Page images

of the expression; for when we find the same pains and pomp of diction bestowed upon the most trifling as upon the most important parts of a sentence or discourse, we grow tired of distinguishing between pretension and reality, and are disposed to confound the tinsel and bombast of the phraseology with want of weight in the thoughts. Thus, from the imposing and oracular nature of the style, people are tempted at first to imagine that our author's speculations are all wisdom and profundity : till having found out their mistake in some instances, they suppose that there is nothing but common-place in them, concealed under verbiage and pedantry; and in both they are wrong. The fault of Dr. Johnson's style is, that it reduces all things to the same artificial and unmeaning level. It destroys all shades of difference, the association between words and things. It is a perpetual paradox and innovation. He condescends to the familiar till we are ashamed of our interest in it: he expands the little till it looks big. “If he were to write a fable of little fishes," as Goldsmith said of him," he would make them speak like great whales." We can no more distinguish the most familiar objects in his descriptions of them, than we can a wellknown face under a huge painted mask. The structure of his sentences, which was his own invention, and which has been generally imitated since his time, is a species of rhyming in prose, where one clause answers to another in measure and quantity, like the tagging of syllables at the end of a verse; the close of the period follows as mechanically as the oscillation of a pendulum, the sense is balanced with the sound; each sentence, revolving round its centre of gravity, is contained within itself like a couplet, and each paragraph forms itself into a stanza. Dr. Johnson is also a complete balance-master in the topies of morality. He never encourages hope, but he counteracts it by fear; he never elicits a truth, but he suggests some objection in answer to it. He seizes and alternately quits the clue of Teason, lest it should involve him in the labyrinths of endless error: he wants confidence in himself and his fellows. He dares not trust himself with the immediate impressions of things, for fear of compromising his dignity; or follow them into their consequences, for fear of committing his prejudices.

His timidity is the result, not of ignorance, but of morbid ap prehension. “He turns the great circle, and is still at home." No advance is made by his writings in any sentiment, or mode of reasoning. Out of the pale of established authority and received dogmas, all is sceptical, loose, and desultory: he seems in imagination to strengthen the dominion of prejudice, as he wenkens and dissipates that of reason; and round the rock of faith and power, on the edge of which he slumbers blindfold and uneasy, the waves and billows of uncertain and dangerous opinion roar and heave for evermore. His · Rasselas' is the most melancholy and debilitating moral speculation that ever was put forth. Doubtful of the faculties of his mind, as of his organs of vision, Johnson trusted only to his feelings and his fears. He cultivated a belief in witches as an out-guard to the evidences of religion; and abused Milton, and patronised Lar der, in spite of his aversion to his countrymen, as a step to cure the existing establishment in church and state. This wa neither right feeling nor sound logic.

The most triumphant record of the talents and character of Johnson is to be found in Boswell's life of him. The man was superior to the author. When he threw aside his per which he regarded as an encumbrance, he became not only learned and thoughtful, but acute, witty, humorous, natural, honest; hearty and determined, the king of good fellows and wale of old men" There are as many smart repartres, pra found remarks and keen invectives to be found in Boswell's “ inventory of all he said," as are recorded of any celebrated man. The life and dramatic play of his conversation forms * contrast to his written works His natural powers and undes guised opinions were called out in convivial intercourse in publie, he practised with the foils: in private, be unsbeathed the sword of controversy, and it was the Ebro's temper* The eagerness of opposition roused him from his natuml sluggeshness and arquired tamnidity; he returned blew for blow; and whether the trial were of argument or wit, none of his rivals could best much of the ener unter Burke peens to have been the only person who had a chance with him; and it is the unpardonable sin of Boswell's work, that he has purpose ly omitted their combats of strength and skill. Goldsmith asked, “ does he wind into a subject like a serpent, as Burke does ?" And when exhausted with sickness, he himself said, “If that fellow Burke were here now, he would kill me." It is to be observed, that Johnson's colloquial style was as blunt, direct, and downright, as his style of studied composition was involved and circuitous. As when Topham, Beauclerc, and Langton knocked him up at his chambers at three in the morning, and he came to the door with the poker in his hand, but seeing the n, exclaimed, " What! is it you, my lads? then I'll have a frisk with you!" and he afterwards reproaches Langton, who was a literary milksop, for leaving them to go to an engagement " with some un-idead girls." What words to come from the mouth of the great moralist and lexicographer! His good derds were as many as his good sayings. His domestic habits, his tenderness to servants, and readiness to oblige his friends; the quantity of strong tea that he drank to keep down sad thoughts; his many labours reluctantly begun, and irresolutely lad aside; his honest acknowledgment of his own, and indulgence to the weaknesses of others; his throwing himself back in the post-chaise with Boswell, and saying, "Now I think I am a good-humoured fellow," though nobody thought him so, and yet he was; his quitting the society of Garrick and his actresses, and his reason for it; his dining with Wilkes, and his kindness to Goldsmith; his sitting with the young ladies on his knee at the Mitre, to give them good advice, in which situation, if not explained, he might be taken for Falstaff; and last and noblest, his carrying the unfortunate victim of disease and dissipation on his back up through Fleet street (an act which realises the parable of the good Samaritan)—all these, and innumerable others, endear him to the reader, and must be remembered to his lasting honour. He had faults, but they lie buried with him. He had his prejudices and his intolerant feelings, but he suffered enough in the conflict of his own mind with them; for if no man can be happy in the free exercise of his reason, no wise man can be happy without it. His were not time-serving, heartless, hypocritical prejudices; but deep, inwoven, not to be rooted out but with life and hope, which he found from old habit necessary to his own peace of mind, and thought so to the peace of mankind. I do not hate, but love him for them. They were between himself and his conscience, and should be left to that higher tribunal

