dressed, ugly, clumsy youth begin to take his first steps towards the kingship of English letterdom. Having received his elementary education chiefly at Stourbridge, he entered Pembroke College, Oxford. But his dying father could spare no more money to the lad, so a degree could not be taken then. He must wait until he has earned a higher title with his pen. One terrible foe, with which poor Johnson had to battle through all his life, must not be forgotten, when we strive to estimate the greatness of his triumph over circumstances. Fits of morbid melancholy often seized him, which, as he says, “ kept him mad half his life.” Penniless, diseased, ill-favoured, but half educated, and touched with terrible

insanity, the youth of twenty-two stood on the threshold 1731 of the mean house, within which his father lay dead, A.D. looking out upon a world, that seemed all cold and bare

and friendless to his gaze. No wonder that his earlier portrait shows a thin cheek and saddened brow, with lines of suffering already round the wasted lips.

Trudging on foot to Market Bosworth in Leicestershire, he became asher in a school. It would not do; by natural temperament he was totally unfitted for the work. We then find him translating for a bookseller in Birmingham; and after a while marrying a Mrs. Porter, the widow of a mercer there, who had £800.* With this money he attempted to start a school of his own near Lichfield; but he could not gather pupils enough to pay the rent

and keep his wife in comfort. So, packing up his little 1736 stock of clothes and books, he set out in March 1736 for

London, accompanied by a former pupil, fresh-coloured,

good-humoured, little Davy Garrick, who was going up to study law in Lincoln's Inn, but in whose brain the foot-lights were already shining far more brightly than briefs or pleadings at the bar. It was just as well for the theatre-going folks of England that the little Huguenot's head did not become a wig-block, on which to air a covering of grey horse-hair.

So up to London went the dapper pupil and his great hulking


* Mrs. Johnson died on the 17th of March 1752, to the deep and lasting grief of her husband, and was buried at Bromley.



master; and there they parted, to meet occasionally, but each to go his several way. And Johnson's was a hard and perilous path. We have already given a picture of literary life in those days. The worst miseries of such a life were endured by Johnson. For six-and-twenty years the pen scarcely ever left his hand. How often he and Savage wandered foot-sore all night through the streets of London, unable to hire the meanest shelter; how often they spent their last penny on a little loaf, which they tore with wolfish teeth, we cannot tell. But we know that miseries like these were commonly endured by men of letters in Johnson's day, and that he had his full share of such bitterness and want. It was for Cave the bookseller that he chiefly drudged, enriching the “Gentleman's Magazine" with articles of various kinds. His poem London, a satire in imitation of Juvenal, laid the foundation of his literary fame, by establishing him in the good graces of the booksellers. For this work Dodsley gave him ten guineas. A Life of Savage (1744) was followed by a second satire in Juvenal's manner, The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749); but these are only the most notable works in a vast crowd of minor writings, which occupied the days and nights of these busy years. His tragedy of Irene, begun in his teaching days, was brought upon the stage in 1749; but it failed to hold its ground.

Johnson's name is inseparably associated with the Rambler, a periodical of the “Spectator" class, which appeared twice a week between March 1750 and March 1752. Only four of the papers proceeded from other pens. There was some strange sympathy between the bulky frame of the essayist and the ponderous words that came from his ink-bottle; and in the pages of the “Rambler” there is certainly much of wordy weight. He reäppeared as an essayist, after the lapse of six years, in a lighter periodical called the Idler, which ran to 103 numbers, closing with its last sheet the chequered list of single-article serials, which had opened with the “Tatler's" pleasant talk.

While writing for the “ Rambler,” and for some years before the starting of that heavy serial, Johnson had been steadily at work upon his Dictionary of the English Language. There was no such




work in English literature; and when Johnson undertook to finish the herculean labour in three years, he had but a slight notion of the toil that lay before him. He was to receive for the completed work £1575; a comparatively small sum when we recollect that it took him seven years to bring his labour to a close, and that he had to pay several copyists, who sat in his house in Gough Square, in a room fitted up like a lawyer's office, working away at the slips of paper on which the various words, definitions, and quotations were jotted down roughly by the great lexicographer himself. The name we have just used sounded sweet to the ear of classical Johnson, who was never so happy as when piling these huge blocks of antiquity into English sentences. The “Dictionary” was a great work, but necessarily imperfect. In etymology it is very defective; for of those Teutonic languages from which come three-fifths of our English, he knew next to nothing. When Johnson's mother died, he devoted the nights of a single

week to the composition of a book, which paid the 1759 expenses of her funeral. This was Rasselas, a tale of

