A Great Converser and Literary Lawgiver.—By nature Johnson was fitted to be a talker. He was happiest when he had intelligent listeners. Accordingly, he and Sir Joshua Reynolds, the artist, founded the famous Literary Club in 1764. During Johnson’s lifetime this had for members such men as Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, Charles James Fox, James Boswell, Edward Gibbon, and David Garrick. Macaulay says: “The verdicts pronounced by this conclave on new books were speedily known over all London, and were sufficient to sell off a whole edition in a day, or to condemn the sheets to the service of the trunk maker and the pastry cook... To predominate over such a society was not easy; yet even over such a society Johnson predominated.”
He was consulted as an oracle on all kinds of subjects, and his replies were generally the pith of common sense. So famous had Johnson become for his conversations that George III. met him on purpose to hear him talk. A committee from forty of the leading London booksellers waited on Johnson to ask him to write the Lives of the English Poets. There was then in England no other man with so much influence in the world of literature.
Boswell’s Life of Johnson.—In 1763 James Boswell (1740-1795), a Scotchman, met Johnson and devoted much time to copying the words that fell from the great Doctor’s lips and to noting his individual traits. We must go to Boswell’s Life of Johnson, the greatest of all biographies, to read of Johnson as he lived and talked; in short, to learn those facts which render him far more famous than his written works.
[Illustration: JAMES BOSWELL.]
Leslie Stephen saw: “I would still hope that to many readers Boswell has been what he has certainly been to some, the first writer who gave them a love of English literature, and the most charming of all companions long after the bloom of novelty has departed. I subscribe most cheerfully to Mr. Lewes’s statement that he estimates his acquaintances according to their estimate of Boswell.”
A Champion of the Classical School.—Johnson was a powerful adherent of classicism, and he did much to defer the coming of romanticism. His poetry is formal, and it shows the classical fondness for satire and aversion to sentiment. The first two lines of his greatest poem, The Vanity of Human Wishes—
“Let observation with extensive
Survey mankind from China to Peru,”
show the classical couplet, which he employs, and they afford an example of poetry produced by a sonorous combination of words. “Observation,” “view,” and “survey” are nearly synonymous terms. Such conscious effort centered on word building subtracts something from poetic feeling.
His critical opinions of literature manifest his preference for classical themes and formal modes of treatment. He says of Shakespeare: “It is incident to him to be now and then entangled with an unwieldy sentiment, which he cannot well express ... the equality of words to things is very often neglected.”