Samuel Johnson.

The Works of Samuel Johnson, Volume 04 The Adventurer; The Idler online

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the judges; I was found able to speak upon doubtful questions, and was
commanded to stand at the footstool of the calif. I was heard with
attention, I was consulted with confidence, and the love of praise
fastened on my heart.

I still wished to see distant countries, listened with rapture to the
relations of travellers, and resolved some time to ask my dismission,
that I might feast my soul with novelty; but my presence was always
necessary, and the stream of business hurried me along. Sometimes I was
afraid lest I should be charged with ingratitude; but I still proposed
to travel, and, therefore, would, not confine myself by marriage.

In my fiftieth year I began to suspect that the time of travelling was
past, and thought it best to lay hold on the felicity yet in my power,
and indulge myself in domestick pleasures. But at fifty no man easily
finds a woman beautiful as the Houries, and wise as Zobeide. I inquired
and rejected, consulted and deliberated, till the sixty-second year made
me ashamed of gazing upon girls. I had now nothing left but retirement,
and for retirement I never found a time, till disease forced me from
publick employment.

Such was my scheme, and such has been its consequence. With an
insatiable thirst for knowledge, I trifled away the years of
improvement; with a restless desire of seeing different countries, I
have always resided in the same city; with the highest expectation of
connubial felicity, I have lived unmarried; and with unalterable
resolutions of contemplative retirement, I am going to die within the
walls of Bagdat.

No. 102. SATURDAY, MARCH 29, 1760.

It very seldom happens to man that his business is his pleasure. What is
done from necessity is so often to be done when against the present
inclination, and so often fills the mind with anxiety, that an habitual
dislike steals upon us, and we shrink involuntarily from the remembrance
of our task. This is the reason why almost every one wishes to quit his
employment; he does not like another state, but is disgusted with his

From this unwillingness to perform more than is required of that which
is commonly performed with reluctance, it proceeds that few authors
write their own lives. Statesmen, courtiers, ladies, generals and seamen
have given to the world their own stories, and the events with which
their different stations have made them acquainted. They retired to the
closet as to a place of quiet and amusement, and pleased themselves with
writing, because they could lay down the pen whenever they were weary.
But the author, however conspicuous, or however important, either in the
publick eye or in his own, leaves his life to be related by his
successors, for he cannot gratify his vanity but by sacrificing his

It is commonly supposed that the uniformity of a studious life affords
no matter for a narration: but the truth is, that of the most studious
life a great part passes without study. An author partakes of the common
condition of humanity; he is born and married like another man; he has
hopes and fears, expectations and disappointments, griefs and joys, and
friends and enemies, like a courtier or a statesman; nor can I conceive
why his affairs should not excite curiosity as much as the whisper of a
drawing-room or the factions of a camp.

Nothing detains the reader's attention more powerfully than deep
involutions of distress, or sudden vicissitudes of fortune; and these
might be abundantly afforded by memoirs of the sons of literature. They
are entangled by contracts which they know not how to fulfil, and
obliged to write on subjects which they do not understand. Every
publication is a new period of time, from which some increase or
declension of fame is to be reckoned. The gradations of a hero's life
are from battle to battle, and of an author's from book to book.

Success and miscarriage have the same effects in all conditions. The
prosperous are feared, hated and flattered; and the unfortunate avoided,
pitied and despised. No sooner is a book published than the writer may
judge of the opinion of the world. If his acquaintance press round him
in publick places, or salute him from the other side of the street; if
invitations to dinner come thick upon him, and those with whom he dines
keep him to supper; if the ladies turn to him when his coat is plain,
and the footmen serve him with attention and alacrity; he may be sure
that his work has been praised by some leader of literary fashions.

Of declining reputation the symptoms are not less easily observed. If
the author enters a coffee-house, he has a box to himself; if he calls
at a bookseller's, the boy turns his back and, what is the most fatal of
all prognosticks, authors will visit him in a morning, and talk to him
hour after hour of the malevolence of criticks, the neglect of merit,
the bad taste of the age and the candour of posterity.

All this, modified and varied by accident and custom, would form very
amusing scenes of biography, and might recreate many a mind which is
very little delighted with conspiracies or battles, intrigues of a
court, or debates of a parliament; to this might be added all the
changes of the countenance of a patron, traced from the first glow which
flattery raises in his cheek, through ardour of fondness, vehemence of
promise, magnificence of praise, excuse of delay, and lamentation of
inability, to the last chill look of final dismission, when the one
grows weary of soliciting, and the other of hearing solicitation. Thus
copious are the materials which have been hitherto suffered to lie
neglected, while the repositories of every family that has produced a
soldier or a minister are ransacked, and libraries are crowded with
useless folios of state-papers which will never be read, and which
contribute nothing to valuable knowledge.

