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Title: Dr. Johnson and His Circle
Author: Bailey, John Cann, 1864-1931
Language: English
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DR. JOHNSON AND HIS CIRCLE

by

JOHN BAILEY

Author of "Poets and Poetry," "The Claims of French Poetry," etc.



Thornton Butterworth Limited
15 Bedford Street, London, W.C.2

First Published  . . . . February 1913
Second Impression  . . . September 1919
Third Impression . . . . August 1927
Fourth Impression  . . . January 1931

All Rights Reserved



{v}

CONTENTS


CHAP.                                                    PAGE

   I  JOHNSON AS A NATIONAL INSTITUTION  . . . . . . . .    7
  II  THE GENIUS OF BOSWELL  . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   37
 III  THE LIVES OF BOSWELL AND JOHNSON . . . . . . . . .   70
  IV  JOHNSON'S CHARACTER AND CHARACTERISTICS  . . . . .  109
   V  JOHNSON'S WORKS  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  171
  VI  THE FRIENDS OF JOHNSON . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  230
      BIBLIOGRAPHY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  253
      INDEX  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  265



{7}

DR. JOHNSON AND HIS CIRCLE


CHAPTER I

JOHNSON AS A NATIONAL INSTITUTION

The name of Samuel Johnson is, of course, not the greatest in English
prose, but even to-day, when he has been dead more than a century and a
quarter, it is still the most familiar.  We live in an age of
newspapers.  Where all can read, the newspaper press, taken as a whole,
will be a fairly accurate reflection of what is in the mind of a
people.  Nothing will be mentioned frequently in newspapers which is
not of some interest to a large number of readers; and whatever is
frequently mentioned there cannot fail to become widely known.  Tried
by this test, Johnson's name must be admitted to be very widely known
and of almost universal interest.  No man of letters--perhaps scarcely
even Shakespeare himself--is so often quoted in the columns of the
daily press.  His is a name that may {8} be safely introduced into any
written or spoken discussion, without fear of the stare of
unrecognizing ignorance; and the only danger to which those who quote
him expose themselves is that of the yawn of over-familiarity.  Even in
his own lifetime his reputation extended far beyond the limited circle
of literature or scholarship.  Actresses delighted in his conversation;
soldiers were proud to entertain him in their barracks; innkeepers
boasted of his having slept in their inns.  His celebrity was such that
he himself once said there was hardly a day in which the newspapers did
not mention his name; and a year after his death Boswell could venture
to write publicly of him that his "character, religious, moral,
political and literary, nay his figure and manner, are, I believe, more
generally known than those of almost any man."  But what was, in his
own day, partly a respect paid to the maker of the famous _Dictionary_
and partly a curiosity about "the great Oddity," as the Edensor
innkeeper called him, has in the course of the nineteenth century
become a great deal more.

He is still for us the great scholar and the strongly marked
individuality, but he has gradually attained a kind of apotheosis, a
kind of semi-legendary position, almost rivalling that of the great
John Bull himself, as the {9} embodiment of the essential features of
the English character.  We never think of the typical Englishman being
like Shakespeare or Milton.  In the first place, we know very little
about Shakespeare, and not very much about Milton; and so we are thrown
back on their works, and our mental picture of them takes on a dim and
shadowy grandeur, very unlike what we see when we look within into our
familiar and commonplace selves.  Nor do Englishmen often plume
themselves on their aesthetic or imaginative gifts.  The achievements
of Wren, or Purcell, or Keats may arouse in them admiration and pride,
but never a sense of kinship.  When they recognize themselves in the
national literature, it is not Hamlet, or Lear, or Clarissa, or
Ravenswood that holds up the mirror; but Falstaff, or The Bastard, or
Tom Jones, or Jeanie Deans, or perhaps Gabriel Oak: plain people, all
of them, whatever their differences, with a certain quiet and downright
quality which Englishmen are apt to think the peculiar birthright of
the people of this island.  It is that quality which was the central
thing in the mind of Johnson, and it is to his possession of it, and to
our unique knowledge of it through Boswell, that more than anything
else he owes this position of the typical Englishman among our men of
letters.  We can all imagine that {10} under other conditions, and with
an added store of brains and character, we might each have been Doctor
Johnson.  Before we could fancy ourselves Shelley or Keats the self
that we know would have to be not developed but destroyed.  But in
Johnson we see our own magnified and glorified selves.

It has sometimes been asserted to be the function of the man of letters
to say what others can feel or think but only he can express.  Whatever
may be thought of such a definition of literature, it is certain that
Johnson discharged this particular function with almost unique success.
And he continues to do so still, especially in certain fields.
Whenever we feel strongly the point of view of common sense we almost
expect to be able to find some trenchant phrase of Johnson's with which
to express it.  If it cannot be found it is often invented.  A few
years ago, a lover of Johnson walking along a London street passed by
the side of a cabmen's shelter.  Two cabmen were getting their dinner
ready, and the Johnsonian was amused and pleased to hear one say to the
other: "After all, as Doctor Johnson says, a man may travel all over
the world without seeing anything better than his dinner."  The saying
was new to him and probably apocryphal, though the sentiment is one
which can well be imagined {11} as coming from the great man's mouth.
But whether apocryphal or authentic, the remark well illustrates both
the extent and the particular nature of Johnson's fame.  You would not
find a cabman ascribing to Milton or Pope a shrewd saying that he had
heard and liked.  Is there any man but Johnson in all our literary
history whom he would be likely to call in on such an occasion?  That
is the measure of Johnson's universality of appeal.  And the secret of
it lies, to use his own phrase, not used of himself of course, in the
"bottom of sense," which is the primary quality in all he wrote and
said, and is not altogether absent from his ingrained prejudices, or
even from the perversities of opinion which his love of argument and
opposition so constantly led him to adopt.  Whether right or wrong
there is always something broadly and fundamentally human about him
which appeals to all and especially to the plain man.  Every one feels
at home at once with a man who replies to doubts about the freedom of
the will with the plain man's answer: "Sir, we _know_ our will's free,
and there's an end on't," and if he adds to it an argument which the
plain man would not have thought of, it is still one which the plain
man and everyone else can understand.  "You are surer that you can lift
up your finger or not as you please, than you are of any {12}
conclusion from a deduction of reasoning."  Moreover we all think we
are more honest than our neighbours and are at once drawn to the man
who was less of a humbug than any man who ever lived.  "Clear your mind
of cant" is perhaps the central text of Johnson, on which he enlarged a
hundred times.  "When a butcher tells you his heart bleeds for his
country, he has in fact no uneasy feeling."  No one who has ever
attended an election meeting fails to welcome that saying, or the
answer to Boswell's fears that if he were in Parliament he would be
unhappy if things went wrong, "That's cant, sir. . . .  Public affairs
vex no man."  "Have they not vexed yourself a little, sir?  Have you
not been vexed at all by the turbulence of this reign and by that
absurd vote of the House of Commons, 'That the influence of the Crown
has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished'?"  "Sir, I
have never slept an hour less, nor eat an ounce less meat.  I would
have knocked the factious dogs on the head, to be sure; but I was not
_vexed_."

Here we all know where we are.  This is what we wish we could have said
ourselves, and can fancy ourselves saying under more favourable
circumstances; and we like the man who says it for us.  Certainly no
man, not even Swift, ever put the plain man's view with {13} such
exactness, felicity, and force as Johnson does a thousand times in the
pages of Boswell.  And not only in the pages of Boswell.  One of the
objects of this introductory chapter is to try to give a preliminary
answer to the very natural question which confronts every one who
thinks about Johnson, how it has come about that a man whose works are
so little read to-day should still be so great a name in English life.
How is it that in this HOME UNIVERSITY LIBRARY he is the second author
to have a volume to himself, only Shakespeare preceding him?  The
primary answer is, of course, that we know him, as we know no other man
whose face we never saw, whose voice we never heard.  Boswell boasted
that he had "Johnsonized the land," and that he had shown Johnson in
his book as no man had ever been shown in a book before; and the boast
is after a hundred years seen to be a literal statement of fact.  But
after all Boswell did not make Johnson's reputation.  On the contrary,
it was Johnson's name that sold Boswell's book.  No man owes so much to
his biographer as Johnson to Boswell, but that must not make us forget
that Johnson was the most famous man of letters in England before he
ever saw Boswell.  Boswell's earnest desire to make his acquaintance
and to sit humbly at his feet was only an extreme {14} instance of an
attitude of respect and admiration, often even of reverence, commonly
felt towards him among the more intelligent and serious portion of the
community.  He had not then attained to the position of something like
Dictatorship which he filled in the world of English letters at the
time he wrote the _Lives of the Poets_, but, except the _Shakespeare_
and the _Lives_, all the work that gave him that position was already
done.  In this case, as in others, fame increased in old age without
any corresponding increase in achievement, and it was the easy years at
Streatham, not the laborious years at Gough Square, that saw him
honoured and courted by bishops and judges, peers and commoners, by the
greatest of English statesmen and the greatest of English painters.
But his kingship was in him from the first.  He had been _anax andron_
even among his schoolfellows.  His bigness, in more ways than one, made
them call him "the great boy," and the father of one of them was astute
enough even then to perceive that he would be more than that: "you call
him the great boy, but take my word for it, he will one day prove a
great man."  The boys looked upon him so much as a superior being to
themselves that three of them, of whom one was his friend Hector, whom
he often saw in later life, "used to come in the morning as his humble
{15} attendants and carry him to school.  One in the middle stooped
while he sat upon his back, and one on each side supported him, and
thus he was borne triumphant."  Such a tribute by boys to intellectual
superiority was less rare in those days than it has become since: but
it would not be easy to find a parallel to it at any time.  What began
at school continued through life.  Even when he was poorest and most
obscure, there was something about him that secured respect.  It is too
little to say that no one ever imagined he could with impunity behave
disrespectfully to Johnson.  No one ever dared to do so.  As he flung
the well-meant boots from his door at Oxford, so throughout life he
knew how to make all men afraid to insult, slight, or patronize him.

But these, after all, were qualities that would only affect the few who
came into personal contact with him.  What was it that affected the
larger world and gave him the fame and authority of his later years?
Broadly speaking of course it was what he had written, the work he had
done, his poems, his _Rambler_ and _Idler_, his _Rasselas_, his
_Shakespeare_, above all that colossal and triumphant piece of
single-handed labour, the _Dictionary of the English Language_.  But
there was more than that.  Another man might have written {16} books
quite as valuable, and attained to nothing like Johnson's position.  A
thousand people to-day read what Gray was writing in those years for
one who reads what Johnson wrote, and they are quite right.  Yet Gray
in his lifetime had little fame and no authority except among his
friends.  Pope, again, had of course immense celebrity, more no doubt
than Johnson ever had among men of letters; but he never became, as
Johnson did, something almost like a national institution.  What was it
that gave Johnson what great poets never attained?  It could not yet be
his reputation as a great talker, which was only beginning to spread.
We think of him as the greatest talker the world has ever seen: but
that is chiefly due to Boswell, of course, and we are speaking at
present of the years before the memorable meeting in the back parlour
of Mr. Davies's shop in Russell Street, Covent Garden.  Besides, good
talk, except in Boswell's pages, is like good acting, a vain thing to
those who only know it by hearsay.  We are therefore thrown back on
Johnson's public work for an explanation of the position he held.  What
was it in his work, with so little of Pope's amazing wit and
brilliancy, with so little of Gray's fine imaginative quality and
distinction, prose too, in the main, and not poetry, with none of the
prestige of poetry, {17} that gave him what neither Pope nor Gray ever
received, what it is scarcely too much to call, the homage of a nation?

The answer is that, especially in England, it is not brilliance or
distinction of mind that win the respect of a nation.  George III had
many faults, but all through his reign he was an admirable
representative of the general feelings of his people.  And he never did
a more representative act than when he gave Johnson a pension, or when
he received him in the library of Buckingham House.  No doubt many,
though not all, of Johnson's political and ecclesiastical prejudices
were very congenial to the king, but plenty of people shared George
Ill's views without gaining from him an ounce of respect.  What he and
the nation dimly felt about Johnson was a quality belonging less to the
author than to the man.  The English, as we were saying just now, think
of themselves as a plain people, more honest and direct in word and
deed than the rest of the world.  George III never affected to be
anything but a plain man, was very honest according to his lights, and
never for an instant failed to have the courage of his convictions.
Such a king and such a people would inevitably be attracted to a man of
Johnson's fearless sincerity and invincible common sense.  The ideal of
the nation is {18} still the same.  Johnson once praised the third Duke
of Devonshire for his "dogged veracity."  We have lately seen one of
that duke's descendants and successors, a man of no obvious or shining
talents, attain to a position of almost unique authority among his
fellow countrymen mainly by his signal possession of this hereditary
gift of veracity, honesty and good sense.  So it was with Johnson
himself.  Behind all his learning lay something which no learned
language could conceal.  "On s'attend à voir un auteur et on trouve un
homme."  Authors then, as now, were often thought to be fantastical,
namby-pamby persons, living in dreams, sharing none of the plain man's
interests, eager and querulous about trifles and unrealities,
indifferent and incapable in the broad world of life.  Nobody could
feel that about Johnson.

He never pretended to be superior to the pains or pleasures of the body
and never concealed his interest in the physical basis of life.  He
might with truth have spoken, as Pope did, of "that long disease, my
life," for he declares in one of his letters that after he was past
twenty his health was such that he seldom enjoyed a single day of ease;
and he was so scrupulously truthful when he had a pen in his hand that
that must be taken as at the least a literal record of the truth as it
appeared {19} to him at that moment.  But though he never enjoyed
health he never submitted to the tyranny of disease.  The manliness
that rings through all he wrote made itself felt also in his life, and
we are not surprised to hear from Mrs. Thrale, in whose house he lived
so long, that he "required less attendance sick or well than ever I saw
any human creature."  He could conquer disease and pain, but he never
affected stoic "braveries," about not finding them very actual and
disagreeable realities.  In the same way, he never pretended not to
enjoy the universal pleasures, such as food and sleep.  Boswell records
him as saying: "Some people have a foolish way of not minding, or
pretending not to mind, what they eat.  For my part, 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."  This is not
particularly refined language, and Johnson's manners at the
dinner-table, where, until he had satisfied his appetite, he was
"totally absorbed in the business of the moment," were not always of a
nature to please refined people.  But our present point is that they
were only an exaggeration of that sense of bodily realities which is
one of the things that has always helped to secure for him the plain
man's confidence.  Throughout his life he kept his {20} feet firmly
based on the solid ground of fact.  Human life, as it is actually and
visibly lived, was the subject of his study and conversation from first
to last.  He always put fine-spun theories to mercilessly positive
tests such as the ordinary man understands and trusts at once, though
ordinary men have not the quickness or clearness of mind to apply them.
When people preached a theory to him he was apt to confute them simply
by applying it to practice.  He supposed them to act upon it, and its
absurdity was demonstrated.  One of his friends was Mrs. Macaulay, who
was a republican and affected doctrines of the equality of all men.
When Johnson was at her house one day he put on, as he says, "a very
grave countenance," and said to her: "Madam, I am now become a convert
to your way of thinking.  I am convinced that all mankind are upon an
equal footing; and to give you an unquestionable proof, madam, that I
am in earnest, here is a very sensible, civil, well-behaved
fellow-citizen, your footman: I desire that he may be allowed to sit
down and dine with us."  No wonder that, as he adds, "she has never
liked me since."  To the political thinker, perhaps, such an argument
rather proves the insincerity of Mrs. Macaulay than what he claimed for
it, "the absurdity of the levelling doctrine."  But it exhibits, {21}
with a force that no theoretical reasoning could match, the difficulty
which doctrines of equality will always have to meet in the resistance
of human nature as it is and as it is likely to remain for a long time
to come.  And it illustrates the habit of Johnson's mind which has
always made the unlearned hear him so gladly, the habit of forcing
theory to the test of fact.  For quick as he was, perhaps quicker than
any recorded man, at the tierce and quart of theoretical argument, he
commonly used the bludgeon stroke of practice to give his opponent the
final blow.  We are vaguely distrustful of our reasoning powers, but
every man thinks he can understand facts and figures.  The quickness of
Johnson in applying arithmetical tests to careless statements must have
been another of the elements in the fear, respect and confidence he
inspired.  A gentleman once told him that in France, as soon as a man
of fashion marries, he takes an opera girl into keeping, and he
declared this to be the general custom.  "Pray, sir," said Johnson,
"how many opera girls may there be?"  He answered, "About four score."
"Well then, sir," replied Johnson, "you see there can be no more than
fourscore men of fashion who can do this."

There is no art of persuasion, as all orators know, so overwhelming in
effect as this appeal, {22} or even appearance of appeal, to a court in
which every man feels as much at home as the speaker himself.  And
though Johnson's use of it is, of course, seen at its most telling in
his conversation, it was in him from the first, is a conspicuous
feature of all he wrote, and was undoubtedly a powerful factor in
winning for him the reputation of manliness and honesty he enjoyed.
Take, for instance, a few paragraphs from his analysis of the rhetoric
of authors on the subject of poverty.  It is No. 202 of _The Rambler_.
There is no better evidence of his perfect freedom from that slavery to
words which is the besetting sin of authors.

"There are few words of which the reader believes himself better to
know the import than of _poverty_; yet whoever studies either the poets
or philosophers will find such an account of the condition expressed by
that term as his experience or observation will not easily discover to
be true.  Instead of the meanness, distress, complaint, anxiety and
dependence, which have hitherto been combined in his ideas of poverty,
he will read of content, innocence and cheerfulness, of health and
safety, tranquillity and freedom; of pleasures not known but to men
unencumbered with possessions; and of sleep that sheds his balsamick
anodynes only on the {23} cottage.  Such are the blessings to be
obtained by the resignation of riches, that kings might descend from
their thrones and generals retire from a triumph, only to slumber
undisturbed in the elysium of poverty."

      *      *      *      *      *      *

"But it will be found upon a nearer view that they who extol the
happiness of poverty do not mean the same state with those who deplore
its miseries.  Poets have their imaginations filled with ideas of
magnificence; and being accustomed to contemplate the downfall of
empires, or to contrive forms of lamentation for monarchs in distress,
rank all the classes of mankind in a state of poverty who make no
approaches to the dignity of crowns.  To be poor, in the epick
language, is only not to command the wealth of nations, nor to have
fleets and armies in pay.

"Vanity has perhaps contributed to this impropriety of style.  He that
wishes to become a philosopher at a cheap rate easily gratifies his
ambition by submitting to poverty when he does not feel it, and by
boasting his contempt of riches when he has already more than he
enjoys.  He who would show the extent of his views and grandeur of his
conceptions, or discover his acquaintance with splendour and
magnificence, may talk, like Cowley, of an humble station and quiet
{24} obscurity, of the paucity of nature's wants, and the
inconveniences of superfluity, and at last, like him, limit his desires
to five hundred pounds a year; a fortune indeed, not exuberant, when we
compare it with the expenses of pride and luxury, but to which it
little becomes a philosopher to affix the name of poverty, since no man
can with any propriety be termed poor who does not see the greater part
of mankind richer than himself."

What good sense, what resolute grip on the realities of life, what a
love of truth and seriousness, shines through the long sentences!  The
form and language of the essay may perhaps be too suggestive of the
professional author; but how much the opposite, how very human and
real, is the stuff and substance of what he says!  Professor Raleigh
once proposed as a test of great literature, that it should be found
applicable and useful in circumstances very different from those that
were in the author's mind when he wrote.  By that test these words of
Johnson are certainly great literature.  The degrees of wealth and
poverty have varied infinitely in the history of the world.  They were
very different under the Roman Empire from what they became in the
Middle Age; by Johnson's day they had become quite unlike what they had
been in {25} the days of Dante and Chaucer; and they have again changed
almost or quite as much in the hundred and thirty years that have
passed since he died.  Yet was there ever a time, will there ever be,
when the self-deception of the human heart or the loose thinking of the
human mind, will not allow men who never knew poverty to boast of their
cheerful endurance of it?  Have we not to-day reached a time when men
with an assured income of ten, twenty, or even thirty pounds a week,
affect to consider themselves too poor to be able to afford to marry?
And where will such people better find the needed recall to fact, than
in Johnson's trenchant and unanswerable appeal to the obvious truth as
all can see it, if they will, for themselves, in the visible conditions
of the world about them: "No man can, with any propriety, be termed
poor who does not see the greater part of mankind richer than himself?"

This hold on the realities of life is the most essential element in
Johnson's greatness.  Ordinary people felt it from the first, however
unconsciously, and looked to Johnson as something more than an author.
Pope might do himself honour by acclaiming the verses of the unknown
poet: Warburton might hasten to pay his tribute to the unknown critic:
but they could not give Johnson, what neither {26} of them could have
gained for himself, the confidence, soon to be felt by the whole
reading part of the population of England, that here was a man uniquely
rich in the wisdom of every day, learned but no victim of learning,
sincerely religious but with a religion that never tried to ignore the
facts of human life, a scholar, a philosopher and a Christian, but also
pre-eminently a man.

A grave man, no doubt, apt to deal in grave subjects, especially when
he had his pen in his hand.  But that helped rather than hindered his
influence.  He would not have liked to think that he owed part of his
own authority to the sixteenth and seventeenth century Puritans, but no
doubt he did.  Still the Puritan movement only deepened a vein of
seriousness which had been in the English from Saxon days.  One may see
it everywhere.  The Puritans would not have been the power they were if
they had not found congenial soil in the English character.  The
Reformation itself, a Protestant may be excused for thinking, owes its
ultimate triumph in England partly to the fact that Englishmen saw in
it a movement towards a more serious and ethical religion than the
Catholicism either of the Middle Age or of the Jesuits.  The same thing
may be seen in the narrower fields of literature.  The Renaissance {27}
on the whole takes a much more ethical note in England than, for
instance, in France.  A little later indeed, in the France of Pascal
and Bossuet, books of devotion and theology were very widely read, as
may be seen in the letters of Madame de Sévigné; but they can never
have had anything like the circulation which they had in England, both
in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Every one who looks at an
English country-house library is struck by the abundant provision of
sermons, mainly collected, like everything else indeed, in the
eighteenth century.  And every reader of Boswell's _Johnson_ has been
impressed by the frequent recurrence of devotional and religious books
in the literary talk of the day, and, what is perhaps more remarkable,
by the fact that wherever Boswell and Johnson go they constantly find
volumes of sermons lying about, not only in the private houses, but
also in the inns where they stay.  There never was a period when
"conduct," as Matthew Arnold used to call it, was so admitted to be the
three-fourths of life he claimed for it, as it was between the
Restoration and the French Revolution.  It was conduct, not faith,
ethics not religion, the "whole duty of man" in this life, not his
supernatural destiny in another, that mainly occupied the minds of
serious people {28} in that unecclesiastical age.  And Johnson,
definite Christian, definite Churchman as he was, full even of
ecclesiastical prejudices, was just the man to appeal to a generation
with such interests as these.

No questions occupied him so much as moral questions.  He was all his
life considering how he ought to live, and trying to live better.
People who are in earnest about these things have always found not only
his published prayers or his moral essays, but his life as told by
Boswell full of fortifying and stimulating ethical food.  All alike
exhibit a mind that recognized the problem of the conduct of life as
the one thing of supreme interest to a rational man, and recognized it
as above all things a moral problem.  His treatment of it is usually
based on reason, not on mere authority or orthodoxy, or even on
Christianity at all.  _Rasselas_, for instance, his most popular
ethical work, which was translated into most of the European languages,
does not contain a single allusion to Christianity.  Its atmosphere is
neither Mahomedan nor Christian, but that of pure reason.  And when
elsewhere he does discuss definitely Christian problems it is usually
in the light of free and unfettered reason.  Reason by itself has
probably never made any one a Christian, and certainly Johnson's {29}
Christianity was not an affair of the reason alone, but he was seldom
afraid to test it by the touchstone of reason.  That was not merely a
thing done in accordance with the fashion of his age; it was the
inevitable activity of an acute and powerful mind.  But the fact that
he had in him this absorbing ethical interest, and that throughout his
life he was applying to it a rare intellectual energy, and what was
rarer still in those fields, a close and unfailing grip on life and
reality, gave him that peculiar position to which he came in his last
years; one of an authority which was probably not equalled by that of
any professed philosopher or divine.

Still, his seriousness could not by itself have given him this
position.  The English people like their public men to be serious, but
they do not like them to be nothing else.  The philosopher and the
saint, the merely intellectual man or the merely spiritual man, have
never been popular characters or become leaders of men, here any more
than elsewhere.  The essential element in the confidence Johnson
inspired was not his seriousness: it was his sovereign sanity, the
unfailing common sense, to which allusion has already been made.  He
was pre-eminently a bookish man, but he was conspicuously free from the
unreality that is so often felt {30} in the characters of such men.  He
knew from the first how to strike a note which showed that he was well
aware of the difference between literature and life and their relative
importance.

  "Deign on the passing world to turn thine eyes,
  And pause awhile from Letters, to be wise."


So he said, as a young man, in his finest poem, and so he acted all
through the years.  Scholar as he was, and very conscious of the
dignity of scholarship, he never forgot that scholarship faded into
insignificance in presence of the greater issues of life.  In his most
scholarly moment, in the Preface to the _Dictionary_, he will throw out
such remark as "this recommendation of steadiness and uniformity (in
spelling) does not proceed from an opinion that particular combinations
of letters have much influence on human happiness."  Such a sentence
could not but give plain people a feeling of unusual confidence in the
writer.  How different they would at once feel it to be, how different,
indeed, we still feel it, from the too frequent pedantry of critics,
insisting with solemn importance or querulous ill-temper upon trifling
points of grammar or style.  We know that this man has a scale of
things in his mind {31} he will not vilify his opponent's character for
the sake of a difference about a Greek construction, or make a lifelong
quarrel over the question of the maiden name and birthplace of
Shelley's great-grandmother.  From first to last he was emphatically a
human being, with a feeling for human life as a whole, and in all its
parts.  He said once: "A mere antiquarian is a rugged being," and he
was never himself a mere grammarian or a mere scholar, but a man with
an eager interest in all the business and pleasure of life.  His high
sense of the dignity of literature looked to its large and human side,
not to any parade of curious information.  Everywhere in his writings
plain people are conciliated by his frank attitude as to his own
calling, by his perfect freedom from any pontifical airs of the mystery
of authorship.  "I could have written longer notes," he says in the
great Preface to his _Shakespeare_, "for the art of writing notes is
not of difficult attainment."  "It is impossible for an expositor not
to write too little for some, and too much for others."  "I have indeed
disappointed no opinion more than my own; yet I have endeavoured to
perform my task with no slight solicitude.  Not a single passage in the
whole work has appeared to me corrupt which I have not attempted to
restore; or {32} obscure which I have not endeavoured to illustrate.
In many I have failed, like others, and from many, after all my
efforts, I have retreated, and confessed the repulse.  I have not
passed over with affected superiority what is equally difficult to the
reader and to myself, but where I could not instruct him have owned my
ignorance.  I might easily have accumulated a mass of seeming learning
upon easy scenes; but it ought not to be imputed to negligence that,
where nothing was necessary, nothing has been done, or that, where
others have said enough, I have said no more."

A man who writes like this is sure of his public at once.  He is
instantly seen to be too proud, as well as too sincere, too great a
man, in fact, altogether, to stoop to the dishonest little artifices by
which vanity tries to steal applause.  In his writings as in his talk,
he was not afraid to be seen for what he actually was; and just as,
when asked how he came to explain the word Pastern as meaning the knee
of a horse, he replied at once, "Ignorance, madam, pure ignorance," so
in his books he made no attempt to be thought wiser or more learned
than he was.  And this modesty which he showed for himself he showed
for his author too.  The common notion that he depreciated {33}
Shakespeare is, indeed, an entire mistake.  There were certainly things
in Shakespeare which were out of his reach, but that does not alter the
fact that Shakespeare has never been better praised than in Johnson's
Preface.  But he will not say what he does not mean about Shakespeare
any more than about himself.  There is in him nothing at all of the
subtle trickery of the common critic who thinks to magnify his own
importance by extravagant and insincere laudation of his author.  He is
not afraid to speak of the poet with the same simplicity as he speaks
of the editor.  "Yet it must be at last confessed that, as we owe
everything to him, he owes something to us; that, if much of his praise
is paid by perception and judgment, much is likewise given by custom
and veneration."  He even adds that Shakespeare has "perhaps not one
play which, if it were now exhibited as the work of a contemporary
writer, would be heard to the conclusion."  Whether that is true or not
of Johnson's day or of our own--and let us not be too hastily sure of
its untruth--at least the man who wrote it in the preface to an edition
of Shakespeare lacked neither honesty nor courage.  And he had then, as
he has still, the reward which the most popular of the virtues will
always bring.

{34}

With courage and honesty usually go simplicity and directness.  That is
not the first praise that Johnson would win from people familiar with
caricatures of his style.  But it is a complete mistake to suppose that
he always wore that heavy armour of magniloquence.  He could be as free
from pedantry of phrase as he always was from pedantry of thought.  He
is not only a supreme master of common sense; he is a supreme master of
the language of common sense.  He has the gift of saying things which
no one can misunderstand and no one can forget.  His common sense is
what its name implies, no private possession thrust upon the minds of
others, but their own thoughts expressed for them.  That was one of the
secrets of the unique confidence he inspired.  The jury gave him their
verdict because he always put the issue on a basis they could
understand.  His answer to the specious arguments of the learned is
always an appeal to what it needs no learning to know.  The critics of
Pope's _Homer_ are met by the unanswerable retort: "To a thousand
cavils one answer is sufficient.  The purpose of a writer is to be
read."  To Pope himself affecting scorn of the great, the same
merciless measure of common knowledge is dealt.  "His scorn of the
great is too often repeated to be real: no man thinks {35} much of that
which he despises."  And so once more to Pope's victims.  If they would
have kept quiet, he says, the _Dunciad_ would have been little read:
"For whom did it concern to know that one or another scribbler was a
dunce?"  But this is what the dunces are the last people to realize:
indeed, "every man is of importance to himself, and therefore, in his
own opinion, to others"; so the victim is the first to "publish
injuries or misfortunes which had never been known unless related by
himself, and at which those that hear them will only laugh; for no man
sympathizes with the sorrows of vanity."

Every one who is much read in Johnson will recall for himself other and
perhaps better instances than these of his rare faculty of gathering
together into a sentence some piece of the common stock of wisdom or
observation, and applying it simply, directly and unanswerably to the
immediate business in hand.  Is there anything which clears and
relieves an argument so well?  "The true state of every nation is the
state of common life"; "If one was to think constantly of death the
business of life would stand still"; "To be happy at home is the
ultimate result of all ambition."  How firm on one's feet, on the solid
ground of truth, one feels when one reads such sentences!  The writer
of them {36} is at once recognized as no maker of phrases, no victim of
cloudy speculations, self-deceived and the deceiver of others, but a
man who kept himself always close to the realities of things.  And when
to this, which had been always there, was added the special charm of
the _Lives of the Poets_, the old man speaking, often in the first
person, without reserve or mystery, out of the fullness of his
knowledge of books and men and the general life which is greater than
either, then the feeling entertained for him grew into something not
very unlike affection.  The man who could not be concealed even by the
grave abstractions of the earlier works, was now seen and heard as a
friend speaking face to face with those who understood him.  The
wisdom, and learning and piety, the shrewdness and vigour and wit, the
invincible common sense, took visible shape in the face of Samuel
Johnson, were heard in his audible voice, became known and honoured and
loved as a kind of national glory, the embodiment of the mind and
character of the English people.  And then, of course, came Boswell.
And what might have died away as a memory or a legend was made secure
from mortality by a work of genius.  At the moment Boswell had only to
complete an impression already made.  But, strong as it was at the
time, without Boswell it could {37} not have lasted.  Those who had sat
with Johnson at the Mitre or "The Club" could not long survive, and
could not leave their eyes and ears behind them.  Literary fashions
changed; popular taste began to ask evermore for amusement and less for
instruction or edification; and the works of Johnson were no longer
read, except by students of English literature.  But for Boswell the
great man's name might soon have been unknown to any but bookish men.
It is due to Boswell that journalists quote him, and cabmen tell
stories about him.  Johnson had himself almost every quality that makes
for survival except genius; and that, by the happiest of fates for
himself and for us, he found in his biographer.



CHAPTER II

THE GENIUS OF BOSWELL

The word genius seems a strange one to apply to Boswell.  Macaulay has
had his hour of authority with most of us, and, unluckily for him and
for us, the worst passages in his _Essays_ are often better remembered
{38} than the greatest chapters in his _History_.  It has proved his
ill-fortune as well as his glory to have written so vividly that the
mind's eye will still see what he wrote clear before it, though twenty
years may lie between it and the actual sight of the printed page.  At
his worst he is like an advertisement hoarding, crude, violent, vulgar,
but impossible to escape.  The essay on Croker's Boswell is one of
those unfortunate moments.  It is, unhappily, far better known than its
author's article on Johnson written for the _Encyclopaedia Britannica_,
and its violence still takes the memory by assault.  No one forgets the
disgusting description of Johnson, or the insults heaped upon Boswell.
Least of all can anybody forget the famous paradox about the contrast
between Boswell and his book.  As a biographer, according to Macaulay,
Boswell has easily surpassed all rivals.  "Homer is not more decidedly
the first of Epic poets, Shakespeare is not more decidedly the first of
dramatists, Demosthenes is not more decidedly the first of orators than
Boswell is the first of biographers.  He has no second.  Eclipse is
first, and the rest nowhere."  And yet this same Boswell is "a man of
the meanest and feeblest intellect"; and, strangest of all, only
achieves his amazing success by force of his worthlessness and folly.
"If he had not {39} been a great fool he would never have been a great
writer."

