« PreviousContinue »
That a man, who venerated the church and monarchy as Johnson did, should speak with a just abhorrence of Milton as a politician, or rather as a daring foe to good polity, was surely to be expected; and to those who censure him, I would recommend his commentary on Milton's celebrated complaint of his situation, when by the lenity of Charles the Second, “a lenity of which," as Johnson well observes, “the world has had perhaps no other example, he, who had written in justification of the murder of his sovereign, was safe under an Act of Oblivion.” “No sooner is he safe than he finds himself in danger, fallen on evil days and evil tongues, with darkness and with dangers compassed round. This darkness, had his eyes been better employed, had undoubtedly deserved compassion ; but to add the mention of danger was ungrateful and unjust. He was fallen, indeed, on evil days ; the time was come in which regicides could no longer boast their wickedness. But of evil tongues for Milton to complain, required impudence at least equal to his other powers; Milton, whose warmest advocates must allow, that he never spared any asperity of reproach, or brutality of insolence.”
I have, indeed, often wondered how Milton, “an acrimonious and surly republican," 1—"a man who in his domestic relations was so severe and arbitrary,” and whose head was filled with the hardest and most dismal tenets of Calvinism, should have been such a poet; should not only have written with sublimity, but with beauty, and even gaiety; should have exquisitely painted the sweetest sensations of which our nature is capable; imaged the delicate raptures of connubial love; nay, seemed to be animated with all the spirit of revelry. It is a proof that in the human mind the departments of judgment and imagination, perception and temper, may sometimes be divided by strong partitions; and that the light and shade in the same character may be kept so distinct as never to be blended.
his conversation and in his writings. The same energy which was displayed in his literary productions was exhibited also in his conversation, which was various, striking and instructive; and perhaps no man ever equalled him for nervous and pointed repartees. His Dictionary, his Moral Essays, and his productions in polite literature, will convey useful instruction, and elegant entertainment, as long as the language in which they are written shall be understood.”
i Johnson's Life of Milton.
In the “Life of Milton,” Johnson took occasion to maintain his own and the general opinion of the excellence of rhyme over blank verse, in English poetry; and quotes this apposite illustration of it by “an ingenious critic,” that it seems to be verse only to the eye. The gentleman whom he thus characterises is (as he told Mr. Steward) Mr. Lock, of Norbury Park, in Surrey, whose knowledge and taste in the fine arts is universally celebrated ; with whose elegance of manners the writer of the present work has felt himself much impressed, and to whose virtues a common friend, who has known him long and is uot much addicted to flattery, gives the highest testimony.
Various Readings in the Life of Milton. “I cannot find any meaning but this which [his most bigoted advocates) even kindness and reverence can give.
“[Perhaps no] scarcely any man ever wrote so much, and praised so few.
“A certain [rescue] preservative from oblivion.
“Let me not be censured for this digression, as (contracted] pedantic or paradoxical.
“Socrates rather was of opinion, that what we had to learn was how to [obtain and communicate happiness] do good and avoid evil.
“Its elegance [who can exhibit ?] is less attainable."
I could, with pleasure, expatiate upon the masterly execution of the “Life of Dryden,” which we have seen was one of Johnson's literary projects at an early period, and which it is remarkable, that after desisting from it, from a supposed scantiness of materials, he should, at an advanced age, have exhibited so amply.
1 Mr. Malone thinks it is rather a proof that he felt nothing of those cheerful sensations which he has described : that on these topics it is the poet and not the man, that writes.
2 One of the most natural instances of the effect of blank verse occurred to the late Earl of Hopeton. His lordship observed one of his shepherds poring in the fields upon Milton's Paradise Lost; and having asked him what book it was, the man answered, “ An't please your lordship, this is a very odd sort of an author : he would faire rhyme, but cannot get at it."
His defence of that great poet against the illiberal attacks upon him, as if his embracing the Roman Catholic communion had been a time-serving measure, is a piece of reasoning at once able and candid. Indeed, Dryden himself, in his “ Hind and Panther," hath given such a picture of his mind, that they who know the anxiety for repose as to the awful subject of our state beyond the grave, though they may think his opinion ill-founded, must think charitably of his sentiment:
“But, gracious God, how well dost thou provide
In drawing Dryden's character, Johnson has given though I suppose unintentionally, some touches of his own. Thus: “The power that predominated in his intellectual operations was rather strong reason than quick sensibility. Upon all occasions that were presented, he studied rather than felt; and produced sentiments not such as nature enforces, but meditation supplies. With the simple and elemental passions, as they spring separate in the mind, he seems not much acquainted. He is, therefore, with all his variety of excellence, not often pathetic, and had so little sensibility of the power of effusions purely natural, that he did not esteem them in others.” It may indeed be observed, that in all the numerous writings of Johnson, whether in prose or verse, and even in his tragedy, of which the subject is the distress of an unfortunate princess, there is not a single passage that ever drew a tear.
