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CHAPTER XXX. SAMUEL JOHNSON AND HIS TIMES.

   Early Life and Career. London. Rambler and Idler. The Dictionary. Other 
   Works. Lives of the Poets. Person and Character. Style. Junius.

EARLY LIFE AND CAREER.

Doctor Samuel Johnson was poet, dramatist, essayist, lexicographer, dogmatist, and critic, and, in this array of professional characters, played so distinguished a part in his day that he was long regarded as a prodigy in English literature. His influence has waned since his personality has grown dim, and his learning been superseded or overshadowed; but he still remains, and must always remain, the most prominent literary figure of his age; and this is in no small measure due to his good fortune in having such a champion and biographer as James Boswell. Johnson's Life by Boswell is without a rival among biographies: in the words of Macaulay: “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;” and Burke has said that Johnson appears far greater in Boswell's book than in his own. We thus know everything about Johnson, as we do not know about any other literary man, and this knowledge, due to his biographer, is at least one of the elements of Johnson's immense reputation.

He was born at Lichfield on the 18th of September, 1709. His father was a bookseller; and after having had a certain amount of knowledge “well beaten into him” by Mr. Hunter, young Johnson was for two years an assistant in his father's shop. But such was his aptitude for learning, that he was sent in 1728 to Pembroke College, Oxford. His youth was not a happy one: he was afflicted with scrofula, “which disfigured a countenance naturally well formed, and hurt his visual nerves so much that he did not see at all with one of his eyes.” He had a morbid melancholy,—fits of dejection which made his life miserable. He was poor; and when, in 1731, his father died insolvent, he was obliged to leave the university without a degree. After fruitless attempts to establish a school, he married, in 1736, Mrs. Porter, a widow, who had L800. Rude and unprepossessing to others, she was sincerely loved by her husband, and deeply lamented when she died. In 1737 Johnson went to London in company with young Garrick, who had been one of his few pupils, and who was soon to fill the English world with his theatrical fame.

LONDON.—Johnson soon began to write for Cave's Gentleman's Magazine, and in 1738 he astonished Pope and the artificial poets by producing, in their best vein, his imitation of the third Satire of Juvenal, which he called London. This was his usher into the realm of literature. But he did not become prominent until he had reached his fiftieth year; he continued to struggle with gloom and poverty, too proud to seek patronage in an age when popular remuneration had not taken its place. In 1740 he was a reporter of the debates in parliament for Cave; and it is said that many of the indifferent speakers were astonished to read the next day the fine things which the reporter had placed in their mouths, which they had never uttered.

In 1749 he published his Vanity of Human Wishes, an imitation of the tenth Satire of Juvenal, which was as heartily welcomed as London had been. It is Juvenal applied to English and European history. It contains many lines familiar to us all; among them are the following:

    Let observation with extended view 
    Survey mankind from China to Peru.

In speaking of Charles XII., he says:

    His fall was destined to a barren strand, 
    A petty fortress and a dubious hand; 
    He left a name at which the world grew pale, 
    To point a moral or adorn a tale.

    From Marlborough's eyes the streams of dotage flow, 
    And Swift expires a driveller and a show.

In the same year he published his tragedy of Irene, which, notwithstanding the friendly efforts of Garrick, who was now manager of Drury Lane Theatre, was not successful. As a poet, Johnson was the perfection of the artificial school; and this very technical perfection was one of the causes of the reaction which was already beginning to sweep it away.

RAMBLER AND IDLER.—In 1750 he commenced The Rambler, a periodical like The Spectator, of which he wrote nearly all the articles, and which lived for two years. Solemn, didactic, and sonorous, it lacked the variety and genial humor which had characterized Addison and Steele. In 1758 he started The Idler, in the same vein, which also ran its respectable course for two years. In 1759 his mother died, and, in order to defray the expenses of her funeral, he wrote his story of Rasselas in the evenings of one week, for two editions of which he received L125. Full of moral aphorisms and instruction, this “Abyssinian tale” is entirely English in philosophy and fancy, and has not even the slight illusion of other Eastern tales in French and English, which were written about the same time, and which are very similar in form and matter. Of Rasselas, Hazlitt says: “It is the most melancholy and debilitating moral speculation that was ever put forth.”

THE DICTIONARY.—As early as 1747 he had begun to write his English Dictionary, which, after eight years of incessant and unassisted labor, appeared in 1755. It was a noble thought, and produced a noble work—a work which filled an original vacancy. In France, a National Academy had undertaken a similar work; but this English giant had accomplished his labors alone. The amount of reading necessary to fix and illustrate his definitions was enormous, and the book is especially valuable from the apt and varied quotations from English authors. He established the language, as he found it, on a firm basis in signification and orthography. He laid the foundation upon which future lexicographers were to build; but he was ignorant of the Teutonic languages, from which so much of the structure and words of the English are taken, and thus is signally wanting in the scientific treatment of his subject. This is not to his discredit, for the science of language has had its origin in a later and modern time.

