« السابقةمتابعة »
LIFE AND GENIUS
SAMUEL JOHNSON, LL.D.
WHEN the works of a great writer, who has bequeathed to posterity a lasting legacy, are presented to the world, it is naturally expected, that some account of his life should accompany the edition. The reader wishes to know as much as possible of the author. The circumstances that attended him, the features of his private character, his conversation, and the means by which he rose to eminence, become the favourite objects of inquiry. Curiosity is excited; and the admirer of his works is eager to know his private opinions, his course of study, the particularities of his conduct, and, above all, whether he pursued the wisdom which he recommends, and practised the virtue which his writings inspire. A principle of gratitude is awakened in every generous mind. For the entertainment and instruction which genius and diligence have provided for the world, men of refined and sensible tempers are ready to pay their tribute of praise, and even to form a posthumous friendship with the author.
In reviewing the life of such a writer, there is, besides, a rule of justice to which the public have an undoubted claim. Fond admiration and partial friendship should not be suffered to represent his virtues with exaggeration; nor should malignity be allowed, under a specious disguise, to magnify mere defects, the usual failings of human nature, into vice or gross deformity. The lights and shades of the character should be given; and, if this be done with a strict regard to truth, a just estimate of Dr. Johnson will afford a lesson, perhaps as valuable as the moral doctrine that speaks with energy in every page of his works.
The present writer enjoyed the conversation and friendship of that excellent man more than thirty years. He thought it an honour to be so connected, and to this hour he reflects on his loss with regret: but regret, he knows, has secret bribes, by which the judgment may be influenced, and partial affection may be carried beyond the bounds of truth. In the present case, however, nothing needs to be disguised, and exaggerated praise is unnecessary. It is an observation of the younger Pliny, in his Epistle to his friend Tacitus, that history ought never to magnify matters of fact, because worthy actions require nothing but the truth. Nam nec historia debet egredi veritatem, et honeste factis veritas sufficit. This rule the present biographer promises shall guide his pen throughout the following narrative.
It may be said, the death of Dr. Johnson kept the public mind in agitation beyond all former example. No literary character ever excited so much attention; and, when the press has teemed with anecdotes, apophthegms, essays, and publications of every kind, what occasion now for a new tract on the same threadbare subject? The plain truth shall be the answer. The proprietors of Johnson's Works thought the life, which they prefixed to their former edition, too unweildy for republication. The prodigious variety of foreign matter, introduced into that performance, seemed to overload the memory of Dr. Johnson, and in the account of his own life to leave him hardly visible. They wished to have a more concise, and, for that reason, perhaps a more satisfactory account, such as may exhibit a just picture of the man, and keep him
the principal figure in the foreground of his own picture. To comply with that request is the design of this essay, which the writer undertakes with a trembling hand. He has no discoveries, no secret anecdotes, no occasional controversy, no sudden flashes of wit and humour, no private conversation, and no new facts, to embellish his work. Every thing has been gleaned. Johnson said of himself, "I am not uncandid nor severe: I sometimes say more than I mean, in jest, and people are apt to think me serious."* The exercise of that privilege, which is enjoyed by every man in society, has not been allowed to him. His fame has given importance even to trifles; and the zeal of his friends has brought every thing to light. What should be related, and what should not, has been published without distinction. Dicenda tacenda locuti! Every thing that fell from him has been caught with eagerness by his admirers, who, as he says in one of his letters, have acted with the diligence of spies upon his conduct. To some of them the following lines, in Mallet's Poem, on verbal criticism, are not inapplicable:
"Such that grave bird in Northern scas is found,
After so many esssays and volumes of Johnsoniana, what remains for the present writer? Perhaps, what has not been attempted; a short, yet full-a faithful, yet temperate, history of Dr.
SAMUEL JOHNSON was born at Litchfield, September 7, 1709, O. S.† His father Michael Johnson, was a bookseller in that city; a man of large athletic make, and violent passions; wrong-headed, positive, and at times afflicted with a degree of melancholy, little short of madHis mother was sister to Dr. Ford, a practising physician, and father of Cornelius Ford, generally known by the name of PARSON FORD, the same who is represented near the punch-bowl in Hogarth's Midnight Modern Conversation. In the life of Fenton, Johnson
Boswell's Life of Johnson, vol. ii. p. 465, 4to.
