« PrejšnjaNaprej »
That Johnson was eminently qualified for the office of a commentator on Shakespeare, no man can doubt; but it was an office which he never cordially embraced. The public expected more than he had diligence to perform; and yet his edition has been the ground, on which every subsequent commentator has chosen to build. One note, for its singularity, may be thought worthy of notice in this place. Hamlet says, "For if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog, being a god-kissing carrion." In this Warburton discovered the origin of evil. Hamlet, he says, breaks off in the middle of the sentence; but the learned commentator knows what he was going to say, and, being unwilling to keep the secret, he goes on in a train of philosophical reasoning, that leaves the reader in astonishment. Johnson, with true piety, adopts the fanciful hypothesis, declaring it to be a noble emendation, which almost sets the critic on a level with the author. The general observations at the end of the several plays, and the preface, will be found in this edition. The former, with great elegance and precision, give a summary view of each drama. The preface is a tract of great erudition and philosophical criticism.
Johnson's political pamphlets, whatever was his motive for writing them, whether gratitude for his pension, or the solicitation of men in power, did not support the cause for which they were undertaken. They are written in a style truly harmonious, and with his usual dignity of language. When it is said that he advanced positions repugnant to the "common rights of mankind,” the virulence of party may be suspected. It is, perhaps, true, that in the clamour, raised throughout the kingdom, Johnson overheated his mind; but he was a friend to the rights of man, and he was greatly superior to the littleness of spirit, that might incline him to advance what he did not think and firmly believe. In the False Alarm, though many of the most eminent men in the kingdom concurred in petitions to the throne, yet Johnson, having well surveyed the mass of the people, has given, with great humour, and no less truth, what may be called, "the birth, parentage, and education of a remonstrance." On the subject of Falkland's islands, the fine dissuasive from too hastily involving the world in the calamities of war, must extort applause even from the party that wished, at that time, for scenes of tumult and commotion. It was in the same pamphlet, that Johnson offered battle to Junius, a writer, who, by the uncommon ele
gance of his style, charmed every reader, though his object was to inflame the nation in favour of a faction. Junius fought in the dark; he saw his enemy, and had his full blow; while he himself remained safe in obscurity. "But let us not," said Johnson, "mistake the venom of the shaft, for the vigour of the bow." The keen invective which he published, on that occasion, promised a paper war between two combatants, who knew the use of their weapons. A battle between them was as eagerly expected, as between Mendoza and Big Ben. But Junius, whatever was his reason, never returned to the field. He laid down his arms, and has, ever since, remained as secret as the man in the mask, in Voltaire's history.
The account of his journey to the Hebrides, or western isles of Scotland, is a model for such as shall, hereafter, relate their travels. The author did not visit that part of the world in the character of an antiquary, to amuse us with wonders taken from the dark and fabulous ages; nor, as a mathematician, to measure a degree, and settle the longitude and latitude of the several islands. Those, who expected such information, expected what was never intended. "In every work regard the writer's end." Johnson went to see men and manners, modes of life, and the progress of civilization. His remarks are so artfully blended with the rapidity and elegance of his narrative, that the reader is inclined to wish, as Johnson did, with regard to Gray, that " to travel, and to tell his travels, had been more of his employment."
As to Johnson's Parliamentary Debates, nothing, with propriety, can be said in this place. They are collected, in two volumes, by Mr. Stockdale, and the flow of eloquence which runs through the several speeches, is sufficiently known.
It will not be useless to mention two more volumes, which may form a proper supplement to this edition. They contain a set of sermons, left for publication by John Taylor, LL. D. The reverend Mr. Hayes, who ushered these discourses into the world, has not given them, as the composition of Dr. Taylor. All he could say for his departed friend was, that he left them, in silence, among his papers. Mr. Hayes knew them to be the production of a superior mind; and the writer of these memoirs owes it to the candour of that elegant scholar, that he is now warranted to give an additional proof of Johnson's ardour in the cause of piety, and every moral duty. The last discourse in the collection was intended to be delivered by Dr. Taylor, at the
funeral of Johnson's wife; but that reverend gentleman declined the office, because, as he told Mr. Hayes, the praise of the deceased was too much amplified. He, who reads the piece, will find it a beautiful moral lesson, written with temper, and nowhere overcharged with ambitious ornaments. The rest of the discourses were the fund, which Dr. Taylor, from time to time, carried with him to his pulpit. He had the largest bulla in England, and some of the best sermons.
We come now to the Lives of the Poets, a work undertaken at the age of seventy, yet, the most brilliant, and, certainly, the most popular, of all our author's writings. For this performance he needed little preparation. Attentive always to the history of letters, and, by his own natural bias, fond of biography, he was the more willing to embrace the proposition of the booksellers. He was versed in the whole body of English poetry, and his rules of criticism were settled with precision. The dissertation, in the life of Cowley, on the metaphysical poets of the last century, has the attraction of novelty, as well as sound observation. The writers, who followed Dr. Donne, went in quest of something better than truth and nature. As Sancho says, in Don Quixote, they wanted better bread than is made with wheat. They took pains to bewilder themselves, and were ingenious for no other purpose than to err. In Johnson's review of Cowley's works, false wit is detected in all its shapes, and the Gothic taste for glittering conceits, and far-fetched allusions, is exploded, never, it is hoped, to revive again.
