The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 21. Rasselas and its lesson
While The Idler was in progress, Johnson’s mother died, and her death was the occasion both of his paper on the loss of a friend and of his solemn novel on the choice of life, Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia (April, 1759). No work of his has been more frequently translated or is better known by name; but none has met with more contradictory judgments, or is a stricter test of the reader’s capacity to appreciate the peculiar qualities of Johnson’s thought and manner. There is little or no story, no crisis, no conclusion; there is little more than a succession of discussion and disquisitions on the limitations of life. Rasselas may be called the prose Vanity of Human Wishes; and it is the fullest, gravest and most intimate statement of his common theme.
It has been said that Addison would have written a novel, could he have cast the Coverly papers in a different form. Johnson proposed to write a novel, and produced an expanded essay. There are five “oriental tales” in The Rambler, and three were yet to appear in The Idler. They suited his purpose in their vagueness of background and their free scopt for didactic fancies. Rasselas is another of these tales, elaborated to enforce his lesson by a greater range of observation. The first requirement of the story was a happy valley. Older writers would have placed it in Arcadia; Johnson takes us to the same undiscovered country, but calls it Abyssinia. He had not forgotten his early translation. The name “Rasselas” was suggested by it, and other instances of recollection are equally certain. There were “impassable forests and inaccessible cliffs” in the real Abyssinia, and why not a happy valley behind them? But one of the attractions of Lobo’s narrative had been that the reader found in it no regions blessed with spontaneous fecundity or unceasing sunshine. Johnson knew, quite as well as the critics who stumble at local and ethnographical discrepancies, that there is no happy valley; but he asked its existence to be granted as a setting for a tale which would show that “human life is every where a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed.” The gloom is heavy, but, to those who can appreciate Johnson, it is never depressing. He had cleared his mind of cant, and he wrote to give his readers the strength that comes from the honesty of looking straight at things as they are. He pursues his way relentlessly through the different conditions that seem to offer happiness openhanded, and works to a climax in the story of the astronomer; “Few can attain this man’s knowledge, and few practise his virtues, but all may suffer his calamity. Of the uncertainties of our present state, the most dreadful and alarming is the uncertain continuance of reason.” This is one of the many passages which emphasise his perfect sincerity. The book ends in resignation to the futility of searching for happiness, and in resolution to pursue life as it is found. Stated in these words, the lesson may appear a commonplace. But so are the real things of human experience. And never was the lesson stated with more sympathetic knowledge, and enlivened with a greater wealth of aphoristic wisdom.
Meanwhile, the edition of Shakespeare was at a stand. Some of the plays—evidently, those in the first volume—had been printed by March, 1758; but, during the next four years, there was no sign of progress. In addition to The Idler and Rasselas Johnson had been writing dedications, prefaces, introductions and reviews, engaging in unsuccessful controversy on the structure of the new bridge at Blackfriars, and helping to lay the Cock lane ghost. The discontent of his subscribers, roughly expressed in Churchill’s Ghost (1762), at last roused him to complete his work; and the financial ease that had come with his pension of £300 (1762) gave him what time he needed. The edition was published, in eight volumes, in October, 1765.