Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Critical Introduction by Henry Craik
Samuel Johnson (17091784)
[Samuel Johnson was born at Lichfield in 1709, and after a desultory education in various schools, entered at Pembroke College, Oxford, in 1728, but left in 1731, without taking his degree. After endeavouring for a time to gain his living as a schoolmaster, he came to London, and spent some years of exceeding hardship and direst poverty as a booksellers hack. In 1735 he published a translation of Lobos Voyage to Abyssinia, and for some time contributed to the pages of the Gentlemans Magazine, writing the Debates in the Senate of Lilliput, which were intended to represent the speeches actually delivered, but not then reported, in the House of Commons. In 1738 he published London, an imitation of the third Satire of Juvenal; in 1749, his second conspicuous poem, The Vanity of Human Wishes, an imitation of the tenth Satire; and in the same year appeared Irene, a tragedy, which was brought out by his friend David Garrick, but was entirely unsuccessful. He had before this projected the Dictionary, the chief monument of that strenuous literary toil which he occasionally exerted, though naturally detesting it; and the work was accomplished in 1755. Meantime he had written the Rambler, a periodical series of essays from 1750 to 1752; had contributed to the Adventurer, and projected an edition of Shakespeare. In 1758 he wrote the Idler, another series of periodical essays; and in 1759, in feverish haste and under the pressure of poverty, he produced Rasselas. The grant of a pension of £300 a year soon after relieved him of the burden of poverty: he had achieved the rank of undisputed dictator in the world of letters, not only by his wide, though discursive, learning, but also by the force of his imposing personality and his conversational supremacy; and he became more and more averse to labour, both from constitutional bias and social occupation. He intervened by many pamphlets in the political controversies of the day, and in 1780 completed the Lives of the Poets,that one of his works which has stirred most of controversy, and has at the same time compelled most of admiration; written with the ease and vigour of one who drew only from his own resources of wide reading, bold and incisive critical faculty, and abundant humour, and who scorned the humbler methods of careful and minute research. He died in London in 1784.]
JOHNSON stands out pre-eminently as the one man for whom biography has done more than she has done for any other. By her help he is no mere name in literary history, but a personal friend and acquaintance, whose strength and whose weakness we know by heart; whose picture is impressed upon us down to the smallest details with a vivid force. The powerful personality of the man, and the perfection of the portrait, have obscured the fame that properly belongs to him as an author; and the popular notion of his work is based upon little more than a superficial tradition, which is rarely corrected by any real familiarity with his writings. Johnson is conceived as a man of a pedantic turn of mind, cumbrous in his ideas and inflated in his diction; the slave of convention, the enemy of humour, dictatorial in argument, without tolerance for the graces of simplicity, and lacking all keenness of critical insight. It would be hard to conceive any picture more unlike the truth. Johnson rightly despised the easy triumph of paradox and eccentricity. He sawjust as the best of the previous generation had seenthat excellence in literature must be based on form, and that its advances, to be sure, must be secured by rigid adherence to rule. The masters of English prose in the Augustan age had all of them protested against anarchy in literature, and with all their variety, they had been careful to claim for themselves no right to set convention at defiance. Dryden, Swift, and Addison had never permitted themselves to forget that English prose had to obey a certain law that was fixing on it more and more of order and regularity. They had, it is true, by their genius, breathed into that order and regularity their own force, and directness, and easy familiarity. But these last were the supreme effect of their own individual genius: neither the impetuous flow of Drydens prose, nor the easy lissomeness of Swifts, nor the delicate conversational tone of Addisons, could repeat or perpetuate themselves in English prose, and establish a common model for all time. What was necessary in the generation when Johnson wrote, was some commanding authority that might set a standard of prose style, that might establish its laws beyond all gainsaying, and that by the force of its own virility might compel obedience. This was just what Johnson did. It was hardly possible that this work could be done without occasional austerity. Prose that aimed at a certain formal sequence, that preserved an equable balance of clause against clause, that imposed a certain uniformity in the use of pronouns, and that sought to impress by clear and forcible antithesis, could not avoid formality. The mannerisms are apt to assume undue prominence, and lend themselves to imitation and to parody. The popular impression ends there. It fancies that it has caught the trick of Johnsons style when it has adopted a certain arrangement of pronouns, when it has marshalled the sentences in well-drilled parallels of antithetical clauses, when it has sprinkled the whole with sesquipedalian words, and given an air of pedantic solemnity to the treatment of the subject. This is to miss all that is really characteristic in Johnsons style. Our debt to him is twofold. In the first place, he preserved us against the inevitable triviality and feebleness that would have come from the imitation of Addisons prose by the ordinary writer, who had not the secret of Addisons genius. Had not such a dictator as Johnson arisen, English prose would inevitably have dwindled into decay, pleasing itself all the while with the fancy that it was repeating the subtle and inimitable achievements of the preceding generation. In the next place, he set a model which could be safely followed, and which was secure for a generation at least, against the intrusion of slipshod banality. For more than a generation after his death, the impression of his sovereignty remained; and it is not too much to say that no competent writer of prose since Johnsons day, has not, in spite of all diversities of genius, and in spite even of earnest resistance to his sway, owed much of such rhythm, and balance, and lucidity as he has attained, to the example and the model set by Johnson. In some of the authors who might least of all be supposed to accept his dictatorship, it will be interesting to trace examples of this unconscious influence, in the later pages of this selection.
