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THE LIFE AND GENIUS
SAMUEL JOHNSON, LL. D.
WHEN the works of a great writer, who has be- | queathed to posterity a lasting legacy, are presented to the world, it is naturally expected, that some account of his life should accompany the edition. The reader wishes to know as much as possible of the author. The circumstances that attended him, the features of his private character, his conversation, and the means by which he rose to eminence, becomes the favourite objects of inquiry. Curiosity is excited; and the admirer of his works is eager to know his private opinions, his course of study, the particularities of his conduct, and, above all, whether he pursued the wisdom which he recommends, and practised the virtue which his writings inspire. A principle of gratitude is awakened in every generous mind. For the entertainment and instruction which genius and diligence have provided for the world, men of refined and sensible tempers are ready to pay their tribute of praise, and even to form a posthumous friendship with the author.
In reviewing the life of such a writer, there is, besides, a rule of justice to which the public have an undoubted claim. Fond admiration and partial friendship should not be suffered to represent his virtues with exaggeration; nor should malignity be allowed, under a specious disguise, to magnify mere defects, the usual failings of human nature, into vice or gross deformity. The lights and shades of the character should be given; and, if this be done with a strict regard to truth, a just estimate of Dr. Johnson will afford a lesson, perhaps as valuable as the moral doctrine that speaks with energy in every page of his works.
The present writer enjoyed the conversation and friendship of that excellent man more than thirty years. He thought it an honour to be so connected, and to this hour he reflects on his loss with regret: but regret, he knows has secret bribes, by which the judgment may be influenced, and partial affection may be carried beyond the bounds of truth. In the present case, however, nothing needs to be disguised, and exaggerated praise is unnecessary. It is an observation of the younger Pliny, in his Epistle to his friend Tacitus, that history ought never to magnify matters of fact, because worthy actions
require nothing but the truth. Nam nec historia debet egredi veritatem, et honeste factis veritas suffi· cit. This rule the present biographer promises shall guide his pen throughout the following nar. rative.
It may be said, the death of Dr. Johnson kept the public mind in agitation beyond all former example. No literary character ever excited so much attention; and, when the press has teemed with anecdotes, apophthegms, essays, and publications of every kind, what occasion now for a new tract on the same threadbare subject? The plain truth shall be the answer. The proprietors of Johnson's Works thought the life, which they prefixed to their former edition, too unweildy for republication. The prodigious variety of foreign matter, introduced into that performance, seemed to overload the memory of Dr. Johnson, and in the account of his own life to leave him hardly visible. They wished to have a more concise, and, for that reason, perhaps a more satisfactory account, such as may exhibit a just picture of the man, and keep him the principai figure in the foreground of his own picture. To comply with that request is the design o this essay, which the writer undertakes with a trembling hand. He has no discoveries, no se cret anecdotes, no occasional controversy, no sudden flashes of wit and humour, no private conversation, and no new facts to embellish his work. Every thing has been gleaned. Dr. Johnson said of himself, "I am not uncandid nor severe: I sometimes say more than I mean, in jest, and people are apt to think me serious."* The exercise of that privilege which is enjoyed by every man in society, has not been allowed to him. His fame has given importance even to trifles; and the zeal of his friends has brought every thing to light. What should be related, and what should not, has been published without distinction. Dicenda tacenda locuti! Every thing that fell from him has been caught with eagerness by his admirers, who, as he says in one of his letters, have acted with the diligence of spies upon his conduct. To some of them the following lines, in Mallet's Poem, on verbal criticism, are not inapplicable:
* Boswell's Life of Johnson, vol. ii. p. 465, 4to. edit
where he was not remarkable for diligence or
collecting the predictions of Boileau's father,
After so many essays and volumes of Johnsoni-him for some months, and in the mean time as
his mother at eighty-nine, of a gradual decay, in the year 1759. Of the family nothing more can be related worthy of notice. Johnson did not delight in talking of his relations. "There is little pleasure," he said to Mrs. Piozzi, "in relating the anecdotes of beggary."
