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ELECTIONS from the writings of a great author are generally regarded with least favour by those who know him best. With the saunterers in the paths of literature, who wish to shun every exertion and to take their pleasures lazily, the student has little fellow-feeling. He would almost as soon spend his life in a country where the sun day after day passes across an unclouded sky, as read only the "Beauties" of his favourite writer. He entertains, moreover, a general feeling of distrust, and even of resentment, towards those, who set themselves up as arbiters of taste, and presume to decide which in each writer are the finest passages. He is angered by the discovery that their judgment and his are often at variance, and that while many a favourite quotation has been neglected, others are inserted whose great merits he could never recognize. It was perhaps some such considerations as these which led Johnson "to express
his disapprobation of Dr. Hurd, for having published a mutilated edition of Cowley under the title of Select Works of Abraham Cowley." Nevertheless some two years later, on turning the question over in his mind, he said :-" Upon better consideration I think there is no impropriety in a man's publishing as much as he chooses of any author, if he does not put the rest out of the way.' ." He had perhaps reflected on the almost total neglect into which that once famous poet had long fallen. More than forty years had passed since Pope asked
"Who now reads Cowley? if he pleases yet,
If to the common run of readers Cowley was to be anything more than a name, it was only in a selection from his poems that he could still be known. Like all other writers, he had had "to pass through futurity protected only by his genius," ,"4 and his genius had been found too weak to bear up the whole weight of the burthen. If "the little bark" was to sail in safety "along the stream of time," it had become needful to throw overboard the larger part of the cargo.
What was true of Cowley's Poems a hundred years ago is no less true of Johnson's Essays at the present time. His Lives of the Poets are likely to be widely read, so long as a love for English literature and English men of letters continues ;
1 Boswell's Life of Johnson, Clarendon Press ed., iii. 29. 2 Ib., p. 227.
3 Imitations of Horace, Epistles ii., i. 75.
4 Johnson's Works, ed. 1825, vii. 451.
but his Ramblers, his Adventurers, and his Idlers
through which it is needful to look. Even at the time of their publication it mattered but little in what order they were taken, or whether they were read as a whole or in part. They belong to that class of writings in which a single specimen may without much unfairness be taken as a sample of the whole. Instead of suffering by judicious selection they may even gain; for I am convinced that Johnson's reputation as an Essayist would from the first have stood far higher had many of his Ramblers never been written. Like other great writers, he did not always "find out where his talents lay." He ventured to follow Addison in his light and graceful humour, and he conspicuously failed. "If you were to make little fishes talk," Goldsmith said to him, "they would talk like WHALES."3 To those who knew the Spectator as it was known to Johnson's contemporaries, the comparison between the two men in their lighter passages must have been as striking
1 Pope, Essay on Man, i. 30.
2 "Brutes find out where their talents lie;
A bear will not attempt to fly."
-On Poetry.-A Rhapsody, Swift's Works, ed. 1803.
8 Boswell's Johnson, ii. 231.
as it was disadvantageous to the fame of the younger writer. They must have turned away almost with a feeling of contempt from his ladies -his Cornelias and Tranquillas and the rest. His men of fashion are very little, if at all, nearer to the life. Yet Lord Macaulay goes much too far when he maintains that "no man surely ever had so little talent for personation as Johnson."1 When he personates people with whose life he was familiar, he often meets with great success. Of men of fashion and fine ladies at the time he wrote his Essays he knew very little indeed, but those who frequented the tavern, or who laid down the law in the coffee-house, he had studied day and night for many a long year. As he said of himself, "he had been running about the world more than almost any body."2 While Macaulay justly ridicules his disappointed legacy hunter," his "empty town fop," his "crazy virtuoso," he passes over in silence his "Gelidus," his "Prospero," his "Sober," his "Sophron," his "Minim the critic," and his "select set at the Wells," "Tom Steady," "Dick Snug," and the rest. These characters surely are drawn by the hand of no mean humourist. Once at all events he is successful in personating a woman. His twelfth Rambler, in which he describes the insolence suffered by the daughter of a country gentleman, who had been driven by poverty to seek a place as a servant, is written
Macaulay's Essays, ed. 1843, i. 405.
2 Boswell's Johnson, i. 215.
8 Rambler, No. 24. 6 Ib., No. 57.
4 Ib., No. 200.
5 Idler, No. 31.
with ease and spirit. The signature Zosima is the only thing about it that is absurd. That he often hit the mark is shown by the story "which he related with much satisfaction, that several of the characters in the Rambler were drawn so naturally, that when it first circulated in numbers, a club in one of the towns in Essex imagined themselves to be severally exhibited in it, and were much incensed against a person who, they suspected, had thus made them objects of public notice; nor were they quieted till authentic assurance was given them that the Rambler was written by a person who had never heard of any one of them." According to Mrs. Piozzi, this society met at Romford every Saturday evening during the summer, and was known by the name of the Bowling-green Club. Their suspicions were turned into conviction by the discovery that the author of the Rambler was Samuel Johnson, for that chanced to be the name of their curate. The poor parson, laden with reproaches, "rode to London and brought them full satisfaction concerning the writer."2 The character of Suspirius in the fifty-ninth number was well enough drawn to tempt even Goldsmith to borrow it. "From it he took that of Croaker in The Good-Natur'd Man, as he acknowledged to Johnson."
It has often been pointed out that in the Idlers there is a livelier tone and a lighter touch than in the Ramblers. They were written when Johnson
1 Boswell's Johnson, i. 216.