Thomas Babington Macaulay Macaulay.

Critical, historical, and miscellaneous essays online

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invested with the authority of a Dictator, nay, of a
Pope, over our language, and that his decisions about
the meaning and the spelling of words should be re-
ceived as final. His two folios, it was said, would of
course be bought by everybody who could afford to
buy them. It was soon known that these papers weru
written by Chesterfield. But the just resentment of
Johnson was not to be so appeased. In a letter writ-
ten with singular energy and dignity of thought and
language, he repelled the tardy advances of his patron.
The Dictionary came forth without a dedication. In
the preface the author truly declared that he owed
nothing to the great, and described the difficulties with
which he liad been left to struggle so forcibly and
pathetically that the ablest and most malevolent of all
tlie enemies of .his fame. Home Tooke, never could
read that passage witliout tears.

The public, on this occasion, did Johnson full jus-
tice, and something more than justice. The best lex-
icographer may well be content if his productions are
received by the world with cold esteem. But John-
son's Dictionary was hailed with an enthusiasm such
as no similar work has ever excited. It was indeed
the first dictionary which could be read with pleasure.
The definitions show so much acuteness of thought and
command of language, and the passages quoted from
poets, divines and philosophers are so skilfully se-
lected, that a leisure hour may always be very agree*
ably spent in turning over the pages. The &ults of
the book resolve themselves, for the most part, into
one great fault. Johnson was a wretched etymolo-
gist. He knew little or nothing of any Teutomc



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SAMUEL JOHNSON. 195

language except English, which indeed, as he wrote
it, was scarcely a Teutonic language ; and thus he
was absolutely at the mercy of Junius and Skinner.

The Dictionary, though it raised Johnson's fame,
added nothing to his pecuniary means. The fifteen
hundred guineas which the booksellers had agreed to
pay him had been advanced and spent before the last
sheets issued from the press. It is painful to relate
tliat, twice in the course of the year which followed
the publication of this great work, he was arrested
and cai'ried to spunging-houses, and that he was twice
indebted for his liberty to his excellent friend Rich-
ardson. It was still necessary for the man who had
been formally saluted by the highest authority as Dic-
tator of the English language to supply his wants by
constant toil. He abridged his Dictionary. He pro-
posed to bring out an edition of Shakspeare by sub-
scription ; and many subscribers sent in their names,
and laid down their money ; but he soon found the
task so little to his taste that he turned to more at-
tractive employments. He contributed many papers
to a new monthly journal, which was called the Liter-
ary Magazine. Few of these papers have much inter-
est ; but among them was the very best thing that he
ever wrote, a masterpiece both of reasoning and of
satirical pleasantry, the review of Jenyns's Inquiry into
*he Nature and Origin of Evil.

In the spring of 1758 Johnson put forth the first of
a series of essays, entitled The Idler. During two years
these essays continued to appear weekly. They were
eagerly read, widely circulated, and, indeed, impu-
dently pirated, while they were still in the original
form, and had a large sale when collected into vol-
umes. The Idler may be described as a second part of



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108 SAMUEL JOHNSON.

the Rambler, somewhat livelier and somewhat, weaker
than the first part.

While Johnson was busied with his Idlers, his
mother, who had accomplished her ninetieth year, died
at Lichfield. It was long since he had seen her ; bnt
he had not failed to contribute largely, out of his small
means, to her comfort. In order to defray the charges
of her funeral, and to pay some debts which she had
left, he wrote a little book in a single week, and sent
off the sheets to the press without reading them over.
A hundred pounds were paid him for the copyright ;
and tlie purchasers had great cause to be pleased with
their bargain ; for the book was Rasselas.

The success of Rasselas was great, though such
ladies as Miss Lydia Languish must have been griev-
ously disappointed when they found that the new vol-
ume from the circulating library was little more than
a dissertation on the author's favourite theme, the Van-
ity of Human Wishes ; that the Prince of Abyssinia
was without a mistress, and the Princess without a
lover ; and that the story set the hero and the heroine
down exactly where it had taken them up. The style
was the subject of much eager controversy. The
Monthly Review and the Critical Review took differ-
ent sides. Many readers pronounced the writer a
pompous pedant, who would never use a word of two
syllables where it was possible to use a word of six,
and who could not make a waiting woman relate her
adventures without balancing every noun with another
noun, and every epithet with another epithet. An-
other party, not less zealous, cited with delight numer-
ous passages in which weighty meaning was expressed
with accuracy and illustrated with splendour. And
both the censure and the praise wei-e merited*