Johnson derived from his parents, or from an unwholesome nurse, the distemper called the king's evil. The jacobites at that time believed in the efficacy of the royal touch; and accordingly Mrs. Johnson presented her son, when two years old, before Queen Anne, who, for the first time, performed that office, and communicated to her young patient all the healing virtue in her power. He was afterwards cut for that scrophulous humour, and the under part of his face was seamed and disfigured by the operation. It is supposed that this disease deprived him of the sight of his left eye, and also impaired his hearing. At eight years old he was placed under Mr. Hawkins, at the Free-school in Litchfield,
"Such that grave bird in Northern seas is found,
*This appears in a note to Johnson's Diary, prefixed to the first of his prayers. After the alteration of the style, he kept his birth-day on the 18th of September, and it is accordingly marked September, 7-18.
came head of the college, and was esteemed] tion. He appears, by his modest and unaffected through life for his learning, his talents, and his narration, to have described things as he saw amiable character. Johnson grew more regular them; to have copied nature from the life; and in his attendance. Ethics, theology, and classic to have consulted his senses, not his imagination. literature, were his favourite studies. He disco- He meets with no basilisks, that destroy with vered, notwithstanding, early symptoms of that their eyes; his crocodiles devour their prey, withwandering disposition of mind, which adhered out tears; and his cataracts fall from the rock, to him to the end of his life. His reading was without deafening the neighbouring inhabitants. by fits and starts, undirected to any particular The reader will here find no regions cursed with science. General philology, agreeably to his irremediable barrenness, or blessed with sponcousin Ford's advice, was the object of his am- taneous fecundity; no perpetual gloom, or unbition. He received, at that time, an early im- ceasing sunshine: nor are the nations, here depression of piety, and a taste for the best authors, scribed, either void of all sense of humanity, or ancient and modern. It may, notwithstanding, consummate in all private and social virtues : be questioned whether, except his Bible, he ever here are no Hottentots without religion, polity, read a book entirely through. Late in life, if any or articulate language; no Chinese perfectly poman praised a book in his presence, he was sure lite, and completely skilled in all sciences: he to ask, "Did you read it through?" If the answer will discover, what will always be discovered by was in the affirmative, he did not seem willing to a diligent and impartial inquirer, that, wherever believe it. He continued at the university till the human nature is to be found, there is a mixture want of pecuniary supplies obliged him to quit of vice and virtue, a contest of passion and reathe place. He obtained, however, the assistance son; and that the Creator doth not appear partial of a friend, and returning in a short time, was in his distributions, but has balanced, in most able to complete a residence of three years. The countries, their particular inconveniences by parhistory of his exploits, at Oxford, he used to say, ticular favours."-We have here an early spewas best known to Dr. Taylor and Dr. Adams. cimen of Johnson's manner; the vein of thinkWonders are told of his memory, and, indeed, ing and the frame of the sentences are maniall who knew him late in life, can witness that festly his: we see the infant Hercules. The he retained that faculty in the greatest vigour. translation of Lobo's Narrative has been reFrom the university Johnson returned to printed lately in a separate volume, with some Litchfield. His father died soon after, Decem- other tracts of Dr. Johnson's, and therefore ber 1731; and the whole receipt out of his cf-forms no part of this edition; but a compendious fects, as appeared by a memorandum in the son's account of so interesting a work as Father Lohand-writing, dated 15th June, 1732, was no bo's discovery of the head of the Nile will not, it more than twenty pounds. In this exigence, is imagined, be unacceptable to the reader. determined that poverty should neither depress Father Lobo, the Portuguese Missionary, em his spirit nor warp his integrity, he became un- barked, in 1622, in the same fleet with the der-master of a grammar-school at Market-Bos- Count Vidigueira, who was appointed, by the worth in Leicestershire. That resource, how-king of Portugal, Viceroy of the Indies. They ever, did not last long. Disgusted by the pride arrived at Goa; and, in January 1624, Father of Sir Wolstan Dixie, the patron of that little Lobo set out on the mission to Abyssinia. Two seminary, he left the place in discontent, and of the Jesuits, sent on the same commission, were ever after spoke of it with abhorrence. In 1733 murdered in their attempt to penetrate into that he went on a visit to Mr. Hector, who had been empire. Lobo had better success; he surais school-fellow, and was then a surgeon at mounted all difficulties, and made his way into Birmingham, lodging at the house of Warren, a the heart of the country. Then follows a debookseller. At that place Johnson translated a scription of Abyssinia, formerly the largest