Macaulay was the most self-confident of men.  But, though he set his
opinion with assurance against that of any other critic, there was one
verdict he respected, the verdict of time.  He would not have been
astonished to hear that in the eighty years since his essay was written
the fame of Boswell's book has continually increased.  But few things
that have happened since then would have surprised him more than to be
told that, in a volume published only fifty years after his death and
in part officially addressed to his own University of Cambridge, a
Professor of English Literature, one of the two or three universally
acknowledged masters of criticism, would be found quietly letting fall,
as a thing about which there need be no discussion, a sentence
beginning with the words: "A wiser man than Macaulay, James Boswell."

It may be well, before speaking further of Johnson, to say something
about the man to whom we owe most of our knowledge of him, the most
important member of his circle, this same James Boswell.  Like all good
biographers, he has put himself into his book; and we know him as well
as we know Johnson, as we know no other two men, perhaps, in the
history of the world.  It cannot be denied {40} that, when we put his
great book down, it is not very easy to follow Sir Walter Raleigh in
talking of him as a wise man, or even as a wiser man than Macaulay.  If
Boswell and Macaulay were put into competition in a prize for wisdom,
no ordinary examiners would give it to Boswell.  By the only tests they
could apply, Macaulay must far outstrip him.  The wisdom which enabled
Macaulay to render splendid services to the State and to literature,
and gave him wealth, happiness, popularity and a peerage, is as easily
tested, and, it must be confessed, as real, as the unwisdom which ended
in Boswell dying the dishonoured death of a drunkard, and leaving a
name of which his descendants felt the shame at least as much as the
glory.

But there are other tests, and though their superior value may be
doubted, they ought not to be altogether ignored.  Macaulay, who knew
everything and achieved so much, spent his whole life in visible and
external activities--talking, reading, writing, governing; and was
admired, and, indeed, admirable in them all.  But of the wisdom which
realizes how essentially inferior all measurable doing, however
triumphant, is to being, which is immeasurable, the wisdom which is
occupied with the ultimate issues of life and death, he had apparently
as little as any man who ever lived.  He seems {41} always to have been
one of those active, hurrying, useful persons who--

  "Fancy that they put forth all their life
    And never know how with the soul it fares."

Whatever can be said against Boswell that cannot be said.  Of this
inner wisdom, this quietness of thought, this "folie des grandeurs" of
the soul, he had a thousand times as much as Macaulay.  He could not
cling to it to the end, he could not victoriously live by it and make
it himself; but he had seen the vision which Macaulay never saw, and he
never altogether forgot it.  Every man is partly a lost soul.  So far
as Boswell was that, he knew it in all the bitter certainty of tears.
So far as Macaulay was, he was as unconscious of it as the beasts that
perish.  And the kingdom of wisdom, like the Kingdom of Heaven, is more
easily entered by those who know that they are outside it, than by
those who do not know that there is such a place and are quite content
where they are.

But these are high matters into which there is no need to go further.
It is necessary, however, to say a little more about Boswell's
character and abilities.  He and Johnson are now linked together for
all eternity; and everybody who takes an interest in Johnson is
interested in Boswell too.  It ought to be {42} much more than
interest, and in all true Johnsonians it is.  Without Boswell, we
should have respected Johnson, honoured him as a man and a writer,
liked him as "a true-born Englishman," but we could not have known him
enough to love him.  By the help of Boswell, we can walk and talk with
him, dine with him, be with him at his prayers as well as at his
pleasures, laugh with him, learn of him and disagree with him; above
all, love him as we only can love a human being, and never a mere wise
man or great writer.  No Englishman doubts that Boswell has given us
one of the great books of the world.  But before we realize its
greatness, we realize its pleasantness, its companionableness.  The
_Life of Johnson_ and the _Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides_ may be
taken for practical purposes as one book; and it has some claim to be
the most companionable book in the world.  There is no book like it for
a solitary meal.  A novel, if it is good for anything, is too
engrossing for a dinner companion.  It is impossible to put it down.
It interrupts the business of dining and results in cold food and
indigestion.  A book of short poems--the Odes of Horace, the Fables of
La Fontaine, the Sonnets of Shakespeare or Wordsworth--is much more to
the purpose.  One may read an Ode or a Sonnet quickly and then turn
{43} again to one's dinner, carrying the fine verse in one's mind and
tasting it at leisure as one holds good wine in the mouth before
letting it pass away into forgetfulness.  But poetry is not for every
man, nor for every mood of any man: and the moment of dinner is not
with most men the moment when they appear most poetic either to others
or to themselves.

But is there any time which is not the time for Boswell?  He does not
ask for a mood which may not be forthcoming: he does not demand an
attention which it is inconvenient to give.  We can take him up and lay
him down as and when we will.  And he has everything in his store.  If
we are seriously inclined and wish to have something to think about
when we turn from the book to the dinner, he is full of the most
serious questions, discussed sometimes wisely, almost always by wise
men, the problems of morals and politics, of religion and society and
literature, such questions as those of liberty and necessity in
philosophy, liberty and government in politics, the English Church and
the Roman, private education and public, life in the country and life
in the town.  Or if we wish, not for problems of any kind, but just for
a picture of life as it was lived a hundred and fifty years ago, there
is nothing like Boswell's pages for variety, intimacy, veracity and,
{44} what is the great point in these matters, lavishness of detail.
His book is sown with apparently, but only apparently, insignificant
trifles.  What and how Johnson ate, his manner in talking and walking,
the colour and shape of his clothes, the size of his stick, all these
and a thousand similar details we know from Boswell, and because
Boswell had the genius to perceive that they accumulate upon us a
sensation of life and bodily presence, as of a man standing before our
eyes.

So, again, with the many little stories he tells which no one else
would have told.  Who but he would have treasured up every word of that
curious meeting in April 1778, between Johnson and his unimportant old
friend Edwards, the man who said that he had tried to be a philosopher,
but "cheerfulness was always breaking in"?  Yet it is not only one of
the most Boswellian but one of the very best things in the whole book.
It exactly illustrates what was newest in his method.  In an age of
generality and abstraction he saw the advantage of the concrete and
particular, and put into practice the lesson his master could only
preach, "Nothing is too little for so little a creature as man."  So
the total-abstaining Johnson and the bibulous Reynolds and Boswell will
each come before us exactly as they were: and we are amused as we
picture {45} the confusion of Reynolds's distinguished parties where
the servants had never been taught to wait, and make a note of the
progress of social manners as we sympathize with Johnson at Edinburgh
throwing the fingered lump of sugar out of the window.  Some people,
again, like Mr. Gladstone, are fond of observing and discoursing upon
the changes of taste in the matter of wine: and such people will find
in Boswell almost as much to interest their curiosity as Johnson's own
fellowship of tea-drinkers.  The drinker of champagne will have to
accept the mere modernity of his beverage, which finds no place in
Johnson's famous hierarchy: "Claret for boys, port for men, brandy for
heroes."  Or, once more, if our meal ends in tobacco, we may please
ourselves by contemplating the alternate, but never contemporaneous,
glories of snuff and tobacco, and note the sage's curious, but strictly
truthful, account of the advantages and disadvantages of smoking.
"Smoking has gone out.  To be sure it is a shocking thing, blowing
smoke out of our mouths into other people's mouths, eyes, and noses,
and having the same thing done to us.  Yet I cannot account why a thing
which requires so little exertion and yet preserves the mind from total
vacuity has gone out."  Or if we demand a keener relish for our meal
than these {46} quiet joys of observation, there is of course the whole
store of Johnson's sallies of wit, the things we all quote and forget
and like to have recalled to us.

For all these reasons Boswell's book, stuffed full of matter, and such
matter as you can take up and lay down at pleasure, is the ideal
companion for the man who dines or sups alone.  Provided, of course,
that he has some tincture of intellectual tastes.  Those whose
curiosity is only awakened by a prospect of the "sporting tips" will
not care for Boswell.  For, though the book moves throughout in the big
world, and not in an academic groove, it still always moves
intellectually.  It asks a certain acquaintance with literature and
history and the life of the human mind.  The talk may, indeed, be
almost said to deal with all subjects; but it tends mainly to be of the
kind which will come uppermost when able men of a serious and bookish
turn congregate together.  It requires leisure, and that sense of the
value of talk which has grown rarer in the hurry of a generation in
which the idlest people affect to be busy, and those who do nothing at
all are in a bustle from morning till night.  Johnson was never in a
hurry, especially in the later days, when he had done his work and was
enjoying his fame.  Mrs. Thrale says that conversation was all he {47}
required to make him happy.  He hated people who broke it up to go to
bed or to keep an appointment.  Much as he delighted in John Wesley's
company, he complained that he was never at leisure, which, said
Johnson, "is very disagreeable to a man who loves to fold his legs and
have out his talk as I do."  The world has perhaps grown a more
industrious place since those days, though nobody yet has managed to
put so much into twenty-four hours as Wesley did.  Anyhow the
conditions that made for such talk as fills Boswell's pages are no
doubt less common to-day: and perhaps it only lingers now in some rare
Common Room at Oxford or Cambridge, where the evil spirit of classes
and examinations has been strictly exorcised, or in an exceptionally
well-chosen party at an exceptional country house, or in the old dining
societies of London, such as Johnson's own, "The Club," of famous
memory.  Its modern rarity may, however, only make it the more precious
in a book, and it is certainly not the least important element in the
popularity of Boswell's work.

That work has always been praised from the day of its appearance.  Lord
Thurlow, then Chancellor, wrote to Boswell of the _Tour to the
Hebrides_, which is essentially, though not formally, its first
instalment, that {48} he had read every word of it, because he could
not help it: and added the flattering question, "Could you give a rule
how to write a book that a man _must_ read?"  Scott, a little later,
spoke of it as "without exception the best parlour window book that
ever was written."  Six editions were issued within twenty years of its
appearance, a strong proof of popularity in the case of a voluminous
and expensive book.  And the praise and popularity have gone on growing
ever since.  But the strange thing is that the man who wrote it has
commonly been treated with insult, and even with contempt.  The fact is
at first sight so inexplicable that it is worth a little looking into.
A man who has done us all such a service as Boswell, who has by the
admission even of Macaulay utterly out-distanced all competition in
such an important kind of literature as biography, would naturally have
been loaded with the gratitude and admiration of posterity.  Yet all
fools and some wise men have thought themselves entitled to throw a
scornful stone at Boswell.

The truth is that Boswell was a man of very obvious weaknesses, the
weaknesses to which every fool feels himself superior, and of some
grave vices of a sort to which wise men feel little temptation.  And,
unfortunately, he conquered neither.  Rather they conquered {49} him,
and made his last years a degradation, and his memory one which his
friends were glad to forget.  After the death of Johnson in 1784,
followed in 1789 by that of Mrs. Boswell, whom Johnson once justly and
generously described as the prop and stay of her husband's life, he had
no one left to lean on.  And he was not a man strong enough to stand
alone.  But it is time to insist that, when all this has been
confessed, we are very far from having told the whole truth about
Boswell.  The fact is that justice will never be fully done to his
memory till Macaulay and some others have been called up from their
graves to do penance for their arrogant unfairness.  Carlyle did
something, but not enough; and he stands almost alone.  Yet after all,
considering what we owe Boswell, if there be any blindness in our view
of him, it surely ought to be blindness to his faults.  We have heard
enough and to spare of his vanity, his self-importance, his entire lack
of dignity, his weakness for wine and worse things than wine.  But we
have heard very little, far too little, of the kindness and genuineness
of the man's whole nature, the warmth of his friendships and the
enthusiastic loyalty of his hero-worship, of the reverence for religion
and the earnest desire after being a better man, which, though often
defeated {50} by temptation, were profound and absolutely sincere.

The notion that a man who does not practise what he preaches is
necessarily insincere, always called forth an angry protest from
Johnson.  "Sir," he broke out at Inverary to Mr. M'Aulay, the
historian's grandfather, "are you so grossly ignorant of human nature,
as not to know that a man may be very sincere in good principles
without having good practice?"  No doubt this was a doctrine which
Boswell heard gladly: and Johnson may himself have been influenced in
his zeal for it by his consciousness that, as he said when enforcing it
on another occasion, he had himself preached better than he had
practised.  "I have, all my life long, been lying till noon: yet I tell
all young men, and tell them with great sincerity, that nobody who does
not rise early will ever do any good."  But, however that may be, he is
plainly right in the broad issue.  Practice is the only absolute proof
of sincerity: but defect in practice is no proof of insincerity.
Certainly, no Christian can doubt that the struggling, even though
falling, sinner is in at least as hopeful a condition as the complacent
person whose principles and practice are fairly conformable to each
other because both live only the dormant life of respectability and
{51} convention.  However, no one in his senses will try to make a hero
or a saint out of Boswell.  He was, as has been already said, vain, a
babbler, a wine-bibber, a man of frequently irregular and ill-governed
life.  But to judge a man fairly as a whole, you must set his
achievements against his failures, and include his aspirations as well
as the weakness which prevented their being realized.  He may also
reasonably ask to be tried by the standard of his contemporaries.  If
this larger and juster method of judgment be adopted, the unfairness
with which Boswell has been treated becomes immediately obvious.  After
all vanity is more a folly than a crime, and pays its own immediate
penalty as no other crime or folly does.  The other faults of Boswell,
especially drinking, were only too common in a century at the beginning
of which Johnson remembered "all the decent people at Lichfield getting
drunk every night," and at the end of which the most honoured and
feared of English Prime Ministers could appear intoxicated in the House
of Commons itself.  Drunkenness has not deprived Pitt of the gratitude
of England, and we may well be determined that, if we can help it, it
shall not deprive Boswell.  It is not his vices but his virtues that
are notable and unusual.  What was extraordinary in his or any other
day was {52} the generous enthusiasm which made a young Scotch laird
deliberately determine that he would do something more with his life
than shoot wildfowl or play cards, made him throw himself first with a
curious mixture of vanity and genuine devotion to a noble cause into
the Corsican struggle for liberty, and then, vain of his birth and
fortune as he was, place himself at the feet, not of a duke or a
minister, but of a man of low origin, rough exterior, and rougher
manners, in whom he simply saw the best and wisest man he had known.
That is not the action of either a bad man or a fool; and assuredly
Boswell--in the essence of him--was neither the one nor the other.

The truth is that he had the strength and the weaknesses of a man of
mobile and lively imagination.  He would fancy his wife and children
drowned or dead for no better reason than that he was not by them; he
would dream of being a judge when he had scarcely got a brief, and
imagine himself a minister when he had no prospect of getting into
Parliament.  Other people experience these day-dreaming vanities, but
they do not talk or write about them.  Boswell did; and we all laugh at
him, especially the fools among us: the wiser part add some of the love
that belongs to the common kinship of humanity wherever it puts off the
mask, the love of which we feel {53} something even for that gross old
"bourgeois" Samuel Pepys, just because he laid out his whole secret
self in black and white upon the paper.  Moreover, Boswell's
absurdities had their finer side.  The dreamer of improbable disasters
and impossible good fortunes is also the dreamer of high and perhaps
unattainable ideals.  Shall we count it nothing to his honour that,
instead of sitting down contentedly among the boon companions of
Ayrshire, he aspired to read the best books in the world, to know the
wisest men, and in turn to do something himself that should not be
forgotten?  And note that those aspirations were in large part
realized.  His intellectual tastes always remained among the keenest of
his pleasures: he numbered among his friends the most famous writer of
his day, the greatest poet, the greatest painter, the profoundest and
most eloquent of all English statesmen; and before he died his apparent
failure in personal achievements was transformed into the success that
means immortality by the production of a book which after the lapse of
a century has many more readers than the works of his great friends
whose superiority to himself he would never have dreamed of challenging.

And what did these great men think of him?  Did the people who knew him
think him altogether a fool?  If the magistrates {54} of his native
county had thought him merely that they would hardly have chosen him
their chairman.  Nor would the Royal Academy who filled their honorary
offices with such men as Johnson, Goldsmith, and Gibbon, have given
them Boswell as a colleague if they had thought him altogether a fool.
Reynolds, again, who was his friend through life, and left him 200
pounds in his will to be expended on a picture to be kept for his sake,
was not a man who took fools for his friends.  Burke, who at first
doubted his fitness for election at "The Club," became a great admirer
of his wonderful good humour, and received him on his own account and
without Johnson as a guest at Beaconsfield, where neither fools nor
knaves were commonly welcomed.  The whole story of the tour to the
Hebrides shows the regard felt for him, as himself and not only as the
son of his father or the companion of Johnson, by many of the most
distinguished and cultivated men in Scotland.  Johnson, the most
veracious of men, says of him in Scotland: "There is no house where he
is not received with kindness and respect"; and on another occasion he
declared that Boswell "never left a house without leaving a wish for
his return."

But the most complete refutation of the worthlessness of Boswell is of
course the {55} friendship and love he won from Johnson himself.
Assuredly, the standard of Johnson, in whose presence nobody dared to
swear or talk loosely, was not a low one either morally or
intellectually; yet we find him saying that he held Boswell "in his
heart of hearts"; perhaps, indeed, he loved Boswell better than any of
his friends.  "My dear Boswell, I love you very much"; "My dear
Boswell, your kindness is one of the pleasures of my life"; "Come to
me, my dear Bozzy, and let us be as happy as we can."  This is the way
Johnson constantly wrote and spoke to him.  And this was not merely
because Boswell was "the best travelling companion in the world," or
even because he was, what Johnson also called him, "a man who finds
himself welcome wherever he goes and makes new friends faster than he
can want them," but also for graver reasons.  Johnson said once that
most friendships were the result of caprice or chance, "mere
confederacies in vice or leagues in folly," but he did not choose that
his own should be of that sort.  Beauclerk is the only one of his
friends who was not a man of high character.  His feeling for Boswell
was not a love of vice or folly.  He saw Boswell at his best, no doubt:
but that best must have had very real and positive good qualities in it
to win from Johnson such a remark as he {56} makes in one of his
letters: "Never, my dear sir, do you take it into your head to think
that I do not love you; you may settle yourself in full confidence both
of my love and my esteem; I love you as a kind man, I value you as a
worthy man, and hope in time to reverence you as a man of exemplary
piety.  I hold you, as Hamlet has it, 'in my heart of hearts.'"  And
there is a still more remarkable tribute in the letter to John Wesley
giving Boswell an introduction to him "because I think it very much to
be wished that worthy and religious men should be acquainted with each
other."  Nothing can be more certain than that Johnson would not have
written so often in such language as this of a man who was what
Macaulay thought Boswell was.  Well may the foolish editor of Boswell's
letters to Temple, who takes Macaulay's view, talk of the difficulty of
explaining how it came about that Boswell formed one of a society which
included such men as Johnson and Burke.  The truth is that on his
theory and Macaulay's it is not explicable at all.

Less explicable still, on that view, is the admitted excellence of
Boswell's book.  Carlyle dismissed with just contempt the absurd
paradox that the greatness of the book was due to the imbecility of the
author.  That is a theory which it would be waste of time {57} to
discuss.  But it may be worth while to point out that other and more
rational explanations of Boswell's success are also insufficient.  His
book is acknowledged to have originated a new type of biography.  It
was felt at once, and has been increasingly felt ever since, that
Boswell is so direct and personal that beside him all other biographers
seem impersonal and vague, that he is so intimate that he makes all
others appear cold and distant, so lifelike that they seem shadowy, so
true that they seem false.  Now this has commonly been attributed to
his habit of noting down on the spot and at the moment anything that
struck him in Johnson's talk or doings; and to his perfect willingness
to exhibit his own discomfitures so long as they served to honour or
illustrate his hero.  In this way people have talked of his one merit
being faithfulness, and of his work as a succession of photographs.
Now it is true enough that his veracity is a very great merit, and that
no one was ever so literally veracious as he.  But no number of facts,
and no quintessence of accuracy in using them, will ever make a great
book.  Literature is an art, and nothing great in art has ever been
done with facts alone.  The greatness comes from the quality of mind
that is set to work upon the facts.  Consequently {58} the secret of
the success of the _Life of Johnson_ is to be found in the exact
opposite of the assertion of Macaulay.  For the truth is that the
acknowledged excellence of the book is in exact proportion to the
unacknowledged literary gifts of its author.

The law for all works of art and literature is the same.  The fact is
nothing unless the artist can give it life.  Life comes from human
personality.  _Ars est homo additus naturae_.  Art, that is, is nature
seen through a temperament, the facts seen by a particular mind.  The
landscape into which the painter has put nothing of his own personality
is fitter for a surveyor's office than for a picture gallery.  The
portrait which gives nothing but the sitter's face is as dull as a
photograph.  Two portraits of the same man, two sketches of the same
valley, not only are, but ought to be, quite different from each other.
Nature, the facts of the particular face or scene, remain the same for
both: but the two different artists, each bringing their own
personality, produce different results, when the face or scene has
become that composite mixture of man and nature, fact and mind, which
is art.  And this is as true of all books which are meant to be
literature as of painting or sculpture.  The story of Electra is,
broadly speaking, the same for Aeschylus, Sophocles, {59} and
Euripides: but each contributes to it himself, and the result differs.
Virgil's tale of Troy is not Homer's: Chaucer gives us one Troilus and
Cressida, and Shakespeare another: the fable of the Fox and the Goat
takes prose from Phaedrus and poetry from La Fontaine.  So Pope's Homer
is not Homer, the thing in itself, the unrelated, absolute Homer, but
_Pope additus Homero_; and it is not Euripides pure and simple which is
the true account of certain beautiful modern versions of Euripides, but
_Euripidi additus Murray_.

It may be objected that these are all instances from poetry, where the
truth aimed at is rather general than particular.  And this distinction
is a real one.  The truth of the _Aeneid_ is its truth to human life as
a whole, not its accuracy in reporting the words used on particular
occasions by Dido and Turnus, neither of whom may have ever existed.
History and biography are, undoubtedly, on a different footing in this
respect, just as the artist who calls his picture "Arundel Castle" or
"Windermere" is not in the same position of freedom as the painter of
an "Evening on the Downs."  But the law of _homo additus naturae_ still
remains true in this case as in the other, though its application is
modified.  It is true that a {60} man who pretends to give a
representation of Arundel is not justified in adding to it a tower 800
feet high just because he happens himself to have a fancy for towers.
But what he has to add, if his work is to be art at all, is the
emotional mood, the exaltation, depression, excitement, or whatever it
may be, which Arundel stirred in him, and by means of which he and the
scene before him were melted into that unity of intensified life which
is born of the marriage of nature and man and is what we call art.  The
next day another man takes his place, and the result, though still
Arundel Castle, is an entirely different picture.  So in the case of
books.  The same Socrates is seen in one way when we get that part of
him which could unite with the personality of Xenophon, and in quite
another when the union is with Plato.  The English Civil War marries
one side of itself to Clarendon, and another to Milton; and both have
that relative truth which is all art wishes for, and which is indeed a
greater thing, as having human life in it, than any absolute truth in
itself which, if it were discoverable, would be pure science, as useful
perhaps, but as dead, as the First Proposition of Euclid.  The
greatness of literature depends on the degree in which the dead matter
of fact belonging to the {61} subject has been quickened into life by
the emotional, intellectual and imaginative power of the writer.  And
this is true of historical and biographical work as well as of poetry.

That is the point to be remembered about Boswell, and to be set against
his detractors.  His book is admittedly one of the most living books in
existence.  That life can have come from no one but the author.  It is
the irrefutable proof of his genius.  Life and power do not issue, here
any more than elsewhere, out of folly and nonentity.  The _Life of
Johnson_ is the result of the most intimate and fertile union between
biographer and his subject which has ever occurred, and it gives us in
consequence more of the essence of both than any other biography.
Boswell brought to it his own bustling activity and curiosity from
which it draws its vividness and variety: he brought to it also his
warm-hearted, half-morbid emotionalism from which it derives its many
moving pages: he brought to it his reverence for Johnson, which enabled
him to exhibit, as no other man could, that kingship and priesthood
which was a real part, though not the whole, of Johnson's relation to
his circle.  We see Johnson in his pages as the guide, philosopher and
friend of all who came in his way, the intellectual and spiritual
father of Boswell, the master of his {62} studies, the director of his
conscience.  Nobody else in that company saw as much of the true and
great Johnson as Boswell's loving devotion enabled him to see; and when
he came to write the life he put himself into it, with the result that
the portrait of Johnson as posterity sees it, will never lose the halo
of glory with which the Boswellian hero-worship crowned it for all time.

This was the all-important _homo additus naturae_ part of Boswell's
work: the setting his subject in the light of his own imaginative and
emotional insight.  But there was more than that.  Boswell had not only
the temperament of the artist: he had an artist's craftsmanship.  The
_Life_ makes four large octavo volumes, each of some 500 pages, in the
great Oxford Edition by Birkbeck Hill: and the _Tour to the Hebrides_
makes a fifth.  That is a big book: yet so perfect an artist is
Boswell, that scarcely once for a single page in all the five volumes
is the chief light turned in any direction except that of Johnson.
Anybody who has even read, much more anybody who has written, a book of
any length knows how difficult and rare an achievement it is to
maintain perfect unity of subject, never to lose the sense of
proportion, never to let side issues and secondary personages obstruct
or conceal the main business in hand.  {63} There is nothing of the
kind in Boswell.  Under his hand no episode is ever allowed to be more
than an episode, no minor character ever occupies the centre of the
stage.  Whoever and whatever is mentioned is mentioned only in relation
to Johnson.  Many great men, greater some of them than his hero are
brought into his picture, but it is never upon them that the chief
light is thrown.  All the other figures, whoever they are, are here but
attendants upon Johnson's greatness, foils to his wit, witnesses to his
virtues, his friends or his foes, the subjects or victims of his talk,
anything that you will in connection with him, but apart from
him--nothing.  All that they say or do or suffer, is told us only to
set Johnson in a clearer light.  The unity of the picture is never
broken.  And that is the same thing as saying that Boswell is not
merely what every one has seen, a unique collector of material: he is
also what so few have seen, an artist of the very highest rank.

This is seen, too, in another important point.  The danger of the
hero-worshipping biographer is only too familiar to us.  His book is
usually a monotonous and insipid record of virtue or wisdom.  The hero
is always right, and always victorious, with the result that the book
is at once tedious and incredible.  But Boswell knew better than {64}
that.  He was too much of an artist not to know that he wanted shadows
to give value to his lights, and too much a lover of the fullness and
variety of life not to want to get all of it that he possibly could
into his picture.  Like all great writers, there was scarcely anything
he was afraid of handling, because there was scarcely anything of which
he was not conscious that he could bend it to his will and force it to
take its place, and no more than its place, in his scheme.
Consequently, he has the courage to show us his hero, now wrong-headed
and perverse, now rude almost to brutality, now so weak that the same
resolution is repeated year after year only to be again broken and
again renewed, now so gross and almost repulsive in his appearance and
habits that it requires all his greatness to explain the welcome which
well-bred men and refined women everywhere gave him.  Nothing better
shows the greatness of Boswell.  He was not afraid to paint the wart on
his Cromwell's nose, because he knew that he could so give the
nobleness of the whole face, that the wart would merely add to the
truthfulness of the portrait without detracting from its nobleness.
The vast quantity of material which he brought into his book and the
complete mastery which he maintained over it, is shown by the fact {65}
that few or no biographies record so many ridiculous or discreditable
circumstances about their hero, and yet none leaves a more convincing
impression of his greatness.

The notion, then, that the man who wrote the _Life of Johnson_ was a
fool, is an absurdity.  If the arguments in its favour prove anybody a
fool it is not Boswell.  Nor is it even true that Boswell, like some
great artists, escaped apparently by some divine gift from his natural
folly just during the time necessary for the production of his great
work, but at all other times relapsed at once into imbecility.  We know
how scrupulously accurate he was in what he wrote, not only from his
candour in relating his own defeats, but from the many cases in which
he confesses that he was not quite sure of the exact facts, such as, to
give one instance, whether Johnson, on a certain occasion, spoke of "a
page" or "ten lines" of Pope as not containing so much sense as one
line of Cowley.  Therefore we may take the picture he gives of himself
in his book as a fair one.  And what is it?  Does it bear out the
notorious assertion that "there is not in all his books a single remark
of his own on literature, politics, religion or society which is not
either commonplace or absurd"?  One would sometimes imagine Macaulay
had never read the book of which he speaks with such {66} confident
decision.  Certainly, except as a biographer, Boswell was not a man of
any very remarkable abilities.  But, in answer to such an insult as
Macaulay's, Boswell's defenders may safely appeal to the book itself,
and to everybody who has read it with any care.  Will any one deny that
not once or twice, but again and again, the plain sense of some subject
which had been distorted or confused by the perverse ingenuity of
Johnson "talking for victory" comes quietly, after the smoke has
cleared away, from the despised imbecility of Boswell?  Who gives the
judgment which every one would now give about the contest with the
American colonies?  Not Johnson but Boswell; not the author of
_Taxation No Tyranny_, but the man who wrote so early as 1775 to his
friend Temple: "I am growing more and more an American.  I see the
unreasonableness of taxing them without the consent of their
Assemblies; I think our Ministry are mad in undertaking this desperate
war."  Who was right and who was wrong on the question of the Middlesex
Election?  Nobody now doubts that Boswell was right, and Johnson was
wrong.  Which has proved wiser, as we look back, Johnson who ridiculed
Gray's poetry, or Boswell who sat up all night reading it?  The fact is
that Boswell was undoubtedly a {67} sensible and cultivated as well as
a very agreeable man, and as such was warmly welcomed at the houses of
the most intelligent men of his day.

The old estimate, then, of James Boswell must be definitely abandoned.
The man who knew him best, his friend Temple, the friend of Gray, said
of him that he was "the most thinking man he had ever known."  We may
not feel able to regard that as anything more than the judgment of
friendship: but it is not fools who win such judgments even from their
friends.  We may wonder at the word "genius" being applied to him; and
if genius be taken in the stricter modern sense of transcendent powers
of mind, the sense in which it is applied to Milton or Michael Angelo,
there is of course no doubt that it would be absurd to apply it to
Boswell.  But if the word be used in the old looser sense, or if it be
given the definite meaning of a man who originates an important new
departure in a serious sphere of human action, who creates something of
a new order in art or literature or politics or war, then Boswell's
claim to genius cannot be questioned.  Just as another member of
"Johnson's Club" was in those years writing history as it had never
been written before, so, and to a far more remarkable degree, Boswell
was writing {68} biography as it had never been written before.
Gibbon's _Decline and Fall_ was in fact a far less original
performance, far less of a new departure, than Boswell's _Life of
Johnson_.  Boswell's book is in truth what he himself called it, "more
of a life than any work that has ever yet appeared."  After it the art
of biography could never be merely what it had been before.  And in
that sense, the sense of a man whose work is an advance upon that of
his predecessors, not merely in degree, but in kind, Boswell was
undoubtedly and even more than Gibbon, entitled to the praise of genius.

Let us all, then, unashamedly and ungrudgingly give the rein to our
admiration and love of Boswell.  There is a hundred years between us
and his follies, and every one of the hundred is full of his claim upon
our gratitude.  Let us now be ready to pay the debt in full.  Let us be
sure that there is something more than mere interest or entertainment
in a book which so wise a man as Jowett confessed to having read fifty
times, of which another lifelong thinker about life, a man very
different from Jowett, Robert Louis Stevenson, could write: "I am
taking a little Boswell daily by way of a Bible; I mean to read him now
until the day I die."  And not only in the book but in the author too.
Let us be {69} sure with Carlyle that if "Boswell wrote a good book" it
was not because he was a fool, but on the contrary "because he had a
heart and an eye to discern Wisdom, and an utterance to render it
forth: because of his free insight, of his lively talent, above all of
his love and childlike open-mindedness."  In the particular business he
had to carry through, these qualities were an equipment amounting to a
modest kind of genius.  They enabled him to produce a book which has
given as much pleasure perhaps to intelligent men as any book that ever
was written.  Let us be careful whenever we think of Boswell to
remember this side, the positive, creative, permanent side of him: and
not so careful as our grandfathers generally were, to remember the
other side which ceased to have any further importance on that night in
May 1795 when he ended the fifty-five years of a life in which he had
found time for more follies than most men, for more vices perhaps,
certainly for more wisdom, but also for what most men never so much as
conceive, the preparation and production of a masterpiece.



{70}

CHAPTER III

THE LIVES OF BOSWELL AND JOHNSON

These two men, then, are for ever inseparable.  They go down the
centuries together, Johnson owing most of his immortality to the genius
of Boswell, Boswell owing to Johnson that inspiring opportunity without
which genius cannot discover that it is genius.  There were other men
in Johnson's circle, whom he knew longer and respected more; but for
us, Boswell's position in relation to Johnson is unique.  Beside him
the others, even Burke and Reynolds, are, in this connection, shadows.
They had their independent fields of greatness in which Johnson had no
share: Boswell's greatness is all Johnsonian.  We cannot think of him
apart from Johnson: and he has so managed that we can scarcely think of
Johnson apart from him.  No one who occupies himself with the one can
ignore the other: in interest and popularity they stand or fall
together.  It may be well, therefore, before going further, to give the
bare facts of both their lives; dismissing Boswell first, as the less
important, and then devoting the rest of the chapter to Johnson.

