Thomas Babington Macaulay Macaulay.

Critical, historical, and miscellaneous essays online

. (page 54 of 84)
Online LibraryThomas Babington Macaulay MacaulayCritical, historical, and miscellaneous essays → online text (page 54 of 84)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


after his greasy meal, on the back of a Newfoundland
dog. It is easy, therefore, to imagine what humilia-
tions and privations must have awaited the novice who
had still to earn a name. One of the publishers to
whom Johnson applied for employment measured with
a scornful eye that athletic though uncouth frame, and
exclaimed, " You had better get a porter's knot, and
carry trunks." Nor was the advice bad ; for a porter
was likely to be as plentifully fed, and as comfortably
lodged, as a poet.

Some time appears to have elapsed before Johnsou
was able to form any literary connection from which
he could expect more than bread for the day which
was passing over him. He never forgot the generos-
ity with which Hervey, who was now residing in
London, relieved his wants during this time of trial.
** Harry Hervey," said the old philosopher many years
later, " was a vicious man ; but he was very kind to
me. If you call a dog Hervey I sliall love him."



Digitized



byGoogk



SAMUEL JOHNSON. 181

At Hervey's table Johnson sometimes enjoyed feasts
which were made more agreeable by contrast, ^nt in
general he dined, and thought that he dined well, on
sixpenny worth of meat, and a pennyworth of bread,
at an alehouse near Drury Lane.

The effect of the privations and sufferings which he
endured at this time was discernible to the last in his
temper and his deportment. His manners had never
been courtly. They now became almost savage. Be-
ing frequently under the necessity of wearing shabby
coats and dirty shirts, he became a confirmed sloven.
Being often very hungry when he sat down to his
meals, he contracted a habit of eating with ravenous
greediness. Even to the end of his life, and even at
the tables of the great, the sight of food aflfected him
as it affects wild beasts and birds of prey. His taste
in cookery, formed in subterranean ordinaries and ah •
mode beefshops, was far from delicate. Whenever he
was so fortunate as to have near him a hare that had
been kept too long, or a meat pie made with rancid
butter, he gorged himself with such violence that his
veins swelled, and the moisture broke out on his fore-
head. The afironts which his poverty emboldened
stupid and low-minded men to offer to him would have
broken a mean spirit into sycophancy, but made him
rude even to ferocity. Unhappily the insolence which,
while it was defensive, was pardonable, and in some
sense respectable, accompanied him into societies where
ho was treated with courtesy and kindness. He was
repeatedly provoked into striking those who had taken
liberties with him. All the sufferei?, however, were
wise enough to abstain from talking about their beat-
ings, except Osborne, the most rapacious and brutal of
booksellers, who proclaimed every where that he had



Digitized



byGoogk



182 SAMUEL JOHNSON.

been knocked down by the huge fellow whom he haJ
iiired to puff the Harleian Library.

About a year after Johnson had begun to reside in
London, he was fortunate enougli to obtain regular em-
ployment from Cave, an enterprising and intelligent
bookseller, who was proprietor and editor of the *' Gen-
tleman's Magazine." That journal, just entering on
the ninth year of its long existence, was the only peii-
odical work in the kingdom which then had what
would now be called a large circulation. It was, in-
deed, the chief source of parliamentary intelligence.
It was not then safe, even during a recess, to publish
an account of the proceedings of either House without
some disguise. Cave, however, ventured to entertain
his readers with what he called " Reports of the De-
bates of the Senate of LilHput." France was Ble-
fuscu ; London was Mildendo : pounds were sprugs :
the Duke of Newcastle was the Nardac secretary of
State : Lord Hardwicke was the Hurgo Hickrad ; and
William Pulteney was Wingul Pulnub. To write the
speeches, was, during several years, the business of
Johnson. He was generally furnished with notes,
meagre indeed, and inaccurate, of what had been said ;
but sometimes he had to find arguments and eloquence
both for the ministry and for the opposition. He was
himself a Tory, not from rational conviction — for his
serious opinion was that one form of government was
just as good or as bad as another — but from mere pas-
sion, such as inflamed the Capulets against the Monta-
gues, or the Blues of the Roman circus against the
Greens. In his infancy he had heard so much talk
about the villanies of the Whigs, and the dangers of
the Church, that he had become a fririous partisan
when he could scarcely speak. Befoi'e he was three



