Графични страници
PDF файл
ePub

great Cham of literature" !-a monarch sitting in the chair previously occupied by his namesake, Ben, by Dryden and by Pope ; but which has since that time been vacant. The world of literature has become too large for such authority. Complaints were not seldom uttered at the time. Goldsmith has urged that Boswell wished to make a monarchy of what ought to be a republic. Goldsmith, who would have been the last man to find serious fault with the dictator, thought the dictatorship objectionable. Some time indeed was still to elapse before we can say Johnson was firmly seated on the throne; but the Dictionary and the Rambler had given him a position not altogether easy to appreciate, now that the Dictionary had been superseded and the Rambler gone out of fashion. His name was the highest at this time (1755) in the ranks of pure literature. The fame of Warburton possibly bulked larger for the amount, and one of his flatterers was comparing him to the Colossus which bestrides the petty world of contemporaries. But Warburton had subsided into episcopal repose, and literature had been for him a stepping-stone rather than an ultimate aim. Hume had written works of far more enduring influence than Johnson ; but they were little read though generally abused, and scarcely belong to the purely literary history. The first volume of his History of England had appeared (1754), but had not succeeded. The second was just coming out. Richardson was still giving laws to his little seraglio of adoring women ; Fielding had died (1754), worn out by labour and dissipation ; Smollett was active in the literary trade, but not in such a way as to increase his own dignity or that of his employment; Gray was slowly writing a few lines of exquisite verse in his retirement at Cambridge ; two young Irish adventurers, Burke and Goldsmith, were just coming to London to try their fortune; Adam Smith made his first experiment as an author by reviewing the Dictionary in the Edinburgh Review ; Robertson had not yet appeared as a historian ; Gibbon was at Lausanne repenting of his old brief lapse into Catholicism as an act of undergraduate's folly ; and Cowper, after three years of “ giggling and making giggle" with Thurlow in an attorney's office, was now entered at the Temple and amusing himself at times with literature in company with such small men of letters as Colman, Bonnell Thornton, and Lloyd. It was a slack tide of literature ; the generation of Pope had passed away and left no successors, and no writer of the time could be put in competition with the giant now known as “ Dictionary Johnson."

When the last sheet of the Dictionary had been carried to the publisher, Millar, Johnson asked the messenger, What did he

Sir,” said the messenger, “he said, “Thank God I have done with him.'' “I am glad,” replied Johnson, “ that he thanks God for anything.” Thankfulness for relief from seven years' toil seems to have been Johnson's predominant feeling : and he was not

say?"

anxious for a time to take any new labours upon his shoulders. Some years passed which have left few traces either upon his personal or his literary history. He contributed a good many reviews in 1756-7 to the Literary Magazine, one of which, a review of Soame Jenyns, is amongst his best performances. To a weekly paper he contributed for two years, from April, 1758, to April, 1760, a set of essays called the Idler, on the old Rambler plan. He did some small literary cobbler's work, receiving a guinea for a prospectus to a newspaper and ten pounds for correcting a volume of poetry. He had advertised in 1756 a new edition of Shakspeare which was to appear by Christmas, 1757 : but he dawdled over it so unconscionably that it did not appear for nine years; and then only in consequence of taunts from Churchill, who accused him with too much plausibility of cheating his subscribers.

He for subscribers baits his hook ;
And takes your cash : but where's the book
No matter where ; wise fear, you know,
Forbids the robbing of a foe;
But what to serve our private ends
Forbids the cheating of our friends ?

In truth, his constitutional indolence seems to have gained advan. tages over him, when the stimulus of a heavy task was removed. In his meditations, there are many complaints of his “sluggishness and resolutions of amendment. “A kind of strange oblivion has spread over me,” he says in April, 1764, “so that I know not what has become of the last years, and perceive that incidents and intelligence pass over me without leaving any impression.'