{71}

James Boswell was born in 1740.  He came of an ancient family, a fact
he never forgot, as, indeed, few people do who have the same advantage.
His father was a Scottish judge with the title of Lord Auchinleck.  The
first of the family to hold the estate of Auchinleck, which is in
Ayrshire, was Thomas Boswell, who received a grant of it from James IV
in whose army he went to Flodden and shared the defeat and death of his
patron.  The estate had therefore belonged to the Boswells over two
hundred years when the future biographer of Johnson was born.  His
father and he were never congenial spirits.  The judge was a Whig with
a practical view of life and had no sympathy with his son's romantic
propensities either in religion, politics or literature.  A plain
Lowland Scot, he did not see why his son should take up with Toryism,
Anglicanism, or literary hero-worship.  When James, after first
attaching himself to Paoli, the leader of the Corsican struggle for
independence, returned home and took up the discipleship to Johnson
which was to be the central fact in the rest of his life, his father
frankly despaired of him, and broke out, according to Walter Scott:
"There's nae hope for Jamie, mon.  Jamie is gaen clean gyte.  What do
you think, mon?  He's done wi' Paoli--he's off wi' the {72} landlouping
scoundrel of a Corsican; and whose tail do you think he has pinned
himself to now, mon?  A _dominie_, mon--an auld dominie: he keeped a
schule, and cau'd it an acaadamy."  Well might Boswell say that they
were "so totally different that a good understanding is scarcely
possible."  Beside disliking Paoli and Johnson, Lord Auchinleck cared
nothing for some of Boswell's strict feudal notions, had the bad taste
to give his son a step-mother, and to be as unlike him as possible in
the matter of good spirits.  Scarcely anything could interfere with the
judge's cheerfulness, while Boswell was always falling into depressions
about nothing in particular and perhaps indulging in the "foolish
notion," rebuked by Johnson, that "melancholy is a proof of acuteness."
But in spite of their differences the father and son managed to avoid
anything like a definite breach.  Boswell was sincerely anxious to
please his father, and was constantly urged in that direction by his
great mentor: and after all the judge went some way to meet his
singular son, for he paid his debts and entertained both Paoli and
Johnson at Auchinleck.  The latter visit was naturally a source of some
anxiety to Boswell and it did not go off without a storm when the old
Whig and the old Tory unluckily got on to the topic of Charles I and
Cromwell: but all {73} ended well, and Boswell characteristically ends
his story of it, written after both were dead, with the pious hope that
the antagonists had by then met in a higher state of existence "where
there is no room for Whiggism."

Full of activities as Boswell's life was, the definite facts and dates
in it are not very numerous.  He was sent to Glasgow University, and
wished to be a soldier, but was bred by his father to the law.  No
doubt he gave some early signs of intellectual promise, for which it
was not thought the army provided a fit sphere, for the Duke of Argyle
is reported to have said to his father when he was only twenty: "My
lord, I like your son: this boy must not be shot at for
three-and-sixpence a day."  He paid his first visit to London in 1760;
and, having heard a good deal about Johnson from one Mr. Gentleman, and
from Derrick, a very minor poet, he at once sought an introduction, but
had to leave London without succeeding in his object.  He was equally
unsuccessful when he was in London the next year, during which he
published some anonymous poems which would not have helped him to
secure the desired introduction.  The great event occurred at last in
1763.  The day was the 16th of May and the scene the house of Davies,
the bookseller.  "At last," says Boswell, "on {74} Monday the 16th of
May, when I was sitting in Mr. Davies's back-parlour, after having
drunk tea with him and Mrs. Davies, Johnson unexpectedly came into the
shop; and Mr. Davies having perceived him through the glass-door in the
room in which we were sitting, advancing towards us,--he announced his
aweful approach to me, somewhat in the manner of an actor in the part
of Horatio, when he addresses Hamlet on the appearance of his father's
ghost, 'Look, my Lord, it comes.'"

So, with characteristic accuracy and characteristic imagination, begins
his well-known account of his first meeting with his hero, and the
storms to which he was exposed in its course.  But all ended
satisfactorily, for when the great man was gone, Davies reassured the
nervous Boswell by saying: "Don't be uneasy, I can see he likes you
very well."  A few days afterwards Boswell called on Johnson at his
Chambers in the Temple, and the great friendship which was the pleasure
and business of his life was definitely begun.  Yet it is worth
remembering, if only as an additional proof of Boswell's biographical
genius, that, according to the calculation of Dr. Birkbeck Hill, when
all the weeks and months during which Johnson and Boswell were living
within reach of each {75} other are added together, they amount to
little more than two years.  And of course this includes all the days
on which they were both in London, on many, or rather most, of which
they did not meet.

A few months after the first meeting, Boswell went by his father's wish
to Utrecht to study law.  But before that the friendship was got on to
a firm footing, and Boswell had had the pride and pleasure of hearing
Johnson say, "There are few people whom I take so much to, as you."  A
still stronger proof of Johnson's feeling was that he insisted on going
with Boswell to Harwich to see him out of England.  This was the
occasion on which he scarified the good Protestants who were with them
in the coach by defending the Inquisition, and invited one of the
ladies who said she never allowed her children to be idle to take his
own education in hand; "'for I have been an idle fellow all my life.'
'I am sure, sir,' said she, 'you have not been idle.'  'Nay, madam, it
is very true, and that gentleman there,' pointing to me, 'has been
idle.  He was idle at Edinburgh.  His father sent him to Glasgow where
he continued to be idle.  He then came to London where he has been very
idle; and now he is going to Utrecht where he will be as idle as ever.'
I asked him privately how he could expose me {76} so.  'Pooh, Pooh!'
said he, 'they know nothing about you and will think of it no more.'"
When he was not engaged in these alarums and excursions or in reproving
Boswell for giving the coachman a shilling instead of the customary
sixpence, he was occupied in reading Pomponius Mela _De Situ Orbis_.
How complete the picture is and how vivid!  It once more gives
Boswell's method in miniature.

He seems to have stayed at Utrecht about a year, afterwards travelling
in Germany, where he visited Wittenberg, and sat down to write to
Johnson in the church where the Reformation was first preached, with
his paper resting on the tomb of Melanchthon.  It is noticeable that,
though he had only known Johnson a year, he already hoped to be his
biographer.  "At this tomb, then, my ever dear and respected friend, I
vow to thee an eternal attachment.  It shall be my study to do what I
can to render your life happy: and, if you die before me, I shall
endeavour to do honour to your memory."  He was also at this time in
Italy and Switzerland, where he visited Voltaire and gratified him by
quoting a remark of Johnson's that Frederick the Great's writings were
the sort of stuff one might expect from "a footboy who had been
Voltaire's amanuensis."  Nor did this {77} collector of celebrities
omit to visit Rousseau, the rival lion of the day, between whom and
Voltaire the orthodox Johnson thought it was "difficult to settle the
proportion of iniquity."  But as far as Boswell's records go, he never
said such violent things of Voltaire as of Rousseau, whom he called "a
rascal who ought to be hunted out of society and transported to work in
the plantations."  Boswell, however, was an admirer of the _Vicaire
Savoyard_, and said what he could in defence of his host, in return for
the hospitality he had enjoyed at Neuchatel, with the usual result, of
course, that Johnson only became more outrageous.

In 1765 Boswell made the acquaintance of another distinguished man with
whom his name will always be connected.  Corsica had at that time been
long, and on the whole victoriously, engaged in a struggle to free
itself from the hated rule of Genoa.  The leader of the Corsicans was a
man of high birth, character and abilities, Pascal Paoli, who had acted
since 1753 at once as their General and as the head of the civil
administration.  Both the generous and the curious element in Boswell
made him anxious not to return from Italy without seeing something of
so interesting a people and so great a hero.  Armed with introductions
from Rousseau {78} and others and with such protection as a British
Captain's letter could give him against Barbary Corsairs, he sailed
from Leghorn to Corsica in September 1765.  His account of the island
and of his tour there, published in 1768, is still very good reading.
He soon made his way to the palace where Paoli was residing, with whom
he at first felt himself in a presence more awe-inspiring than that of
princes, but ventured after a while upon a compliment to the Corsicans.
"Sir, I am upon my travels, and have lately visited Rome.  I am come
from seeing the ruins of one brave and free people: I now see the rise
of another."  The good sense of Paoli declined any parallel between
Rome and his own little people, but he soon received Boswell into his
intimacy and spent some hours alone with him almost every day.  One
fine answer of his, uniting the scholar and the patriot, is worth
quoting.  Boswell asked him how he, who confessed to his love of
society and particularly of the society of learned and cultivated men,
could be content to pass his life in an island where no such advantages
were to be had; to which Paoli replied at once--

  "Vincit amor patriae laudumque immensa cupido."

{79}

Well might Boswell wish to have a statue of him taken at that moment.
Even Virgilian quotation has seldom been put to nobler use.  Like all
the great men of the eighteenth century, Paoli was an enthusiast for
the ancients.  "A young man who would form his mind to glory," he told
Boswell, "must not read modern memoirs; _ma Plutarcho, ma Tito Livio_."
His own mind was formed not only to glory, but also to what so often
fails to go with glory, to justice and moderation.  Nothing is more
remarkable in the conversations with him recorded by Boswell than his
good sense and fairness of mind in speaking of the Genoese.  Even in
the excitement of Corsica, Boswell did not forget Johnson.  He says
that he quoted specimens of Johnson's wisdom to Paoli, who "translated
them to the Corsican heroes with Italian energy"; and, as he had
written to his master "from the tomb of Melanchthon sacred to learning
and piety," so he also wrote to him "from the palace of Pascal Paoli
sacred to wisdom and liberty."  Boswell was received with great honour
in Corsica, no doubt partly because he was very naturally supposed to
have some mission from the British Government.  He left the island in
December and arrived in London in February 1766, when his intimacy with
Johnson was at once resumed, in spite {80} of the visits to Rousseau
and Voltaire which drew some inevitable sarcasms from the great man.
He soon, however, returned to Scotland, where he was admitted an
Advocate in the summer of 1766.

Johnson thought he was too busy about Corsica, and wrote to him: "Empty
your head of Corsica, which I think has filled it rather too long."
But this was in March 1768, when Boswell's _Account of Corsica_ had
already been published.  It sold very well, a second and a third
edition appearing within the year.  Gray and other good judges spoke
warmly of it and it seems that a French translation as well as two
Dutch ones were made.  It caused so much stir and aroused so much
sympathy in England that Lord Holland was quite afraid we were going to
be "so foolish as to go to war because Mr. Boswell has been in
Corsica."  After this it was less likely than ever that Boswell would
forget that island.  Motives of vanity combined with his genuine
enthusiasm to keep him full of it, and he replied to Johnson's
monition: "Empty my head of Corsica! empty it of honour, empty it of
humanity, empty it of friendship, empty it of piety!  No! while I live,
Corsica and the cause of the brave islanders shall ever employ much of
my attention and interest me in the sincerest {81} manner."  It seems
from his letters to Temple that he found these outbursts a great deal
easier than living in a manner worthy of a friend of Paoli.  But he did
more than talk.  He wrote to Chatham to try to interest him in Corsica,
and received a reply three pages long applauding his generous warmth;
he brought out a volume of _British Essays in Favour of the Brave
Corsicans_, sent Paoli Johnson's Works and, what was more substantial,
forwarded a quantity of ordnance, to buy which he had managed to raise
a subscription of 700 pounds.  His desire to be a well-known man now
began to receive some gratification and he frankly confesses his
pleasure at having such men as Johnson, Hume and Franklin dining with
him at his chambers.  Nor will any reasonable man blame him.  His
snobbishness, if it is to be so called, was always primarily a
snobbishness of mind and character, not of wealth or rank.

Nothing else of importance occurred to him in these years.  He was much
occupied with the great law-suit about the succession to the Douglas
property, on which he wrote two pamphlets and was so sure of the
justice of his view that he once dared to tell Johnson he knew nothing
about that subject.  He was with Johnson at Oxford in 1768 and they
were already talking of going to the Hebrides {82} together.  The next
year, 1769, saw the conquest of Corsica by the French to whom the
Genoese had ceded their claims.  The result was that Paoli came to
London, where he lived till 1789, and Boswell was constantly with him.
In this year he did at least one very foolish thing, and at least one
very wise one.  He made himself ridiculous by going to the Shakespeare
Jubilee at Stratford and appearing in Corsican costume with "_Viva la
Libertà_" embroidered on his cap.  He also took the most sensible step
of his whole life in marrying his cousin, Margaret Montgomerie, on
November 25.  She never liked Johnson, and her husband had the candour
to report an excellent sally of hers at his and his sage's expense: "I
have seen many a bear led by a man; but I never before saw a man led by
a bear."  But though, as Boswell says, she could not be expected to
like his "irregular hours and uncouth habits," she never failed in
courtesy to him: and he on his part was unwearied in sending friendly
messages to his "dear enemy" as he called her, and was well aware of
her importance to her husband.  The event unhappily proved his
prescience; for after her death in 1789, Boswell's downward course was
visibly accelerated.

After Boswell's marriage there was no {83} communication between him
and Johnson for a year and a half, and they did not meet again till
March 1772, when Boswell came to London, and stayed some time.  The
next year he came again, and, by Johnson's active support, was elected
a member of "The Club," a small society of friends founded by Reynolds
and Johnson in 1764.  At first it met weekly for supper, but after a
few years the members began the custom of dining together on fixed
dates which has continued to the present day.  Among the members when
Boswell was elected were Johnson and Reynolds, Burke, Goldsmith and
Garrick.  Gibbon and Charles Fox came in the next year, and Adam Smith
in 1775.  In 1780 the number of members was enlarged to forty which is
still the limit.  "The Club" has always maintained its distinction, and
a recent article in the _Edinburgh Review_ records that fifteen Prime
Ministers have been members of it, as well as men like Scott, Tennyson,
Hallam, Macaulay and Grote.  The first advantage over and above pride
and pleasure derived by Boswell from his election was the acquaintance
of Burke, which he had long desired and retained through life.  Burke
said of him that he had so much good humour naturally that it was
scarcely a virtue in him.

In the autumn of that year, 1773, Johnson {84} and Boswell made their
famous tour to the Hebrides.  They, in fact, went over much more than
the Hebrides, seeing the four Universities of Edinburgh, St. Andrews,
Aberdeen and Glasgow, besides many less famous places.  Johnson says
they were everywhere "received like princes in their progress," and
though no doubt hospitality was freer in those days when travellers
were few and inns poor, yet the whole story is a remarkable proof of
Johnson's fame and Boswell's popularity.  The University Professors
vied with each other in paying civilities to Johnson, the town of
Aberdeen gave him its freedom, and among their hosts were magnates like
the Duke of Argyll, Lord Errol and Lord Loudoun, who "jumped for joy"
at their coming, and great men of law or learning like Lord Monboddo
and Lord Elibank.

By this time all the important events in Boswell's life were over
except the publication of his two great books, the _Tour to the
Hebrides_ and the _Life of Johnson_.  During all the ten years which
Johnson still had to live, except 1780 and 1782, the two friends
managed to spend some time together, and when they did not, the
friendship was maintained by correspondence.  Boswell's father died in
1782, and Boswell came into possession of the estate, {85} worth 1,600
pounds a year.  Johnson and Boswell took more than one "jaunt" in the
country together, visiting Oxford, Lichfield and other places.  They
were at Oxford together in June 1784; but Johnson was then evidently
failing.  On their return to London, Boswell busied himself with the
help of Reynolds in trying to get Johnson's pension increased, so that
he might be able to spend the winter abroad.  Johnson was very pleased
on hearing of the attempt, saying, when Boswell told him, "'This is
taking prodigious pains about a man.'  'O, sir,' said Boswell, 'your
friends would do everything for you.'  He paused, grew more and more
agitated, till tears started into his eyes, and he exclaimed with
fervent emotion, 'God bless you all.'  I was so affected that I also
shed tears.  After a short silence he renewed and extended his grateful
benediction, 'God bless you all, for Jesus Christ's sake.'"  Those were
the last words Boswell heard under Johnson's roof.  The next day they
both dined with Reynolds, and on July 2 Boswell left London, to see
Johnson no more.  Johnson died on the 13th of December 1784.

Fitful and unsuccessful legal and political ambitions occupied a large
part of Boswell's later years.  He made some approaches to standing as
a candidate for Ayrshire in 1784, {86} and again in 1788, was called to
the English Bar in 1786, attached himself to Lord Lonsdale, and hoped
to enter Parliament for one of his boroughs, but seems to have got
nothing out of his connection with that insolent old bully but a
certain amount of humiliation and the Recordership of Carlisle.  That
unimportant office was the only substantial reward he received from all
his long suit and service in the antechambers of law and politics.
Whatever he achieved he owed to literature and the friends his love of
literature had brought him.  It was not the laird or the lawyer, but
the friend and biographer of Johnson whom the Royal Academy appointed
in 1791 to the complimentary office of their Secretary for Foreign
Correspondence.  And those last years, while they brought him
disappointment in everything else, saw him take definite rank as a
successful author.  The _Tour to the Hebrides_ was published in 1785,
and sold out in a few weeks.  The third edition was issued within a
year of the appearance of the first.  It was followed by the
publication of Johnson's famous Letter to Lord Chesterfield and of an
account of his Conversation with George III, and finally in 1791 by the
_Life_ itself.  A second edition of this was called for in 1793.
Boswell only lived two years more.  He died on May 19, 1795.  He left
two sons, Alexander, {87} who became Sir Alexander, was the principal
mover in the matter of the Burns Monument on the banks of Doon, and was
killed in a duel in 1822; and James, who supplied notes for the third
edition of his father's great book, and edited the third _Variorum
Shakespeare_, known as Boswell's _Malone_, in 1821.

Such were the main outlines of the life of the biographer.  We may now
turn to those of the life which he owes his fame to recording.  They
are in most ways very unlike his own.  Samuel Johnson was very far from
being heir to a large estate and an ancient name.  He was the son of a
bookseller at Lichfield, and was born there on the 18th of September
1709, in a house which is now preserved in public hands in memory of
the event of that day.  His father's family was so obscure that he once
said, "I can hardly tell who was my grandfather."  His mother was Sarah
Ford, who came of a good yeoman stock in Warwickshire.  She was both a
good and an intelligent woman.  Samuel was the elder and only
ultimately surviving issue of the marriage.  A picturesque incident in
his childhood is that his mother took him to London to be "touched" by
Queen Anne for the scrofula, or "king's evil," as it was called, from
which he suffered.  He must have been one of the last persons to go
through this curious {88} ceremony, which the Georges never performed,
though the service for it remained in the Book of Common Prayer for
some years after the accession of George I.  The boy made an impression
upon people from the first.  He liked to recall in later life that the
dame who first taught him to read brought him a present of gingerbread
when he was starting for Oxford, and told him he was the best scholar
she had ever had.  Afterwards he went to Lichfield School, and at the
age of fifteen to Stourbridge.  At both he was evidently held in
respect by boys and masters alike.  Probably the curious combination in
him of the invalid and the prize-fighter which was conspicuous all
through his life, already arrested attention in his boyhood.  He played
none of the ordinary games, but yet, as we have already seen, was
acknowledged as a leader by the boys, and his abilities were the pride
of the school.  He already exhibited the amazing memory which enabled
him in later life to dictate to Boswell his famous letter to
Chesterfield rather than search for a copy, and to confute a person who
praised a bad translation from Martial by a contemptuous "Why, sir, the
original is thus," followed by a recitation not only of the Latin
original which it is not likely he had looked at for years, but also of
the translation which he had only read {89} once.  So on another
occasion when Baretti, who had read a little Ariosto with him some
years before, proposed to give him some more lessons, but feared he
might have forgotten their previous readings, "Who forgets, sir?" said
Johnson, and immediately repeated three or four stanzas of the
_Orlando_.  To the lover of literature there is no possession more
precious than a good verbal memory, and this Johnson enjoyed to a very
unusual degree all through his life.  But it is worth noting that he
was entirely free from the defect which commonly results from an
exceptional memory.  He always thought and spoke for himself, and was
never prevented from using his own mind and his own words by the fact
that his memory supplied him abundantly with those of others.  His
scholarly friend Langton annoyed him by depending upon books too much
in his conversation, and one of his compliments to Boswell was, "You
and I do not talk from books."

After he left Stourbridge he spent two years at home in desultory
reading, "not voyages and travels, but all literature, sir, all ancient
writers, all manly; though but little Greek, only some of Anacreon and
Hesiod," the result of which was that when he went up to Oxford, the
Master of his College said he was "the best qualified for the
University that {90} he had ever known come there."  His College was
Pembroke, of which he became a Commoner (not a Servitor, as Carlyle
said) in 1728.  The Oxford of that day was not a place of much
discipline and the official order of study was very laxly maintained.
It seems not to have meant much to Johnson, and he is described as
having spent a good deal of his time "lounging at the College gates
with a circle of young students round him, whom he was entertaining
with wit and keeping from their studies."  Most good talkers find the
first real sphere for their talent when they get to the University, and
the best of all was not likely to be an exception, nor to resist that
strongest of the intellectual temptations.  But he did some solid
reading, especially Greek, though he seemed to himself to be very idle,
perhaps because his standard was so high that he used to say in later
life, "I never knew a man who studied hard."  So when he confesses the
imperfections of his Greek scholarship, and other people exaggerate his
confession, it is well to remember the reply made by Jacob Bryant when
Gifford in an argument quoted Johnson's admission that "he was not a
good Greek scholar," "Sir, it is not easy for us to say what such a man
as Johnson would call a good Greek scholar."  A man whose remedy for
{91} sleeplessness was to turn Greek epigrams into Latin was at any
rate not ignorant of Greek.

Johnson was prevented by his poverty from getting the full advantages
either out of the life or the studies of Oxford.  His want of shoes
prevented his attending lectures, his pride forbad him to receive doles
of help, the friend, said to be a Mr. Corbet of Shropshire, on whose
promises of support he had relied in going to Oxford, failed him, his
father's business went from little to less; with the inevitable result
that he had to leave Oxford without a degree.  This was in December
1729.  But he had made an impression there, had a strong affection for
his College, and liked going to stay there in the days of his glory.
His usual host was one Dr. Adams, the Master of Pembroke, who had once
been his tutor but told Boswell that the relation was only nominal; "he
was above my mark."  When he left Oxford he returned to his Lichfield
home, where his father died two months later, leaving so little behind
him that all that Johnson received of his estate was twenty pounds.  He
seems to have remained at Lichfield, where the poverty of his family
did not prevent his mixing with the most cultivated society of a town
rich in cultivated people, till 1732, when he became an usher in a
school at Market Bosworth.  He hated this monotonous drudgery {92} and
left it after a few months, going to live with a Mr. Warren, a
Birmingham bookseller of good repute, whom he helped by his knowledge
of literature.  While in Birmingham he did a translation of a Jesuit
book about Abyssinia, for which Warren paid him five guineas.  In 1734
he returned to Lichfield, tried without success to obtain subscribers
for an edition of the poems of Politian, and offered to write in the
_Gentleman's Magazine_.  It is difficult to see how he supported
himself at this period: perhaps he was helped by his mother or by his
brother who carried on the bookselling business till his death a little
later.  Anyhow it was just at this time that he took a step for which
poverty generally finds the courage more quickly than wealth.  He
married Elizabeth Porter at St. Werburgh's Church, Derby, in July 1735.
Mrs. Porter was a widow twice his age and not of an attractive
appearance; but there is no doubt that Johnson's love for her was
sincere and lasting.  To the end of his life he remembered her
frequently in his prayers "if it were lawful," and kept the anniversary
of her death with prayers and tears.  Eighteen years after she died he
could write in his private note-books that his grief for her was not
abated and that he had less pleasure in any good that happened to him,
because she could not share {93} it: and in 1782 when she had been dead
thirty years, and he was drawing near his own end, he prays for her and
after doing so, noted "perhaps Tetty knows that I prayed for her.
Perhaps Tetty is now praying for me.  God help me."

This was the inner truth of the relation between Johnson and his
elderly wife, but it was natural and indeed inevitable that the world,
the little world of their acquaintances, should have been chiefly alive
to the humorous external aspect of the marriage, and one does not
wonder that Beauclerk, whose married life was a scandal following on a
divorce, should have enjoyed relating that Johnson had said to him,
"Sir, it was a love marriage on both sides!"  Johnson's own account of
the actual wedding is singular enough.  "Sir, she had read the old
romances, and had got into her head the fantastical notion that a woman
of spirit should use her lover like a dog.  So, sir, at first she told
me that I rode too fast, and she could not keep up with me; and, when I
rode a little slower, she passed me, and complained that I lagged
behind.  I was not to be made the slave of caprice; and I resolved to
begin as I meant to end.  I therefore pushed on briskly, till I was
fairly out of her sight.  The road lay between two hedges, so I was
sure she could not miss it; and I contrived that she should {94} soon
come up with me.  When she did, I observed her to be in tears."

Mrs. Johnson was the widow of a Birmingham draper, and brought her
husband several hundred pounds, part of which was at once spent in
hiring and furnishing a large house at Edial near Lichfield where
Johnson proposed to take pupils.  But no pupils came except David
Garrick and his brother, the sons of an old Lichfield friend, and the
"academy" was abandoned after a year and a half.  The lack of pupils,
however, was perhaps a blessing in disguise, for it enabled Johnson to
write most of his tragedy _Irene_, with which he went to London in
March 1737.  His pupil, David Garrick, went with him to study law, and
when Garrick was a rich, famous and rather vain man, Johnson, who liked
to curb the "insolence of wealth" once referred to 1737 as the year
"when I came to London with twopence half-penny in my pocket; and thou,
Davy, with three-halfpence in thine."  Nothing came of this first visit
to the capital.  He lived as best he could, dining for eightpence, and
seeing a few friends, one of whom was Henry Hervey, son of the Earl of
Bristol, of whose kindness he always retained an affectionate memory,
so that he once said to Boswell, "If you call a dog Hervey, I shall
love him."  In the summer he returned to Lichfield, and finished his
{95} tragedy, after which he brought his wife back with him to London
which was his home for the rest of his life.  Efforts to get _Irene_
performed were unsuccessful, but he soon began to write regularly for
the _Gentleman's Magazine_, of which he held so high an opinion that he
looked "with reverence" on the house where it was printed.  To this he
contributed essays and was soon employed to write the _Parliamentary
Debates_ which, in the days before reporters, were made up with
fictitious names from such scanty notes as could be got of the actual
speeches.  There is a story of his being, many years later, in a
company who were praising a famous oration of Chatham, and were
naturally a good deal startled by his quietly saying, "That speech I
wrote in a garret in Exeter Street."  He continued to do this work till
1743 when he became aware that the speeches were taken as authentic and
refused to be "accessory to the propagation of falsehood."  But, while
engaged in it, he had had no scruples about taking care "that the Whig
dogs should not have the best of it."

A much more important matter than this hack-work was the publication of
his _London_, a poem in imitation of the Third Satire of Juvenal.  This
appeared in May 1738.  He got ten guineas for it, which he was in no
position to despise; but he also got something {96} much more
important, an established name in the world of letters.  Every one
talked of him, and Pope, who published his "1738" in the same year, was
not only generous enough to inquire about him, and to say when told
that the author of _London_ was some obscure man, "He will soon be
_déterré_," but also to try to get him an Irish degree of M.A.  This
was in view of some attempts Johnson made to escape from dependence on
journalism for his daily bread: but they were all unsuccessful, and
till he received his pension his only source of income was what his
various writings produced.  In such circumstances he naturally wrote
many things of quite ephemeral interest which call for no mention now.
Perhaps the only prose work of permanent value he produced in these
years was the life of his mysterious friend, Richard Savage.  This
curious volume appeared in 1744.  The subject of it died in 1743.  He
and Johnson had been companions both in extreme poverty and in the
intellectual pleasures which in such men poverty is unable to
annihilate.  Mrs. Johnson seems to have been out of London at this
time, and the two struggling men of letters often passed nights
together, walking and talking in the streets and squares without the
price of a night's lodging between them.  Johnson's account of {97} his
friend did not fill his pocket, but must have contributed something to
his fame as it was very favourably criticized.  It was the occasion of
Reynolds first becoming acquainted with his name.  He was so interested
by the book that, having taken it up while standing with his arm
leaning upon a chimney-piece, he read the whole without sitting down
and found his arm quite benumbed when he got to the end.

"Slow rises worth by poverty depressed."  Johnson had now been seven
years in London, but had not yet found the way to do anything worthy of
his powers.  If he had died then, only the curious and the learned
would have known his name to-day.  A single satire in verse would
never, by itself, have had the force to push its way through the
ever-increasing crowd of applicants that besiege the attention of
posterity.  But the next year, 1745, is the literary turning-point of
his life.  Before it was over he had begun to deal with two subjects
with which much of his remaining life was occupied, and on which much
of his fame depends.  He had published a pamphlet upon Shakespeare's
_Macbeth_ which won the praise of Warburton, for which Johnson always
felt and showed his gratitude ("He praised me at a time when praise was
of value to me"); and, if Boswell is right, he had begun to occupy {98}
himself with the idea of making an English Dictionary.  Thus, poor and
obscure as he was in those years, sick with deferred hope as he must
have been, he had in fact laid the foundation-stones of the authority
and fame he was soon to enjoy as the Editor of Shakespeare and above
all as "Dictionary Johnson."  Now at last he began to do work worthier
of his powers.  The "_Plan for a Dictionary of the English Language_"
was published in 1747 and in the same year he wrote the admirable
_Prologue_ for the opening of Drury Lane Theatre, of which his pupil,
David Garrick, more fortunate than the master with whom he had come to
London, was now become manager.

Two years later Garrick produced the long-delayed tragedy of _Irene_.
It is not a great drama, as Johnson well knew, at least in his later
years.  There is a story of his being told that a certain Mr. Pot
called it "the finest tragedy of modern times," to which his only reply
was, "If Pot says so, Pot lies."  But this hardly has the genuine ring
about it.  Even Garrick's talent and friendship could not make _Irene_
a success, but the performance brought Johnson a little welcome profit
and enabled him to sell the book to Dodsley for a hundred pounds.  In
the same year, 1749, a more lasting evidence of his poetic powers was
given {99} by the appearance of _The Vanity of Human Wishes_, another
Juvenalian imitation, but freer and bolder than the first.  From 1750
to 1752 he was writing _The Rambler_, a sort of newspaper essay which
appeared every Tuesday and Friday.  He wrote it almost entirely
himself, and almost always at the last moment, when the printer was
calling for it.  No one will now wonder that it never had a large
circulation as a periodical, for it usually exhibits him at his
gravest, and many of the essays are scarcely distinguishable from
sermons.  But that age had grave tastes and few temptations to
intellectual frivolity.  We have seen that the idlest sort of reading
Johnson could think of for a boy was "voyages and travels"; novels he
does not mention, indeed there were then very few of them; plays he
rather strangely ignores: newspapers, as we now know them and suffer by
them, he of course could not so much as conceive.  _The Rambler_ had no
sixpenny magazines of triviality, no sensational halfpenny papers, to
compete with it, and it pursued an even course of modest success for
its two years of life.  The greatest pleasure it brought Johnson was
the praise of his wife, who said to him, "I thought very well of you
before; but I did not imagine you could have written anything equal to
this."  That was just the discovery a good {100} many people beside his
wife were making about Johnson in those years: with the result that
when _The Rambler_ appeared as a book, it sold well and had gone
through twelve editions by the time Boswell wrote its author's life.

Three years after the cessation of _The Rambler_ and, unhappily, also
three years after the death of his wife, with whom it would have been
his chief happiness to share his success, the great Dictionary
appeared.  It may safely be said that no single Englishman has ever
accomplished a literary task of such vast extent.  The mere labour, one
might say the mere dull drudgery, of collecting and arranging the
materials of such a work is enormous.  Nor could any literary labour
bring with it greater temptations.  Johnson's success is not more due
to his learning and powers of mind than to the good sense which never
failed him and the strong will which he could generally exert when he
chose.  He pleased himself at first, as he tells us in his Preface,
"with a prospect of the hours which I should revel away in feasts of
literature"; but that, of course, was where the danger lay.  A man of
an equally strong love of literature and a weaker will would have
allowed himself to be swept away by the indulgence of curiosity, and
the luxury of desultory reading; but Johnson soon saw {101} that these
visions of intellectual pleasure were "the dreams of a poet doomed at
last to wake a lexicographer"; and that, if he was to do the thing he
had undertaken to do, he must set stern limits, not only to the
pleasures of study, but also to the delusive quest of unattainable
perfection, which is the constant parent of futility.  He realized, as
so many men of letters have failed to realize, that "to deliberate
whenever I doubted, to inquire whenever I was ignorant, would have
protracted the undertaking without end and perhaps without much
improvement"; and instead of attempting the impossible and achieving
nothing, he was wise enough and modest enough, by attempting only the
attainable, to place himself in a position to achieve all that he
attempted.

The praise he deserved was somewhat slow in coming, as is commonly the
case with the greatest literary achievements.  But though, as he sadly
says in the last words of his great Preface, most of those whom he
wished to please had sunk into the grave, and he had therefore little
to hope or fear from praise or censure, yet he was always and before
all things a human being, and only a creature above or below humanity
could have been insensible to the pleasure of the new fame, the new
authority and the new friends which his {102} Dictionary gradually
brought him.  Before many years had passed the "harmless drudge," as he
himself had defined a lexicographer, had become the acknowledged
law-giver and dictator of English letters; he had gathered round him a
society of the finest minds of that generation, he had received a
public pension which secured his independence, he had begun the long
friendship which gave him a second home for more than fifteen years.
These things did not all come at once--he did not know the Thrales till
1764 or 1765--but the true turning-point in his career is the
publication of his Dictionary.  He was still poor for some years after
that, and still much occupied in the production of hack-work: but he
was never again obscure and was soon to be famous.  Within a year after
the appearance of the Dictionary he had issued his _Proposals for an
Edition of Shakespeare_, the second in time and perhaps in importance
of his three great works.  His new position secured him a good number
of subscribers and he intended to publish it the next year, 1757; but
the interruptions of indolence, business and pleasure, as he himself
says of Pope, usually disappoint the sanguine expectations of authors,
and the book did not in fact appear till 1765.

Neither Shakespeare nor idleness had {103} occupied the whole of the
intervening years.  From 1758 to 1760 he produced a weekly paper called
_The Idler_, of the same character as _The Rambler_.  In 1759 he wrote
his once famous story _Rasselas_ to pay the expenses of his mother's
funeral.  It was written in the evenings of a single week.  Good judges
thought that, if he had known how to make a bargain, he ought to have
received as much as four hundred pounds for this book, which was
translated into most of the European languages; but he did not in fact
receive more than a hundred pounds for the first and twenty-five for
the second edition.  By this time he could visit Oxford, from which
University he had received the degree of M.A. when his Dictionary was
on the eve of publication: and another sign of the position he was
beginning to occupy is that we find Smollet writing of him in 1759 as
the "great Cham of literature."  More substantial evidences followed in
1762 when George III was advised by Bute to grant him a pension of 300
pounds a year, an income which must have seemed boundless affluence to
a man who had never known a time when five pounds was not an important
sum to him.

