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Brumoy says, Pascal, from his infancy, felt himself a geometrician; and Vandyke, in like manner, was a painter. Shakespeare, who, of all poets, had the deepest insight into human nature, was aware of a prevailing bias in the operations of every mind. By him we are told, " Masterless passion sways us to the mood of what it likes or loathes."
It remains to inquire, whether, in the lives before us, the characters are partial, and too often drawn with malignity of misrepresentation? To prove this, it is alleged, that Johnson has misrepresented the circumstances relative to the translation of the first Iliad, and maliciously ascribed that performance to Addison, instead of Tickell, with too much reliance on the testimony of Pope, taken from the account in the papers left by Mr. Spence. For a refutation of the fallacy imputed to Addison, we are referred to a note in the Biographia Britannica, written by the late judge Blackstone, who, it is said, examined the whole matter with accuracy, and found, that the first regular statement of the accusation against Addison, was published by Ruffhead, in his life of Pope, from the materials which he received from Dr. Warburton. But, with all due deference to the learned judge, whose talents deserve all praise, this account is by no means accurate.
Sir Richard Steele, in a dedication of the comedy of the Drummer, to Mr. Congreve, gave the first insight into that business. He says, in a style of anger and resentment: "If that gentleman (Mr. Tickell) thinks himself injured, I will allow I have wronged him upon this issue, that, if the reputed translator of the first book of Homer shall please to give us another book, there shall appear another good judge in poetry, besides Mr. Alexander Pope, who shall like it." The authority of Steele outweighs all opinions, founded on vain conjecture, and, indeed, seems to be decisive, since we do not find that Tickell, though warmly pressed, thought proper to vindicate himself.
But the grand proof of Johnson's malignity, is the manner in which he has treated the character and conduct of Milton. Το enforce this charge has wearied sophistry, and exhausted the invention of a party. What they cannot deny, they palliate; what they cannot prove, they say is probable. But why all this rage against Dr. Johnson? Addison, before him, had said of Milton :
"Oh! had the poet ne'er profan'd his pen,
To varnish o'er the guilt of faithless men!"
And had not Johnson an equal right to avow his sentiments? Do his enemies claim a privilege to abuse whatever is valuable to Englishmen, either in church or state? and must the liberty of unlicensed printing be denied to the friends of the British constitution?
It is unnecessary to pursue the argument through all its artifices, since, dismantled of ornament and seducing language, the plain truth may be stated in a narrow compass. Johnson knew that Milton was a republican: he says, "an acrimonious and surly republican, for which it is not known that he gave any better reason than, that a popular government was the most frugal; for the trappings of a monarchy would set up an ordinary commonwealth." Johnson knew that Milton talked aloud "of the danger of readmitting kingship in this nation;" and when Milton adds, " that a commonwealth was commended, or rather enjoined, by our Saviour himself, to all christians, not without a remarkable disallowance, and the brand of gentilism upon kingship," Johnson thought him no better than a wild enthusiast. He knew, as well as Milton," that the happiness of a nation must needs be firmest and certainest in a full and free council of their own electing, where no single person, but reason only, sways;" but the example of all the republicks, recorded in the annals of mankind, gave him no room to hope, that reason only would be heard. He knew, that the republican form of government, having little or no complication, and no consonance of parts, by a nice mechanism forming a regular whole, was too simple to be beautiful, even in theory. In practice it, perhaps, never existed. In its most flourishing state, at Athens, Rome, and Carthage, it was a constant scene of tumult and commotion. From the mischiefs of a wild democracy, the progress has ever been to the dominion of an aristocracy; and the word aristocracy, fatally includes the boldest and most turbulent citizens, who rise by their crimes, and call themselves the best men in the state. By intrigue, by cabal, and faction, a pernicious oligarchy is sure to succeed, and end, at last, in the tyranny of a single ruler. Tacitus, the great master of political wisdom, saw, under the mixed authority of king, nobles, and people, a better form of government than Milton's boasted republick; and what Tacitus admired in theory, but despaired of enjoying, Johnson saw established in this country. He knew that it had been overturned by the rage of frantic men; but he knew that, after the iron rod of Crom
well's usurpation, the constitution was once more restored to its first principles. Monarchy was established, and this country was regenerated. It was regenerated a second time, at the revolution: the rights of men were then defined, and the blessings of good order, and civil liberty, have been ever since diffused through the whole community.