Various Readings in the Life of DRYDEN. “ The reason of this general pernsal, Addison has attempted to [find in] derive from the delight which the mind feels in the investigation of secrets.
“His best actions are but [convenient] inability of wickedness.
“When once he had engaged himself in disputation, [matter] thoughts flowed in on either side.
“ The abyss of an un-ideal [emptiness] vacancy.
“ These, like [many other harlots], the harlots of other men, had his love, though not his approbation.
“ He (sometimes displays] descends to display his knowledge with pedantic ostentation.
“French words which [were then used in) had then crept into conversation.”
The Life of POPE’ was written by Johnson con amore, both from the early possession which that writer had taken of his mind, and from the pleasure which he must have felt, in for ever silencing all attempts to lessen his poetical fame, by demonstrating his excellence, and pronouncing the following triumphant eulogium :
“After all this, it is surely superfluous to answer the question that has once been asked, Whether Pope was a poet ? otherwise than by asking in return, if Pope be not a poet, where is poetry to be found ? To circumscribe poetry by a definition, will only show the narrowness of the definer; though a definition which shall exclude Pope will not easily be made. Let us look round upon the present time, and back upon the past; let us inquire to
1 The deep and pathetic morality of the Vanity of Human Wishes, has often extracted tears from those whose eyes wander dry over the pages of professed sentimentality.-Walter Scott. | Mr. D’Israeli has, in the third volume of his Literary Curiosities, favoured the public with an original memorandum of Dr. Johnson's, of hints for the Life of Pope, written down as they were suggested to his mind in the course of his researches.-Chalmers.
whom the voice of mankind has decreed the wreath of poetry; let their productions be examined, and their claims stated, and the pretensions of Pope will be no more disputed.”
I remember once to have heard Johnson say, “ Sir, a thousand years may elapse before there shall appear another man with a power of versification equal to that of Pope." That power must undoubtedly be allowed its due share in enhancing the value of his captivating composition.
Johnson, who had done liberal justice to Warburton in his edition of Shakspeare, which was published during the life of that powerful writer, with still greater liberality took an opportunity, in the life of Pope, of paying the tribute due to him when he was no longer in “high place,” but numbered with the dead."
1 Of Johnson's conduct towards Warburton, a very honourable notice is taken by the Editor of “ Tracts by Warburton, and a Warburtonian, not admitted into the Collection of their respective Works." After an able and “ fond, though not undistinguishing," consideration of Warburton's character, he says,
“ In two immortal works, Johnson has stood forth in the foremost rank of his admirers. By the testimony of such a man, impertinence must be abashed, and malignity itself must be softened. Of literary merit, Johnson, as we all know, was a sagacious but a most severe judge. Such was his discernment, that he pierced into the most secret springs of human actions; and such was his integrity, that he always weighed the moral characters of his fellow-creatures in the balance of the sanctuary. He was too courageous to propitiate a rival, and too proud to truckle to a superior. Warburton he knew, as I know him, and as every man of sense and virtue would wish to be known,--I inean, both from his own writings, and from the writings of those who dissented from his principles or who envied his reputation. But, as to favours, he had never received or asked any from the Bishop of Gloucester; and, if my memory fails me not, he had seen him only once, when they met almost without design, conversed without much effort, and parted without any lasting impression of hatred or affection. Yet, with all the ardour of sympathetic genius, Johnson had done that spontaneously and ably, which, by some writers, had been before attempted injudiciously, and which, by others, from whom more successful attempts might have been expected, has not hitherto been done at all. He spoke well of Warburton, without insulting those whom Warburton despised. He suppressed not the imperfections of this extraordinary man, while he endeavoured to do justice to his numerous and transcendental excellences. He defended him when living, amidst the clamours of his enemies; and praised him when dead, amidst the silence of his friends."
Having availed myself of the eulogy of this editor [Dr. Parr], on my