THANKS mainly, though far from solely, to Boswell, Johnson as a person is the best-known of the Augustans. His fame is that of stalwart character and common sense, opinionative and independent, blunt and dogmatic, holding fast by a robust Tory patriotism. Such a reputation, while neither discreditable nor untrue, is far from an adequate estimate of him, and happily, as the bases of Augustan culture are better understood, the admiration for his written work which the wiser critics and scholars have traditionally felt is spreading. With many readers, it is true, the rational controls and critical cautions of Augustanism are still suspect as being a denial of the full life of man, but the better opinion is gaining ground that the Augustans' vigour and enlightened seriousness achieved, within whatever necessary limitations, a constructive and not merely restrictive civilization such as only sound intelligence, healthy instinct, and a fundamental sense of tradition could accomplish.
Of that civilization Johnson is the strongest representative; to express it was his instinctive and his deliberate aim. A century later Matthew Arnold, equally great as critic and as critical influence, equally the spokesman of classically rooted Christian humanism, was far less favourably placed; he had to speak against the whole trend of his time, for culture had ceased to hold anarchy in check. On the one hand, Johnson's excellence is personal, the excellence of superlative moral power, and of wit and intellect massive, surprising, sensitive, and subtle: Mrs Thrale's guests once pleasantly compared his mind to an elephant's trunk, 'strong to buffet even the tiger, and pliable to pick up even the pin'. But, on the other hand, it is an excellence also of the time. Culture was quite aware of anarchy, which had so prevailed a century earlier, but it was sure that it could keep anarchy in check, that reason and discipline in faith and morals, good taste and practice in the arts, and social care in matters of daily life were the intended expressions of human nature. These ambiguous terms were defined by the Christian, rational, and humanistic traditions in which Augustanism worked, and they amounted to a thoroughly mature and responsible sense of values.
Johnson was supported (even so vigorous a mind is the better for support) by the strong general ethos of his time, and one of the most significant things about him is his perpetual reference to the open air of public assent. Assertions that 'every reader' likes this or dislikes that, that 'every man' believes this or disbelieves that, are refreshingly abundant — refreshingly not because the postulated unanimiy has always worn well (though often it has), but because its attitude is that of frank confident spokesmanship for the ordinary man, though with the important proviso that the ordinary man is assumed to embody sound taste and considered judgement. Johnson's thought has fine, wide publicity; he seeks the truth which (he thinks) all men can know, and he expresses it with a wit which makes it memorable. This truth is not a cynical or tarnished worldly wisdom; it is concerned with the central moral needs of human life, and the generic workings of human nature. It is not peculiar and individual truth, but the truth of a tradition, of which Anglicanism was the presiding faith, the humane arts the exemplars, and human nature within that tradition the norm. Johnson, incidentally, like most Augustan humanists, elevates moral philosophy far above the new fashion for physical science; 'men more frequently require to be reminded than informed', he observes, and whereas information is a function of the growing materialism, reminding is a function of an accepted philosophy, recalling the things needful to the proper conduct of life. The more we know of Augustanism, and of Johnson, the more enviable seems this relationship by which he can refer to the public ('the common sense of readers uncorrupted by literary prejudices') in the most serious matters of life and letters. This is by no means to say that he is a critical demagogue, or eager for general assent in a universal bonhomie. The case is precisely the opposite; he does not lower the standards of judgement to those of the average man — he expects the average man to rise to the standards of a large sanity and reason. His sense of responsibility is great —
'I am now writing this', he tells Boswell in a letter, 'and you when you read this are reading, under the Eye of Omnipotence';
he recognizes that responsibility and instinctively bears it, and part of his sense of it is his reference of particular judgements to large grounds of general principle, grounds which are both the bases of his civilization and also personal convictions rooted in his own experience. It is that basis of principle, the belief that truth can be rationally sought and must be expounded plainly, and that men can agree on all important matters, that gives Johnson's thought such amplitude and representative strength.
That amplitude and strength as well as more specifically poetic qualities are prominent in his major poems, London (1738) and The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749), whose exceptional distinction is the product of strength and subtlety. The words that spring to mind for them — 'monumental', 'grave', 'deliberate', and so on — are insufficient; they recognize weight or volume, but not the verbal vitality which animates what might otherwise be a mere simulacrum of grandeur. Since poetry cannot be interesting without at the very least sounding interesting, it is proper to insist first on the masterly grandiloquence, based partly (though not as a mere decorative trick) on simple sound mechanics like assonance and alliteration —
While yet my steady Steps no Staff sustains,
And Life still vig'rous revels in my Veins ...
Explain their Country's dear-bought Rights away,
And plead for Pirates in the Face of Day
— and partly on astute variations of rhythm:
For who would leave, unbrib'd, Hibernia's Land,
Or change the Rocks of Scotland for the Strand?
