Before the series of Idler papers was completed, Johnson heard that his mother, now ninety years of age, was gravely ill at Richfield. On 13 January 1759 he contrived to send her twelve guineas. A week later he wrote in terms of deep affection and distress and on the same day he also wrote to William Strahan, the printer, telling him that he had written a new work for which he would need an immediate advance of £3. The work was The History of Rasselas Prince of Abissinia and Johnson had written it in the evenings of a week. His mother died a few days after he had delivered the copy, but at least he had earned some money for the expenses of her funeral. Apart from the circumstances of its production, Rasselas is important in relation not only to Johnson's philosophy of life but also to eighteenth-century taste. Neither the Rambler nor the Idler had achieved more than a 'succes d'estime', but Rasselas was immediately welcomed and was, indeed, the one work of Johnson's which won solid popularity during the author's lifetime. As Boswell says, it was 'extensively diffused over Europe' in a variety of translations, and readers of Cranford will remember how in the middle of the nineteenth century old-fashioned ladies still regarded it as a more reliable kind of fiction than the newfangled and sensational stuff then being produced by Charles Dickens.
The eighteenth century loved a moral tale ('impressive truth, in splendid fiction drest') and Rasselas is Johnson's culminating work as a social and ethical philosopher. The setting of the tale, but little else, was no doubt taken from Lobo's Voyage to Abyssinia. Rasselas and his sister, 'wearying of the soft vicissitudes of pleasure and repose', leave their happy valley with a determination to gain experience of the varying conditions of human existence and to make their choice of life. They meet and talk with young men and old, with professors, astronomers, shepherds, and poets. Their conclusion ('in which nothing is concluded') is similar to that of the author of 'Ecclesiastes' and so they resolve to return to Abyssinia. There is no work of Johnson's which is more relevant to the study of the author's temperament and outlook than Rasselas. It is addressed, at the outset, to those
'who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy and pursue with eagerness the phantoms of hope; who expect that age will perform the promises of youth and that the deficiencies of the present day will be supplied by the morrow'
, and the discussions between Rasselas and his companions range over many of the fundamental issues of art and life. Are the Europeans happier than we? Rasselas asks. Imlac, in reply, describes their many advantages and Rasselas feels that with all their conveniences and ease of communication they must surely be happy. Then comes Imlac's—and Johnson's—final verdict: 'The Europeans are less unhappy than we, but they are not happy. Human life is every where a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed.'
In whatever context it is sought, happiness continues to be elusive. The poet sets himself so high a standard ('the interpreter of nature . . . the legislator of mankind . . . a being superior to time and place') that Rasselas protests himself convinced that no human being can ever be a poet. The hermit, after fifteen years of solitude, resolves to return to the world, convinced that 'the life of a solitary man will be certainly miserable, but not certainly devout'. The way to be happy, says the philosopher, is to live according to nature. What is life according to nature? asks Rasselas. 'To live according to nature', is the reply, 'is to act always with due regard to the fitness arising from the relations and qualities of causes and effects: to concur with the great and unchangeable scheme of universal felicity; to co-operate with the general disposition and tendency of the present system of things.' Upon which Rasselas appropriately concluded that 'this was one of the sages whom he should understand less as he heard him longer'.
Similarly, after an earnest discussion of the problems of family life, the conclusion is reached that 'marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures'; and a visit to the great Pyramid leads Imlac to observe: 'I consider this mighty structure as a monument of the insufficiency of human enjoyments.'
From all this we may understand Boswell's feeling when he wrote: 'The fund of thinking which this work contains is such that almost every sentence of it may furnish a subject of long meditation.' On Johnson's conjecture that some day man might use 'the swifter migration of wings' Boswell did not comment; but it may still provoke prolonged meditation:
What would be the security of the good, if the bad could at pleasure invade them from the sky? Against an army sailing through the clouds, neither walls, nor mountains, nor seas could afford any security. A flight of northern savages might hover in the wind, and light at once with irresistible violence upon the capital of a fruitful region that was rolling under them.
Meanwhile, Johnson's work in another field had been going steadily forward.
'This is a great work, Sir,' said Dr Adams, Master of Johnson's old college. 'How can you do this in three years?'
JOHNSON: 'Sir, I have no doubt that I can do it in three years.'
ADAMS: 'But the French Academy, which consists of forty members, took forty years to compile their Dictionary.'
JOHNSON: 'Sir, thus it is. This is the proportion. Let me see; forty times forty is sixteen hundred. As three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman.'
