« PreviousContinue »
THE “ JOURNAL OF A TOUR TO THE HEBRIDES” was the first portion of his Life of Dr. Johnson that Mr. Boswell gave to the public. It appeared in the autumn of 1785, about nine months after the death of Johnson, and two editions were exhausted within a twelvemonth. A third was issued in August, 1786, and this was the last which the author lived to revise. His death, "unexpected by his friends, and the subject of universal regret,” says his affectionate literary associate, Malone, took place on the 19th of May, 1795.
The Journal could hardly fail to gain immediate popularity. Both the subject and the plan of the work were attractive. No author, perhaps, ever stood higher with his contemporaries, or was regarded with greater interest as a man, than Johnson. His writings were in all hands, and his Dictionary was looked upon as a national triumph. Garrick's epigram, that one Englishman had, in the contest for philological honours, beat forty Frenchmen, was the key-note to a whole chorus of acclamations. Then, the personal character and peculiarities of Johnson-his sturdy independence, his strong prejudices, his dogmatism, his unrivalled dexterity and power in argument, his very figure, as Boswell has observed, were all, more or less, known to the great mass of readers, from the Land's-End to the Hebrides. Fragments of his conversation, including some of his weighty and pungent remarks, his witty sarcasms and lively personal sallies, had got abroad, and public curiosity was strongly excited regarding the daily life, habits, and opinions of the great literary dictator. Immediately on his death every peri.
odical was ready with its quota of biography or criticism. Mrs. Piozzi lost no time in announcing her “ Anecdotes ;" Sir John Hawkins was known to be busy with his “ Life,” and Dr. Strahan sent to the press those private “ Prayers and Meditations,” which afford so strange, so solemn, and so humbling a memorial of Johnson's piety and weakness.
Thus heralded, the copious, varied, and authentic Journal of Boswell made its appearance, constituting a new era in our biographical literature. Middleton, in his Life of Cicero, and Mason, in his Life of Gray, had given specimens of detailed biography, interweaving letters and journals with the narrative. The French " Ana” had shown the value of anecdote in illustrating character. Boswell acknowledged that he had taken the outline of his plan from Mason, but in reality, he worked after no model. He could have written his memoirs in no other way. He unconsciously painted Johnson as Cromwell wished to be painted by Lely: every wart and blemish was delineated. His undistinguishing veneration made little distinction between virtues and defects—between what was permanent and what was merely accidental. All was set down: the world had at last got assurance of a faithful full-length picture of a genuine man. To write the “ Life of Johnson” was Boswell's special mission upon earth. For any other worldly purpose or employment he was inferior to most men, but in this he was great and inimitable. His peculiar talents, his social and inquisitive nature, his position in society, even his glaring foibles and weaknesses, fitted him for the task. We cannot appreciate his excellence unless we estimate what our lighter literature would be deprived of if his genial labours were withdrawn. How much valuable contemporary history and fine criticism would be lost! What lessons of practical wisdom, free from the formality of didactic teaching-what sportive wit, keen satire, and pregnant observation! How little should we know of that brilliant intellectual circle in
which Johnson moved—of Burke, Goldsmith, Reynolds, Beauclerk, the Burneys, the Langtons, and the Thrales, all placed before us by the recording pen of Boswell, as by the wand of an enchanter! Deeper truths, too, are there, the fruits of sad and bitter experience, “when days were dark and friends were few," and the struggling adventurer toiled on obscure in the recesses of that mighty Babel which ultimately was filled with his fame.
