The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 15. Openly didactic purpose of The Rambler; success of the Collected Edition
It found a larger public on being reprinted in volume form, and came to be the only periodical of the century to vie with The Spectator in popularity. Johnson revised it for the collected edition with unusual care. It had been his most ambitious work; and he knew that it was best suited to a leisurely perusal. Yet there is little in The Rambler that is now well known. Much of its literary criticism was superseded by the preface to his Shakespeare and by his Lives of the Poets. The allegories and stories have not the reputation of their models in The Spectator. Nor are Johnson’s characters familiar as Addison’s are. The explanation lies mainly in his inability to visualise. He did not number the streaks of the tulip because, in effect, he did not see them; but he remarked general properties and large appearances because he had the gift, which he assiduously developed, of viewing things in their moral aspects and human relationships. The real interest of the famous passage in Rasselas on the aims of the poet—a passage which, it must be remembered, leads to the humorous conclusion that “no human being can ever be a poet”—lies in its personal basis. The best poets of his century, and the poets of all time whom he most admired, numbered the streaks when they wished. But he did not number them, because they did not enter into his experience. We do not give a face or figure to any of his characters in The Rambler, because he did not see either clearly himself. Polyphilus, the quick wit without purpose; Suspirius, the fault-finder; Quisquilius, the virtuoso; Venustulus, the effeminate beau—are, each of them, bundles of habits, or a predominant habit. Even Prospero, who might have been drawn from Garrick, represents only the social failings of the rich man who has risen in life. Johnson reverted to the methods of the character-studies of the seventeenth century. Addison had set out by continuing them, but he was at war with them at heart, and he adapted them to his purpose. The superiority of Addison in this respect will never be denied. But Johnson shows a deeper knowledge of human nature “in all its gradations,” and, while he lacks the familiar elegance which alone can play with foibles and frivolities, he offers a richer harvest of deep observation.
And Johnson had not the desire, even had he possessed the ability, to disguise his purpose. Addison, too, had been frankly didactic; he had said that he meant to bring philosophy to dwell on tea-tables and in coffee-houses. But he kept his readers from suspecting that they were being taught or reformed. Johnson’s lessons are obvious. His aim was “only the propagation of truth”; it was always his “principal design to inculcate wisdom or piety.” The great moralist lavishes the best instruction he can offer, the instruction of a man of the world who knows what the world cannot give; but he does not offer it in a way to attract unwilling attention. He recognised this himself and admitted that “the severity of dictatorial instruction has been too seldom relieved.” His deep humour is present throughout, and is occasionally given scope, as in the essay on the advantages of living in a garret; but it is always controlled by the serious purpose.