'of an ancient, and claim the privilege of
'established fame and prescriptive veneration.
ioo DR. JOHNSON.
1 He has long outlived his century, the term
1 commonly fixed as the test of literary merit.'
The whirligig of time has brought in his
revenges. The Doctor himself has been dead
his century. He died on the 13th of December,
1784. Come, let us criticise him.
Our qualifications for this high office need
not be investigated curiously.
'Criticism,' writes Johnson in the 60th Idler,
1 is a study by which men grow important and
' formidable at a very small expense. The power
1 of invention has been conferred by nature upon
' few, and the labour of learning those sciences
'which may by mere labour be obtained, is too
' great to be willingly endured ; but every man
' can exert such judgment as he has upon the
1 works of others ; and he whom nature has
' made weak, and idleness keeps ignorant, may
1 yet support his vanity by the name of a critick.'
To proceed with our task by the method of
comparison is to pursue a course open to grave
objection, yet it is forced upon us when we find,
as we lately did, a writer in the Times news-
paper, in the course of a not very discriminating
review of Mr. Froude's recent volumes, casually
remarking, as if it admitted of no more doubt
than the day's price of consols, that Carlyle was
DR. JUlINSON. ioi
a greater man than Johnson. It is a good
thing to be positive. To be positive in your
opinions and selfish in your habits is the best
recipe, if not for happiness, at all events for that
far more attainable commodity, comfort, with
which we are acquainted. 'A noisy man,' sang
poor Cowper, who could not bear anything
louder than the hissing of a tea-urn, ' a noisy
'man is always in the right,' and a positive man
can seldom be proved wrong. Still, in literature
it is very desirable to preserve a moderate
measure of independence, and we, therefore,
make bold to ask whether it is as plain as the
' old hill of Howth,' that Carlyle was a greater
man than Johnson ? Is not the precise contrary
the truth ? No abuse of Carlyle need be looked
for here or from me. When a man of genius
and of letters happens to have any striking
virtues, such as purity, temperance, honesty, the
novel task of dwelling on them has such attrac-
tion for us, that we are content to leave the
elucidation of his faults to his personal friends,
and to stern, unbending moralists like Mr.
Edmund Yates and the World newspaper.* To
love Carlyle is, thanks to Mr. Froude's super-
* "The late Mr. Carlyle was a brute and a boor." —
7 lit World, October 29th, 1884.
102 DR. JOHNSON.
human ideal of friendship, a task of mucii
heroism, almost meriting a pension ; still, it is
quite possible for the candid and truth-loving
soul. But a greater than Johnson he most cer-
tainly was not.
There is a story in Lockhart's Life of Scott of
an ancient beggar-woman, who, whilst asking an
alms of Sir Walter, described herself, in a lucky
moment for her pocket, as 'an old struggler.'
Scott made a note of the phrase in his diary, and
thought it deserved to become classical. It cer-
tainly clings most tenaciously to the memory —
so picturesquely does it body forth the striving
attitude of poor battered humanity. John-
son was 'an old struggler.'"* So too, in all
conscience, was Carlyle. The struggles of
Johnson have long been historical ; those of
Carlyle have just become so. We are interested
in both. To be indifferent would be inhuman.
Both men had great endowments, tempestuous
natures, hard lots. They were not amongst
Dame Fortune's favourites. They had to fight
their way. What they took they took by storm.
* In the first edition, by a strange and distressing
freak of the imagination, I took the ' old struggler ' out
of Lockhart and put her into Boswell.
DR. JOHNSON. 103
Bat — and here is a difference indeed — Johnson
came off victorious, Carlyle did not.
Boswell's book is an arch of triumph, through
which, as we read, we see his hero passing into
eternal fame, to take up his place with those —
' Dead but sceptred sovereigns who still rule
Our spirits from their urns.'
Froude's book is a tomb over which the lovers
of Carlyle's genius will never cease to shed
tender but regretful tears.
We doubt whether there is in English litera-
ture a more triumphant book than Boswell's.
What materials for tragedy are wanting ? John-
son was a man of strong passions, unbending
spirit, violent temper, as poor as a church-
mouse, and as proud as the proudest of church
dignitaries ; endowed with the strength of a
coal-heaver, the courage of a lion, and the
tongue of Dean Swift, he could knock down
booksellers and silence bargees ; he was melan-
choly almost to madness, 'radically wretched,'
Indolent, blinded, diseased. Poverty was long
his portion ; not that genteel poverty that is
iometimes behindhand with its rent, but that
hungry poverty that does not know where to
look for its dinner. Against all these things had
this ' old struggler ' to contend j over all these
ro 4 DR - JOHNSON.
things did this 'old struggler' prevail. Ovei
even the fear of death, the giving up of this
'intellectual being,' which had haunted his
gloomy fancy for a lifetime, he seems finally to
have prevailed, and to have met his end as a
brave man should.
