« AnteriorContinua »
their lives were applauded and admired, are laid at last in the ground without the common honour of a stone; because by those excellencies with which many were delighted, none had been obliged, and though they had many to celebrate, they had none to love them.”
590. Anningait and Ajut. Never was the passion of love, or the assiduities of affection, placed in a more entertaining or pleasing light, than in the Greenland story of Anningait and Ajut (); which, owing to its wild and savage imagery, and the felicity with which it is adapted to the circumstances of the narrative, possesses the attractions of no ordinary share of originality. Mr. Campbell, in his truly sublime poem on the Pleasures of Hope, has thus beautifully alluded to this story :
“ Oh! vainly wise, the moral Muse hath sung
That 'suasive Hope hath but a syren tongue!
591. Rasselas. Many of the topics which are eagerly discussed in the History of Rasselas are known to have greatly interested, and even agitated, the mind of Johnson. Of these the most remarkable are, on the Efficacy of Pilgrimage, on the State of Departed Souls, on the Probability of the Reappearance of the Dead, and on the Danger of Insanity. The apprehension of mental derangement seems to have haunted the mind of Johnson during the greater part of his life ; and he has therefore very emphatically declared, that “of the uncertainties in our present state, the most dreadful and
(1) Rambler, Nos. 186, 187.
alarming is the uncertain continuance of reason.” (1) It is highly probable, that his fears and feelings on this head gave rise to the character of the Mad Astronomer in Rasselas, who declared to Imlac, that he had possessed for five years the regulation of the weather, and the distribution of the seasons; that the sun had listened to his dictates, and passed from tropic to tropic by his direction ; that the clouds at his call had poured their waters, and the Nile had overflowed at his command. This tremendous visitation he has ascribed principally to the indulgence of imagination in the shades of solitude:
“ Disorders of intellect,” he remarks, “happen much more often than superficial observers will easily believe. Perhaps, if we speak with rigorous exactness, no human mind is in its right state. There is no man whose imagination does not sometimes predominate over his reason, who can regulate his attention wholly by his will, and whose ideas will come and go at his command. No man will be found in whose mind airy notions do not sometimes tyrannise, and force him to hope or fear beyond the limits of sober probability. All power of fancy over reason is a degree of insanity; but while this power is such as we can control and repress, it is not visible to others, nor considered as any depravation of the mental faculties: it is not pronounced madness but when it becomes ungovernable, and apparently influences speech or action.
“ To indulge the power of fiction, and send imagination out upon the wing, is often the sport of those who delight too much in silent speculation. When we are alone we are not always busy; the labour of excogitation is too violent to last long; the ardour of inquiry will sometimes give way to idleness or satiety. He who has nothing external that can divert him, must find pleasure in his own thoughts, and must conceive himself what he is not; for who is pleased with what he is? He then expatiates in boundless futurity, and culls from all imaginable conditions that which for the present moment he should most desire,
(1) Rasselas, chap. 42.
amuses his desires with impossible enjoyments, and confers upon his pride unattainable dominion. The mind dances from scene to scene, unites all pleasures in all combinations, and riots in delights which nature and fortune, with all their bounty, cannot bestow.
“ In time, some particular train of ideas fixes the attention ; all other intellectual gratifications are rejected; the mind, in weariness or leisure, recurs constantly to the favourite conception, and feasts on the luscious falsehood, whenever she is offended with the bitterness of truth. By degrees the reign of fancy is confirmed; she grows first imperious, and in time despotic. Then fictions begin to operate as realities, false opinions fasten upon the mind, and life passes in dreams of rapture or of anguish.
“ This, Sir, is one of the dangers of solitude.” (1)
In the paragraphs which we have just quoted, there is much reason to suppose, that Johnson was describing what he had himself repeatedly experienced ; and to this circumstance Sir John Hawkins has attributed his uncommon attachment to society.
592. Preface to Shakspeare. This Preface is perhaps the most eloquent and acute piece of dramatic criticism of which our language can boast. The characteristic excellencies of Shakspeare, his beauties and defects, are delineated with powers of discrimination not easily paralleled ; and though the panegyric on his genius be high and uncommonly splendid, his faults are laid open with an impartial and unsparing hand. To the prose encomia of Dryden and Addison on our unrivalled bard may be added, as worthy of juxtaposition, the following admirable paragraph; the conclusion of which is alike excellent for its imagery and sublimity :
(1) Rasselas, chap. 43.
“ As the personages of Shakspeare act upon principles arising from genuine passion, very little modified by particular forms, their pleasures and vexations are communicable to all times and to all places; they are natural, and therefore durable; the adventitious peculiarities of personal habits are only superficial dyes, bright and pleasing for a little while, yet soon fading to a dim tinct, without any remains of former lustre; and the discrimination of true passion are the colours of nature; they pervade the whole mass, and can only perish with the body that exhibits them. The accidental compositions of heterogeneous modes are dissolved by the chance that combined them; but the uniform simplicity of primitive qualities neither admits increase nor suffers decay. The sand heaped by one flood is scattered by another, but the rock always continues in its place. The stream of time, which is continually washing the dissoluble fabrics of other poets, passes without injury by the adamant of Shakspeare."
593. “ Lives of the Poets.” The effect of the critical biography of Johnson on the literary world, and on the public at large, has been very considerable, and, in many respects, beneficial. It has excited a laudable attention to preserve the memory of those, who have, by intellectual exertions, contributed to our instruction and amusement; whereas, previous to the appearance of our author's “Lives,” biography, with few exceptions, had been confined to military and political characters : it has given rise, also, to much dis
sion and research into the merits and defects of our national poets; and the edition to which it was annexed, has led the way to several subsequent collections on an improved and more extended scale.
594. Johnson's “ Letters." The Letters of Johnson place him before us stripped of all disguise ; they teach us to love as well as to admire the man, and are frequently written with a pathos and an ardour of affection, which impress us with a much more amiable idea of the writer, than can be drawn from any portion of his more elaborated works.
595. Johnson's Sermons. The Sermons of Johnson, twenty-five in number, were part of the stock which his friend Dr. Taylor carried with him to the pulpit. As compositions, they are little inferior to any of his best works ; and they inculcate, without enthusiasm or dogmatism, the purest precepts and doctrines of religion and morality.
596. “Prayers and Meditations." It is in the Prayers and Meditations of Johnson that we become acquainted with the inward heart of the
He had left them for publication, under the idea that they were calculated to do good ; and depraved, indeed, must be that individual who rises unbenefited from their perusal. The contrast between the language of this little volume, and the style of the Rambler, is striking in the extreme, and a strong proof of the judgment, the humility, and the piety of the author. With a deep sense of human frailty and individual error, he addresses the throne of mercy in a strain remarkable for its simplicity and plainness ; but which, though totally stripped of the decorations of art, possesses a native dignity, approaching to that which we receive from our most excellent liturgy.