+ This appears in a note to Johnson's Diary, pre. fixed to the first of his prayers. After the alteration of the style, he kept his birth day on the 18th of September, and it is nccordingly marked Septemver, 18
says, that "his abilities, instead of furnishing convivial merriment to the voluptuous and dissolute, might have enabled him to excel among the virtuous and the wise." Being chaplain to the Earl of Chesterfield, he wished to attend that nobleman on his embassy to the Hague. Colley Cibber has recorded the anecdote. You should go," said the witty peer, "if to your many vices you would add one more.' "Pray, my Lord, what is that?" "Hypocrisy, my dear Doctor." Johnson had a younger brother named Nathaniel, who died at the age of twentyseven or twenty-eight. Michael Johnson, the father, was chosen in the year 1718, under bailiff of Litchfield; and in the year 1725 he served the ofice of the senior bailiff. He had a brother of the name of Andrew, who, for some years, kept the ring at Smithfield, appropriated to wrestlers and boxers. Our author used to say, that he was never thrown or conquered. Michael, the father, died December 1731, at the age of seventysix; his mother at eighty-nine, of a gradual decay, in the year 1759. Of the family nothing more can be related worthy of notice. Johnson did not delight in talking of his relations. "There is little pleasure," he said to Mrs. Piozzi, "in relating the anecdotes of beggary."
Johnson derived from his parents, or from an unwholesome nurse, the distemper called the king's evil. The jacobites at that time believed in the efficacy of the royal touch; and accordingly Mrs. Johnson presented her son, when two years old, before Queen Anne, who, for the first time, performed that office, and communicated to her young patient all the healing virtue in her power. He was afterwards cut for that scrophulous humour, and the under part of his face was seamed and disfigured by the operation. It is supposed that this disease deprived him of the sight of his left eye, and also impaired his hearing. At eight years old he was placed under Mr. Hawkins, at the Free-school in Litchfield, where he was not remarkable for diligence or regular application. Whatever he read, his tenacious memory made his own. the fields with his school-fellows, he talked more to himself than with his companions. In 1725, when he was about sixteen years old, he went on a visit to his cousin Cornelius Ford, who detained him for some months, and in the mean time assisted him in the classics. The general direction for his studies, which he then received, he related to Mrs. Piozzi. "Obtain," says Ford, "some general principles of every science: he who can talk only on one subject, or act only in one department, is seldom wanted, and perhaps never wished for; while the man of general knowledge can often benefit, and always please." This advice Johnson seems to have pursued with a good inclination. His reading was always desultory, seldom resting on any particular author, but rambling from one book to another,
and, by hasty snatches, hoarding up a variety of knowledge. It may be proper in this place to mention another general rule laid down by Ford for Johnson's future conduct: "You will make your way the more easily in the world, as you are contented to dispute no man's claim to conversation excellence: they will, therefore, m re willingly allow your pretensions as a writer." "But," says Mrs. Piozzi, "the features of peculiarity, which mark a character to all succeeding generations, are slow in coming to their growth." That ingenious lady adds, with her usual vivacity, "Can one, on such an occasion, forbear recollecting the predictions of Boileau's father, who said, stroking the head of the young satirist, this little man has too much wit, but he will never speak ill of any one?'"
