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'Give me your hand; I have taken a liking to you.” Such was the impulsive, good-humoured remark to which we probably owe the most vivid, entertaining, and enduring piece of biography in the English language. Johnson little knew that he sealed his own fate by this very uncharacteristic reception of a volatile Scottish laird. We are, however, so accustomed to associate the great Doctor with Boswell that we are apt to overlook many other friends who both formed, and expressed, their own impressions of him. Any view of such a man could hardly escape being interesting, however secondary it might seem after Boswell. Sir John Hawkins, Murphy, Kearsley, may all be studied with profit. Mrs. Piozzi and Madame D'Arblay, and extracts from some thirty or forty other writers also make up a considerable collection of Johnsoniana ; and while all serve to correct the fallacy that Johnson owed his fame to Boswell's “ Life,” they illustrate and enhance, rather than detract from, Bozzy's unique gifts as a biographer. Johnson's other friends must have met him far more frequently than Boswell did, but they lacked his remarkable curiosity, his carefully trained powers of observation, and his dogged pertinacity. I will revert to Boswell's gifts as a biographer later, but acknowledging his genius for this kind of work, one must admit that in the choice of Johnson as a subject he was singularly happy. Compare, for instance, Johnson's utterances with the recorded table-talk of Dr. Samuel Parr, a man who enjoyed no little reputation in his day for his conversational powers, and see how feebly Parr compares with Johnson. It is hardly possible that Boswell with all his powers could have done much with such a subject as pompous old Dr. Parr, or even with Johnson's greater contemporaries—Burke, for instance, or Reynolds, or Gibbon. What other public character of the time could have survived the ordeal as Johnson has ? Who would have combined so much wit with so much piety, such eccentricity with such stability of mind, such unfaltering candour with such unfeigned tenderness of heart? He alone of his time seemed to know how to say something worth saying when there appeared to be little or nothing to say, and he also managed to say that something well. Read, for example, his dedications, or look into his chronicles of the smaller fry of versifiers in the “ Lives of the Poets," and there you will find a host of the things that have become a part of our common speech. He could compose a studied rebuke to Lord Chesterfield, unequalled in our language for its manly independence and dignified yet devastating phrase. Yet he it was who wrote those most affecting letters to his dying mother, kept up a long and lively correspondence with Mrs. Thrale, and sent to little Jane Langton one of the simplest and most beautiful letters ever written to a child. If he wrote " Irene,” his verses on his old friend Levett must not be forgotten, and although he feared death all his life, when at last stricken with palsy and bereft of
* For an excellent account of Samuel Johnson and the literature of his times, see “ The Age of Johnson," by Thomas Seccombe, 8vo, 3rd ed. revised, 1907. Sir Leslie Stephen's “Life of Johnson” in
English Men of Letters, ” published thirty years ago, is not only a model of what a short biography should be, but is one of the best of the many studies of Johnson we have.
speech, he composed a Latin prayer to test the power of his mind. characteristic that with his last breath he should have asked a blessing for the young girl who came to seek it of him on the day of his death. Macaulay's famous saying seems to me only partly true: “The memory of other authors is kept alive by their books, but the memory of Johnson keeps many of his books alive." There is much of Johnson's work, the interest of which has survived and will continue to survive, and it is strange that most of this work was composed after he received his pension and when he was supposed to have been living a life of idleness. The works especially worth reading are Johnson's Letters to Mrs. Thrale, “ The Lives of the Poets,” and the “ Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland.” Besides which there are, belonging to the pre-pension days, “ The Life of Savage,” some of the Ramblers and Idlers, and a few smaller pieces, especially his letter to Lord Chesterfield. For those who enjoy reading dictionaries, like Walter Pater, Johnson's folio edition will be found to be among the best.
Boswell has given us a complete history of his hero during the years when he was enjoying fame, a comfortable pension, and the admiration of a goodly circle of friends. But of those other years when, an unknown toiler in Grub Street, he was struggling with poverty, we know comparatively nothing. That period of his life when he was picking up all that odd gossip with which he afterwards enlivened the pages of his “ Lives of the Poets,” when he was walking the streets with Richard Savage, or sitting in an ale-house with George Psalmanazar--that is the period of which an intimate account would perhaps have proved even more interesting, than a record of Johnson's later days. When men write their own lives, they usually dwell longest on their earlier years. Who knows what was destroyed, when Johnson committed to the flames those two quarto volumes which Boswell says contained “a full, fair and most particular account of his own life from his earliest recollections.” It is the habit, perhaps the fate, of biographers to be in at the death, and to make up for their lack of particulars of the early years of their victims, by spinning out the history of their declining days. We must, however, be content with what has been given, and it is at least certain that for the last twenty years of Johnson's life Boswell gathered every crumb relating to his hero that came within his reach. He collected his letters, and drew him into correspondence, he noted his conversation and incited him to talk and argue, and even to bully, not minding much who was to be the object of attack, even if it were himself. He took the greatest pains to draw his character and habits, to record his opinions and his sturdy common sense, and to reveal his kindness of heart, his charity and loyalty to his friends. Macaulay has summarized the scope of Boswell's book in the well-known passage
“ Johnson grown old, Johnson in the fulness of his fame and in the enjoyment of a competent fortune, is better known to us than any other man in history. Everything about him, his coat, his wig, his figure, his face, his scrofula, his St. Vitus's dance, his rolling walk, his blinking eye, the outward signs which too clearly marked his approbation of his dinner, his insatiable appetite for fish-sauce and veal-pie with plums, his inextinguishable thirst for tea, his trick of touching the posts as he walked, his mysterious practice of treasuring up scraps of orange-peel, his morning slumbers, his midnight disputations, his contortions, his mutterings, his gruntings, his puffings, his vigorous, acute, and ready eloquence, his sarcastic wit, his vehemence, his insolence, his fits of tempestuous rage, his queer inmates, old Mr. Levett, and blind Mrs. Williams, the cat Hodge and the negro Frank, all are as familiar to us as the objects by which we have been surrounded from childhood. But we have no minute information respecting those years of Johnson's life during