When Johnson came to try his fortune in London, he was twenty-eight years of age. The son of a not very successful bookseller in Lichfteld, he had left Oxford after four terms without a degree. Poverty and ill-health made his prospects poor. After an unhappy experience as an usher in a grammar-school, he moved to Birmingham where he chanced upon some hack-work (notably the translation of Lobo's Voyage to Abyssinia) and also upon a wife, 'a widow, the relict of Mr Porter, a mercer', and Johnson's senior by twenty years. The bride brought a modest fortune with her, and near his old home at Lichfield Johnson determined to set up an academy where young gentlemen could be 'boarded and taught the Latin and Greek languages'. An elaborate classical curriculum was prepared, but the school failed and Johnson made his final choice of life— 'to become an author by profession'.
It was a profession which could be followed only in London, and to London Johnson went in 1737. He was, as he said, 'an adventurer in literature', and he brought one of his pupils, David Garrick, with him:
The two fellow-travellers had the world before them, and each was to choose his road to fortune and to fame. They brought with them genius, and powers of mind, peculiarly formed by nature for the different vocations to which each of them felt himself inclined. They acted from the impulse of young minds, even then meditating great things, and with courage anticipating success.... In three or four years afterwards Garrick came forth with talents that astonished the publick . . . Johnson was left to toil in the humble walks of literature.
For many years the walks were humble indeed. A newly founded journal the Gentleman's Magazine, edited by Edward Cave, was the medium of Johnson's first contributions to periodical literature. Odes, epigrams, epitaphs, reviews, short biographies, and other pieces were accepted by Cave, who quickly recognized Johnson's quality as a journalist. In particular, he employed his new contributor to revise and embellish the reports of debates in parliament which formed an important feature of his magazine. They were not the verbatim reports to which the modern reader of Hansard is accustomed. They were written with a fervour which 'bordered upon enthusiasm' and with a particular determination 'that the Whig dogs should not have the best of it'. In later years Johnson had some compunction in looking back upon these debates and warned historians not to quote them. After listening to the praises poured upon a famous speech of the elder Pitt beginning 'Sir, the atrocious crime of being a young man . . .' he broke in with 'That speech I wrote in a garret in Exeter street'.
But while he faced the necessity of 'writing for bread' Johnson preserved also the legitimate ambition of a man of letters. As a young man, he had written of
. . the young author panting for a name
And fir'd with pleasing hope of endless fame
and early in 1738 he submitted his poem, 'London', to Cave for publication. It was a poem of more substance than his customary contributions to the Magazine and Cave arranged for its publication by Dodsley. 'London' is at once an illustration of the literary fashion of its time and an individual expression of Johnson's scholarship. It was written in imitation of Juvenal's third Satire and 'saeva indignatio' is turned against the lawlessness of the streets:
Here malice, rapine, accident conspire,
And now a rabble rages, now a fire;
Their ambush here relentless ruffians lay,
And here the fell attorney prowls for prey;
Here falling houses thunder on your head,
And here a female atheist talks you dead,
against the corruption and cowardice of the government:
Here let those reign, whom pensions can incite
To vote a patriot black, a courtier white;
Explain their country's dear-bought rights away
And plead for pirates in the face of day
and, more personally, against the poor man's lot:
Of all the griefs that harrass the distress'd,
Sure the most bitter is a scornfill jest;
Fate never wounds more deep the gen'rous heart
Than when a blockhead's insult points the dart....
This mournful truth is ev'ry where confess'd,
SLOW RISES WORTH, BY POVERTY DEPRESS'D ....
In form, 'London' may be regarded as a Latinist's exercise; in substance, it comes from the heart of Grub Street and from the heart of the writer. The poem was published anonymously, but its quality was recognized. 'Here', people said, 'is an unknown poet, greater even than Pope', and Pope himself, being informed~that the author was an unknown man named Johnson, declared: 'He will soon be "deterre". Johnson's monetary reward was ten guineas.