On Johnson's return from Cornelius Ford, Mr. Hunter, then master of the Free-school at Litchfield, refused to receive him again on that foundation. At this distance of time, what his reasons were, it is vain to inquire; but to refuse assistance to a lad of promising genius must be pronounced harsh and illiberal. It did not, however, stop the progress of the young student's education. He was placed at another school, at Stourbridge in Worcestershire, under the care of Mr. Wentworth. Having gone through the rudiments of classic literature, he returned to his father's house, and was probably intended for the trade of a bookseller. He has been heard to say that he could bind a book. At the end of two years, being then about nineteen, he went to assist the studies of a young gentleman of the name of Corbett, to the University of Oxford; and on the 31st of October, 1728, both were entered of Pembroke College; Corbett, as a gentleman-commoner, and Johnson as a commoner. The college tutor, Mr. Jordan, was a man of no genius; and Johnson, it seems, showed an early contempt of mean abilities, in one or two instances behaving with insolence to that gentleman. Of his general conduct at the university there are no particulars that merit attention, except the translation of Pope's Messiah, which was a college exercise imposed upon him as a task, by Mr. Jordan. Corbett left the university in about two years, and Johnson's salary ceased. He was by consequence straitened in his circumstances: but he still remained at college. Mr. Jordan the tutor, went off to a living; and was succeeded by Dr. Adams, who afterwards became head of the college, and was esteemed through life for his learning, his talents, and his amiable characJohnson grew more regular in his attendEthics, theology, and classic literature, were his favourite studies. He discovered, notwithstanding, early symptoms of that wandering disposition of mind, which adhered to him to the end of his life. His reading was
by fits and starts, undirected to any particular science. General philology, agreeably to his cousin Ford's advice, was the object of his ambition. He received, at that time, an early impression of piety, and a taste for the best authors, ancient and modern. It may, notwithstanding, be questioned whether, except his Bible, ever read a book entirely through. Late in life, if any man praised a book in his presence, he was sure to ask, " Did you read it through?" If the answer was in the affirma. tive, he did not seem willing to believe it. He continued at the university till the want of pecuniary supplies obliged him to quit the place. He obtained, however, the assistance of a friend, and returning in a short time, was able to complete a residence of three years. The history of his exploits, at Oxford, he used to say, was best known to Dr. Taylor and Dr. Adams. Wonders are told of his memory, and, indeed, all who knew him late in life, can witness that he retained that faculty in the greatest vigour.
From the university Johnson returned to Litchfield. His father died soon after, December 1731; and the whole receipt out of his effects, as appeared by a memorandum in the son's hand-writing, dated 15th June, 1732, was no more than twenty pounds.* In this exigence, determined that poverty should neither depress his spirit nor warp his integrity, he became under-master of a grammar-school at Market-Bosworth in Leicestershire. That resource, however, did not last long. Disgusted by the pride of Sir Wolstan Dixie, the patron of that little seminary, he left the place in discontent, and ever after spoke of it with abhorrence. In 1733 he went on a visit to Mr. Hector, who had been his school-fellow, and was then a surgeon at Birmingham, lodging at the house of Warren, a bookseller. At that place Johnson translated a voyage to Abyssinia, written by Jerome Lobo, a Portuguese missionary. This was the first literary work from the pen of Dr. Johnson. His friend Hector was occasionally his amanuensis. The work was, probably, undertaken at the desire of Warren, the bookseller, and was printed at Birmingham; but it appears in the Literary Magazine, or History of the Works of the Learned, for March 1735, that it was published by Bettesworth and Hitch, Paternoster- row. It contains a narra
* The entry of this is remarkable, for his early resolu tion to preserve through life a fair and upright character. "1732, Junii 15. Undecim aureos deposui, quo die, quidquid ante matris funus (quod serum sit precor) de paternis bonis sperare licet, viginti scilicet libras, accepi
Usque adeo mihi mea fortuna fingenda est interea, et ne
paupertate vires animi languescant, ne in flagitia egestas adigat, cavendum."
