; but he tells with great solemnity an absurd romance about some intelligence preternaturally impressed on the mind of that nobleman. He avows himself to be in great doubt about the truth of the story, and ends by warning his readers not wholly to slight such impressions.
Many of his sentiments on religious subjects are worthy of a liberal and enlarged mind. He could discern clearly enough the folly and meanness of all bigotry except his own. When he spoke of the scruples of the Puritans, he spoke like a person who had really obtained an insight into the divine philosophy of the New Testament, and who considered
The characteristic peculiarity of his intellect was the union of great powers with low prejudices. If we judged of him by the best parts of his mind, we should place him almost as high as he was placed by the idolatry of Boswell; if by the worst parts of his mind, we should place him even below Boswell himself. Where he was not under the influence of some strange scruple, or some domineering passion, which prevented him from boldly and fairly investigating a subject, he was a wary and accurate reasoner, a little too much inclined to skepticism, and a little too fond of paradox. No man was less likely to be imposed upon by fallacies in argument, or by exaggerated statements of fact. But, if, while he was beating down sophisms, and exposing false testimony, some childish prejudices, such as would excite laughter in a well-managed nursery, came across him, he was smitten as if by enchantment. His mind dwindled away under the spell from gigantic elevation to dwarfish littleness. Those who had lately beer. admiring its amplitude and its force, were now as much astonished at its strange narrowness and feebleness, as the fisherman, in the Arab tale, when he saw the genie, whose