Abyssinia, in which much solid morality is incul

cated in language of "a long resounding march." But there is no attempt on the part of the author to identify himself with Oriental modes of thought. The heik and burnoos of the Eastern prince and philosopher cannot conceal the old brown coat and worsted stockings of the pompous English moralist. The grey wig peeps from below the turban. In a word, Johnson talks at us throughout the entire book; he talks sensibly and well, but we cannot believe in the thin disguise of tawny cheek and muslin robes. If we could imagine Johnson “doing” the Nile, as modern English travellers are apt to call their boating up that noble river; and for a freak, donning the native dress, and staining his cheeks with the printers' ink of which he knew so much; we might be able, perhaps, to conceive how such grand declamations, as certain paragraphs we know of in Rasselas, came to be spoken among the lotuses and river-horses of the African highlands.

The great turning point of Johnson's life, at which he comes out from darkness, or at least from dim twilight, into bright and




steady light, is that May dayin 1762 on which he received the happy news that the king had conferred on him a pension of £300 a year. Thenceforward he wrote less, but talked con 1762 tinually. We know all about the Johnson of this later A.D. period. The Johnson who starved with Savage, is a dim shadow; but the burly Doctor who lived in Bolt Court, and thought no English or Scottish landscape at all comparable to the mud-splashed pavement and soot-stained houses of Fleet Street, is almost a living reality, with whom any evening we please we may sit for hours to hear him talk. We know even how he ate his dinner—with flushed face and the veins swollen on bis broad forehead. We know that he puffed, and grunted, and contradicted everybody, reviling as fools, and blockheads, and barren rascals all who dared to differ from his Literary Highness. We know that he had secret stores of orange-peel, hoarded we know not whyand that he never was happy unless he had touched every post he passed in the streets, when walking to and from his house. We know that he bore marks of scrofula, and was troubled with St. Vitus's dance. And we know that he sheltered with unchanging kindness in his house a peevish old doctor, a blind old woman, and a negro, with some of whom it was often hard to bear. We know no other author as this old man is known. For in 1763 he became acquainted with James Boswell, Esquire, a Scottish advocate of shallow brain but imperturbable conceit, the thickness of whose mental skin enabled him to enjoy the great Englishman's society, in spite of sneers and insults hurled by day and night at his empty head. Not a perfect vacuum, however, was that head; for one fixed idea possessed it—admiration of Samuel Johnson, and the resolve to lose no words that fell from his idolized lips. Nearly every night when Boswell went home he wrote out what he remembered of the evening's talk; and these notes grew ultimately into his great Life of Johnson. To this fussy, foolish man, the but and buffoon of the distinguished society into which he had pushed himself, we owe a book which is justly held to be the best biography in the English language. Of other men, whose lives have been written, we possess pictures; of Johnson we have



a photograph,-accurate in every line and descending to the minutest details of his person and his habits. Having spoken thus far of the man, we shall shortly sum up the chief events of his closing life, and leave the full story to be gathered from the pages of Boswell's marvellous book.

His degree of LL.D., conferred in 1765 by the University of Dublin, was confirmed some years later by his own Alma Mater. In 1765 he published his edition of Shakspere, the preface to which is one of the best specimens of his prose we have. In the autumn of 1773 he made a tour through eastern Scotland and the Hebrides; and from his Letters to Mrs. Thrale he afterwards constructed his Journey to the Hebrides. In 1775 he visited Paris.

The Lives of the Poets, finished in 1781, formed the last of his important works. Beginning with Cowley, he writes of the leading poets down to his own day. His unfair view of Milton has been already noticed. In truth, Johnson seems never to have felt the full meaning of the word “poet.” He was himself a master of pentameter rhymes, smooth, lofty, full-sounding; and we strongly suspect that the skilful manufacture of such appeared to him the highest flight of poetic genius. If he had any poetic fancy at all, it must have been of the clumsiest and palest kind, grey with London smoke and smothered in Latin polysyllables. Let no young reader take his knowledge of the English poets from Johnson's Lives, if he would know the true proportions of our bards. Some of his dwarfs are giants; many of his giants have dwindled into dwarfs.

Burke, Garrick, Gibbon, Reynolds, Goldsmith, and many others of the first men in London, were the constant associates of great King Samuel. Of these, Garrick was the only man who had known him almost from the first. The Thrales—a rich brewer and his wife-opened their hospitable house to the Doctor in his declining years. Streatham became more his home than the lonely chambers in Bolt Court. Here he drank countless cups of tea, had his friends from London out to see him, and was, in fact, a second master of the house. But the end was creeping on. One friend after another dropped into the grave. And after two years of complicated disorders-paralysis, dropsy, asthma, and the old melancholy

« ElőzőTovább »