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[No. 41 of the Idler, though it takes the character of a letter to the authour, was written by Johnson himself on his mother's death, and may be supposed to describe as truly as pathetically his sentiments on the separation of friends and relations'. ]
[“TO MRS. LUCY PORTER.
“ Ist March, 1759% “ DEAR MADAM, I thought your last letter long in coming ; and did not require or expect such an inventory of little things as you
have sent me. I could have taken your word for a matter of much greater value. I am glad that Kitty is better ; let her be paid first, as my dear, dear mother ordered, and then let me know at once the sum necessary to discharge her other debts, and I will find it you very soon.
“I beg, my dear, that you would act for me without the least scruple, for I can repose myself very confidently upon your prudence, and hope we shall never have reason to love each other less. I shall take it very kindly if you make it a rule to write to me once at least every week, for I am now very desolate, and am loth to be universally forgotten. I am, dear sweet, your affectionate servant, “ Sam. JOHNSON.")
Soon after his mother's death, he wrote his “RASSELAS, PRINCE OF ABYSSINIA*: (which he modestly calls, in a subsequent letter to Miss Porter, “a little story-book”] concerning the publication of which Sir John Hawkins guesses vaguely and idly', instead of having taken the trouble to inform himself with authentick precision. Not to trouble my readers with a repetition of the knight's reveries, I have to mention, that the late Mr. Strahan the printer told me, that Johnson wrote it, that with the profits he might defray the expense of his mother's funeral, and pay
1 (But it is observable that the Idlers which now bear the dates of the 13th and 20th January are on trivial subjects, and are even written in a vein of pleasantry.-Ed.]
? [Johnson had written the figure 8 instead of 9, which is evidently a mistake. -Harwood. See ante, p. 323-ED.]
3 [Sir John Hawkins does not " guess vaguely and idly," but after saying that there were vague reports on the subject, he gives an account substantially the same as Mr. Boswell's. The only difference is, that Sir J. Hawkins says that he had before meditated such a work, the execution of which was now accelerated by the spur of necessity.--Ed.]
some little debts which she had left. He told Sir Joshua Reynolds, that he composed it in the evenings of one week', sent it to the press in portions as it was written, and had never since read it over?. Mr. Strahan, Mr. Johnston, and Mr. Dodsley, purchased
! it for a hundred pounds, but afterwards paid him twenty-five pounds more, when it came to a second edition.
Considering the large sums which have been received for compilations, and works requiring not much more genius than compilations, we cannot but wonder at the very low price which he was content to receive for this admirable performance; which, though he had written nothing else, would have rendered his name immortal in the world of literature. None of his writings has been so extensively diffused over Europe; for it has been translated into most, if not all, of the modern languages. This tale, with all the charms of oriental imagery, and all the force and beauty of which the English language is capable, leads us through the most important scenes of human life, and shows us that this stage of our being is full of“ vanity and vexation of spirit.” To those who look no further than the present life, or who maintain that human nature has not fallen from the state in which it was created, the instruction of this sublime story will be of no avail. But they who think justly, and feel with strong sensibility, will listen with eagerness and admiration to its truth and wisdom. Voltaire's CANDIDĖ, written to refute the system of Optimism, which it has accomplished with brilliant success, is wonderfully similar in its
1 RASSELAS was published in March or April, 1759.–BOSWELL.
? See under June 2, 1781. Finding it then accidentally in a chaise with Mr. Boswell, he read it eagerly._This was doubtless long after his declaration to Sir Joshua Reynolds.-MALONE.
plan and conduct to Johnson's RASSELAS; insomuch, that I have heard Johnson say, that if they had not been published so closely one after the other that there was not time for imitation, it would have been in vain to deny that the scheme of that which came latest was taken from the other. Though the proposition illustrated by both these works was the same, namely, that in our present state there is more evil than good, the intention of the writers was very different. Voltaire, I am afraid, meant only by wanton profaneness to obtain a sportive victory over religion, and to discredit the belief of a superintending Providence: Johnson meant, by showing the unsatisfactory nature of things temporal, to direct the hopes of man to things eternal. Rasselas, as was observed to me by a very accomplished lady, may be considered as a more enlarged and more deeply philosophical discourse in prose, upon the interesting truth, which in his “ Vanity of Human Wishes" he had so successfully enforced in verse.