Digitized



by Google



SAMUEL JOHNSON. 183

he had insisted on being taken to hear Sacheverell
preach at Lichfield Cathedral, and had listened to the
sermon with as much respect, and probably with as
mnch intelligence, as any Staffordshire squire in the
congregation. The work which had been begun in
the nursery had been completed by the university.
Oxford, when Johnson resided there, was the roost
Jacobitical place in England ; and Pembroke was one
of the most Jacobitical colleges in Oxford. The prej-
udices which he brought up to London were scarcely
less absurd than those of his own Tom Tempest.
Charles IL and James IL were two of the best kings
that ever reigned. Laud, a poor creature who never
did, said, or wrote anything indicating more than the
ordinary capacity of an old woman, was a prodigy of
parts and learning over whose tomb Art and Genius
still continued to weep. Hampden deserved no more
honourable name than that of " the zealot of rebel-
lion." Even the ship money, condemned not less
decidedly by Falkland and Clarendon than by the bit-
terest Roundheads, Johnson would not pronounce to
have been an unconstitutional impost. Under a gov-
ernment, the mildest that had ever been known in the
world — under a government which allowed to the peo-
ple an unprecedented liberty of speech and action — he
fancied that he was a slave ; he assailed the ministry
with obloquy which refuted itself, and regretted the
lost freedom and happiness of those golden days in
which a writer who had taken but one-tenth part of
the license allowed to him would have been pilloried,
mangled with the shears, whipped at the cart's tail,
and flung into a noisome dungeon to die. He hated
dissenters and stock-jobbers, the excise and the army,
septennial parliaments, and continental connections



Digitized



d by Google



184 SAMUEL JOHNSON.

He long had an aversion to the Scotch, an aversion
of which he could not remember the commencement,
but which, he owned, had probably originated in his
abhorrence of the conduct of the nation during the
Great Rebellion. It is easy to guess in what mariner
debates on great party questions were likely to be re-
ported by a man whose judgment was so much disor-
dered by party spirit. A show of fairness was indeed
necessary to the prosperity of the Magazine. But
Johnson long afterwards owned that, though he had
saved appearances, he had taken care that the Whig
dogs should not have the best of it ; and, in fact, every
passage which has lived, every passage which beai*s the
marks of his higher &culties, is put into the mouth of
^me member of the opposition.

A few weeks after Johnson had entered on these ob-
scure labours, he published a work which at once placed
him high among the writers of his age. It is probable
that what he had suffered during his first year in Lon-
don had often reminded him of some parts of that noble
poem in which Juvenal had describe! the misery and
degradation of a needy man of letters, lodged among
the pigeons' nests in the tottering garrets which over-
hung the streets of Rome. Pope's admirable imita-
tions of Horace's Satires and Epistles had recently
appeared, were in every hand, and were by many
readers thought superior to the originals. What Pope
had done for Horace, Johnson aspired to do for Juve-
nal. The enterprise was bold, and yet judicious. For
between Johnson and Juvenal there was much in
common, much more certainly than between Pope and
Horace.

Johnson's London appeared without his name in
May 1738. He received only ten guineas for this



Digitized by VjOOQIC



SAMUEL JOHNSON. 185

stately and vigorous poem : but the sale was rapid,
and the success complete. A second edition was re-
quired within a week. Those small cntics who are
always desirous to lower established reputations ran
about proclaiming that the anonymous satirist was
superior to Pope in Pope's own peculiar departiient
of literature. It ought to be remembered, to the
honour of Pope, that he joined heartily in the ap-
plause with which the appearance of a rival genius
was welcomed. He made inquiries about the author
of London. Such a man, he said, could not long
be concealed. The name was soon discovered; and
Pope, with great kindness, exerted himself to obtain
an academical degree and the mastership of a gram-
mar school for the poor young poet. The attempt
failed; and Johnson remained a bookseller's hack.

