Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub

archy must be equally so. No person would have been more quicksighted than Johnson to such a contradiction as this, in the logic of an antagonist.

The judgments which Johnson passed on books were, in his own time, regarded with superstitious veneration ; and, in our time, are generally treated with indiscriminate contempt. They are the judgments of a strong but enslaved understanding. The mind of the critic was hedged round by an uninterrupted fence of prejudices and superstitions. Within his narrow limits, he displayed a vigor and an activity which ought to have enabled him to clear the barrier that confined him.

How it chanced that a man who reasoned on his premises so ably, should assume his premises so foolishly, is one of the great mysteries of human nature. The same inconsis. tency may be observed in the schoolmen of the middle ages. Those writers show so much acuteness and force of mind in arguing on their wretched data, that a modern reader is perpetually at a loss to comprehend how such minds came by such data. Not a flaw in the superstructure of the theory which they are rearing escapes their vigilance. Yet they are blind to the obvious unsoundness of the foundation. It is the same with some eminent law. yers. Their legal arguments are intellectual prodigies, abounding with the happiest analogies, and the most refined distinctions. The principles of their arbitrary science being once admitted, the statute-book and the reports being once assumed as the foundations of jurisprudence, these men must be allowed to be perfect masters of logic. But if a question arises as to the postulates on which their whole system rests, if they are called upon to vindicate the fun. damental maxims of that system which they have passed their lives in studying, these very men often talk the language of savages, or of children. Those who have listened

to a man of this class in his own court, and who have wit. nessed the skill with which he analyzes and digests a vast mass of evidence, or reconciles a crowd of precedents which at first sight seem contradictory, scarcely know him again when, a few hours later, they hear him speaking on the other side of Westminster Hall in his capacity of legislator. They can scarcely believe, that the paltry quirks which are faintly heard through a storm of coughing, and which cannot impose on the plainest country gentleman, can proceed from the same sharp and vigorous intellect which had excited their admiration under the same roof, and on the same day.

Johnson decided literary questions like a lawyer, not like a legislator. He never examined foundations where a point was already ruled. His whole code of criticism rested on pure assumption, for which he sometimes gave a precedent or an authority, but rarely troubled himself to give a reason drawn from the nature of things. He took it for granted, that the kind of poetry which flourished in his own time, which he had been accustomed to hear praised from his childhood, and which he had himself written with success, was the best kind of poetry. In his biographical work, he has repeatedly laid it down as an undeniable proposition, that during the latter part of the seventeenth century, and the earlier part of the eighteenth, English poetry had been in a constant progress of improvement. Waller, Denham, Dryden, and Pope, had been, according to him, the great reformers. He judged of all works of the imagination by the standard established among his own contemporaries. Though he allowed Homer to have been a greater man than Virgil, he seems to have thought the Æneid a greater poem than the Iliad. Indeed he well might have thought so; for he preferred Pope's Iliad to Homer's. He pronounced that, after Hoole's translation of Tasso, Fairfax's would hardly

be reprinted. He could see no merit in our fine old English ballads, and always spoke with the most provoking contempt of Percy's fondness for them. Of all the great original works which appeared during his time, Richardson's novels alone excited his admiration. He could see little or no merit in Tom Jones, in Gulliver's Travels, or in Tristram Shandy. To Thomson's Castle of Indolence, he vouchsafed only a line of cold commendation, - of commendation much colder than what he has bestowed on the Creation of that portentous bore, Sir Richard Blackmore. Gray was, in his dialect, a barren rascal. Churchill was a blockhead. The contempt which he felt for the trash of Macpherson was indeed just; but it was, we suspect, just by chance. He despised the Fingal, for the very reason which led many men of genius to admire it. He despised it, not because it was essentially commonplace, but because it had a superficial air of originality.

He was undoubtedly an excellent judge of compositions fashioned on his own principles. But when a deeper philosophy was required, — when he undertook to pronounce judgment on the works of those great minds which “yield homage only to eternal laws,' — his failure was ignomini

He criticised Pope's Epitaphs excellently. But his observations on Shakspeare's plays, and Milton's poems, seem to us as wretched as if they had been written by Rymer himself, whom we take to have been the worst critic that ever lived.

Some of Johnson's whims on literary subjects can be compared only to that strange nervous feeling, which made him uneasy if he had not louched every post between the Mitre tavern and his own lodgings. His preference of Latin epitaphs to English epitaphs is an instance. An English epitaph, he said, would disgrace Smollett. He declared that he would not pollute the walls of Westminster Abbey with an

ous.

English epitaph on Goldsmith. What reason there can be for celebrating a British writer in Latin, which there was not for covering the Roman arches of triumph with Greek inscriptions, or for commemorating the deeds of the heroes of Thermopylæ in Egyptian hieroglyphics, we are utterly unable to imagine.

On men and manners, at least, on the men and manners of a particular place and a particular age, - Johnson had certainly looked with a most observant and discriminating eye. His remarks on the education of children, on marriage, on the economy of families, on the rules of society, are always striking, and generally sound. In his writings, indeed, the knowledge of life which he possessed in an emi. nent degree is very imperfectly exhibited. Like those unfortunate chiefs of the middle ages, who were suffocated by their own chain-mail and cloth of gold, his maxims perish under that load of words, which was designed for their ornament and their defence. But it is clear, from the remains of his conversation, that he had more of that homely wisdom which nothing but experience and observation can give, than any writer since the time of Swift. If he had been content to write as he talked, he might have left books on the practical art of living superior to the Directions to Ser.

vants.

Yet even his remarks on society, like his remarks on literature, indicate a mind at least as remarkable for narrowness as for strength. He was no master of the great science of human nature. He had studied, not the genus man, but the species Londoner. Nobody was ever so thoroughly conversant with all the forms of life, and all the shades of moral and intellectual character, which were to be seen from Islington to the Thames, and from Hyde-Park corner to Mile-end green. But his philosophy stopped at the first turnpike-gate. Of the rural life of England he knew noth

ing; and he took it for granted that everybody who lived in the country was either stupid or miserable. • Country gentlemen,' said he, 'must be unhappy ; for they have not enough to keep their lives in motion.' As if all those peculiar habits and associations, which made Fleet Street and Charing Cross the finest views in the world to himself, had been essential parts of human nature. Of remote countries and past times he talked with wild and ignorant presumption. The Athenians of the age of Demosthenes,' he said to Mrs. Thrale, 'were a people of brutes, a barbarous people.' In conversation with Sir Adam Ferguson, he used similar language. The boasted Athenians,' he said, ' were barbarians. The mass of every people must be barbarous, where there is no printing.' The fact was this : he saw that a Londoner who could not read was a very stupid and brutal fellow : he saw that great refinement of taste and activity of intellect were rarely found in a Londoner who had not read much ; and because it was by means of books that people acquired almost all their knowledge in the society with which he was acquainted, he concluded, in defiance of the strongest and clearest evidence, that the human mind can be cultivated by means of books alone. An Athenian citizen might possess very few volumes ; and even the largest library to which he had access might be much less valuable than Johnson's bookcase in Bolt Court. But the Athenian might pass every morning in conversation with Socrates, and might hear Pericles speak four or five times every month. He saw the plays of Sophocles and Aristophanes ; he walked amidst the friezes of Phidias and the paintings of Zeuxis ; he knew by heart the choruses of Æschylus ; he heard the rhapsodist at the corner of the street reciting the Shield of Achilles, or the Death of Argus; he was a legislator, conversant with high questions of alliance, revenue, and war; he was a soldier, trained under a

5

VOL. II.

« VorigeDoorgaan »