Home  »  library  »  prose  »  Critical and Biographical Introduction by George Birkbeck Hill (1835–1903)

C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by George Birkbeck Hill (1835–1903)

By Samuel Johnson (1709–1784)

SAMUEL JOHNSON, the son of a bookseller, was born at Lichfield, Staffordshire, England, September 18th, 1709. He was educated mainly in the grammar school of that city; though perhaps the best part of his education he gave himself, in the free run which he had of the books in his father’s shop. Lichfield was the literary center of a large district. Old Michael Johnson supplied scholars with their folios, as well as less severe readers with romances, poems, essays, and pamphlets. It was in climbing up to search for some apples which young Samuel imagined his brother had hidden behind a large folio, that he came across the works of Petrarch, and fell to studying them. He was a mere child when, reading ‘Hamlet’ in his father’s kitchen, he was so greatly scared by the ghost that he suddenly hurried up-stairs to the street door, that he might see people about him. With the memory of this terror fresh in his mind, he wrote many years afterwards: “He that peruses Shakespeare looks round him alarmed, and starts to find himself alone.” He read with wonderful rapidity, ravenously as if he devoured the book, and what he read his powerful memory retained. “He knew more books,” said Adam Smith, “than any man alive.”

At the age of nineteen he entered Pembroke College, Oxford, “the best qualified for the university that his tutor had ever known come there.” Thence he was driven by poverty after a residence of only fourteen months. During the next few years he lived partly by teaching. At the age of twenty-six he married. Two years later he went up to London with a half-finished tragedy in his pocket, and David Garrick as his companion. There for five-and-twenty years he lived the hard life of a poor scholar. His wife died after a long illness. “The melancholy of the day of her death hung long upon me,” he recorded in his diary. His own body, though large and powerful, was not sound, and his mind was often overcast by melancholy. “My health,” he said in his old age, “has been from my twentieth year such as has seldom afforded me a single day of ease.” In this period of his life he did most of his work. He wrote the Debates of Parliament, which were wholly in form and mainly in substance his own invention; his great Dictionary; his two poems ‘London’ and ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’; the Rambler, the Idler, and ‘Rasselas,’ and numerous minor pieces. He published moreover ‘Observations on Macbeth,’ and he made a beginning of his edition of Shakespeare.

In 1762, when he was in his fifty-third year, a pension of £300 from the King freed him from the pressure of poverty. The rest of his life he passed in modest comfort. A friendship which he formed a little later added greatly to his happiness. A wealthy London brewer of the name of Thrale, a man of such strong sense that he sought a comrade in this rough genius, gave him a second home. Both in his town house and in his beautiful country villa a room was set apart for Johnson. Mrs. Thrale, “a lady of lively talents improved by education,” flattered by the friendship of so great a man and by the society which he drew round her table, tended him like a daughter. “Her kindness soothed twenty years of a life radically wretched.” To the Thrales he generally gave half the week, passing the rest of his time in his own house. There he found constant shelter for two humble friends; sometimes indeed for as many as five.

His pen had long intervals of rest. He finished his Shakespeare, wrote four political tracts which added nothing to his reputation, and his ‘Journey to the Western Islands.’ Happily he was roused from his indolence by the request of the booksellers that he should undertake that one of all his works by which he is best known,—the ‘Lives of the English Poets.’ “I wrote it,” he says, “in my usual way, dilatorily and hastily; unwilling to work, and working with vigor and haste.”

The indolence into which he seemed to have sunk was more apparent than real. That powerful mind was seldom long at rest. “He was a kind of public oracle, whom everybody thought they had a right to visit and consult.” David Hume might complain that “men of letters have in London no rendezvous, and are indeed sunk and forgotten in the general torrent of the world.” Those who knew Johnson felt no such want. “His house became an academy.” So did the taverns which he frequented, whose chairs he looked upon as so many thrones of human felicity. “There I have,” he said, “free conversation, and an interchange of discourse with those whom I most love; I dogmatize and am contradicted, and in this conflict of opinions and opinions I find delight.” In Thrale’s house too “the society of the learned, the witty, and the eminent in every way, called forth his wonderful powers.” Among his friends he numbered Reynolds, Burke, Goldsmith, Garrick, and Boswell. They were all members of that famous club of which he was the light and center. In the world of letters his opinion was eagerly awaited. “‘What does Johnson say of such a book?’ was the question of every day.”