emvoyage to Abyssinia, written by Jerome Lobo, pire of which we have an account in history. It a Portuguese missionary. This was the first extended from the Red Sea to the kingdom of literary work from the pen of Dr. Johnson. His Congo, and from Egypt to the Indian Sea, confriend Hector was occasionally his amanuensis, taining no less than forty provinces. At the The work was, probably, undertaken at the de- time of Lobo's mission, it was not much larger sire of Warren, the bookseller, and was printed than Spain, consisting then but of five kingdoms, at Birmingham; but it appears in the Literary of which part was entirely subject to the EmMagazine, or History of the Works of the peror, and part paid him a tribute, as an acLearned, for March 1735, that it was published knowledgment. The provinces were inhabited by Bettesworth and Hitch, Paternoster-row. It by Moors, Pagans, Jews, and Christians. The contains a narrative of the endeavours of a com- last was, in Lobo's time, the established and pany of missionaries to convert the people of reigning religion. The diversity of people and Abyssinia to the Church of Rome. In the pre- religion is the reason why the kingdom was unface to this work Johnson observes, "that the der different forms of government, with laws Portuguese traveller, contrary to the general and customs extremely various. Some of the view of his countrymen, has amused his readers people neither sowed their lands, nor improved with no romantic absurdities, or incredible fic- them by any kind of culture, living upon milk and flesh, and, like the Arabs, encamping without any settled habitation. In some places they practised no rites of worship, though they believed that, in the regions above, there dwells a Being that governs the world. This Deity they call in their language Oul. The Christianity professed by the people in some parts, is corrupted with superstitious errors, and here
The entry of this is remarkable, for his early resolu
tion to preserve through life a fair and upright character. "1732, Junii 15. Undecim aureos deposui, quo die, quidquid ante matris funus (quod serum sit precor) de paternis bonis sperare licet, viginti scilicet libras, accepi. Usque adeo mihi mea fortuna fingenda est interea, et ne paupertate vires animi languescant, ne in flagitia egestas adigat, cavendum."
sies, and so mingled with ceremonies borrowed "As to the course of the Nile, its waters, af from the Jews, that little, besides the name of ter the first rise, run towards the East, about the Christianity, is to be found among them. The length of a musket-shot: then, turning northAbyssins cannot properly be said to have either ward, continue hidden in the grass and weeds cities or houses; they live in tents or cottages for about a quarter of a league, when they remade of straw or clay, very rarely building with appear amongst a quantity of rocks. The Nile stone. Their villages or towns consist of these from its source proceeds with so inconsiderable huts; yet even of such villages they have but a current, that it is in danger of being dried up few; because the grandees; the viceroys, and the by the hot season; but soon receiving an increase emperor himself, are always in camp, that they from the Gemma, the Keltu, the Bransa, and the may be prepared, upon the most sudden alarm, other smaller rivers, it expands to such a breadth to meet every emergence, in a country which is in the plains of Boad, which is not above three engaged every year either in foreign wars or in- days' journey from its source, that a muskettestine commotions. Ethiopia produces very ball will scarcely fly from one bank to the other. near the same kinds of provision as Portugal, Here it begins to run northward, winding, howthough, by the extreme laziness of the inhabit- ever, a little to the East for the space of nine or ants, in a much less quantity. What the an- ten leagues, and then enters the so-much-talkedcients imagined of the torrid zone being a part of Lake of Dambia, flowing with such violent of the world uninhabitable, is so far from being rapidity, that its waters may be distinguished true, that the climate is very temperate. The through the whole passage, which is no less than blacks have better features than in other coun- six leagues. Here begins the greatness of the tries, and are not without wit and ingenuity. Nile. Fifteen miles further, in the land of Alata, Their apprehension is quick, and their judgment it rushes precipitately from the top of a high rock, sound. There are in the climate two harvests and forms one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the year: one in winter, which lasts through the months of July, August and September; the other in the Spring. They have, in the greatest plenty, raisins, peaches, pomegranates, sugar-canes, and some figs. Most of these are ripe about Lent, which the Abyssins keep with great strictness. The animals of the country are the lion, the elephant, the rhinoceros, the unicorn, horses, mules, oxen, and cows without number. They have a very particular custom, which obliges every man, that has a thousand cows, to save every year one day's milk of all his herd, and make a bath with it for his relations. This they do so many days in each year, as they have thousands of cattle; so that, to express how rich a man is, they tell you he bathes so many times.