Perhaps nothing displays more fully the proud, sturdy, and self-reliant character of the man, than the eight years of incessant and unassisted labor upon this work.

His letter to Lord Chesterfield, declining his tardy patronage, after experiencing his earlier neglect, is a model of severe and yet respectful rebuke, and is to be regarded as one of the most significant events in his history. In it he says: “The notice you have been pleased to take of my labors, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent, and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary, and cannot impart it; till I am known, and do not want it. I hope it is no very cynical asperity not to confess obligation when no benefit has been received, or to be unwilling that the public should consider me as owing that to a patron which Providence has enabled me to do for myself.” Living as he did in an age when the patronage of the great was wearing out, and public appreciation beginning to reward an author's toils, this manly letter gave another stab to the former, and hastened the progress of the latter.

OTHER WORKS.—The fame of Johnson was now fully established, and his labors were rewarded, in 1762, by the receipt of a pension of L300 from the government, which made him quite independent. It was then, in the very heyday of his reputation, that, in 1763, he became acquainted with James Boswell, to whom he at once became a Grand Lama; who took down the words as they dropped from his lips, and embalmed his fame.

In 1764 he issued his edition of Shakspeare, in eight octavo volumes, of which the best that can be said is, that it is not valuable as a commentary. A commentator must have something in common with his author; there was nothing congenial between Shakspeare and Johnson.

It was in 1773, that, urged by Boswell, he made his famous Journey to the Hebrides, or Western Islands of Scotland, of which he gave delightful descriptions in a series of letters to his friend Mrs. Thrale, which he afterwards wrote out in more pompous style for publication. The letters are current, witty, and simple; the published work is stilted and grandiloquent.

It is well known that he had no sympathy with the American colonies in their struggle against British oppression. When, in 1775, the Congress published their Resolutions and Address, he answered them in a prejudiced and illogical paper entitled Taxation no Tyranny. Notwithstanding its want of argument, it had the weight of his name and of a large party; but history has construed it by the animus of the writer, who had not long before declared of the colonists that they were “a race of convicts, and ought to be thankful for anything we allow them short of hanging.”

As early as 1744 he had published a Life of the gifted but unhappy Savage, whom in his days of penury he had known, and with whom he had sympathized; but in 1781 appeared his Lives of the English Poets, with Critical Observations on their Works, and Lives of Sundry Eminent Persons.

LIVES OF THE POETS.—These comprise fifty-two poets, most of them little known at the present day, and thirteen eminent persons. Of historical value, as showing us the estimate of an age in which Johnson was an usher to the temple of Fame, they are now of little other value; those of his own school and coterie he could understand and eulogize. To Milton he accorded carefully measured praise, but could not do him full justice, from entire want of sympathy; the majesty of blank verse pentameters he could not appreciate, and from Milton's puritanism he recoiled with disgust.

Johnson died on the 13th of December, 1784, and was buried in Westminster Abbey; a flat stone with an inscription was placed over his grave: it was also designed to erect his monument there, but St. Paul's Cathedral was afterwards chosen as the place. There, a colossal figure represents the distinguished author, and a Latin epitaph, written by Dr. Parr, records his virtues and his achievements in literature.

PERSON AND CHARACTER.—A few words must suffice to give a summary of his character, and will exhibit some singular contrarieties. He had varied but not very profound learning; was earnest, self-satisfied, overbearing in argument, or, as Sir Walter Scott styles it, despotic. As distinguished for his powers of conversation as for his writings, he always talked ex cathedra, and was exceedingly impatient of opposition. Brutal in his word attacks, he concealed by tone and manner a generous heart. Grandiloquent in ordinary matters, he “made little fishes talk like whales.”

Always swayed by religious influences, he was intolerant of the sects around him; habitually pious, he was not without superstition; he was not an unbeliever in ghostly apparitions, and had a great fear of death; he also had the touching mania—touching every post as he walked along the street, thereby to avoid some unknown evil.

Although of rural origin, he became a thorough London cockney, and his hatred of Scotchmen and dissenters is at once pitiful and ludicrous. His manners and gestures were uncouth and disagreeable. He devoured rather than eat his food, and was a remarkable tea-drinker; on one occasion, perhaps for bravado, taking twenty-five cups at a sitting.

Massive in figure, seamed with scrofulous scars and marks, seeing with but one eye, he had convulsive motions and twitches, and his slovenly dress added to the uncouthness and oddity of his appearance. In all respects he was an original, and even his defects and peculiarities seemed to conduce to make him famous.

Considered the first among the critics of his own day, later judgments have reversed his decisions; many of those whom he praised have sunk into obscurity, and those whom he failed to appreciate have been elevated to the highest pedestals in the literary House of Fame.

