Oldalképek
PDF
ePub

Let them rally their heroes, send forth all their pow'rs, Their verse-men and prose-men, then match them with

ours :

First Shakespeare and Milton, like gods in the fight,
Have put their whole drama and epic to flight.
In satires, episcles, and odes would they cope ?
Their numbers retreat before Dryden and Pope.
And Johnson, well armed, like a hero of yore,
Has beat forty French, and will beat forty more.

Though there exists demonstrative evidence that Johnson was capable of great application, yet his industry was not continued and regular. It was exerted with vehemence and earnestness, when called forth by occasions of necessity; but at other times he sunk into total indolence. This is apt to be the character of a man whose mind is not disciplined by habitual activity or the regular calls to industry, which an ordinary profession produces. As the employment of an author depends upon accidental speculations of commercial men, that is of booksellers, or upon literary projects formed by himself, concerning the success of which he may entertain on one day the most sanguine hopes, and the next may see just reason for doubt, his mind is necessarily left to vibrate between seasons of ardent study and of utter idleness. The occasions of study do not return to him at stated intervals, as to a lawyer, or even to a politician : He may be sometimes left in uncertainty whether they will ever return at all ; and, what is worse, he will frequently labour without any sure prosa pect of reward. Thus habits of irregularity, of negligence, and delay, are produced, which are

/

apt to be augmented by indulging in the luxury of general reading, in the flights of an idle, but luxuriant imagination, or in having recourse to social pleasures, which are apt to render steady drudgery disgusting. After his great moral work, the Rambler, was begun, Johnson, for a time, was engaged in an employment which required exertion at stated periods, a circumstance which probably proved favourable to the progress of his Dictionary. The papers of the Rambler, however, as already noticed, and as he himself declared, were in general hastily written, when urged for materials by his publisher. The admirers of Johnson have taken oçca, sion, from this circumstance, to represent Johnson as writing many of his productions with a celerity altogether unknown among men of letters ; but the wonder is diminished when it is known, that, before making any effort, he wrote full, or, what may rather be called minute notes, of whatever he wished to state or inculcate. Several of these notes have been found, and published by Boswell and others; and from them it appears,

that when Johnson sat down to write, his ideas lay previously arranged before him, so that he had nothing to consider, excepting the diction which he was to employ. In this situation, without any exertion of unusual talents, he might proceed with as much rapidity as an amanuensis, or as he himself could execute the mechanical task of writing.

It was in the Rambler that Johnson first filled his style with ponderous and high sounding words, borrowed from foreign tongues.

He seems to have thought, that a peculiar solemnity of language was necessary to support the dignity of a teacher of moral wisdom, which he wished to assume. He had previously written the life of Savage elegantly, but in a style free from ostentation. The mode of writing which he now assumed, therefore, must have been intentional, though perhaps the study of foreign words, to which he was become familiar in the compilation of his dictionary, might assist in producing the alteration. The morality of the Rambler' has taken its colour from John. son's mind, and is of a grave and melancholy cast; but from the serious temper which it has a tendency to produce, the perusal of it is probably more favourable to the production of the more valuable virtues than the study of the writings even of Addison, which are often expressed in a more cheerful and in a more amusing manner. But it is unnecessary to speak of the merit of a style of writing which gave a new character and tone to the English language, and became an object of imitation with so many men of letters. We have mentioned, among this number, the distinguished names of Robertson and Gibbon, and perhaps we might add to the list those of Blair, Leland, Ferguson, Gillies, Stewart, Parr, and M-Kenzie. This style may be considered as the medium be. tween prose

and

poetry, or as an attempt to intro. duce into the former a large portion of the measured harmony and imagery of the latter. It is well adapted for moral discourses, or for works of imagination, to which its inventor applied it; but it encumbers history with a multiplicity of words, and the solemnity of artificial and measured sentences. It clouds scientific discussion by the introduction of imagery, or the admiration of

eloquence, which withdraw the attention from the steps of an argument, or the discernment of truth. Johnson's

in the Adventurer may be considered as a continuation of the Rambler. The Idler is written in a less elaborate style, and with less solemnity. It is perhaps also a less laborious production in point of materials. His Rasselas is undoubtedly one of the most elegant pieces of writing that has appeared in the form which it assumes, of an Oriental tale. Its moral object is to demonstrate, that a state of happiness is vainly sought in this world. It is a singular circumstance, that, at the same time at which English literature was adorned by the publication of Rasselas, Voltaire published the romance of “ Candide, « or the Optimist,” to illustrate the same moral principle. But between the licentious gaiety of the French, and the serious wisdom of the style of the English moralist, a mighty difference is found. It has usually been understood, that the history of the virtuous and enlightened Astronomer in Rasselas, was intended by Johnson as a sort of apology for his own constitutional melancholy, and to demonstrate, that it is possible for great talents and virtues to be united with a diseased imagination, not to be distinguished from actual insanity. The astronomer was learned, and pious, and beneficent; but he imagined, that for several years he had possessed the power of regulating the weather: the rain had only been permitted to fall, and the winds to blow, under his controul, and the sun had passed from tropic to tropic by his direction. This picture is truly affecting, when it is considered as produced by a man who lived under the perpetual fear of the same dreadful visitation.

papers

Johnson had obtained his pension before he ex. ecuted his commentary upon Shakspeare. He had not diligence to fulfil all that the public expected, or that he was capable of performing upon such a subject; but it has proved the groundwork of most of the later commentaries.

Of Johnson's political works, and of his Journey to the Hebrides, we have already said enough ; but of the former it may be remarked, that, in his Essay upon the subject of Falkland Islands, he introduced a severe attack upon Junius, and the public expected, with eager curiosity, a combat between these two champions; but, for what reason is unknown, Junius at that time retired for ever from the field of political controversy.

Perhaps the most popular of all Johnson's works is the Lives of the Poets, which may be called the child of his old age.' They undoubt. edly contain much sound criticism, connected, however, with personal prejudices, as in the case of Swift; with political prejudices, in the case of Milton; and with some peculiarities of taste, as in his dislike of blank verse, and of the poems of Gray. Men of letters in England had, before his time, strangely neglected to transmit to posterity the history of the most eminent writers, and Johnson has upon the whole done all that was then possible to supply the defect. Johnsons's memory was retentive, and literary anecdotes had always with him been a favourite subject of curiosity and of conversation. He was

« ElőzőTovább »