Carlyle, writing to his wife, says, and truth-
fully enough, ' The more the devil worries me
1 the more I wring him by the nose f but then if
the devil's was the only nose that was wrung in
the transaction, why need Carlyle cry out so
loud? After buffeting one's way through the
storm-tossed pages of Froude's Carlyle — in
which the universe is stretched upon the rack
because food disagrees with man and cocks
crow — with what thankfulness and reverence do
we read once again the letter in which Johnson
tells Mrs. Thrale how he has been called to
endure, not dyspepsia or sleeplessness, but
paralysis itself :
1 On Monday I sat for my picture, and walked
1 a considerable way with little inconvenience.
* In the afternoon and evening I felt myself light
1 and easy, and began to plan schemes of life.
'Thus I went to bed, and, in a short time,
' waked and sat up, as has long been my custom ;
'when I felt a confusion in my head which
DR. JOHNSON. 105
' lasted, I suppose, about half a minute ; I was
' alarmed, and prayed God that however much
k He might afflict my body He would spare my
•understanding. . . . Soon after I perceived
1 that I had suffered a paralytic stroke, and that
'my speech was taken from me. I had no
'pain, and so little dejection, in this dreadful
' state, that I wondered at my own apathy, and
'considered that perhaps death itself, when it
'should come, would excite less horror than
' seems now to attend it. In order to rouse the
' vocal organs I took two drams. ... I then
' went to bed, and, strange as it may seem, I
' think, slept. When I saw light it was time I
' should contrive what I should do. Though
' God stopped my speech He left me my hand.
' I enjoyed a mercy which was not granted to
' my dear friend Lawrence, who now perhaps
' overlooks me, as I am writing, and rejoices
' that I have what he wanted. My first note was
' necessarily to my servant, who came in talking,
' and could not immediately comprehend why he
1 should read what I put into his hands. . . .
1 How this will be received by you I know not. I
1 hope you will sympathize with me; but perhaps —
'" My mistress, gracious, mild, and good,
Cries — Is he dumb? Tis time he shou'd."
io6 DR. yOHNSOJM
1 I suppose you may wish to know how my
1 disease is treated by the physicians. They put
1 a blister upon my back, and two from my ear
'to my throat, one on a side. The blister on
1 the back has done little, and those on the
1 throat have not risen. I bullied and bounced
' (it sticks to our last sand), and compelled the
'apothecary to make his salve according to the
' Edinburgh dispensatory, that it might adhere
1 better. I have now two on my own prescrip-
' tion. They likewise give me salt of hartshorn,
' which I take with no great confidence ; but 1
' am satisfied that what can be done is done for
1 me. I am almost ashamed of this querulous
'letter, but now it is written let it go.'
This is indeed tonic and bark for the mind.
If, irritated by a comparison that ought never
to have been thrust upon us, we ask why it is
that the reader of Boswell finds it as hard to
help loving Johnson as the reader of Froude
finds its hard to avoid disliking Carlyle, the
answer must be that whilst the elder man of
letters was full to overflowing with the milk of
human kindness, the younger one was full to
overflowing with something not nearly so nice ;
and that whilst Johnson was pre-eminently a
reasonable mat, reasonable in all his demands
DR. JOHNSON. 107
and expectations, Carlyle was the most unreason-
able mortal that ever exhausted the patience of
nurse, mother, or wife.
Of Dr. Johnson's affectionate nature nobody
has written with nobler appreciation than Carlyle
himself. ' Perhaps it is this Divine feeling of
1 affection, throughout manifested, that prin-
1 cipally attracts us to Johnson. A true brother
'of men is he, and filial lover of the earth.'
The day will come when it will be recognised
that Carlyle, as a critic, is to be judged by what
he himself corrected for the press, and not by
splenetic entries in diaries, or whimsical extrava-
gances in private conversation.
Of Johnson's reasonableness nothing need be
said, except that it is patent everywhere. His
wife's judgment was a sound one : ' He is the
1 most sensible man I ever met.'
As for his brutality, of which at one time we
used to hear a great deal, we cannot say of it
what Hookham Frere said of Landor's im-
morality, that it was :
' Mere imaginary classicality
"Wholly devoid of criminal reality.'