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SAMUEL JOHNSON. 197

About the plan of Kasselas little was said by the
critics ; and yet the faults of the plan might seem to
invite severe criticism. Johnson has frequently blamed
Shakspeare for neglecting the proprieties of time and
place, and for ascribing to one age or nation the man-
ners and opinions of another. Yet Shakspeare has not
siimed in this way more grievously than Johnson.
Rasselas and Imlac, Nekayah and Pekuah, are evi-
dently meant to be Abyssinians of the eighteenth cen-
tury: for the Europe which Imlac describes is the
Europe of the eighteenth century ; and the inmates of
the Happy Valley talk familiarly of that law of gravi-
tation which Newton discovered, and which was not
fully received even at Cambridge till the eighteenth
century. What a real company of Abyssinians would
have been may be leai*ned from Bruce's Travels. But
Johnson, not content with turning filthy savages, iguo-
rant of their letters, and gorged with raw steaks cut
from living cows, into philosophers as eloquent and en
lightened as himself or his friend Burke, and into
ladies as highly accomplished as Mrs. Lennox or Mrs.
Sheridan, transferred the whole domestic system of
England to Egypt. Into a land of harems, a land of
polygamy, a land where women are married without
ever being seen, he introduced the flirtations and jeal-
ousies of our ball-rooms. In a land where there is
Iwundless liberty of divorce, wedlock is described as
the indissoluble compact. ^^ A youth and maiden
meeting by chance, or brought tc^ther by artifice,
exchange glances, reciprocate civilities, go home, and
dream of each other. Such," says Rasselas, " is the
common process of marriage." Such it may have
been, and may still be, in London, but assuredly not at
Cairo. A writer who was guilty of such improprieties



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198 , SAMUEL JOHNSON.

had little right to blame the poet who made Hector
quote Aristotle, and represented Julio Romano as
flourishing in the days of the oracle of Delphi.

By such exertions as have been described, Johnson
supported himself till the year 1762. In that year a
great change in his circumstances took place. He had
from a child been an enemy of the reigning dynasty.
His Jacobite prejudices had been exhibited with little
disguise both in his works and in his conversation.
Even in his massy and elaborate Dictionary, he had,
with a strange want of taste and judgment, inserted
bitter and contumelious reflections on the Whig party.
The excise, which was a favourite resource of Whig
financiers, he had designated as a hateful tax. He had
railed against the commissioners of excise in language
so coarse that they had seriously thought of prosecut-
ing him. He had with difficulty been prevented from
holding up the Lord Privy Seal by name as an exam-
ple of the meaning of the word " renegade." A pen-
sion he had defined as pay given to a state hireling to
betray his country ; a pensioner as a slave of state
hired by a stipend to obey a master. It seemed un-
likely that the author of these definitions would him-
self be pensioned. But that was a time of wonders.
George the Third had ascended the throne ; and had,
in the course of a few months, disgusted many of the
old friends and conciliated many of the old enemies of
his house. The city was becoming mutinous. Oxford
was becoming loyal. Cavendishes and Bentincks were
murmuring. Somersets and Wyndhams were hasten-
ing to kiss hands. The head of the treasury was now
Lord Bute, who was a Tory, and could have no objec-
tion to Johnson's Toryism. Bute wished to be thought
a patron of men of letters ; and Johnson was one of



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SAMUEL JOHNSON. 199

the most eminent and one of the most needy men of
letters in Europe. A pension of three hmidred a year
was graciously oflFered, and with veiy little hesitation
accepted.

This event produced a change in Johnson's whole
way of life. For the first time since his boyhood ho
no longer felt the daily goad urging him to the daily
toil. He was at liberty, after thirty years of anxiety
and drudgery, to indulge his constitutional indolence,
to lie in bed till two in the afternoon, and to sit up
talking till four in the morning, without fearing either
the printer's devil or the sherifTs oflScer.

