Imagens das páginas
PDF
ePub

read not only on the banks of the Volga' but also on the banks of the Ganges. Nevertheless it is true that when we talk of Johnson it is not of Johnson's Johnson, but of Boswell's Johnson, that we are thinking. The extraordinary interest which the skill of the biographer has raised in his hero has led us no doubt to study his character in all the lights that are cast upon it. In the pages of Hawkins, Murphy, Mrs. Piozzi, Mme. D'Arblay, and a host of others, we see qualities and peculiarities which Boswell either altogether passed over or traced with far too light a touch. In Johnson's own writings, if we care to study them, we come upon many a passage in which the author, while describing the character of another, is at the same time describing his own. Tradition too, before it was too late, came in with her delightful aid. From the memories of men who had visited at Bolt-court and at Streatham, or had enjoyed 'the manly conversation and the society of the brown table of the Literary Club?, was gathered many an interesting anecdote of the grand old sage. The result of all these varied labours has not been in vain, for we now know Johnson as no other man is known to us. It is with the characters of fiction alone that we have the same kind of friendly and close intimacy. Our acquaintance with him is not as with Dryden or Pope or Gibbon, but as with Falstaff and Don Quixote, with Sir Roger de Coverley and my Uncle Toby.

If it is by the wonderful skill of the biographer that his life

[ocr errors]

Johnson. “O! Gentlemen, I must tell you a very great thing. The Empress of Russia has ordered the Rambler to be translated into the Russian language; so I shall be read on the banks of the Wolga. Horace boasts that his fame would extend as far as the banks of the Rhone; now the Wolga is farther from me than the Rhone was from Horace.” Boswell's Life of Johnson, iv. 276. The report that the Rambler was translated into Russian was not well founded. 2 Ib. iii. 128 n. 4.

races.

still lives and glows, yet that skill would have been of no avail had it not had for its subject a man whose character was noble in itself, and was marked in the deepest and strongest lines. Striking and even wonderful though this character was, yet it seems to be understood only by the English-speaking

Of Boswell's Life of Johnson no translation, so far as I know, has ever yet been made. No foreigners come to worship at the shrine of the rugged idol whom we have set up. His wit, his humour, his strong common sense, his truthfulness, his roughness, his tenderness, are known to us and us alone. Boswell was indeed right when he so often spoke of him as 'a true-born Englishman?' Of all Englishmen he was the most English-in his bad qualities as well as in his good, in his prejudices as well as in his wisdom. The interest of the portrait that Boswell draws of him is heightened by the biographer's freedom from all insular narrowness. Scotchman was as far removed as possible from being

• A Scot if ever Scot there were ?? With perfect justice he boasted that he was a very universal He was

as easy with Rousseau as he was with Johnson, with Paoli as he was with Jack Wilkes. drink,' he boasted, 'I can laugh, I can converse in perfect humour with Whigs, with Republicans, with Dissenters, with Independents, with Quakers, with Moravians, with Jews ! He would have been the last man to agree with 'Old Meynell' when he exclaimed:

-For anything I see foreigners are fools. In his Tour to the Hebrides, while he describes Johnson as 'at bottom much of a John Bull, much of a blunt true-born Englishman 5, writing of himself he says :-'I am, I flatter myself, completely a citizen of the world. In my

The young

3 man

"I can

1 Boswell's Life of Johnson, V. 20. 3 Ib, iii. 375 n. 2.

4 16.

5 Ib. iv. 15.

3 Ib. ii. 306.
6 16. v. 20.

travels

travels through Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Corsica, France, I never felt myself from home?' He often boasted of his descent from Robert Bruce. But this universality, which was one of his greatest merits, may have come to him from his great-grandmother, Veronica, Countess of Kincardine, a Dutch lady of the noble house of Sommelsdyck";' certainly it is not often found north of the Tweed. In whatever way it came, he had it in a large degree. By means of it he saw the striking contrasts in his hero's character, but he saw them not with anger or contempt, or even with mere toleration. So far from being shocked by them, he had his interest all the more aroused.

