Thomas Babington Macaulay Macaulay.

Critical, historical, and miscellaneous essays online

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solete, of Buck and Maccaroni. It should seem that
a full half of Johnson's life, during about sixteen
years, was passed under the roof of the Thrales. He
accompanied the family sometimes to Bath, and some-
times to Brighton, once to Wales, and once to Paris.
But he had at the same time a house in one of the
narrow and gloomy courts on the north of Fleet Street.
In the garrets was his library, a large and miscella-
neous collection of books, falling to pieces and be-
grimed with dust. On a lower floor he sometimes,
but very rarely, regaled a friend with a plain dinner,
a veal pie, or a leg of lamb and spinage, and a rice
pudding. Nor was the dwelling uninhabited during
his long absences. It was the home of the most
extraordinary assemblage of inmates that ever was
brought together. At the head of the establishment



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208 SAMU£I. JOHNSON.

Johnson nad placed an old lady named Williams,
whose chief recommendations were her blindness and
her poverty. But, in spite of her murmurs and re-
proaches, he gave an asylum to anotlier lady who was
as poor as herself, Mrs. Desmoulins, whose family he
had known many years before in Staftbrdshire. Room
wa.« found for the daughter of Mrs. Desmoulins, and
for another destitute damsel, who was generally ad-
dressed as Miss Carmichael, but whom her generous
host called Polly. An old quack doctor named Levett,
who bled and dosed coal-heavers and hackney coach-
men, and received for fees crusts of bread, bits of bacon,
glasses of gin, and sometimes a little copper, completed
this strange menagerie. All these poor creatures' were
at constant war with each other, and with Johnson's
negro servant Frank. Sometimes, indeed, they tranfr*
ferred their hostilities from the servant to the master,
complained that a better table was not kept for them,
and railed or maundered till their benefactor was glad
to make his escape to Streatham, or to the Mitre
Tavern. And yet he, who was generally the haugh-
tiest and most in*itable of mankind, who was but too
prompt to resent anything which looked like a slight
on the part of a purse-proud bookseller, or of a noble
and powerful patron, bore patiently from mendicants,
who, but for his bounty, must have gone to the
workhouse, insults more provoking than those for
which he had knocked down Osborne and bidden
defiance to Chesterfield. Year after year Mrs. Wil-
liams and Mrs. Desmoulins, Polly and Levett, con-
tiimed to torment liim and to Uve upon him.

The course of life which has been described was in-
terrupted in Johnson's sixty-fourth year by an impor-
tant event. He had early read an account of the



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SAMUEL JOHNSON. 209

Hebrides, aiul had been much interested by leaming
that there was so near him a land peopled by a race
which was still as rude and simple as in the middle
ages. A wish to become intimately acquainted with
a state of society so utterly unlike all that he had ever
seen fi*equently crossed his mind. But it is not prob-
able that liis curiosity would hare overcome his habit-
ual sluggishness, and his love of the smoke, the mud,
and tlie cries of London, had not Boswell imp<Nrtuned
uim to attempt the adventure, and oflfered to be his
8(|uire. At length, in August 1773, Johnson crossed
tlie Highland line, and plunged courageously into what
was then considered, by most Englishmen, as a dreary
and perilous wilderness. After wandering abimt two
months tlu*ough the Celtic region, sometimes in rude
boats which did not protect him from the rain, and
sometimes on small shaggy ponies which could hardly
bear his weight, he returned to his old haunts with a
mind full of new images and new theories. During
the following year he employed himself in recording
his adventures. About the beginning of 1775, his
Journey to the Hebrides was published, and was,
during some weeks, the chief subject of conversation
in all circles in which any attention was paid to
literature. The book is still read with pleasure. The
narrative is entertaining ; the speculations, whether
sound or unsound, are always ingenious ; and the
style, though too stiff and pompous, is somewhat ea-
sier and more graceful than that of his early writings.
His prejudice against the Scotch had at length be-
come little more than matter o£ jest; and whatever
remained of the old feeling had been effectually re-
moved by the kind and respectful hospitality with
winch he had been received in every part of Scot-



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210 SAMU£L JOHNSON.

