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PROBABLY none of the many sweeping judgments to which Lord Macaulay, in the course of his career as critic, gave utterance, has met with such general acceptance as this: 'Homer is not more decidedly the first of heroic poets, Shakspeare is not more decidedly the first of dramatists, Demosthenes is not more decidedly the first of orators, than Boswell is the first of biographers. He has no second. He has distanced all his competitors so decidedly that it is not worth while to place them. Eclipse is first, and the rest nowhere.' Of no historical figure have we so complete a portrait as of the author of Rasselas and the father of English Lexicography; and for that portrait we are indebted to a bumptious, blatant, bibulous Scotch laird, who was the butt of the satirists and the gossips, the Peter Pindars and the Piozzis, of his own time, and whom critics and editors since have never wearied of kicking, The truth is, that to immortalize Johnson, Boswell committed suicide. He is not perhaps the greatest, but he is undoubtedly the most successful of literary martyrs: not more certainly does the Indian fanatic, who throws himself before the car of his idol, sacrifice himself to show his devotion to it, than did Boswell throw away his reputation in order that Johnson might receive the homage that he believed to be his due. Boswell seems, throughout his whole work, to be telling us to look on this picture and on that, to contrast the great sublime he draws with the insignificance of the artist. He does this unconsciously, no doubt, but he does it nevertheless; and whether he is right or wrong in so doing, we should pity rather than despise him. We should be grateful to such men as Mr. Carlyle and Mr. Hayward for placing poor Bozzy upon his legs, or at all events for showing that he has legs to stand upon.
The idol is not unworthy of the devotion of the idolater. If no man has been so completely portrayed as Johnson, no man can stand portraiture so well. Boswell may be the greatest, but he is also the most incontinent of biographers. He has absolutely no sense of propriety. What is whispered into his ear in the closet, he shouts on the house-top; instinctively and on principle he tells all he knows, good, bad, indifferent; he seems to have a positive fondness for washing dirty linen, his own as well as other people's, in public. So he gives us Johnson in state dress, in undress, in no dress at all; eating at Streatham till the perspiration stands in drops upon his forehead, starving himself on Good Friday, signing himself Impransus when writing to Cave; sometimes living on the principle of 'claret for boys, port for men, brandy for heroes,' yet, when dying, refusing with almost his latest breath to take any inebriating sustenance; now at his devotions in his private room, again holding his own in wit against Burke and Reynolds and Langton; discussing public affairs with the King, negotiating the sale of a brewery, or caressing with ponderous playfulness a Hebridean lady by the hour together. No man was so compelled, to use the delicate phrase of Antoninus, to 'live as upon a mountain' as Johnson; and yet, the more we know, the better we like him. You may smile at his prejudices, wonder at his superstition, find a thousand faults in his style, and even say, with M. Taine, 'His truths are too true;' but you will never accuse him of littleness or falsehood. He may talk commonplace, and even what to us in these days may seem rank nonsense, but he never cants. He may fight much, but he always fights fair; he does not scruple to use the horsewhip, and even the tomahawk, but never the dagger or poison of the secret and cowardly
assassin. You may call him a bear, but you must also say that he is a gentleman.' It must be admitted that, if ever a man lived conscientiously, in faith, it was Samuel Johnson. He sought to do everything for a good purpose; no man more sincerely lamented his coming short of the ideal he placed before himself. If struggling to overcome besetting sins is a mark of the true Christian, there can be few truer Christians than Johnson.