It seems, however, that he was still frequently in difficulties. Letters are preserved showing that in the beginning of 1756 Richardson became surety for him for a debt, and lent him six guineas to release him from arrest. An event which happened theee years later illustrates his position and character. In January, 59, his mother died at the age of ninety. Johnson was unable to come to Lichfield, and some deeply pathetic letters to her and her stepdaughter, who lived with her, record his emotions. Here is the last sad farewell upon the snapping of the most sacred of human ties.

“Dear Honoured Mother," he says in a letter enclosed to Lucy Porter, the step daughter, “neither your condition nor your character make it fit for me to say much.

Yon have been the best mother, and I believe the best woman in the world. I thank you for your indulgence to me, and beg forgiveness of all that I have done ill, and of all that I have omitted to do well. God grant you His Holy Spirit, and receive you to everlasting happiness for Jesus Christ's sake, Amen. Lord Jesus receive your spirit. I am, dear, dear mother, Your dutiful son,

SAMUEL JOHNSON,"

Johnson managed to raise twelve guineas, six of them borrowed from his printer, to send to his dying mother. In order to gain money for her funeral expenses and some small debts, he wrote the story of Rasselas. It was composed in the evenings of a single week, and sent to press as it was written. He received £100 for this, perhaps the most successful of his minor writings, and £25 for a second edition. It was widely translated and universally admired. One of the strangest of literary coincidences is the contemporary appearance of this work and Voltaire's Candide ; to which, indeed, it bears in some respects so strong a resemblance that, but for Johnson's appar. ent contradiction, we would suppose that he had at least heard some description of its design. The two stories, though widely differing in tone and style, are among the most powerful expressions of the melancholy produced in strong intellects by the sadness and sorrows of the world. The literary excellence of Candide has secured for it a wider and more enduring popularity than has fallen to the lot of Johnson's far heavier production. But Rasselas is a book of singular force, and bears the most characteristic impression of Johnson's peculiar temperament.

A great change was approaching in Johnson's circumstances. When George III. came to the throne, it struck some of his advisers that it would be well, as Boswell puts it, to open

a new and brighter pros. pect to men of literary merit.” This commendable design was carried out by offering to Johnson a pension of three hundred a year. Considering that such men as Horace Walpole and his like were enjoying sinecures of more than twice as many thousands for being their father's sons, the bounty does not strike one as excessively liberal. It seems to have been really intended as some set-off against other pensions bestowed upon various hangers-on of the Scotch prime minister, Bute. Johnson was coupled with the contemptible scribbler, Shebbeare, who had lately been in the pillory for a Jacobite libel (a "hebear” and a “she-bear,” said the facetious newspapers), and when a few months afterwards a pension of £200 a year was given to the old actor, Sheridan, Johnson growled out that it was time for him to resign his own. Somebody kindly repeated the remark to Sheridan, who would never afterwards speak to Johnson.

The pension, though very welcome to Johnson, who seems to have been in real distress at the time, suggested some difficulty. Johnson had unluckily spoken of a pension in his Dictionary as “ generally understood to mean pay given to a State hireling for treason to his country.” He was assured, however, that he did not come within the definition ; and that the reward was given for what he had done, not for anything that he was expected to do. After some hesitation, Johnson consented to accept the payment thus offered without the direct suggestion of any obligation, though it was probably calculated that he would in case of need be the more ready, as actually hap

" but

pened, to use his pen in defence of authority. He had not compromised his independence and might fairly laugh at angry comments. "I wish,” he said afterwards, that my pension were twice as large, that they might make twice as inuch noise.” “ I cannot now curse the House of Hanover," was his phrase on another occasion : I think that the pleasure of cursing the House of Hanover and drinking King James's health, all amply overbalanced by three hundred pounds a year.” In truth, his Jacobitism was by this time, whatever it had once been, nothing more than a humorous crotchet, giving opportunity for the expression of Tory prejudice.