land. It was, of course, not to be expected that an
Oxonian Tory should praise the Presbjrterian polity
and ritual, or that an eye accustomed to the hedge-
rows and parks of England should not be struck bj
the bareness of Berwickshire and East Lodiian. But
even in censure Johnson's tone is not unfriendly. The
most enlightened Scotchmen, with Lord Mansfield at
their head, were well pleased. But some foolish and
if^norant Scotchmen were moved to anger by a little
unpalatable truth which was mingled with much eu-
logy, and assailed him whom tliey chose to consider as
the enemy of their country with libels much more dis-
honourable to their country than anything that he bad
ever said or written. They published paragraphs ir
the newspapers, articles in the magazines, sixpenny
pamphlets, five shilling books. One scribbler abused
Johnson for being blear-eyed; another for being a
pensioner ; a third infoimed the world that one of
the Doctor's uncles had been convicted of felony in
Scotland, and had found that there was in that coun-
try one tree capable of supporting the weight of an
Englishman. Macplicrson, whose Fingal had been
proved in the Journey to be an impudent forgery,
threatened to take vengeance with a cane. The only
effect of this threat was that Johnson reiterated die
charge of forgery in the most contemptuous terms,
and walked about, during some time, with a cudgel,
which, if the impostor had not been too wise to en-
counter it, would assuredly have descended upon him,
to borrow the sublime language of his own epic poem,
*^ like a hammer on the red son of the furnace."

Of other assailants Johnson took no notice what**
3ver. He had early resolved never to be drawn into
oontrovei*sy ; and he adhered to his resolution with »



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SAMUEL JOHNSON. 211

Steadfastness which is the more extraordinary, because
he was, both intellectually and morally, of the stuff
of which controversialists, are made. In conversation,
he was a singularly eager, acute, and pertinacious dis-
putant. When at a loss for good reasons, he had
recourse to sophistry ; and, when heated by altercation,
he made unsparing use of sarcasm and invective. But,
when he took his pen in his hand, his whole character
seemed to be changed. A hundred bad writers mis-
represented him and reviled him ; but not one of the
hundred could boast of ha^nng been thought by him
worthy of a refutation, or even of a retoH:. The Ken-
ricks, Campbells, MacNicols, and Hendersons, did their
best to annoy him, in the hope that he would give
them importance by answering them. But the reader
Avill in vain search his works for any allusion to Ken-
rick or Campbell, to MacNicol or Henderson. One
Scotchman, bent on vindicating the fame of Scotch
learning, defied him to the combat in a detestable
Latin hexameter.

** Maxime, si tu vis, cupio contendere tecum.**

But Johnson took no notice of the challenge. He had
learned, both from his own observation and from lit-
erary history, in which he was deeply read, that the
place of books in the public estimation is fixed, not by
what is written about them, but by what is written in
them ; and that an author whose works are likely to
live is very unwise if he stoops to wrangle with detract-
ors whose works are certain to die. He always main-
tained that hme was a shuttlecock which could be kept
up only by being beaten back, as well as beaten for-
ward, and which would soon fall if there were only one
battledore. No saying was oflener in his mouth than



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212 SAMUEL JOHNSON.

that fine apophthegm of Bentlej, that no man was
ever written down but by himself.

Unhappily, a few months after the appearance of
the Journey to the Hebrides, Johnson did what none
of his envious assailants could have done, and to a
rertain extent succeeded in writing himself down.
The disputes between England and her American
colonies had reached a point at which no amicable ad-
justment was possible. Civil war was evidently im-
pending ; and the ministers seem to have thought that
the eloquence of Johnson might with advantage be em-
ployed to inflame the nation against the opposition
here, and against the rebels beyond the Atlantic He
had already written two or three tracts in defence of
the foreign and domestic policy of the government ;
and those tracts, though hardly worthy of him, were
much superior to the crowd of pamphlets which lay on
the counters of Almon and Stockdale. But his Taxa-
tion No Tyranny was a pitiable failore. The very
title was a silly phrase, which can have been recom-
mended to his choice by nothing but a jingling allitera-
tion which he ought to have despised. The ailments
were such as boys use in debating societies. The
pleasantry was as awkward as the gambols of a hip-
popotamus. Even Boswell was forced to own that,
in this unfortunate piece, he could detect no trace of
his master's powers. The general opinion was that
the strong Acuities which had produced the Dictionary
and the Rambler were beginning to &el the effect of
time and of disease, and that the old man would best
consult his credit by writing no more.