So the hack-work continued and sometimes more than hack-work: the Lye of his friend Richard Savage, for in- stance, of which he wrote forty-eight pages at a sitting, and the Observations on Macbeth (1745), to which were appended Proposals for an edition of Shakespeare. For his old pupil, David Garrick, he wrote a Prologue for the opening of Drury Lane Theatre in 1747, surveying in rapid review the history of the English stage since Shakespeare's time. His comment on the Restoration was essentially that of the moralist:
The Wits of Charles found easier Ways to Fame,
Nor wish'd for Jonson's Art or Shakespeare's Flame;
Themselves they studied, as they felt, they writ,
Intrigue was Plot, Obscenity was flit.
Vice always found a sympathetic Friend;
They pleas'd their age and did not aim to mend.
Two years later Johnson came forward himself as a playwright. In the early days of his marriage he had drafted a tragedy based on the story, as told by Knolles in his General Historie of the Turks, of Mahomet II and the beautiful Greek maiden, Irene, taken captive at the fall of Constantinople. The play was finished soon after Johnson came to London in 1737. For some years his efforts to have it either published or acted were fruitless; but when Garrick came into power at Drury Lane, he determined to do his best for his old schoolmaster. The play was produced 'with a display of eastern magnificence' on 6 February 1749 and ran for nine nights. It has never been revived. One contemporary critic remarked that 'to instance every moral which is inculcated in this performance would be to transcribe the whole'.
From Johnson's point of view, the heart of the matter is Irene's failure to resist the appeals of Mahomet and to hold fast to her religion. To her friend, Aspasia, she puts the question:
Upbraid me not with fancy'd Wickedness
I am not yet a Queen, or an Apostate.
But should I sin beyond the Hope of Mercy,
If, when Religion prompts me to refuse,
The Dread of instant Death restrains my Tongue?
to which Aspasia answers:
Reflect that Life and Death, affecting Sounds '
Are only varied Modes of endless Being:
Reflect that Life, like ev'ry other Blessing,
Derives its Value from its Use alone;
Not for itself but for a nobler End
Th' Eternal gave it, and that End is Virtue. .
And when Irene hints at the benefit her own country might derive from her apostasy:
O ! did Irene shine the Queen of Turkey,
No more should Greece lament those prayers rejected.
Again should golden Splendour grace her Cities....
the reply is prompt and uncompromising:
By virtuous Ends pursued by virtuous Means,
Nor think th' Intention sanctifies the Deed:
That Maxim publish'd in an Impious Age,
Would loose the wild Enthusiast to destroy,
And fix the fierce Usurper's bloody Title.
The Bigotry might send her Slaves to War,
And bid Success become the Test of Truth.
As a dramatic production, Irene, in spite of Garrick's efforts, was not a success; but it is one of the many evidences of Johnson's preoccupation with the proper tests of truth. Primarily, it was the work of a 'young author panting for a name', but in Johnson's hands the story of Irene quickly became a reflection of the continuing struggles in his own mind. A man at once of strong passions and of deep dependence upon an ultimate faith, he pointed the moral of Irene's apostasy with all the fervour of a Christian moralist. It would be idle to pretend that Irene left any permanent mark upon the history of English drama; but a few of its lines are preserved in footnotes to Gibbon's 68th chapter. Just before the production of his play, Johnson had, with greater success, published his second satire, 'The Vanity of Human Wishes', the first work to be issued with the author's name on the title-page. Like 'London', the poem was written in imitation of Juvenal, but the treatment is much freer. The theme of The Young Author is developed and the lot of the struggling scholar presented in lines that have become part of the English literary tradition:
Deign on the passing world to turn thine eyes
And pause awhile from letters, to be wise;
There mark what ills the scholar's life assail,
Toil, envy, want, the patron and the gaol.
But the poem is much more than a personal complaint. Wolsey, Charles XII of Sweden, and others are cited to demonstrate the impermanence of human fame and the hollowness of martial triumph:
The festal blazes, the triumphal show,
The ravish'd standard, and the captive foe,
The senate's thanks, the gazette's pompous tale.
