Home  »  Volume X: English THE AGE OF JOHNSON  »  § 4. Foreshadowings of Johnson’s style

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

VIII. Johnson and Boswell

§ 4. Foreshadowings of Johnson’s style

In this translation, there is much more of Le Grand than of Lobo. In parts, Johnson condensed freely; where he allowed himself least liberty was in the sixteen (not fifteen) dissertations, which occupy more than half the volume and deal with such subjects as the Nile, Prester John, the queen of Sheba and the religious customs of the Abyssinians. He was always an eager reader of books of travel; and it was fitting that the passion for whatever afforded views of human nature, which led him to describe his own experiences of another country and to urge others to describe theirs, should be shown in his first work. But the main interest of the volume now lies in the short preface. In the translation, he is content to convey the meaning of the original, and, while he follows in haste another’s thought and language, we fail to find the qualities of his own style. But they are unmistakable in such a passage as this:

  • The Reader will here find no Regions cursed with irremediable Barrenness, or bless’d with Spontaneous Fecundity, no perpetual Gloom or unceasing Sunshine; nor are the Nations here described either devoid of all Sense of Humanity, or consummate in all private and social Virtues, here are no Hottentots without Religion, Polity, or Articulate Language, no Chinese perfectly Polite, and compleatly skill’d in all Sciences: He will discover, what will always be discover’d by a diligent and impartial Enquirer, that wherever Human Nature is to be found, there is a mixture of Vice and Virtue, a contest of Passion and Reason, and that the Creator doth not appear Partial in his Distributions, but has balanced in most Countries their particular Inconveniences by particular Favours.
  • He who writes much, Johnson said, will not easily escape a manner. But here is Johnson’s manner in his first book. And here, too, is a forecast of the philosophy of The Rambler and The Vanity of Human Wishes. There are no distinct periods in Johnson’s literary development, no sudden access of power, no change in his outlook, no novelties in his methods. He continued as he had begun. He grew in confidence and facility; he perfected his command of expression; but there was not any change in the spirit of his expression or in what he wished to express.