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696. Sir Walter Scott on Johnson.
Johnson's laborious and distinguished career terminated in 1784, when virtue was deprived of a steady supporter, society of a brilliant ornament, and literature of a successful cultivator. The latter part of his life was honoured with general applause, for none was more fortunate in obtaining and preserving the friendship of the wise and the worthy. Thus loved and venerated, Johnson might have been pronounced happy. But Heaven, in whose eyes strength is weakness, permitted his faculties to be clouded occasionally with that morbid affection of the spirits, which disgraced his talents by prejudices, and his manners by rudeness.
When we consider the rank which Dr. Johnson held, not only in literature, but in society, we cannot help figuring him to ourselves as the benevolent giant of some fairy tale, whose kindnesses and courtesies are still mingled with a part of the rugged ferocity imputed to the fabulous sons of Anak; or rather, perhaps, like a Roman dictator, fetched from his farm, whose wisdom and heroism still relished of his rustic occupation. And there were times when, with all Johnson's wisdom, and all his wit, this rudeness of disposition, and the sacrifices and submissions which he unsparingly exacted, were so great, that even his kind and devoted admirer, Mrs. Thrale, seems at length to have thought that the honour of being Johnson's hostess was almost counterbalanced by the tax which he exacted on her time and patience.
The cause of those deficiencies in temper and manners, was no ignorance of what was fit to be done in society, or how far each individual ought to suppress his own wishes in favour of those with whom he associates; for, theoretically, no man understood the rules of good-breeding better than Dr. Johnson, or could act more exactly in conformity with them, when the high
rank of those with whom he was in company for the time required that he should put the necessary constraint upon himself. But, during the greater part of his life, he had been in a great measure a stranger to the higher society, in which such restraint is necessary; and it may be fairly presumed, that the indulgence of a variety of little selfish peculiarities, which it is the object of good-breeding to suppress, became thus familiar to him. The consciousness of his own mental superiority in most companies which he frequented, contributed to his dogmatism; and when he had attained his eminence as a dictator in literature, like other potentates, he was not averse to a display of his authority: resembling in this particular Swift, and one or two other men of genius, who have had the bad taste to imagine that their talents elevated them above observance of the common rules of society. It must be also remarked, that in Johnson's time, the literary society of London was much more confined than at present, and that he sat the Jupiter of a little circle, sometimes indeed nodding approbation, but always prompt, on the slightest contradiction, to launch the thunders of rebuke and sarcasm. He was, in a word, despotic, and despotism will occasionally lead the best dispositions into unbecoming abuse of power. It is not likely that any one will again enjoy, or have an opportunity of abusing, the singular degree of submission which was rendered to Johnson by all around him. The unreserved communications of friends, rather than the spleen of enemies, have occasioned his character being exposed in all its shadows, as well as its lights. But those, when summed and counted, amount only to a few narrowminded prejudices concerning country and party, from which few ardent tempers remain entirely free, an overzeal in politics, which is an ordinary attribute of the British character, and some violences and solecisms in manners, which left his talents, morals, and benevolence,
alike unimpeachable. (Miscellaneous Prose Works vol. iii. p. 267.)
697. Sir James Mackintosh on Johnson.
Dr. Johnson had a great influence on the taste and opinions of his age, not only by the popularity of his writings, but by that colloquial dictatorship which he exercised for thirty years in the literary circles of the capital. He was distinguished by vigorous understanding and inflexible integrity. His imagination was not more lively than was necessary to illustrate his maxims; his attainments in science were inconsiderable, and in learning, far from the first class; they chiefly consisted in that sort of knowledge which a powerful mind collects from miscellaneous reading, and various intercourse with mankind. From the refinements of abstruse speculation he was withheld partly, perhaps, by that repugnance to such subtleties which much experience often inspires, and partly also by a secret dread that they might disturb those prejudices in which his mind had found repose from the agitation of doubt. He was a most sagacious and severely pure judge of the actions and motives of men, and he was tempted by frequent detection of imposture to indulge somewhat of that contemptuous scepticism, respecting the sincerity of delicate and refined sentiments, which affected his whole character as a man and writer.
In early youth he had resisted the most severe tests of probity. Neither the extreme poverty, nor the uncertain income, to which the virtue of so many men of letters has yielded, even in the slightest degree weakened his integrity, or lowered the dignity of his independence. His moral principles (if the language may be allowed) partook of the vigour of his understanding. He was conscientious, sincere, determined; and his pride was no more than a steady consciousness of superiority in the most valuable qualities of human
nature: his friendships were not only firm but generous, and tender beneath a rugged exterior: he wounded none of those feelings which the habits of his life enabled him to estimate; but he had become too hardened by serious distress not to contract some disregard for those minor delicacies, which become so keenly susceptible in a calm and prosperous fortune.
He was a Tory, not without some propensities towards Jacobitism, and high churchman, with more attachment to ecclesiastical authority, and a splendid worship, than is quite consistent with the spirit of Protestantism. On these subjects he never permitted himself to doubt, nor tolerated difference of opinion in others. The vigour of his understanding is no more to be estimated by his opinions on subjects where it was bound by his prejudices, than the strength of a man's body by the effects of a limb in fetters.
His conversation, which was one of the most powerful instruments of his extensive influence, was artificial, dogmatical, sententious, and poignant, adapted with the most admirable versatility to every subject as it arose, and distinguished by an almost unparalleled power of serious repartee. He seems to have considered himself as a sort of colloquial magistrate, who inflicted severe punishment from just policy. His course of life led him to treat those sensibilities, which such severity wounds, as fantastic and effeminate, and he entered society too late to acquire those habits of politeness which are a substitute for natural delicacy.
As a man, then, Johnson had a masculine understanding, clouded on important subjects by prejudice; a conscience pure beyond the ordinary measure of human virtue; a heart full of rugged benevolence, and a disregard only for those feelings in controversy or in conversation, of which he had not learnt the force, or which he thought himself obliged to wound. As a writer, he is memorable as one of those who effect a
change in the general style of a nation, and have vigour enough to leave the stamp of their own peculiarities upon their language.
In the progress of English style, three periods may be easily distinguished. The first period extended from Sir Thomas More to Lord Clarendon. During great part of this period, the style partook of the rudeness and fluctuation of an unformed language, in which use had not yet determined the words that were to be English. Writers had not yet discovered the combination of words which best suits the original structure and immutable constitution of our language: where the terms were English, the arrangement was Latin the exclusive language of learning, and that in which every truth in science, and every model of elegance, was contemplated by youth. For a century and a half, ineffectual attempts were made to bend our vulgar tongue to the genius of the language supposed to be superior ; and the whole of this period, though not without a capricious mixture of coarse idiom, may be called the Latin, or pedantic age, of our style.
In the second period, which extended from the Restoration to the middle of the eighteenth century, a series of writers appeared, of less genius indeed than their predecessors, but more successful in their experiments to discover the mode of writing most adapted to the genius of the language. About the same period that a similar change was effected in France by Pascal, they began to banish from style learned as well as vulgar phraseology, and to confine themselves to the part of the language naturally used in general conversation by well-educated men. That middle region, which lies between vulgarity and pedantry, remains commonly unchanged, while both extremes are equally condemned to perpetual revolution. Those who select words from that permanent part of a language, and who arrange them according to its natural order, have discovered the