When we turn to an examination of Johnsons own style, we shall find that its characteristics are very different from those of the parody which lives in the popular estimation. No man could better discard long words, and use more pithy English when he chose, than could Johnson. Wit is that which he who hath never found it wonders how he missed; such a sentence shows that Johnson could express himself tersely when it suited him to do so. Often the long words and the formal expression are adopted of a set purpose, which is humorous much more than pedantic. No man could assume a manner of greater ease and directness, and no one could achieve with more perfect art that most difficult of literary manuvres, the introduction of a convenient but entirely irrelevant digression. We have only to turn over a few pages of the Lives of the Poets to see how a stinging sarcasm no less than a touch of playful humour, is enhanced by the formal dignity of manner, and would have lost half its raciness if the ceremonial stateliness of phraseology were absent.
One of the secrets of Johnsons style is that it was hammered out upon the anvil of conversational combat. It was wrought into shape by no persevering and continuous labour. His work was done, all his life through, in those sudden starts by which he shook off the lethargy that burdened him, and toiled with fierce and untiring energy, with all the muscles of his mind strained to tensity. So it was with his conversation and with the style that grew out of that conversational habit. All his thoughts turned upon questions of direct human interest, upon the science of character, and the casuistry of ethics. These were just the questions that rejected all technical terms, and Johnson is singularly free from technicalities: they were also the questions that admitted most variety of treatment, in regard to which Johnson might most readily alter his position with the ease of the intellectual athlete; which admitted of endless disputation, and in regard to which skilful argument, clear exposition, and ready epigram could best win a conversational triumph. Addisons style was conversational in its ease and its familiarity: Johnsons style has not the ease, but it has the force, the epigram, and the dialectical readiness of successful conversation. We have his own account of it to Sir Joshua Reynolds: He told him that he had early laid it down as a rule to do his best on every occasion and in every company; to impart whatever he knew in the most forceful language he could put it in; and that, by constant practice, and never suffering any careless expression to escape him, or attempting to deliver his thoughts without arranging them in the clearest manner, it became habitual to him (BOSWELL).
Another characteristic of Johnsons work which largely affects his style, is its occasional calm and condescending frankness. It is not the frankness of a familiar friend. When he confesses to his dislike of tedious investigation and elaborate research, it is with the frankness which despises concealment, not with that which deprecates criticism or craves indulgence. When he draws aside the curtain and speaks of the loneliness and ill health and poverty under which he toiled, he gives the confidence with the air of one who defies sympathy, not with the humility of one who begs for pity. But in both cases, the effect on his style is the same, to increase the force of its dignified formality, which can on occasion be frank and even confidential, but which indicates clearly enough that he will neither welcome nor permit the slightest intrusion beyond the limits he has set to that confidence.
The first specimens of Johnsons original prose were the parliamentary debates (composed almost entirely according to his own notion of probabilities) which he contributed to the Gentlemans Magazine. The Rambler was written in the midst of his most severe and prolonged toil, and under conditions of grinding poverty, and in point of style it has more than his usual stateliness, and less than his usual variety and humour. The Idler was written when he had escaped from the long burden of the Dictionary and was already a literary dictator, and its style is more varied by light and shade, more quickened by humour; but the weight of poverty still pressed him, and its sadness still hangs heavily over Rasselas, which was written in order to pay for his mothers funeral. It represents perhaps the best specimen of Johnsons more formal style. From first to last it has a strain of melancholy, relieved by few lighter touches; but its literary skill is seen in the perfect symmetry, and completeness of its construction, all the more remarkable because it wants beginning, and end, and story.
But Johnsons style is not seen in its richness and perfection, nor in its consummate ease, until we come to his last and greatest workthe Lives of the Poets. That was not begun until he was nearly seventy years of age. His time for careful and methodic labour was now past. His opinions were fixed, and he was not likely to examine or modify them. He was undisputed literary dictator, and indisposed to bend to others views. But all these circumstances contributed to the consummate literary qualities of the book. This is not the place either to impugn or defend the justice of his literary criticisms. But for vigour and ease and variety of style, for elasticity of confidence, for keenness of sarcasm, for brightness of humour, the Lives hold the first place, absolutely free from competition, amongst all works of English criticism of similar range. We may carp at Johnsons judgments, and rail against the prejudice and injustice of his decrees. We may be disposed to accord to more modern critics, all the advantages of balanced judgment and sympathetic insight which they may claim; but they must yield to Johnson the palm for boldness, for wit, for extent of range, and for brilliancy of style.
To those at least, who, like the present writer, look upon Johnson as a man and as a genius with the most profound admiration, it may be permitted to point to passages, to be found even amongst the scanty selections that follow, which may fitly take rank amongst the most consummate and perfect specimens of English prose, clothing thoughts of highest wisdom in language which is a model of dignity and grace.