It was nothing of the sort. Dialcctically the
great Doctor was a great brute. The fact is, he
had so accustomed himself to wordy warfare,
io8 DR. yOHNSON.
that he lost all sense of moral responsibility, and
cared as little for men's feelings as a Napoleon
did for their lives. When the battle was over,
the Doctor frequently did what no soldier ever
did that I have heard tell of, apologized to his
victims and drank wine or lemonade with them.
It must also be remembered that for the most
part his victims sought him out. They came
to be tossed and gored. And after all, are they
so much to be pitied ? They have our sympathy,
and the Doctor has our applause. I am not
prepared to say, with the simpering fellow with
weak legs whom David Copperfield met at Mr.
Waterbrook's dinner-table, that I would sooner
be knocked down by a man with blood than
picked up by a man without any ; but, argu-
mentatively speaking, I think it would be better
for a man's reputation to be knocked down by
Dr. Johnson than picked up by Mr. Froude.
Johnson's claim to be the best of our talkers
cannot, on our present materials, be contested.
For the most part we have only talk about
other talkers. Johnson's is matter of record.
Carlyle no doubt was a great talker — no man
talked against talk or broke silence to praise
it more eloquently than he, but unfortunately
none of it is in evidence. All that is given us
DR. JOHNSON. 109
is a sort of Commination Service writ large.
We soon weary of it. Man does not live by
An unhappier prediction of a boy's future
was surely never made than that of Johnson's
by his cousin, Mr. Cornelius Ford, who said
to the infant Samuel, ' You will make your way
' the more easily in the world as you are content
' to dispute no man's claim to conversation ex-
• cellence, and they will, therefore, more willingly
'allow your pretensions as a writer.' Unfor-
tunate Mr. Ford ! The man never breathed
whose claim to conversation excellence Dr.
Johnson did not dispute on every possible
occasion, whilst, just because he was admittedly
so good a talker, his pretensions as a writer
have been occasionally slighted.
Johnson's personal character has generally
been allowed to stand high. It, however, has
not been submitted to recent tests. To be
the first to ' smell a fault ' is the pride of the
modern biographer. Boswell's artless pages
afford useful hints not lightly to be disregarded.
During some portion of Johnson's married life
he had lodgings, first at Greenwich, afterwards
at Hampstead. But he did not always go
home o' nights ; sometimes preferring to roam
no DR. JOHNSON.
the streets with that vulgar ruffian Savage, who
was certainly no fit company for him. He
once actually quarrelled with 'Tetty,' who,
despite her ridiculous name, was a very sensible
woman with a very sharp tongue, and for a
season, like stars, they dwelt apart. Of the
real merits of this dispute we must resign our-
selves to ignorance. The materials for its
discussion do not exist ; even Croker could not
find them. Neither was our great moralist
as sound as one would have liked to see
him in the matter of the payment of small
debts. When he came to die, he remembered
several of these outstanding accounts ; but
what assurance have we that he remembered
them all? One sum of ^"io he sent across to
the honest fellow from whom he had borrowed
it, with an apology for his delay ; which, since
it had extended over a period of twenty years,
was not superfluous. I wonder whether he
ever repaid Mr. Dilly the guinea he once
borrowed of him to give to a very small boy
who had just been apprenticed to a printer. If
he did not, it was a great shame. That he
was indebted to Sir Joshua in a small loan is
apparent from the fact that it was one of his
three dying requests to that great man that he
DR. yOHNSON. in
should release him from it, as, of course, the
most amiable of painters did. The other two
requests, it will be remembered, were to read
his Bible, and not to use his brush on Sundays.
The good Sir Joshua gave the desired promises
with a full heart, for these two great men loved
one another; but subsequently discovered the
Sabbatical restriction not a little irksome, and
after a while resumed his former practice,
arguing with himself that the Doctor really
had no business to extract any such promise.
The point is a nice one, and perhaps ere this
the two friends have met and discussed it in
the Elysian fields. If so, I hope the Doctor,
grown ' angelical,' kept his temper with the
mild shade of Reynolds better than on the
historical occasion when he discussed with him
the question of 'strong drinks.'