One laborious task indeed he had bound himself to
perform. He had received large subscriptions for his
promised edition of Shakspeare ; he had lived on those
subscriptions during some years ; and he could not
without disgrace omit to perform his part of the con-
tract. His fi-iends repeatedly exhorted him to make
an effort ; and he repeatedly resolved to do so. But,
notwithstanding their exhortations and his resolutions,
month followed month, year followed year, and noth-
ing was done. He prayed fervently against his idle-
ness; he determined, as oft«n as he received the
sacrament, that he would no longer doze away and
trifle away his time ; but the spell under which he lay
resisted prayer and sacrament. His private notes at
this time are made up of self-reproaches. " My indo-
lonce," he wrote on Easter eve in 1764, *'has sunk
into grosser sluggishness. A kind of strange oblivion
has ovei spread me, so that I know not what has be-
tome of the last year." Easter 1765 came, and found
him still in the same state, " My time," he wrote,
^' has been unprofitably spent, and seems as a dream
tliat has left nothing behind. My memory grows oun-



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200 SAMUEL JOHNSOl).

ftised, and I know^ not how the days pass over me.**
Happily for his honour, the charm which held liim
captive was at length broken by no gentle or friendly
hand. He had been weak enough to pay serious at-
tention to a story about a ghost which haunted a house
in Cock Lane, and had actually gone himself, with
wme of his friends, at one in the morning, to St.
John's Church, Clerkenwell, in the hope of receiving
a communication from the perturbed spirit. But the
spii'it, though adjured with all solemnity, remained
obstinately silent ; and it soon appeared that a naughty
girl of eleven had been amusing herself by making
fools of so many philosophers. Churchill, who, confi-
dent in his powers, drunk witli popularity, and burning
with party spirit, was looking for some man of estab-
lished fame and Tory politics to insult, celebrated the
Cock Lane Ghost in throe cantos, nicknamed Johnson
Pomposo, asked where the book was which had been
so long promised and so libeiully paid for, and directly
accused the great moralist of cheating. This terrible
word proved effectual ; and in October 1765 appeared,
after a dday of nine years, the new edition of Shak-
speare.

This publication saved Johnson's character for hon-
esty, but added nothing to the fame of his abilities and
learning. The pre&ce, though it contains some good
passages, is not in his best manner. The most valuar
blc notes are those in which he had an opportunity of
showing how attentively he had during many years
observed human life and human nature. The best
specimen is the note on the character of Polonius.
Nothing so good is to be found even in Wilhdm Meid^
ter's admirable examination of Hamlet. But here
praise must end. It would be difficult to name a



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SAMUEL JOHNSON. 201

more slovenly, a more worthless, edition of any great
classic. The reader may turn over play after play
without finding one happy conjectural emendation, or
one ingenious and satisfactory explanation of a passage
which had baffled preceding commentators. Johnson
had, in his Prospectus, told the world that he was pe-
culiarly fitted for the task which he had undertaken,
because he had, as a lexicogiupher, been undei the
necessity of taking a wider view of the English lan-
guage tlian any of his predecessors. That his knowl-
edge of our literature was extensive is indisputable.
But, unfortunately, he had altogether neglected that
very part of our literature with which it is especially
desirable that an editor of Shakspeare should be con-
versant. It is dangerous to assert a negative. Yet
little will be risked by the assertion, that in the two
folio volumes of the English Dictionaiy there is not
a single passage quoted from any dramatist of the
Elizabetlian age, except Shakspeare and Ben. Even
from Ben the quotations are few. . Johnson might
easily, in a few months, have made himself well ac-
quainted with every old play that was extant. But
it never seems to have occurred to him that this was a
necessary preparation for the work which he had under-
taken. He would doubtless have admitted that it would
be the height of absurdity in a man who was not fa-
miliar with the works of JEschyhis and Euripides to
publish an edition of Sophocles. Yet he ventured to
publish an edition of Shakspeare, without having ever
in his life, as far as can be discovered, read a single
scene of Massinger, Ford, Decker, Webster, Marlow,
Beaumont, or Fletcher. His detractors were noisy and
scurrilous. Those who most loved and honoured him
had little to say in praise of the manner in which he



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202 SAMUEL JOHNSON.

had discharged the duty of a commentator. He had,
however, acquitted himself of a debt which had long
Iain heavy on his conscience ; and he sank back into the
repose from which the sting of satire had roused him.
He long continued to live upon the feme which he had
already won. He was honoured by the University of
Oxford with a Doctor's degree, by the Royal Academy
with a professorship, and by the King with an inter-
view, in which his Majesty most graciously expressed a
hope that so excellent a writer would not cease to
write. In the interval, however, between 1765 and
1775 Johnson published only two or three political
tracts, the longest of which he could have produced
in forty-eight hours, if he had worked as he worked on
the Life of Savage and on Rasselas.