With force resistless offer the brave prevail.
Such bribes the rapid Greek o'er Asia whirl'd,
For such the steady Romans shook the world;
For such in distant lands the Britons shine,
And stain with blood the Danube or the Rhine;
This Power has praise, that virtue scarce can warm
Till fame supplies the universal charm.
Yet Reason frowns on War's unequal game,
Where wasted nations raise a single name,
And mortgag'd states their grand-sires wreaths regret,
From age to age in everlasting debt;
Wreaths which at last the dear-bought right convey
To rust on medals, or on stones decay.
Here is no transient satire upon current events, but 'the high seriousness which comes from absolute sincerity', though Matthew Arnold would never have put this hall- mark on the work of an Augustan poet.
Meanwhile, Johnson was too good a realist to imagine that satire in verse would enable him to make a living; but he was now coming to be recognized as a competent man of letters and he sought for some more solid and more scholarly task then weekly journalism could provide. So, when a syndicate of booksellers approached him with a proposal for a dictionary of the English language, he accepted the offer and produced his Plan in 1747. He was drawn forward, he said, with the prospect of employment which, though not splendid, would be useful. The Plan was addressed to Lord Chesterfield, whose initial neglect and subsequent attempt to make amends provoked the most famous of all Johnson's letters. At the outset, even Johnson was 'frighted' at the extent of the work he had undertaken. But on the top floor of his house in Gough Square he organized his six amanuenses (five of them from Scotland, as Boswell is careful to point out) and the 'harmless drudgery' went forward. Johnson made no complaint of the sum the booksellers paid him, but, even so, the prospective fame of lexicography would not keep the wolf from the door. Accordingly, he decided to embark upon a weekly paper which he entitled The Rambler. In general form it followed the pattern of The Spectator and The Tatler and Johnson had a peculiarly high opinion of Addison's prose. The Rambler was not conceived as a series of papers to provide weekly entertainment. It was deliberately the work of a 'majestic teacher of moral and religious wisdom' and Johnson embarked upon it with a prayer:
'Grant, I beseech Thee, that in this undertaking thy Holy Spirit may not be withheld from me, but that I may promote Thy glory and the salvation of myself and others.'
An appreciation of the nature and the circumstances of the production of The Rambler is fundamental to an understanding of Johnson's position in the world of letters. To later critics it has been a stumbling-block. Macaulay grumbles at 'Johnsonese'; Taine complains that the essays are no more and no less than sermons; Leslie Stephen notes that a moralist must not aim at originality in his precepts; and readers, as a whole, put The Rambler aside and go back to their Boswell. But they do not always reflect upon Boswell's own attitude. In his early reading he had nowhere found 'more bark and steel for the mind' than in The Rambler; in his early meetings with Johnson his culminating pride was in the fact that he had spent an evening not with the great clubman, not with the Great Lexicographer, but with the author of The Rambler. Unlike his readers to-day, Boswell was primarily drawn to Johnson by the 'amazing universality' of his genius as a writer. The highest compliment he could pay to his conversation was to put it on a level with his written works. Here it must be remembered that when Johnson took a pen in his hand, he deliberately adopted a style and a standard that were quite distinct from his tavern-chair manner. Talking and writing were for him quite separate arts:
As many please [he wrote] by extemporary talk, though utterly unacquainted with the more accurate method and more laboured beauties which composition requires; so it is very possible that men wholly accustomed to works of study may be without that readiness of conception and affluence of language always necessary to colloquial entertainment.
If The Times, as we know it, had existed in Johnson's day, he would have made an admirable leader-writer; but he would not have been commissioned to write the fourth leader. Accordingly, the reader of The Rambler must not look for 'colloquial entertainment'; but he will be a dull reader if he does not occasionally derive pleasure, as well as instruction, from its pages. Unlike his successors of to-day, Johnson never 'complied with contemporary curiosity' and rarely 'exemplified his assertions by living characters'. Consequently, The Rambler is not a day-to-day commentary on the political, or the social, or the literary events of the time. If, on occasions, Johnson had individual characters or particular events in mind, he was careful to generalize them. Yet where can a better picture of the journalist's lot be found than in The Rambler, No. 145?