O'er Love, o'er Fear, extends his wide Domain,
Unconquer'd Lord of Pleasure and of Pain.
This recalls Dryden's manner, but there are melodies here both stronger and subtler than Dryden's vigorous tunes, the products of an excellent ear serving an excellent mind and evolving an almost voluptuous interplay of vocables to recommend to the attention not merely the expression's sense but its complex of feelings too:
Obsequious, artful, voluble and gay ...
Diffuse the tuneful Lenitives of Pain ...
The March begins in Military State,
And Nations on his Eye suspended wait ..
An Age that melts with unperceiv'd Decay,
And glides in modest Innocence away.
The sound is sound not for its own sake, as the imagery is imagery not for its own sake, but for the sake of the meaning. The collaboration of sound and meaning gives at once one of the full pleasures of poetry, a sensory organic enrichment of a content in itself interesting. In such a passage as the following the half-caught alliterations and assonances, the echoes and onomatopoeia ('snarling Muse', 'brisker Air', 'silken Courtiers gaze', 'turn the varied Taunt') realize the meaning and, as it were, present it to the mind through the ear:
By Numbers here from Shame or Censure free,
All Crimes are safe, but hated Poverty,
This, only this, the rigid Law pursues,
This, only this, provokes the snarling Muse.
The sober Trader, at a tatter'd Cloak
Wakes from his Dream, and labours for a Joke;
With brisker Air the silken Courtiers gaze,
And turn the varied Taunt a thousand ways.
This vital significance of sound is found too in Johnson's prose, which is not always credited with phrasing as fine in auditory as in intellectual quality. In the verse it is important as providing its own kind of 'body' to themes that in their morality-manner, with generalized categories of idea and example, need as much substantializing as they can get. The complaint is often heard, indeed, that Johnson's large meditations on moral themes are too general, too oracular and insufficiently personal, yet as one comes to know his work it is clearly the product of a mind both weighty and intelligent which, when it generalizes (as it often does in writing, though less so in conversation), does so merely as a broadening of its own experience, and expresses its ideas with a particularly individual stamp of style. General, then, the poems are, as public utterance with words as the firm counters of broad moral points of view; but they have a sweep and comprehension which save the attention from distracting particularities and are guaranteed not to be vacuous by the full harmony and the flexible significance of sound.
The guarantee extends further. Johnson's phrasing looks as though it is the simple elements of meaning — 'hated Poverty', 'rigid Law','snarling Muse', 'sober Trader', 'tatter'd Cloak', 'labours for a joke',or
Unnumber'd Suppliants croud Preferment's Gate,
Athirst for Wealth, and burning to be great;
Delusive Fortune hears th'incessant Call,
They mount, they shine, evaporate, and fall.
But though simple elements of meaning are here, there is more than simplicity in them. There is economy, relevance, adequacy. The epithets are not novel or, at first, striking, but they are something better; they are in their descriptive definiteness absolutely right. Of the nouns they accompany one aspect only is to be characterized, and characterize it they do. They are cogent and precise, and any impression that Johnson's phrasing disperses on inspection into mere generalization is untenable. The first lines of The Vanity of Human Wishes have been thought vulnerable:
Let Observation with extensive view
Survey Mankind, from China to Peru;
Remark each anxious Toil, each eager Strife,
And watch the busy scenes of crouded Life.
Yet these do what is wanted — they open a broad morality-panorama (the whole poem depends on broad sweeps and general categories — even its historical figures are there as types and symbols), and they indicate the required aspect of each word. 'Busy scenes', 'crouded Life' — like 'Unnumber'd Suppliants', 'A thirst for Wealth, and burning to be great', 'delusive Fortune and 'incessant Call' — are directly defined in the one necessary aspect. As for lines like 'Obsequious, artful, voluble and gay', 'And Sloth effuse her opiate fumes in vain', or 'They mount, they shine, evaporate, and fall', auditory pleasure and precise relevant meaning are perfectly united in them: idea, image, attitude, and moral comment are conveyed simultaneously by Johnson's clear and subtle undissociated sensibility. Part of their precision is the fact that words like 'obsequious', 'voluble', 'effuse', and 'evaporate', though naturalized in English and therefore, unlike many Augustan Latinisms, easily digested, have a peculiar aptness arising from their derivation. Johnson was, in fact, keenly aware of this subtle language-flavour deriving from the complex origins of English; prefacing the Dictionary he says he has aimed at giving both Latin and Teutonic equivalents to improve his readers' awareness of the language.
The poems bring into view both large extents and particular instances, both the generic and the specific, and play the one against the other. The suspicion of vague rhetoric in
Has Heav'n reserv'd, in pity to the Poor,
No pathless Waste, or undiscover'd Shore?
No secret Island in the boundless Main?
is dispelled by the pungency of
No peaceful Desert yet unclaim'd by Spain?