But this was a great mistake. Johnson bad fiuled,
not because his mind was less vigorous than wh^i he
wrote Rasselas in the ev^iings of a week, but becauste



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SAMUEL JOHNSON. 213

he had foolishly chosen, or suffered others to choose
for him, a subject such as he would at no time have
been competent to treat. He was in no sense a states-
man. He never willingly read or thought or talked
about bSbits of state. He loved biography, literary
history, the history of manners ; but political history
was positively distasteful to him. The question at is-
sue between the colonies and the mother country was
a question about which he had really nothing to say.
He failed, therefore, as the greatest men must fail
when they attempt to do that for which they are unfit ;
as Burke would have failed if Burke had tried to write
comedies like those of Sheridan ; as Reynolds would
have failed if Reynolds had tried to paint landscapes
like those of Wilson. Happily, Johnson soon had an
opportunity of proving most signally that his failure
was not to be ascribed to intellectual decay.

On Easter Eve 1777, some persons, deputed by a
meeting which consisted of forty of the first booksell-
ers in London, called upon him. Though he had
some scruples about doing business at that season, he
received his visitors with much civility. They came
to inform him that a new edition of the English poets,
from Cowley downwards, was in contemplation, and
to ask hira to furnish short biographical prefaces. He
readily undertook the task, a task for which he was
pre-eminently qualified. His knowledge of the literary
history of England since the Restoration was unri-
valled. That knowledge he had derived partly from
books, and partly from sources which had long been
closed ; from old Grub Street traditions ; from the talk
of forgotten poetasters and pamphleteers who had long
been lying in parish vaults ; from the recollections of
such men as Gilbert Walmesley, who had conversed



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214 SAMUEL JOHNSON.

with the wits of Button ; Gibber, who had mutilate*!
the plays of two generations of dramatists ; Orrery,
who had been admitted to the society of Swift ; and
Savage, who had rendered services of no very honour-
able kind to Pope. The biographer therefore sate
down to his task with a mind full of matter. He had
at first intended to give only a paragraph to every
minor poet, and only four or five pages to the greatest
name. But the flood of anecdote and criticism over-
flowed the narrow channel. The work, which was
originally meant to consist only of a few sheets, swelled
into ten volumes, smaU volumes, it is true, and not
closely printed. The first four appeared in 1779, the
remaining six in 1781.

The Lives of the Poets, are, on the whole, tlie best
of Johnson's works. The narratives are as entertain
ing as any novel. The remarks on life and on human
nature are eminently shrewd and profound. The crit-
icisms are often excellent, and, even when grossly and
provokingly unjust, well deserve to be studied. For,
however erroneous they may be, they are never silly.
They are the judgments of a mind trammelled by
prejudice and deficient in sensibility, but vigorous and
acute. They therefore generally contain a portion of
valuable truth which deserves to be separated firom the
alloy ; and, at the very jworat, they mean something,
a praise to which much of what is called criticism in
our time has no pretensions.

Savage's Life Johnson reprinted nearly as it had af>-
peared in 1744. Whoever, after reading that life, will
turn to the other lives will be struck by the difference
of style. Since Johnson had been at ease in his cir-
cumstances he had written little and had talked much-
When, therefore, he, after the lapse of years, resumed



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SAMUEL JOHNSON. 215

his pen, the mannerism which he had conixacted while
he was in the constant habit of elaborate composition
was less perceptible than formerly ; and his diction fre-
quently had a colloquial ease which it had formerly
wanted. The improvement may be discerned by a
skilful critic in the Journey to the Hebrides, and in
the Lives of the Poets is so obvious that it cannot es-
cape the notice of the most careless reader.

Among the lives the best ai*e perhaps those of Cow-
ley, Dryden, and Pope. The very worst is, beyond
all doubt, that of Gray.

This great work at once became popular. There
was, indeed, much just and much unjust censure : but
even those who were loudest in blame were attracted by
the book in spite of themselves. Malone computed the
gains of the publishers at five or six thousand pounds.
But the writer was very poorly remunerated. Intend-
ing at first to write very short prefaces, he had stipulated
for only two hundred guineas. The booksellers, when
they saw how far his performance had surpassed his
promise, added only another hundred. Indeed, John-
son, though he did not despise, or affect to despise,
money, and though his strong sense and long experi-
ence ought to have qualified him to protect his own in-
terests, seems to have been singularly unskilful and
unlucky in his literary bargains. He was generally re-
puted the first English writer of his time. Yet several
writers of his time sold their copyrights few: sums such
as he never ventured to ask. To give a single instance,
Robertson received four thousand five hundred pounds
for the History of Charles V. ; and it is no disrespect
to the memory of Robertson to say that the History of
Charles V. is both a less valuable and a less amusino
book than the Lives of the Poets.