It is seldom that the true inner life of a man will bear to be laid open to the world, nor would the world be benefitted by the spectacle. Johnson had his secrets unknown to Boswell, but he was subjected to such a scrutiny as is without parallel in literary history, and that he came out of it with so little damage is the best testimony that could be borne to his moral worth. His intellectual character was elevated by the ordeal. Burke said truly that Boswell's work was a greater monument to Johnson's fame than all his writings put together. In fact, it contained the essence or best materials of his writings stript of their cumbrous covering of words. We had the fruit without the rind, the sap without the bark of the tree. No other eminent person of his day could have exhibited such an amount of ready colloquial talent, embracing such a variety of knowledge, and joined to original and salient points of character. Burke himself, we suspect, though sometimes magnificent, would have appeared very unequal, very diffuse, and even tedious; and among authors there are absolutely no materials for comparison. Dryden confessed that he “knew not what to say." Addison's taciturnity in general society is well known. Swift loved, and his readers love, his “ little language” to Stella, but his morbid eccentricities and trifling would have appeared contemptible in a journal of his daily life. Pope was sententious and fond of anecdote, but he was too intent on versifying to spend much of his time in talk, while his physical weakness often disposed him to fall asleep at table. We need not run further over the
list of our immortals; the result would be the same.
A biographer like Boswell would have ruined any other great man but Johnson.
The chief interest of Boswell's Journal lies in the central figure so fully developed-in the sage of Bolt Court exploring the wilds of the Hebrides. The journey was a memorable one for Johnson at the age of sixty-four. His love of London amounted to a passion, yet what greater contrast to Fleet Street and the Strand than the bleak shores of Skye and Mull? He was fond of his ease, and travelling over mountains and bogs, with scarce a bridle-track, or crossing stormy friths and arms of the sea in open boats, was attended with danger as well as inconvenience. The season, too, was far advanced; but the drenching rains and cloudy skies he set at defiance, and as for the shelter of woods, he was probably better pleased to be without it, that he might have license to rail at the want of trees. His stout heart (that never grew old) and his strong desire to see new modes of life, with a malicious hope that he might detect and demolish the whole fabric of Ossian and Macpherson, irresistibly impelled him to the north. Perhaps a lingering touch of Jacobitism (“scotched but not killed” by his pension), and a dim veneration for the mysterious second sight, mingled with the other motives. In his youth he had indulged visions of the “ showery west," and of sainted Iona, where
“ The mighty kings of three fair realms are laid."
And in his age he was to realize those boyish dreams. His reception did not belie the ancient hospitality of the country. His fame had preceded him wherever he went; and lairds, tenants, and clergy, with ladies, the flower of Hebridean society, vied with each other in paying him attention. The clergy, indeed, he would not hear preach. Indolence and High Churchism veiled to himself under the guise of religious principle, kept him away from the precincts of a Presbyterian church ; but he
delighted to find the laborious ministers of the west learned, pious, and estimable men, who, like the Scotch professors, listened meekly to the roll of his sonorous sentences, and bore his reproofs and contradictions in silence.
The grand external features of the country made little impression on the travellers. Coledge said the five finest things in Scotland were—Edinburgh, the ante-chamber of the Fall of Foyers, Loch Lomond, the Trosachs, and the view of the Hebrides from some point he had forgotten, but which was doubtless the first view, approaching either from east or west, of that farstretching archipelago of dark, variously-shaped islands, rising out of the sea, and striking the traveller with a sensation of delighted surprise, and of wild and lonely beauty. Johnson saw four of these five wonders, but he was vastly indifferent and incurious about such things. His imperfect eyesight interfered with his appreciation of scenery, and it required some direct human interest or powerful associations to rouse him to intellectual activity. Great, however, was the anxiety evinced as to what impression had been made upon him by his Highland tour. How was he to treat Scotland ? What was he to say of Ossian ? His “Journey," a brief, unpretending narrative, was read with extraordinary avidity, particularly in Scotland. It set innumerable tongues and pens to work, abusing the writer for illiberality, but it also set many of the lairds to work, planting and improving their domains. The work was deficient in information, and in information of a kind that could easily have been obtained, but this Johnson was too indolent to seek; and apart from him, Boswell could do little or nothing—the mistletoe could not spread without the support of the oak. Nothing can be more meagre than those parts of his Journal, as the purely descriptive passages, the account of Charles Edward's escape from Skye, &c., in which Boswell had not Johnson to lean upon. His whole faculties apparently were engrossed by this one theme. Johnson's volume, however, gave an excellent sketch