And a famous passage in The Vanity of Human Wishes extends its vast remote panorama and then actualizes the theme by a sharp decisive reference:
But few there are whom Hours like these await,
Who set unclouded in the Gulphs of Fate.
From Lydia's Monarch should the Search descend,
By Solon caution'd to regard his End,
In Life's last Scene what Prodigies surprise,
Fears of the Brave, and Follies of the Wise:
From Marlb'rough's Eyes the Streams of Dotage flow,
And Swift expires a Driveller and a Show.
There is harmony in this alternation; the writer uses all his knowledge easily, expanding into large perspectives and also concentrating down to particular persons. The result is so consonant partly because Johnson has found the right mental world for these reflections which are at once moral generalities and particular experience (so particular, indeed, that Johnson burst into tears over the scholar's poverty in The Vanity of Human Wishes), and yet so general that such a passage partakes of the nature of parable. This mental world finds a middle ground on which the general and the personal marry, from which the mind easily opens to broad sweeps of idea and as easily focuses to the detail of life. Such a way of putting it is perhaps not very lucid, and a reference to Gray's Elegy may help. In that poem the general notion of humble worth and obscure destinies is embodied in the picture of the churchyard tombs, and extends outwards into the pattern of country work and life, ploughing, herding, homecoming, parenthood, and faith. The reader hardly reflects that this is all a general theme; the mind is occupied by the churchyard scene, the household (blazing hearth, and children), cockcrow and hunting-horn, the harvesting of crops and the cutting of timber, then (by contrast) the splendour of Church and State which the villagers cannot rival, and then again the humble churchyard. The Elegy is a series of images, not an abstraction. Yet its images are not, as it were, particular atoms; the elms and yews symbolize country tradition and peaceful death; the swallow's nest and the housewife's hearth symbolize fruitful life; the cockcrow and the horn, the sickle and ploughing-teams symbolize active energy. Johnson's praise of the Elegy as abounding
'with images which find a mirror in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo'
is a recognition of this representative quality, and though the sentiments of his own longer poems (based on classical satire) by being more sombre are perhaps less universal than Gray's they have a broad acceptable truth of which the images are emblems. In The Vanity of Human Wishes the portraits of Wolsey and Charles of Sweden are like this; they do not interest us particularly as persons, but their names touch off the notion of splendour ending in defeat and their descriptions have, in grandiose impetus and volume, both the generality of large ideas and the concreteness of real figures. Wolsey in his 'full-blown Dignity', with 'Law in his Voice, and Fortune in his Hand', with the stream of honour flowing at his nod and jealous courtiers ('the Train of State') waiting to desert him, surrounded by the generic symbols of power —
'the Pride of aweful State,
The golden Canopy, the glitt'ring Plate'
— is a person embodying a concept, and so is Charles, 'unconquer'd Lord of Pleasure and of Pain', with peace courting his hand, war sounding the trumpet, nations suspended on his glance, and the dramatic ignominy of his fall conveyed by three simple generic images —
'a barren Strand,
A petty Fortress, and a dubious Hand'.
One concludes that Johnson felt life strongly as a union of fact and idea, that all life, physical and conceptual, was forcibly real to him. Indeed, thoughts and morality have for him an impressive force which weighs on actual life (his written and spoken aphorisms make almost a physical impact; Mrs Thrale records that 'he was more strongly and more violently affected by the force of words representing ideas' than anyone she knew). In these rich, resonant, witty, and massive poems Johnson provides more than the 'good sense in good metre' which a contemporary saw in them (though there is that too): he provides discourses glowing with controlled passion, which steep life in thought and thought in life, and resound with a grandeur which does not exclude intimacy. London is the more uneven of the two major works, though its best passages are admirable; The Vanity of Human Wishes is among the few very great Augustan poems.
The shorter poems include the well-phrased Epitaph upon Claudy Philips, brief and deeply moving; the Prologue at the opening of Drury Lane Theatre (1747), so pungent that much of it has become almost proverbial; and the two quatrain-poems, A Short Song of Congratulation (1780) and On the Death of Dr Robert Level (1782). Both are in the central Augustan manner — social in substance, decisive in phrase, mature in vigour, and open-eyed in the light of common day. The disciplined movement and trochaic tune of the former were in A. E. Housman's mind as he started The Shropshire Lad, but the character is different — is frank and downright, instead of poignant and troubling; it is the idiom not of nostalgia and sentiment, but of judgement and audacity. The elegy on Dr Levet is one of the century's most impressive things — grave, concentrated, and final. The images are few, conventional, and general — 'hope's delusive mine', 'sudden blasts', 'misery's darkest caverns'; the vocabulary is plain, with an undertone of Latin usage (words like 'officious' and 'innocent' have their original, not their modern, sense); the aim is simply to tell the truth. Nothing calls attention to itself, everything to its subject: the obscure, brusque, and devoted working doctor is portrayed decisive phrase by phrase in simple patterns of idea ('sudden blasts, or slow decline'; 'of ev'ry friendless name the friend'; 'the pow'r of art, without the show'; 'the busy day, the peaceful night') so that each item stands in steady relationship to the others. The voice observes the brief significant lingerings needed for reminiscence ('Yet still he fills affection's eye'), for careful definition ('Obscurely wise, and coarsely kind'), and for earnestness ('And sure th'Eternal Master found ...'). The only moment that startles is the almost metaphysical particularity (dramatically justified) of the last stanza:
Then with no throbbing fiery pain,
No cold gradations of decay,
Death broke at once the vital chain,
And free'd his soul the nearest way.
