« AnteriorContinua »
How is this to be accounted for, but by the influence of bad passions (unsuspected, probably, by themselves) in blinding or jaundicing their critical eye? In truth, it is only when the mind is perfectly serene, that the decisions of taste can be relied on. In these nicest of all operations of the intellectual faculties, where the grounds of judgment are often so shadowy and complicated, the latent sources of error are numberless; and to guard against them, it is necessary that no circumstance, however trifling, should occur, either to discompose the feelings, or to mislead the understanding.
Among our English poets, who is more vigorous, correct, and polished, than Dr. Johnson, in the few poetical compositions which he has left? Whatever may be thought of his claims to originality of genius, no person who reads his verses can deny, that he possessed a sound taste in this species of composition; and yet, how wayward and perverse, in many instances, are his decisions, when he sits in judgment on a political adversary, or when he treads on the ashes of a departed rival! To myself, (much as I admire his great and various merits, both as a critic and a writer,) human nature never appears in a more humiliating form, than when I read his "Lives of the Poets;" a performance which exhibits a more faithful, expressive, and curious picture of the author than all the portraits attempted by his biographers; and which, in this point of view, compensates fully by the moral lesson it may suggest, for the critical errors which it sanctions. The errors, alas! are not such as any one who has perused his imitation of Juvenal can place to the account of a bad taste; but such as had their root in weaknesses which a noble mind would be still more unwilling to acknowledge. If these observations are well founded, they seem to render it somewhat doubtful, whether, in the different arts, the most successful adventurers are likely to prove, in matters of criticism, the safest guides; although Pope
appears to have considered the censorial authority as their exclusive prerogative:
"Let such teach others, who themselves excel,
694. Byron on the " Vanity of Human Wishes."
Read Johnson's " Vanity of Human Wishes"- all the examples and mode of giving them sublime, as well as the latter part, with the exception of an occasional couplet. I do not so much admire the opening. I remember an observation of Sharp's (the Conversationist, as he was called in London, and a very clever man) that the first line of this poem was superfluous, and that Pope (the best of poets, as I think) would have begun at once, only changing the punctuation
"Survey mankind from China to Peru."
The former line, "Let observation," &c. is certainly heavy and useless. But 't is a grand poem- and so true! - true as the tenth of Juvenal himself. The lapse of ages changes all things time - language the earth the bounds of the sea- the stars of the sky, and every thing" about, around, and underneath" man, except man himelf, who has always been, and always will be, an unlucky rascal. The infinite variety of lives conduct but to death, and the infinity of wishes lead but to disappointment. (Life and Works, vol. v. p. 66.)
695. Byron on the "Lives of the Poets. Johnson strips many a leaf from every laurel. Still, his "Lives of the Poets" is the finest critical work extant, and can never be read without instruction and delight. The opinion of that truly great man, whom it is the present fashion to decry, will ever be received by me with that deference which time will restore to him from all. (Ibid. vol. vi. p. 376.)
696. Sir Walter Scott on Johnson.
Johnson's laborious and distinguished career terminated in 1784, when virtue was deprived of a steady supporter, society of a brilliant ornament, and literature of a successful cultivator. The latter part of his life was honoured with general applause, for none was more fortunate in obtaining and preserving the friendship of the wise and the worthy. Thus loved and venerated, Johnson might have been pronounced happy. But Heaven, in whose eyes strength is weakness, permitted his faculties to be clouded occasionally with that morbid affection of the spirits, which disgraced his talents by prejudices, and his manners by rudeness.
When we consider the rank which Dr. Johnson held, not only in literature, but in society, we cannot help figuring him to ourselves as the benevolent giant of some fairy tale, whose kindnesses and courtesies are still mingled with a part of the rugged ferocity imputed to the fabulous sons of Anak; or rather, perhaps, like a Roman dictator, fetched from his farm, whose wisdom and heroism still relished of his rustic occupation. And there were times when, with all Johnson's wisdom, and all his wit, this rudeness of disposition, and the sacrifices and submissions which he unsparingly exacted, were so great, that even his kind and devoted admirer, Mrs. Thrale, seems at length to have thought that the honour of being Johnson's hostess was almost counterbalanced by the tax which he exacted on her time and patience.
The cause of those deficiencies in temper and manners, was no ignorance of what was fit to be done in society, or how far each individual ought to suppress his own wishes in favour of those with whom he associates; for, theoretically, no man understood the rules of good-breeding better than Dr. Johnson, or could act more exactly in conformity with them, when the high
rank of those with whom he was in company for the time required that he should put the necessary constraint upon himself. But, during the greater part of his life, he had been in a great measure a stranger to the higher society, in which such restraint is necessary; and it may be fairly presumed, that the indulgence of a variety of little selfish peculiarities, which it is the object of good-breeding to suppress, became thus familiar to him. The consciousness of his own mental superiority in most companies which he frequented, contributed to his dogmatism; and when he had attained his eminence as a dictator in literature, like other potentates, he was not averse to a display of his authority: resembling in this particular Swift, and one or two other men of genius, who have had the bad taste to imagine that their talents elevated them above observance of the common rules of society. It must be also remarked, that in Johnson's time, the literary society of London was much more confined than at present, and that he sat the Jupiter of a little circle, sometimes indeed nodding approbation, but always prompt, on the slightest contradiction, to launch the thunders of rebuke and sarcasm. He was, in a word, despotic, and despotism will occasionally lead the best dispositions into unbecoming abuse of power. It is not likely that any one will again enjoy, or have an opportunity of abusing, the singular degree of submission which was rendered to Johnson by all around him. The unreserved communications of friends, rather than the spleen of enemies, have occasioned his character being exposed in all its shadows, as well as its lights. But those, when summed and counted, amount only to a few narrowminded prejudices concerning country and party, from which few ardent tempers remain entirely free, an overzeal in politics, which is an ordinary attribute of the British character, and some violences and solecisms in manners, which left his talents, morals, and benevolence,
alike unimpeachable. (Miscellaneous Prose Works vol. iii. p. 267.)
697. Sir James Mackintosh on Johnson.
Dr. Johnson had a great influence on the taste and opinions of his age, not only by the popularity of his writings, but by that colloquial dictatorship which he exercised for thirty years in the literary circles of the capital. He was distinguished by vigorous understanding and inflexible integrity. His imagination was not more lively than was necessary to illustrate his maxims; his attainments in science were inconsiderable, and in learning, far from the first class; they chiefly consisted in that sort of knowledge which a powerful mind collects from miscellaneous reading, and various intercourse with mankind. From the refinements of abstruse speculation he was withheld partly, perhaps, by that repugnance to such subtleties which much experience often inspires, and partly also by a secret dread that they might disturb those prejudices in which his mind. had found repose from the agitation of doubt. He was a most sagacious and severely pure judge of the actions and motives of men, and he was tempted by frequent detection of imposture to indulge somewhat of that contemptuous scepticism, respecting the sincerity of delicate and refined sentiments, which affected his whole character as a man and writer.
In early youth he had resisted the most severe tests of probity. Neither the extreme poverty, nor the uncertain income, to which the virtue of so many men of letters has yielded, even in the slightest degree weakened his integrity, or lowered the dignity of his independence. His moral principles (if the language may be allowed) partook of the vigour of his understanding. He was conscientious, sincere, determined; and his pride was no more than a steady consciousness of superiority in the most valuable qualities of human