« AnteriorContinua »
"Your friend is passionate, perhaps unfit
The man you love; yet is he not possess'd
BY NATHAN DRAKE, M.D. (1)
As this spirited imitation of Juvenal forms an epoch in our author's literary life, and is one of his best poetical productions, I shall consider it as introductory to an uninterrupted consideration of his compositions in this branch, and to a discussion of his general character as a poet; and this plan I shall pursue with regard to the other numerous departments of literature in which he excelled, and according to the order in which the first in merit of a class shall in succession rise to view; persuaded that, by this mode, the monotony arising from
(1) [From "Essays, critical and historical, illustrative of the Rambler, Adventurer, and Idler:" Part II. "The Literary Life of Dr. Johnson." 2 vols. 1806.]
a stricter chronological detail of his various writings, the arrangement hitherto adopted by his biographers, may, in a great measure, be obviated.
Of the three imitators of the third satire of the Roman poet, Boileau, Oldham, and Johnson, the latter is, by many degrees, the most vigorous and poetical. No man, indeed, was better calculated to transfuse the stern invective, the sublime philosophy, and nervous painting of Juvenal, than our author; and his "London," whilst it rivals the original in these respects, is, at the same time, greatly superior to it in purity of illustration, and harmony of versification. The felicity with which he has adapted the imagery and allusions of the Latin poem to modern manners, vices, and events; and the richness and depth of thought which he exhibits when the hint is merely taken from the Roman bard, or when he chooses altogether to desert him, are such as to render this satire the noblest moral poem in our language.
At the period when Johnson wrote his " London," he must, from his peculiar circumstances, have been prone to imbibe all the warmth and indignation of the ancient satirist, who depicts in the boldest colours the unmerited treatment to which indigence is subjected, and the multiform oppressions arising from tyranny and illacquired wealth. He was, indeed, at this time, "steeped up to the lips in poverty," and was likewise a zealous opponent of what he deemed a corrupt administration. It is impossible to read the following passage, one of the finest in the poem, and especially its concluding line, which the author distinguished by capitals, without deeply entering into, and severely sympathising with, the feelings and sufferings of the writer:
"By numbers here from shame or censure free,
This, only this, the rigid law pursues,
The sober trader at a tatter'd cloak
Fate never wounds more deep the gen'rous heart,
No pathless waste, or undiscover'd shore?
Of the energy and compression which characterise the sentiment and diction of " London," this last "line is a striking example; for the original, though strong in its expression, is less terse and happy : —
"Haud facile emergunt, quorum virtutibus obstat
583. "Vanity of Human Wishes."
The " Vanity of Human Wishes," the subject of which is in a great degree founded on the Alcibiades of Plato, possesses not the point and fire which animates the "London." It breathes, however, a strain of calm and dignified philosophy, much more pleasing to the mind, and certainly much more consonant to truth, than the party exaggeration of the prior satire. The poet's choice of modern examples, in place of those brought forward by the ancient bard, is happy and judicious; and he has every where availed himself, and in a style the most impressive, of the solemnity, the pathos, and sublime morality of the Christian code.
To enter into competition with the tenth satire of
Juvenal, which is, without doubt, the most perfect composition of its author, was a daring and a hazardous attempt. Dryden had led the way, and, though occasionally successful, has failed to equal the general merit of the Latin poem. The imitation of Johnson, on the contrary, may be said to vie with the Roman in every line, and in some instances to surpass the original ; particularly in the sketch of Charles, and in the conclusion of the satire, which, though nobly moral as it is in the page of Juvenal, is greatly heightened by the pen of Johnson, and forms one of the finest lessons of piety and resignation discoverable in the works of any uninspired writer. After reprobating the too frequent folly of our wishes and our prayers, it is inquired of the poet, whether we shall upon no occasion implore the mercy of the skies? He replies:
Inquirer, cease; petitions yet remain,
Which Heaven may hear, nor deem religion vain.
But leave to Heaven the measure and the choice.
Safe in his power, whose eyes discern afar
These goods he grants, who grants the power to gain;
With these celestial wisdom calms the mind,
"Irene " can boast of a strict adherence to the unities; of harmonious versification; of diction vigorous and splendid; of sentiment morally correct and philosophically beautiful: but its fable is without interest, its characters without discrimination, and neither terror nor pity is excited. If it fail, however, as a drama, in delineating the ebullitions of passion, it will, as a series of ethic dialogues, replete with striking observations on human conduct, and rich in poetic expression, be long studied and admired in the closet. No one of the productions of Johnson, indeed, was more carefully elaborated than his " Irene ;" and, though commenced at an early period of life, no one more evidently discovers his exclusive love of moral philosophy, and his ample store of nervous and emphatic language. Of the numerous passages which illustrate this remark, and which, for their moral excellence, should dwell upon the memory, I shall adduce two, in conception and in execution alike happy. Demetrius, addressing the aged Visier Cali on the danger of protracting the blow which he intended until the morrow, exclaims,
"To-morrow's action! can that hoary wisdom,
Borne down with years, still doat upon to-morrow!