« ElőzőTovább »
In the same year, he received a diploma from Trinity College Dublin, compliment. ing him with the title of doctor of laws, and after many delays, his edition of Shak. speare was published in eight volumes octavo. The preface is universally acknowledged to be one of the most elegant and acute of all his compositions. But as an il. Justrator of the obscurities of Shakspeare, it must be allowed he has not done much, nor was this a study for which he was eminently qualified. He was never happy when obliged to borrow from others, and he had none of that useful indus. try which indulges in research. Yet his criticisms have rarely been surpassed, and it is no small praise that he was the precursor of Steerens and Malone.
The success of the Shakspeare was not great, although upon the whole it in. creased the respect in which the literary world viewed his talents. Kenrick made the principal attack on this work, which was answered by an Oxford student, named Barclay. But neither the attack nor the answer attracted much notice,
In 1766, he furnished the preface and some of the pieces which compose a vo. lume of poetical miscellanies by Mrs. Anna Williams. This lady was still an inmate in his house, and was indeed absolute mistress. Although her temper was far from pleasant, and she had now gained an ascendancy over him which she often maintained in a fretful and peevish manner, he forgot every thing in her distresses, and was indeed, in all his charities, which were numerous, the most remote that can be conceived from the hope of gratitude or reward. Ilis house was filled by dependents, whose perverse tempers frequently drove him out of it, yet nothing of this kind could induce him to relieve himself at their expense. Jis noble expression was, "If I dismiss them, who will receive them ?" Abroad, his society was now very extensive, and itcluded almost every man of the age, distinguished for learning, and many persons of considerable raak, who delighted in his company and conversation.
In 1767, he had the honour to be admitted to a personal interview with his ma. jesty in the library of the queen's palace. Of the conversation which passed, Mr. Boswell has given a very interesting and authentic account, which, it may here be mentioned, he prized at so high a rate, as to print it separately in a quarto sheet, and enter it in that form at Stationers' Hall, a few days before the publication of his Life of Johnson. He attempted in the same manner to secure Johnson's letter to Lord Chesterfield. In 1767, on the institution of the Royal Academy of Arts, Johnson was appointed professor in ancient literature, and there probably was at that time sone design of giving a course of lectures, But this, and the professorship of ancient history, are as yet mere sinecures.
ln 1770, his first political pamphlet made its appearance, in order to justify the conduct of the ministry and the house of commons in expelling Mr. Wilkes, and afterwards declaring col. Luttrell to be duly elected representative for the county of Middlesex, notwithstanding Mr. Wilkes had the majority of votes. The viva. city and pointed sarcasm of this pamphlet formed its chief recommendation, and it continues to be read as an elegant political declamation ; but it failed in its main object. It made no converts to the right of incapacitating Mr.Wilkes by the act of expulsion, and the ministry had not the courage to try the question of absolute inca. pacitation. Wilkes lived to see the offensive resolutions expunged from the journals of the house of commons, and what seemed yet more improbable, to be reconciled VOL. XVI,
to Johnson, who, with unabated dislike of his moral character, could not help ad, miring his classical learning, and social talents. His pamphlet, which was entitled the False Alarm, was answered by two or three anonymous writers of no great note.
In 1771, he appeared to more advantage as the author of Thoughts on the late Transactions respecting Falkland Islands, from materials partly furnished by the ministry, but highly enriched by his vigorous style, and peculiar train of thought. The object of this pamphlet was to represent the dispute respecting a barren island as an insufficient cause of war; and in the course of his reasoning, he has taken an opportunity to depict the miseries as well as the absurdity of unnecessary war, in a burst of animated and appropriate language which will probably never be exceeded. His character of Junius, in this pamphlet, is scarcely inferior.-The sale of the first edition was stopt for a while by lord North, and a few alterations made before it appeared in a second. Johnson's opinion of these two pamphlets was, that there is a subtlety of disquisition in the False Alarm, which is worth all the fire of the other.”
About this time, an ineffectual attempt was made by his steady friend Mr. Strahan, his majesty's printer, to procure him a seat in parliament. His biogra. phers have amused their readers by conjectures on the probable figure he would make in that assembly, and he owned frequently that he should not have been sorry to try. Why the interference of his friends was ineffectual, the minister only could tell, but he was certainly not ill advised. It is not improbable that Johnson would have proved an ahle assistant on some occasions, where a nerrous and manly speech was wanted to silence the inferiors in opposition, but it may be doubted whether he would have given that uniform and open consent which is expected from a party man.