The peace and happiness of society were what Dr. Johnson had at heart. He knew that Milton called his defence of the regicides, a defence of the people of England; but, however glossed and varnished, he thought it an apology for murder. Had the men, who, under a show of liberty, brought their king to the scaffold, proved, by their subsequent conduct, that the public good inspired their actions, the end might have given some sanction to the means; but usurpation and slavery followed. Milton undertook the office of secretary, under the despotic power of Cromwell, offering the incense of adulation to his master, with the titles of" director of public councils, the leader of unconquered armies, the father of his country." Milton declared, at the same time, "that nothing is more pleasing to God, or more agreeable to reason, than that the highest mind should have the sovereign power." In this strain of servile flattery, Milton gives us the right divine of tyrants. But it seems, in the same piece, he exhorts Cromwell "not to desert those great principles of liberty which he had professed to espouse; for, it would be a grievous enormity, if, after having successfully opposed tyranny, he should himself act the part of a tyrant, and betray the cause that he had defended." This desertion of every honest principle the advocate for liberty lived to see. Cromwell acted the tyrant ; and, with vile hypocrisy, told the people, that he had consulted the Lord, and the Lord would have it so. Milton took an under part in the tragedy. Did that become the defender of the people of England? Brutus saw his country enslaved; he struck the blow for freedom, and he died with honour in the cause. Had he lived to be a secretary under Tiberius, what would now be said of his memory?
But still, it seems, the prostitution with which Milton is charged, since it cannot be defended, is to be retorted on the character of Johnson. For this purpose, a book has been published, called Remarks on Dr. Johnson's Life of Milton; to which are added, Milton's Tractate of Education, and Areopagitica. In this laboured tract we are told, "There is one per
formance, ascribed to the pen of the Doctor, where the prostitution is of so singular a nature, that it would be difficult to select an adequate motive for it, out of the mountainous heap of conjectural causes of human passions, or human caprice. It is the speech of the late unhappy Dr. William Dodd, when he was about to hear the sentence of the law pronounced upon him, in consequence of an indictment for forgery. The voice of the public has given the honour of manufacturing this speech to Dr. Johnson; and the style, and configuration of the speech itself, confirm the imputation. But it is hardly possible to divine what could be his motive for accepting the office. A man, to express the precise state of mind of another, about to be destined to an ignominious death, for a capital crime, should, one would imagine, have some consciousness, that he himself had incurred some guilt of the same kind." In all the schools of sophistry, is there to be found so vile an argument? In the purlieus of Grub street, is there such another mouthful of dirt? In the whole quiver of malice, is there so envenomed a shaft?
After this, it is to be hoped, that a certain class of men will talk no more of Johnson's malignity. The last apology for Milton is, that he acted according to his principles. But Johnson thought those principles detestable; pernicious to the constitution, in church and state, destructive of the peace of society, and hostile to the great fabric of civil policy, which the wisdom of ages has taught every Briton to revere, to love, and cherish. He reckoned Milton in that class of men, of whom the Roman historian says, when they want, by a sudden convulsion, to overturn the government, they roar and clamour for liberty; if they succeed, they destroy liberty itself: "Ut imperium evertant, libertatem præferunt ; si perverterint, libertatem ipsam aggredientur." Such were the sentiments of Dr. Johnson; and it may be asked, in the language of Bolingbroke, "Are these sentiments, which any man, who is born a Briton, in any circumstances, in any situation, ought to be ashamed, or afraid to avow?" Johnson has done ample justice to Milton's poetry: the criticism on Paradise Lost is a sublime composition. Had he thought the author as good and pious a citizen as Dr. Watts, he would have been ready, notwithstanding his nonconformity, to do equal honour to the memory of the man.
It is now time to close this essay, which the author fears has been drawn too much into length. In the progress of the work,
feeble as it may be, he thought himself performing the last human office to the memory of a friend, whom he loved, esteemed, and honoured:
"His saltem accumulem donis, et fungar inani
The author of these memoirs has been anxious to give the features of the man, and the true character of the author. He has not suffered the hand of partiality to colour his excellencies with too much warmth; nor has he endeavoured to throw his singularities too much into the shade. Dr. Johnson's failings may well be forgiven, for the sake of his virtues. His defects were spots in the sun. His piety, his kind affections, and the goodness of his heart, present an example worthy of imitation. His works still remain a monument of genius and of learning. Had he written nothing but what is contained in this edition, the quantity shows a life spent in study and meditation. If to this be added, the labour of his Dictionary, and other various productions, it may be fairly allowed, as he used to say of himself, that he has written his share. In the volumes here presented to the public the reader will find a perpetual source of pleasure and instruction. With due precautions, authors may learn to grace their style with elegance, harmony, and precision; they may be taught to think with vigour and perspicuity; and, to crown the whole, by a diligent attention to these books, all may advance in virtue.