can on occasion be frank and even confidential, but which indicates clearly enough that he will neither welcome nor permit the slightest intrusion beyond the limits he has set to that confidence.

The first specimens of Johnson's original prose were the parliamentary debates (composed almost entirely according to his own notion of probabilities) which he contributed to the Gentleman's Magazine. The Rambler was written in the midst of his most severe and prolonged toil, and under conditions of grinding poverty, and in point of style it has more than his usual stateliness, and less than his usual variety and humour. The Idler was written when he had escaped from the long burden of the Dictionary and was already a literary dictator, and its style is more varied by light and shade, more quickened by humour; but the weight of poverty still pressed him, and its sadness still hangs heavily over Rasselas, which was written in order to pay for his mother's funeral. It represents perhaps the best specimen of Johnson's more formal style. From first to last it has a strain of melancholy, relieved by few lighter touches ; but its literary skill is seen in the perfect symmetry, and completeness of its construction, all the more remarkable because it wants beginning, and end, and story.

But Johnson's style is not seen in its richness and perfection, nor in its consummate ease, until we come to his last and greatest work—the Lives of the Poets. That was not begun until he was nearly seventy years of age. His time for careful and methodic labour was now past. His opinions were fixed, and he was not likely to examine or modify them. He was undisputed literary dictator, and indisposed to bend to others' views. But all these circumstances contributed to the consummate literary qualities of the book. This is not the place either to impugn or defend the justice of his literary criticisms. But for vigour and ease and variety of style, for elasticity of confidence, for keenness of sarcasm, for brightness of humour, the Lives hold the first place, absolutely free from competition, amongst all works of English criticism of similar range. We may carp at Johnson's judgments, and rail against the prejudice and injustice of his decrees. We may be disposed to accord to more modern critics, all the advantages of balanced judgment and sympathetic insight which they may claim; but they must yield to Johnson the palm for boldness, for wit, for extent of range, and for brilliancy of style.

To those at least, who, like the present writer, look upon Johnson as a man and as a genius with the most profound admiration, it may be permitted to point to passages, to be found even amongst the scanty selections that follow, which may fitly take rank amongst the most consummate and perfect specimens of English prose, clothing thoughts of highest wisdom in language which is a model of dignity and grace.



THE task of an author is, either to teach what is not known, or to recommend known truths by his manner of adorning them ; either to let new light in upon the mind, and open new scenes to the prospect, or to vary the dress and situation of common objects, so as to give them fresh grace and more powerful attractions, to spread such flowers over the regions through which the intellect has already made its progress, as may tempt it to return, and take a second view of things hastily passed over, or negligently regarded.

Either of these labours is very difficult, because that they may not be fruitless, men must not only be persuaded of their errors, but reconciled to their guide; they must not only confess their ignorance, but, what is still less pleasing, must allow that he from whom they are to learn is more knowing than themselves.

It might be imagined that such an employment was in itself sufficiently irksome and hazardous ; that none would be found so malevolent as wantonly to add weight to the stone of Sisyphus ; and that few endeavours would be used to obstruct those advances to reputation, which must be made at such an expense of time and thought, with so great hazard in the miscarriage, and with so little advantage from the success.

Yet there is a certain race of men, that either imagine it their duty, or make it their amusement, to hinder the reception of every work of learning or genius, who stand as sentinels in the avenues of fame, and value themselves upon giving ignorance and envy the first notice of a prey.

To these men, who distinguish themselves by the appellation of Critics, it is necessary for a new author to find some means of recommendation. It is probable, that the most malignant of these persecutors might be somewhat softened, and prevailed on, for a short time, to remit their fury. Having for this purpose considered many expedients, I find in the records of ancient times, that Argus was lulled by music, and Cerberus quieted with a sop; and am, therefore, inclined to believe that modern critics, who, if they have not the eyes, have the watchfulness of Argus, and can bark as loud as Cerberus, though, perhaps, they cannot bite with equal force, might be subdued by methods of the same kind. I have heard how some have been pacified with claret and a supper, and others laid asleep with the soft notes of flattery.

Though the nature of my undertaking gives me sufficient reason to dread the united attacks of this violent generation, yet, I have not hitherto persuaded myself to take any measures for flight or treaty. For I am in doubt whether they can act against me by lawful authority, and suspect that they have presumed upon a forged commission, styled themselves the ministers of Criticism, without any authentic evidence of delegation, and uttered their own determinations as the decrees of a higher judicature.

Criticism, from whom they derive their claim to decide the fate of writers, was the eldest daughter of Labour and of Truth: she was, at her birth, committed to the care of Justice, and brought up by her in the palace of Wisdom. Being soon distinguished by the celestials for her uncommon qualities, she was appointed the governess of Fancy, and empowered to beat time to the chorus of the Muses, when they sung before the throne of Jupiter.

When the Muses condescended to visit this lower world, they came accompanied by Criticism, to whom, upon her descent from her native regions, Justice gave a sceptre, to be carried aloft in her right hand, one end of which was tinctured with ambrosia, and enwreathed with a golden foliage of amaranths and bays ; the other end was encircled with cypress and poppies, and dipped in the waters of oblivion. In her left hand, she bore an unextinguishable torch, manufactured by Labour, and lighted by Truth, of which it was the particular quality immediately to show every thing in its true form, however it might be disguised to common eyes. Whatever art could complicate, or folly could confound, was, upon the first gleam of the torch of Truth, exhibited in its distinct parts and original simplicity ; it darted through the labyrinths of sophistry, and showed at once all the absurdities to which they served for refuge; it pierced through the robes which

Rhetoric often sold to Falsehood, and detected the disproportion of parts which artificial veils had been contrived to cover.

Thus furnished for the execution of her office, Criticism came down to survey the performances of those who professed themselves the votaries of the Muses. Whatever was brought before her, she beheld by the steady light of the torch of Truth, and when her examination had convinced her, that the laws of just writing had been observed, she touched it with the amaranthine end of the sceptre, and consigned it over to immortality.

But it more frequently happened, that in the works which required her inspection, there was some imposture attempted ; that false colours were laboriously laid ; that some secret inequality was found between the words and sentiments, or some dissimilitude of the ideas and the original objects ; that incongruities were linked together, or that some parts were of no use but to enlarge the appearance of the whole, without contributing to its beauty, solidity, or usefulness.

Wherever such discoveries were made, and they were made whenever these faults were committed, Criticism refused the touch which conferred the sanction of immortality, and, when the errors were frequent and gross, reversed the sceptre, and let drops of Lethe distil from the poppies and cypress a fatal mildew, which immediately began to waste the work away, till it was at last totally destroyed.

There were some compositions brought to the test, in which, when the strongest light was thrown upon them, their beauties and faults appeared so equally mingled, that Criticism stood with her sceptre poised in her hand, in doubt whether to shed Lethe or ambrosia, upon them. These at last increased to so great a number, that she was weary of attending such doubtful claims, and, for fear of using improperly the sceptre of Justice, referred the cause to be considered by Time.

The proceedings of Time, though very dilatory, were, some few caprices excepted, conformable to justice ; and many who thought themselves secure by a short forbearance, have sunk under his scythe, as they were posting down with their volumes in triumph to futurity. It was observable that some were destroyed little by little, and others crushed for ever by a single


Criticism having long kept her eye fixed steadily upon Time, was at last so well satisfied with his conduct, that she withdrew

« ElőzőTovább »