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216 SAMUEL JOHNSON.

Johnson was now in his seventy-second year. The
hifirmities of age were coming fast upon him. Tliat
inevitable event of which he never thouglit without
horror was brought near to him ; and his wliolc life
was darkened by the shadow of death. He had often
to pay the cruel price of longevity. Every year he
lost what could never be replaced. The strange de-
pendents to whom he had given shelter, and to whom,
in spite of their faults, he was strongly attached by
habit, dropped off one by one ; and, in the silence of
his home, he regretted even the noise of their scolding
matches. The kind and generous Thrale was no
more; and it would have been well if his wife had
been laid beside him. But she survived to be the
laughing-stock of those who had envied her, and to
draw from the eyes of the old man who had loved her
beyond anything in the world tears far more bitter than
he would have shed over her grave. With some esti-
mable and many agreeable qualities, she was not made
to be independent. The control of a mind more stead-
fast than her own was necessary to her respectability.
While she was restrained by her husband, a man of
sense and firmness, indulgent to her taste in trifles, but
always the undisputed master of his house, her worst
offences had been impertinent jokes, white lies, and
short fits of pettishness ending in sunny good humour,
lint he was gone ; and she was left an opulent widow
of forty, with strong sensibility, volatile fiincy, and
slender judgment. She soon fell in love with a music-
master from Brescia, in whom nobody but herself could
discover anything to admire. Her pride, and perhaps
some better feelings, struggled hard against this de-
grading passion. But the struggle irritated her nerves,
soured her temper, and at length endangered her



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SAMUEL JOHNSON. 217

lieahh. Conscious that her choice was one 'vrhich
Johnson could not approve, she became desirous to es-
cape from his inspection. Her manner towards him
changed. She was sometimes cold and sometimes pet-
ulant. She did not conceal her joy when he left
Streatham ; she never pressed him to return ; and, if
he came unbidden, she received him in a manner
which convinced him that he was no longer a welcome
guest. He took the very intelligible hints which she
gave. He read, for the last time, a chapter of the
Greek Testament in the library which had been formed
by himself. In a solemn and tender prayer he com-
mended the house and its inmates to the Divine pro-
tection, and, with emotions which choked his voice
and convubed his powerful frame, left for ever that be-
loved home for the gloomy and desolate house behind
Fleet Street, where the few and evil days which still
remained to him were to run out. ' Here, in June
1788, he had a paralytic stroke, from which, however,
he recovered, and which does not appear to have at all
impaired his intellectual faculties. But other maladies
came thick upon him. His asthma tormented him day
and night. Dropsical symptoms made their appear^
once. While sinking under a complication of diseases,
he heard that the woman whose friendship had been
the. chief happiness of sixteen years of his life had
married an Italian fiddler ; that all London was crying
shame upon her ; and that the newspapers and maga-
zines were filled with allusions to the Ephesian matron,
and the two pictures in Hamlet. He vehemently said
that he would try to forget her existence. He never
uttered her name. Every memorial of her which met
his eye he flung into the fire. She meanwhile fled
from the laughter and hisses of her countrymen and

vol.. VI. 10



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218 SAMU£L JOHNSON.

li^oantrywomen to a land where she was unknown,
hastened across Mount Cenis, and learned, while pass^
ing a merry Christinas of concerts and lemonade par-
ties at Milan, that the great man with whose name
hei's is inseparably associated had ceased to exist.