This was Johnson talking for victory and, in fact, he was engaged upon his task for eight years. In the Plan of 1747 it is characteristic that, although the work was to bring him a degree, it was not undertaken merely as an academic thesis:
The value of a work must be estimated by its use; it is not enough that a dictionary delights the critic, unless, at the same time, it instructs the learner, as it is to little purpose that an engine amuses the philosopher by the subtilty of its mechanism, if it requires so much knowledge in its application as to be of no advantage to the common workman.
The two massive folios which appeared in 1755 may well have seemed a formidable tool to be used by the common workman of literature. But in lexicography Johnson was a pioneer. Even the most rapid and casual comparison of Johnson's handling of a familiar English word with the scanty definitions given by his immediate predecessor, Nathaniel Bailey, is enough to demonstrate the quality and the magnitude of Johnson's achievement. Conscious alike of the 'scholar's reverence for antiquity' and the 'grammarian's regard to the genius of our tongue', he realized that words were not museum-pieces to be catalogued, but symbols subject to continual change and adaptation. He realized, also, that if he followed every by-way of research, he would never finish his work:
I saw one inquiry only gave occasion to another, that book referred to book, that to search was not always to find, and to find was not always to be informed.... I then contracted my design, determining to confide in myself.
It was a confidence well placed. No one before Johnson had attempted to analyze the finer variations of meaning which a simple word might have acquired in different authors and in different contexts;
The word GO, for instance, is defined by Bailey as 'to walk, move about, etc.'. Johnson distinguishes sixty-seven senses of the word, with illustrations from the Bible, Shakespeare, Locke, Dryden, Swift, and many others) and the wealth of illustrative quotation was the fruit of his own wide reading and tenacious memory. That the work would contain 'a few wild blunders and risible absurdities' Johnson was well aware. Even Boswell admits that his definition of Network ('Anything reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the inter-sections') was quoted with sportive malignity and to-day it is the grim little jokes in the definitions of Oats and Excise and Lexicographer that are remembered by the ordinary reader. Such is the inevitable work of Time, which 'antiquates antiquities and hath an art to make dust of all things . But Johnson's Dictionary has not come to dust. The late editor-in-chief of the Oxford Dictionary described it as 'a marvellous piece of work to accomplish in eight and a half years' and it remains a battered, but enduring, milestone in the history of English lexicography.
So, in 1755, Johnson became the Great Lexicographer and he had the further satisfaction of being able to add the letters AM (Artiste Magister) after his name on the title-page. But the ground on which he was recommended for an Oxford degree is significant: he had 'very eminently distinguished himself by the publication of a series of essays, excellently calculated to form the manners of the people, and in which the cause of religion and morality is every- where maintained by the strongest powers of argument and language'. In 1775 the University of Oxford awarded him the higher degree of Doctor of Civil Law. But ten years earlier he had been made LLD (Legum Doctor) by Trinity College, Dublin, and it should not be forgotten that it was an Irish university that first created 'Doctor Johnson'.
In the preface to the Dictionary can be found some of the best examples of Johnson's prose:
In this work, when it shall be found that much is omitted, let it not be forgotten that much likewise is performed; and though no book was ever spared out of tenderness to the author, and the world is little solicitous to know whence proceeded the faults of that which it condemns; yet it may gratify curiosity to inform it, that the English Dictionary was written with little assistance of the learned, and without any patronage of the great; not in the soft obscurities of retirement, or under the shelter of academick bowers, but amidst inconvenience and distraction, in sickness and in sorrow.
One of Johnson's principal sorrows had been the death of his wife in 1752, just after the issue of the last Rambler. 'Remember me in your prayers', Johnson wrote to his friend Dr Taylor, 'for vain is the help of man', and while Mrs Johnson in her lifetime may well have provoked a certain measure of domestic irritation by her 'particular preference for cleanliness', there can be no doubt of Johnson's devotion to the memory of his dear Tetty. While the scholastic triumph of the Dictionary in 1755 marked the final stage of Johnson's emergence from hack-work to literary eminence, it was not until 1762 that he was delivered from the labour and anxiety of writing for bread'. In that year, to his surprise, he was informed that His Majesty King George was graciously pleased to award him a pension of three hundred pounds a year. Johnson was staggered. Had he not written in 'London' of those whom pensions can incite To vote a patriot black, a courtier white? Had he not defined pension in his Dictionary as 'pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country'? Conscious of all this, Johnson hesitated to accept the honour; but his friends reassured him and, in particular, Lord Bute, the Prime Minister, overcame his scruples by telling him: 'It is not given you for any thing you are to do, but for what you have done'.
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