But, though his pen was now idle, his tongue was
active. The influence exercised by his conversation,
dire .'tly upon those with whom he lived, and indirectly
on the whole literary world, was altogether without a
parallel. His colloquial talents were indeed of the
highest order. He had strong sense, quick discern-
ment, wit, humour, immense knowledge of literature
and of life, and an infinite store of curious anecdotes.
As respected style, he spoke far better than he wrote
Every sentence which dropped from his lips was as cor-
rect in structure as the most nicely balanced period of
the Rambler. But in his talk there were no pompous
triads, and little more than a feir proportion of words in
o»ity and ation. All was simplicity, ease, and vigour.
He uttered his short, weighty, and pointed sentences
with a power of voice, and a justness and energy of
emphasis, of which the effect was rather increased than
diminished by the rollings of his huge form, and by
the asthmatic gaspings and puffings in which the



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SAMUEL JOHNSON. 203

|)eals of his eloquence generally ended. Nor did the
laziness which made him unwilling to sit down to his
desk prevent him from giving instruction or entertain-
ment orally. To discuss questions of taste, of learn-
ing, of casuistry, in language so exact and so forcible
that it might have been printed without the alteration
of a word, was to him no exertion, but a pleasure. Ho
loved, as he said, to fold his legs and have his talk out.
He was ready to bestow the overflowings of his fuli
mind on anybody who would start a subject, on a fel-
low-passenger in a stage coach, or on the person who
sate at the same table with him in an eating house.
But his conversation was nowhere so brilliant and
striking as when he was surrounded by a few friends,
whose abilities and knowledge enabled them, as he
once expressed it, to send him back every ball that
he threw. Some of these, in 1764, formed themselves
into a club, which gradually became a formidable
power in the commonwealth of letters. The verdicts
pronounced by this conclave on new books were speed-
ily known over all London, and were sufficient to sell
ofl* a whole edition in a day, or to condemn the sheets
to the service of the trunk-maker and the pastry-cook.
Nor shall we think this strange when we consider what
great and various talents and acquirements met in the
little fraternity. Goldsmith was the representative of
poetry and light literature, Reynolds of the arts, Burice
of political eloquence and political philosophy. There,
too, were Gibbon, the greatest historian, and Jcnes, the
greatest lingbist, of the age. Garrick brought to the
meetings his inexhaustible pleasantry, his incomparable
mimicry, and his consummate knowledge of stage e&
feet. Among the most constant attendants were two
high-bom and high-bred gentlemen, closely bound to-



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204 SAMUEL JOHNSON.

gether by friendship, but of widely different character
and habits ; Bennet Langton, distinguished by bis skill
in Greek literature, by the orthodoxy of his opinions,
and by the sanctity of his life ; and Topham Beauclerk,
renowned for his amours, liis knowledge of the gay
world, his fastidious taste, and his sarcastic wit. To
predominate over such a society was not easy. Yet
even over such a society Johnson pi^ominated. Uurke
might indeed Iiave disputed the supremacy to which
others were under the necessity of submitting. But
Burke, though not generally a very patient listener,
was content to take the second part when Johnson
was present ; and the club itself, consisting of so many
eminent men, is to this day popularly designated as
Johnson's Club.

Among the members of this celebrated body was
one to whom it has owed the greater part of its ce-
lebrity, yet who was regarded with little respect by his
brethren, and had not without diiHculty obtained a
seat among them. This was James Boswell, a young
Scotch lawyer, heir to an honourable name and a fair
estate. Tliat he was a coxcomb, and a bore, weak,
vain, pushing, curious, garrulous, was obvious to all
who were acquainted with him. That he could not
reason, that he had no wit, no humour, no eloquence,
is apparent from his writings. And yet his writings
ni\) read beyond the Mississippi, and under the South-
ern Cross, and are likely to be read as long as the
ICnglish exists, either as a living or as a dead language.
Nature had made him a slave and an idolater. His
mind resembled those creepers which the botanists call
parasites, and which can subsist only by clinging round
the stems and imbibing tlie juices of stronger plants
He must have fastened himself on somebody. He