Next year came the event which was even more important to his fame than
the receipt of the pension was to his comfort.  In 1763 {104} he met
Boswell for the first time.  Fortune now began to smile upon him in
good earnest and evidences of his established position and prosperity
follow each other in rapid succession.  "The Club" (its proper and
still existing name, though Boswell occasionally calls it The Literary
Club) was founded in 1764 and provided him for the rest of his life
with an ideal theatre for the display of his amazing powers of talk,
though it appears that he was not in his later years a very regular
attendant.  The next year, 1765, was probably the year in which he
first met Thrale, the great brewer, and his clever and ambitious wife.
No event contributed so much to the happiness of his after years.
Thrale was a man of character and understanding, and was not without
scholarly tastes.  He at once saw the value of such a friend as
Johnson, lived in the closest intimacy with him for the rest of his
days, and named him executor in his will, which gave Johnson an
opportunity such as he always liked, of mixing in business, and
incidentally also, of saying the best thing that ever was said at the
sale of a brewery.  He appeared at the auction, according to the story
told by Lord Lucan, "bustling about with an inkhorn and pen in his
button-hole, like an excise-man; and, on being asked what he really
considered to be the value of the {105} property, answered, 'We are not
here to sell a parcel of boilers and vats, but the potentiality of
growing rich beyond the dreams of avarice.'"  The brewery was sold for
135,000 pounds to Mr. Barclay, the founder of the present firm of
Barclay & Perkins, who now put Johnson's head on the labels of their
beer bottles.  But it was not so much on the silent and busy Thrale
himself as on his wife, a quick and clever woman fond of literary
society, that the visible burden, honour and pleasure of the long
friendship with Johnson fell.  Till the breach caused by her second
marriage just before he died no one had so much of his society as Mrs.
Thrale.  She soon became "my mistress" to him, an adaptation of his
from the "my master" which was her phrase for her husband.  And for
him, too, Thrale was "my master."  A somewhat masterful servant, no
doubt, to them both, but he loved them sincerely and was deeply
grateful for their kindness.  He lived at their house at Streatham as
much as he liked, and had his own room reserved for him both there and
at their London house.  At Streatham he sometimes remained for several
months, and it is chiefly there that Boswell's only rival, Fanny
Burney, saw him.  It may be said that the Thrales' house was more of a
home to him than anything else he ever knew: it was at {106} least the
only house since his childhood in which he ever lived with children.
There in the garden or in the library he studied and idled and talked
at his ease; there many of his friends gathered round him; there his
wishes were anticipated and his words listened to, sometimes with fear,
sometimes with amusement, sometimes with reverence, always with
affection and almost always with admiration.  Well might he write to
Mrs. Thrale as he did in October 1777: "I cannot but think on your
kindness and my master's.  Life has upon the whole fallen short, very
short, of my early expectation; but the acquisition of such a
friendship, at an age when new friendships are seldom acquired, is
something better than the general course of things gives man a right to
expect.  I think on it with great delight.  I am not very apt to be
delighted."

Johnson had now become a comparatively prosperous man, and the lives of
the prosperous have a way of producing little to record.  He received
many honours and compliments of different sorts.  Dublin University
made him LL.D. in 1765, he had his well-known interview with George III
in 1767, the Royal Academy appointed him their Professor in Ancient
Literature in 1769, and in 1775 he received the honorary degree of
D.C.L. from the University of Oxford.  But the only events {107} of any
special importance in the last twenty years of his life were the
publication of his _Shakespeare_ in 1765, his journey in Scotland with
Boswell in 1773, and the writing of his last and most popular book,
_The Lives of the Poets_.  This he undertook in 1777 and completed in
1781.  Its easier style, pleasant digressions, and occasional bits of
autobiography, represent the change that had come over Johnson's life.
He was now a man at ease and wrote like one.  For the note of
disappointed youthful ambition which is only half concealed in the
earlier works it substitutes an old man's kindliness of retrospect.
Matters of less importance in these years were the publication of his
_Journey to the Western Islands_, of the _Prologue_ to Goldsmith's
_Good-Natured Man_ and of his political pamphlets, _The False Alarm_,
_Falkland's Islands_, _The Patriot_, and _Taxation no Tyranny_.  But
none of these things except the _Lives of the Poets_ occupied much of
his time, and his principal occupation in his old age was talking to
his friends.  He travelled a good deal, often visiting Oxford, his old
home at Lichfield, and his friend Taylor's house in Derbyshire.  In
1775 he went to France with the Thrales, and even in his last year was
planning a tour to Italy.  But by that time the motive was rather
health than pleasure.  He had a {108} paralytic stroke in 1783 and lost
his powers of speech for some days.  One of the doctors who attended
him was Dr. Heberden, who had cured Cowper of a still graver illness
twenty years earlier.  His strong constitution enabled him to recover
rapidly, and within a month he was paying visits in Kent and Wiltshire.
But he had other complaints, and never again knew even that modest
measure of health which he had once enjoyed.

The inevitable loss of friends, that saddest and most universal sorrow
of old age, joined with illness to depress his last years.  Beauclerk
died in 1780, Thrale in 1781, Levett and Mrs. Williams, two of the
humble friends to whom his charity had given a home in his house, in
1782 and 1788.  He was left almost alone.  Yet the old courage and love
of society asserted itself to the last, and he founded a new dining
club the year before he died.  But it was too late.  The year 1784
opened with a prolonged illness lasting for months, and though in the
summer he was well enough to get away to Oxford with Boswell once more,
all could see that the end could not be far off.  It came on the 18th
of December 1784.  He was buried in Westminster Abbey on December 20th.
Burke and Windham, with Colman the dramatist and Sir Joseph Bankes the
President of the Royal Society, were among the {109} pall-bearers, and
the mourners included Reynolds and Paoli.  Seldom has the death of a
man of letters created such a sense of loss either in the public at
large or among his friends.  Murphy, the editor of Fielding, and
biographer of Garrick, says in his well-known essay that Johnson's
death "kept the public mind in agitation beyond all previous example."
Those great men, then, who attended his funeral represented not merely
themselves and his other friends but the intelligence of the whole
nation, which saw in the death of Johnson the fall of one of the mighty
in the moral and intellectual Israel.



CHAPTER IV

JOHNSON'S CHARACTER AND CHARACTERISTICS

Something has already been said in the first chapter of this book about
the character of Johnson.  The argument of that chapter was that the
singular position of Johnson as, in a way, the most national of our men
of letters, was due not so much to anything he wrote, or even to
anything written about him, as to the quality of his own mind and
character, to a sort of central sanity that there was about him which
Englishmen like {110} to think of as a thing peculiarly English.  We
may now pass on to look at this character in a little more detail.

Visitors to St. Paul's Cathedral are sometimes astonished as they walk
round the space under the dome to come upon a statue which (but for the
roll with a Greek inscription upon it) would appear to be that of a
retired gladiator meditating upon a wasted life.  They are still more
astonished when they see under it an inscription indicating that it
represents Johnson.  The statue is by Bacon, but is not one of his best
works.  The figure is, as often in eighteenth-century sculpture,
clothed only in a loose robe which leaves legs, arms, and one shoulder
bare.  But the strangeness for us is not one of costume only.  If we
know anything of Johnson, we know that he was constantly ill all
through his life; and whether we know anything of him or not we are apt
to think of a literary man as a delicate, weakly, nervous, and probably
valetudinarian sort of person.  Nothing can be further from that than
the muscular statue.  And in this matter the statue is perfectly right.
And the fact which it reports is far from being unimportant.  The body
and the mind are inextricably interwoven in all of us, and certainly in
Johnson's case the influence of the body was obvious and {111}
conspicuous.  His melancholy, his constantly repeated conviction of the
general unhappiness of human life, was certainly the result of his
constitutional infirmities.  On the other hand, his courage, and his
entire indifference to pain, were partly due to his great bodily
strength.  Perhaps the vein of rudeness, almost of fierceness, which
sometimes showed itself in his conversation, was the natural temper of
an invalid and suffering giant.  That at any rate is what he was.  He
was the victim from childhood of a disease which resembled St. Vitus's
Dance.  He never knew, Boswell says, "the natural joy of a free and
vigorous use of his limbs; when he walked it was like the struggling
gait of one in fetters."  All accounts agree that his strange
gesticulations and contortions were painful for his friends to witness
and attracted crowds of starers in the streets.  But Reynolds says that
he could sit still for his portrait to be taken, and that when his mind
was engaged by a conversation the convulsions ceased.  In any case, it
is certain that neither this perpetual misery, nor his constant fear of
losing his reason, nor his many grave attacks of illness, ever induced
him to surrender the privileges that belonged to his physical strength.
He justly thought no character so disagreeable as that of a
valetudinarian, and was determined not to be one {112} himself.  He had
known what it was to live on fourpence halfpenny a day and scorned the
life of sofa cushions and beef-tea into which well-attended old
gentlemen so easily slip.  Once, when Mrs. Thrale asked him how he was,
his reply was "Ready to become a scoundrel, Madam" (his word for a
self-indulgent invalid); "with a little more spoiling you will make me
a complete rascal."  But in that she never succeeded.  Rather he
carried the war into her camp, and when they were driving together
would never allow her to complain of rain, dust, or any such
inconveniences.  "How do other people bear them?" he would ask, and
would treat those who talked of such topics as evidently having nothing
intelligent to say.  "A mill that goes without grist is as good a
companion as such creatures," he once broke out.  He required no
valeting, or nursing; bathed at Brighton in October when he was nearing
sixty, refused to be carried to land by the boatmen at Iona, as Boswell
and Sir Allan Maclean were, but sprang into the sea and waded ashore;
would not change his clothes when he got wet at Inverary; was a hundred
years before his time in his love of open windows, and rode fifty miles
with fox-hounds, only to declare that hunting was a dull business and
that its popularity merely showed the paucity of human pleasures.
{113} Mrs. Thrale says that no praise ever pleased him more than when
some one said of him on Brighton Downs, "Why, Johnson rides as well as
the most illiterate fellow in England."  He was always eager to show
that his legs and arms could do as much as other people's.  When he was
past sixty-six he ran a race in the rain at Paris with his friend
Baretti.  He insisted on rolling down a hill like a schoolboy when
staying with Langton in Lincolnshire: once at Lichfield when he was
over seventy he slipped away from his friends to find a railing he used
to jump when he was a boy, threw away his coat, hat, and wig, and, as
he reported with pride, leapt over it twice; and on another occasion at
Oxford was bold enough to challenge a Fellow, "eminent for learning and
worth," and "of an ancient and respectable family in Berkshire," to
climb over a wall with him.  Apparently, however, the climbing did not
actually take place, for the dignified person very properly refused to
compromise his dignity.

It is evident that this runner of races and climber of walls was very
far from being the sedentary weakling, afraid to enjoy the pleasures of
the body or face its pains, in whom popular imagination fancies it sees
the man of letters.  No man was ever more fearless of {114} pain than
Johnson.  The only thing he was afraid of was death.  Of the extent and
even violence of that fear in him till within a few days of the actual
event, the evidence, in spite of what Sir Walter Raleigh has said, is
conclusive and overwhelming.  It comes from every one who knew him.
But that was a moral and intellectual fear.  Of physical fear he knew
nothing.  The knife of the surgeon had terrors then which our
generation has happily forgotten.  But it had none for Johnson.  When
he lay dying his only fear was that his doctors, one of whom he called
"timidorum timidissimus," would spare him pain which if inflicted might
have prolonged his life.  He called to them to cut deeper when they
were operating, and finally took the knife into his own hands and did
for himself what he thought the surgeon had failed to do.  "I will be
conquered, I will not capitulate," were his words: and he acted on them
till the very last days were come.

Nor was this courage merely desperation in the presence of the great
Terror.  He was as brave in health as in illness.  He was perfectly
quiet and unconcerned during a dangerous storm between Skye and Mull;
and on being told that it was doubtful whether they would make for Mull
or Col cheerfully replied, "Col for my money."  Roads in {115} those
days were not what they are now: but he never would admit that
accidents could happen and pooh-poohed them when they did.  Nor was his
courage merely passive.  Beauclerk did not find it so when at his
country house he saw Johnson go up to two large dogs which were
fighting and beat them till they stopped: nor did Langton when he
warned Johnson against a dangerous pool where they were bathing, only
to see Johnson swim straight into it; nor did the four ruffians who
once attacked him in the street and were surprised to find him more
than a match for the four of them.  Whoever trifled with him was apt to
learn sooner than he wished that _nemo me impune lacessit_ was a saying
which was to be taken very literally from Johnson's mouth.  Garrick
used to tell a story of a man who took a chair which had been placed
for Johnson at the Lichfield theatre and refused to give it up when
asked, upon which Johnson simply tossed man and chair together into the
pit.  He proposed to treat Foote, the comic actor, in much the same
way.  Hearing of Foote's intention to caricature him on the stage he
suddenly at dinner asked Davies, a friend of Foote's, "what was the
common price of an oak stick," and being answered sixpence, "Why then,
sir (said he), give me leave to send your servant to purchase {116} a
shilling one.  I'll have a double quantity; for I am told Foote means
to take me off, as he calls it, and I am determined the fellow shall
not do it with impunity."  The threat was sufficient; as Johnson said,
"he knew I would have broken his bones."  Years afterwards Foote,
perhaps in half-conscious revenge, amused himself by holding Johnson up
to ridicule in a private company at Edinburgh.  Unluckily for him
Boswell was present and naturally felt Foote's behaviour an act of
rudeness to himself.  So he intervened and pleaded that Johnson must be
allowed to have some sterling wit, adding that he had heard him say a
very good thing about Foote himself.  "Ah," replied the unwary Foote,
"my old friend Sam; no man says better things: do let us have it."  On
which Boswell related how he had once said to Johnson when they were
talking of Foote, "Pray, sir, is not Foote an infidel?" to which
Johnson had replied, "I do not know, sir, that the fellow is an
infidel; but if he be an infidel, he is an infidel as a dog is an
infidel; that is to say, he has never thought upon the subject."
Boswell's story was as effective as his master's stick.  There was no
more question that night of taking off Johnson: Foote had enough to do
to defend himself against the cannonade of laughter that Boswell had
brought upon him.  {117} A man of the mettle Johnson shows in those
stories was certain to have no more fears about defending the public
than about defending himself.  So when he thought the so-called poems
of Ossian a fabrication he said so everywhere without hesitation; and
when their editor or author Macpherson, finding other methods fail,
tried to silence him by bluster and threats, he received the reply
which is only less famous than its author's letter to Lord Chesterfield.


"MR. JAMES MACPHERSON,

"I received your foolish and impudent letter.  Any violence offered me
I shall do my best to repel; and what I cannot do for myself, the law
shall do for me.  I hope I shall never be deterred from detecting what
I think a cheat, by the menaces of a ruffian.

"What would you have me retract?  I thought your book an imposture; I
think it an imposture still.  For this opinion I have given my reasons
to the public, which I here dare you to refute.  Your rage I defy.
Your abilities, since your Homer, are not so formidable, and what I
hear of your morals inclines me to pay regard not to what you shall say
but to what you shall prove.  You may print this if you will.

"SAM. JOHNSON."


{118}

The first thing then to get clear about Johnson is that there was a
very vigorous animal at the base of the mind and soul that we know in
his books and in his talk.  Part of the universal interest he has
inspired lies in that.  The people who put off the body in this life
may be divine, though that is far from certain, but they are apt to
affect us little because we do not feel them to be human.  There is
much in Johnson--a turn for eating seven or eight peaches in the garden
before breakfast, for instance--which gives unregenerate beings like
schoolboys a feeling of confidence at once.  And older persons, not yet
altogether regenerate, are apt to have a weakness for a man who was
willing to be knocked up at three in the morning by some young
roysterers, and turn out with them for a "frisk" about the streets and
taverns and down the river in a boat.  The "follies of the wise" are
never altogether follies.  Johnson at midnight outside the Temple
roaring with Gargantuan laughter that echoed from Temple Bar to what we
now call Ludgate Circus is a picture his wisest admirers would be
slowest to forget.  The laugh and the frisk and the peaches are so many
hall-marks to assure us that the philosopher is still a man and has not
forgotten that he was once a boy: that he has always had five senses
like the rest of us; and {119} that if he bids us take a grave view of
life it is not because he knows nothing about it.

Another note of catholicity in Johnson is his wide experience of social
conditions.  The man in him never for an instant disappeared in the
"gentleman."  Very few of our great men of letters have ever known
poverty in the real sense of the word, in the way the really poor know
it.  Johnson had, and he never forgot it.  It is true that like most
people who have known what it is to be uncertain about to-morrow's
dinner he did not much care to talk about these experiences.  No one
does perhaps except politicians who find them useful bids for
popularity at a mass meeting.  Johnson at any rate when he had arrived
at comparatively easy social conditions frankly admitted that he did
not like "low life."  His sympathy with the poor, was, as we shall see,
one of the strongest things in him, and made one of the deepest marks
in his actual life; but he never thought it necessary to indulge in
polite or political fictions about the superior virtue or wisdom of the
working class.  "Poverty," he once wrote in words that come at first
sight rather startlingly from the mouth of so strictly Biblical a
Christian as he, "is a great enemy to human happiness . . . it makes
some virtues impracticable and others extremely difficult." {120} "Of
riches," he said on another occasion, "it is not necessary to write the
praise."  No doubt the opposition between such remarks as these, meant
as Johnson meant them, and certain sayings in the Gospels, is like the
opposition between many contrasted pairs of sayings in the New
Testament itself, more verbal than real.  But it is as strong a proof
as could be given of the power and universality in the eighteenth
century of the temper which Butler called "cool and reasonable," the
temper which hated and despised "enthusiasm," that such a man as
Johnson, a man, too, who owed his religious faith to Law's _Serious
Call_, could use such words without the slightest consciousness of
their needing explanation.

The fact is that Johnson never, even in his religion, left his open eye
or his common sense behind him: and common sense told him, what a
brighter light concealed from St. Francis but the history of his Order
was to show too plainly within half a century of his death, that
poverty is at least for ordinary men no assured school of the Christian
virtues.  Johnson's attitude towards the poor, in fact, included the
whole of sympathy and understanding but not one tittle of sentiment.
They had the benefit of the greater part of his small income; he gave
constantly, both to those who {121} had claims on him and to those who
had none, really loving the poor, says Mrs. Thrale, "as I never yet saw
any one else do, with an earnest desire to make them happy," and
insisting on giving them, not merely relief, but indulgence and
pleasure.  He wished them to have something more than board and
lodging, some "sweeteners of their existence," and he was not always
frightened if the sweeteners preferred were gin and tobacco.  His very
home he made into a retreat, as Mrs. Thrale says with little
exaggeration, for "the lame, the blind, the sad and the sorrowful"; and
he gave these humble friends more than board and lodging, treating them
with at least as ceremonious a civility as he would have used to so
many people of fashion.

He held no theories of political or social equality; on the contrary,
he looked upon such theories as mischievous nonsense: but the respect
paid to him in his later years by great personages never made him take
a Mayfair or "county-family" view of life.  He might stay at Inverary,
visit Alnwick and be invited to Chatsworth, but it took more than the
civilities of three Dukes to blind him to the fact that on a map of
humanity all the magnates in the world occupy but a small space.  Even
in the days when he lived at {122} his ease in a rich man's house and,
when in his own, would dine out every day for a fortnight, he never
surrendered himself, as so many who have at last reached comfort do, to
the subtle unrealities of the drawing-room.  He would not allow the
well-do-to to call themselves "the world": and when Sir Joshua said one
day that nobody wore laced coats any longer and that once everybody had
worn them, "See now," said Johnson, "how absurd that is; as if the bulk
of mankind consisted of fine gentlemen that came to him to sit for
their pictures.  If every man who wears a laced coat (that he can pay
for) was extirpated, who would miss them?"  So when Mrs. Thrale once
complained of the smell of cooking he told her she was a fortunate
woman never to have experienced the delight of smelling her dinner
beforehand.  "Which pleasure," she answered, "is to be enjoyed in
perfection by such as have the happiness to pass through Porridge
Island of a morning!"  Johnson's answer was the grave rebuke of a man
from whose mind the darker side of a prosperous world was never long
absent.  "Come, come, let's have no sneering at what is serious to so
many: hundreds of your fellow-creatures, dear lady, turn another way
that they may not be tempted by the luxuries of Porridge Island to wish
for {123} gratifications they are not able to obtain: you are certainly
not better than all of them: give God thanks that you are happier."  It
is Mrs. Thrale who herself tells the story: and it is to her credit
that she calls Johnson's answer a just rebuke.

But Johnson's equality was that of the moralist, not that of the
politician.  He was the exact opposite of a leveller, believing in the
distinction of ranks as not only a necessity of society, but an
addition to its strength and to the variety and interest of its life.
He himself scrupulously observed the formalities of social respect, and
would no doubt, like Mr. Gladstone, have repudiated with horror the
idea of being placed at dinner above the obscurest of peers.  His bow
to an Archbishop is described as a studied elaboration of temporal and
spiritual homage, and he once went so far as to imply that nothing
would induce him to contradict a Bishop.  There no doubt he promised
more than the presence of a stupid Bishop or a Whig Bishop would have
allowed him to perform.  For no considerations of rank ever prevented
him from expressing his own opinions or trampling upon those of other
people.  Except Swift, perhaps, he was the most independent man that
ever lived.  Of Swift's jealous and angry arrogance he had nothing.
But he was full of what he {124} himself called "defensive pride."
That was his answer when he was accused of showing at least as much
pride as Lord Chesterfield in the affair of the Dictionary; "but mine,"
he said, "was defensive pride."  He was always on his guard against the
very appearance of accepting the patronage of the great.  Even
Thackeray's Argus eye could not have detected a grain of snobbery in
him.  At Inverary he would not let Boswell call before dinner lest it
should look like fishing for an invitation; and when he dined there the
next day and sat next the Duke, he did not refrain, even in that Whig
holy of holies, from chaffing about one of the Campbells who "had been
bred a violent Whig but afterwards kept better company and became a
Tory"!  So once, when he dined at Bowood with Lord Shelburne he refused
to repeat a story at the request of his host, saying that he would not
be dragged in as story-teller to the company.  And he would never give
the authority for any fact he mentioned, if the authority happened to
be a lord.  Indeed he carried his sturdy independence so far that in
his last years he fancied that his company was no longer desired in
these august circles.  "I never courted the great," he said; "they sent
for me, but I think they now give me up"; adding, in reply to Boswell's
polite disbelief, "No, sir; great lords and great {125} ladies don't
love to have their mouths stopped."

Here again Johnson represented the typical Englishman as foreigners
then and since have read his character.  An accepter and respecter of
rank as a social fact and a political principle, he was as proud in his
way as the proudest man in the land.  Tory as he was, for him every
freeborn Englishman was one of the "lords of human kind": a citizen of
no mean city, but of one in which--

  ". . . e'en the peasant boasts these rights to scan,
  And learns to venerate himself as man!"

He had all an Englishman's pride in England, as was prettily seen in
his reply to Mrs. Thrale in the theatre at Versailles; "Now we are here
what shall we act, Dr. Johnson?  The Englishman at Paris?"  "No, no; we
will try to act Harry the Fifth"; and at bottom he thought that a free
Englishman was too great a man to be patronized by any one on earth.

But there was something better than pride at the root of his whole
attitude towards the rich and the poor; and that was his humanity.
Again and again, as one studies him, one comes back to that, his
humanity, his love of men as men.  It was that which made him one of
{126} the earliest and fiercest enemies of the slave trade.  So early
as 1740 he maintained the natural right of the negroes to liberty; and
he once startled "some very grave men at Oxford" by giving as his toast
"Here's to the next insurrection of the negroes in the West Indies."
This was his invariable attitude from first to last, and it was no mere
scoring of a party point against the Americans when he asked, in
_Taxation No Tyranny_, "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for
liberty among the drivers of negroes?"  No Tory prejudices and no
sophistical arguments were ever able to silence in him the voice of
common humanity.  He spared his own country no more than the American
rebels, describing Jamaica as "a den of tyrants and a dungeon of
slaves," and speaking indignantly of the thousands of black men "who
are now repining under English cruelty."  He denounced, as not only
wicked but also absurd and foolish, the opinion common among the
"English barbarians that cultivate the southern islands of America,"
that savages are to be regarded as scarcely distinct from animals; and
he dreaded discoveries of new lands because he was always afraid they
would result in conquest and cruelty.


And this was not the public and vicarious {127} humanity with which we
are too familiar.  What he preached to others he practised himself.  He
loved all life and all the men and women whom he saw living it.  It
takes one's breath away at first to find the grave moralist of _The
Rambler_ coolly saying to Mrs. Thrale and Fanny Burney, "Oh, I loved
Bet Flint!" just after he had frankly explained to them that that lady
was "habitually a slut and a drunkard and occasionally a thief and a
harlot."  But the creature was what we call a "character," had had many
curious adventures, and had written her life in verse and brought it to
Johnson to correct, an offer which he had declined, giving her half a
crown instead which she "liked as well."  He had, in fact, got below
the perhaps superficial slut and harlot to the aboriginal human being,
and that once arrived at he never forgot it.  Nor did he need the
kindly humours of old acquaintance to enable him to discover it.  No
moral priggishness dried up the tenderness with which he regarded the
most forlorn specimens of humanity.  Boswell tells this story.  "Coming
home late one night he found a poor woman lying in the street, so much
exhausted that she could not walk: he took her upon his back and
carried her to his house, where he discovered that she was one of those
wretched females who had fallen into the lowest {128} state of vice,
poverty and disease.  Instead of harshly upbraiding her he had her
taken care of with all tenderness for a long time at considerable
expense till she was restored to health, and endeavoured to put her
into a virtuous way of living."  Like Mr. Gladstone, he exposed his own
character to suspicion by his kindness to such poor creatures as this.
His heart was always open to the miserable, so that Goldsmith said that
the fact of being miserable was enough to "ensure the protection of
Johnson."  Sir John Hawkins says that, when some one asked him how he
could bear to have his house full of "necessitous and undeserving
people," his reply was, "If I did not assist them no one else would,
and they must be lost for want."  He always declared that the true test
of a nation's civilization was the state of its poor, and specially
directed Boswell to report to him how the poor were maintained in
Holland.  When his mother's old servant lay dying he went to say
good-bye to her and prayed with her, while she, as he says, "held up
her poor hands as she lay in bed with great fervour."  Then, after the
prayer, "I kissed her.  She told me that to part was the greatest pain
that she had ever felt and that she hoped we should meet again in a
better place.  I expressed, with swelled eyes and {129} great emotion
of tenderness, the same hope.  We kissed and parted.  I humbly hope to
meet again and to part no more."

Let all pictures of Johnson as a harsh and arrogant bully fade away
before this touching little scene.  The truth is that at the root of
the man there was an unfailing spring of human love.  One who knew him
very well said that peace and goodwill were the natural emanations of
his heart.  All sorts of weakness found a friend in him.  He was
markedly kind to children, especially little girls, to servants, to
animals.  When he was himself in great poverty he would put pennies in
the hands of the children sleeping on doorsteps in the Strand, as he
walked home in the small hours of the morning.  He left most of his
property to his negro servant Frank: and so united a delicate
consideration for Frank's feelings with an affection for his cat Hodge
that he always went out himself to buy oysters for Hodge lest Frank
should think himself insulted by being employed to wait upon a cat.

Nor did this human and social element in him show itself only in such
grave shape as hatred of slavery and tenderness to the poor.  His sense
of kinship with other men was, indeed, a serious conviction held on
serious grounds.  But it was also the expression of his natural good
nature, and overflowed into {130} the obvious channels of kindly
sociability which come to every man unsought, as well as into these
deeper ones of sympathy which are only found by those who seek them.
Those who know him only through Boswell are in danger of
over-accentuating the graver side of his character.  In Boswell's eyes
he was primarily the sage and saint, and though he exhibits him playing
many other parts as well it is on these two that the stress is
especially laid.  Other people, notably Fanny Burney, who in his last
years saw a great deal of him at the Thrales', enable us to restore the
balance.  She loved and honoured him with an affection and reverence
only short of Boswell's: and her youth, cleverness and charm won
Johnson's heart as no one won it who came so late into his world.  Like
Boswell she had a touch of literary genius, and luckily for us she used
it partly to write about Johnson.  Hers is the most vivid picture we
have of him after Boswell's, and it is notable that she is for ever
laying stress on his gaiety.  The seriousness is there, and she
thoroughly appreciated it; but the thing that strikes any one coming to
her from Boswell is the perpetual recurrence of such phrases as "Dr.
Johnson was gaily sociable," "Dr. Johnson was in high spirits, full of
mirth and sport," "Dr. Johnson was in exceeding humour." {131} On one
day in 1778 he appears in her journal as "so facetious that he
challenged Mr. Thrale to get drunk"; and the next year, when he was
seventy, she writes that he "has more fun and comical humour and love
of nonsense about him than almost anybody I ever saw."  Even in 1783,
after he had had the stroke which was the beginning of the end, she
speaks of his "gaiety."  The explanation is no doubt partly that Miss
Burney was a woman and saw him chiefly with women, Boswell a man who
saw him chiefly with men.  Even without her genius she would not be the
first young woman whose admiring affection has seemed to an old man to
give him back his youth.  And she had not only her own sudden and
surprising celebrity but all that happy ease of the Streatham life, and
the cleverness and good humour of Mrs. Thrale, to help her.  No wonder
Johnson was at his brightest in such circumstances.

But his easy sociability there was no sudden revolution in his nature.
Sir John Hawkins, who, though never a very congenial companion, had
known him longer than almost any of his friends, says of him that he
was "a great contributor to the mirth of conversation."  And constant
glimpses of his lighter side are caught all through Boswell, such as
that picture of him at Corrichatachin, in Skye, {132} sitting with a
young Highland lady on his knee and kissing her.  We have already heard
his peals of midnight laughter ringing through the silent Strand.  The
truth is that both by nature and by principle he was a very sociable
man.  That is another of the elements in his permanent popularity.  The
man who liked all sorts and conditions of men when he was alive has one
of the surest passports to the friendliness of posterity.  Johnson,
like Walter Scott, could and did talk to everybody, or, rather, join in
any talk that anybody started; for he seldom spoke first even among his
friends.  It was probably to this ease of intercourse that he owed the
stores of information with which he often surprised his hearers on all
sorts of unlikely subjects, such as on one occasion that of the various
purposes to which bones picked up in the streets by the London poor are
put, and the use of a particular paste in melting iron.  But in these
casual conversations he was not consciously seeking information as
Scott partly was; he was just giving play to his natural sociability,
or perhaps deliberately acting on the principle of _humani nihil_,
which no one ever held more strongly than he.

He always condemned the cold reserve so common among Englishmen.  Two
strangers of any other nation, he used to say, will find {133} some
topic of talk at once when they are thrown into an inn parlour
together: two Englishmen will go each to a different window and remain
in obstinate silence.  "Sir, we as yet do not enough understand the
common rights of humanity."  He boasted that he was never strange in a
strange place, and would talk at his best in a coach with perfect
strangers to their outspoken amazement and delight.  At all times he
hated and dreaded being alone, both on moral and medical grounds,
having the fear of madness always before him.  He said that he had only
once refused to dine out for the sake of his studies, and then he had
done nothing.  He praised a tavern chair as the throne of human
felicity, better indeed, because freer, than anything to be found at a
private house; for only "a very impudent dog indeed can freely command
what is in another man's house."  He loved to assert that all great
kings (among whom he curiously included Charles II, "the last King of
England who was a man of parts") had been social men; and he was the
most convinced of Londoners because it was in London that life, which
to him meant the exercise of the social and intellectual faculties, was
to be found at its eagerest and fullest.  If, as Mrs. Thrale said, all
he asked for happiness was conversation it must be admitted that his
{134} standard was exacting both in quantity and quality.  He never
wanted to go to bed, and if any one would stay with him, would sit
talking and drinking tea till four in the morning.  Yet his
instantaneous severity in reproving inaccuracies or refuting fallacies
was so alarming that he sometimes reduced a whole company to the
silence of fear.  The last thing he wished, no doubt, but it is one of
the tragedies of life that power will not be denied its exercise, even
to its own misery.  But these were the rare dark moments; as a rule, as
we have seen, all who came into a room with him were entranced by the
force, variety and brilliance of his talk.

His natural turn was to be the very opposite of a killjoy; he loved not
merely to be kind to others but to be "merry" with them, Mrs. Thrale
tells us: loved to join in children's games, especially those of a
"knot of little misses," of whom he was fonder than of boys: and always
encouraged cards, dancing and similar amusements.  He was by
temperament and conviction a conformer to the innocent ways of the
world: and once, when some Quaker was denouncing the vanities of dress,
he broke out, "Oh, let us not be found when our Master calls us,
ripping the lace off our waistcoats, but the spirit of contention from
our souls and tongues! . . .  Alas, sir, {135} a man who cannot get to
heaven in a green coat will not find his way thither the sooner in a
grey one."  Though he practised some severities, such as fasting,
himself, he was altogether opposed to an austere view of life: was no
friend, he said, to making religion appear too hard, by which he
thought many good people had done harm.  Though he walked with
enthusiastic reverence on any ground trodden by saints or hermits, yet
he was quite clear that retirement from the world was for ordinary men
and women both a mistake and a crime; and he regarded with special
distrust all "youthful passion for abstracted devotion."  The
Carthusian silence was, of course, particularly obnoxious to the master
and lover of talk.  "We read in the Gospel," he said, "of the apostles
being sent to preach, but not to hold their tongues."  We all like to
find reasons of religion or philosophy in justification of our own
pleasures: and no doubt one hears the personal prejudices of the lover
of society as well as the serious thought of the student of life in the
warmth with which he denounces solitude as "dangerous to reason without
being favourable to virtue," and declares that "the solitary mortal is
certainly luxurious, probably superstitious, and possibly mad."

