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The poem brought him little besides a growing reputation. A few days after the publication of the "Vanity of Human. Wishes," his tragedy of "Irene" was brought upon the stage by Garrick. It was heard with respectful attention. After running nine nights, it was withdrawn, and has never since been acted. "When Johnson writes tragedy," said Garrick, "declamation roars and passion sleeps; when Shakespeare wrote he dipped his pen in his own heart." Johnson took the failure of his tragedy with philosophical calmness. brought him all together about three hundred pounds, in which no doubt he found substantial consolation.
In 1750 he began the publication of the Rambler, a periodical resembling the Spectator. It appeared twice a week for two years. The range of subjects is wide and interesting. The prevailing tone is serious and moral. Though coldly received at the time of first issue, yet afterwards collected into volumes, the papers had an extraordinary circulation. No fewer than ten editions appeared during the author's life.
His style is characterized by an artificial stateliness, and a preponderance of Latin words. "I have labored," he says. in the closing paper, "to refine our language to grammatical purity, and to clear it from colloquial barbarisms, licentious idioms, and irregular combinations. Something, perhaps, I have added to the elegance of its construction, and something to
the harmony of its cadence." He lacked the delicate touch of Addison. Of his moral aim he says: "The essays profes sedly serious, if I have been able to execute my own intentions, will be found exactly conformable to the precepts of Christianity, without any accommodation to the licentiousness and levity of the present age. I therefore look back on this part of my work with pleasure, which no praise or blame of man can diminish or augment. I shall never envy the honors which wit and learning obtain in any other cause, if I can be numbered among the writers who have given ardor to virtue, and confidence to truth." The Rambler is a delightful book with which to spend an occasional half-hour. It is filled with sober wisdom, and some of the papers are singularly beautiful.
In 1759 Johnson's mother died at Lichfield at the age of ninety. He was still involved in financial troubles. In order to gain money for her funeral expenses, he wrote in a single week the story of "Rasselas." It is his most popular work. Its main theme is announced in the opening sentence: “Ye who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy, and pursue with eagerness the phantoms of hope; who expect that age will perform the promises of youth, and that the deficiences of the present day will be supplied by the morrow; attend to the history of Rasselas, prince of Abyssinia." The story makes no pretensions to historical accuracy; the Abyssinians brought before us are in reality highly cultivated Europeans. But it is written with Johnson's peculiar eloquence, and exhibits fully his moral and reflective temperament.
The year 1762 saw an important change in Johnson's condition. He received a pension of three hundred pounds a year. In his "Dictionary" he had defined a pension as " erally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country." Being assured that he did not come within the definition, and that the pension was accorded in recognition of past services, he accepted it after some hesitation. It placed him for the first time in circumstances of independence, and allowed him to indulge his constitutional
indolence. He talked at night and slept during the day, rising at two in the afternoon. "I cannot now curse the House of Hanover," he said in appreciative reference to his pension; "but I think that the pleasure of cursing the House of Hanover and drinking King James's health, all amply overbalanced by three hundred pounds a year."
No longer driven by necessity, his pen became less busy. His principal influence was exerted through conversation. His colloquial powers were of the highest order. In the Club, which included, among others, Goldsmith, Burke, Reynolds, and Garrick, he was easily first. The opinion of the Club carried great weight; and for a time his position might be described as literary dictator of England. Meeting the King one day in the royal library, he was asked by his Majesty if he intended to give the world any more of his compositions. "I think I have written enough," said Johnson. "And I should think so too," replied his Majesty, "if you had not written so well" a compliment of which Johnson was very proud.
In 1773 Johnson made a journey to the Hebrides. He was kindly received on his journey through Scotland. His prejudices against the Scotch were softened to a harmless foible. He made inquiries concerning the poems of Ossian. He denounced Macpherson's work as a forgery. Receiving a furious and threatening letter from the author of "Ossian," Johnson replied: "I hope I shall never be deterred from detecting what I think a cheat by the menaces of a ruffian." In anticipation of personal violence, he provided himself with a heavy stick, of which, had occasion offered, he would doubt· less have made vigorous use.
The results of this trip are given in a pleasant volume entitled "Journey to the Hebrides." The style is, as usual, elaborate and stately. Writing to an intimate friend from the Hebrides, he says with colloquial ease and pith, "When we were taken up-stairs, a dirty fellow bounced out of the bed on which one of us was to lie." In his book this incident is translated into his artificial literary style as follows: "Out of one of
the beds on which we were to repose, started up, at our en trance, a man black as a Cyclops from the forge."
In 1777 a number of London booksellers decided to publish a collection of English poetry. Johnson was asked to prepare the introductory biographical and critical sketches. The result was his "Lives of the Poets," the work, perhaps, by which he will be longest known. In the judgment of Macaulay it is more interesting than any novel. In many respects it is an admirable production. Without much patient research after biographical material, it gives the leading facts in the life of each poet, together with a masterly analysis of his character and a critical examination of his works. It is less ponderous in style than his earlier writings. That it is independent in judgment goes without saying. His criticisms, always worth attention, are not always just. He was sometimes influenced by his prejudices, as in the case of Milton and Gray; and he attached too much importance to the logical and didactic elements of poetry. He had no ear for the music of poetry; and that subtle, ethereal quality, which raises it above prose, could not be grasped by his clumsy critical principles.
One of the great charms of the "Lives of the Poets" consists in the shrewd observations upon life and character with which the book abounds. Discussing Dryden's financial difficulties, he remarks: "It is well known that he seldom lives frugally who lives by chance. Hope is always liberal, and they that trust her promises make little scruple of revelling to-day on the profits of the morrow." The work contains the materials for a collection of maxims as interesting as those of La Rochefoucauld, and much more truthful. Very near to admiration," he says, "is the wish to admire." The rich treasures of wisdom which long experience and reflection had stored in his spacious mind are scattered through his pages with
Much of interest in Johnson's life is necessarily omitted: the strange crowd of dependants he maintained at his home; his relation with the Thrales; a great store of interesting
anecdote preserved to us by his satellite Boswell. Though for a time oppressed with a dread of death, he met it, as the end drew near, with manly courage. In his last sickness he was visited by many of his old friends. "I am afraid,” said Burke, "that so many of us must be oppressive to you." "No, sir, it is not so," replied Johnson ;" and I must be in a wretched state indeed when your company would not be a delight to me.”—“You have always been too good to me,” said Burke with a breaking voice, as he parted from his old friend for the last time. Now and then there was a flash of the old vigor and humor. Describing a man who sat up with him, he said: "Sir, the fellow's an idiot; he's as awkward as a turnspit when first put into the wheel, and as sleepy as a dormouse." His last words were a benediction. A young lady begged his blessing. "God bless you, my dear," he said with infinite tenderness. Nothing could have been more characteristic of his great, benevolent heart. He peacefuly died Dec. 13, 1784. He had once playfully said to Goldsmith, when visiting the poets' corner of Westminster Abbey,
"Forsitan et nostrum nomen miscebitur istis." 1
The prediction and the wish were fulfilled. the wise and great who repose there, there is no one whose massive intellect, honest worth, and great heart command our admiration and love in a higher degree than Samuel Johnson.
Perhaps our names will be mingled with them.