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Safe in His power, whose eyes discern afar
584. “ Irene." “ Irene” can boast of a strict adherence to the unities; of harmonious versification ; of diction vigorous and splendid ; of sentiment morally correct and philosophically beautiful : but its fable is without interest, its characters without discrimination, and neither terror nor pity is excited. If it fail, however, as a drama, in delineating the ebullitions of passion, it will, as a series of ethic dialogues, replete with striking observations on human conduct, and rich in poetic expression, be long studied and admired in the closet. No one of the productions of Johnson, indeed, was more carefully elaborated than his “ Irene ;” and, though commenced at an early period of life, no one more evidently discovers his exclusive love of moral philosophy, and his ample store of nervous and emphatic language. Of the numerous passages
which illustrate this remark, and which, for their moral excellence, should dwell upon the memory, I shall adduce two, in conception and in execution alike happy. Demetrius, addressing the aged Visier Cali on the danger of protracting the blow which he intended until the morrow, exclaims, –
“ To-morrow's action ! can that hoary wisdom,
Borne down with years, still doat upon to-morrow !
An useless life in waiting for to-morrow,
Learn, that the present hour alone is man's.”
the ambition and meditated apostacy of Irene, endeavours to reconcile her mind to the loss of life, rather than of virtue and religion, and bids her
“Reflect that life and death, affecting sounds !
Are only varied modes of endless being ;
And virtue cheaply saved with loss of life.” In act the first, scene the second, is a passage which has been frequently and justly admired; it is put into the mouth of the Visier Cali, who, execrating the miseries of arbitrary power, alludes to a report which he had received, of the nicely balanced structure of the British Constitution :
“If there be any land, as fame reports,
That links the jarring elements in peace.” “ These are British sentiments,” remarks Mr. Murphy (writing in 1792): “above forty years ago, they found an echo in the breast of applauding audiences ; and to this hour they are the voice of the people, in defiance of the
metaphysics and the new lights of certain politicians, who would gladly find their private advantage in the disasters of their country; a race of men, quibus nulla ex honesto
585. Robert Levett. The stanzas on the death of this man of great but humble utility are beyond all praise. The wonderful powers of Johnson were never shown to greater advantage than on this occasion, where the subject, from its obscurity and mediocrity, seemed to bid defiance to poetical efforts ; it is, in fact, warm from the heart, and is the only poem from the pen of Johnson that has been bathed with tears. Would to God, that on every medical man who attends the poor, the following encomiums could be justly passed !
“ Well tried through many a varying year,
See Levett to the grave descend ;
Of ev'ry friendless name the friend.
“When fainting nature call’d for aid,
And hov'ring death prepared the blow,
The power of art without the show.
In Mis'ry's darkest cavern known,
His useful care was ever nigh,
And lonely Want retired to die." How boldly painted, how exquisitely pathetic, as a description of the sufferings of human life, is this last stanza! I am acquainted with nothing superior to it in the productions of the moral muse.
586. “ Medea” of Euripides. To the English poetry of Johnson, may now be added a very beautiful translation of some noble lines from the “ Medea” of Euripides. It has escaped all the editors of his works, and was very lately introduced to the world in a volume of considerable merit, entitled “ Translations from the Greek Anthology, with Tales and Miscellaneous Poems." A parody, indeed, by our author upon this passage of the Grecian poet was published by Mrs. Piozzi, but it is of little value, while the following version has preserved all the elegance and pathos of the original :
• The rites derived from ancient days,
With thoughtless reverence we praise ;
587. Rambler and Adventurer. As specimens of the style of Johnson, we shall adduce three quotations, taken from the “ Rambler” and “ Adventurer;" the first on a didactic, the second on a moral, and the third on a religious subject; passages, which will place in a very striking light the prominent peculiarities and excellences of the most splendid and powerful moralist of which this country can boast. Animadverting on the necessity of accommodating knowledge to the purposes of life, the “ Rambler” thus proceeds :
“ To lessen that disdain with which scholars are inclined to look on the common business of the world, and the unwillingness with which they condescend to learn what is not to be found in any system of philosophy, it may be necessary to consider, that though admiration is excited by abstruse researches and remote discoveries, yet pleasure is not given, nor affection conciliated, but by softer accomplishments, and qualities more easily communicable to those about us. He that can only converse upon questions about which only a small part of mankind has knowledge sufficient to make them curious, must lose his days in un
social silence, and live in the crowd of life without a companion. He that can only be useful in great occasions, may die without exerting his abilities, and stand a helpless spectator of a thousand vexations which fret away happiness, and which nothing is required to remove, but a little dexterity of conduct and readiness of expedients.
“No degree of knowledge attainable by man is able to set him above the want of hourly assistance, or to extinguish the desire of fond en. dearments and tender officiousness; and therefore, no one should think it unnecessary to learn those arts by which friendship may be gained. Kindness is preserved by a constant reciprocation of benefits or interchange of pleasures ; but such benefits only can be bestowed as others are capable to receive, and such pleasures only imparted as others are qualified to enjoy.
“ By this descent from the pinnacles of art no honour will be lost; for the condescensions of learning are always overpaid by gratitude. An elevated genius employed in little things, appears, to use the simile of Longinus, like the sun in his evening declination; he remits his splendour but retains his magnitude, and pleases more though he dazzles
The following passage on the iniquity of revenge, and on the meanness of regulating our conduct by the opinions of men, is alike eminent for its style and for its sentiments : the purest morality is here clothed in diction powerfully impressive :
“ A wise man will make haste to forgive, because he knows the true value of time, and will not suffer it to pass away in unnecessary pain. He that willingly suffers the corrosions of inveterate hatred, and gives up bis days and nights to the gloom and malice and perturbations of stratagem, cannot surely be said to consult his ease. Resentment is an union of sorrow with malignity ; a combination of a passion which all endeavour to avoid, with a passion which all concur to detest. The man who retires to meditate mischief, and to exasperate his own rage ; whose thoughts are employed only on means of distress and contrivances of ruin ; whose mind never pauses from the remembrance of his own sufferings, but to indulge some hope of enjoying the calamities of another, may justly be numbered among the most miserable of human beings, among those who are guilty without reward, who have neither the gladness of prosperity nor the calm of innocence.
“ Whoever considers the weakness both of himself and others will not long want persuasives to forgiveness. We know not to what degree of malignity any injury is to be imputed; or how much its guilt, if we were to inspect the mind of him that committed it, would be extenuated by mistake, precipitance, or negligence; we cannot be certain how much more we feel than was intended to be inflicted, or how much we increase the mischief to ourselves by voluntary aggravations. We may charge to design the effects of accident; we may think the blow
(1) Rambler, No. 157.