But real as the social element in Johnson {136} was, and important as
the remembrance of it is for a corrective of the too solemn portrait of
him for which Boswell gives some excuse, it never got the mastery of
him.  In the ordinary way the life of the pre-eminently social man or
woman gradually disappears in a dancing sunshine of sociability.  The
butterfly finds crossing and recrossing other butterflies in the airy,
flowery spaces of the world such a pleasant business that it asks no
more: above all, it does not care to ask the meaning of a thing so easy
and agreeable as day to day existence.  The pleasures and the business
that lie on life's surface, the acquaintances and half friends that are
encountered there, are enough for it: and the crowded empty days glide
by as easily and as imperceptibly as a boatful of dreaming idlers
drifting on unawares till the pace suddenly quickens for a moment, and
almost before the speed wakens them they are struggling hopelessly in
the whirlpool at the bottom of the fall.  But, for Johnson, society had
no sleeping potion strong enough to overcome his ever-wakeful sense of
the issues of life.  Underneath all the "gaiety" that Miss Burney liked
to record, there was one of the gravest of men, a man whose religion
had a strong "Day of Judgment" element in it, who believed as literally
as Bunyan in heaven {137} and hell as the alternative issues of life,
except that he allowed himself some Catholic latitude of hope as to
that third possibility which provides the most human of the three
divisions of Dante's great poem.  Most people, even the most strictly
orthodox, would now say that Johnson's religion contained too much
consciousness of the Divine Judgment and too little of the Divine Love.
But at least the fear of God, which was to him a thing so real and
awful, had nothing in it of the attitude, so common in all ages and all
religions of the world, which attempts to delude or defeat or buy off
the hostility of a capricious despot by means of money, or magical
arts, or a well devised system of celestial alliances.  In Johnson it
came simply from the sense of sin and issued in the desire to live
better.  He was as ethically minded as any one in that moralizing
century: only that he added to ethics the faith in God and conviction
of sin which have a power on life unknown to mere moral philosophy.  He
lived among good men, mainly, but men, for the most part, whose
intellectual attitude towards the Christian faith was one of
detachment, indifference, or conventional acquiescence.  That could not
be his attitude.  He was the last man in the world to be content with
anything nebulous.  The active exercise of thinking {138} was to him a
pleasure in all matters, and in things important a duty as well.  He
was certain not to avoid it in the most important question of all.  He
might have been either Hume or Butler, either Wesley or Gibbon, but he
was certain not to be, what the average cultivated man in his day was,
a respectable but unenthusiastic and unconvinced conformer.
Conventional acquiescence is easy provided a man does not choose to
think or inquire; but, as Carlyle said, that would not do for Johnson:
he always zealously recommended and practised inquiry.  The result was
what is well known.  His mind settled definitely on the opposite side
to Hume and Gibbon: the Christian religion became intensely real to
him, sometimes, it almost seems, the nightmare of his life, often its
comfort and strength, present, at any rate, audibly and visibly, in
every company where he was; for no man was ever so little ashamed of
his religion as Johnson.  It was the principle of his life in public as
well as in private.  Hence that spectacle which Carlyle found so
memorable, of "Samuel Johnson, in the era of Voltaire able to purify
and fortify his soul, and hold real Communion with the Highest, in the
Church of St. Clement Danes; a thing to be looked at with pity,
admiration, awe."

That church still remains; the least altered, {139} perhaps, with the
possible exception of the house in Gough Square, of all the buildings
which once had the body of Johnson inside them; a place of pilgrimage
for many Johnsonians who, refusing to be driven away by the commonplace
window which officially honours his memory, are grateful to find the
seat he used to occupy marked out for their veneration: and not
altogether ungrateful even for the amateur statue which stands in the
churchyard, looking towards his beloved Fleet Street.  There were
performed the central acts of those half tragic Good Fridays, those
self-condemning Easter Days, recorded in his private note-books: there,
on the Good Friday of 1773, he took Boswell with him, and Boswell
observed, what he said he should never forget, "the tremulous
earnestness with which Johnson pronounced the awful petition in the
Litany: 'In the hour of death, and at the day of judgment, good Lord
deliver us.'"

We now know more in some ways about his religious life than his friends
did, because we have the private prayers he wrote for his own use, the
sermons he composed for others, and a few notes, chiefly of a religious
kind, describing his doings and feelings on certain days of his life.
But all the evidence, private and public, points the same way.  His
prayers are among the best in English, pulsing {140} and throbbing with
earnest faith and fear, yet entirely free from the luscious
sentimentality of so many modern religious compositions.  He was in the
habit of making special prayers for all important occasions: he made
them, for instance, sometimes before he entered upon new literary
undertakings, as in the case of _The Rambler_; and he took Boswell into
the Church at Harwich and prayed with him before he saw him off for
Utrecht.  No one who was with him on such occasions failed to be
impressed by his profound and awe-inspiring sincerity.  Mrs. Thrale
says that when he repeated the _Dies Irae_ "he never could pass the
stanza ending _Tantus labor non sit cassus_ without bursting into a
flood of tears"; and another witness records how one night at a dinner
where some one quoted the nineteenth psalm his worn and harsh features
were transformed, and "his face was almost as if it had been the face
of an angel" as he recited Addison's noble version of that psalm.
Phrases that came unbidden to his voice or pen show the same constant
sense of this life as a thing to be lived in the sight and presence of
Eternity.  When at Boswell's request he sends him a letter of advice,
one of his sentences is "I am now writing, and you, when you read this,
are reading, under the Eye of Omnipresence." {141} So on one occasion
he said, "The better a man is, the more afraid he is of death, having a
clearer view of infinite purity"; and he would quote Law's remark that
"every man knows something worse of himself than he is sure of in
others."  Such sayings do not come to the lips of men to whom the life
of the spirit and the conscience is not a daily and hourly reality.
That it was to Johnson; and no one understands him who does not lay
stress on it.  It does not always appear in such grave guise as in
these instances, but it is always there.  We may take our leave of it
as we see it in simpler and happier shape in Boswell's account of
himself and Johnson sharing a bedroom at Glen Morrison.  "After we had
offered up our private devotions and had chatted a little from our
beds, Dr. Johnson said 'God bless us both for Jesus Christ's sake!
Good-night.'  I pronounced 'Amen.'  He fell asleep immediately."


A serious conviction held by a human being is generally found to be an
inner citadel surrounded by a network of prejudices.  It was only
Johnson's intimate friends who were admitted into the central fortress
of his faith: the rest of the world saw it plainly indeed, but did not
get nearer than the girdle of defensive prejudices outside, and to them
they {142} often got nearer than they liked.  Whether people discovered
that Johnson was a Christian or not, they were quite certain to
discover that he was a Churchman.  His High Church and Tory guns were
always ready for action, and Lord Auchinleck is perhaps the only
recorded assailant who succeeded in silencing them.  The praise he gave
to the dearest of his friends, "He hated a fool, he hated a rogue, and
he hated a Whig: he was a very good hater," was exactly applicable to
himself.  For us the word Whig has come to mean a dignified aristocrat
who, by the pressure of family tradition, maintains a painful
association with vulgar Radicals: for Johnson it meant a rebel against
the principle of authority.  From that point of view he was accustomed
to say with perfect justice that the first Whig was the Devil.  His
sallies at the general expense of the enemies of "Church and King" must
not be confused with those on many other subjects, as, for instance, on
the Scotch, which were partly humorous in intention as well as in
expression.  He trounced the Scotch to annoy Boswell and amuse himself.
He trounced Whigs, Quakers and Presbyterians because he loved authority
both in Church and State.  These latter outbursts represented definite
opinions which were held, as usually happens, with all the {143} more
passion because reason had not been allowed to play her full part in
their maturing.  Johnson could hold no views to which he had not been
able to supply a rational foundation: but in these matters passion had
been given a free hand in the superstructure.

In this way his Tory outbursts have a smack of life about them not
always to be found in the utterances of sages.  High Tories were not
often seen in the intellectual London world of these days: they were to
be found rather in country parsonages and college common-rooms.  In
London Whiggery sat enthroned and complacent.  It is, therefore, with a
pleasant sense of the fluttering of Whig dovecotes that we watch
Johnson, always, as Miss Burney said, the first man in any company in
which he appeared, startling superior persons by taking the high Tory
tone.  He once astonished an old gentleman to whose niece he was
talking by saying to her, "My dear, I hope you are a Jacobite"; and
answered the uncle's protest by saying, "Why, sir, I meant no offence
to your niece, I meant her a great compliment.  A Jacobite, sir,
believes in the divine right of kings.  He that believes in the divine
right of kings believes in a Divinity.  A Jacobite believes in the
divine right of Bishops.  He that believes in the divine right of
Bishops believes in the {144} divine authority of the Christian
religion.  Therefore, sir, a Jacobite is neither an Atheist nor a
Deist.  That cannot be said of a Whig: for _Whiggism is a negation of
all principle_."  But it was not often that his Toryism expressed
itself in anything so like a chain of reasoning as this.  As a rule, it
appears rather in those conversational sallies, so pleasantly
compounded of wrath, humour, and contempt, which are the most
remembered thing about him.  It provides some of the most
characteristic; as the dry answer to Boswell who expressed his surprise
at having met a Staffordshire Whig, a being whom he had not supposed to
exist, "Sir, there are rascals in all countries"; or the answer Garrick
got when he asked him "Why did not you make me a Tory, when we lived so
much together?"  "Why," said Johnson, pulling a heap of half-pence from
his pocket, "did not the King make these guineas?"  Or the true story
he liked to tell of Boswell who, he said, "in the year 1745 was a fine
boy, wore a white cockade, and prayed for King James, till one of his
uncles gave him a shilling on condition that he should pray for King
George, which he accordingly did.  So you see that _Whigs of all ages
are made the same way_."  In the same vein is his pleasant good-bye to
Burke at Beaconsfield before the election of 1774.  {145} "Farewell, my
dear sir, I wish you all the success which can possibly be wished
you--_by an honest man_."  Even the fiercer outburst about Patriotism
(that is according to the meaning of the word in those days, the
pretence of preferring the interests of the people to those of the
Crown), "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel," gains an added
piquancy from the fact that it was uttered at "The Club" under the
nominal though absentee chairmanship of Charles Fox, soon to be the
greatest of "patriots," and in the actual presence of Burke.

But as a rule the fiercest assaults were reserved for Presbyterians and
Dissenters in whom political and ecclesiastical iniquity were united.
When he was walking in the ruins of St. Andrews and some one asked
where John Knox was buried, he broke out "I hope in the highway.  I
have been looking at his reformations."  And he wished a dangerous
steeple not to be taken down, "for," said he, "it may fall on some of
the posterity of John Knox: and no great matter!"  So when he and
Boswell went to the Episcopal church at Montrose he gave "a shilling
extraordinary" to the Clerk, saying, "He belongs to an honest church,"
and when Boswell rashly reminded him that Episcopalians were only
dissenters, that is, only _tolerated_, in Scotland, he brought down
upon {146} himself the crushing retort, "Sir, we are here as Christians
in Turkey."  These ingeniously exact analogies were always a favourite
weapon with him; and perhaps the most brilliant of them all is one he
used on this same subject in reply to Robertson, who said to him in
London, "Dr. Johnson, allow me to say that in one respect I have the
advantage of you; when you were in Scotland you would not come to hear
any of our preachers, whereas, when I am here, I attend your public
worship without scruple, and, indeed, with great satisfaction."  "Why,
sir," said Johnson, "that is not so extraordinary: the King of Siam
sent ambassadors to Louis the Fourteenth: but Louis the Fourteenth sent
none to the King of Siam."  This topic also enjoys another distinction.
It is one of many proofs of the superlative excellence of Johnson's
talk that it cannot be imitated.  Hundreds of clever men have made the
attempt, but, with the exception of a single sentence, not one of these
manufactured utterances could impose for an instant upon a real
Johnsonian.  That single exception deals with this same
anti-Presbyterian prejudice.  It is variously inscribed to Thorold
Rogers and to Birkbeck Hill, the most Johnsonian of all men.  It
supposes that Boswell and Johnson are walking in Oxford, and Boswell,
endowed with {147} the gift of prophecy, asks Johnson what he would say
if he were told that a hundred years after his death the Oxford
University Press would allow his Dictionary to be re-edited by a Scotch
Presbyterian.  "Sir," replies Johnson, "to be facetious it is not
necessary to be indecent."  Here and here alone is something which
might deceive the very elect.


In several of these last utterances the bias is as much anti-Scotch as
anti-Presbyterian.  Of course Johnson, as his _Journey to the Western
Islands_ amply proves, had no serious feeling against Scotchmen as
Scotchmen like the settled convictions which made him dislike
Presbyterians.  But then, as always, the Scot had a specially "gude
conceit" of himself and a clannish habit of pushing the interest of his
brother Scots wherever he went, so that it was commonly thought that to
let a Scot into your house or business was not only to let in one
conceited fellow, but to be certain of half a dozen more to follow.
The English were then still so far from their present admiring
acceptance of Scotsmen as their ordinary rulers in Church and State
that they had not even begun to think of them as their equals.
Scotland was at that time a very poor country, and the poor relation
has {148} never been a popular character anywhere.  Consequently
Englishmen--and who was ever more English than Johnson?--commonly saw
in the newly arrived Scot a pauper and an upstart come to live upon his
betters: and they revenged themselves in the manner natural to rich
relations.  To Johnson's tongue, too, the Scots offered the important
additional temptations of being often Whigs, oftener still
Presbyterians, and always the countrymen of Boswell.  This last was
probably the one which he found it most impossible to resist.  Happily
Boswell had the almost unique good sense to enjoy a good thing even at
the expense of his country or himself.  It is to him, or perhaps at
him, that the majority of these Scotch witticisms were uttered: it is
by him that nearly all of them are recorded, from the original sally
which was the first sentence he heard from Johnson's lips, in reply to
his "Mr. Johnson, I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help
it."  "That, sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen
cannot help"--to the famous reply at the Wilkes dinner, when some one
said "Poor old England is lost,"--"Sir, it is not so much to be
lamented that old England is lost as that the Scotch have found it."

On this topic Johnson would always let {149} himself go.  Again and
again the generous connoisseurship of Boswell describes not only the
witticism but the joyous gusto with which it was uttered.  On no
subject is the great talker's amazing ingeniousness of retort more
conspicuous.  When Boswell most justly criticized the absurd
extravagance of his famous sentence about the death of Garrick
eclipsing the gaiety of nations, Johnson replied, "I could not have
said more nor less.  It is the truth; _eclipsed_, not _extinguished_;
and his death _did_ eclipse; it was like a storm."  _Boswell_.  "But
why nations?  Did his gaiety extend further than his own nation?"
_Johnson_.  "Why, sir, some exaggeration must be allowed.  Besides
nations may be said--if we allow the Scotch to be a nation, and to have
gaiety--which they have not."  So when Johnson said the Scotch had none
of the luxuries or conveniences of life before the Union, and added,
"laughing," says Boswell, "with as much glee as if Monboddo had been
present," "We have taught you and we'll do the same in time to all
barbarous nations--to the Cherokees--and at last to the
Ourang-outangs," Boswell tried to meet him by saying "We had wine
before the Union."  But this only got him into worse trouble.  "No,
sir, you had some weak stuff, the refuse of France, which would not
make you drunk." {150} _Boswell_.  "I assure you, sir, there was a
great deal of drunkenness."  _Johnson_.  "No, sir; there were people
who died of dropsies which they contracted in trying to get drunk."
This was said as they sailed along the shores of Skye; and of course
the whole tour in Scotland afforded many opportunities for such jests.
There was the wall at Edinburgh which by tradition was to fall upon
some very learned man, but had been taken down some time before
Johnson's visit: "They have been afraid it never would fall," said he.
There was St. Giles's at Edinburgh, which provoked the chaffing aside
to Robertson, "Come, let me see what was once a church."  There were
the beauties of Glasgow of which Adam Smith boasted, and provoked the
famous question "Pray, sir, have you ever seen Brentford?"  There was
the supposed treelessness of Scotland, on which he dwells in the
_Journey_, and which once led him to question whether there was a tree
between Edinburgh and the English border older than himself; and to
reply to Boswell's suggestion that he ought to be whipped at every tree
over 100 years old in that space, "I believe I might submit to it for a
baubee!"  It led also to the pleasantry in which he emphasized his
conviction that the oak stick he had brought from London was stolen and
not {151} merely lost when it disappeared in Mull; "Consider, sir, the
value of such a _piece of timber_ here."

To-day we think of Scotland as one of the most beautiful countries in
the world and go there in thousands for that reason.  But that was not
why Johnson went.  He had little pleasure in any landscape scenery, and
none in that of moors and mountains.  Indeed nobody had in those days
except Gray.  And Gray was the last man in whose company Johnson was
likely to be found differing from his contemporaries.  So that though
he saw much of what is finest in the noble scenery of Scotland, it
hardly drew from him a single word of wonder or delight: and his only
remembered allusion to it is the well-known sally hurled ten years
earlier at the Scotsman in London who thought to get on safe ground for
the defence of his country by speaking of her "noble wild prospects,"
but only drew upon himself the answer, "I believe, sir, you have a
great many.  Norway, too, has noble wild prospects; and Lapland is
remarkable for prodigious noble wild prospects.  But, sir, let me tell
you, the noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees is the high road
that leads him to London!"

So dangerous it always was to put a phrase into Johnson's mouth!  So
dangerous above {152} all to try to make him prefer anything to his
beloved London.  Perhaps no nation in the world has cared so little
about its capital city as the English.  When one thinks of the
passionate affection lavished on Athens, Rome, Paris, even, strange as
it seems to us, on Madrid, one is tempted to accuse the English of dull
disloyalty to their own noble capital city.  London played, at any rate
till the French Revolution, a far more important part in English life
than any other capital in the life of any other country.  In the reign
of Charles II, according to Macaulay, it was seventeen times as large
as Bristol, then the second city in the Kingdom; a relative position
unique in Europe.  And all through our history it had led the nation in
politics as well as in commerce.  Yet of the best of all tributes to
greatness, the praise of great men, it had received singularly little.
There is Milton's noble burst of eloquence in the _Areopagitica_, but
that is the praise not so much of London as of the religion and
politics of London at a particular moment.  Spenser's beautiful
allusion in the _Prothalamion_ to "mery London my most kyndly nurse"
and to the "sweet Thames" whom he invites to "run softely till I end my
song" is among the few tributes of personal affection paid by our poets
to the great city.  And it is still true {153} to-day that the tutelary
genius of London is none of the great poets: it is Samuel Johnson.  At
this moment, as these pages are being written, the railway stations of
London are filled with picture advertisements of the attractions of the
great city.  And who is the central figure in the picture that deals
with central London!  Not Shakespeare or Milton, but Johnson.  The
worn, rather sad face, more familiar to Englishmen than that of any
other man of letters, with the wig and brown coat to make recognition
certain, is chosen as the most useful for their purpose by advertisers
probably innocent of any literature, but astute enough in knowing what
will attract the people.

Johnson's love of London, however, was of his own sort, quite unlike
that of Charles Lamb for instance, or that of such a man as Sir Walter
Besant.  He cared nothing for architecture, and little for history.
Still less had his feeling anything to do with the commercial greatness
of London.  He had a scholar's contempt for traders as people without
ideas fit for rational conversation.  The man who scoffed at the
"boobies of Birmingham" as unworthy of notice in comparison with the
gownsmen of Oxford or even the cathedral citizens of Lichfield, whose
experience of commercial men made him declare that "trade could not be
{154} managed by those who manage it if it had much difficulty," was
not likely to have his imagination fired by talk about London as the
centre of the world's commerce.  What he cared about was a very
different thing.  He thought of London as the place in all the world
where the pulse of human life beat strongest.  There a man could store
his mind better than anywhere else: there he could not only live but
grow: there more than anywhere else he might escape the
self-complacency which leads to intellectual and moral torpor, because
there he would be certain to meet not only with his equals but with his
superiors.  These were grave grounds which he could use in an argument:
but a man needs no arguments in justification of the things he likes,
and Johnson liked London because it was the home of the intellectual
pleasures which to him were the only real pleasures, and which made
London for him a heaven upon earth.  "He who is tired of London is
tired of life," he said on one occasion; and on another, when some one
remarked that many people were content to live in the country, he
replied, "Sir, it is in the intellectual as in the physical world; we
are told by natural philosophers that a body is at rest in the place
that is fit for it: they who are content to live in the country are fit
for the country."  He was not one of them: {155} he wanted Charing
Cross and its "full tide of human existence," and thought that any one
who had once experienced "the full flow of London talk" must, if he
retired to the country, "either be contented to turn baby again and
play with the rattle, or he will pine away like a great fish in a
little pond, and die for want of his usual food."  He was more than
once offered good country livings if he would take orders, but he knew
that he would find the "insipidity and uniformity" of country life
intolerable: and he stayed on to become the greatest of Londoners.
There is probably to this day no book, not a professed piece of
topography, which mentions the names of so many London streets, squares
and churches, as Boswell's _Life of Johnson_.  Many sights that Johnson
saw we can still see exactly as he saw them; many, of course, have
disappeared; and many are so utterly changed as to be unrecognizable.
The young poet may still stand where he and Goldsmith stood in Poets'
Corner and say in his heart with Johnson--

  "Forsitan et nostrum nomen miscebitur istis."


But when he goes on as they did to Temple Bar, he will find that
ancient monument retired into the country and certainly {156} nothing
whatever to remind him of the Jacobite heads still mouldering on it,
which gave occasion to Goldsmith's witty turning of his Tory friend's
quotation--

  "Forsitan et nostrum nomen miscebitur ISTIS."

But on that holy ground the Johnsonian will hardly miss even Temple
Bar.  For most of Johnson's haunts and homes, the Mitre and the Cock,
the Churches of St. Clement and of the Temple, his houses in Johnson's
Court and Gough Square, are or were all hard by: and the memory will be
far too busy to allow room for the disappointments and lamentations of
the eye.


But of course the great characteristic of Johnson is neither love of
London nor hatred of Presbyterians, nor any of the other things we have
been talking about; it is the love and power of talk.  We cannot
estimate talk nearly as accurately as we estimate writing: so much that
belongs to the word spoken is totally lost when it becomes a word
recorded: the light in the eye, the brow raised in scorn or anger, the
moving lips whose amusement or contempt is a picture before it is a
sound, the infinitely varying weight and tone of the human voice: all
that is gone or seen only {157} very darkly through the glass of
description.  But since the talk itself as written down and the manner
of it as described are all we have to judge by: and since as long as we
are alive and awake we cannot avoid judging the things and people that
interest us, we inevitably form opinions about talkers as well as about
writers: and the best opinion of those who know English is undoubtedly
that Johnson is the greatest of all recorded talkers.  The best of all
is very possibly some obscure genius who _caret vate sacro_: but
Johnson with the invaluable help of Boswell has beaten him and all the
others.  What is the essence of his superiority?  Not wisdom or
profundity certainly.  There, of course, he would be immeasurably
surpassed by many men of all nations, notably by Socrates, who is
probably the most famous and certainly by far the most influential of
talkers.  Of course his talk comes to us chiefly through the medium of
a man of transcendent genius; and Plato may have transcended his master
as well as other things.  But on the whole all the evidence goes to
show that the talk of Socrates was the force which set ideas in motion,
which modified the whole subsequent moral and intellectual life of
Greece and Rome, and through them of the world; in fact, that the
spoken word of Socrates has played a greater {158} part in the world
than any written word whatsoever, except the Gospels and the Koran,
both themselves, it may be noted, the record of a spoken word greater
than the written book.  Beside anything of this kind Johnson sinks of
course into entire insignificance.  But as an artist in talk, that is a
man who talked well for the pleasure of it, as an end in itself, and
whose talk was heard gladly as a thing of triumph and delight, bringing
with it its own justification, he probably far surpassed Socrates.  If
he, too, had got to his trial he probably would have been as scornful
as Socrates of the judgment of popular opinion.  But he never would
have got there, not only because he was too conservative to deny the
established divinities, but because he was so entertaining that
everybody liked listening to him, whatever he denied or affirmed.
Socrates, on the other hand, was evidently something of a bore, with a
bore's unrelieved earnestness and inopportune persistence.  His saying
about "letting the talk lead us where it will," is an exact description
of Johnson's practice, but nothing could be less like his own.  He is
always relentlessly guiding it towards a particular goal, from the path
to which he will not have it for a moment diverted.  Johnson, on the
other hand, takes no thought whatever for the argumentative {159}
morrow, never starts a subject, never sets out to prove anything.  He
talks as an artist paints, just for the joy of doing what he is
conscious of doing well.  The talk, like the picture, is its own
sufficient reward.

The same sort of inferiority puts other famous talkers, Coleridge for
instance, and Luther, below Johnson.  They had too much purpose in
their talk to be artists about it.  The endless eloquence of the
Highgate days, to say nothing about the greater days before Highgate,
was a powerful element in that revival of a spiritual or metaphysical,
as opposed to a merely sensational, philosophy which has been going on
ever since.  No such results can be attributed to Johnson's talk.  But
talk is one thing and preaching another: and the final criticism on
Coleridge as a talker was given once for all in Charles Lamb's
well-known answer to his friend's question: "Did you ever hear me
preach, Charles?"  "Never heard you do anything else."  Luther again,
though much more of a human being than Coleridge and apparently a
livelier talker, was, after all, the leader of one of the greatest
movements the world has ever seen, and like his disciple, Johnson's
friend John Wesley, no doubt had no time to fold his legs, and have his
talk out.  Besides leaders of movements are necessarily somewhat narrow
men.  For {160} them there is only one thing of importance in the
world, and their talk inevitably lacks variety.  That, on the other
hand, is one of the three great qualities in which Johnson's talk is
supreme.  Without often aiming at being instructive it is not only
nearly always interesting but with an amazing variety of interest.  The
theologian, the moral philosopher, the casuist, the scholar, the
politician, the economist, the lawyer, the clergyman, the schoolmaster,
the author, above all the amateur of life, all find in it abundance of
food for their own particular tastes.  Each of them--notably for
instance, the political economist--may sometimes find Johnson mistaken;
not one will ever find him dull.  On every subject he has something to
say which makes the reader's mind move faster than before, if it be but
in disagreement.  Reynolds, who had heard plenty of good talkers,
thought no one could ever have exceeded Johnson in the capacity of
talking well on any subject that came uppermost.  His mere knowledge
and information were prodigious.  If a stranger heard him talk about
leather he would imagine him to have been bred a tanner, or if about
the school philosophy, he would suppose he had spent his life in the
study of Scotus and Aquinas.  No doubt the variety was a long way from
universality.  Johnson was too {161} human for the dulness of
omniscience.  He had his dislikes as well as predilections.  The least
affected of men, he particularly disliked the then common fashion of
dragging Greek and Roman history into conversation.  He said that he
"never desired to hear of the Punic War while he lived," and when Fox
talked of Catiline he "thought of Tom Thumb."  So when Boswell used an
illustration from Roman manners he put him down with, "Why we know very
little about the Romans."

Wide as the country he could cover was, he is always coming back to his
favourite topic, which can only be described as life; how it is lived
and how it ought to be; life as a spectacle and life as a moral and
social problem.  That by itself makes a sufficiently varied field for
talk.  But real as his variety was, it is still not the most remarkable
thing about his talk.  Where he surpassed all men was in the readiness
with which he could put what he possessed to use.  Speaking of the
extraordinary quickness with which he "flew upon" any argument, Boswell
once said to Sir Joshua, "he has no formal preparation, no flourishing
with the sword; he is through your body in an instant."  Sometimes he
condescended to achieve this by mere rudeness, as once when, being hard
pressed in an argument about the passions, he said, "Sir, {162} there
is one passion I advise you to be careful of.  When you have drunk that
glass don't drink another."  But the notion, which one hears
occasionally expressed, that his principal argumentative weapon was
rudeness is an entire mistake.  Every impartial reader of Boswell will
admit that the rudeness of his retorts where it exists is entirely
swallowed up and forgotten in their aptness, ingenuity and wit.  He was
rude sometimes, no doubt; as, for instance, to the unfortunate young
man who went to him for advice as to whether he should marry, and got
for an answer, "Sir, I would advise no man to marry who is not likely
to propagate understanding."  But, human nature being what it is,
sympathy for the victim is in such cases commonly extinguished in
delighted admiration of the punishment.  That will be still more
whole-hearted when the victim is obviously a bore, like the gentleman
who annoyed Johnson by persisting in spite of discouragement in an
argument about the future life of brutes, till at last he gave the
fatal opportunity by asking, "with a serious metaphysical pensive
face," "But, really, sir, when we see a very sensible dog, we don't
know what to think of him;" to which Johnson, "rolling with joy at the
thought which beamed in his eye," replied, "True, sir, and when we see
a very foolish {163} fellow, we don't know what to think of _him_."
Conversation would be a weariness of the flesh if one might never
answer a fool according to his folly: and such answers are not to be
called rude when the rudeness, if such there be, is only one ingredient
in a compound of which the principal parts are humour and felicity.
And, of course, even this measure of rudeness is only present
occasionally, while the amazing exactness of felicity seldom fails.
Who does not envy the readiness of mind which instantly provided him
with the exact analogy which he used to crush Boswell's plea for the
Methodist undergraduates expelled from Oxford in 1768?  "But was it not
hard, sir, to expel them, for I am told they were good beings?"  "I
believe they might be good beings: but they were not fit to be in the
University of Oxford.  A cow is a very good animal in the field; but we
turn her out of a garden."  Note that, as usual with Johnson,--and that
is the astonishing thing--the illustration, however far-fetched, is not
merely humorous but exactly to the point.  Plenty of men can compose
such retorts at leisure: the unique Johnsonian gift was that he had
them at his instant command.  Or take one other illustration; a
compliment this time, and one of the swiftest as well as happiest on
record.  Mrs. Siddons came to see him the {164} year before he died,
and when she entered his room there was no chair for her.  Another man
would have been embarrassed by such a circumstance combined with such a
visitor.  Not so Johnson, who turned the difficulty into a triumph by
simply saying with a smile, "Madam, you who so often occasion a want of
seats to other people, will the more readily excuse the want of one
yourself."


The third great quality of Johnson's talk is its style.  His command of
language was such as that he seems never to have been at a loss; never
to have fumbled, or hesitated, or fallen back upon the second best
word; he saw instantly the point he wanted to make, and was instantly
ready with the best words in which to make it.  It was said of him that
all his talk could be written down and printed without a correction.
That would, indeed, be double-edged praise to give to most men: but
with Johnson it is absolutely true without being in the least damaging.
For his talk is always talk, not writing or preaching; and it is always
his own.  That dictum of Horace which he and Wilkes discussed at the
famous dinner at Dilly's, _Difficile est proprie communia dicere_,
gives the exact praise of Johnson as a talker.  There are few things
more difficult than to put the truths of common sense in {165} such a
way as to make them your own.  To do so is one of the privileges of the
masters of style.  Few people have had more of it than Johnson.  His
prose, spoken or written, is altogether wanting in some of the greatest
elements of style: it has no music, no mystery, no gift of suggestion,
very little of the higher sort of imagination, nothing at all of what
we have been taught to call the Celtic side of the English mind.  But
in this particular power of making the old new, and the commonplace
individual, Johnson is among the great masters.  And he shows it in his
talk even more than in his writings.  All that he says has that supreme
mark of style; it cannot be translated without loss.  The only
indisputable proof of an author possessing style is his being
unquotable except in his own words.  If a paraphrase will do he may
have learning, wisdom, profundity, what you will, but style he has not.
Style is the expression of an individual, appearing once and only once
in the world; it is Keats or Carlyle or Swinburne: it never has been
and never will be anybody else.

Its presence in Johnson is painfully brought home to any one who tries
to quote his good things without the assistance of a very accurate
verbal memory.  Even when he says such a thing as "This is wretched
stuff, sir," the words manage to have style because {166} they express
his convictions in a way which is his, and no one else's.  This is
taking it at its lowest, of course; when we go a little further and
take a sentence like the famous remark about Ossian, "Sir, a man might
write such stuff for ever if he would abandon his mind to it," the
sting in the word "abandon" is the sort of thing which other people
devise at their desks, but which Johnson has ready on his lips for
immediate use.  So again, he seems to have been able not only to find
the most telling word in a moment, but to put his thought in the most
telling shape.  Many people then and since disliked and disapproved of
Bolingbroke.  But has there ever, then or at any other time, been a man
who could find such language for his disapproval as Johnson?  "Sir, he
was a scoundrel and a coward: a scoundrel, for charging a blunderbuss
against religion and morality: a coward, because he had not resolution
to fire it off himself, but left half-a-crown to a beggarly Scotchman
to draw the trigger after his death."  It is at once as devastating as
a volcano and as neat as a formal garden.  So, in a smaller way, is his
criticism of a smaller man.  Dr. Adams, talking of Newton, Bishop of
Bristol, whom Johnson disliked, once said, "I believe his
_Dissertations on the Prophecies_ is his great {167} work," Johnson's
instant answer was, "Why, sir, it is Tom's great work; but how far it
is great, or how much of it is Tom's, are other questions."  How
mercilessly perfect!  A thousand years of preparation could not have
put it more shortly or more effectively.  It both does the business in
hand and gives expression to himself; nor is there in it a superfluous
syllable; all of which is, again, another way of saying that it has
style.  And he did not need the stimulus of personal feeling to give
him this energy of speech.  The same gift is seen when he "_communia
dicit_," when he is uttering some general reflection, the common wisdom
of mankind.  Molière said, "Je prends mon bien ou je le trouve."
Johnson might have used the same words with a slightly different
meaning.  He excelled all men in recoining the gold of common sense in
his own mind.  All the world has said "humanum est errare": but the
saying is newborn when Johnson clinches an argument with, "No, sir; a
fallible being will fail somewhere."  So on a hundred other
commonplaces of discussion one may find him, all through Boswell's
pages, adding that unanalysable something of himself in word or thought
which makes the ancient dry bones stir again to life.  "It is better to
live rich than to die rich"; "no man is a hypocrite in his {168}
pleasures"; "it is the business of a wise man to be happy"; "he that
runs against time has an antagonist not subject to casualties"; "the
great excellence of a writer is to put into his book as much as his
book will hold"; "there are few ways in which a man can be more
innocently employed than in getting money"; "no woman is the worse for
sense and knowledge"; but "supposing a wife to be of a studious or
argumentative turn it would be very troublesome; for instance--if a
woman should continually dwell upon the subject of the Arian heresy";
"a man should keep his friendship always in repair"; "to cultivate
kindness is a valuable part of the business of life"; "every man is to
take existence on the terms on which it is given to him"; "the man who
talks to unburden his mind is the man to delight you"; "No, sir, let
fanciful men do as they will, depend upon it it is difficult to disturb
the system of life."