No restrictive praise — control, balance, good taste, and the like — is adequate; the tone, as in all Johnson's major work, is exactly right; he serves ends so much greater than himself that blemishes of self-display or superiority are simply not to be found, and the Christian gravity and the strength of his nature display themselves here in charity, integrity, and tenderness.
On 20 March 1750, Johnson emerged, in Boswell's words,
'in the character for which he was eminently fitted — a majestic teacher of moral and religious wisdom'.
In other words, he issued the first number of The Rambler, a periodical paper to be followed twice weekly for the next two years by 207 successors, of which he wrote all but five. From 1758 to 1760 it was followed, in a lighter tone and brisker style, by the weekly Idler, in 103 numbers of which Johnson wrote ninety-one. After a reign of forty years Addison's fashion of essay received not a deliberate but still a real challenge, for Johnson's nature could not be harnessed to the urbane social commentary which The Spectator had popularized, and if he fell short of The Spectator's animation he surpassed in grandeur even its more solemn moments, as also those of Berkeley's religious papers in The Guardian. If the quality of Addison and Johnson is to be compared, it is reasonable to do so by putting side by side the end of the 26th Spectator on the tombs in Westminster Abbey, and the end of the last Idler:
When I look upon the tombs of the great, every emotion of envy dies in me; when I read the epitaphs of the beautiful, every inordinate desire goes out; when I meet with the grief of parents upon a tombstone, my heart melts with compassion; when I see the tomb of the parents themselves, I consider the vanity of grieving for those whom we must quickly follow. When I see kings lying by those who deposed them, when I consider rival wits placed side by side, or the holy men that divided the world with their contests and disputes, I reflect with sorrow and astonishment on the little competitions, factions, and debates of mankind. When I read the several dates of the tombs, I consider that great day when we shall all of us be contemporaries, and make our appearance together. . (Spectator 26.)
That, in its calculated rise and fall of rhythm, in the careful curve and undulation of each sentence, in its parallelism and symmetry, is an artful masterpiece of construction, but the specious grandeur and profundity with which it treats a severe simple truth are positively distasteful. Put beside its complacency the following, and Johnson's own treatment of a severe simple truth appears immeasurably superior in tone and appropriateness:
As the last Idler is published in that solemn week which the Christian world has always set apart for the examination of the conscience, the review of life, the extinction of earthly desires, and the renovation of holy purposes; I hope that my readers are already disposed to view every incident with seriousness, and improve it with meditation; and that, when they see this series of trifles brought to a conclusion, they will consider that, by outliving the Idler, they have passed weeks, months and years which are no longer in their power; that an end must in time be put to everything great, as to everything little; that to life must come its last hour, and to this system of being its last day, the hour at which probation and repentance will be in vain; the day in which every work of the hand, and imagination of the heart, shall be brought to judgement, and an everlasting futurity shall be determined by the past.
Nothing in Johnson's journalism became him like the leaving it, and it may seem unfair to match him at his strongest with Addison who here is not at his best (though he gives signs of thinking he is). Johnson, indeed, would have strongly deprecated any attempt to promote him over his predecessor's head; his Life of Addison ends with one of the finest tributes ever paid by one writer to another. Posterity, as Macaulay observes, has come down decisively in Addison's favour and it is Johnson's own aphorism that 'about things on which the public thinks long it commonly attains to think right'. Yet even in his own day there were those who preferred his strength to Addison's smoothness; he himself found Steele 'too thin for an Englishman's taste', and Mrs Thrale formed the impression that really, despite his praise, he felt much the same about Addison. Perhaps it is fairest to conclude, with Arthur Murphy, an early biographer, that 'Addison lends grace and ornament to truth; Johnson gives it force and accuracy'. But for one reader at least, Johnson at his best is so superior to Addison at his best (the 'best's being admittedly in very different kinds of work) as to render insignificant the question whether average Addison is better than average Johnson; average Johnson may be tedious, but the best Johnson adds nobility to life. That The Rambler, after a cool initial reception, came by Johnson's death to achieve ten editions in its collected form is a tribute to late Augustan taste.