tive of the endeavours of a company of missiona | acknowledgment. The provinces were inha ries to convert the people of Abyssinia to the bited by Moors, Pagans, Jews, and Christians. Church of Rome. In the preface to this work The last was, in Lobo's time, the established and Johnson observes, "that the Portuguese travel-reigning religion. The diversity of people and ler, contrary to the general view of his country-religion is the reason why the kingdom was men, has amused his readers with no romantic under different forms of government, with laws absurdities, or incredible fictions. He appears, and customs extremely various. Some of the by his modest and unaffected narration, to have people neither sowed their lands, nor improved described things as he saw them; to have copied them by any kind of culture, living upon milk nature from the life; and to have consulted his and flesh, and, like the Arabs, encamping withsenses, not his imagination. He meets with out any settled habitation. In some places no basilisks, that destroy with their eyes; his they practised no rites of worship, though they crocodiles devour their prey, without tears; and believed that, in the regions above, there dwells his cataracts fall from the rock, without deafen- a Being that governs the world. This Deity ing the neighbouring inhabitants. The reader they call in their language Oul. The Chriswill here find no regions cursed with irreme-tianity professed by the people in some parts, is diable barrennesss, or blessed with spontaneous corrupted with superstitious errors, and herefecundity; no perpetual gloom, or unceasing sies, and so mingled with ceremonies borrowed sunshine: nor are the nations, here described, from the Jews, that little, besides the name of either void of all sense of humanity, or con- Christianity, is to be found among them. The summate in all private and social virtues: here Abyssins cannot properly be said to have either are no Hottentots without religion, polity, or cities or houses; they live in tents or cottages articulate language; no Chinese perfectly polite, made of straw or clay, very rarely building with and completely skilled in all sciences: he will stone. Their villages or towns consist of these discover, what will always be discovered by a huts; yet even of such villages they have but diligent and impartial inquirer, that, wherever few; because the grandees, the viceroys, and human nature is to be found, there is a mixture the emperor himself, are always in camp, that of vice and virtue, a contest of passion and rea- they may be prepared, upon the most sudden son; and that the Creator doth not appear alarm, to meet every emergence, in a country partial in his distributions, but has balanced, in which is engaged every year either in foreign most countries, their particular inconveniences wars or intestine commotions. Ethiopia proby particular favours."We have here an duces very near the same kinds of provision as early specimen of Johnson's manner; the vein Portugal, though, by the extreme laziness of of thinking and the frame of the sentences are the inhabitants, in a much less quantity. What manifestly his we see the infant Hercules. the ancients imagined of the torrid zone being a The translation of Lobo's Narrative has been part of the world uninhabitable, is so far from reprinted lately in a separate volume, with some being true, that the climate is very temperate. other tracts of Dr. Johnson's, and therefore The blacks have better features than in other forms no part of this edition; but a compen- countries, and are not without wit and ingenuidious account of so interesting a work as Father ty, Their apprehension is quick, and their Lobo's discovery of the head of the Nile will judgment sound. There are in the climate two not, it is imagined, be unacceptable to the reader. harvests in the year: one in winter, which lasts through the months of July, August and September; the other in the Spring. They have, in the greatest plenty, raisins, peaches, pomegranates, sugar-canes, and some figs. Most of these are ripe about Lent, which the Abyssins keep with great strictness. The animals of the country are the lion, the elephant, the rhinoceros, the unicorn, horses, mules, oxen, and cows without number. They have a very particular custom, which obliges every man, that has a thousand cows, to save every year one day's milk of all his herd, and make a bath with it for his relations. This they do so many days in each year, as they have thousands of cattle; so that, to express how rich a man is, they tell you he bathes so many times.
Father Lobo, the Portuguese Missionary, embarked, in 1622, in the same fleet with the Count Vidigueira, who was appointed, by the King of Portugal, Viceroy of the Indies. They arrived at Goa; and, in January 1624, Father Lobo set out on the mission to Abyssinia. Two of the Jesuits, sent on the same commission, were murdered in their attempt to penetrate into that empire. Lobo had better success; he surmounted all difficulties, and made his way into the heart of the country. Then follows a description of Abyssinia, formerly the largest empire of which we have an account in history. It extended from the Red Sea to the kingdom of Congo, and from Egypt to the Indian Sea, cor.taining no less than forty provinces. At the time of Lobo's mission, it was not much larger than Spain, consisting then but of five kingdoms, of which part was entirely subject to the Emperor, and part paid him a tribute, as an
"Of the river Nile, which has furnished so much controversy, we have a full and clear description. It is called by the natives, Abavi, the Father of Water. It rises in Sa