To arrive at a correct idea of the essential nobility of Johnson's life and character, one must consider the difficulties under which he laboured and thought. If he was a Hercules, he was a Hercules in fetters. He was hampered both by a diseased body and by a clouded mind. Hereditary disease, aggravated by years of Grub Street life, with its alternations of unhealthy poverty and still more unhealthy luxury, made his existence, if not one long disease like Pope's, one long series of convulsions. Melancholy so pervaded his mind, that, to use his own expressive language, when he was not mad, he was not sober. All his life he was haunted by the two worst terrors that ever enshrouded the soul of man—the fear of death, and the fear of becoming insane. His indolence, in a man of his conscientiousness, considering how he cursed it, as well as how it cursed him, must also be considered a disease. Company was to him what alcoholic drink is to other men-a means of getting relief from the miseries of existence. It has not seldom been wondered how so great a man as Johnson could have tolerated so little a man as Boswell; the truth probably is, that he could not have lived without a Boswell or some one like him. Yet, in spite of physical weakness and mental horror, he betrayed no moral infirmity. On the contrary, whatever savoured of the morbid was his especial detestation. Poor as he always was, very poor as he once was, he never talked or wrote cant about the blessings of extreme poverty; the comforts of life were not sour grapes to him, simply because they were beyond his reach. He neither sought the unnatural relief of opiates or stimulants from his pains, nor did he hug them to his bosom and call them pleasures, nor did he parade them in print; he simply bore them, and said little or nothing about them. There are few nobler pictures in history than that of this half-mad, diseased, poverty-stricken man, scorning to seek the refuge from affliction of either the ascetic or the sensualist, but earnestly preaching the gospel of mens sana in corpore sano.
The physical and mental disabilities under which Johnson laboured, prevented him from ever attaining that patience and repose which mark great minds of the highest class. He belongs to the second class, the non-ruminating geniuses, of whom Mr. Carlyle is perhaps the first-men who, as Mr. Rathbone Greg happily puts it, 'pounce upon ideas, catch bright glimpses of them, have them written on their souls as by a flash of light, shoot them flying, awake in the morning and find them there; but never create, educe, mould, evolve them.' There is, perhaps, no thinker whose judgments upon almost everything under the sun are so well known as Johnson, and yet who dealt so largely in mere assertion, who was so impatient of contradiction or even of argument. Indeed, Johnson, in this respect, belongs to a class of men to be found everywhere in this country. In every village, you will find an inglorious but by no means mute Johnson, a 'stalking oracle of awful phrase,' who has decided convictions about everything and still more about everybody; who from the most inadequate data, or no data at all, rushes at conclusions; who does or at least says nothing by halves; who declares, not in haste, but in cold blood and with gusto, that all men are liars; who finds no halting-stage between saints and devils, utter stupidity and marvellous cleverness. Of such-surely of all men the most comfortable-whose conversation consists of a series of judgments, most of which are based upon instinct, Johnson is out of sight the first, both because his judgments are most happily expressed-there is no one, the 'deep damnation of whose bah!' is so deep as his-and, because they are most correct-Johnson's hypotheses, more than most men's, have been justified by facts. Johnson's characteristic was fidgetiness; but in him fidgetiness approaches the sublime.
Of all the judgments, literary, political, moral, which he passed, those belonging to the two first classes are of least value. He would not, or could not, take the trouble to judge an author by his whole works; but he would fix upon a line or a stanza, and build up a criticism eulogistic or the reverse. In politics, he has been called the Hercules of Toryism, though why, except that he was both an intellectual Hercules and a political Tory, it is difficult to see. On the contrary, were we to take the description given of the characteristics of the two rival
political parties by Hume, Johnson's contemporary, as correct, we should say that, by sympathy and disposition at all events, he should be ticketed as a Whig. That great writer, to whom Johnson, forming his opinion upon Boswell's Parliament House 'clash,' was remarkably and indeed absurdly unfair, writes thus: 'I have frequently observed, in comparing the conduct of the court and the country party (i.e. the Tories and the Whigs), that the former are commonly less assuming and dogmatical in conversation, more apt to make concessions, and though not, perhaps, more susceptible of conviction, yet more able to bear contradiction than the latter, who are apt to fly out upon any opposition, and to regard one as a mercenary, designing fellow, if he argues with any coolness and impartiality, or makes any concessions to their adversaries.' One would almost say from this, that Johnson had sat to Hume for his portrait of a representative not of the court but of the country party. But, in truth, Johnson would probably have been unable to give reasons for