For while Johnson's immediate incentive was his living ('No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money'), characteristically he earned it not by coaxing, flattering, or amusing, but by stem concentration on truth. This truth was not the daily realism of life; that, he protests in the 4th Rambler, is already 'promiscuously described' in the novel. His theme is 'those parts of nature which are most proper for imitation'; he enlists under the Christian-humanist banner of conduct and faith. He is sometimes too didactic, often too sweeping, and by no means always interesting. But impending always over these venial faults are the virtues of wit and grandeur; ever and anon the morality-subjects are sharpened by aphorism (indeed, typically they begin and end in aphorism, with a masterful survey of the territory in between) raising them into the air of permanent truth, or are deepened by personal contact with the moral realities behind them. As for grandeur, the eighteenth century produced no finer prose than the end of Rambler No. 77 on the duties of authors, or No. 185 (Christmas Eve, 1751) on forgiveness, or Idler No. 41 on his mother's death, or No. 103 already quoted.
The sense of life as probation stirred Johnson's deepest emotions. The Prayers and Meditations he composed for his private use, rich in an earnest Anglican idiom, are full of this theme; so, indeed, is much of his work and not least the periodical-writing. Man he defines as
'a being placed here only for a short time, whose task it is to advance himself to a higher and happier state of existence, by unremitted vigilance of caution and activity of virtue' (Idler 43).
Periodical essays have seldom been inspired by deeper feelings than these; his sense of his own indolence, arising from intermittent constitutional languor and melancholia, was like a conviction of sin, no more to be dispelled by the counter-evidence of his massive output than the sinner's sense of guilt is dispelled by evidence of his virtues, and he lived under a pressure which none but his intimates knew and which, with ill health, accounted for much of his testiness.
It accounted likewise, however, for his charity and his passion for truth. His judgements on moral problems are movingly wise and tolerant, and as for truthfulness, he imposed on his whole circle, says Boswell, 'perpetual vigilance against the slightest degree of falsehood'. Factual truth was to be told just as it happened; moral truth was to be forwarded both by reiteration of moral principles and by the removal of illusion. In this removal of illusion he may be compared with Swift, but instead of Swift's angry passion in the exposure of human ignominy he dissipates the smoke-screen of distractions which conceal the morality by which one should live. Swift's main intention is, no doubt, constructive and reasonable, but he strips off so much pretension as to leave mankind naked and sore; the process, if just, is the justice of revenge, not of mercy. Johnson's proceedings are different; Mrs Thrale speaks of 'his truly tolerant spirit and Christian charity', and Boswell of his being 'never querulous, never prone to inveigh against the present times'. His sense of moral truth is one which operates on life to help mankind in its basic soundness and its daily struggle: he does not seek to make life seem easier than it is, yet he discountenances those who exact too much of human nature. His sense of human fallibility (his own, in particular) leads him to sympathy, not condemnation; he checks conventional judgements by his own experience and is prepared to defend, for instance, those who rise in the world and forget their friends, those who think better of themselves than circumstances warrant, those who are generous through vanity, and those who write better than they live.
Dryden's phrase on Shakespeare is true of Johnson — 'he is always great, when some great occasion is presented to him'. This is apparent in the periodicals and also in the letters, which deserve more comment than can be offered here (their substance and manner are strikingly interesting), where space allows only the suggestion that nothing better reflects his stature than his letters on bereavements. To James Elphinston on his mother's death, to Mrs Thrale on those of her son and husband, to Bennet Langton on those of his uncle and Thrale and Levet, to Dr Thomas Lawrence on that of his wife, and, above all, to Dr William Dodd on his approaching execution (an epistolary situation of truly appalling difficulty) — in all such cases there can be no rival to the impeccably phrased sympathy and strength with which he calls the survivors back from apathy to life.
Rasselas (1759), which has been called a prose Vanity of Human Wishes, is, like the journals and letters, an occasional piece, hurried through to pay his mother's funeral expenses. But like the journals and letters its substance is anything but occasional. To call it the most distinguished English-Oriental moral tale, to compare and contrast it with Voltaire's contemporary Candide, is not to touch its essence; its essence is that it is the concentration of Johnson's greatness. Its harmony has the massive and subtle music of the poems; there are modulated melodies —
'Why should not life glide quietly away in the soft reciprocations of protection and reverence?';
there are orchestrated grandeurs like the compelling dignity of the first sentence, or Imlac's meditation on the Pyramid (chapter 32). Its moral quality is a notable triumph for Augustan humanism; since the recipe for happiness proves elusive, it is the practice of virtue that emerges, not at all platitudinously, as the end of life.
Rasselas is a parable, and on that fact depends its method. Its characters are representatives, not individuals; its incidents are diagrams; its imagery, like that of the poems, is of general types, and its illustrations are simple. As Imlac the philosopher observes in a famous dissertation on poetry,
'the business of a poet is to examine not the individual but the species, to remark general properties and large appearances: he does not number the streaks of the tulip'.