The man who thinks, as Taine thought, that sayings of this sort are
mere commonplaces, will never understand Johnson: he may give up the
attempt at once.  The true commonplace is like the money of a
spendthrift heir: his guineas come and go without his ever thinking for
a moment where they came from or whither they go.  But Johnson's
commonplaces had been consciously earned and were {169} deliberately
spent; he had made them himself, and when he handed them on to others
he handed himself on with them.  Taine may perhaps be excused; for it
may require some knowledge of English to be sure of detecting the
personal flavour Johnson gave to his generalizations: but the
Englishman who misses it shows that he has mistaken the ornaments of
literature for its essence and exposes himself to the same criticism as
a man who cannot recognize a genius unless he is eccentric.  Johnson
could break out in conversation as well as in his books into a noble
eloquence all his own; such a phrase as "poisoning the sources of
eternal truth," rises spontaneously to his lips when his indignation is
aroused.  His free language disdained to be confined within any park
palings of pedantry.  Some of his most characteristic utterances owe
their flavour to combining the language of the schools with the
language of the tavern: as when he said of that strange inmate of his
house, Miss Carmichael, "Poll is a stupid slut.  I had some hopes of
her at first: but when I talked to her tightly and closely I could make
nothing of her; she was wiggle waggle, and I could never persuade her
to be categorical."  He was the very antipodes of a retailer of other
men's thoughts in other men's words: {170} every chapter of Boswell
brings its evidence of Johnsonian eloquence, of Johnsonian quaintness,
raciness, and abundance, of the surprising flights of his fancy, of the
inexhaustible ingenuity of his arguments and illustrations.  No talk
the world has ever heard is less like the talk of a commonplace man.
Yet the supreme quality of it is not the ingenuity or the oddness or
the wit: it is the thing Taine missed, the sovereign sanity of the
Johnsonian common sense.  Bagehot once said that it was the business of
the English Prime Minister to have more common sense than any man.
Johnson is the Prime Minister of literature; or perhaps, rather, of
life.  Not indeed for a time of revolution.  For that we should have to
go to some one less unwilling to "disturb the system of life."  But for
ordinary times, and in the vast majority of matters all times are
ordinary, Johnson is the man.  The Prime Minister is not the whole of
the body politic, of course: and there are purposes for which we need
people with more turn than Johnson for starting and pressing new ideas:
but these will come best from below the gangway; and they will be none
the worse in the end for having had to undergo the formidable criticism
of a Prime Minister whose first article of faith is that the King's
government must be carried on.  The {171} slow-moving centrality of
Johnson's mind, not to be diverted by any far-looking whimsies from the
daily problem of how life was to be lived, is not the least important
of the qualities that have given him his unique position in the respect
and affection of the English race.



CHAPTER V

JOHNSON'S WORKS

In his lifetime Johnson was chiefly thought of as a great writer.
To-day we think of him chiefly as a great man.  That is the measure of
Boswell's genius: no other biographer of a great writer has
unconsciously and unintentionally thrown his hero's own works into the
shade.  Scott will always have a hundred times as many readers as
Lockhart, and Macaulay as Trevelyan.  But in this, as in some other
ways, Boswell's involuntary greatness has upset the balance of truth.
Johnson's writings are now much less read than they deserve to be.  For
this there are a variety of causes.  Fourteen years before he died,
William Wordsworth was born at Cockermouth; and fourteen years after
his death Wordsworth and Coleridge published the volume which, more
perhaps than any {172} other, started English literature on its great
voyage into seas unsailed and unimagined by Johnson.  The triumph of
the Romantic movement inevitably brought with it the depreciation of
the prophet of common sense in literature and in life.  The great
forces in the literature of the next seventy or eighty years were: in
poetry, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Scott, Byron, Shelley, Keats; in prose,
Scott, and then later on, Carlyle and Ruskin; every single one of them
providing a wine by no means to be put into Johnsonian bottles.

Johnson, even more than other men in the eighteenth century, was
abstract and general in his habit of mind and expression.  The men of
the new age were just the opposite; they were concrete and particular,
lovers of detail and circumstance.  The note of his writings had been
common sense and rugged veracity; the dominant notes of theirs were
picturesqueness, eloquence, emotion, even sentimentalism.  Both the
exaggerated hopes and the exaggerated fears aroused by the French
Revolution disinclined their victims to listen to the middling sanity
of Johnson.  The hopes built themselves fancy castles of equality and
fraternity which instinctively shrunk from the broadsides of Johnsonian
ridicule.  The fears hid themselves in caves of mediaeval reaction and
did not care to expose their eyes {173} to the smarting daylight of
Johnsonian common sense.  His appeal had always been to argument: the
new appeal was at worst to sentiment, at best to history for which
Johnson was too true to his century to care anything.  When Voltaire
writes an article on monasticism, he has nothing to say about how it
arose and developed; he neither knows nor cares anything about that.
For him it is, like everything else, a thing to be judged in a court of
abstract rationality, altogether independent of time and circumstance,
and as such he has no difficulty in dismissing it with brilliant and
witty contempt without telling us anything about what it actually is or
was.  It was this unhistorical spirit which, as Burke rightly preached,
was the most fatal element in the French Revolution.  But the French
are not to be blamed alone for an intellectual atmosphere which was
then universal in Europe.  Little as Johnson would have liked the
association, it must be admitted that he was in his way as pure and
unhistorical a rationalist as Voltaire and the Encyclopaedists; and
that it was inevitable that the reaction in favour of history which
Burke set in motion would tell against him as well as against them.
Against the discovery that things can neither be rightly judged nor
wisely reformed except by examining how they came to be what they {174}
are, the whole eighteenth century, and in it Johnson as well as
Rousseau and Voltaire, stands naked.  And the abstract rationalizing of
that century was soon to have another enemy in alliance with history,
the new force of science.  Nothing has been more fatal to the arbitrary
despotism of mere reason than the idea of development, of evolution.
Directly it is seen that all life exhibits itself in stages it becomes
obvious that the dry light of reason will not provide the materials for
true judgment until it has been coloured by a sympathetic insight into
the conditions of the particular stage under discussion.

All these things, then, were against Johnson.  Alike to the new
Liberalism ever more and more drenched in sentiment, to the new
Conservatism ever more and more looking for a base in history, to
Romanticism in literature with its stir, colour and emotion, to science
with its new studies and new methods, the works of Johnson almost
inevitably appeared as the dry bones of a dead age.  He had laughed at
the Romans: and behold the Romans had played a great part in the
greatest of Revolutions.  He had laughed at "noble prospects" and
behold the world was gone after them, and his, "Who _can_ like the
Highlands?" was drowned in the poetry of Scott and Byron, and made
{175} to appear narrow and vulgar in the presence of Wordsworth.  Only
in one field did any great change take place likely to be favourable to
Johnson's influence.  The religious and ecclesiastical revival which
was so conspicuous in England during the first half of the nineteenth
century was naturally inclined to exalt Johnson as the only strong
Churchman, and almost the only definite Christian among the great
writers of the eighteenth century.  The fact, too, that the most
conspicuous centre of the revival was Oxford, where Johnson's name had
always been affectionately remembered, helped to send its votaries back
to him.  But this alliance could not be more than partial.  The Oxford
Movement soon degenerated into Mediaevalism and Ritualism, and no man
was less fitted than Johnson to be the prophet of either.  The genius
of common sense was the very last leader their devotees could wish for.
And as the revival became increasingly a reaction, relying more and
more on supposed precedent and less on the essential reason of things,
it inevitably got further away from Johnson who cared everything for
reason and nothing at all for dubious history.

But it was not merely the changes that came over the general mind of
the nation that went against Johnson; it was still more the revolution
in his own special branch of literature.  {176} He was the last great
English critic who treated poets, not as great men to be under stood,
but as school-boys to be corrected.  He still applied, as the French
have always done, a preordained standard to the work he was discussing,
and declared it correct or not according to that test.  The new
criticism inaugurated by Coleridge aimed at interpretation rather than
at magisterial regulation; and no one will now revert to the old.  We
never now find an English critic writing such notes, common till lately
in France, as "cela n'est pas français," "cela ne se dit pas," "il faut
écrire"--such and such a phrase, and not the phrase used by the poet
receiving chastisement.  But Johnson does conclude his plays of
Shakespeare with such remarks as: "The conduct of this play is
deficient."  "The passions are directed to their true end."  "In this
play are some passages which ought not to have been exhibited, as we
are told they were, to a maiden Queen."  The substance of these
comments may often be just, but for us their tone is altogether wrong.
We no longer think that a critic, even if he be Johnson, should
distribute praise or blame to poets, even of much less importance than
Shakespeare, with the confident assurance of a school-master looking
over a boy's exercise.  Johnson's manner, {177} then, as a critic was
against him with the nineteenth century.  But so also was his matter.
The poetry he really believed in was that of what the nineteenth
century came to regard as the age of prose.  Of his three great _Lives_
we feel that those of Dryden and Pope express the pleasure he
spontaneously and unconsciously felt, while that of Milton is a
reluctant tribute extorted from him by a genius he could not resist.
Among the few poets in his long list for whom the nineteenth century
cared much are Gray and Collins; and of Collins he says almost nothing
in the way of admiration, and of Gray very little.  Even when he wrote
of Shakespeare, to whom he paid a tribute that will long outlive those
of blind idolatry, what he praised is not what seemed greatest to the
lovers of poetry in the next generation.  A critic who found "no nice
discriminations of character in Macbeth," and defended Tate's "happy
family" ending of Lear, was not unnaturally dismissed or ignored by
those who had sat at the feet of Coleridge or Lamb.

There is still one other thing which told against him.  No one
influenced the course of English literature in the nineteenth century
so much as Wordsworth.  And Wordsworth was a determined reformer not
only of the matter of poetry but of its very language.  {178} He
overstated his demands and did not get his ideas clear to his own mind,
as may be seen by the fact that he instinctively recoiled from applying
the whole of them in his own poetical practice.  But he plainly
advocated two things as essential parts of his reform; poetry was to go
back for its subject to the primary universal facts of human life, and
it was to use as far as possible the language actually used by plain
men in speaking to each other.  Both these demands had to submit to
modification; but both profoundly influenced the subsequent development
of English poetry: and both were, as Wordsworth knew, opposed to the
teaching and practice of Johnson.  The return to simplicity involved a
preference for such poetry as Percy's Ballads which Johnson had
ridiculed, and a distaste for the poetry of the town which Johnson
admired.  And both in the famous _Preface_ and in the _Appendix_ and
_Essay Supplementary_ added to it Wordsworth refers to Johnson and
seems to recognize him as the most dangerous authority with whom he has
to contend.  In that contest Wordsworth was on the whole decidedly
victorious; and to that extent again Johnson was discredited.  Nor was
it the language of poetry only which was affected.  Under the
influences which Wordsworth, Scott and Byron set {179} moving, the old
colourless, abstract, professedly classical language was supplanted
even in prose.  The new prose was enriched by a hundred qualities of
music, colour and suggestion, at which the prose of the eighteenth
century had never aimed.  Those who had enjoyed the easy grace of Lamb,
the swift lightnings of Carlyle, the eloquence, playfulness and
tenderness of Ruskin, the lucid suavity of Newman, were sure to
conclude in their haste that the prose of Johnson was a thing pompous,
empty and dull.

But against all these indictments a reaction has now begun.  Like other
reactions its first utterances are apt to be extravagant.  In
literature as in politics those who at last take their courage in their
hands and defy the established opinion are obliged to shout to keep
their spirits up.  So Sir Walter Raleigh, whose _Six Essays_ at once
put the position of Johnson on a new footing, has allowed himself to
say of some sentences from _The Rambler_ that they are "prose which
will not suffer much by comparison with the best in the language."
But, apart from these inevitable over-statements of defiance, what he
has said about Johnson is unanswered and unanswerable.  And at last it
is able to fall upon a soil prepared for it.  In all directions the
Gothic movement, which was so inevitably {180} unfavourable to the fame
of Johnson, has crumbled and collapsed.  A counter movement seems to be
in progress.  The classical revival in architecture is extending into
other fields and though no one wishes to undo the poetic achievement of
the nineteenth century, every one has come to wish to understand that
of the eighteenth.  We shall never again think that Dryden and Pope had
the essence of poetry in them to the same extent, as, for instance,
Wordsworth or Shelley; but neither shall we ever again treat them with
the superficial and ignorant contempt which was not uncommon twenty or
thirty years ago.  The twentieth century is not so confident as its
predecessor that the poetry and criticism of the eighteenth may safely
be ignored.

If, then, we are not to ignore Johnson's writing, what are we to
remember?  In a sketch like this the point of view to be taken is that
of the man with a general interest in English letters, not that of the
specialist in the eighteenth century, or indeed, that of any specialist
at all.  Well, then, first of all Johnson wrote verses which though not
great poetry have some fine qualities.  They are, like so much of the
verse of that century, chiefly "good sense put into good metre."  That
is what Twining, the Aristotelian critic, said of them when Johnson
died.  He had a much {181} finer sense of poetry than Johnson, and he
was perfectly right in this criticism.  But it is a loss and not a gain
that, since Wordsworth gave us such a high conception of what poetry
should be, we have ceased to take pleasure in good verses simply for
their own sake.  In the eighteenth century a new volume of verse became
at once the talk of the town and every cultivated person read it.  Now
we have allowed poetry to become a thing so esoteric in its exaltation
that only the poetically minded can read it.  Neither the _Excursion_
nor the _Epipsychidion_ could possibly be read by the great public.
All the world could and did read Pope's _Epistles_ and Goldsmith's
_Traveller_.  It may have been worth while to pay the price for the new
greatness of poetry that came in with the nineteenth century; but it is
at any rate right to remember that there was a price, and that it has
had to be paid.  It may be that some day we shall be able again to take
pleasure in well-turned verses without losing our appreciation of
higher things.  Good verse is, really, a delightful thing even when it
is not great poetry, and we are too apt now-a-days to forget that verse
has one great inherent advantage over prose, that it impresses itself
on the memory as no prose can.  We can all quote scores of lines from
Pope, though we {182} may not know who it is whom we are quoting.  That
is the pleasure of art.  And if the lines, as often, utter the voice of
good sense in morals or politics, it is its accidental utility also.
Johnson has, of course, little of Pope's amazing dexterity, wit and
finish.  But he has some qualities of which Pope had nothing or not
very much.  In his verse, as everywhere else, he shows a sense of the
real issues of things quite out of the reach of a well-to-do wit living
in his library, like Pope; what he writes may be in form an imitation
of Juvenal, but it is in essence a picture of life and often of his own
life.

How large a part of the business of poetry consists in giving new
expression to the old truths of experience, is known to all the great
poets and seen in their practice.  Johnson can do this with a force
that refuses to be forgotten.

  "But few there are whom hours like these await,
  Who set unclouded in the gulfs of fate.
  From Lydia's monarch should the search descend,
  By Solon cautioned to regard his end,
  In life's last scene what prodigies surprise,
  Fears of the brave and follies of the wise!
  From Marlborough's eyes the streams of dotage flow,
  And Swift expires a driveller and a show."


Such lines almost challenge Pope on his own {183} ground, meeting his
rapier-like dexterity of neatness with heavy sword-strokes of sincerity
and strength.  But here, as in the prose, the true Johnsonian
excellence is best seen when he is in the confessional.

  "Should no disease thy torpid veins invade,
  Nor Melancholy's phantoms haunt thy shade;
  Yet hope not life from grief or danger free,
  Nor think the doom of man reversed for thee--
  Deign on the passing world to turn thine eyes,
  And pause awhile from Letters to be wise;
  There mark what ills the scholar's life assail,
  Toil, envy, want, the patron, and the gaol."


There, and in such lines as the stanza on Levett--

  "His virtues walked their narrow round,
  Nor made a pause, nor left a void;
  And sure the Eternal Master found
  The single talent well employed,"

one hears the authentic unique voice of Johnson; not that of a great
poet but of a real man to whom it is always worth while to listen, and
not least when he puts his thoughts into the pointed shape of verse.

Still, of course, prose and not verse is his natural medium.  And here
a word should be said about that prose style of his which had an
immense vogue for a time and plainly {184} influenced most of the
writers of his own and the following generation, even men so great as
Gibbon and the young Ruskin, and women so brilliant as Fanny Burney.
Then a reaction came and it was generally denounced as pompous, empty
and verbose.  After the Revolution people gave up wearing wigs, and
with the passing of wigs and buckle-shoes there came a dislike of the
dignified deportment of the eighteenth century in weightier matters
than costume.  Now Johnson, whatever he did at other times, was
commonly inclined to put on his wig before he took up his pen.  His
elaborate and antithetical phrases are apt to go into pairs like people
in a Court procession, and seem at first sight to belong altogether to
what we should call an artificial as well as a ceremonious age.  His
style is the exact opposite of Dryden's, of which he said that, having
"no prominent or discriminative characters," it "could not easily be
imitated either seriously or ludicrously."  Johnson's could be, and
often was, imitated in both spirits.  Even in his lifetime, when it was
most admired, it was already parodied.  Goldsmith was talking once of
the art of writing fables, and of the necessity, if your fable be about
"little fishes," of making them talk like "little fishes"; Johnson
laughed: upon which Goldsmith said, "Why, Dr. Johnson, {185} this is
not so easy as you seem to think: for if you were to make little fishes
talk, they would talk like whales."  That was the weak spot in Johnson
on which the wits and critics seized at once: there is a good deal of
misplaced magniloquence in his writings.  When the sage in _Rasselas_
says, "I have missed the endearing elegance of female friendship, and
the happy commerce of domestic tenderness," we now feel at once that
the simple and natural thought gains nothing and loses much by this
heavy pomp of abstract eloquence.  So when Johnson wants to say in the
eleventh _Idler_ that it is wrong and absurd to let our spirits depend
on the weather, he makes his reader laugh or yawn, rather than listen,
by the ill-timed elaboration of his phrases: "to call upon the sun for
peace and gaiety, or deprecate the clouds lest sorrow should overwhelm
us, is the cowardice of idleness, and the idolatry of folly."  So much
must be admitted.  Johnson is often turgid and pompous, often grandiose
with an artificial and undesired grandiloquence.  No one, however, who
has read his prose works will pretend that this is a fair account of
his ordinary style.  You may read many _Ramblers_ in succession and
scarcely find a marked instance of it; and, as every one knows, his
last, longest and pleasantest work, the _Lives of the Poets_, is almost
free from it.  All through {186} his life one can trace a kind of
progress as he gradually shakes off these mannerisms, and writes as
easily as he talked.  They are most conspicuous in _The Rambler_ and
_Rasselas_.  But even there, through all the heaviness, born perhaps of
the too obvious desire to instruct and improve, we get more than
occasional suggestions of the trenchant force which we most associate
with the pages of Boswell.


"My curiosity," said Rasselas, "does not very strongly lead me to
survey piles of stone, or mounds of earth; my business is with man.  I
came hither not to measure fragments of temples, or trace choaked
aqueducts, but to look upon the various scenes of the present
world. . . .  To judge rightly of the present we must oppose it to the
past; for all judgment is comparative, and of the future nothing can be
known."


There is nothing here of the intimacy and charm which, as Dryden and
Cowley had already shown, and Johnson himself was occasionally to show
in his last years, a plain prose may possess; but of the lucidity and
force which are its most necessary characteristics never prose
exhibited more.  Those who know their Boswell will catch in the passage
a pleasant foretaste of the outburst to Thrale when he wanted Johnson
to contrast {187} French and English scenery: "Never heed such
nonsense, sir; a blade of grass is always a blade of grass, whether in
one country or another; let us, if we _do_ talk, talk about something;
men and women are my subjects of inquiry: let us see how these differ
from those we have left behind."


This natural trenchancy gets freer play, of course, in the talk than in
the writings.  But it is in them all from the first, even in
_Rasselas_, even in _The Rambler_.  "The same actions performed by
different hands produce different effects, and, instead of rating the
man by his performances we rate too frequently the performances by the
man. . . .  Benefits which are received as gifts from wealth are
exacted as debts from indigence; and he that in a high station is
celebrated for superfluous goodness would in a meaner condition have
barely been confessed to have done his duty."

It is not necessary to multiply citations.  What is found even in _The
Rambler_, which he himself in later years found "too wordy," is found
much more abundantly in the Dictionary and the _Shakespeare_; and as he
grows old, and, with age and authority, increasingly indifferent to
criticism and increasingly confident in his own judgment, there
gradually comes an ease and familiarity which without {188} diminishing
the perfect lucidity of the phrases adds sometimes to the old
contemptuous force, and occasionally brings a new intimacy and
indulgence.  The writing becomes gradually more like the talk.  Nobody
in his earlier work was ever quite so unceremoniously kicked downstairs
as Wilkes was in _The False Alarm_.


"All wrong ought to be rectified.  If Mr. Wilkes is deprived of a
lawful seat, both he and his electors have reason to complain, but it
will not be easily found why, among the innumerable wrongs of which a
great part of mankind are hourly complaining, the whole care of the
publick should be transferred to Mr. Wilkes and the freeholders of
Middlesex, who might all sink into non-existence without any other
effect than that there would be room made for a new rabble and a new
retailer of sedition and obscenity."


This is the old power of invective indulged now with the reckless
indifference of a man who is talking among friends, knows his power and
enjoys using it.  But the ease of his later manner more commonly takes
the form of a redoubled directness in his old appeal to universal
experience, or that of these natural indulgences of old age, anecdote
and autobiography.  Take, for instance, the first volume of his
_Lives_.  It is not only full {189} of such admirable generalizations
as that in which he sums up the case for a literary as against a
mathematical or scientific education: "The truth is that the knowledge
of external nature and the sciences which that knowledge requires or
includes are not the great or the frequent business of the human
mind. . . .  We are perpetually moralists: we are geometricians only by
chance"; or that in which he expresses his contempt for Dryden
exchanging Billingsgate with Settle: "Minds are not levelled in their
powers, but when they are first levelled in their desires"; or the
pregnant commonplace with which he prefaces his derision of the
artificial love-poems which Cowley thought it necessary to address to
an imaginary mistress: "It is surely not difficult, in the solitude of
a college or in the bustle of the world, to find useful studies and
serious employment."  This is the Johnson his readers had known from
the beginning.  What is newer are the personal touches sprinkled all
over the book.  Here he will bring in a fact about his friend, Sir
Joshua Reynolds; there he will give a piece of information derived from
"my father, an old bookseller."  He who studied life and manners before
all things loves to record the personal habits of his poets and to try
their writings rather by the tests of life than {190} of criticism.  He
was, perhaps, the first great critic to take the seeming trifles of
daily life out of the hands of gossips and anecdote-mongers, and give
them their due place in the study of a great man.  All this necessarily
gave him something of the colloquial ease of the writer of
recollections.  Nothing could be simpler than his style when he tells
us of Milton that "when he first rose he heard a chapter in the Hebrew
Bible and then studied till twelve; then took some exercise for an
hour; then dined; then played on the organ, and sang, or heard another
sing; then studied; to six; then entertained his visitors till eight;
then supped, and after a pipe of tobacco and a glass of water went to
bed."  On which his comment is characteristic and plainly
autobiographical.  "So is his life described; but this even tenour
appears attainable only in colleges.  He that lives in the world will
sometimes have the succession of his practice broken and confused.
Visitors, of whom Milton is represented to have had great numbers, will
come and stay unseasonably: business, of which every man has some, must
be done when others will do it."  This may still have about it
something of the style of a school-master, but of a school-master who
teaches the art of living, not without having learnt by experience the
difficulty of practising it.

{191}

So we may trace the gradual diminution, but never the entire
disappearance, of the excessive "deportment" which is the best known
feature of Johnson's style.  Of another feature often found in it by
hostile critics less need be said because it is not really there at
all.  Johnson is frequently accused of verbosity.  If that word means
merely pomposity it has already been discussed.  If it means, as it
should mean, the use of superfluous words adding nothing to the sense,
few authors are so seldom guilty of it as Johnson.  There are many good
writers, Scott, for instance, and the authors of the Book of Common
Prayer, in whom a hurried reader might frequently omit half a phrase
without depriving his hearers of an ounce of meaning.  But you cannot
do that with Johnson.  Words that add neither information nor argument
to what has gone before are exceptionally rare in him.  Take his style
at its worst.  "It is therefore to me a severe aggravation of a
calamity, when it is such as in the common opinion will not justify the
acerbity of exclamation, or support the solemnity of vocal grief."
Heavier writing there could scarcely be.  But every word has its duty
to do.  The supposed speaker has been saying that he is, like Sancho
Panza, quite unable to suffer in silence; and he adds {192} that this
makes many a misfortune harder for him to bear than it need be: for it
may arise from an injury which other people think too trifling to
justify any open expression of anger, or from an accident that may seem
to them so petty that they will not endure any serious lamentation
about it.  Johnson's way of saying this is pompous and rather absurd;
but it is not verbose.  So when he says that he knows nothing of Mallet
except "what is supplied by the unauthorized loquacity of common fame,"
it is possible to dislike the phrase; it is not possible to deny that
the words are as full of meaning as words can be.

The fact is that Johnson's style has the merits and defects of
scholarship.  He knows, as a scholar will, how every word came upon the
paper, consequently he seldom uses language which is either empty or
inexact; but with the scholar's accuracy he has also the scholar's
pride.  The dignity of literature was constantly in his mind as he
wrote; and he did not always write the better for it.  Books in his day
and in his eyes were still rather solemn things to be kept above the
linguistic level of conversation.  Dryden and Addison had already begun
to make the great discovery that the best prose style has no conscious
air of literature about it; but the new doctrine had not reached the
{193} mass either of writers or readers.  And it never completely
reached Johnson.  He himself once accidentally gave one of the best
definitions of the new style when he said of Shakespeare's comic
dialogue that it was gathered from that kind of conversation which is
"above grossness and below refinement."  And at the end of his life he
even occasionally produced some good specimens of it.  But, taking his
work as a whole, it must be admitted that he could rarely bring himself
to be "below refinement," the refinement not of the drawing-room but of
the library.  In what he says he is always a man; in the way he says it
he is nearly always too visibly an author.  Those who have eyes to see
and the will to look never fail of finding the man; but the author
stares them in the face.

His prose works may be divided into two classes, those in which he is
primarily a moralist, and those in which he is primarily a critic.
Life and manners are never out of his mind; but while they are the
direct and avowed subject of _The Rambler_, _The Idler_ and _Rasselas_,
they only come, as it were, indirectly into the _Dictionary_, the
_Shakespeare_ and the _Lives of the Poets_, where the ostensible
business is the criticism of literature.  Outside these categories are
the political pamphlets, the interesting _Journey to the Western
Islands_, {194} and a great quantity of miscellaneous literary
hack-work.  All of these have mind and character in them, or they would
not be Johnson's; but they call for no special discussion.  Nor do the
_Prayers and Meditations_, which of course he did not publish himself.
It is enough to say that, while fools have frequently ridiculed them,
all who have ever realized that there is such a thing as the warfare of
the spirit with its own weakness, will find a poignant interest in the
tragedy of Johnson's inner life, always returning again and again to
the battle in which he seemed to himself to be always defeated.

_The Rambler_, _The Idler_ and _Rasselas_ fill four volumes out of the
twelve in the 1823 library edition of Johnson.  When Johnson decided to
bring out a periodical paper he, of course, had the model of the
_Spectator_ and _Tatler_ before him.  But he had in him less of the
graces of life than Addison and Steele, and a far deeper sense of the
gravity of its issues; with the result that _The Rambler_ and _The
Idler_ are much heavier than their predecessors, not only in style but
in substance.  They deal much more avowedly with instruction.  As we
read them we wonder, not at the slow sale of the original papers, but
at the editions which the author lived to see.  We stand amazed to-day
at the audacity of a journalist {195} who dares to offer, and at the
patience or wisdom of a public which is content twice a week to read,
not exciting events or entertaining personalities, but sober essays on
the most ancient and apparently threadbare of topics.  Here are
Johnson's subjects for the ten _Ramblers_ which appeared between
November 20 and December 22, 1750: the shortness of life, the value of
good-humour, the folly of heirs who live on their expectations,
peevishness, the impossibility of knowing mankind till one has
experienced misfortune, the self-deceptions of conscience, the moral
responsibilities of men of genius, the power of novelty, the justice of
suspecting the suspicious, the pleasures of change and in particular
that of winter following upon summer.  None of these can be called
exciting topics.  Yet when there is a man of real power to discuss
them, and men of sense to listen to him, they can make up a book which
goes through many editions, is translated into foreign languages, and
is called by a great critic a hundred and fifty years after its
appearance, a "splendid repository of wisdom and truth."  With the
exception of the first word, Sir Walter Raleigh's daring praise may be
accepted as strictly true.  There is nothing splendid about _The
Rambler_ or _The Idler_.  The more shining qualities {196} of
literature, except occasional eloquence, are conspicuously wanting in
them.  There is no imagination, little of the fancy, wit and readiness
of illustration so omnipresent in Johnson's talk, little power of
drawing character, very little humour.  He often puts his essay into
the form of a story, but it remains an essay still.  His strength is
always in the reflections, never in the facts related or the persons
described.  The club of Essex gentlemen who fancied themselves to be
satirized in _The Rambler_ were only an extreme instance of the common
vanity which loves to fancy itself the subject of other people's
thoughts.  Johnson's portraits have not life enough to be caricatures;
still less can posterity find in them the finer truth of human beings.
His was a profounder mind than Addison's; but he could not have drawn
Sir Roger de Coverley.  He had not "run about the world," as he said,
for nothing, and he knew a great deal about men and women; but he could
not create.  _Rasselas_, his only professed story, is a total failure
as a story.  It is a series of moral essays, and whoever reads it must
read it for the same reasons as he reads _The Rambler_.  The remark
Johnson absurdly made of Richardson's masterpiece is exactly true of
his own _Rasselas_: "If you were to read it for the story {197} your
impatience would be so fretted that you would hang yourself."

In all these things, as elsewhere, his strength lies in shrewdness, in
a common sense that has been through the fire of experience, in a real
love of wisdom and truth.  There is a story that Charlotte Brontë, when
a girl of sixteen, broke out very angrily at some one who said she was
always talking about clever men such as Johnson and Sheridan.  "Now you
don't know the meaning of clever," she said; "Sheridan might be
clever--scamps often are, but Johnson hadn't a spark of 'cleverality'
in him."  That remark gives the essence of _The Rambler_.  Whoever
wants "cleverality," whoever wants what Mr. Shaw and Mr. Chesterton
supply so brilliantly and abundantly to the present generation, had
best leave Johnson alone.  The signal merit of his writings is the
exact opposite of "cleverality"; it is that he always means exactly
what he says.  He often talked for victory, but except, perhaps, in the
political pamphlets he always wrote for truth.

Books like _The Rambler_ and _Rasselas_ do not easily lend themselves
to illustration; the effect they produce is a cumulative effect.
Slowly, as we read paper after paper, the mind and character of Johnson
take hold of us; what we began with impatience or {198} perhaps with
contempt, we put down with respect and admiration.  At the end we feel
that we would gladly put our lives into the hands of this rough, wise,
human, limited, lovable man.  To get to that impression the books must
be read; but one or two illustrations may be given.  There is nothing
new to say about death, but the human heart will itself be dead when it
is willing to give up saying again the old things that have been said
on that subject from the beginning of the world.  Who puts more of it
into saying them than Johnson?

"When a friend is carried to his grave, we at once find excuses for
every weakness, and palliations of every fault; we recollect a thousand
endearments which before glided off our minds without impression, a
thousand favours unrepaid, a thousand duties unperformed, and wish,
vainly wish, for his return, not so much that we may receive, as that
we may bestow happiness, and recompense that kindness which before we
never understood."

Where in this is the pompous pedant who is so commonly supposed to be
the writer of Johnson's books?  The English language has not often been
more beautifully handled.  It is true that, until one looks closely,
the last words of the first sentence appear to be a piece of empty
verbiage; but taken as a {199} whole the passage moves with a grave
music fitted to its sober truth.  The art in it is as admirable as the
emotion is sincere.

Or take a different illustration from a _Rambler_, in which he is
discussing the well-known fact that the commonest cause of shyness is
self-importance.

"Those who are oppressed by their own reputation will perhaps not be
comforted by hearing that their cares are unnecessary.  But the truth
is that no man is much regarded by the rest of the world.  He that
considers how little he dwells upon the condition of others will learn
how little the attention of others is attracted by himself.  While we
see multitudes passing before us of whom, perhaps, not one appears to
deserve our notice or excite our sympathy, we should remember that we,
likewise, are lost in the same throng; that the eye which happens to
glance upon us is turned in a moment on him that follows us, and that
the utmost which we can reasonably hope or fear is to fill a vacant
hour with prattle, and be forgotten."