the political faith that was in him; he used a certain jargon, and he seems to have in time talked himself into a certain political creed. But it is for his moral judgments that Johnson will, in future, be chiefly remembered. There are few men whose moral instincts have been so trustworthy as his, and who on that account can be considered such good guides in the conduct of life. Johnson-that is to say, Boswell's Johnson-the autocrat of the Literary Club, the Mitre, and the Streatham dining-table, as a moralist, belongs to the same class as Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Antoninus, whose object is the maintenance of moral health, not the propagating of such all-sustaining principles as the 'greatest good of the greatest number,' or the 'equal freedom of all,' and who stand to moralists, generally and perhaps properly so-called, in much the same relation that the family doctor does to the theorist who, by some discovery, revolutionizes the whole practice of medicine. Johnson is, indeed, much coarser in the fibre than the great pagan moralists, as was to be expected from his being an Englishman; but in type he is essentially the same. We question if there is any book in the English language which contains so many truly good advices' regarding the conduct of life as Boswell's Life of Johnson; there is no social subject, from the taking of a wife to the drinking of a glass of wine or the settlement of a debt, upon which Johnson does not say something which is worth attending to, and in nine cases out of ten is worth acting upon. Nor does Johnson more love good sense than he hates nonsense of all kind. Mr. Carlyle himself is scarcely a more formidable opponent of unveracity, sentimentality, affectation. At the same time, no man was more impressionable than Johnson, more capable of genuine love, and also, it must be added, of genuine hate. While, for artificial grievances, such as the loss of a fortune, he had not tears, but rather contempt, none could weep like him with those that wept over such real sorrows as the loss of a much-loved friend or relation. One has but to read his replies to Boswell's fussy letters, about that self-conscious person's own difficulties and worries, to see how deep and minute an interest he took in the affairs of one who had actually obtained a place in his heart, and how sound and, above all things, honest an adviser he could be. His playfulness and gallantry where females were concerned, though they sat somewhat clumsily upon him, were thoroughly natural and those of a gentleman. Naturally, simply, yet heartily, lived Samuel Johnson, and as he lived, he wrote. And if veracity and freedom from all kinds of affectation constitute heroism, it would be difficult to find a truer hero among men of letters than Johnson.
As a literary man, Johnson will be chiefly remembered for his Dictionary, a piece of solid work, which no one but himself in his century, at least, could have executed. Few people, we suspect, now read his Ramblers; and in course of time they will probably be consigned to the limbo of oblivion. Rasselas still holds its position, and for honest opinion and wellcondensed information, if not for delicate criticism, we still go to the Lives of the Poets. In all probability, Johnson's poetry, which is of the didactic and solidly satiric character, will be more appreciated when the popular taste again inclines, as it promises to do, toward that description of verse. In these days of controversy on the function of prayer, such lines as these, from his Vanity of Human Wishes, may be interesting :
'Still raise for good the supplicating voice,
But leave to Heaven the measure and the choice;
The secret ambush of a specious prayer
Implore His aid-in His decisions rest;
And makes the happiness she cannot find.'
But it was in his conversation that Johnson's literary power, like his moral excellence, came out. The presence of others had, as we have said, the effect upon him which he attributed to wine, and which caused people in his opinion to drink it—it made him forget the pain of being He was still Hercules, but not in fetters. He thought clearly, but not in agony; he spoke exactly, but also freely. Within the whole range of English literature, we had almost said any literature, no such pointed and finished sentences are to be found as many of those which Johnson, when company and a solid dinner had removed from his soul the burden of his self-consciousness, gave utterance to in the Mitre Tavern or at the Streatham table. Moreover, his sentences, whether spoken or written, ponderous in expression though they were, and often expressing commonplace sentiments, were carefully-finished and in every way conscientious pieces of work; and Mr. Craik says, in our opinion with perfect justice, No composition at once so uniformly clear and exact, and so elaborately stately, measured, and sonorous, had proceeded habitually from any previous English pen.' Even in the world of art, therefore, Johnson ought to be gratefully remembered, as the exponent of the secondary virtues; as reminding us that elegance is admirable as well as simplicity, that art is great as well as nature. Morally consistent, Johnson was in literature characterized by thoroughness; and it would be difficult to say for which of the two virtues he is most to be admired or most deserving of study and imitation in an age like the present, when we seem to have too little time to be either scrupulously sensitive in morals or scrupulously exact in art.