The tale, though as impressive and important as all but the best of Augustan novels, does not proffer itself as realistic fiction. An inventor devises artificial wings: he drops into a lake. A philosopher preaches stoicism: he is overwhelmed by his daughter's death. A pasha is at the height of prosperity: his Sultan deposes him: the Sultan himself is murdered by his Janissaries. Such events are demonstrative, not realistic. The point is worth making only because unless one consciously resolves to tolerate formal allegory the virtues of Rasselas may go unrecognized; a willing suspension of impatience is required for this unrealistic, parabolic narrative, in which the complexities of life are generalized by schematization. Johnson gets simplicity of outline from large propositions which ignore the streaks of the tulip, but by his sacrifice of detail he secures large compensations. Principally he gains clarity of pattern and boldness of mass, and this is appropriate to his needs since his aim as always is to reveal the large outlines of fundamental duty ('As the mind of Dr Johnson was greatly expanded,' remarks Mrs Thrale, 'so his first care was for general, not particular or petty morality'). The simplification is a concentration, not an enfeeblement; distractions are discarded, and the central meaning clarified.
Yet to overstress the general and abstract would be misleading. Like the poems, the tale chooses a middle ground between abstract and concrete, on which morality can be embodied and an impression of real life adequately but not obtrusively maintained. The landscape on which Rasselas meditates ((chapter 2) is that of a moralist, not an artist, and it serves to prompt his self-criticism:
The moon by more than twenty changes admonished me of the flux of life; the stream that rolled before my feet upbraided my inactivity. I sat feasting on intellectual luxury regardless alike of the examples of the earth, and the instructions of the planets.
Yet with its tree-shaded rivers, lake, and fantastic mountains, its playing fish, singing birds, and browsing animals, it is not inadequate in interest. Scenes and places are, for their purposes, sufficiently indicated — the Happy Valley, the Nile, Cairo, the Pyramids, and the desert; the persons, though they talk a Rambler idiom, are suitable inhabitants of these representative settings and suitable recipients of moral experience; and the images are easily illustrative:
Distance has the same effect on the mind as on the eye, and while we glide along the stream of time whatever we leave behind us is always lessening, and that which we approach increasing in magnitude. Do not suffer life to stagnate; it will grow muddy for want of motion; commit your-elf again to the current of the world.
Such imagery obeys the harmony of the book; it reveals the meaning with a quiet and satisfactory illumination.
The tone varies between dignity, sombreness, irony, and wit. The dignity and sombreness stress endurance instead of joy, knowledge instead of fancy, honesty instead of illusion; the irony is a simple and strong quality which never (it may be noted) indicates on Johnson's part any self-congratulation on superior wisdom; the wit generates aphorisms and curiously concentrated (almost 'metaphysical') effects on occasion, like Pekuah's comment on the needlework she did when a prisoner —
'you know that the mind will easily straggle from the fingers, nor will you suspect that captivity and absence from Nekayah could receive solace from silken flowers'.
It also, by shrewd analysis and shaping, disciplines and patterns the ragged material of life, for though Johnson did not suppose life to be orderly he did serve a code of letters which elicited unity and definiteness from its confusions, as he did in his social views maintain the ideal of social order. This is his style of mind, evinced in mastery of material and in a firm placing of every detail (even his earliest surviving work, his first letter, already shows it). To illustrate this adequately in a short space is impossible, but it may be seen, for example, in the impeccable organization of the second chapter — 'The discontent of Rasselas in the Happy Valley'. Each item is interrelated with the others, but the effect is not factitious; it is that of a mind creating symmetry and coherence, and improving on what Johnson calls 'mere obvious nature'.