" Where they in trembling hope repose,
The bosom of his father and his God."

In a word, he has left behind him few wiser or better men.

The herd of his imitators showed what he was by their disproportionate effects. The Periodical Essayists that succeeded the Rambler' are, and deserve to be, little read at present • The Adventurer, by Hawksworth, is completely trite and vapid, aping all the faults of Johnson's style, without anything to atone for them. The sentences are often absolutely unmeaning; and one-half of each might regularly be left blank. "The World,' and Connoisseur, which followed, are a little better; and in the last of these there is one good idea, that of a man in indifferent health who judges of every one's title, to respect from their possession of this blessing, and bows to a sturdy bego gar with sound limbs and a florid complexion, while he turns his back upon a lord who is a valetudinarian.

Goldsmith's .Citizen of the World,' like all his works, beats the stamp of the author's mind. It does not “ go about to comen reputation without the stamp of merit." He is more observing, more original, more natural and picturesque than Johnson. His work is written on the model of the Persian Letters,' and coetrives to give an abstracted and some what perplexing view of things, by opposing foreign prepossessions to our own, and thus stripping objects of their customary disguis's Whether truth us elicited in this collision of contrary absurdities, I do not know; but I confess the process is too ambiguous and full of intricacy to be very amusing to my plain understanding. For hglat summer reading it is like walking in a garden full of traps and på falls. It necessarily gives rise to para logis, and there are notte very bold ones in the Ess, he works out port an s'as less established to be very mobile sale of pensare de 31 d. Thus the Chinose philosopher esu laims very unad vasedly, “The bonzes and priests of all religwns keep up superstation and it posture; all reformations begin with the laity." Goldsmith, however, was staunch in his practical creed, and might bolt speculative extravagances with impunity. There is a striking difference in this respect lietween him and Addison, who, if he attacked authority, took care to have common sense on his side, and never hazarded any thing offensive to the feelings of others, or on the strength of his own discretional opinion. There is another inconvenience in this assumption of an exotic character and tone of sentiment, that it produces an inconsistency between the knowledge which the individual has time to acquire and which the author is bound to communicate. Thus the Chinese has not been in England three days before he is acquainted with the characters of the three countries which compose this kingdom, and describes them to his friend at Canton by extracts from the newspapers of each metropolis. The nationality of Scotchmen is thus ridiculed :

Edinburgh.—We are positive when we say that Sanders Macregor, lately executed for horse-stealing, is not a native of Scotland, but born at Carrickfergus.

Now this is very good; but how should our Chinese philosopher find it out by instinct? Beau Tibbs, a prominent character in this little work, is the best comic sketch since the time of Addison ; unrivalled in his finery, his vanity, and his poverty.

I have only to mention the names of the Lounger and the “Mirror,' which are ranked by the author's admirers with Sterne for sentiment, and with Addison for humour. I shall not enter into that; but I know that the story of 'La Roche' is not like the story of 'Le Fevre,' nor one hundredth part so good. Do I say this from prejudice to the author ? No; for I have read his novels. Of The Man of the World' I cannot think so favourably as some others; nor shall I here dwell on the picturesque and romantic beauties of Julia de Roubigne,' the early favourite of the author of Rosamond Gray; but of the "Man of Feeling' I would speak with grateful recollections; nor is it possible to forget the sensitive, irresolute, interesting Harley; and that lone figure of Miss Walton in it, that floats in the horizon, dim and ethereal, the day-dream of her lover's youthful fancy-better, far better, than all the realities of life!

« PreviousContinue »