Imatges de pàgina
PDF
EPUB

INTRODUCTION.

JOHNSON'S CHARM.

“ ONE had better be palsied at eighteen than not keep company with such a man.” With these words Dempster consoled Boswell when he complained that drinking port and sitting up late with Dr Johnson affected his nerves. Hundreds feel the same enthusiasm still, and sit up late to keep company with him in the graphic pages of Boswell. What, then, is the secret of Johnson's charm ? Above all things it is the unique character of the man that compels attention-a personality absolutely different from all others, striking in figure and in manners, great in knowledge and literary power, commanding in conversation and argument. He was original, not in that he was a champion of new ideas, but in that he could defend old ideas in a novel manner. Thus it is Johnson the man rather than Johnson the writer that the world remembers. His sayings, his mannerisms, his very weaknesses have a way of clinging to us for good. Those who remember his determination that “the Whig dogs should not have the best of it,” number far more than those who recall him as the author of Irene'

or even of ‘London.' True, many who could not quote from his other works can quote definitions from his Dictionary; but that is because his was the most personal of all dictionaries : the man shines out in it. In the minds of most, Johnson is associated with sage deliverances, clever epigrams, penetrating definitions, and crushing retorts, rather than with his formal writings in prose or verse : as Burke said, Johnson appears far greater in Boswell's books than in his own. Many can quote his definition of oats, or state his views on “the noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees,” or mimic his dogmatic and clinching retorts opening with an impressive Sir," who could not cite a verse from the 'Vanity of Human Wishes,' or give the barest outline to the story of 'Rasselas.'

It is “Dictionary Johnson," Johnson of the countless * Johnsoniana,' the master of quip and bon-mot, whom we know best and most admire. With Macaulay, we can picture him even now, in “ the brown coat with the metal buttons, and the shirt which ought to be at wash, blinking, puffing, rolling his head, drumming with his fingers, tearing his meat like a tiger, and swallowing his tea in oceans.” 1 Four generations of men have passed, and, thanks to Boswell, the old doctor is with us still.

For, of course, Boswell—"prince of biographers," as he is justly styled—is the one who has drawn Johnson with the most painstaking justice to his many sides. It

6

[ocr errors]

1 The goodly proportions of Johnson's teapot may still be revered in Pembroke College, Oxford, and go so far to justify Macaulay's hyperbole. See the list Johnsonian relics in the Appendix.

[blocks in formation]

man of

is because Johnson was so many-sided that we find
something fresh in every study of him. Some, like Mrs
Piozzi, have been struck with the inexhaustible store of
his wit, from which we quote a score of sayings like
travellers “who, having visited Delhi or Golconda, bring
home each a handful of oriental pearls to evince the
riches of the Great Mogul”: some, like Steevens, have
regarded his private bounties and acts of humanity as
outshining any defects : others, like Percy, have been
impressed by his powerful conversation as "an antique
statue, whose every vein and muscle is distinct and
bold.” To Carlyle he was a truly sincere
letters heroically positive in an age of negations, a
valiant defender of truth in days of pretence and half-
truth, “brave old Samuel, ultimus Romanorum." To
Macaulay, in spite of “the anfractuosities of his intel-
lect and of his temper," in spite too of his rampant
Toryism, he was “both a great and a good man.”
Taine sees in him a beef-eating Saxon, an upholder of
convention and English respectability and morality, en-
dowed with manners and habits utterly impossible in a
French drawing-room. Matthew Arnold, reminding us,
as becomes the greatest Victorian critic, of Johnson's
significance in literature, calls him "a man of letters of
the first class, and the greatest power in English letters
during the eighteenth century.”

JOHNSON'S LIFE.

“ Lives can only be written from personal knowledge,” says Johnson in his 'Life of Addison. Once

b

[ocr errors]
« AnteriorContinua »