Against Garrick, Johnson undoubtedly
cherished a smouldering grudge, which, how-
ever, he never allowed anyone but himself to
fan into flame. His pique was natural Garrick
had been his pupil at Edial, near Lichfield ;
they had come up to town together with an easy
united fortune of fourpence — ' current coin o'
'the realm.' Garrick soon had the world at his
feet and garnered golden graia Johnson
H2 DR. JOHNSON.
became famous too, but remained poor and
dingy. Garrick surrounded himself with what
only money can buy, good pictures and rare
books. Johnson cared nothing for pictures —
how should he ? he could not see them ; but
he did care a great deal about books, and
the pernickety little player was chary about
lending his splendidly bound rarities to his
quondam preceptor. Our sympathies in this
matter are entirely with Garrick ; Johnson was
one of the best men that ever lived, but not to
lend books to. Like Lady Slattern, he had a
'most observant thumb.' But Garrick had no
real cause for complaint. Johnson may have
soiled his folios and sneered at his trade, but in
life Johnson loved Garrick, and in death
embalmed his memory in a sentence which can
only die with the English language : 'I am
1 disappointed by that stroke of death which has
1 eclipsed the gaiety of nations, and impoverished
1 the public stock of harmless pleasure.'
Will it be believed that puny critics have
been found to quarrel with this colossal com-
pliment on the poor pretext of its falsehood?
Garrick's death, urge these dullards, could not
possibly have eclipsed the gaiety of nations,
since he had retired from the stage months
DR. JOHNSON. 113
previous to his demise. When will mankind
learn that literature is one thing, and sworn
testimony another ?
Johnson's relations with Burke were of a
more crucial character. The author of Rasselas
and The English Dictionary can never have been
really jealous of Garrick, or in the very least
desirous of ' bringing down the house f but
Burke had done nobler things than that. He
had made politics philosophical, and had at least
tried to cleanse them from the dust and cobwebs
of party. Johnson, though he had never sat in
the House of Commons, had yet, in his capacity
of an unauthorized reporter, put into the mouths
of honourable members much better speeches
than ever came out of them, and it is no secret
that he would have liked to make a speech
or two on his own account. Burke had made
many. Harder still to bear, there were not
wanting good judges to say that, in their
opinion, Burke was a better talker than the
great Samuel himself. To cap it all, was not
Burke a ' vile Whig ? The ordeal was
an unusually trying one. Johnson emerges
Though by no means disposed to hear men
made much of, he always listened to praise of
ii 4 DR - JOHNSON.
Burke with a boyish delight. He never wearied
of it. When any new proof of Burke's intellec-
tual prowess was brought to his notice, he would
exclaim exultmgly, ' Did we not always say he
'was a great man?' And yet how admirably
did this ' poor scholar ' preserve his indepen-
dence and equanimity of mind ! It was not
easy to dazzle the Doctor. What a satisfactory
story that is of Burke showing Johnson over
his fine estate at Beaconsfield, and expatiating
in his exuberant style on its 'liberties, privi-
' leges, easements, rights, and advantages,' and
of the old Doctor, the tenant of 'a two-pair
back' somewhere off Fleet Street, peering
cautiously about, criticising everything, and
observing with much coolness —
' Non equidem invideo, miror magis.'
A friendship like this could be disturbed but by
death, and accordingly we read :
' Mr. Langton one day during Johnson's last
' illness found Mr. Burke and four or five more
1 friends sitting with Johnson. Mr. Burke said
1 to him, " I am afraid, sir, such a number of us
' " may be oppressive to you." " No, sir," said
' Johnson, " it is not so ; and I must be in a
1 " wretched state indeed when your company
DR. JOHNSON. 115
1 " would not be a delight to me." Mr. Burke,
1 in a tremulous voice, expressive of being very
1 tenderly affected, replied : " My dear sir, you
' " have always been too good to me." Immedi-
1 ately afterwards he went away. This was the
1 last circumstance in the acquaintance of these
1 two eminent men.'
But this is a well-worn theme, though, like
some other well-worn themes, still profitable for
edification or rebuke. A hundred years can
make no difference to a character like Johnson's,
or to a biography like BoswelPs. We are not
to be robbed of our conviction that this man, at
all events, was both great and good.
Johnson the author is not always fairly treated.
Phrases are convenient things to hand about,
and it is as little the custom to inquire into their
truth as it is to read the letterpress on bank-
notes. We are content to count banknotes,
and to repeat phrases. One of these phrases is,
that whilst everybody reads Boswell, nobody
reads Johnson. The facts are otherwise. Every-
body does not read Boswell, and a great many
people do read Johnson. If it be asked,
What do the general public know of Johnson's
nine volumes octavo ? I reply. Beshrew the
general public ! What in the name of the
8 — 2
1 16 DR, JOHNSON.