* I hope you will now purge and live cleanly like a gentleman," was Beauclerc's comment upon hearing of his friend's accession of fortune, and as Johnson is now emerging from Grub Street, it is desirable to consider what manner of man was to be presented to the wider circles that were opening to receive him.

CHAPTER III.

JOHNSON AND HIS FRIENDS.

servers.

It is not till some time after Johnson had come into the enjoyment of his pension, that we first see him through the eyes of competent ob

The Johnson of our knowledge, the most familiar figure to all students of English literary history, had already long passed the prime of life, and done the greatest part of his literary work. His character in the common phrase had been formed” years before ; as, indeed, people's characters are chiefly formed in the cradle; and not only his character, but the habits which are learnt in the great schoolroom of the world were fixed beyond any possibility of change. The strange eccentricities which had now become a second nature, amazed the society in which he was for over twenty years a promi. nent figure. Unsympathetic observers, those especially to whom the Chesterfield type represented the ideal of humanity, were simply dis. gusted or repelled. The man, they thought, might be in his place at a Grub Street pot-house; but had no business in a lady's drawing

If he had been modest and retiring, they might have put up with his defects ; but Johnson was not a person whose qualities, good or bad, were of a kind to be ignored. Naturally enough, the fashionable world cared little for the rugged old giant.

The great," said Johnson, had tried him and given him up; they had seen enough of him;" and his reason was pretty much to the purpose. “Great lords and great ladies don't love to have their mouths stopped," especially not, one may add, by an unwashed fist.

room.

bear."

[ocr errors]

It is easy to blame them now. Everybody can see that a saint in beggar's rags is intrinsically better than a sinner in gold lace. But the principle is one of those which serves us for judging the dead, much more than for regulating our own conduct. Those, at any rate, may throw the first stone at the Horace Walpoles and Chesterfields who are quite certain that they would ask a modern Johnson to their houses. The trial would be severe. Poor Mrs. Boswell complained grievously of her husband's idolatry. “I have seen many a bear led by a man,” she said ; “but I never before saw a man led by a

The truth is, as Boswell explains, that the sage's uncouth habits, such as turning the candles' heads downwards to make them burn more brightly, and letting the wax drop upon the carpet, “could not but be disagreeable to a lady.”

He had other habits still more annoying to people of delicate perceptions. A hearty despiser of all affectations, he despised especially the affectation of indifference to the pleasures of the table. “For my part,” he said, “I mind my belly very studiously and very carefully, for I look upon it that he who does not mind his belly will hardly mind anything else.” Avowing this principle he would innocently give himself the airs of a scientific epicure. 'I, madam,” he said to the terror of a lady with whom he was about to sup, live at a variety of good tables, am a much better judge of cookery than any person who has a very tolerable cook, but lives much at home, for his palate is gradually adapted to the taste of his cook, whereas, madam, in trying by a wider range, I can more exquisitely judge." But his pretentions to exquisite taste are by no means borne out by independent witnesses. “He laughs," said Tom Davies,“ like a rhinoceros," and he seems to have eaten like a wolfsavagely, silently, and with undiscriminating fury. He was not a pleasant object during this performance. He was totally absorbed in the business of the moment, a strong perspiration came out, and the veins of his forehead swelled. He liked coarse satisfying dishesboiled pork and veal-pie stuffed with plums and sugar.; and in regard to wine, he seems to have accepted the doctrines of the critic of a certain fuid professing to be port, who asked, “What more can you want? It is black, and it is thick, and it makes you drunk.” Claret, as Johnson put it, “is the liquor for boys, and port for men ; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy.” He could, however, refrain, though he could not be moderate, and for all the latter part of his life, from 1766, he was a total abstainer. Nor, it should be added, does he ever appear to have sought for more than exhilaration from wine. His earliest intimate friend, Hector, said that he had never but once seen him drunk.

His appetite for more innocent kinds of food was equally excessive. He would eat seven or eight peaches before breakfast, and declared that he had only once in his life had as much wall-fruit as he wished.

« ПредишнаНапред »