« VorigeDoorgaan »
true secret of rendering their writings permanent, and of preserving that rank among the classical writers of their country, which men of greater intellectual power have failed to attain. Of these writers, whose language has not yet been slightly superannuated, Cowley was probably the earliest, as Dryden and Addison were assuredly the greatest.
The third period may be called the Rhetorical, and is distinguished by the prevalence of a school of writers, of which Johnson was the founder. The fundamental character of the Rhetorical style is, that it employs un. disguised art, where classical writers appear only to obey the impulse of a cultivated and adorned nature. As declamation is the fire of eloquence without its substance, so rhetoric consists in the forms of eloquence without its spirit. In the schools of the rhetorician, every ornament of composition is made by a rule ; where ornaments are natural, the feeling from which they spring, if it be tempered, performs the office of taste, by regulating their number, and adapting them to the occasion ; but those who fabricate them by rule without this natural regulator, have no security against unseasonable and undistinguishing profusion. These writers have not the variety of nature, but the uniformity of a Dutch garden.
As the English classical writers had been led by the nature of their subjects as well as the bent of their genius, to cultivate a temperate elegance, rather than to emulate the energy and grandeur of their less polished predecessors, so Johnson and his followers, in their attempt (which was partly successful) to impart more vigour and dignity to the general style, receded so far from vulgarity as to lose all ease and variety, and :0 exclusively preferred terms of Latin origin as to sacri. fice all that part of the English language on which its peculiar character depends. With Latin words they attempted also the renewal of those inversions and invoa
lutions which the syntax of that language allows, but which, after a vain effort of a century, had been ba. nished from ours. AU their words were thrown into one mould, and their periods came up in the same shape. As the mind of Johnson was robust, but neither nimble nor graceful, so his style, though sometimes significant, nervous, and even majestic, was void of all grace and ease, and being the most unlike of all styles to the natural effusion of a cultivated mind, had the least pretensions to the praise of eloquence. During the period, now near a close, in which he was a favourite model, a stiff symmetry and tedious monotony succeeded to that various music with which the taste of Addison diversified his periods, and to that natural imagery which the latter's beautiful genius seemed with graceful negligence to scatter over his composition. They who had not fancy enough to be ornamental, sought to distinguish themselves by being artificial ; and, though there were some illustrious exceptions, the general style had all those marks of corrupt taste which Johnson himself bad so well satirised in his commendation of the
prose of Dryden, and of which he has admirably represented the opposite in his excellent criticism on Addison. His earlier writings abound most with ex. amples of these faults of style. Many of his Latin words in an English shape no imitator has ventured to adopt; others have already dropped from the language, and will soon be known only in Dictionaries.
Some heaviness and weariness must be felt by most readers at the perusal of essays on life and manners, written like the “Rambler;" but it ought never to be forgotten, that the two most popular writers of the eighteenth century, Addison and Johnson, were such efficacious teachers of virtue, that their writings may be numbered among the causes which, in an important degree, have contributed to preserve and to improve the morality of the British nation.
His Dictionary, though distinguished neither by the philosophy nor by the erudition which illustrate the origin and history of words, is a noble monument of his powers and his literary knowledge, and even of his industry, though it betrays frequent symptoms of that constitutional indolence which must have so often over. powered him in so immense a labour,
Towards the end of his life, when intercourse with the world had considerably softened his style, he published his “ Lives of the English Poets," a work of which the subject insures popularity, and on which his fame probably now depends. He seeme to have poured into it the miscellaneous information which he had collected, and the literary opinions which he had formed, during his long reign over the literature of London. The critical part has produced the warmest agitations of literary faction. The time may, perhaps, now be arrived for an impartial estimate of its merits. Whenever understanding alone is sufficient for poetical criticism, the decisions of Johnson are generally right. But the beauties of poetry must be felt before their causes are investigated. There is a poetical sensibility which, in the progress of the mind, becomes as distinct a power as a musical ear or a picturesque eye. Without a considerable degree of this sensibility, it is as vain for a man of the greatest understanding to speak of the higher beauties of poetry, as it is for a blind man to speak of colours. To adopt the warmest sentiments of poetry, to realise its boldest imagery, to yield to every impulse of enthusiasm, to submit to the illusions of fancy, to retire with the poet into his ideal worlds, were dispositions wholly foreign from the worldly sagacity and stern shrewdness of Johnson .... If this unpoetical character be considered, if the force of prejudice be estimated, if we bear in mind that in this work of his old age we must expect to find him enamoured of every paradox which he had supported with brilliant success,
and that an old man seldom warmly admires those works which have appeared since his sensibility has become sluggish, and his literary system formed, we shall be able to account for most of the unjust judgments of Johnson, without recourse to any suppositions inconsistent with honesty and integrity.
As in his judgment of life and character, so in his criticism on poetry, he was a sort of Freethinker. He suspected the refined of affectation, he rejected the enthusiastic as absurd, and he took it for granted that the mysterious was unintelligible. He came into the world when the school of Dryden and Pope gave the law to English poetry. In that school he had himself learned to be a lofty and vigorous declaimer in harmonious verse ; beyond that school his unforced admiration perhaps scarcely soared ; and his highest effort of criticism was accordingly the noble panegyric on Dryden. His criticism owed its popularity as much to its defects as to its excellences. It was on a level with the majority of readers persons of good sense and information, but of no exquisite sensibility ; and to their minds it derived a false appearance of solidity from that very narrowness which excluded those grander efforts of imagination to which Aristotle and Bacon confined the name of poetry.
Among the victories gained by Milton, one of the most signal is that which he obtained over all the prejudices of Johnson, who was compelled to make a most vigorous, though evidently reluctant, effort to do justice to the fame and genius of the greatest of English poets. The alacrity with which he seeks every occasion to escape from this painful duty in observation upon Milton's Life and Minor Poems, sufficiently attest the irresistible power of “ Paradise Lost.” As he had no feel. ing of the lively and graceful, we must not wonder at his injustice to Prior. Some accidental impression, concurring with a long habit of indulging and venting every singularity, seems necessary to account for his having forgotten that Swift was a wit. As the Seasons appeared during the susceptible part of Johnson's life, his admiration of Thompson prevailed over that ludi. crous prejudice which he professed against Scotland, perhaps because it was a Presbyterian country. His insensibility to the higher order of poetry, his dislike of a Whig university, and his scorn of a fantastic character, combined to produce that monstrous example of critical injustice which he entitles the Life of Gray.
Such is the character which may be bestowed on Johnson by those who feel a profound reverence for his virtues, and a respect approaching to admiration for his intellectual powers, without adopting his prejudices, or being insensible to his defects. (Memoirs of Sir James Mackintosh, 1835, vol. ii. p. 166.)
698. Johnson's Epitaph on Mr. Thrale. Of his departed friend (says Dr. Anderson), Johnson has given a true character in a Latin epitaph, inscribed on his monument in Streatham church. Besides the example of affecting gratitude which it records, it is preserved here as an instance of the facility with which the heart of a friend finds topics of praise, to endear a worthy man to posterity, without falsehood or adulation. The morality of the conclusion is striking and instructive :
“ In the same tomb lie interred his father, Ralph Thrale, a man of vigour and activity, and his only son, Henry, who died before his father, aged ten years. Thus a happy and opulent family, raised by the grandfather, and augmented by the father, became extinguished with the grandson. Go, reader ; and, refecting on the vicissitudes of all human affairs, meditate on eternity!”