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Let us consider Tally cm the greatest theatre of the known world, and in the most difficult circumstances. We are better acquainted with him than we are with Demosthenes; for we see him nearer, as it were, and in more different lights. How perfect a knowledge had he acquired of the Roman constitution of government, ecclesiastical and civil; of the original and progress, of the general reasons and particular occasions of the laws and customs of his country; of the great rules of equity, and the low practice of courts; of the duty of every magistracy and office in the state, from the dictator down to the lictor; and of all the steps by which Rome had risen, from her infancy, to liberty, to power, and grandeur, and dominion; as well as of all those by which she began to decline, a little before his age, to that servitude which he died for opposing, but lived to see established, and in which not her liberty alone, but her power, and grandeur, and dominion were lost? How well was he acquainted with the Roman colonies and provinces; with the allies and enemies of the empire; with the rights and privileges of the former, the dispositions and conditions of the latter, with the interests of them all relatively to Rome, and with the interests of Rome relatively to them? How present to his mind were the anecdotes of former times concerning the Roman and other states, and how curious was he to observe the minutest circumstances that passed in his own? His works will answer sufficiently the questions I ask, and establish in the mind of every man who reads them the idea I would give of his capacity and knowledge, as well as that which is so universally taken of his eloquence. To a man fraught with all this stock of knowledge, and industrious to improve it daily, nothing could happen that was entirely new, nothing for which he was quite unprepared, scarce any effect whereof he had not considered the cause, scarce any cause wherein his sagacity could not discern the latent effect. His eloquence in private causes gave him first credit at Rome; but it was this knowledge, this experience, and the continued habits of business, that supported his reputation, enabled him to do so much service to his country, and gave force and authority to his eloquence. To little purpose would he have attacked Catiline with all the vehemence that indignation, and even fear, added to eloquence, if he had trusted to this weapon alone. This weapon alone would have secured neither him nor the Senate from the poniard of that assassin. He would have had no occasion to boast that he had driven this infamous citizen out of the walls of Rome, "abiit, excessit, evasit, erupit," if he had not made it before-hand impossible for him to continue any longer in them. As little occasion would he have had to assume the honour of defeating, without any tumult or any disorder, the designs of those who conspired to murder the Roman people, to destroy the Roman empire, and to extinguish the Roman name; if he had not united, by skill and management, in the common cause of their country, orders of men the most averse to each other; if he had not watched all the machinations of the conspirators in silence, and prepared a strength sufficient to resist them at Rome, and in the provinces, before he opened this scene of villany to the Senate and the people: in a word, if he had not made much more use of political prudence, that is, of the knowledge of mankind, and of the arts of government, which study and experience give, than of all the powers of his eloquence.
There are few names in English literature more familiar to readers of every class than that of Samuel Johnson. As critic, essayist, biographer, and lexicographer, its owner has a world-wide reputation; and the retentive memory and minute industry of Boswell have immortalized his current opinions, his modes of thought, his forms of expression, his habits, his gestures, his virtues, his eccentricities, and his foibles.
Johnson "was a native of Lichfield in Staffordshire, where he was born in 1709. He was the son of a bookseller, who at his decease left him no other inheritance than a morbid and melancholy constitution of mind, and a strong bias in favour of Jacobite and High Church principles.
After having acquired the rudiments of learning at Lichfield and Stourbridge Orrammar Schools, and something more than the rudiments by his own private exertions, he was by some means enabled to commence residence at Pembroke College, Oxford. There he remained between two and three years, pursuing a desultory course of study, and acquiring some reputation for scholarship, and the character of a youth of shy, proud, unequal temper: at one time inclined to festivity and humour; at another, reserved, morbid, and addicted to seclusion. He had, no doubt, to maintain a sore struggle with poverty during the whole time of his residence; and to his poverty it was owing that he finally left the University without taking a degree.
