« VorigeDoorgaan »
tinman, plumber, and potter; in all these arts he has failed, and resolves to qualify himself for them by better information. But his daily amusement is chemistry. He has a small furnace, which he employs in distillation, and which has long been the solace of his life. He draws oils, and waters, and essences, and spirits, which he knows to be of no use; sits and counts the drops as they come from his retort; and forgets that whilst a drop is falling, a moment flies away.
"Poor Sober! I have often teazed him with reproof, and he has often promised reformation; for no man is so much open to conviction as the idler, but there is none on whom it operates so little. What will be the effect of this paper I know not; perhaps he will read it, and laugh, and light the fire in his furnace; but my hope is, that he will quit his trifles, and betake himself to rational and useful diligence."
589. Horror of Death.
One of the best written and most impressive of the essays of the " Rambler" is No. 78., on the Power of Novelty, in which he appears to have exerted the full force of his genius. It is in this paper that the horror of Death, which embittered so many of the hours of Johnson, is depicted in more vivid colours, than in any other part of his periodical writings:
"Surely," he remarks, "nothing can so much disturb the passions or perplex the intellects of man, as the disruption of his union with visible nature; a separation from all that has hitherto delighted or engaged him; a change not only of the place, but the manner, of his being; an entrance into a state not simply which he knows not, but which perhaps he has not faculties to know; an immediate and perceptible communication with the Supreme Being, and, what is above all distressful and alarming, the final sentence, and unalterable allotment:"
a passage which, in its sentiment and tendency, strongly reminds us of the admirable description of Claudio in the "Measure for Measure" of Shakspeare:
"Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
Our author seems likewise to have remembered a couplet in the "Aureng-Zebe" of Dryden :
"Death in itself is nothing; but we fear
To be we know not what, we know not where."
It is in this paper, also, that one of the few pathetic paragraphs which are scattered through the pages of Johnson may be found. Whether considered with regard to its diction or its tender appeal to the heart, it is alike exquisite: —
"It is not possible," observes the moralist, "to be regarded with tenderness except by a few. That merit which gives greatness and renown diffuses its influence to a wide compass, but acts weakly on every single breast; it is placed at a distance from common spectators, and shines like one of the remote stars, of which the light reaches us, but not the heat. The wit, the hero, the philosopher, whom their tempers or their fortunes have hindered from intimate relations, die, without any other effect than that of adding a new topic to the conversation of the day. They impress none with any fresh conviction of the fra gility of our nature, because none had any particular interest in their lives, or was united to them by a reciprocation of benefits and endearments. Thus it often happens, that those who in
their lives were applauded and admired, are laid at last in the ground without the common honour of a stone; because by those excellencies with which many were delighted, none had been obliged, and though they had many to celebrate, they had none to love them."
590. Anningait and Ajut.
Never was the passion of love, or the assiduities of affection, placed in a more entertaining or pleasing light, than in the Greenland story of Anningait and Ajut ('); which, owing to its wild and savage imagery, and the felicity with which it is adapted to the circumstances of the narrative, possesses the attractions of no ordinary share of originality. Mr. Campbell, in his truly sublime poem on the Pleasures of Hope, has thus beautifully alluded to this story:
"Oh! vainly wise, the moral Muse hath sung
That 'suasive Hope hath but a syren tongue!
Many of the topics which are eagerly discussed in the History of Rasselas are known to have greatly interested, and even agitated, the mind of Johnson. Of these the most remarkable are, on the Efficacy of Pilgrimage, on the State of Departed Souls, on the Probability of the Reappearance of the Dead, and on the Danger of Insanity. The apprehension of mental derangement seems to have haunted the mind of Johnson during the greater part of his life; and he has therefore very emphatically declared, that " of the uncertainties in our present state, the most dreadful and
(1) Rambler, Nos. 186, 187.
alarming is the uncertain continuance of reason." (1) It is highly probable, that his fears and feelings on this head gave rise to the character of the Mad Astronomer in Rasselas, who declared to Imlac, that he had possessed for five years the regulation of the weather, and the distribution of the seasons; that the sun had listened to his dictates, and passed from tropic to tropic by his direction; that the clouds at his call had poured their waters, and the Nile had overflowed at his com.. mard. This tremendous visitation he has ascribed principally to the indulgence of imagination in the shades of solitude:
"Disorders of intellect," he remarks, "happen much more often than superficial observers will easily believe. Perhaps, if we speak with rigorous exactness, no human mind is in its right state. There is no man whose imagination does not sometimes predominate over his reason, who can regulate his attention wholly by his will, and whose ideas will come and go at his command. No man will be found in whose mind airy notions do not sometimes tyrannise, and force him to hope or fear beyond the limits of sober probability. All power of fancy over reason is a degree of insanity; but while this power is such as we can control and repress, it is not visible to others, nor considered as any depravation of the mental faculties: it is not pronounced madness but when it becomes ungovernable, and apparently influences speech or action.
"To indulge the power of fiction, and send imagination out upon the wing, is often the sport of those who delight too much in silent speculation. When we are alone we are not always busy; the labour of excogitation is too violent to last long; the ardour of inquiry will sometimes give way to idleness or satiety. He who has nothing external that can divert him, must find pleasure in his own thoughts, and must conceive himself what he is not; for who is pleased with what he is? He then expatiates in boundless futurity, and culls from all imaginable conditions. that which for the present moment he should most desire,
(1) Rasselas, chap. 42.
amuses his desires with impossible enjoyments, and confere upon his pride unattainable dominion. The mind dances from scene to scene, unites all pleasures in all combinations, and riots in delights which nature and fortune, with all their bounty, cannot bestow.
"In time, some particular train of ideas fixes the attention; all other intellectual gratifications are rejected; the mind, in weariness or leisure, recurs constantly to the favourite conception, and feasts on the luscious falsehood, whenever she is offended with the bitterness of truth. By degrees the reign of fancy is confirmed; she grows first imperious, and in time despotic. Then fictions begin to operate as realities, false opinions fasten upon the mind, and life passes in dreams of rapture or of anguish.
"This, Sir, is one of the dangers of solitude." (1) ·
In the paragraphs which we have just quoted, there is much reason to suppose, that Johnson was describing what he had himself repeatedly experienced; and to this circumstance Sir John Hawkins has attributed his uncommon attachment to society.
592. Preface to Shakspeare.
This Preface is perhaps the most eloquent and acute piece of dramatic criticism of which our language can boast. The characteristic excellencies of Shakspeare, his beauties and defects, are delineated with powers of discrimination not easily paralleled; and though the panegyric on his genius be high and uncommonly splendid, his faults are laid open with an impartial and unsparing hand. To the prose encomia of Dryden and Addison on our unrivalled bard may be added, as worthy of juxtaposition, the following admirable paragraph; the conclusion of which is alike excellent for its imagery and sublimity : —
(1) Rasselas, chap 43