It does not appear that these two men, the most
eminent writer of the generation which was going out,
and the most eminent writer of the generation which
was coming in, ever saw each other. They lived in
very different circles, one surroundeil by dukes and
earls, the other by starving pamphleteers and index-
makers. Among Johnson's associates at this time
may be mentioned Boyse, who, when his shirts were
pledged, scrawled Latin verses sitting up in bed with
his arms through two holes in his blanket ; who com-
posed very respectable sacred poetry when he was
sober; and who was at last run over by a hackney
coach when he was drunk : Hoole, sumamed the
metaphysical tailor, who, instead of attending to his
measures, used to trace geometrical diagrams on the
board where he sate cross-legged: and the penitent
impostor, George Psalmanazar, who, after poring all
day, in a humble lodging, on the folios of Jewish



Digitized



byGoogk



186 SAMUEL JOHNSON.

rabbis and Christian fathers, indulged himself at night
with hterary and theological conversation at an ale-
house in the city. But the most remarkable of the
persons with whom at this time Johnson consorted
was Richard Savage, an earl's son, a shoemaker's
apprentice, who had seen life in all its forms, who
had feasted among blue ribands in Saint James's
Square, and had lain with fifty pounds' weight of
irons on his legs m the condemned ward of Newgate.
This man had, after many vicissitudes of fortune, sunk
at last into abject and hopeless poverty. His pen had
failed him. His patrons had been taken away by
death, or estranged by the riotous profusion with
which he squandered their bounty, and tlie ungrate-
ful insolence with which he rejected their advice.
He now lived by begging. He dined on venison
and champagne whenever he had been so fortunate
as to borrow a guinea. If his questing had been mi-
successful, he appeased the rage of hunger with some
scraps of broken meat, and lay down to rest under the
Piazza of Coven t (inrden in warm weather, and, in
cold weather, as near as he could get to the fumaco
of a glass house. Yet, in his misery, he was still an
agreeable companion. He had an inexhaustible store
of anecdotes about that gay and brilliant world from
V hich he was now an outcast. He had obsei'ved the
great men of both parties in hours of careless relaxa-
tion, had seen the leaders of opposition without the
mask of patriotism, and had heard the prime minister
roar with laughter and tell stories not over decent.
During some months Savage lived in the closest &-
miliarity with Johnson ; and then the friends ])arted,
not without tears. Johnson remained in London to
diaidge for Cave. Savage went to the West of Eng-



Digitized



byGoogk



SAMUEL JOHNSON. 187

land, lived there as he had lived everywhere, and,
in 1743, died, penniless and heart-broken, in Bristol
gaol.

Soon after his death, wliile the public curiosity was
strongly excited about his extraordinary character, and
his not less extraordinary adventures, a life of him ap-
peared' widely different from the catchpenny lives of
eminent men which were then a staple article of man-
ufacture in Grub Street. The style was indeed defi-
cient in ease and variety ; and the writer was evidently
too partial to the Latin element of our language. But
the little work, with all its faults, was a masterpiece.
No finer specimen of literary biography existed in any
language, living or dead ; and a discerning critic might
have confidently predicted that the author was destined
to be the founder of a new school of English elo-
quence.

The Life of Savage was anonymous ; but it was well
known in literary circles that Johnson was the writer.
During the three years which followed, he produced no
important work ; but he was not, and indeed could not
be, idle. The fame of his abilities and learning con-
tinued to grow. Warburton pronounced him a man of
parts and genius ; and the praise of Warburton was
then no light thing. Such was Johnson's reputation
that, in 1747, several eminent booksellers combined to
employ him in the arduous work of preparing a Dic-
tionary of the English Language, in two folio volumes.
The sum which they agreed to pay him was only fifteen
hundred guineas ; and out of this sum he had to pay
several poor men of lettei*s who assisted him in tlie
humbler parts of )iis task.

The prospectus of the Dictionary he addressed to the
Earl of Chesterfield. Chesterfield had long been cele-



Digitized



byGoogk



188 SAMU£L JOHNSON.

biated for the politeness of his manners, the brilliancy
of his wit, and the delicacy of his taste. He was ac-
knowledged to be the finest speaker in the House of
Lords. He had recently governed Ireland, at a mo-
mentous conjuncture, with eminent firmness, wisdom,
and humanity ; and he had since became Secretary of
State. He i*eceived Johnson's homage with the most
winning affability, and requited it with a few guineas,
bestowed doubtless in a very graceful manner, but was
by no means desirous to see all his carpets blackened
with the London mud, and his soups and wines thrown
to right and lefl over the gowns of fine ladies and the
waistcoats of fine gentlemen, by an absent, awkward
scholar, who gave strange starts and uttered strange
growls, who dressed like a scarecrow, and ate like a
cormorant. During some time Johnson continued to
call on his patron, but, after being repeatedly told by
tlie porter that his lordship was not at home, took
the hint, and ceased to present himself at the inhos-
pitable door.