One last point is related to wit and subtlety: it concerns Johnson's handling of commonplaces. They abound in his own writing, and the point of interest is to see him dealing with those of other people, as he does in the tales of two specious philosophers (chapters xviii and xxii) and as, elsewhere, he does with the opinions of the criticasters Dick Minim and Tom Steady (Idler 60,61,78), of readers who wanted The Rambler merely to repeat The Spectator (Rambler 23), and, most forcibly, of Soame Jenyns, a gentleman-philosopher whose Free Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil provoked Johnson to one of the most trenchant of all book reviews. In Rasselas the first philosopher is exposed by his remorseless accumulation of cliches and by his desiccated and theoretical manner — 'he shewed ... he compared ... he communicated ... he enumerated ... he exhorted'. The second philosopher is exposed by his failure to define; his axioms — 'to live according to nature' and so on — could come from a Rambler individually, but never in this bland abundance unrelieved by the precisions of wit. Johnson knows when generalizations convey and when they avoid a meaning; his own are not intellectual proofs but the warm deductions of experience. He exposes the specious by irony which works sometimes (as with Soame Jenyns) by open assault and sometimes by subtly slanted phrase and by verbiage replacing wit. The Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775), briefer and less lively than Boswell's Tour to the Hebrides though it is, and sometimes depreciated because Johnson is supposed not to enjoy scenery sufficiently, nevertheless commands admiration. Along with it should be read the very similar letters to Mrs Thrale from Scotland. Its origin was less in a thirst for Hebridean beauty than in curiosity about 'savage virtues', and the longest section is a dissertation on customs. But the result is broader and deeper than simple sociology. In the first place, as one might expect, Johnson takes to the sublime almost as to his own element — to that height of grandeur and mystery which the vogue of the Bible and Milton, of Longinus and the new aesthetics of Burke was impressing on the Augustan mind (Shakespeare, he once said, surpassed Young as the ocean a tea-kettle, and Corneille as the forest a clipped hedge). Slanes Castle, on its Aberdeenshire cliff, suggests 'all the terrific grandeur of the tempestuous ocean'; he tries to imagine the winter spate at the Falls of Fiers; he finds delight in the loneliness of Glen Moriston; the moonlit sea from Mull to Iona is 'a solemn and pleasing scene', and even a violent storm between Oban and Inverary is praised as 'a nobler concert of rough music of nature than it had ever been my chance to hear before'. History has its own sublimity; he laments the ruins of St Andrews, Aberbrothick, and Elgin, and the meditation on Iona is one of the best things in the book. In the second place, such comments are not the casual embroidery of sentiment. Scenery and history evoke reflections, which come with all Johnson's spacious gravity, on the paradoxical grandeur and weakness of man. Wild landscape, he observes, displays 'one of the great scenes of human existence', and confronts us with the precarious condition of life. No paraphrase does justice to the severe passion with which Johnson enforces this common reflection, but the paragraph towards the end of the 'Anoch' section, beginning 'We were in this place at ease and by choice' and ending
'Yet what are these hillocks to the ridges of Taurus, or these spots of wildness to the deserts of America?'
has in full measure his unique impressiveness. Other sections of this volume treat of criticism, and to discuss critical principles here would be redundant. But to avoid the critical documents altogether would be a sin of omission and a lapse in proportion, for Johnson without the Preface to the English Dictionary (1755), the Preface to Shakespeare (1765), and the Lives of the English Poets (1779-81) would lose considerably in achievement. The first of these, characteristically, is a masterly mixture of general principles and personal experience; intellectually commanding and ingenious amidst all the complications of lexicography, Johnson impresses (as he impressed Boswell) by analytic and comprehensive power. The second, together with the notes on the plays, shows his best power in epitome, the vigour with which he represents the sane and un-idolatrous tradition of Augustan criticism, his conclusive and happy boldness of phrase, and his broad and intimate humanity. To have his say on Shakespeare was for him, as for most critics, a supreme challenge and opportunity, never better taken. As for the Lives, 'the biographical part of literature is what I love most,' he told Boswell, who in another connexion observed that
'Johnson loved business, loved to have his wisdom actually operate on real life.'
No form could better express his sense of literature as emerging from and reflecting on life than literary biography, already evolved in Walton's Lives, Sprat's Cowley, Burnet's Rochester, and Oldys's Ralegh, but still hardly significant as criticism. Johnson's commentaries blossom naturally and pervasively into annotations on life; his subjects are not writers only but men, and his praise of Samuel Butler applies to himself:
The most valuable parts of his performance are those which retired study and native wit cannot supply. He that merely takes a book from books may be useful, but can scarcely be great. Butler had not suffered life to glide beside him unseen or unobserved. He had watched with great diligence the operations of human nature, and traced the effects of opinion, humour [i.e. disposition], interest, and passion. From such remarks proceeded that great number of sententious distichs which have passed into conversation and are added as proverbial axioms to the general stock of practical knowledge.
All Johnson's criticisms, even many of his occasional petulances, are prompted by his sense of truth. This truth is, mainly, the recognizable substance of life, with its normal passions and activities in their due proportions; Shakespeare is praised for allowing love no more preponderance in his plays than it has in life, the metaphysical poets are blamed for their eccentric images and ideas. But behind this quotidian truth is the other, of religion, winch allies his criticism with his deepest intuitions and gives it a dimension which other critics seldom approach. This does not appear often; many subjects hardly admit of it. But in the last resort it is there to provide its own scale of judgement. This metaphysical fact, the existence of religious truth guaranteeing a series of moral truths, is Johnson's ultimate authority; its reality for him is the incentive to a certain kind of critical demand — too narrow (we should say) when it requires direct ethical improvement, but bracingly large and generous when it insists on a discipleship not of current vogue or private vision but of life in its permanent and communal reality, held to be recognizable by every man and to be described in terms all recognize as true. The aim of such discipleship, however, is not (it may be repeated) mere realism but a concern for an understanding of life into which enters moral conduct; Johnson's criticism is steeped in the ethos of Christian humanism and it holds, with the astronomer in Rasselas, that
'to man is permitted the contemplation of the skies, but the practice of virtue is commanded'.
