Page images
PDF
EPUB

and habits of life he should have lived seventy-fivè years, is a proof that an inherent vivida vis is a powerful preservative of the human frame.

Man is, in general, made up of contradictory qualities; and these will ever show themselves in strange succession, where a consistency in appearance at least, if not reality, has not been attained by long habits of philosophical discipline. In proportion to the native vigour of the mind, the contradictory qualities will be the more prominent, and more difficult to be adjusted; and, therefore, we are not to wonder that Johnson exhibited an eminent example of this remark, which I have made upon human nature. At different times he seemed a different man in some respects; not, however, in any great or essential article, upon which he had fully employed his mind, and settled certain principles of duty, but only in his manners, and in the display of argument and fancy in his talk. He was prone to superstition, but not to credulity. Though his imagination might incline him to a belief of the marvellous and the mysterious, his vigorous reason examined the evidence with jealousy. He was a sincere aná zealous christian, of high church of England and monarchical principles, which he would not tamely suffer to be questioned ; and had, perhaps, at an early period, narrowed his mind somewhat too much, both as to religion and politicks. His being impressed with the danger of extreme latitude in either, though he was of a very independent spirit, occasioned his appearing somewhat unfavourable to the prevalence of that noble freedom of sentiment which is the best possession of man. Nor can it be denied that he had many prejudices; which, however, frequently suggested many of his pointed sayings, that rather show a playfulness of fancy than any settled malignity. He was steady and inflexible in maintaining the obligations of religion and morality; both from a regard for the order of society and from a veneration for the Great Source of all order; correct, nay stern in his taste; hard to please, and easily offended; impetuous and irritable in his temper, but of a most humane and benevolent heart', which showed itself not only in a most liberal charity, as far as his circumstances would allow, but in a thousand instances of active benevolence. He was afflicted with a bodily disease, which made him often restless and fretful, and with a constitutional melancholy, the clouds of which darkened the brightness of his fancy, and gave a gloomy cast to his whole course of thinking: we, therefore, ought not to wonder at his sallies of impatience and passion at any time, especially when provoked by obtrusive ignorance or presuming petulance, and allowance must be made for his uttering hasty and satirical sallies even against his best friends. And, surely, when it is considered, that, “amidst sickness and sorrow," he exerted his faculties in so many works for the benefit of mankind, and particularly that he achieved the great and admirable Dictionary of our language, we must be astonished at his resolution. The solemn text, “ of him to whom much is given much will be required," seems to have been ever present to his mind, in a rigorous sense, and to have made him dissatisfied with his labours and acts of goodness, however comparatively great ; so that the unavoidable consciousness of his superiority was, in that respect, a cause of disquiet. He suffered so much from this, and from the gloom which perpetually haunted him, and made solitude frightful, that it may be said of him, “ If in this life only he had hope, he was of all men most miserable.” He loved praise when it was brought to him; but was too proud to seek for it. He was somewhat susceptible of flattery. As he was general and unconfined in his studies, he cannot be considered as master of any one particular science; but he had accumulated a vast and various collection of learning and knowledge, which was so arranged in his mind as to be ever in readiness to be brought forth. But his superiority over other learned men consisted chiefly in what may be called the art of thinking, the art of using his mind; a certain continual power of seizing the useful substance of all that he knew, and exhibiting it in a clear and forcible manner; so that knowledge, which we often see to be no better than lumber in men of dull understanding, was in him true, evident, and actual wisdom. His moral precepts are practical, for they are drawn from an intimate acquaintance with human nature.

1 In the “Olla Podrida,” a collection of essays published at Oxford, there is an admirable paper upon the character of Johnson written by the Reverend Dr. Horne, the late excellent Bishop of Norwich. The following passage is eminently happy:-“ To reject wisdom, because the person of him who communicates it is uncouth, and his manners are inelegant; what is it, but to throw away a pineapple, and assign for a reason the roughness of its coat?"_BOSWELL.