Johnson had flattered himself that he should have
completed his Dictionary by the end of 1760 ; but it
was not till 1766 that he at length gave his huge vol-
umes to the world. During the seven years which he
passed in the dnidgery of penning definitions and
marking quotations for transcription, he sought for
relaxation in literary labour of a more agreeable kind.
In 1749 he published the Vanity of Human Wishes,
an excellent imitation of the Tenth Satire of Juvenal.
It is in truth not easy to say whether the palm belongs
to the ancient or to the modem poet. The couplets in
which the fall of Wolsey is described, though lofly and
sonorous, are feeble when compared with the wonderful
lines which bring before us all Kome in tumult on the



Digitized



byGoogk



SAMtJEL JOHNSON. 189

day of the fell of Sejanos, the laurels on the doorposts,
the white bull stalking towards the Capitol, the statues
rolling down from their pedestals, the flatterers of the
disgraced minister running to see him dragged with a
hook through the streets, and to have a kick at his car-
case before it is hurled into the Tiber. It must be
owned too that in the concluding passage the Christian
moralist has not made the most of his advantages, and
has fallen decidedly short of the sublimity of his Pagan
model. On the other hand, Juvenal's Hannibal must
yield to Johnson's Charles ; and Johnson's vigorous
and pathetic enumeration of the miseries of a literary
life must be allowed to be superior to Juvenal's lamen-
tation over the fete of Demosthenes and Cicero.

For the copyright of the Vanity of Human Wishes
Johnson received only fifteen guineas.

A few days after the publication of this poem, his
tragedy, begun many years before, was brought on the
stage. His pupil, David Garrick, had, in 1741, made
his appearance on a humble stage in Goodman's Fields,
had at once risen to the first place among actors, and
was now, aft;er several years of almost uninterrupted
success, manager of Drury Lane Theatre. The rela-
tion between him and his old preceptor was of a very
singular kind. They repelled each other strongly, and
yet attracted each other strongly. Nature had made
them of very different clay ; and circumstances had
fully brought out the natural peculiarities of both.
Sudden prosperity had turned Garrick's head. Con-
tinued adversity had soured Johnson's temper. John-
son saw with more envy than became so great a man
the villa, the plate, the china, the Brussels carpet, which
the little mimic had got by repeating, with grimaces
and gesticulations, what wiser men had written ; and



Digitized



byGoogk



190 SAMUEL JOHNSON.

the exquisitely sensitive vanity of Garrick was galled
by the thought that, while all the rest of the world was
applauding him, he could obtain from one morose cynic,
whose opinion it was impossible to despise, scarcely any
compliment not acidulated with scorn. Yet the two
Lichfield men had so many early recollections in com-
mon, and sympathised with each other on so many
points on which they sympathised with nobody else in
the vast population of the capital, that, though the
master was often provoked by the monkey-like imperti-
nence of the pupil, and the pupil by the bearish rude-
ness of the master, they remained friends till they were
parted by death. Garrick now brought Irene out, with
alterations sufficient to displease the author, yet not
sufficient to make the piece pleasing to the audience.
The public, however, listened with little emotion, but
witli much civility, to five acts of monotonous decla-
mation. After nine representations the play was with-
drawn. It is, indeed, altogether unsuited to the stage,
and, even when perused in the doset, will be found
hardly worthy of the author. He had not the slight-
est notion of what blank verse should be. A change
in the last syllable rf every other line would make the
versification of the Vanity of Human Wishes closely
resemble the versification of Irene. The poet, how-
ever, cleared, by his benefit nights, and by the sale of
the copyright of his tragedy, about three hundred
pounds, then a great sum in his estimation.

About a year after the representation of Irene, he
began to publish a series of short essays on morals*
manners, and literature. This species of composition
had been brought into fashion by the success of the
Tatler, and by the still more brilliant success of the
Spectator. A crowd of small writers had vainly at-



Digitized



byGoogk



SAMUEL JOHNSON. 191

tempted to rival Addison. The Lay Monastery, the
Censor, the Freethinker, the Plain Dealer, tlie Cham-
pion, and other works of the same kind, had had their
short day. None of them had obtained a permanent
place in our literature ; and they are now to be found
only in the libraries of the curious. At length John-
son undertook the adventure in which so many aspi-
rants had failed. In the thirty-sixth year after the
appearance of the last number of the Spectator ap-
peared the first number of the Rambler. From March
1750 to March 1762, this paper continued to come out
every Tuesday and Saturday.