It has formerly been imagined that he who intends the entertainment or instruction of others must feel in himself some peculiar impulse of genius.... But the authors whom I am now endeavouring to recommend have been too long hackneyed in the ways of men to indulge the chimerical ambition of immortality; they have seldom any claim to the trade of writing, but that they have tried some other without success, they perceive no particular summons to composition, except the sound of the dock . . . and about the opinion of posterity they have little solicitude, for their productions are seldom intended to remain in the world longer than a week.
This is but one of several shrewd reflections on the profession of literature, and when Johnson wrote of Grub Street he wrote of what he knew. But, in fact, only a small proportion of The Rambler is devoted to literary topics. Many of the essays are character-sketches; one of them, that of Suspirius, was used by Goldsmith for the making of Croaker in The Good Natur'd Man, and it was Croaker who made the play a success. Domestic relationships provided material for many essays and it is legitimate to conjecture that in The Rambler No. 112 the description of the fussy housewife and the grumbling male may reflect some features of Johnson's own experience. Solemnity is by no means the pervading quality of The Rambler, but it is certainly evident in the treatment of such subjects as the death-sentence for robbery. Here, and not only here, Johnson's opinions were in advance of his time:
Death is of dreadful things the most dreadful.... To equal robbery with murder is to reduce murder to robbery, to confound in common minds the gradations in iniquity and incite the commission of a greater crime to prevent the detection of a less.
The Rambler, in short, abounds in passages which are an essential complement to Johnson's utterances as preserved in Boswell's record and, let it be repeated, it was on the Rambler that Boswell's admiration was initially based.
Johnson's second series of periodical essays (The Idler) were contributed to the Universal Chronicle, a weekly publication, between 1758 and 1760, and to anyone who still protests that Johnson is unreadable, there is no better answer than to confront him with a selection of Idler papers.
Boswell himself is curiously apologetic. The Idler, he says, has less body and more spirit than The Rambler, and he comes as near to censure as a hero-worshipper can when he reflects upon Johnson's wantonness of disquisition and his failure to suppress his power of sophistry—and all this because Johnson made fun of the opinion 'that our mental faculties depend, in some degree, upon the weather', in an essay beginning:
It is commonly observed that when two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather; they are in haste to tell each other, what each must already know, that it is hot or cold, bright or cloudy, windy or calm....
Some of The Idler papers, as Boswell is pleased to remark, approximate in 'profundity of thought' and 'labour of language' to The Rambler standard; but others display a lighter touch and a remarkable freshness. On news-writers in war-time, for instance:
In a time of war . . . the task of news-writers is easy: they have nothing to do but to tell . . . that a battle has been fought, in which we and our friends, whether conquering or conquered, did all, and our enemies did nothing. Scarcely anything awakens attention like a tale of cruelty....
Or this description of a bargain-hunter:
I am the unfortunate husband of a buyer of bargains . . . whatever she thinks cheap, she holds it the duty of an economist to buy; in consequence of this maxim, we are encumbered on every side with useless lumber. The servants can scarcely creep to their beds through the chests and boxes that surround them. The carpenter is employed once a week in building closets, fixing cupboards and fastening shelves....
But perhaps the most revealing essay is that in which Johnson purports to display the character of his old friend Sober:
Sober is a man of strong desires and quick imagination, so exactly balanced by the love of ease, that they can seldom stimulate him to any difficult undertaking; they have, however, so much power, that they will not suffer him to lie quite at rest; and though they do not make him sufficiently useful to others, they make him at least weary of himself. Mr Sober's chief pleasure is conversation; there is no end of his talk or his attention; to speak or to hear is equally pleasing.... But there is one time at night when he must go home, that his friends may sleep; and another time in the morning, when all the world agrees to shut out interruption. These are the moments of which poor Sober trembles at the thought....
It is Johnson's "apologia pro vita sua".
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