I hope the learned will be taught to know their own strength and their
value, and, instead of devoting their lives to the honour of those who
seldom thank them for their labours, resolve at last to do justice to

No. 103. SATURDAY, APRIL 5, 1760.

_Respicere ad longae jussit spatia ultima vitae_. JUV. Sat. x. 275.

Much of the pain and pleasure of mankind arises from the conjectures
which every one makes of the thoughts of others; we all enjoy praise
which we do not hear, and resent contempt which we do not see. The Idler
may, therefore, be forgiven, if he suffers his imagination to represent
to him what his readers will say or think when they are informed that
they have now his last paper in their hands.

Value is more frequently raised by scarcity than by use. That which lay
neglected when it was common, rises in estimation as its quantity
becomes less. We seldom learn the true want of what we have till it is
discovered that we can have no more.

This essay will, perhaps, be read with care even by those who have not
yet attended to any other; and he that finds this late attention
recompensed, will not forbear to wish that he had bestowed it sooner.

Though the Idler and his readers have contracted no close friendship,
they are, perhaps, both unwilling to part. There are few things not
purely evil, of which we can say, without some emotion of uneasiness,
_this is the last_. Those who never could agree together, shed tears
when mutual discontent has determined them to final separation; of a
place which has been frequently visited, though without pleasure, the
last look is taken with heaviness of heart; and the Idler, with all his
chilness of tranquillity, is not wholly unaffected by the thought that
his last essay is now before him.

The secret horrour of the last is inseparable from a thinking being,
whose life is limited, and to whom death is dreadful. We always make a
secret comparison between a part and the whole; the termination of any
period of life reminds us that life itself has likewise its termination;
when we have done any thing for the last time, we involuntarily reflect
that a part of the days allotted us is past, and that as more is past
there is less remaining.

It is very happily and kindly provided, that in every life there are
certain pauses and interruptions, which force consideration upon the
careless, and seriousness upon the light; points of time where one
course of action ends, and another begins; and by vicissitudes of
fortune or alteration of employment, by change of place or loss of
friendship, we are forced to say of something, _this is the last_.

An even and unvaried tenour of life always hides from our apprehension
the approach of its end. Succession is not perceived but by variation;
he that lives to-day as he lived yesterday, and expects that, as the
present day is, such will be the morrow, easily conceives time as
running in a circle and returning to itself. The uncertainty of our
duration is impressed commonly by dissimilitude of condition; it is only
by finding life changeable that we are reminded of its shortness.

This conviction, however forcible at every new impression, is every
moment fading from the mind; and partly by the inevitable incursion of
new images, and partly by voluntary exclusion of unwelcome thoughts, we
are again exposed to the universal fallacy; and we must do another thing
for the last time, before we consider that the time is nigh when we
shall do no more.

As the last Idler is published in that solemn week which the Christian
world has always set apart for the examination of the conscience, the
review of life, the extinction of earthly desires, and the renovation of
holy purposes; I hope that my readers are already disposed to view every
incident with seriousness, and improve it by meditation; and that, when
they see this series of trifles brought to a conclusion, they will
consider that, by out-living the Idler, they have passed weeks, months
and years, which are now no longer in their power; that an end must in
time be put to every thing great as to every thing little; that to life
must come its last hour, and to this system of being its last day, the
hour at which probation ceases, and repentance will be vain; the day in
which every work of the hand, and imagination of the heart shall be
brought to judgment, and an everlasting futurity shall be determined by
the past[1].

[1] This most solemn and impressive paper may be profitably compared
with the introduction of Bishop Heber's first Bampton-Lecture.

THE IDLER. No. 22[1]

Many naturalists are of opinion, that the animals which we commonly
consider as mute, have the power of imparting their thoughts to one
another. That they can express general sensations is very certain; every
being that can utter sounds, has a different voice for pleasure and for
pain. The hound informs his fellows when he scents his game; the hen
calls her chickens to their food by her cluck, and drives them from
danger by her scream.

Birds have the greatest variety of notes; they have, indeed, a variety,
which seems almost sufficient to make a speech adequate to the purposes
of a life which is regulated by instinct, and can admit little change or
improvement. To the cries of birds, curiosity or superstition has been
always attentive; many have studied the language of the feathered
tribes, and some have boasted that they understood it.