His maxims carry conviction; for they are founded on the basis of common sense, and a very attentive and minute survey of real life. His mind was so full of imagery that he might have been perpetually a poet; yet it is remarkable, that however rich his prose is in this respect, his poetical pieces in general have not much of that splendour, but are rather distinguished by strong sentiment and acute observation, conveyed in harmonious and energetick verse, particularly in heroick couplets. Though usually grave, and even awful in his deportment, he possessed uncommon and peculiar powers of wit and humour; he frequently indulged himself in colloquial pleasantry; and the heartiest merriment was often enjoyed in his company; with this great advantage, that, as it was entirely free from any poisonous tincture of vice or impiety, it was salutary to those who shared in it. He had accustomed himself to such accuracy in his common conversation', that he at all times expressed his thoughts with great force, and an elegant choice of language, the effect of which was aided by his having a loud voice, and a slow deliberate utterance. In him were united a most logical head with a most fertile imagination, which gave him an extraordinary advantage in arguing : for he could reason close or wide, as he saw best for the moment. Exulting in his intellectual strength and dexterity, he could, when he pleased, be the greatest sophist that ever contended in the list of declamation; and, from a spirit of contradiction, and a delight in showing his powers, he would often maintain the wrong side with equal warmth and ingenuity; so that, when there was an audience, his real opinions could seldom be gathered from his talk; though when he was in company with a single friend, he would discuss a subject with genuine fairness; but he was too conscientious to make errour permanent and pernicious, by deliberately writing it; and, in all his numerous works, he earnestly inculcated what appeared to him to be the truth ; his piety being constant, and the ruling principle of all his conduct.

1 Though a perfect resemblance of Johnson is not to be found in any age, parts of his character are admirably expressed by Clarendon, in drawing that of Lord Falkland, whom the noble and masterly historian describes at his seat near Oxford : “ Such an immenseness of wit, such a solidity of judgment, so infinite a fancy, bound in by a most logical ratiocination. His acquaintance was cultivated by the most polite and accurate men, so that his house was an university in less volume, whither they came, not so much for repose as study, and to examine and refine those grosser propositions which laziness and consent made cura rent in conversation.” Bayle's account of Menage may also be quoted as exceedingly applicable to the great subject of this work. 6. His illustrious friends erected a very glorious monument to him in the collection entitled Menagiana.' Those who judge of things right will confess that this collection is very proper to show the extent of genius and learning which was the character of Menage. And I may be bold to say, that the excellent works he published will not distin. guish him from other learned men so advuntageously as this. To publish books of great learning, to make Greek and Laiin verses exceedingly well turned is not a common talent, I own; neither is it extremely rare. It is incomparably more difficult to find men who can furnish discourse about an infinite number of things, and who can diversify them a hundred ways. How many authours are there who are admired for their works, on account of the vast learning that is displayed in them, who are not able to sustain a conversation. Those who know Menage only by his books might think he resembled those learned men; but if you show the Menagiana' you distinguish him from them, and make him known by a talent which is given to very few learned men. that he was a man who spoke off-hand a thousand good things. His memory extended to what was ancient and modern; to the court and to the city; to the dead and to the living languages ; to things serious and things jocose; in a word, to a thousand sorts of subjects. That which appeared a trifle to some readers of the Menagiana,' who did not consider circumstances, caused 'admiration in other readers, who minded the difference between what a man speaks without preparation and that which he prepares for the press. And, therefore, we cannot sufficiently commend the care which his illustrious friends took tó erect a monument so capable of giving him immortal glory. They were not obliged to rectify what they had heard him say; for, in so doing, they had not been faithful historians of his conversation.”_BoSWELL.

There it appears

Such was Samuel Johnson, a man whose talents, acquirements, and virtues, were so extraordinary, that the more his character is considered, the more he will be regarded by the present age, and by posterity, with admiration and reverence.

I shall now fulfil my promise of exhibiting specimens of various sorts of imitation of Johnson's style'.

In the “ Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy, 1787,” there is an “Essay on the Style of Dr. Samuel Johnson,” by the Reverend Robert Burrowes, whose respect for the great object of his criticism is thus evinced in the concluding paragraph: “I have singled him out from the whole body of English

· [Transposed from p. 305, ante.—ED.]

2 We must smile at a little inaccuracy of metaphor in the preface to the Transactions, which is written by Mr. Burrowes. The critick of the style of Johnson having, with a just zeal for literature, observed, that the whole nation are called on to exert themselves, afterwards says, They are called on by every tye which can have laudable influence on the heart of man.”-BOSWELL. [See ante, vol. i. p. 195.--Ep.)

« PreviousContinue »