« PrejšnjaNaprej »
his essays form a body of ethics; the observations on life and manners, are acute and instructive; and the papers, professedly critical, serve to promote the cause of literature. It must, however, be acknowledged, that a settled gloom hangs over the author's mind; and all the essays, except eight or ten, coming from the same fountain-head, no wonder that they have the raciness of the soil from which they sprang. Of this uniformity Johnson was sensible. He used to say, that if he had joined a friend or two, who would have been able to intermix papers of a sprightly turn, the collection would have been more miscellaneous, and, by consequence, more agreeable to the generality of readers. This he used to illustrate by repeating two beautiful stanzas from his own ode to Cave, or Sylvanus Urban:
"Non ulla musis pagina gratior,
Texente nymphis serta Lycoride,
Æthereis variata fucis."
It is remarkable, that the pomp of diction, which has been objected to Johnson, was first assumed in the Rambler. His Dictionary was going on at the same time, and, in the course of that work, as he grew familiar with technical and scholastic words, he thought that the bulk of his readers were equally learned; or, at least, would admire the splendour and dignity of the style. And yet it is well known, that he praised, in Cowley, the ease and unaffected structure of the sentences. Cowley may be placed at the head of those who cultivated a clear and natural style. Dryden, Tillotson, and sir William Temple followed. Addison, Swift, and Pope, with more correctness, carried our language well nigh to perfection. Of Addison, Johnson was used to say, “he is the Raphaël of essay writers." How he differed so widely from such elegant models, is a problem not to be solved, unless it be true, that he took an early tincture from the writers of the last century, particularly sir Thomas Browne. Hence the peculiarities of his style, new combinations, sentences of an unusual structure, and words derived from the learned languages. His own account of the matter is: "When common words were less pleasing to the ear, or less distinct in their signification, I fami
larized the terms of philosophy, by applying them to popular ideas." But he forgot the observation of Dryden : "If too many foreign words are poured in upon us, it looks, as if they were designed, not to assist the natives, but to conquer them." There is, it must be admitted, a swell of language, often out of all proportion to the sentiment; but there is, in general, a fulness of mind, and the thought seems to expand with the sound of the words. Determined to discard colloquial barbarisms and licentious idioms, he forgot the elegant simplicity that dist inguishes the writings of Addison. He had, what Locke calls, a round-about view of his subject; and, though he never was tainted, like many modern wits, with the ambition of shining in paradox, he may be fairly called an original thinker. His reading was extensive. He treasured in his mind whatever was worthy of notice, but he added to it from his own meditation. He collected, "quæ reconderet, auctaque promeret." Addison was not so profound a thinker. He was "born to write, converse, and live with ease;" and he found an early patron in lord Somers. He depended, however, more upon a fine taste than the vigour of his mind. His Latin poetry shows, that he relished, with a just selection, all the refined and delicate beauties of the Roman classics; and, when he cultivated his native language, no wonder that he formed that graceful style, which has been so justly admired; simple, yet elegant; adorned, yet never over-wrought; rich in allusion, yet pure and perspicuous; correct, without labour; and though, sometimes, deficient in strength, yet always musical. His essays, in general, are on the surface of life; if ever original, it was in pieces of humour. Sir Roger de Coverly, and the tory fox-hunter, need not to be mentioned. Johnson had a fund of humour, but he did not know it; nor was he willing to descend to the familiar idiom, and the variety of diction, which that mode of composition required. The letter, in the Rambler, No. 12, from a young girl that wants a place, will illustrate this observation. Addison possessed an unclouded imagination, alive to the first objects of nature and of art. He reaches the sublime without any apparent effort. When he tells us, " If we consider the fixed stars as so many oceans of flame, that are each of them attended with a different set of planets; if we still discover new firmaments, and new lights, that are sunk further in those unfathomable depths of ether; we are lost in a labyrinth of suns and worlds, and confounded with the magnificence and immensity
of nature;" the ease, with which this passage rises to unaffected grandeur, is the secret charm that captivates the reader. Johnson is always lofty; he seems, to use Dryden's phrase, to be "o'erinform'd with meaning," and his words do not appear to himself adequate to his conception. He moves in state, and his periods are always harmonious. His Oriental Tales are in the true style of eastern magnificence, and yet none of them are so much admired, as the Visions of Mirza. In matters of criticism, Johnson is never the echo of preceding writers. He thinks, and decides, for himself. If we except the essays on the Pleasures of Imagination, Addison cannot be called a philosophical critic. His moral essays are beautiful; but in that province nothing can exceed the Rambler, though Johnson used to say, that the essay
on the burthens of mankind," (in the Spectator, No. 558,) was the most exquisite he had ever read. Talking of himself, Johnson said, "Topham Beauclerk has wit, and every thing comes from him with ease; but when I say a good thing, I seem to labour." When we compare him with Addison, the contrast is still stronger: Addison lends grace and ornament to truth; Johnson gives it force and energy. Addison makes virtue amiable; Johnson represents it as an awful duty: Addison insinuates himself with an air of modesty; Johnson commands like a dictator; but a dictator in his splendid robes, not labouring at the plough: Addison is the Jupiter of Virgil, with placid serenity talking to Venus,
"Vultu, quo cœlum tempestatesque serenat."