The most skilful or most confident interpreters of the sylvan dialogues
have been commonly found among the philosophers of the east, in a
country where the calmness of the air, and the mildness of the seasons,
allow the student to pass a great part of the year in groves and bowers.
But what may be done in one place by peculiar opportunities, may be
performed in another by peculiar diligence. A shepherd of Bohemia has,
by long abode in the forests, enabled himself to understand the voice of
birds; at least he relates with great confidence a story, of which the
credibility is left to be considered by the learned.

"As I was sitting" said he, "within a hollow rock, and watching my sheep
that fed in the valley, I heard two vultures interchangeably crying on
the summit of the cliff. Both voices were earnest and deliberate. My
curiosity prevailed over my care of the flock; I climbed slowly and
silently from crag to crag, concealed among the shrubs, till I found a
cavity where I might sit and listen without suffering or giving

"I soon perceived, that my labour would be well repaid; for an old
vulture was sitting on a naked prominence, with her young about her,
whom she was instructing in the arts of a vulture's life, and preparing,
by the last lecture, for their final dismission to the mountains and the

"My children," said the old vulture, "you will the less want my
instructions, because you have had my practice before your eyes; you
have seen me snatch from the farm the household fowl; you have seen me
seize the leveret in the bush, and the kid in the pasture; you know how
to fix your talons, and how to balance your flight when you are laden
with your prey. But you remember the taste of more delicious food; I
have often regaled you with the flesh of man." "Tell us," said the young
vultures, "where man may be found, and how he may be known; his flesh is
surely the natural food of a vulture. Why have you never brought a man
in your talons to the nest?" "He is too bulky," said the mother; "when
we find a man, we can only tear away his flesh, and leave his bones upon
the ground." "Since man is so big," said the young ones, "how do you
kill him? You are afraid of the wolf and of the bear, by what power are
vultures superior to man? is man more defenceless than a sheep?" "We
have not the strength of man," returned the mother, "and I am sometimes
in doubt whether we have the subtilty; and the vultures would seldom
feast upon his flesh, had not nature, that devoted him to our uses,
infused into him a strange ferocity, which I have never observed in any
other being that feeds upon the earth. Two herds of men will often meet
and shake the earth with noise, and fill the air with fire. When you
hear noise and see fire, with flashes along the ground, hasten to the
place with your swiftest wing, for men are surely destroying one
another; you will then find the ground smoking with blood, and covered
with carcasses, of which many are dismembered and mangled for the
convenience of the vulture." "But when men have killed their prey," said
the pupil, "why do they not eat it? When the wolf has killed a sheep, he
suffers not the vulture to touch it till he has satisfied himself. Is
not man another kind of wolf?" "Man," said the mother, "is the only
beast who kills that which he does not devour, and this quality makes
him so much a benefactor to our species." "If men kill our prey and lay
it in our way," said the young one, "what need shall we have of
labouring for ourselves?" "Because man will, sometimes," replied the
mother, "remain for a long time quiet in his den. The old vultures will
tell you when you are to watch his motions. When you see men in great
numbers moving close together, like a flock of storks, you may conclude
that they are hunting, and that you will soon revel in human blood."
"But still," said the young one, "I would gladly know the reason of this
mutual slaughter. I could never kill what I could not eat." "My child,"
said the mother, "this is a question which I cannot answer, though I am
reckoned the most subtle bird of the mountain. When I was young, I used
frequently to visit the aerie of an old vulture, who dwelt upon the
Carpathian rocks; he had made many observations; he knew the places that
afforded prey round his habitation; as far in every direction as the
strongest wing can fly between the rising and setting of the summer sun;
he had fed year after year on the entrails of men. His opinion was, that
men had only the appearance of animal life, being really vegetables with
a power of motion; and that as the boughs of an oak are dashed together
by the storm, that swine may fatten upon the fallen acorns, so men are
by some unaccountable power driven one against another, till they lose
their motion, that vultures may be fed. Others think they have observed
something of contrivance and policy among these mischievous beings; and
those that hover more closely round them, pretend, that there is, in
every herd, one that gives directions to the rest, and seems to be more
eminently delighted with a wide carnage. What it is that entitles him to
such preeminence we know not; he is seldom the biggest or the swiftest,
but he shows by his eagerness and diligence that he is, more than any of
the others, a friend to the vultures."

[1] This was the original No. 22, but on the republication of the work
in volumes, Dr. Johnson substituted what now stands under that head.


Online LibrarySamuel JohnsonThe Works of Samuel Johnson, Volume 04 The Adventurer; The Idler → online text (page 37 of 37)