Bodleian has the general public got to do with
literature ? The general public subscribes to
Mudie, and has its intellectual, like its lacteal
sustenance, sent round to it in carts. On
Saturdays these carts, laden with ' recent works
1 in circulation,' traverse the Uxbridge Road ; on
Wednesdays they toil up Highgate Hill, and if
we may believe the reports of travellers, are
occasionally seen rushing through the wilds of
Camberwell and bumping over Blackheath. It
is not a question of the general public, but of
the lover of letters. Do Mr. Browning, Mr.
Arnold, Mr. Lowell, Mr. Trevelyan, Mr. Stephen,
Mr. Morley, know their Johnson ? ' To doubt
' would be disloyalty.' And what these big men
know in their big way hundreds of little men
know in their little way. We have no writer
with a more genuine literary flavour about him
than the great Cham of literature. No man of
letters loved letters better than he. He knew
literature in all its branches — he had read books,
he had written books, he had sold books, he
had bought books, and he had borrowed them.
Sluggish and inert in all other directions, he
pranced through libraries. He loved a cata-
logue ; he delighted in an index. He was, to
employ a happy phrase of Dr. Holmes, at home
dr. yon x son. 117
amongst books, as a stable-boy is amongst horses.
He cared intensely about the future of literature
and the fate of literary men. ' I respect Millar,'
he once exclaimed ; ' he has raised the price of
1 literature.' Now Millar was a Scotchman.
Even Home Tooke was not to stand in the
pillory : ' No, no, the dog has too much litera-
ture for that.' The only time the author of
Rasselas met the author of the Wealth of Nations
witnessed a painful scene. The English moralist
gave the Scotch one the lie direct, and the
Scotch moralist applied to the English one a
phrase which would have done discredit to the
lips of a costermonger ;* but this notwithstand-
ing, when Boswell reported that Adam Smith
preferred rhyme to blank verse, Johnson hailed
the news as enthusiasticaHy as did Cedric the
Saxon the English origin of the bravest knights
in the retinue of the Norman king. ' Did Adam
1 say that ?' he shouted : ' I love him for it. I
* could hug him !' Johnson no doubt honestly
believed he held George III. in reverence, but
really he did not care a pin's fee for all the
crowned heads of Europe. All his reverence
* Anyone who does not wish this story to be true, will
find good reasons for disbelieving it stated in Mr. Napier's
edition of Boswell, vol. iv. t p. 3S5.
,i8 DR. JOHNSON.
was reserved for ' poor scholars.' When a small
boy in a wherry, on whom had devolved the
arduous task of rowing Johnson and his bio-
grapher across the Thames, said he would give
all he had to know about the Argonauts, the
Doctor was much pleased, and gave him, or got
Boswell to give him, a double fare. He was
ever an advocate of the spread of knowledge
amongst all classes and both sexes. His de-
votion to letters has received its fitting reward,
the love and respect of all ' lettered hearts.'
Considering him a little more in detail, we
find it plain that he was a poet of no mean
order. His resonant lines, informed as they
often are with the force of their author's
character — his strong sense, his fortitude, his
gloom — take possession of the memory, and
suffuse themselves through one's entire system
of thought. A poet spouting his own verses is
usually a figure to be avoided ; but one could
be content to be a hundred and thirty next
birthday to have heard Johnson recite, in his
full sonorous voice, and with his stately elocu
tion, The Vanity of Human Wishes. When he
came to the following lines, he usually broke
down, and who can wonder ? —
DR. JOHNSON. ng
* Proceed, illustrious youth,
And virtue guard ihee to the throne of truth !
Vet should thy soul indulge the gen'rous heat
Till captive science yields her last retreat ;
Should reason guide thee with her brightest ray.
And pour on misty doubt resistless day ;
Should no false kindness lure to loose delight,
Xor praise relax, nor difficulty fright ;
Should tempting novelty thy cell refrain,
And sloth effuse her opiate fumes in vain ;
Should beauty blunt on fops her fatal dart,
Nor claim the triumph of a lettered heart ;
Should no disease thy torpid veins invade,
Nor melancholy's phantoms haunt thy shade ;
Vet hope not life from grief or danger free,
Nor think the doom of man revers'd for thee.
Deign on the passing world to turn thine eyes,
And pause a while from letters to be wise ;
There mark what ills the scholar's life assail,
Toil, envy, want, the patron and the gaol.
See nations, slowly wise and meanly just,