Whatever aid he might be induced to give by his pen on certain subjects which accorded with his own sentiments, and of which he thought himself master, he by no means approved of many parts of the conduct of those ministers who carried on the American war; and he was ever decidedly against the principle (if it may be so called) that a man should go along with his party right or wrong. “This,” he once said, " is so remote from native virtue, from scholastic virtue, that a good man must have undergone a great change be. fore he can reconcile himself to such a doctrine. It is maintaining that you may lie to the public, for you do lie when you call that right which you think wrong,
In the year 1773, he carried into execution a design which he had long medi. tated of visiting the western isles of Scotland. lle arrived at Edinburgh op the 18th of August, and finished his journey on the 22d of November. During this time he passed some days at Edinburgh, and then went by St. Andrew's, Aber. deen, Inverness and Fort Augustus, to the Hebrides, visiting the isles of Sky, Rasay, Col, Mull, Inchkenneth and Icolmkill. He then travelled through Argylesıire by Iuverary, and thence by Lochlomond and Dumbarton to Glasgow and Edinburgh. The popularity of his own account, which has perhaps been more generally read than any book of travels in modern times, and the Journal of his pleasant companion Mr. Boswell, render any farther notice of this jour. ney unnecessary. The censure he met with is now remembered with indifference, and his Tour continues to be read without any of the unpleasant emotions wbich
it first excited, in those who contended that he had not stated the truth, or were unwilling that the truth should be stated.
During his absence, his humble friend and admirer, Thomas Davies, bookseller, ventured to publish two volumes entitled Miscellanies and fugitive Pieces, which he advertised in the newspapers, as the production of the “author of the Rambler.” Johnson was inclined to resent this liberty, until he recollected Davies's narrow circumstances, when he cordially forgave him, and continued his kindness to him as usual. A third volume appeared soon after, but all its contents are not from Dr. Johnson's pen.
On the dissolution of parliament in 1774, he published a short political pamphlet entitled The Patriot, the principal object of which appears to have been to repress the spirit of faction which at that time was too prevalent, especially in the metropolis. It was a hasty composition, called for, as he informed Mr. Boswell, on one day, and written the next. The success, since his time, of those mock.patriots whom he has so ably delineated, is too decisive a proof that the reign of political delusion is not to be shortened by eloquence or argument.
During his Tour in Scotland, he made frequent inquiries respecting the authen. ticity of Ossian's Poems, and received answers so unsatisfactory that, both in his book of travels and in conversation, he did not hesitate to treat the whole as an imposture. This excited the resentment of Macpherson, the editor, to such a degree that he wrote a threatening letter to Johnson, who answered it in a com. position which, in the expression of firm and unalterable contempt, is perhaps superior to that he wrote to Lord Chesterfield. In that he mixed somewhat of courtesy, but Macpherson he despised both as a man and a writer, and treated him as a ruffian,
The rupture between Great Britain and America once more roused our anthor's political energies, and produced his Taxation no Tyranny, in which he en. deavoured to prove that distant colonies, which had in their assemblies a legislature of their own, were, notwithstanding, liable to be taxed in a British parlia. ment, where they had no representatives, and he thought that this country was strong enough to enforce obedience. This pamphlet, which appeared in 1775, produced a controversy which was carried on for some time with considerable spirit, although Johnson' took no shrere in it : but the right of taxation was no longer a question for discussion : the Americans were in arms, blood had been spilt, and “ successful rebellion became revolution.” No censure was more generally advanced, at this time, against our author, than that his opinions were regulated by his pension, and none could be more void of foundation. His opinion, whether just or not, of the Americans was uniform throughout his life, and he continued to maintain them when, in strict prudence, they might as well have been softened to the measure of changed times.
It is not improbable, however, that he felt the force of some of the replies made to bis pamphlet, seconded as they were by the popular voice and by the discomfiture of the measures of administration. It is reported that he complained, and perhaps about this time, of being called upon to write political pamphlets, and threatened to give up his pension. Whether this complaint was carried to the properquarter, Mr. Boswell has not informed us, but it is certain he wrote no more in defence
of the ministry, and he received no kind of reward for what he had done. His pension neither he or his friends ever considered in that light, although it might make him acquiesce more readily in what the minister required. He was willing to do something for gratitude, but nothing for hire.
A few months after the publication of his last pamphlet, he received his diploma aş doctor of laws from the university of Oxford, in consequence of a, recon. mendation from the chancellor, lord North. It is remarkable, however, that he never assumed this title in writing notes or cards.- In the autumn of this year, he went on a tour to France with Mr. and Mrs. Thrale. Of this tour Mr. Bos. well has printed a few memorandums, which were probably intended as the foun. dation of a more regular narrative, but this he does not appear to have ever begun. As the tour lasted only about two months, it would probably have produced more sentiment than description.