This, the happiest period of his life, was brought to an end by the death of Mr. Thrale in 1781. “I looked,” he recorded in his diary, “for the last time upon the face that for fifteen years had never been turned upon me but with respect or benignity.” The widow, who had scarcely buried her husband before she fell in love with an Italian singer, began to feel the old man’s friendship a burden and reproach, and deserted him as she deserted her daughter. While he was thus losing his second home, “death visited his mournful habitation.” Blind Miss Williams and that strange old surgeon Robert Levett, whom he had sheltered so many years and who repaid his kindness by companionship whenever he needed it, quickly followed Thrale to the grave. His own health began to break, and he was attacked by a succession of painful disorders.

Though the ranks of his friends were thinning and his strength was failing, he did not lose heart. He tried “to keep his friendships in constant repair,” and he struggled hard for life. “I will be conquered,” he said; “I will not capitulate.” Death had always been terrible to him. Had Mr. Thrale outlived him he would have faced it in the house of friends, who by their attentions and their wealth would have screened some of its terrors from his view. He now faced it month after month in the gloom of solitude. He died on December 13th, 1784. “His death,” wrote one of his contemporaries, “kept the public mind in agitation beyond all former example.” “It made a kind of era in literature,” said Hannah More. Harriet Martineau was told, by an old lady who well remembered the time, that “the world of literature was perplexed and distressed as a swarm of bees that have lost their queen.” The sovereign man of letters was indeed dead. “Sir,” Goldsmith had one day said to him, “you are for making a monarchy of what should be a republic.” The republic was at length founded; the last monarch of the English world of literature was gathered to his fathers. The sceptre which Dryden had handed down to Pope, and Pope to Johnson, fell to the ground, never to be raised again. The Declaration of Independence was read in the funeral service over the newly opened grave in Westminster Abbey.

High as Johnson still stands as a writer, his great reputation rests mainly on his talk and on his character as a man, full as it was of strange variety, rugged strength, great tenderness, dogged honesty and truthfulness, a willingness to believe what was incredible combined with “an obstinate rationality” which ever prevented him, and Toryism with the spirit of a rebel glowing beneath. He had in the highest degree “that element of manhood” (to quote Lowell’s words) “which we call character. It is something distinct from genius—though all great geniuses are endowed with it. Hence we always think of Dante Alighieri, of Michael Angelo, of William Shakespeare, of John Milton; while of such men as Gibbon and Hume we merely recall the works, and think of them as the author of this or that.” This holds more true of Samuel Johnson than even of the four mighty geniuses whom Lowell instances. It is in the pages of his friend and disciple that he lives for us as no other man has ever lived. Of all men he is best known. In his early manhood he set up an academy, and failed. The school which he founded in his later years still numbers its pupils by thousands and tens of thousands. “We are,” said Sir Joshua Reynolds, “of Dr. Johnson’s school. He may be said to have formed my mind, and to have brushed from it a great deal of rubbish. He qualified it to think justly.” He still qualifies the mind to think; he still clears it of cant; he still brushes from it all that rubbish which is heaped up by affectation, false sentiment, exaggeration, credulity, and indolence in thinking. “All who were of his school,” Reynolds added, “are distinguished for a love of truth and accuracy.” “He taught me,” wrote Boswell, “to cross-question in common life.” The great master still finds many apt scholars.