All good writers write of themselves; not, as vain people talk, of
their triumphs, and grievances and diseases, but of what they have
succeeded in grasping as their own out of all the floating wisdom of
the world.  In {200} a passage like this one almost hears Johnson
reflecting aloud as he walks back in his old age to his lonely rooms
after an evening at "The Club" or the Mitre.  It is the graver side of
what he once said humorously to Boswell: "I may leave this town and go
to Grand Cairo without being missed here or observed there."  But the
autobiographical note is sometimes even plainer.  Of whom could he be
thinking so much as of himself when he wrote the 101st _Rambler_?

"Perhaps no kind of superiority is more flattering or alluring than
that which is conferred by the powers of conversation, by
extemporaneous sprightliness of fancy, copiousness of language, and
fertility of sentiment.  In other exertions of genius, the greater part
of the praise is unknown and unenjoyed; the writer, indeed, spreads his
reputation to a wider extent, but receives little pleasure or advantage
from the diffusion of his name, and only obtains a kind of nominal
sovereignty over regions which pay no tribute.  The colloquial wit has
always his own radiance reflected on himself, and enjoys all the
pleasure which he bestows; he finds his power confessed by every one
that approaches him, sees friendship kindling with rapture and
attention swelling into praise."

In that shrewd observation lies the secret {201} of the comparative
unproductiveness of his later years.  Men like Dryden and Gibbon and
Lecky are the men to get through immense literary labours: to a great
talker like Johnson what can the praises of reviewers or of posterity
be in comparison with the flashing eyes, and attentive ears, the
expectant silence and spontaneous applause, of the friends in whom he
has an immediate mirror of his success?

It is impossible and unnecessary to multiply illustrations.  The only
thing that need be added is that even in _Rasselas_ and the essays,
Johnson's slow-moving style is constantly relieved by those brief and
pregnant generalizations of which he is one of the greatest masters in
our language.  They are so close to life as all men know it, that the
careless reader, as we have already seen, is apt to take them for
platitudes; but there is all the difference between the stale
superficiality which coldly repeats what only its ears have heard, and
these sayings of Johnson heated to new energy in the fires of
conscience, thought and experience.  "I have already enjoyed too much,"
says the Prince in _Rasselas_; "give me something to desire."  And
then, a little later, as so often happens with the wise, comes the
other side of the medal of truth: "Human life is everywhere {202} a
state in which much is to be endured and little to be enjoyed."  Or
take such sentences as that embodying the favourite Johnsonian and
Socratic distinction: "to man is permitted the contemplation of the
skies, but the practice of virtue is commanded"; or, "we will not
endeavour to fix the destiny of kingdoms: it is our business to
consider what beings like us may perform"; or such sayings as, "the
truth is that no mind is much employed upon the present: recollection
and anticipation fill up almost all our moments"; "marriage has many
pains but celibacy has no pleasures"; "envy is almost the only vice
which is practicable at all times and in every place"; "no place
affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes than a
public library"; "I have always thought it the duty of an anonymous
author to write as if he expected to be hereafter known"; or, last of
all, to bring citation to an end, that characteristic saying about the
omnipresence of the temptations of idleness: "to do nothing is in every
man's power: we can never want an opportunity of omitting duties."

Johnson's principal work as a scholar and critic of literature is to be
found in his Dictionary, the edition of Shakespeare, and the _Lives of
the Poets_.  It has the strength {203} and weakness which might be
anticipated by any intelligent person who had read Boswell and the
_Ramblers_.  It abounds in manliness, courage, and modesty: it never
for an instant forgets that literature exists for the sake of life and
not life for the sake of literature: it has no esoteric or professional
affectations, but says plain things in plain words such as all can
understand.  The literary critic can have no more valuable qualities
than these.  But they do not complete his equipment.  The criticism of
Johnson has many limitations.  He was entirely without aesthetic
capacity.  Not only were music and the plastic arts nothing to him--as
indeed they have been to many good judges of poetry--but he does not
appear to have possessed any musical ear or much power of imagination.
It is not going too far to say that of the highest possibilities of
poetry he had no conception.  He imagines he has disposed of _Lycidas_
by exhibiting its "inherent improbability" in the eyes of a crude
common sense: a triumph which is as easy and as futile as his
refutation of Berkeley's metaphysics by striking his foot upon the
ground.  The truth is of course that in each case he is beating the
air.  The stamp upon the ground would have been a triumphant answer to
a fool who should say that the senses cannot feel: it does not touch
{204} Berkeley who says they cannot know.  So the attack on _Lycidas_
might be fatal to a judge who put his judgment into the form of a
pastoral; as the criticism of a poet it is in the main simply
irrelevant.  It is evident that what Johnson admires in Milton is the
power of his mind and the elevation of his character, not at all his
purely poetic gifts.  He never betrays the slightest suspicion that in
speaking of Milton he is speaking of one of the very greatest artists
the world has ever known.  He thought blank verse was verse only to the
eye, and found the "numbers" of _Lycidas_ "unpleasing."  He did not
believe that anybody read _Paradise Lost_ for pleasure, and said so
with his usual honesty.  He saw nothing in _Samson Agonistes_ but the
weakness of the plot; of the heights and depths of its poetry he
perceived nothing.  He preferred the comedies to the tragedies of
Shakespeare: felt the poet in him much less than the omniscient
observer of universal life: and indeed, if we may judge by what he says
in the preface to the Dictionary, hardly thought of him as a master of
poetic language at all.  He had evidently no appreciation of the Greek
dramatists.  The thing that moves him in poetry is eloquence of
expression and energy of thought: both good things but things that can
exist outside poetry.  The arguments {205} in which he states his
objections to devotional poetry in the life of Waller show that he
regarded poetry as an artful intellectual embroidery, not as the only
fit utterance of an exalted mood.

To such a conception we can never return after all that has been done
for us by Wordsworth and Coleridge and Matthew Arnold, to say nothing
of some living critics like Mr. Yeats.  No one who cares at all for
poetry now could think of regretting an unwritten epic in the language
Johnson uses about Dryden's: "it would doubtless have improved our
numbers and enlarged our language; and might perhaps have contributed
by pleasing instruction to rectify our opinions and purify our
manners."  It is not that such criticism is false but that it is beside
the mark.  An epic poem may do all these things, as a statesman may
play golf or act as churchwarden: but when he dies it is not his golf
or his churchwardenship that we feel the loss of.  Put this remark of
Johnson's by the side of such sayings as have now become the
commonplaces of criticism.  We need not go out to look for them.  They
are everywhere, in the mouths of all who speak of poetry.  One opens
Keats' letters at random and finds him saying, "Poetry should be great
and unobtrusive, a thing that enters {206} into one's soul."  One takes
up the work of a living critic, Mr. Eccles, and one finds him saying,
in his book on French poetry, that when we go to the very root of
poetry one of the things we discern is the "mystical collaboration of a
consecrated element of form in the travail of the spirit."  Language of
this sort is now almost the ordinary language of criticism.  Blake and
Wordsworth did not conquer the kingdom of criticism in a moment or a
year: but when at last they did its whole tone and attitude necessarily
changed.  Where Johnson, even while praising Milton's "skill in
harmony" as "not less than his learning," discusses it merely as
"skill," as a sort of artisanship, and misses all its subtler and rarer
mysteries, we see in it an inspiration as much an art, life itself
raised as it were to a higher denomination, a power of spirit--

  "Dead things with inbreathed sense able to pierce."

It is the measure of the distance we have travelled away from Johnson
that even plain people to-day, if they care for poetry at all, find
much more in it than a piece of cunning craftsmanship.  It is always
that no doubt: but for us to-day it is also something far higher: a
symbol of eternity.  And more than a symbol, a sacrament: for it not
only {207} suggests but reveals: it _is_ the truth which it signifies;
itself a part, as all those who have ever profoundly felt its influence
are assured, of the eternal order of things to which it points.


Plainly, then, some of the things which now seem to us to be of the
very innermost essence of poetry are not things which can be weighed in
any scales known to Johnson.  Yet in spite of his limitations he is
certainly one of the masters of English criticism.  The great critic
may be said to be one who leaves the subject-matter of his criticism
more respected and better understood than he found it.  Johnson's
principal subjects were the English language, the plays of Shakespeare,
and the poets from Cowley to his own day.  There can be no question of
the services he rendered to the English language.  His Dictionary, as
was inevitable, had many faults, especially of etymology: but its
publication marks an epoch in the history of English.  It was a kind of
challenge to the world.  Other nations had till then inclined to look
upon our language and literature as barbarous: and we had not been very
sure ourselves that we had any right to a place on the Parnassus of the
nations.  Great men in Italy and France had thought those {208}
languages worth the labours of a lifetime.  In England before Johnson's
Dictionary, nothing had been done to claim for English an equal place
with Italian or French in the future of the literature and civilization
of the world.  What companies of learned men had taken generations to
do for foreign countries had now been done for England in a few years
by the industry, and abilities of a single scholar.  Englishmen who
took a pride in their language might now do so with understanding:
foreigners who wished to learn English could now learn in the method
and spirit of a scholar, no longer merely as travellers or tradesmen.
The two folio volumes of the Dictionary were the visible evidence that
English had taken its place in the literary polity of Europe.  They
were the fit precursors of the triumphant progress soon to be made by
Burke and Scott and Byron.  The other great service which Johnson
rendered to our language by his Dictionary and its Preface could only
have been rendered by a man so superior to the narrowness of
scholarship as Johnson.  No doubt as a single individual in a private
position he was not exposed to such temptations to law-giving arrogance
as the French Academicians.  But nevertheless it is to his credit that
he frankly recognized that a language is a living thing, and that {209}
life means growth and growth change.  So far as it lay in the power of
the French critics the new dignity that came to their language in the
seventeenth century was made to involve a pedantic and sterile
immobility.  The meaning, the spelling, the arrangement, of words was
to be regulated by immutable law, and all who disobeyed were to be
punished as lawless and insolent rebels.  Johnson knew better.  Both
his melancholy and his common sense taught him that "language is the
work of man, of a being from whom permanence and stability cannot be
derived."  He knew that words coming from human mouths must follow the
law of life: "when they are not gaining strength they are losing it."
His business was not the vain folly of trying to bind the future in
fetters: it was to record the present use and past history of words as
accurately as he could ascertain them, and, by showing Englishmen what
their heritage was and whence they had received it, to make them proud
of its past and jealous of its future.  The pedant wishes to apply a
code of Median rigidity to correct the barbarous freedom of a language
to which scholarship has never applied itself.  Johnson gave our
savages laws and made them citizens of a constitutional state: but,
however venerable the laws and however little to be {210} changed
without grave reason, he knew that, if the literary polity of England
lived and grew, new needs would arise, old customs become obsolete, and
the laws of language, like all others, would have to be changed to meet
the new conditions.  But the urgent business at that moment was to
codify the floating and uncertain rules which a student of English
found it difficult to collect and impossible to reconcile.  Johnson
might often be wrong: but after him there was at least an authority to
appeal to: and that, as he himself felt, was a great step forward: for
it is of more importance that the law should be known than that it
should be right.

To have done all this, and to have explained what was done and what was
attempted in language of such manliness, modesty and eloquence as that
of the great Preface, is to have rendered one of the greatest services
that can be rendered to the literature of a nation.  "The chief glory
of every people," says Johnson, "arises from its authors."  That would
be a bold thing to say to-day and was a bolder then, especially in so
prosaic a place as the preface to a dictionary.  But the world sees its
truth more and more.  And it is less out of place in a dictionary than
appears at first sight.  For that glory is not easily gained or
recognized till both authors {211} and people realize that their
language is the peer of the greatest in the world, a fit vehicle for
the highest thoughts that can enter the mind of man.  And towards that
result in England only a few works of genius have contributed more than
Johnson's Dictionary.

After the language itself comes the most priceless of its monuments.
The services Johnson rendered to Shakespeare are only second to those
he rendered to the language in which Shakespeare wrote.  The Preface to
his edition of Shakespeare is certainly the most masterly piece of his
literary criticism: and it may still be doubted, after all that has
been written about Shakespeare in the century and a half that separate
it from our own day, whether the world can yet show any sixty pages
about Shakespeare exhibiting so much truth and wisdom as these.  All
Johnson's gifts are seen at their best in it: the lucidity, the virile
energy, the individuality of his style: the unique power of first
placing himself on the level of the plain man and then lifting the
plain man to his: the resolute insistence on life and reason, not
learning or ingenuity, as the standard by which books are to be judged.
No one ever was so free as Johnson from that pest of literature which a
fine French critic, one of the subtlest of his countrymen, called
"l'ingénieux sans bon {212} sens"; and he never showed himself so free
of it as in his Shakespeare.  The master of life who "whether life or
nature be his subject, shows plainly that he has seen with his own
eyes," inspired the great critic with more even than his usual measure
of sanity: and perhaps the very best things in the Preface and the
notes are the frequent summonings of ingenious sophistries to the bar
of a merciless common sense.  Let those who, with a good living writer,
fancy his criticism merely a lifeless application of mechanical rules,
read again the famous passage in the preface where he dismisses the
claim of the unities of place and time to be necessary to the proper
illusion of drama.  Never did critic show himself freer of the easy
slavery to traditional rules which afflicts or consoles sluggish minds.
In Johnson's pages at any rate, there is "always an appeal open," as he
says, "from criticism to nature."  And, though all his prejudices,
except those of the Anti-Gallican, must have carried him to the side of
the unities, he goes straight to the truth of experience, obtains there
a decisive answer, and records it in a few pages of masterly reasoning.
The first breath of the facts, as known to every one who has visited a
theatre, is brought to demolish the airy castles of pedantry: and it is
shown that unity is required not for the sake of deceiving {213} the
spectators, which is impossible, but for the sake of bringing order
into chaos, art into nature, and the immensity of life within limits
that can be compassed by the powers of the human mind.  The unity of
action, which assists the mind, is therefore vital: the unities of time
and place, which are apparently meant to deceive it, are empty
impostures.  For "the truth is that the spectators are always in their
senses, and know, from the first act to the last, that the stage is
only a stage and the players only players": "the delight proceeds from
our consciousness of fiction: if we thought murders and treasons real
they would please no more."

But this is simply one specially famous passage in an essay which is
full of matter from the first page to the last.  It says little, of
course, of the sublime poetry of Shakespeare, and it cannot anticipate
that criticism of the imagination which Goethe and Coleridge have
taught us to expect from every writer about Shakespeare.  The day for
that was not yet: and as Johnson, himself among the first to suggest
the historical and comparative point of view in criticism, says in this
very preface, "every man's performances, to be rightly estimated, must
be compared with the state of the age in which he lived and with his
own particular opportunities." {214} He had a different task, and he
performed it so admirably that what he says can never be out of date.
It had not then become superfluous to insist on the greatness of
Shakespeare: if it has since become so no small share of that result
may be ascribed to Johnson.  We forget that, because, as he said of
Dryden, it is the fate of a critic who convinces to be lost in the
prevalence of his own discovery.  Never certainly has the central
praise of Shakespeare, as the master of truth and universality, been
better set forth than by Johnson.  Our ears are delighted, our powers
of admiration quickened, our reasons convinced, as we read the
succession of luminous and eloquent paragraphs in which he tries
Shakespeare by the tests of time, of nature, of universality, and finds
him supreme in all.  Nor did Johnson ever write anything richer in
characteristic and memorable sentences, fit to be quoted and thought
over by themselves.  "Nothing can please many and please long but just
representations of general nature."  "Shakespeare always makes nature
predominant over accident. . . .  His story requires Romans but he
thinks only on men"; "there is a kind of intellectual remoteness
necessary for the comprehension of any great work"; "nature (_i. e._
genius, what a man inherits at birth) {215} gives no man knowledge";
"upon the whole all pleasure consists in variety"; "love has no great
influence upon the sum of life."  It is startling to find Johnson
anticipating Mr. Bernard Shaw, and more startling still to be told in a
study of the author of _Romeo and Juliet_ that love "has little
operation in the drama of a poet who caught his ideas from the living
world."  But when we put ourselves in Johnson's position and compare
Shakespeare with the reigning dramatists of France and England, we
shall see that it is in fact not the least striking thing about
Shakespeare that he has so many plays in which the love interest
scarcely appears.


The service Johnson rendered to the study of Shakespeare is, however,
by no means confined to these general considerations.  No man did more,
perhaps, to call criticism back from paths that led to nowhere, or to
suggest directions in which discoveries might be made.  The most marked
contrast between him and earlier critics is his caution about altering
the received text.  He first stemmed the tide of rash emendation, and
the ebb which began with him has continued ever since.  The case for
moderation in this respect has never been better stated than in his
words: "It has been my settled principle that the reading of {216} the
ancient books is probably true, and therefore is not to be disturbed
for the sake of elegance, perspicuity or mere improvement of the sense.
For though much credit is not due to the fidelity, nor any to the
judgment of the first publishers, yet they who had the copy before
their eyes were more likely to read it right than we who read it only
by imagination."  And in several other matters he in passing dropped a
seed which has ripened in other minds to the great increase of our
knowledge.  "Shakespeare," he says, "has more allusions than other
poets to the traditions and superstition of the vulgar, which must
therefore be traced before he can be understood."  Few critical seeds
have had a larger growth than this: and the same may be said of the
pregnant hint about the frequent necessity of looking for Shakespeare's
meaning "among the sports of the field."  He neither overestimated the
importance nor under-estimated the difficulties of the critic of
Shakespeare.  With his usual sense of the true scale of things he
treats the quarrels of commentators with contempt: "it is not easy to
discover from what cause the acrimony of a scholiast can naturally
proceed.  The subjects to be discussed by him are of very small
importance: they involve neither property nor liberty"; and in another
place {217} he characteristically bids his angry colleagues to join
with him in remembering amidst their triumphs over the "nonsensical"
opinions of dead rivals that "we likewise are men: that _debemur
morti_, and, as Swift observed to Burnet, we shall soon be among the
dead ourselves."  He knows too that "notes are necessary evils" and
advises the young reader to begin by ignoring them and letting
Shakespeare have his way alone.  But at the same time he puts aside
with just indignation Pope's supercilious talk about the "dull duty of
an editor"; and after giving an admirable summary of what that dull
duty is, declares that one part of it alone, the business of
conjectural criticism, "demands more than humanity possesses."  Yet it
is that part of his functions, the part which appeals most to vanity,
that he exercised with the most sparing caution.  He saw that it was
not in emendation but in interpretation that the critic could now be
most useful.  For this last task the sanity of his mind, though
sometimes leaning too much to prose, gave him peculiar qualifications.
No one can have used any of the Variorum Shakespeares without being
struck again and again by the masterly way in which Johnson penetrates
through the thicket of obscurities raised by Shakespeare's involved
language and his {218} critics' fanciful explanations, and brings back
for us in plain words the undoubted meaning of many a difficult
passage.  He is a master of that rare art, the prose paraphrase of
poetry.  The perfect lucidity of his notes makes them always a pleasure
to read: and writers of notes are not usually masters of language.
Take such a note as that on the words of Laertes about Ophelia's
madness--

  "Nature is fine in love: and, where 'tis fine,
  It sends some precious instance of itself
  After the thing it loves."

Johnson interprets: "love is the passion by which nature is most
exalted and refined; and as substances, refined and subtilized, easily
obey any impulse, or follow any attraction, some part of nature, so
purified and refined, flies off after the attracting object, after the
thing it loves;--

  "As into air the purer spirits flow,
  And separate from their kindred dregs below,
  So flew her soul."

Nor can a mistake or two in details detract from the value of the
splendid paraphrase of "To be or not to be," or the admirable note on
the character of Polonius.  Shakespeare has had subtler and more
poetical critics than Johnson: but no one has equalled the insight,
{219} sobriety, lucidity and finality which Johnson shows in his own
field.

The _Lives of the Poets_ is Johnson's last, longest, and most popular
work.  More than any other of his works it was written to please
himself: he did so much more than he was paid to do that he almost
refuted his own doctrine that no man but a blockhead ever wrote except
for money.  Instead of being written, like most of his earlier books,
in poverty, if not in obscurity, the _Lives_ were written at his ease,
with his pension in his pocket, with the booksellers at his feet, with
the consciousness of an expectant and admiring public outside.  The
obstructions to his work were no longer those of poverty but of
prosperity.  He once had to write because if he did not he would
starve: now he might sleep or talk all day with the certainty of
sitting down to more meals than he wanted.  In early life he had no
temptation to quit his home, for he could not afford travel or
amusement: now he could go to the Hebrides and talk of going further,
without taking much thought of the expense.  He once worked to make his
name known: now his reputation was established and his name better
known than he always found convenient.  The result is that the _Lives_
are easily written, full of anecdote and incident and manners, full of
{220} easily traceable allusions to himself and his own experiences,
full of the magisterial decisions of a man whose judgments are no
longer questioned, full, even more than usual, of frank confessions,
open disregard of established opinion, the pleasant refusals of a
wilful old man to reconsider his prejudices or take any more trouble
about his work than he happens to choose.  All this increases the
readableness of the book.  But it does not all increase its importance,
and the fact is that not even the greatest of the _Lives_ is as fine a
piece of work as the Preface to the Shakespeare.  Moreover, the work as
a whole suffers from a disadvantage from which the Shakespeare is
conspicuously exempt.  It deals very largely with matters in which
scarcely any one now takes any interest.  In its three volumes Johnson
gives us biographical and critical studies of fifty-two poets.  Of
these only six--Milton, Dryden, Pope, Thomson, Collins and Gray--would
now be considered of first-rate poetic importance.  Of the rest it is
difficult to make certain of a dozen whose place in the second class
would be unquestioned.  The thirty or more that remain are mostly poets
of whom the ordinary reader of to-day has never read, and if he is wise
will never read, a single line.  Great part of the book therefore is
criticism not only upon the unimportant but {221} upon what, so far as
we are now concerned, may be called the non-existent.  And even in
Johnson's hands that cannot but mean barren writing and empty reading.


Yet the _Lives of the Poets_ is not only the most popular book of its
kind in the language: it is also a book of real and permanent value.
No short Lives have ever equalled them.  The most insignificant of the
poets acquires an momentary interest as he passes through Johnson's
hands.  The art of biography is that of giving life to the dead: and
that can only be done by the living.  No one was ever more alive than
Johnson.  He says himself that he wrote his _Lives_ unwillingly but
with vigour and haste.  The haste is apparent in a few places: the
vigour everywhere.  He had more pleasure in the biographical part of
his work than in the critical, and consequently did it better.  His
strong love of life in all its manifestations prevented his ever
treating an author merely as an author.  He always goes straight to the
man.  And he knows that the individuality which makes the life of
portraits is a matter of detail.  Consequently he takes pains to record
every detail that he can collect about his poets.  The clothes of
Milton, the chair Dryden occupied and its situation in summer and in
winter.  Pope's silver saucepan {222} and potted lampreys, the reason
why Addison sometimes absented himself from Button's, the remark which
Swift made to Lord Orrery about a servant's faults in waiting at table
and which Lord Orrery himself related to Johnson, these things and a
hundred like them make Johnson's little biographies among the most
vivid in the world.  When once we have read them the poets they
describe are for ever delivered from the remoteness of mere fame.
Johnson has gone very close to them and he has taken us with him.  And
to have got close to men like Dryden, Pope, Swift and Addison is not
among the smaller experiences of life.  Two of them may indeed seem to
us not to be poets at all, and the other two, possessing in such
splendid abundance so many of a great poet's gifts, to have lacked the
greatest and most essential of all: but great men the whole four
undoubtedly were, among the greatest and most representative in the
England of the century between the death of Milton and the birth of
Wordsworth.

And Johnson belonged whole-heartedly to that century, lived in it, knew
it more intimately perhaps than any man, believed in it and loved it
without ever the shadow of a fear that there might be revolutionary
surprises in store for the complacent self-assurance of its attitude
towards literature, society and {223} life.  These were plainly unusual
qualifications for interpreting its great men to us.  And when to these
qualifications is added, as it was in Johnson's case, a mind of great
power, and great pleasure in using its power, and a gift of expression
which has seldom been surpassed, it is evident that a book like the
_Lives_ is certain to be, what it is, one of the great monuments and
landmarks of our literature.  No literary excursionist who has
travelled to look at it has ever regretted his journey.  For there is
in it the mind of a whole age: yet not fossilized or mummified as in
other hands it might so easily have become by now, as the mind of any
age must soon become when it is left entirely to itself.  Johnson did
not leave it entirely to itself.  It is true that in all matters of
political or literary controversy his mind was narrowly imprisoned in
the opinions of his own or his father's age: and that is what makes him
such an admirable witness to them; but here as elsewhere the
life-giving quality in him lies in his hold on the universal human
things which are affected by no controversies and belong to all the
ages.  None of his books exhibit more of what he himself calls "the two
most engaging powers of an author."  In it "new things are made
familiar and familiar things are made new."  The famous criticism of
the "metaphysical poets" is so {224} written that a plain man feels at
home in it: the thrice-told tale of the lives of Pope and Addison is so
retold that every one thinks he reads it for the first time.  The man
who had in his earlier works sometimes seemed the most general and
abstract even of eighteenth-century writers, becomes here, by force of
his interest in the primary things of humanity, almost a pioneer of the
new love of externalities, a relater of details, an anticipator of his
own Boswell.

To the critical discussions he gave less space than to the lives, and
no one will pretend to wish he had done the opposite.  Allusion has
already been made to his limitations as a critic of poetry.  He was
blind to the most poetic qualities of the greatest men: the purest
poetry, the poetry that has refined away all but the absolutely
indispensable minimum of prose alloy, often escaped him altogether,
sometimes simply irritated his prejudices.  _Omne ignotum pro
injucundo_.  He found people enthusiastic admirers of Milton's
_Lycidas_ or Gray's _Odes_, was angry at others enjoying what he found
no pleasure in, and vented his temper on Gray and Milton.  Though
Collins was his friend he makes no mention of the _Ode to Evening_.  In
these cases and some others the critic is much less scrupulously fair
than the biographer, to tell the truth, nearly {225} always is.  There
is perhaps a malicious touch here and there in the lives of Milton,
Swift and Gray: but little as he liked any of them, how fairly in each
case the good points of the man are brought out, and how they are left
at the end quite overbalancing the rest in our memories!  But in the
case of their works it is different.  He has little to say about Gray's
_Elegy_, which he admired, and much about his _Odes_, which he disliked.

Yet, in spite of some incapacity and some unfairness, Johnson's
criticism of poetry is still a thing to be read with interest, profit
and admiration.  After all poetry is an art as well as an inspiration:
it may almost be said to be a business as well as a pleasure.  There is
still, when all has been said, that indispensable alloy of prose in its
composition without which it crumbles into fragments, or evaporates
into mere mist.  The critical questions which Horace and Boileau and
Pope discuss do not include the highest: but they include much that no
poet can put aside as beneath him.  In this field Johnson ranks among
the masters of criticism.  His mind did not travel outside its limits,
but to the work to be done within them it brought knowledge,
reflection, vigour and acuteness.  His reading had shown him how the
writing of verses, the construction of sentences, the {226} effective
use of words, had advanced from the uncouthness and extravagance of the
Elizabethans and Jacobeans to the amazing brevity, finish and dexterity
of Pope.  It is good for us to see it too with his eyes.  We are apt to
see only the beauty and truth that were lost in the process, and the
mechanical clockwork that followed upon its completion.  These he could
not see: but we are in no danger of forgetting them, while we are in
danger of forgetting that Pope's achievement gave us the most quotable
verse that ever was written, and that his brilliancy and wit quickened
the powers of expression of a whole nation.  To understand this is well
worth while: and Johnson helps us to understand it.  Nor will the fact
of his thinking that Pope improved upon Homer and that his translation
is a model of melody, do us any harm: for we are not likely to follow
him in either opinion.

As literary criticism the greatest of the _Lives_ are those of Cowley,
Dryden and Pope.  But Johnson is not to be altogether despised even
where he is plainly inadequate.  Some of his strictures upon the poets
whom he did not understand are sound enough in themselves: there is
little to say against them except that they stand alone.  The defect in
his criticism of _Lycidas_ is not that he attacks the mythological
confusion of the poem--which is in fact {227} its weakness, not its
strength; but that he gives no hint of sensibility to its haunting
beauty of phrase, of melody, of association, of passionate feeling, not
perhaps for its nominal subject, but for the brief life of human
friendship, for the mingled tragedy of love and fame and death.  So
again with Collins and Gray.  Johnson is perfectly right in saying that
Collins is too harsh and obscure, too apt to lose his way "in quest of
mistaken beauties": where he is wrong is in not saying that he produced
one of the most perfect Odes in our own or any other language.  And
even in Gray's case, where he is at his worst, there are things which
an intelligent lover of Gray is the better for reading.  There had been
a good deal of unintelligent and too promiscuous admiration of Gray's
_Odes_ in Johnson's day: and he performed a service, which is still a
service, by pointing out that there is in some of their phrases a
certain element of affectation and artificiality.  It is true, and
still necessary to be said, that Gray's "art and struggle are too
visible, and that there is in his _Odes_ too little appearance of ease
and nature."  The object of criticism is the whole of truth: and to see
only the imaginative power, the metrical learning and skill, the gift
of language, the gift of emotion, in Gray, is not to see the whole.  It
is more important to see these things than {228} to see what Johnson
saw: but in a complete criticism of Gray room must be found for an
allusion to that element in him of which Johnson says, with some truth
as well as malice: "he has a kind of strutting dignity and is tall by
walking on tiptoe."  In these matters we may listen with advantage to
Johnson's instinct for reality; as we also may to his knowledge of the
art of letters, when he points out quite truly that _Samson Agonistes_
has no plot, and when he puts his finger at once on that central defect
of _Paradise Lost_ that "it comprises neither human actions nor human
manners."  That is too broadly stated no doubt: but it is true that the
subject of poetry is the free play of human life, and that, from
supernatural interference and from the peculiar position of Adam and
Eve, there is far too little of this in _Paradise Lost_.  Nor was it
likely that a man of Johnson's learning and power of mind would confine
himself in a book of this kind to the mere praise and blame of a
succession of writers.  That is his principal business: but of course
he constantly overflows into general topics bearing upon literature or
poetry as a whole.  In these everybody who cares to think about the art
of writing or analyse the pleasures of reading will find his account:
they come in everywhere, of course.  Now he makes some shrewd remarks,
{229} not so much needed by the poets of his day as by the novelists of
our own, about the danger of detailed enumeration by which description
so often loses all its power: for "of the greatest things the parts are
little."  Now he is incidentally laying down the true ideal of the
translator: to "exhibit his author's thoughts in such a dress of
diction as the author would have given them, had his language been
English."  Now he is discoursing at length on what it was Wordsworth's
misfortune never fully to understand, the immense power of association
upon words, so that the greatest thoughts and noblest emotions fail of
their effect if expressed in words ordinarily connected with trivial,
vulgar, or ignoble actions, and therefore necessarily arousing in the
reader a state of mind unfit for the reception of greatness.  Or again
he will speak of the value of surprise in literature; "the pleasures of
the mind imply something sudden and unexpected."  Or he will enlarge,
as in the Life of Addison, upon the definition of a simile, the use of
similes in poetry, and the distinction between them and what he calls
"exemplifications"; or, as in that of Pope, upon the subject of
representative metres and onomatopoeic words.  No one will pretend that
all he says in these general excursions is final: but it is always the
work of a man who had {230} read a great deal and had applied a very
vigorous mind to what he had read.  For all these reasons the _Lives of
the Poets_ will always be eagerly read by those who wish to understand
a great man and a great period of English literature.  But they will be
read still more for their pleasantness, humanity and wisdom.



CHAPTER VI

THE FRIENDS OF JOHNSON

Johnson thought human life in general, and his own in particular, an
unhappy business.  Boswell once urged, in reply to his melancholy, that
in fact life was lived upon the supposition of happiness: houses are
built, gardens laid out, places of amusement erected and filled with
company, and these things would not be done if people did not expect to
enjoy themselves.  As so often happens in these arguments Boswell
appears to us to be substantially right.  But the only reply he drew
from Johnson was, "Alas, sir, these are all only struggles for
happiness."  And he went on to give a curious illustration of his
rooted conviction that every man knew himself to be unhappy if he
stopped to {231} think about it.  "When I first entered Ranelagh it
gave an expansion and gay sensation to my mind such as I never
experienced anywhere else.  But, as Xerxes wept when he viewed his
immense army and considered that not one of that great multitude would
be alive a hundred years afterwards, so it went to my heart to consider
that there was not one in all that brilliant circle that was not afraid
to go home and think: but that the thoughts of each individual there
would be distressing when alone."  What he thought was true of all men
was certainly true of himself.  He hated and dreaded to be alone.  It
was the pain of solitude quite as much as the pleasure of society that
drove him abroad, and induced him to make a business of keeping alive
old friendships and procuring new, till he had formed as large and as
interesting a circle of acquaintances as any English man of letters has
ever had.