To speak too much in terms of a general 'ethos', however, is as one-sided as to stress too much the abstract or general in Johnson. That ethos is there, like a sounding-board to give resonance to what he says; one is never far from that other dimension. Still, it is of actual life that Johnson always thinks, and all his thought opens directly into it. 'The highest pleasure the drama can give' lies in the engrossed, uncritical reading of Shakespeare's 'just representations of general nature' (i.e. of life in its broad truth), for 'his drama is the mirror of life'. And this, finally, seems the place for a word about Johnson's idea of literary originality, for the originality that he (like his contemporaries) most valued is that which Shakespeare showed in securing his 'just representations' — that function of the imagination which does not merely 'mirror' life but brings it home to the reader with both novelty and familiarity. Shakespeare does this abundantly; not only the 'practical axioms and domestic wisdom' which Johnson praises in a characteristic but curious phrase, but innumerable other perceptions also are minted from raw experience and added to the stock of recognized truths. Such imagination works not by that 'perverseness of ingenuity' which beset the metaphysical poets but by seeming to remind us, in an improved form, of what we already feel to be true of life. This reminding is Johnson's whole intention in creative as well as critical work; it is concentrated into his comment on a passage he repeatedly praised in Congreve's Mourning Bride:
He who reads these lines enjoys for a moment the power of a poet; he feels what he remembers to have felt before, but he feels it with great increase of sensibility; he recognizes a familiar image, but meets it again amplified and expanded, embellished with beauty and enlarged with majesty. (Life of Congreve)
There is, indeed, nothing unusual in this; most readers of most poetry want recognition-plus-revelation, though at different times the proportions of familiar and novel will differ, and demands for beauty and ennoblement may change, according to the spirit of the time, into those for realism and intensity. The point is that while Johnson's mind naturally encompasses religion and moral philosophy, it is none the less vigorously and variously interested in the daily spectacle of society, and accords the highest praise to writers who best bring to mind the common experience of man.
Johnson was fortunate, in the short run, in that he had an understood code of public taste to express, and, in the long run, in that that code was concerned centrally and intelligently with what the common sense (the conjoined form of those words is far too slight in meaning) of the Christian-humanist tradition indicated to be important about man. An acceptance of duty to God and truth, a discipline of imagination and reason by which eccentricity and whim submit to the large authority of 'things as they are' ('We may take Fancy for a companion', he wrote to Boswell, 'but must follow Reason as our guide'), and a wish to assert human community in serious and intelligent interests, the whole done within a tradition but with striking personal wit and independence — these qualities, exercised through the whole range of mind from vigorously grasped detail to comprehensive sanity about mankind at large, render the criticism (despite its limitations) thoroughly bracing and encouraging. Johnson is a great critic because while he works in a tradition his judgements are not those of tradition merely: they are judgements of tradition from which most of what is superficial has been pruned off by his unsurpassed power of looking at a subject for himself.
No one writing on Johnson can feel happy unless he has set him vividly in the context of his London life, surrounded by friends and acquaintances and reacting to the events of his time. This essay, not being another Boswell's Life, has clearly not done that, and may well be accused of having disembodied its subject. To refer the reader to other biographical treatments is, though necessary, no real amends; perhaps, instead, one ought to recall how varied, and how consciously enjoyed, was the Augustans' social world. Not all of it was enjoyable: Johnson's own experience, and the Life of Savage (humanly speaking the finest of the Lives), are among the abundant evidence that makes that clear. But social enjoyment abounds in Augustan letters, and the zest of Johnson's participation in it is prominent in any portrait of him. Moreover, as Joseph Wood Krutch has put it, the eighteenth century was 'the golden age of the amateur'; the intelligent man might speculate, not indeed on everything (for Augustan orthodoxy was timid about fundamentals, and Johnson himself was infuriated by deists or 'infidels'), but about a wide variety of 'safe' subjects — the classics, the arts, history and current affairs, social life, personalities, the sciences, and so on. Even with John Wilkes, that deplorable Whig, Johnson soon found common ground — 'classical learning, modern literature, wit and humour, and ready repartee' (Boswell's Life, III, 79). Common ground there was, in that fortunate Augustan culture of the non-specialist, where the availability of current knowledge enabled and encouraged any intelligent man to pursue an active breadth of interests. The vivacity of Johnson's conversation, Mr Krutch suggests, was partly a safeguard against the onset of depression, but it was partly a sign of his confidence in his company, in the currency of knowledge and ideas — though again with the proviso that fundamentals were not to be shaken. The Augustan unity could not last long, but while it did last it produced a society confident, animated, and coherent, and Johnson, a central figure if ever there was one, was in ideas, personality, and social experience its best embodiment.