In 1777, he was engaged by the London booksellers to write short lives or prefa. ces to an edition of the English poets, and this being one of the most important of his literary undertakings, some account of its origin is necessary, especially as the precise share which belongs to bim has been frequently misrepresented. It is perhaps too late now to inquire into the propriety of the decision of the house of lords respecting literary property, It had not, however, taken place many months before some of the predicted consequences appeared. Among other instances, an edition of the English poets was published at Edinburgh, in direct violation of that honourable compact by, which the booksellers of London had agreed to respect cach other's property, notwithstanding their being deprived of the more effectual support of the law. This, therefore, induced the latter to un-, dertake an edition of the poets in a more commodious form, and with suitable ac curacy of text, A meeting was called of about forty, of the most respectable book. sellers of London, the proprietors, or the successors and descendants of the proprietors of copyrights in these works, and it was agreed that an elegant and uni. form edition of The English Poets should be printed, with a concise account of the life of each author by Dr. Samuel Johnson, and that Messrs. Straban, Cadell and T. Davies, should wait upon him with their proposals,
Johnson was delighted with the task, the utility of which had probably occarred to his mind long before, and he had certainly more acquaintance than any man then living with the poetical biography, of bis country, and appeared to be best qualified to illustrate it by judicious criticism. Whether, we consider what he undertook, or what he performed, the sum of two hundred guineas which he de. manded, will appear a very trivial recompense. His original intention, and all indeed that was expected from him, was a very concise biographical and critical account of each poet, but he had not proceeded far before he began to enlarge the lives to the present extent, and at last presented the world with such a bedy. of criticism as was scarcely to be expected from one man, and still less from one now verging on his seventieth year.
Of this edition it is yet necessary to say, that Dr. Johnson was not in all respects to be considered as the editor. He had not the choice of the poets, to be admitted, although in addition to the list prepared by his employers, he recommend Blackmore, Watts, Pomfret, and Yaldep. The selection was made by the booksel.
lers, who appear to have been guided, partly by the acknowledged merit of the poet, and partly by his popularity, a quality which is sometimes independent of the former. Our author, however, felt himself unđer tro restraint in accepting the list offered, nor did he in any instance consider himself bound to tean with partiality to any author merely that the admission of his works might be justified. This absurd species of prejudice which has contaminated so many single lives and critical prefaces, was repugnant to his, as it must ever be to the opinion of every man who considers truth as essential to biography, and that the possession of talents, however brilliant, ought to be no excuse for the abuse of them.-Every preliminary having been settled in the month of April, 1777, the new edition of the poets was sent to press, and Johnson was informed that his lives might be written in the meantime, so as to be ready to accompany the publication.
Not long after he undertook this work, he was invited to contribute the aid of his eloquent pen in saving the forfeited life of Dr. William Dodd, a clergyman, who was convicted of forgery. This unhappy man had long been a popular preacher in the metropolis : and the public sentiment was almost universal in den precating so shameful a sight as that of a clergyman of the church of England suffering by a publié execution. Whether there was much in Dodd's character to justify this sentiment, or to demand the interference of the corporation of Lon. don, backed by the petitions of thousands of the most distinguished and wealthy citizens, may perhaps be doubted. Johnson, however, could not resist what put every other consideration out of the question, "a call for mercy," and accord. ingly contributed every thing that the friends of Dodd could soggest às useful. He wrote his Speech to the Recorder of London, delivered at the Old Bailey when sentence of death was about to be passed on him: The Convicts Address to his unhappy Brethren, a sermon delivered by Dodd in the chapel of Newgate: two letters, one to the lord chancellor Bathurst, and one to lord chief justice Mans. keld: a petition from Dr.Dodd to the king: another from Mrs. Dodd to the queen : observations inserted in the newspapers, on occasion of earl Percy's having pre. sented to his majesty a petition for mercy to Dodd, signed by twenty thousand persons : a petition from the city of London; and Dr. Dodd's last solemn decla. tation, which he left with the sheriff at the place of execution. All these have been printed in Dr. Johnson's works, with some additional correspondence which Mr. Boswelt inserted in his life. Every thing is written in a style of pathetic elo. quence, but as the author could not be concealed, it was impossible to impress á stronger sense of the value of Dodd's taletits than had already been entertained. The papers, however, contributed to heighten the clamour which was at that time raised against the execution of the sentence, and which was confounded with what was then thonght more censurable, the conduct of those by whom the un. happy man might have been saved before the process of law had been begun.
lo 1779, the first four tolumes of his Lives of the Poets were published, and the remainder in the year 1781, which he wrote, by his own confession, “dilatorily and hastily, unwilling to work, and working with vigour and haste.” He had, however, performed so much mote than was expected, that his employers presented him with an hundred pounds ib addition to the stipulated sum. - As he never was insensible to the pleasure or value of fame, it is not improbable that he was