STYLE.—His style is full-sounding and antithetic, his periods are carefully balanced, his manner eminently respectable and good; but his words, very many of them of Latin derivation, constitute what the later critics have named Johnsonese, which is certainly capable of translation into plainer Saxon English, with good results. Thus, in speaking of Addison's style, he says: “It is pure without scrupulosity, and exact without apparent elaboration; ... he seeks no ambitious ornaments, and tries no hazardous innovations; his page is always luminous, but never blazes in unexpected splendor.” Very numerous examples might be given of sentences most of the words in which might be replaced by simpler expressions with great advantage to the sound and to the sense.

As a critic, his word was law: his opinion was clearly and often severely expressed on literary men and literary subjects, and no great writer of his own or a past age escaped either his praise or his censure. Authors wrote with the fear of his criticism before their eyes; and his pompous diction was long imitated by men who, without this influence, would have written far better English. But, on the other hand, his honesty, his scholarship, his piety, and his championship of what was good and true, as depicted in his writings, made him a blessing to his time, and an honored and notable character in the noble line of English authors.

JUNIUS.—Among the most significant and instructive writings to the student of English history, in the earlier part of the reign of George III., is a series of letters written by a person, or by several persons in combination, whose nom de plume was Junius. These letters specified the errors and abuses of the government, were exceedingly bold in denunciation and bitter in invective. The letters of Junius were forty-four in number, and were addressed to Mr. Woodfall, the proprietor of The Public Advertiser, a London newspaper, in which they were published. Fifteen others in the same vein were signed Philo-Junius; and there are besides sixty-two notes addressed by Junius to his publisher.

The principal letters signed Junius were addressed to ministers directly, and the first, on the State of the Nation, was a manifesto of the grounds of his writing and his purpose. It was evident that a bold censor had sprung forth; one acquainted with the secret movements of the government, and with the foibles and faults of the principal statesmen: they writhed under his lash. Some of the more gifted attempted to answer him, and, as in the case of Sir William Draper, met with signal discomfiture. Vigorous efforts were made to discover the offender, but without success; and as to his first patriotic intentions he soon added personal spite, the writer found that his life would not be safe if his secret were discovered. The rage of parties has long since died away, and the writer or writers have long been in their graves, but the curious secret still remains, and has puzzled the brains of students to the present day. Allibone gives a list of forty-two persons to whom the letters were in whole or in part ascribed, among whom are Colonel Barre, Burke, Lord Chatham, General Charles Lee, Horne Tooke, Wilkes, Horace Walpole, Lord Lyttleton, Lord George Sackville, and Sir Philip Francis. Pamphlets and books have been written by hundreds upon this question of authorship, and it is not yet by any means definitely settled. The concurrence of the most intelligent investigators is in favor of Sir Philip Francis, because of the handwriting being like his, but slightly disguised; because he and Junius were alike intimate with the government workings in the state department and in the war department, and took notes of speeches in the House of Lords; because the letters came to an end just before Francis was sent to India; and because, indecisive as these claims are, they are stronger than those of any other suspected author. Macaulay adds to these: “One of the strongest reasons for believing that Francis was Junius is the moral resemblance between the two men.”

It is interesting to notice that the ministry engaged Dr. Johnson to answer the forty-second letter, in which the king is especially arraigned. Johnson's answer, published in 1771, is entitled Thoughts on the Late Transactions respecting Falkland's Islands. Of Junius he says: “He cries havoc without reserve, and endeavors to let slip the dogs of foreign and civil war, ignorant whither they are going, and careless what maybe their prey.” “It is not hard to be sarcastic in a mask; while he walks like Jack the giant-killer, in a coat of darkness, he may do much mischief with little strength.” “Junius is an unusual phenomenon, on which some have gazed with wonder and some with terror; but wonder and terror are transitory passions. He will soon be more closely viewed, or more attentively examined, and what folly has taken for a comet, that from its flaming hair shook pestilence and war, inquiry will find to be only a meteor formed by the vapors of putrefying democracy, and kindled into flame by the effervescence of interest struggling with conviction, which, after having plunged its followers into a bog, will leave us inquiring why we regarded it.”

Whatever the moral effect of the writings of Junius, as exhibited by silent influence in the lapse of years, the schemes he proposed and the party he championed alike failed of success. His farewell letter to Woodfall bears date the 19th of January, 1773. In that letter he declared that “he must be an idiot to write again; that he had meant well by the cause and the public; that both were given up; that there were not ten men who would act steadily together on any question.”[35] But one thing is sure: he has enriched the literature with public letters of rare sagacity, extreme elegance of rhetoric and great logical force, and has presented a problem always curious and interesting for future students,—not yet solved, in spite of Mr. Chabot's recent book,[36] and every day becoming more difficult of solution,—Who was Junius?