“He spoke as he wrote,” his hearers commonly asserted. This was not altogether true. It might indeed be the case that “everything he said was as correct as a second edition”; nevertheless his talk was never so labored as the more ornate parts of his writings. Even in his lifetime his style was censured as “involved and turgid, and abounding with antiquated and hard words.” Macaulay went so far as to pronounce it “systematically vicious.” Johnson seems to have been aware of some of his failings. “If Robertson’s style be faulty,” he said, “he owes it to me; that is, having too many words, and those too big ones.” As Goldsmith said of him, “If he were to make little fishes talk [in a fable], they would talk like whales.” In the structure of his sentences he is as often at fault as in the use of big words. He praised Temple for giving a cadence to English prose, and he blamed Warburton for having “his sentences unmeasured.” His own prose is too measured and has too much cadence. It is in his Ramblers that he is seen at his worst, and in his ‘Lives of the Poets’ at his best. In his Ramblers he was under the temptation to expand his words beyond the thoughts they had to convey, which besets every writer who has on stated days to fill up a certain number of columns. In the Lives, out of the fullness of his mind he gave far more than he had undertaken in his agreement with the booksellers. With all its faults, his style has left a permanent and a beneficial mark on the English language. It was not without reason that speaking of what he had done, he said: “Something perhaps I have added to the elegance of its construction, and something to the harmony of its cadence.” If he was too fond of words of foreign origin, he resisted the inroad of foreign idioms. No one could say of him what he said of Hume: “The structure of his sentences is French.” He sturdily withstood “the license of translators who were reducing to babble a dialect of France.” Lord Monboddo complained of his frequent use of metaphors. In this he was unlike Swift, in whose writings, it was asserted, not a single one can be found. If however he used them profusely, he used them as accurately as Burke; of whom, as he was speaking one day in Parliament, a bystander said, “How closely that fellow reasons in metaphors!” Johnson’s writings are always clear. To him might be applied the words he used of Swift: “He always understands himself, and his readers always understand him.” “He never hovers on the brink of meaning.” If he falls short of Swift in simplicity, he rises far above him in eloquence. He cares for something more than “the easy and safe conveyance of meaning.” His task it was not only to instruct, but to persuade; not only to impart truth, but to awaken “that inattention by which known truths are suffered to be neglected.” He was “the great moralist.” He was no unimpassioned teacher, as correct as he is cold. His mind was ever swayed to the mood of what it liked or loathed, and as it was swayed, so it gave harmonious utterance. Who would look to find tenderness in the preface to a dictionary? Nevertheless Horne Tooke, “the ablest and most malevolent of all the enemies of his fame,” could never read Johnson’s preface without shedding a tear. He often rose to noble heights of eloquence; while in the power of his honest scorn he has scarcely a rival. His letters to Lord Chesterfield and James Macpherson are not surpassed by any in our language. In his criticisms he is admirably clear. Whether we agree with him or not, we know at once what he means; while his meaning is so strongly supported by argument that we can neither neglect it nor despise it. He may put his reader into a rage, but he sets him thinking.

Of his original works, ‘Irene’ was the first written, though not the first published. It is a declamatory tragedy. He had little dramatic power, and he followed a bad model, for he took Addison as his master. The criticism which in his old age he passed on that writer’s ‘Cato’ equally well fits his own ‘Irene.’ “It is rather a poem in dialogue than a drama, rather a succession of just sentiments in elegant language than a representation of natural affections, or of any state probable or possible in human life.” It was in his two imitations of Juvenal’s Satires, ‘London’ and the ‘Vanity of Human Wishes,’ that he first showed his great powers. Pope quickly discovered the genius of the unknown author. In their kind they are masterpieces. Sir Walter Scott “had more pleasure in reading them than any other poetical composition he could mention.” The last line of manuscript he sent to press was a quotation from the ‘Vanity of Human Wishes.’ “’Tis a grand poem,” said Byron, “and so true!—true as the truth of Juvenal himself.” Johnson had planned further imitations of the Roman satirist, but he never executed them. What he has done in these two longer poems and in many of his minor pieces is so good that we may well grieve that he left so little in verse. Like his three contemporaries Collins, Gray, and Goldsmith, as a poet he died in debt to the world.

In the Rambler he teaches the same great lesson of life as in his serious poems. He gave variety, however, by lighter papers modeled on the Spectator, and by critical pieces. Admirable as was his humor in his talk,—“in the talent of humor,” said Hawkins, “there hardly ever was his equal,”—yet in his writings he fell unmeasurably short of Addison. His criticisms are acute; but it is when “he reasons of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come” that he is seen at his strongest.