"Of the river Nile, which has furnished so much controversy, we have a full and clear description. It is called by the natives, Abavi, the Father of Water. It rises in Sacala, a province of the kingdom of Goiama, the most fertile and agreeable part of the Abyssinian dominions. On the Eastern side of the country, on the declivity of a mountain, whose descent is so easy, that it seems a beautiful plain, is that source of the Nile, which has been sought after at so much expense and labour. This spring, or rather these two springs, are two holes, each about two feet diameter, a stone's cast distant from each other. One of them is about five feet and a half in depth. Lobo was not able to sink his plummet lower, perhaps, because it was stopped by roots, the whole place being full of trees. A line of ten feet did not reach the bottom of the other. These springs are supposed by the Abyssins to be the vents of a great subterraneous lake. At a small distance to the South, is a village called Guix, through which you ascend to the top of the mountain, where there is a little hill, which the idolatrous Agaci hold in great veneration. Their priest calls them together to this place once a year: and every one sacrifices a cow, or more, according to the different degrees of wealth and devotion Hence we have sufficient proof, that these nations always paid adoration to the Deity of this famous river.
in the world. Lobo says, he passed under it without being wet, and resting himself, for the sake of the coolness, was charmed with a thousand delightful rainbows, which the sunbeams painted on the water, in all their shining and lively colours. The fall of this mighty stream, from so great a height, makes a noise that may be heard at a considerable distance; but it was not found, that the neighbouring inhabitants were deaf. After the cataract, the Nile collects its scattered stream among the rocks, which are so near each other, that in Lobo's time, a bridge of beams, on which the whole imperial army passed, was laid over them. Sultan Sequed has since built a stone bridge of one arch, in the same place, for which purpose he procured ma sons from India. Here the river alters its course, and passes through various kingdoms, such as Amhara, Olaca, Choaa, Damot, and the king dom of Goiama, and, after various windings, returns within a short day's journey of its spring. To pursue it through all its mazes, and accom pany it round the kingdom of Goiama, is a journey of twenty-nine days. From Abyssinia, the river passes into the countries of Fazulo and Ombarca, two vast regions little known, inhabited by nations entirely different from the Abys sins. Their hair, like that of the other blacks in those regions, is short and curled. In the year 1615, Rassela Christos, Lieutenant-General to Sultan Sequed, entered those kingdoms in a hostile manner; but, not being able to get intelligence, returned without attempting any thing. As the empire of Abyssinia terminates at these descents, Lobo followed the course of the Nile no farther, leaving it to range over barbarous kingdoms, and convey wealth and plenty into Egypt, which owes to the annual inundations
*This, Mr. Bruce, the late traveller, avers to be a downright falsehood. He says, a deep pool of water reaches to the very foot of the rock; and allowing that there was a seat or bench (which there is not) in the middle of the pool, it is absolutely impossible, by any exertion of human strength, to have arrived at it. But it may be asked, can Mr. Bruce say, what was the face of the country in the year 1622, when Lobo saw the magnificent sight which he formed since; and Lobo, perhaps, was content to sit down has described? Mr. Bruce's pool of water may have been
without a bench.