From the first the Rambler was enthusiastically ad-
mired by a few eminent men. Richardson, when only
five numbers had appeared, pronounced it equal, if not
superior, to the Spectator. Young and Hartley ex-
pressed their approbation not less warmly. Bubb
Dodington, among whose many &ults indifference to
the claims of genius and learning cannot be reckoned,
solicited the acquaintance of the writer. .la conse-
quence probably of the good offices of Dodington, who
was then the confidential adviser of Prince Frederic,
two of his Royal Highness's gentlemen carried a grar
cious message to the printing office, and ordered seven
copies for Leicester House. But these overtures seem
to have been very coldly received. Johnson had had
enough of the patronage of the great to last him all
his life, and was not disposed to haunt any other door
as he had haunted the door of Chesterfield.

By the public the Rambler was at fii-st very coldly
received. Though the price of a number was only
twopence, the sale did not amount to five hundred.
The profits were therefore very small. But as soon
as the flying leaves were collected and reprinted thoy



Digitized



byGoogk



192 SAMUEL JOHNSON.

became popular. The author lived to see thirteen
thousand copies spread over England alone. Separate
editions were published for the Scotch and Irish mar-
kets. A large party pronounced the style perfect, so
absolutely perfect that in some essays it would be im-
posssible for tlie writer himself to alter a single word
for the better. Another party, not less numerous, ve-
hemently accused him of having corrupted the purity
of the English tongue. The best critics admitted that
his diction was too monotonous, too obviously artificial,
and now and then turgid even to absurdity. But
they did justice to the acuteness of his observations
on morals and manners, to the constant precision and
frequent brilliancy of his language, to the weighty
and magnificent eloquence of many serious passar
ges, and to the solemn yet pleasing humour of some
of the lighter papers. On the question of precedence
between Addison and Johnson, a question which,
seventy years ago, was much disputed, posterity has
pronounced a decision firom which there is no appeal.
Sir Roger, his chaplain and his butler. Will Wimble
and Will Honeycomb, the Vision of Mirza, the Jour-
nal of the Retired Citizen, the Everlasting Club, the
Dunmow Flitch, the Loves of Hilpah and Shalum,
the Visit to the Exchange, and the Visit to the Abbey,
are known to everybody. But many men and women,
even of highly cultivated minds, are unacquainted
with Squire Bluster and Mrs. Busy, Quisquilius and
Venustulus, the Allegory of Wit and Learning, the
Chronicle of the Revolutions of a Garret, and the sad
fate of Aningait and Ajut.

The last Rambler was written in a sad and gloomy
hour. Mrs. Johnson had been given over by the phy-
sicians. Three days later she died. She left her hus-



Digitized



by Google



SAMUEL JOHNSON. 198

band almost broken-hearted. Many people had been
surprised to see a man of Ins genius and learning stoop-
ing to every drudgery, and denying himself almost
every comfort, for the purpose of supplying a silly,
affected old woman with superfluities, which she ac-
cepted with but little gratitude. But all his affec-
tion had been concentrated on her. He had neither
brother nor sister, neither son nor daughter. To him
she was beautiful as the Gunnings, and witty as Lady
Mary. Her opinion of his writings was more impor-
tant to him than the voice of the pit of Drury Lane
Theatre or the judgment of the Monthly Review.
The cliief support which had sustained him through
the most arduous labour of his life was the hope that
she would enjoy the fame and the profit which he
anticipated from his Dictionary. She was gone ; and
in that vast labyrinth of streets, peopled by eight
hundred thousand human beings, he was alone. Yet
it was necessary for him to set himself, as he expressed
it, doggedly to work. After three more laborious years,
the Dictionary was at length complete.

It had been generally supposed that this great work
would be dedicated to the eloquent and accomplished
nobleman to whom the prospectus had been addressed.
He well knew the value of such a compliment ; and
therefore, when the day of publication drew near,
he exerted himself to soothe, by a show of zealous
and at the same time of delicate and judicious kind-
ness, the pride which he had so cruelly wounded.
Since the Ramblers had ceased to appear, the town
had been entertained by a journal called The World,
to which many men of high rank and fashion con-
tributed. In two successive numbers of The World
tiie Dictionary was, to use the modem phrase, puffed



Digitized



byGoogk



194 SAMUEL JOHNSON.

with wonderful skill. The wi^tings of Johnson were
warmly praised. It was proposed that he should be



Online LibraryThomas Babington Macaulay MacaulayCritical, historical, and miscellaneous essays → online text (page 54 of 84)