That fact is an important element in his fame.  A great talker cannot
exert his talent in solitude; he cannot properly exert it except in a
society of intelligent men who can understand, appreciate, and in some
degree contend with him.  Johnson would not have been the wonderful
talker he was if he had lived like Richardson among gaping women and
stupid {232} toadies.  He did the very opposite.  He lived among men
several of whom possessed powers of mind quite as great as his own,
however different, while their achievements seem to posterity decidedly
greater than his.  Our impression of his overwhelming distinction as a
talker is not derived only from our own judgment as we read Boswell's
record of it.  It is derived almost as much from the fact that men so
great as those he lived with acknowledged it with one accord.  The
primacy of Johnson was among them all an unquestioned article of faith.
Hawkins, who knew him for so many years, says of him that "as Alexander
and Caesar were born for conquest, so was Johnson for the office of a
symposiarch, to preside in all conversations"; and he adds, "I never
yet saw the man who would venture to contest his right."  But the
greatest tribute came from the greatest of his friends.  When Langton,
walking home one evening with Burke after both had dined in Johnson's
company, regretted that Johnson had seized upon all the topics started
by Burke, so that Burke himself had said little upon them, the reply of
Burke is well known, "Oh, no; it is enough for me to have rung the bell
to him."  Such words from such a man are final and unanswerable.  And
they are confirmed by every other member of his {233} inner circle, and
indeed by almost every person who knew him and has left any opinion on
the subject.  Not the least significant tribute is that of
those--including men no less great than Gibbon and Fox--who had not the
courage to ring that dangerous bell which so often was brought down
upon the head of the ringer.  The "wonder and astonishment" he inspired
were universal; and among those who really knew him they were commonly
mingled with love.  But whether there were love or not there was
generally some degree of awe, even of actual fear, as apparently in the
case of Gibbon.  The unquestioned ascendency he possessed and exercised
over men and women not accustomed to be over-awed is plainly written
all over Boswell's story.  The most celebrated of the scenes that prove
or exhibit it is no doubt that of the signing of the "Round Robin" at
Sir Joshua Reynolds's house in 1776, when a company which included,
besides Reynolds himself, Burke, Gibbon, Sheridan, Colman, J. Warton,
and Barnard, afterwards Bishop of Killaloe, were anxious to protest to
Johnson against his proposed Latin Epitaph on Goldsmith; but not one
dared to approach him about it or even to be the first to sign a letter
to be sent to him.  So a sailors' Round Robin, drawn up by Burke, was
adopted, and all the {234} signatures ran round it in equal daring.
But the same thing appears perhaps even more curiously in a remark of
Boswell's about a dinner at the house of Allan Ramsay.  The company
included Reynolds, Robertson the historian, Lord Binning and Boswell;
and, Johnson being late in coming, they took to discussing him and his
character.  Soon, of course, he made his appearance; and then, says
Boswell, "no sooner did he, of whom we had been thus talking so easily,
arrive, than we were all as quiet as a school upon the entrance of the
head-master."  The best parallel perhaps to Johnson's position in his
social world is that of the elder Pitt in Parliament.  In each case the
awe which was felt was much more than a mere vulgar fear of punishment;
there was that in it, no doubt; but there was also a much rarer and
finer thing; what we can only describe vaguely as a consciousness of
the presence of greatness.

It is worth while to look a little more closely at the composition of
this society in which Johnson reigned as unquestioned king.  The most
remarkable thing of all about it is that its inner and most intimate
circle included four men of genius.  Johnson had few or no closer
friends than Reynolds, Burke, Goldsmith and Boswell.  Of these the
first two were acknowledged as the greatest {235} painter and the
greatest orator then living in England or perhaps in Europe; the third,
when he died, had some claim to be the truest poet; and, what is more
remarkable, the lapse of over a hundred years has found little or
nothing to detract from the fame each won from his contemporaries.  Of
Boswell it is enough to repeat that, while he could not compare with
these men in life or action or general powers of mind, and therefore
enjoyed no contemporary fame, he left a book behind him at his death
which every succeeding generation has increasingly recognized as
possessing that uniqueness of achievement which is another phrase for
genius.  Four such men alone would make a society such as few men have
lived in.  But Johnson's society is as remarkable for the variety and
quantity, as for the quality, of its distinction.  No one can look
through the invaluable index of Dr. Birkbeck Hill's edition of Boswell
without being struck by this.  If one were to make a list of all the
people whom Johnson saw frequently or occasionally in the course of his
life it would include an astonishing number of interesting names.  Part
of the fascination of Boswell's book lies in that.  It is first and
foremost the portrait of a man, and everything is kept in subordination
to that.  But it is also the picture of a whole {236} age and country.
Sir Leslie Stephen remarked that nearly every distinguished man of
letters of that time came into contact with Johnson.  He mentions Hume
and Gray as the only exceptions.  There may be others, as for instance
Sterne, to be added.  But it remains true that Johnson was in
exceptionally close personal touch with the whole literary world of his
day.  And Boswell has known how to make use of all that to give
interest and variety to his book.  Nor was Johnson ever, as we have
seen, a mere narrow man of letters.  He had a universal curiosity about
life and men.  He could talk to every one, and every one found his talk
interesting, consequently Boswell's record of his acquaintance is by no
means a mere series of literary portraits.  The society is of all the
sorts of men and women that intelligent men can care to meet, the talk
on almost all the subjects which such people can care to discuss.

Let us glance at some of the names that would find places in that list.
We may begin with the statesmen.  There is first of all Shelburne, who
was Prime Minister the year before Johnson died; the most mysterious
figure in the politics of that day, George III's Jesuit of Berkeley
Square, the "Malagrida" of the pamphleteers, to whom Goldsmith {237}
made his well-known unfortunate remark, "I never could conceive the
reason why they call you Malagrida, for Malagrida was a very good sort
of man."  But for all this sinister reputation he was certainly an able
and interesting man.  He was a great patron of the arts, a princely
collector of manuscripts, and an unusually enlightened student of
politics if not a great statesman.  How intimately Johnson knew him is,
like almost everything about Shelburne, uncertain; but it is known that
they used to meet in London and that Johnson once at least was
Shelburne's guest at Bowood.  A greater man who was never Prime
Minister was a much more intimate friend.  Fox talked little before
Johnson; and the two men were as different in many ways as men could
be.  Of the two it was certainly not the professed man of letters who
was the greater lover of literature.  But Fox was a member of "The
Club," and an intimate friend of Burke and Reynolds, and in these ways
he and Johnson often met.  In spite of all differences each made a
great impression on the other.  Fox indignantly defended Johnson's
pension in the House of Commons so early as 1774, and the last book
read to him, except the Church Service, was Johnson's _Lives of the
Poets_.  Johnson was like the rest of the world dazzled by the daring
{238} parliamentary genius of Fox, and said that he had "divided the
kingdom with Caesar so that there was a doubt whether the nation should
be ruled by the sceptre of George III or the tongue of Fox."  He was
for the King against Fox, because the King was his "master," but for
Fox against Pitt because "Fox is my friend."

Another contemporary statesman who was intimate with Johnson was the
cultivated and high-minded William Windham.  No one had a greater
reverence for Johnson.  The most scrupulous of men, he was probably
attracted to Johnson most of all by his character, and sought in him a
kind of director for his conscience.  Johnson, however, disapproved of
scruples, and when Windham expressed, as Boswell says, "some modest and
virtuous doubts" whether he ought to accept the post of Secretary to
the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland because of the dubious practices
supposed to be necessary to the holding of that office, all the answer
he got was "a pleasant smile" and "Don't be afraid, sir, you will soon
make a very pretty rascal."  But Windham took no discouragements and
was to the end one of Johnson's most devoted disciples.  He put such a
value on Johnson's society that he once rode forty miles out of his way
on a journey in {239} order to get a day and a half with him at
Ashbourne: and he was one of the little band of friends who constantly
visited the dying man in the last days of his life.  One day when he
had placed a pillow to support the old man's head, Johnson thanked him
and said, "That will do--all that a pillow can do."  He was one of the
pall-bearers at the funeral.

A less famous political friend was William Gerard Hamilton, with whom
he at one time engaged in political work of some sort serious enough to
induce him to write a special prayer about it.  "Single speech
Hamilton," as he was called, behaved badly to Burke and was, it seems,
widely distrusted; but Johnson maintained a life-long friendship with
him, and had a high opinion of his conversational powers.  Hamilton in
return thought that he found in Johnson, when not talking for victory,
a "wisdom not only convincing but overpowering"; and showed his
gratitude by placing his purse at Johnson's disposal when he supposed
him to be in want of money.  It was he--a man of public business and
affairs all his life--who said of Johnson's death that it had "made a
chasm which not only nothing can fill up, but which nothing has a
tendency to fill up.  Johnson is dead.  Let us go to the next best:
there is {240} nobody; no man can be said to put you in mind of
Johnson."  So also thought another member of Parliament, George
Dempster, whom Burns honoured with his praise.  He once told Boswell
not to think of his health, but to sit up all night listening to
Johnson; for "one had better be palsied at eighteen than not keep
company with such a man."  Another politician in his circle was
Fitzherbert, a man of whom Burke had the highest opinion, and of whom
Johnson made the curious remark that he was the most "acceptable of men
because his good qualities were negative and he offended no one."
Fitzherbert spoke of Johnson in the House of Commons as his friend and
called him "a pattern of morality."

Two other well-known political figures may be mentioned as
acquaintances of Johnson; both men of more ability than character.
Lord Chancellor Thurlow was a type of the lawyer who fights his way to
success and cares for little else.  But he was a true and generous
friend to Johnson, for whose proposed journey to Italy he offered to
provide the means.  And if his career allowed any one to think meanly
of his abilities, Johnson's opinion of them would be a sufficient
answer.  He always maintained that "to make a speech in a public
assembly is a knack"; it {241} was the question and answer of
conversation, he thought, that showed what a man's real abilities were.
And out of that test Thurlow came so triumphantly that Johnson said of
him, "I would prepare myself for no man in England but Lord Thurlow.
When I am to meet with him I should wish to know a day before."  He
paid him the same compliment more than once; and the man to whom he
paid it cannot have been the least interesting element in that
interesting circle.  A very different figure was the infidel and
demagogue Wilkes, of whom Johnson had used the most violent language in
public and private, but with whom, under the dexterous management of
Boswell, he came to be on terms of friendly acquaintance.  The story of
how Boswell brought them together, of which Burke said that there was
"nothing to equal it in the whole history of the _Corps Diplomatique_,"
is one of the very best things in the _Life_.  Of course they never
became friendly, but they met occasionally and Johnson sent Wilkes a
presentation copy of his _Lives_.  The acquaintance is one of the most
striking instances of the real tolerance which lay behind Johnson's
outbursts of prejudice.  He and Wilkes had nothing in common but quick
brains, witty tongues, social gifts and dislike of the Scotch; but that
was enough.  {242} Johnson would have sympathized with the respectable
freeholder of Middlesex who, when canvassed for his vote by Wilkes
replied, "Vote for you, sir!  I would rather vote for the devil!"  But
he would have sympathized even more with the candidate's reply:
"But--in case your friend does not stand?"

No one will say that a set of acquaintances which stretched from Burke
at one end to Wilkes at the other did not provide strong and varied
political meat for the society to which they belonged.  It is just the
same when we look beyond politics.  If all Johnson's acquaintances
could have been gathered into one room, the unlikeliest people would
have found themselves together.  The saintly John Wesley, for instance,
and the very far from saintly Topham Beauclerk, make a curious pair.
Yet both of them loved and honoured Johnson all their lives and both
were always loved, at any rate, by him; and the one who got the less
honour got the more love.  No one could take such liberties with
Johnson as this man who had been the cause of a divorce and was
behaving badly to the wife whom he had stolen.  Johnson did not spare
Beauclerk the rebukes he deserved: but he could not resist the
intellectual gifts and social charm of that true descendant of Charles
II.  When Beauclerk {243} lay dying Johnson said, "I would walk to the
extent of the diameter of the earth to save Beauclerk"; and when he was
dead, Johnson wrote to Boswell, "Poor dear Beauclerk--_nec, ut soles,
dabis joca_."  That he could win the warm affection of such a man as
Beauclerk is one more proof of the breadth of his sympathies.  The most
surprising people felt his fascination.  Wraxall says that he had seen
the beautiful Duchess of Devonshire, "then in the first bloom of youth,
hanging on the sentences that fell from Johnson's lips, and contending
for the nearest place to his chair"; and it is recorded of Kitty Clive
the actress, whom he used to go and see in the green-room, that she
said of him, "I love to sit by Dr. Johnson: he always entertains me."

But neither Duchesses, nor actresses, nor even young men of fashion,
whose conjugal affairs had been the talk of the town, were more than
occasional or single splendours in the Johnsonian heaven: its fixed
stars of ordinary nights were less dazzling persons.  Many were
scholars, of course, as befitted a man of books.  The greatest, but one
of the least frequent or intimate, was Gibbon.  He was a member of "The
Club" and a friend of Reynolds and Fox: but his feeling for Johnson was
apparently one of fear unmingled with love.  Though {244} he met them
both fairly often, he never mentions Boswell, and Johnson only once or
twice.  The historian who could not talk was not likely to appreciate
the great talker who cared nothing for history: so one is not surprised
to find Johnson dismissed in the famous _Memoirs_ as merely the
"oracle" of Reynolds.  A much greater friend was another member of "The
Club," Percy, of the _Reliques of Poetry_, afterwards a Bishop, with
whom he often quarrelled but was always reconciled.  Boswell managed
the most important of their reconciliations by obtaining a letter from
Johnson testifying to Percy's merit which so pleased Percy that he
said, "I would rather have this than degrees from all the Universities
in Europe."  The whole story is a curious proof of the respect in which
Johnson was held: for Percy's grievance was that Johnson had snubbed
him in the presence of a distinguished member of his own family, "to
whom he hoped to have appeared more respectable by showing how intimate
he was with Dr. Johnson."  Johnson laughed at Percy's ballads and would
have been the last person to guess the immense influence the
publication of the _Reliques_ was to have on the development of English
literature in the next century: but he knew his value, and said he
never met him without learning something from him.

{245}

Among other men of interest with whom he may be said to have been
intimate at one time or another in his life may be mentioned his old
pupil David Garrick, the most famous and perhaps the greatest of
English actors, whom he loved and abused and would allow no one else to
abuse: Richardson, the author of _Clarissa_, who once came to his
rescue when he was arrested for debt, and of whose powers he had such a
high opinion that he declared that there was "more knowledge of the
heart in one letter of Richardson's than in all _Tom Jones_"; the two
Wartons, Joseph, the Headmaster of Winchester and editor of Pope, and
Thomas the author of the history of English Poetry and himself Poet
Laureate; both good scholars and critics who partly anticipated the
poetic tastes of the nineteenth century: Paoli, the hero of Boswell and
the Corsicans, with whom Johnson loved to dine: Douglas, Bishop of
Salisbury, who wrote against Hume and edited Clarendon; Savage, the
poet of mysterious birth whose homeless life he sometimes shared and
finally recorded: George Psalmanazar, the converted impostor, an even
more mysterious person, whom Johnson reverenced and said he "sought
after" more than any man: booksellers like Cave and Davies and the
brothers Dilly: scholarly lawyers like Sir William Scott, afterwards
{246} Lord Stowell, whom he made executor to his will, and Sir Robert
Chambers whom he reproved for tossing snails over a wall into his
neighbour's garden till he heard the neighbour was a Dissenter, on
which he said, "Oh, if so, toss away, Chambers, toss away"; and
physicians like Heberden, beloved of Cowper, whom Johnson called
_ultimus Romanorum_, and Laurence, President of the College of
Physicians, to whom he addressed a Latin Ode.  All these were men of
interest either in themselves or in their experience of life; all
brought something worth having to the society in which they lived; and
with all of them Johnson may be said to have been on intimate terms.
Nor did he confine his friendship to men.  He had a higher opinion of
the intellectual capacities of women than most men of his time, and
many of the most remarkable women of the time enjoyed his intimacy.
Among them may be mentioned Elizabeth Carter, the translator of
Epictetus, whom he thought the best Greek scholar he had known, and
praised for being also a good maker of puddings; Fanny Burney, of whose
novels he was an enthusiastic admirer; Mrs. Montagu, Mrs. Macaulay, and
Hannah More, the chief learned ladies of the day, all three women of
real ability; and his own brilliant and witty Mrs. Thrale, who {247}
without being a professed "blue stocking" has for Johnson's sake and
her own quite eclipsed the "blue stockings" in the interest of
posterity.  Altogether it is an astonishing list.  Johnson never
thought of himself as a man to be envied; but if man is a social being,
and no man was so more than Johnson, there can be few things more
enviable, in possession or in retrospect, than the society, the
friendship, or, as it often was, the love, of such men and women as
these.

If we go further and extend the inquiry to those who can scarcely be
called intimate friends, but with whom he was brought into more or less
frequent social contact, the list becomes, of course, too long to give.
But it may be worth while to mention that it would again include a very
large number of men who had something in them above the ordinary.  For
instance, so great a name as that of Hogarth would be found in it,
making with Allan Ramsay whom he also knew well and Reynolds who was
perhaps the most intimate of all his friends, a remarkable trio to
gather round a man who cared nothing for painting.  He managed without
that to impress them so much that Reynolds gave the credit of whatever
was best in his _Discourses_ to the "education" he had had under
Johnson: and Hogarth declared that his conversation was to the talk
{248} of other men "like Titian's painting compared to Hudson's."  This
outer circle includes also distinguished architects like Sir William
Chambers who built Somerset House, and Gwynn who built Magdalen Bridge
at Oxford and the English bridge at Shrewsbury: bishops like Barnard of
Killaloe, and Shipley the liberal and reforming bishop of St. Asaph:
poets like Collins and Young: historians and divines like Robertson and
Hugh Blair: philosophers and men of science like Adam Smith and Sir
Joseph Banks: with a certain number of intelligent peers like Lord
Orrery the friend of Swift, Lord Marchmont the friend of Pope, and Lord
Elibank whom Smollett praised for his "universal intelligence" and who
said, when he was already seventy, that he would go five hundred miles
to enjoy a day in Johnson's company; besides public men like Lord
Charlemont the Irish statesman and traveller who once went to visit
Montesquieu, and Lord Macartney who had gone as ambassador to Russia
and was soon to go in the same position to Pekin.

It is unnecessary to extend the list.  All these men knew Johnson to a
greater or less extent, and added to the interest of his life, as they
add to the interest of Boswell's record of it.  Many or most of them
are known to have recognized the greatness of Johnson.  {249} The words
of some have been quoted and others might easily be added.  Johnson
often appears great in the books he wrote, and often too in the books
which others have written about him: but it seems certain that unlike
most authors he was far greater in bodily presence than he can be in
his own or any one else's books.  Even Boswell's magic pen cannot quite
equal the living voice.  To the overpowering impression made by that
voice upon those who heard it, sometimes of almost bodily fear, oftener
of a delight that could not have enough, always of amazed astonishment,
the testimonies are not only innumerable, but so strongly worded and so
evidently sincere as to suggest the conclusion that the fortunate
listeners are attempting to relate an experience unique in the world's
history.  Even those who had suffered from his rudeness like Wraxall,
the author of the well-known _Memoirs_, give the impression of being
unable to find words strong enough to describe the power of his
presence, so that they use expressions like the "compass of his
gigantic faculties" and "the sublime attainments of his mind" in
speaking of the gap felt by the company when he left a room.  The
latter expression at any rate hardly seems to us exactly to fit
Johnson; but no doubt Wraxall uses the word "sublime" because he wants
{250} to imply that there was something in Johnson's talk utterly out
of the reach of ordinary men of ability.  In fact it does seem probable
that no recorded man has ever talked with Johnson's amazing freedom and
power.  Such an assertion cannot be proved, of course; but it would be
difficult to exaggerate the weight of the evidence pointing in that
direction.  We have seen the kind of society in which he lived.  In
that society, rich in so many kinds of distinction, he was always
accorded, as his right, a kind of informal but quite undisputed
precedence.  And it seems to have been the same among strangers as soon
as he had opened his mouth.  Whenever and wherever tongues were moving
his primacy was immediate and unquestioned.  The actual ears that could
hear him were necessarily few; no man's acquaintances can be more than
an insignificant fraction of the public.  But in his case they were
sufficiently numerous, distinguished and enthusiastic to send the fame
of his talk all over the country.  Is he the only man whose "Bon Mots,"
as they were called, have been published in his lifetime?  "A mighty
impudent thing," as he said of it, but also an irrefragable proof of
his celebrity.

And on the whole his popularity, then and since, has equalled his fame.
Much is said of his rudeness and violence, but the fact remains {251}
that in all his life it does not appear to have cost him a single
friend except the elder Sheridan.  Those who knew him best bear the
strongest testimony to the fundamental goodness of his heart.  Reynolds
said that he was always the first to seek a reconciliation, Goldsmith
declared that he had nothing of the bear but his skin, and Boswell
records many instances of his placability after a quarrel.  The love
his friends felt for him is written large all over Boswell's pages.
And of that feeling the public outside came more and more to share as
much as strangers could.  Even in his lifetime he began to receive that
popular canonization which has been developing ever since.  Perhaps the
most curious of all the proofs of this is the fact mentioned by Boswell
in a note, "that there were copper pieces struck at Birmingham with his
head impressed on them, which pass current as halfpence there, and in
the neighbouring parts of the country."  Has that ever happened to any
other English writer?  Well may Boswell cite it in evidence of
Johnson's extraordinary popularity.  It is that and it is more.  There
is in it not merely a tribute of affection to the living and speaking
man, there is also an anticipation of the most remarkable thing about
his subsequent fame.  That has had all along, as we saw at first, a
{252} popular element in it.  It has never been, like that of most
scholars and critics, an exclusively literary thing, confined solely to
people of literary instincts.  Rather it has been, more and more, what
the newspapers and the _Johnsoniana_ and these coins or medals already
suggested, something altogether wider.  Samuel Johnson was in his
lifetime a well-known figure in the streets, a popular name in the
press.  He is now a national institution, with the merits, the defects,
and the popularity which belong to national institutions.  His
popularity is certainly not diminished by the fact that he was the
complacent victim of many of our insular prejudices and exhibited a
good deal of the national tendency to a crude and self-confident
Philistinism.  These things come so humanly from him that his wisest
admirers have scarcely the heart to complain or disapprove.  They laugh
at him, and with him, and love him still.  But they could not love him
as they do if he embodied only the weaknesses of his race.  The
position he holds in their affection, and the affection of the whole
nation, is due to other and greater qualities.  It is these that have
given him his rare and indeed unique distinction as the accepted and
traditional spokesman of the integrity, the humour, and the obstinate
common sense, of the English people.



{253}

BIBLIOGRAPHY


The finest Library Edition of the complete works of Johnson is that
published at Oxford in nine volumes in 1825.  Another good one, the
volumes of which are less heavy, is that of 1823 in twelve volumes,
edited by Alexander Chalmers.

Among the very numerous editions of particular works the following may
be mentioned--

_The Six Chief Lives from Johnson's "Lives of the Poets"; with
Macaulay's "Life of Johnson._"  Edited, with a Preface by MATTHEW
ARNOLD.  1878.

_History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia_.  Edited, with Introduction
and Notes by GEORGE BIRKBECK HILL.  1887.

_Lives of the English Poets_.  By SAMUEL JOHNSON, LL.D.  Edited by
GEORGE BIRKBECK HILL, D.C.L.  In three volumes.  1905.

_Johnson on Shakespeare_.  Essays and Notes selected and set forth with
an Introduction.  By WALTER RALEIGH.  1908.

_The Letters of Samuel Johnson, LL.D._  Collected and edited by GEORGE
BIRKBECK HILL.  In two volumes.  1892.  Only a few of the letters are
given in the editions of the complete works.  In this edition the
letters already given by Boswell in his _Life_ are not reprinted.


_Select Essays of Dr. Johnson_.  Edited by GEORGE BIRKBECK HILL.  In
two volumes.  1889.  (Temple Library.) These Essays are chiefly from
_The Rambler_ and _The Idler_.

_Wit and Wisdom of Samuel Johnson_.  Selected and arranged by GEORGE
BIRKBECK HILL.  1888.  This consists of sayings on various subjects
arranged alphabetically, with an interesting introduction.


The main authority for the life of Johnson is, of course, Boswell.  His
account is given in two books, the _Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides
with Samuel Johnson, LL.D._, published in 1785, and the _Life_ which
followed in two volumes in 1791.  {254} The best edition of the _Life_
is that edited by Dr. Birkbeck Hill in six volumes, one of which is
given to the _Tour to the Hebrides_, published in 1887.  No one who has
worked on Johnson since that year can overstate his debt to this book
or his gratitude to its author.  The prettiest and pleasantest of all
editions of Boswell is that known as Wright's Croker.  It is a revision
by J. Wright of the edition by J. W. Croker, and includes a collection
of Johnsoniana.  It consists of ten handy volumes, illustrated by many
steel engravings, and first appeared in 1831.

The most important of the many accounts of Johnson left by other
contemporaries are those given by Mrs. Thrale, Fanny Burney and his
executor, Sir John Hawkins.  Mrs. Thrale's is contained in a volume
entitled _Anecdotes of the late Samuel Johnson, LL. D., during the last
Twenty Years of his Life_.  _By Hester Lynch Piozzi_.  It was first
published in 1786.  Fanny Burney's picture of him is to be found in her
_Diary and Letters_, of which the best edition is that by Austin
Dobson, 1904.  Sir John Hawkins prefixed a Life of Johnson to the
edition of his works which he brought out in 1787.  Dr. Birkbeck Hill
has reprinted a large collection of biographical matter drawn from a
variety of sources in his two volumes of _Johnsonian Miscellanies_,
1897.

The critical studies of Johnson are of course innumerable.  Among the
best are Carlyle's, printed in his _Works_ among the _Miscellaneous
Essays_, Sir Leslie Stephen's volume in the "English Men of Letters"
series, and Sir Walter Raleigh's _Six Essays on Johnson_.  The _Life_
written by Macaulay for the _Encyclopedia Britannica_ and reprinted by
Matthew Arnold in his edition of the _Six Chief Lives_ must not be
confused with the essay reprinted in the collected Essays.

Dr. Birkbeck Hill published in 1879 an edition of Boswell's
correspondence with the Hon. A. Erskine, and of his _Journal of a Tour
to Corsica_, reprinted from the original editions.  Boswell's Letters
to his and Gray's friend, the Rev. J. W. Temple, were first published
in 1857.



{255}

INDEX


(_Principally of Persons known to Dr. Johnson, or mentioned in his
Writings or Conversation_)

  Adams, Dr., 91, 166
  Addison, J., 140, 192, 194, 222, 224, 229
  Argyll, Duke of, 73, 83, 84, 121, 124
  Auchinleck, Lord, 71, 72, 142

  Bankes, Sir J., 108, 218, 246
  Barclay, Mr., 105
  Baretti, J., 89, 113, 218
  Barnard, Bishop, 233, 248
  Beauclerk, Topham, 55, 108, 115, 242, 243
  Berkeley, Bishop, 203, 204
  Binning, Lord, 234
  Blair, H., 248
  Bolingbroke, Lord, 166
  Boswell, J., 8 and passim
  Boswell, Mrs., 49
  Bryant, J., 90
  Burke, E., 54, 56, 70, 83, 108, 136,
    144-5, 173, 232, 233, 234, 236, 237,
    239, 240, 241, 242
  Burney, Fanny, 105, 127, 130, 131,
    136, 143, 184, 246
  Bute, Lord, 103
  Butler, Bishop, 120, 138, 248

  Carmichael, Miss, 167, 169
  Carter, Elizabeth, 246
  Cave, E., 245
  Chambers, Sir R., 246
  Chambers, Sir W., 248
  Charlemont, Lord, 248
  Charles II, 138
  Chatham, Earl of, 81, 95
  Chesterfield, Earl of, 86, 88, 124
  _Clarissa Harlowe_, 196-7
  Clive, Kitty, 243
  "Club, The," 37, 47, 54, 67, 83
  Collins, W., 177, 220, 224, 227, 248
  Colman, G., 108, 233
  Corbet, Mr., 91
  Cowley, A., 23, 65, 186, 189, 207
  Cowper, W., 108, 246
  Croker, 38

  Davies, Mr., 16, 73, 74, 115, 245
  Davies, Mrs., 74
  Dempster, G., 240
  Derrick, S., 73
  Devonshire, Duchess of, 243
  Devonshire, Duke of, 18
  _Dictionary, The_, 8, 15, 30, 98, 100-2,
    124, 147, 187, 202, 207-111
  Dilly, C., 164, 245
  Dodsley, R., 98
  Douglas, Bishop, 245
  Dryden, J., 177, 184, 186, 189, 192,
    201, 205, 214, 220, 221, 222, 226

  Edwards, O., 44
  _Elegy_, Gray's, 225
  Elibank, Lord, 84, 248
  Errol, Lord, 84

  _Falkland Islands_, 107
  _False Alarm, The_, 107, 188
  Fielding, H., 109
  Fitzherbert, W., 240
  Foote, S., 115-6
  Ford, Sarah, 87
  Fox, C. J., 83, 145, 161, 233, 236, 237,
    238, 243
  Frank, 129
  Franklin, B., 81
  Frederick the Great, 76

  Garrick, D., 83, 94, 98, 115, 144, 147,
    149, 245
  Gentleman, Mr., 73
  _Gentleman's Magazine_, 92, 95
  George III, 17, 86, 103, 106, 236, 238
  Gibbon, E., 54, 68, 83, 138, 184, 201,
    233, 242, 243
  Gifford, W., 90
  Goldsmith, O., 54, 83, 107, 128, 155,
    156, 181, 184-5, 233, 234, 236, 243,
    250, 251
  Gray, T., 16, 17, 66-7, 80, 151, 177,
    220, 224, 225, 227, 228, 236
  Gwynn, J., 248

  Hallam, 83
  Hamilton, W. G., 289
  Hawking, Sir J., 128, 131, 232
  Heberden, Dr., 108, 246
  Hervey, H., 94
  Hodge, 129
  Hogarth, W., 247
  Holland, Lord, 80
  Hume, D., 81, 138, 236

  _Idler, The_, 15, 103, 185, 193-5
  _Irene_, 94, 95, 98

  Johnson, M., 87, 91
  Johnson, Mrs. (mother), 87, 92, 101, 128
  Johnson, Mrs. (wife), 92-6, 99-100
  _Journey to the Western Islands_, 107,
    147, 150, 193

  _King Lear_, 177

  Langton, B., 89, 113, 115, 232
  Laurence, Dr., 246
  Law, W., 120, 141
  _Letter to Lord Chesterfield_, 86, 88
  Levett, R., 108, 183
  _Life of Richard Savage_, 96
  _Lives of the Poets_, 14, 36, 107, 177,
    185, 188, 193, 202, 207, 219 _et seq._
  _London_, 95, 96
  Lonsdale, Lord, 86
  Loudoun, Lord, 84
  Lucan, Lord, 104-6
  _Lycidas_, 203-4, 224, 226

  M'Aulay, Rev. J., 50
  Macartney, Lord, 248
  Macaulay, Mrs., 20, 246
  _Macbeth_, 97, 177
  Maclean, Sir A., 112
  Macpherson, J., 117, 166
  Mallet, D., 192
  Marchmont, Lord, 248
  Milton, J., 9, 152, 153, 177, 190, 203,
    204, 206, 220, 221, 222, 224, 225, 228
  Monboddo, Lord, 84, 149
  Montagu, Mrs., 246
  Montgomerie, Margaret, 82
  More, Hannah, 246
  Murphy, A., 109

  Newton, Bishop, 166-7
  Northumberland, Duke of, 121

  _Orlando Furioso_, 89
  _Orrery, Lord_, 222, 248
  _Ossian_, 117, 166

  Paoli, 71, 72, 77, 79, 80, 82, 109, 245
  _Paradise Lost_, 204, 228
  _Parliamentary Debates_, 95
  _Patriot, The_, 107
  Percy, Bishop, 244, 249
  Pitt, W., 51
  Pope, A., 11, 16, 17, 18, 25, 34-5, 59,
    65, 96, 102, 177, 180, 181, 182, 220,
    221, 222, 225, 226, 229, 248
  Porter, Mrs.  _See_ Mrs. Johnson
  Pot, Mr., 98
  _Prayers and Meditations_, 194
  Prologues, 98, 107
  Psalmanazar, G., 245

  Queen Anne, 87

  _Rambler, The_, 15, 224, 99-100, 127,
    140, 179, 185, 186, 193 _et seq._, 197,
    199, 200
  Ramsay, A., 234, 247
  _Rasselas_, 15, 28, 103, 185, 186, 187,
    193, 194, 196-7, 201-3
  _Reliques of Poetry_, Percy, 249
  Reynolds, Sir J., 44-5, 54, 70, 83,
    85, 97, 109, 111, 122, 160, 161, 188,
    189, 233, 234, 236, 238, 243, 247,
    250, 251
  Richardson, S., 196-7, 245
  Robertson, W., 145, 146, 150, 234, 248
  Rousseau, J. J., 77, 80, 174

  _Samson Agonistes_, 204, 228
  Savage, R., 96, 245
  Scott, Sir W., 245
  Settle, E., 189
  _Shakespeare_, 7, 9, 14, 15, 31-3, 97,
    98, 102, 107, 176, 177, 193, 202,
    207, 211 _et seq._, 220
  Shelburne, Lord, 124, 236-7
  Sheridan, R. B., 197, 233, 250
  Sheridan, T., 251
  Shipley, Bishop, 246, 248
  Siddons, Mrs., 163-4
  Smith, Adam, 83, 150, 248
  Smollett, T., 103, 248
  Sterne, L., 236
  Stowell, Lord, 246
  Swift, 12, 123, 182, 217, 222, 225

  Tate, N., 177
  _Taxation no Tyranny_, 66, 107, 126
  Taylor, Rev. J., 107, 108
  Temple, Rev. W., 56, 81
  Thomson, J., 220
  Thrale, Mr., 102, 104, 106, 107, 108,
    131, 186-7
  Thrale, Mrs., 19, 46, 102, 104, 105,
    106, 107, 112, 113, 121, 122-3, 125,
    127, 131, 133, 134, 140, 246-7
  Thurlow, Lord, 47-8, 240-1

  _Vanity of Human Wishes_, 99, 182, 183
  Voltaire, 76, 77, 90, 138, 173, 174

  Waller, E., 205
  Warburton, Bishop, 25, 97
  Warren, Mr., 92
  Warton, J., 233, 245
  Warton, T., 245
  Wesley, J., 47, 56, 138, 159, 242
  Wilkes, J., 148, 164, 188, 241-2
  Williams, Mrs., 108
  Windham, W., 108, 239
  Wraxall, Sir N., 243, 248-9

  Young, E., 248





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