He had, in spite of much mental and bodily afBio-
tion, clung vehemently to life. The feeling described
in that fine but gloomy paper which closes the series
of his Idlers seemed to grow stronger in him as his
last hour drew near. He fancied that he should be
able to draw his breath more easily in a southern cli-^
mate, and would probably have set out for Rome and
Naples, but for his fear of the expense of the journey.
That expense, indeed, he had the means of defraying ;
for he had laid up about two thousand pounds, the
truit of labours which had made the fortune of sev-
eral publishers. But he was unwUIing to break in
upon this hoard ; and he seems to have wished -even to
keep its existence a secret. Some of his friends hoped
that the government might be induced to increase his
pension to six hmidred pounds a year : but this hope
was disappointed ; and he resolved to stand one Eng-
lish winter more. That winter was his last. His legs
grew weaker ; his breath grew shorter ; the fatal water
gathered fast, in spite of incisions which he, courageous
against pain, but timid against death, ui^d his sur-
geons to make deeper and deeper. Though the tender
care wtiich had mitigated his suiferings during months
of sickness at Streatham was withdrawn, he was not
leh desolate. The ablest physicians and surgeons at-
tended him, and refused to accept fees from liim.
Burke parted from him with deep emotion. Windham
sate much in the sick-room., arranged the pillows, and
sent his own servant to watch a night by the bed.



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SAMUEL JOHNSON. 219

Prances Bnmey, whom the old man had cherished
with fatherly kindness, stood weeping at the door ;
while Langton, whose piety eminently qualified him to
be an adviser and comforter at such a time, received
the last pressure of his friend's hand within. When
at length the moment, dreaded throtigh so n)any years,
came close, the dark cloud passed away from Johnson's
mind. His temper became unusually patient and gen-
tle ; he ceased to think with terror of death, and of
that which lies beyond death ; and he spoke much of
the mercy of God, and of the propitiation of Christ.
In this serene frame of mind he died on the 13th of
December, 1784. He was laid, a week later, in West-
minster Abbey, among the eminent men of whom he
had been the historian, — Cowley and Denham, Dry-
den and Congreve, Gay, Prior, and Addison.

Since his death the popularity of his works — the
Lives of the Poets, and, perhaps, the Vanity of Human
Wishes, excepted — has greatly diminished. His Dic-
tionary has been altered by editors till it can scarcely
be called his. An allusion to his Rambler or his Idler
is not readily apprehended in literary circles. The
fame even of Rasselas has grown somewhat dim. But,
though the celebrity of the writings may have declined,
the celebrity of the writer, strange to say, is as great
as ever. Boswell's book has done for him more than
the best of his own books could do. The memory
of other authors is kept alive by their works. But
the memory of Johnson keeps many of his works
alive. The old philosopher is still among us in the
brown coat with the metal buttons and the ^hirt which
ought to be at wash, blinking, puffing, rolling his head,
drumming with his fingers, tearing his meat like a tiger,
and swallowing his tea in oceans. No human being



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220 SAMUEL JOHNSON.

who has been more than seTenty jrears m the grave w
so well known to ns. And it is but just to say that
our intimate acquaintance with what he would himself
have called the anfractuosities of his intdlect and of
his temper serves only to strengthen our convictioo that
he was both a great and a good man.



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WILLIAM PITT.

{EncydopoBcSa Briimaiiea^ Jannaij 1869.)

William Pitt, the second son of William Pitt,
Earl of Chatham, and of Lady Hester Grenville,
daughter of Hester, Countess Temple, was bom on
the 28th of May, 1759. The child inherited a name
which, at the time of his birth, was the most illustrious
in the civilised world, and was pronounced by every
Engiishman with pride, and by every enemy of Eng-
land with mingled admiration and terror. During the
first year of his life, every month had its illuminations
and bonfires, and every wind brought some messenger
<*harged with joyful tidings and hostile standards. In
Westphalia the English infentry won a great battle
which arrested the armies of Louis the FiAe^ith in
the midst of a career of conquest ; Boscawen defeated
one French fleet on the coast of Portugal ; Hawke put
to flight another in the Bay of Biscay ; Johnson took
Niagara ; Amherst took Ticonderoga ; Wolfe died by
the most enviable of deaths under the walls of Quebec ;
Clive destroyed a Dutch armament in the Hooghly,
and established the English supremacy in Bengal ;
Coote routed Lally at Wandewash, and established
the English supremacy in the Camatic. The nation,
while loudly applauding the successful warriors, con-
sidered them all, on sea and on land, in Europe, in



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222 WILLIAM PITT.

America, and in Asia, merely as instruments which re-
ceived their direction from one superior mind. It was
the great William Pitt, the great commoner, who had
vanquished French marshals in Germany, and French



Online LibraryThomas Babington Macaulay MacaulayCritical, historical, and miscellaneous essays → online text (page 56 of 84)