As Johnson is marked off from all other men as the typical Englishman, so is he distinguished from all other Englishmen, by the prominence of the contradictory qualities s' that were found in him. Horace Walpole describes him as 'the representative in epitome of all the contradictions in human nature *.' With all his contradictions, however, he never exhibited those unhappy variations which trouble us in some of the greatest of men.

One of his friends praising the originality of his talk said :-' In general you may tell what the man to whom you are speaking will say next. This you can never do of Johnson 5.' Though you could never tell what Johnson would say, yet in all the greater questions of right or wrong every one could know what Johnson would do. Here there were no wanderings, no strayings to one side or to the other. There was the strait gate, and here was the narrow path leading to it. The gate he kept ever in view, and along the narrow path he doggedly plodded his way. Who has

1 Boswell's Life of Johnson, V. 20.

? Ib. v. 25 n. 2. 3 Ib. iv. 426.

Walpole's Letters, viii. 538. 5 Boswell's Life of Johnson, iv. 421 n. I.

not

not sorrowed over the miserable failings of some of the noblest of men? But with Johnson's whole life lying open before us as no other great man's life lies, we can say:

Nothing is here for tears, nothing to wail
Or knock the breast, no weakness, no contempt,

Dispraise or blame, nothing but well and fair 1.' This uniformity in the main of character heightens still more the contrast which exists in the minor parts. It not only heightens it but it renders it far more pleasing.

The most striking quality in Johnson was his wisdom, his knowledge of the whole art of life. Gibbon describes “the majestic sense of Thurlow 2.' If common sense can be thought of as invested with majesty, it is seen in all its stateliness much more in the dictionary-maker than in the great Lord Chancellor. But mere common sense would never have made Johnson all that he is to us. Benjamin Franklin had more common sense than the frame of any single man seems capable of containing or supporting. But who loves common sense when it stands alone? It must be dashed by the failings of men of like affections with ourselves. It must at times be crossed by the playful extravagances of a wayward humour. It must be joined not with a cold and calculating selfishness, but with a tenderness and a pity for those whose want of it has brought them to misery. No one understood better than Johnson the art by which we arrive at such happiness as life admits of; no one felt more compassion for those who, through the infirmity of will, failed to practise this art. It is perhaps this union of the strongest common sense and a real tenderness of heart that more than anything else endears him to men who are wide as the poles asunder. Macaulay did

1 Samson Agonistes, 1. 1721.
3 Gibbon's Miscellaneous Works, i. 222.

not

not delight in him more than did Carlyle, and Mr. Ruskin, I believe, would set him scarcely below the high level on which he is placed by the Master of Balliol.

Round about his common sense and his tenderness, and mingled with them in endless variety, his humour and his wit are ever playing. If he ever wearies us it is when he has a pen in his hand. When he speaks we wish that he could have gone on speaking for ever. He is wholly free from all affectation, all cynicism, all moroseness, all peevishness. He is as far removed from the savageness of Swift, as from the querulous irritability of Carlyle. He never snarls and he never whines. He is never 'guilty of sullenness against nature 1.' Life, he holds, is unhappy, it must be unhappy. But what of that? Something can be done to make it happier, and that something we must each one of us steadily do. The worst thing of all is to sit down and whine. It is of small things that life is made up, and it is in these small things, and in them alone, that we can find such happiness as we are allowed here on earth to attain. He would never have cried with Swift Vive la bagatelle, nor would he have applauded a life of conscious and intentional trifling. We are to attend to trifles, or those things which are accounted trifles, because it is of them, in all their variety and their multitude, that human existence is composed.

•Small sands the mountain, moments make the year,

And trifles life?" He accepts life as it is; 'he takes existence on the terms on which it is given to him 3.' He never expects from life more than life can afford. He always refuses to hide from himself the real state of things. He puts up no screen between

1 Milton, quoted in Johnson's Dictionary under Sullenness.
2 Young, Love of Fame, satire vi.
9 Boswell's Life of Johnson, iii. 58.

himself

« AnteriorContinuar »