The death of his father throwing him altogether on his own resources, he accepted the place of usher in Market-Bosworth School. This position he did not long retain; and after one or two unsuccessful attempts to embark in literature, he married a wife twenty years older than himself, whose fortune of £800 enabled him to try the experiment of school-keeping on his own account. The experiment was unsuccessful, and the money invested in it gradually melted away. One pupil, however, Johnson had who made for himself a name as famous as his master's. This was David Uarrick, who, intended for the law, in due time attained the highest honours of the stage. In 1737 Johnson and Garrick set out together to seek their fortune in London, where in the course of time both of them, in their several spheres, found it. It was Johnson's lot, however, to pass through a sad and painful probation. For many years he lived in want and obscurity, supporting himself by the precarious resource of authorship. He wrote his tragedy of Irene, but could find no jnanager to accept it. He was employed on the Gentleman's Magazine, the character of which he very greatly raised by his contributions and virtual editorship. In 1738 he published his London, an imitation of Juvenal's third satire. This attracted some attention, and obtained for him the notice of several men of eminence; amongst others, of Pope, who highly praised his poem. His next work was the Life of Savage, now included among the Lives of the Poets. At the suggestion of Dodsley, the bookseller, he undertook the compilation of his Dictionary, a work which occupied him for nearly eight years. Shortly afterwards he commenced The Rambler, a serial which continued to appear twice weekly for about a year and a half, and which not only contributed to his fame, but, during the time of its publication, at all events, provided him with a moderate income. His difficulties, however, were not yet over; for in 1754 he was arrested for debt, and four or five years afterwards he was fain to write his well-known story of Rasselas to pay his mother's funeral expenses. At length a better day dawned on his fortunes. In 1762 he received from the Crown a pension of £300; and three years later he made the acquaintance of Mr. Thrale, in whose house he was for some time almost domesticated. Thenceforth his circumstances were easy, and his later years passed smoothly enough, disturbed only by ill-health, constitutional irritability, and a morbid fear of death. He was the centre of a brilliant circle—the oracle in all matters of literature, morals, and criticism to his admiring friends. He resided almost uninterruptedly in London. Once he visited Paris for a month; and once, at the suggestion of his friend Boswell, he made a tour in the Hebrides; but he professed to regard the country with indifference, could find no pleasure in rural scenes or occupations, and considered Fleet Street a finer prospect than the most magnificent landscape in nature! He died in 17S4, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
The character of Johnson was bold, manly, and independent. His outward deportment was rough and uncourtly, his manner boisterous and overbearing; but he had a kindly and a generous heart, sympathized keenly with sorrow and suffering, and did many an unostentatious deed of mercy and benevolence. He was a man of vigorous intellect, acute and argumentative, but narrow in his views, dogmatic and positive in his assertions, and the subject of many misapprehensions and prejudices.
WORKS. Reference has already been made to several of Johnson's works. Besides London, The Rambler, Rassclas, The Lives of the Poets, and his Dictionary, already mentioned, he wrote The Idler, a series of papers similar to The Rambler, but of a livelier and lighter character; The Vanity of Human Wishes, an adaptation of the tenth satire of Juvenal; A Tour in the Hebrides; A Commentary on Shakspere; and several political pamphlets; among others, one entitled Taxation no Tyranny, in which he endeavoured to justify the proceedings of the Government with reference to the North American colonies.
The writings of Johnson are grave and sententious, full of sound sense and vigorous sentiment. On the whole, however, they are not distinguished by much originality or depth. The stately and pompous march of the language gives a character of dignity and importance to common-place thoughts, and the views of life and manners are partial and contracted. As a critic, he is acute and ingenious, but narrow in his range of sympathies, and unable to appreciate works: of a romantic or imaginative character. His well-known tale of Masse/as has few of the features of a novel about it. There is little action, little discrimination or variety of character, no scenes or incidents that excite the interest or awaken the emotions of the reader. The story is nothing more than a vehicle for moralizing. It consists of a succession of descriptions of different conditions of life, and dialogues on various moral and social questions. The scene of the story is laid in Abyssinia, but the manners and characters really belong to the England of Johnson's own day.
The most valuable and interesting of our author's works undoubtedly is his Lives of the Poets. For such a work his ample store of miscellaneous knowledge, and especially his acquaintance with literary biography, highly qualified him. It is true that in the case of more than one poet his critical judgments are seriously at fault. He hardly does justice to such writers as Collins and Gray; he is much too favourable in his estimate of some of the writers now long forgotten, who used to have a place in collections of English poetry. But on the whole, he is entitled to high praise as a critic and a biographer. His work is interesting in its narrative portions, contains many striking sentiments and ingenious turns of thought, and presents also the most favourable specimen of the writer's style of composition.
That style is, in its leading features, very well known. It is often turgid and inflated, moving with a slow and pompous march, always wanting in pliancy and simplicity. Its structure is highly artificial, with carefully balanced periods and the frequent recurrence of antithesis. The sentences are often cast into the form of what Sir Walter Scott calls triads and quaternions; that is, three or four clauses answering to one another, and balancing with a sort of rhythmical regularity. The words belong, in a very great proportion, to the Latin element of our language; and whatever be the character of the sentiments, we generally meet with the stately and monotonous flow of this swelling and unfamiliar diction.