An author who has published his observations on the Life and Writings of Dr. Johnson, speaking of the Lives of the Poets, says, "These compositions, abounding in strong and acute remark, and with many fine, and even sublime, passages, have, unquestionably, great merit; but, if they be regarded, merely as containing narrations of the lives, delineations of the characters, and strictures of the several authors, they are far from being always to be depended on." He adds: "The characters are sometimes partial, and there is, sometimes, too much malignity of misrepresentation, to which, perhaps, may be joined no inconsiderable portion of erroneous criticism." The several clauses of this censure deserve to be answered, as fully as the limits of this essay will permit.
4 See Johnson's letters from Ashbourne, in this volume.
In the first place, the facts are related upon the best intelligence, and the best vouchers that could be gleaned, after a great lapse of time. Probability was to be inferred from such materials, as could be procured, and no man better understood the nature of historical evidence than Dr. Johnson; no man was more religiously an observer of truth. If his history is any where defective, it must be imputed to the want of better information, and the errors of uncertain tradition.
"Ad nos vix tenuis famæ perlabitur aura."
If the strictures on the works of the various authors are not always satisfactory, and if erroneous criticism may sometimes be suspected, who can hope, that in matters of taste, all shall agree?
The instances, in which the public mind has differed, from the positions advanced by the author, are few in number. It has been said, that justice has not been done to Swift; that Gay and Prior are undervalued; and that Gray has been harshly treated. This charge, perhaps, ought not to be disputed. Johnson, it is well known, had conceived a prejudice against Swift. His friends trembled for him, when he was writing that life, but were pleased, at last, to see it executed with temper and moderation. As to Prior, it is probable that he gave his real opinion, but an opinion that will not be adopted by men of lively fancy. With regard to Gray, when he condemns the apostrophe, in which father Thames is desired to tell who drives the hoop, or tosses the ball, and then adds, that father Thames had no better means of knowing than himself; when he compares the abrupt beginning of the first stanza of the bard, to the ballad of Johnny Armstrong, "Is there ever a man in all Scotland;" there are, perhaps, few friends of Johnson, who would not wish to blot out both the passages.
It may be questioned, whether the remarks on Pope's Essay on Man can be received, without great caution. It has been already mentioned, that Crousaz, a professor in Switzerland, eminent for his Treatise of Logic, started up a professed enemy to that poem. Johnson says, his mind was one of those, in which philosophy and piety are happily united. He looked, with distrust, upon all metaphysical systems of theology, and was persuaded, that the positions of Pope were intended to draw mankind away from revelation, and to represent the whole course of things, as a necessary concatenation of indissoluble fatality.”
This is not the place for a controversy about the Leibnitzian system. Warburton, with all the powers of his large and comprehensive mind, published a vindication of Pope; and yet Johnson says, that," in many passages, a religious eye may easily discover expressions not very favourable to morals, or to liberty." This sentence is severe, and, perhaps, dogmatical. Crousaz wrote an Examen of the Essay on Man, and, afterwards, a commentary on every remarkable passage; and, though it now appears, that Mrs. Elizabeth Carter translated the foreign critic, yet it is certain, that Johnson encouraged the work, and, perhaps, imbibed those early prejudices, which adhered to him to the end of his life. He shuddered at the idea of irreligion. Hence, we are told, in the life of Pope, "Never were penury of knowledge, and vulgarity of sentiment, so happily disguised; Pope, in the chair of wisdom, tells much that every man knows, and much that he did not know himself; and gives us comfort in the position, that though man's a fool, yet God is wise; that human advantages are unstable; that our true honour is, not to have a great part, but to act it well; that virtue only is our own, and that happiness is always in our power." The reader, when he meets all this in its new array, no longer knows the talk of his mother and his nurse. But, may it not be said, that every system of ethics must, or ought, to terminate, in plain and general maxims for the use of life? and, though in such anxioms no discovery is made, does not the beauty of the moral theory consist in the premises, and the chain of reasoning that leads to the conclusion? May not truth, as Johnson himself says, be conveyed to the mind by a new train of intermediate images? Pope's doctrine, about the ruling passion, does not seem to be refuted, though it is called, in harsh terms, pernicious, as well as false, tending to establish a kind of moral predestination, or overruling principle, which cannot be resisted. But Johnson was too easily alarmed in the cause of religion. Organized as the human race is, individuals have different inlets of perception, different powers of mind, and different sensations of pleasure and pain.
"All spread their charms, but charm not all alike,