Johnson is Jupiter Tonans: he darts his lightning and rolls his thunder, in the cause of virtue and piety. The language seems to fall short of his ideas; he pours along, familiarizing the terms of philosophy, with bold inversions, and sonorous periods; but we may apply to him, what Pope has said of Homer: "It is the sentiment that swells and fills out the diction, which rises with it, and forms itself about it: like glass in the furnace, which grows to a greater magnitude, as the breath within is more powerful, and the heat more intense."
It is not the design of this comparison to decide between these two eminent writers. In matters of taste every reader will choose for himself. Johnson is always profound, and, of course, gives the fatigue of thinking. Addison charms, while he instructs; and writing, as he always does, a pure, an elegant, and
idiomatic style, he may be pronounced the safest model for imitation.
The essays written by Johnson in the Adventurer, may be called a continuation of the Rambler. The Idler, in order to be consistent with the assumed character, is written with abated vigour, in a style of ease and unlaboured elegance. It is the Odyssey, after the Iliad. Intense thinking would not become the Idler. The first number presents a well-drawn portrait of an Idler, and from that character no deviation could be made. Accordingly, Johnson forgets his austere manner, and plays us into sense. He still continues his lectures on human life, but he adverts to common occurrences, and is often content with the topic of the day. An advertisement in the beginning of the first volume informs us, that twelve entire essays were a contribution from different hands. One of these, No. 33, is the journal of a senior fellow, at Cambridge, but, as Johnson, being himself an original thinker, always revolted from servile imitation, he has printed the piece with an apology, importing, that the journal of a citizen, in the Spectator, almost precluded the attempt of any subsequent writer. This account of the Idler may be closed, after observing, that the author's mother being buried on the 23rd of January, 1759, there is an admirable paper occasioned by that event, on Saturday, the 27th of the same month, No. 41. The reader, if he pleases, may compare it with another fine paper in the Rambler, No. 54, on the conviction that rushes on the mind at the bed of a dying friend.
"Rasselas," says sir John Hawkins, "is a specimen of our language scarcely to be paralleled; it is written in a style refined to a degree of immaculate purity, and displays the whole force of turgid eloquence." One cannot but smile at this encomium. Rasselas, is, undoubtedly, both elegant and sublime. It is a view of human life, displayed, it must be owned, in gloomy colours. The author's natural melancholy, depressed, at the time, by the approaching dissolution of his mother, darkened the picture. A tale, that should keep curiosity awake by the artifice of unexpected incidents, was not the design of a mind pregnant with better things. He, who reads the heads of the chapters, will find, that it is not a course of adventures that invites him forward, but a discussion of interesting questions; reflections on human life; the history of Imlac, the man of learning; a dissertation upon poetry; the character of a wise and happy man,
who discourses, with energy, on the government of the passions, and, on a sudden, when death deprives him of his daughter, forgets all his maxims of wisdom, and the eloquence that adorned them, yielding to the stroke of affliction, with all the vehemence of the bitterest anguish. It is by pictures of life, and profound moral reflection, that expectation is engaged, and gratified throughout the work. The history of the mad astronomer, who imagines that, for five years, he possessed the regulation of the weather, and that the sun passed, from tropic to tropic, by his direction, represents, in striking colours, the sad effects of a distempered imagination. It becomes the more affecting when we recollect, that it proceeds from one who lived in fear of the same dreadful visitation; from one who says emphatically : "Of the uncertainties in our present state, the most dreadful and alarming is the uncertain continuance of reason." The inquiry into the cause of madness, and the dangerous prevalence of imagination, till, in time, some particular train of ideas fixes the attention, and the mind recurs constantly to the favourite conception, is carried on in a strain of acute observation; but it leaves us room to think, that the author was transcribing from his own apprehensions. The discourse on the nature of the soul, gives us all that philosophy knows, not without a tincture of superstition. It is remarkable, that the vanity of human pursuits was, about the same time, the subject that employed both Johnson and Voltaire; but Candide is the work of a lively imagination; and Rasselas, with all its splendour of eloquence, exhibits a gloomy picture. It should, however, be remembered, that the world has known the weeping, as well as the laughing philosopher.
The Dictionary does not properly fall within the province of this essay. The preface, however, will be found in this edition. He who reads the close of it, without acknowledging the force of the pathethic and sublime, must have more insensibility in his composition, than usually falls to the share of a man. The work itself, though, in some instances, abuse has been loud, and, in others, malice has endeavoured to undermine its fame, still remains the MOUNT ATLAS of English literature.
"Though storms and tempests thunder on its brow,
And oceans break their billows at its feet,
It stands unmov'd, and glories in its height."