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SAMUEL JOHNSON. 20o

oiight have fastened himself on Wilkes, and have
become the fiercest patriot in the Bill of Rights So-
ciety. He might have fastened himself on Whitfield,
and have become the loudest field preacher among the
Calvinistic Methodists. In a happy hour he fastened
liimself on Jolmson. The pair might ^eem ill matched.
For Johnson had early been prejudiced against Bos-
well's country. To a man of Johnson's strong under-
standing and irritable temper, the silly egotism and
adulation of Boswell must have been as teasing as the
constant buzz of a fiy. Johnson hated to be ques-
tioned ; and Boswell was eternally catechising him on
all kinds of subjects, and sometimes propounded such
questions as " What would you do, sir, if you were
locl^ed up in a tower with a baby ? " Johnson was a
water-drinker; and Boswell was a wine-bibber, and
indeed little better than a habitual sot. It was im-
possible that there should be perfect harmony between
two such companions. Indeed, the great man was
sometimes provoked into fits of passion in which he
said things which the small man, during a few hours,
seriously resented. Every quarrel^ however, was soon
made up. During twenty years the disciple continued
to worship the master : the master continued to scold
the disciple, to sneer at him, and to love him. The
two friends ordinarily resided at a great distance
from each other. Boswell practised in the Parlia-
ment House of Edinburgh, and could pay only occa-
sional visits to London. During those visits his chief
business was to watch Johnson, to discover all John-
son's habits, to turn tlie conversation to subjects about
which Johnson was likely to say something remarka-
ble, and to fill quarto note books with manutes of what
Johnson had said. In this way were gathered the



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206 SAMUEL JOHNSON.

materials out of which was afterwards constructed the
most interesting biographical work in the world.

Soon after the club began to exist, Johnson formed
a connection less important indeed to his fame, but
much more important to his happiness, than his con-
nection with Boswell. Henry Thrale, one of the most
opulent brewers in the kingdom, a man of sound and
cultivated understanding, rigid principles, and liberal
spirit, was married to one of those clever, kind-hearted,
engaging, vain, pert young women, who are perpetually
doing or saying what is not exactly right, but who, do
or say what they may, are always agreeable. In 1765
the Thrales became acquainted with Johnson ; and the
acquaintance ripened fast into fi-iendship. They were
astonished and delighted by the brilliancy of his con-
versation. They were flattered by finding that a man
so widely celebrated preferred their house to any other
in London. Even the peculiarities which seemed to
unfit him for civilised society, his gesticulations, his
rollings, his puffings, his mutterings, the strange way
in which he put on his clothes, the ravenous eager-
ness with which he devoured his dinner, his fits of
melancholy, his fits of anger, his frequent rudeness,
his occasional ferocity, increased the interest which his
new associates took in him. For these things were
tlie cruel marks left behind by a life which had been
one long conflict with disease and with adversity. In
a vulgar hack writer such oddities would have excited
only disgust. But in a man of genius, learning, and
virtue their effect was to add pity to admiration and es-
teem. Johnson soon had an apartment at the brewery
in Southwark, and a still more pleasant apartment at
the villa of his friends on Streatham Common. A
large part of every year he passed in those abodes.



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SAMUEL JOHNSON. 207

abodes which must have seemed magnificent and lux-
urious indeed, when compared with the dens in which
he had generally been lodged. But his chief pleasures
were derived from what the astronomer of his Abys-
sinian tale called " the endearing elegance of female
friendship." Mrs. Thrale rallied him, soothed him,
coaxed him, and, if she sometimes provoked him by
her flippancy, made ample amends by listening to bit*
reproofs with angelic sweetness of temper. When he
was diseased in body and in mind, she was the most
tender of nurses. No comfort that wealth could pur-
chase, no contrivance that womanly ingenuity, set to
work by womanly compassion, could devise, was want-
ing to his sick room. He requited her kindness by an
affection pure as the affection of a father, yet delicately
tinged with a gallantry, which, though awkward, must
have been more flattering than the attentions of a
crowd of the fools who gloried in the names, now ob-



Online LibraryThomas Babington Macaulay MacaulayCritical, historical, and miscellaneous essays → online text (page 55 of 84)