‘Rasselas,’ struck off at a heat when his mother lay dying, tells in prose what the ‘Vanity of Human Wishes’ tells in verse. It is little known to the modern reader, who is not easily reconciled to its style. At no time could it have been a favorite with the young and thoughtless. Nevertheless, as years steal over us, we own, as we lay it down with a sigh, that it gives a view of life as profound and true as it is sad.

His Dictionary, faulty as it is in its etymologies, is a very great performance. Its definitions are admirable; while the quotations are so happily selected that they would afford the most pleasant reading were it possible to read a heavy folio with pleasure. That it should be the work of one man is a marvel. He had hoped to finish it in three years; it took him more than seven. To quote his own words, “He that runs against time has an antagonist not subject to casualties.” He was hindered by ill health, by his wife’s long and fatal illness, and by the need that he was under of “making provision for the day that was passing over him.” During two years of the seven years he was writing three Ramblers a week.

Of his Shakespeare, Macaulay said: “It would be difficult to name a more slovenly, a more worthless edition of any great classic.” I doubt whether when he passed this sweeping judgment, he had read much more than those brief passages in which Johnson sums up the merits of each play. The preface, Adam Smith, no friend of Johnson’s fame, described as “the most manly piece of criticism that was ever published in any country.” In the notes the editor anticipated modern critics in giving great weight to early readings. Warburton, in the audacity of his conjectural emendations, almost rivaled Bentley in his dealings with Milton. He floundered, but this time he did not flounder well. Johnson was unwilling to meddle with the text so long as it gave a meaning. Many of his corrections are ingenious, but in this respect he came far behind Theobald. His notes on character are distinguished by that knowledge of mankind in which he excelled. The best are those on Falstaff and Polonius. The booksellers who had employed him did their part but ill. There are numerous errors which the corrector of the press should have detected, while the work is ill printed and on bad paper.

His four political tracts were written at the request of government. In one of them, in a fine passage, he shows the misery and suffering which are veiled from men’s sight by the dazzle of the glory of war. In the struggle between England and her colonies he with Gibbon stood by George III., while Burke, Hume, and Adam Smith were on the side of liberty.

In his ‘Journey to the Western Islands’ he describes the tour which he made with Boswell in 1773. In this work he took the part of the oppressed tenants against their chiefs, who were, he wrote, “gradually degenerating from patriarchal rulers to rapacious landlords.” His narrative is interesting; while the facts which he gathered about a rapidly changing society are curious. “Burke thought well of the philosophy of the book.”

His last work was the ‘Lives of the English Poets.’ It was undertaken at the request of the chief London booksellers, “who had determined to publish a body of English poetry,” for which he was to furnish brief prefaces. These prefaces swelled into Lives. “I have,” he wrote, “been led beyond my intention, I hope by the honest desire of giving useful pleasure.” For payment he had required only two hundred guineas. “Had he asked one thousand, or even fifteen hundred,” said Malone, “the booksellers would doubtless readily have given it.” In this great work he traveled over the whole field of English poetry, from Milton who was born in 1608 to Lyttleton who died in 1773. To such a task no man ever came better equipped. He brought to it wide reading, a strong memory, traditional knowledge gathered from the companions of his early manhood, his own long acquaintance with the literary world of London, and the fruits of years of reflection and discussion. He had studied criticism deeply, and he dared to think for himself. No man was ever more fearless in his judgments. He was overpowered by no man’s reputation. His criticisms of Milton’s ‘Lycidas’ and of Gray show him at his worst. Nevertheless they are not wholly without foundation. ‘Lycidas,’ great as it is, belongs to an unnatural school of poetry. It is a lament that never moved a single reader to tears. No one mourns over young Lycidas. Blind as Johnson was to the greatness of the poem, he has surpassed all other critics in the splendor of the praise he bestowed on the poet. To the exquisite beauties of Gray, unhappily, he was insensible. His faults he makes us see only too clearly. We have to admit, however unwillingly, that at times Gray is “tall by standing on tiptoe,” and does indulge in commonplaces “to which criticism disdains to chase him.” Scarcely less valuable than Johnson’s critical remarks are the anecdotes which he collected and the reflections which he made. In these Lives, and in his own Life as told by Boswell, we have given us an admirable view of literature and literary men, from the end of the age of Elizabeth to close upon the dawn of the splendor which ushered in the nineteenth century.