The fund of thinking which this work contains is such, that almost every sentence of it may furnish a subject of long meditation. I am not satisfied if a year passes without my having read it through ; and at every perusal, my admiration of the mind which produced it is so highly raised, that I can scarcely believe that I had the honour of enjoying the intimacy of such a man.
I restrain myself from quoting passages from this excellent work, or even referring to them, because I should not know what to select, or, rather, what to omit. I shall, however, transcribe one, as it shows how well he could state the arguments of those who believe in the appearance of departed spirits; a doctrine which it is a mistake to suppose that he himself ever positively held :
“ If all your fear be of apparitions (said the prince), I will promise you safety: there is no danger from the dead; he that is once buried will be seen no more.
“ That the dead are seen no more (said Imlac), I will not undertake to maintain, against the concurrent and unvaried testimony of all ages, and of all nations. There is no people, rude , or learned, among whom apparitions of the dead are not related and believed. This opinion, which prevails as far as human nature is diffused, could become universal only by its truth'; those that never heard of one another, would not have agreed in a tale which nothing but experience can make credible. That it is doubted by single cavillers, can very little weaken the general evidence; and some who deny it with their tongues, confess it by their fears.”
Notwithstanding my high admiration of Rasselas, I will not maintain that the “ morbid melancholy” in Johnson's constitution may not, perhaps, have made life appear to him more insipid and unhappy than it generally is : for I am sure that he had less enjoyment from it than I have. Yet, whatever additional shade his own particular sensations may have thrown on his representation of life, attentive observation and close inquiry have convinced me, that there is too much reality in the gloomy picture. The truth, however, is, that we judge of the happiness and misery of life differently at different times, according to the state of our changeable frame. I always remember a remark made to me by a Turkish lady, educated in France : “ Ma foi, monsieur, notre bonheur depend de la façon que notre sang circule?.” This have I learnt from a pretty hard course of experience, and would, from sincere benevolence, impress upon all who honour
· [This is a mere sophism; all ages and all nations are not agreed on this point, though such a belief may have existed in particulur persons, in all ages and all nations. He might as well have said that insanity was the natural and true state of the human mind, because it has existed in all nations and all ages.--ED.}
2 (Mr. Boswell no doubt fancied these words had some meaning, or he would hardly have quoted them; but what that meaning is the editor cannot guess. -En.]
this book with a perusal, that until a steady conviction is obtained, that the present life is an imperfect state, and only a passage to a better, if we comply with the divine scheme of progressive improvement; and also that it is a part of the mysterious plan of Providence, that intellectual beings must “ be made perfect through suffering;” there will be a continual recurrence of disappointment and uneasiness. But if we walk with hope in “ the mid-day sun” of revelation, our temper and disposition will be such, that the comforts and enjoyments in our way will be relished, while we patiently support the inconveniences and pains. After much speculation and various reasonings, I acknowledge myself convinced of the truth of Voltaire's conclusion, “ Après tout c'est un monde passable.” But we must not think too deeply:
where ignorance is bliss,
'Tis folly to be wise,” is, in many respects, more than poetically just. Let us cultivate, under the command of good principles, “ la theorie des sensations agréables ;” and, as Mr. Burke once admirably counselled a grave and anxious gentleman, “ live pleasant.”
The effect of Rasselas, and of Johnson's other moral tales, is thus beautifully illustrated by Mr. Courtenay:
“ Impressive truth, in splendid fiction drest,
When round the bark the foaming surges sweep." It will be recollected, that during all this year he carried on his Idler. This paper was in such high estimation before it was collected into volumes, that it was seized on with avidity by various publishers of
newspapers and magazines, to enrich their pub