“He pretends insensibility to censure and criticism, though it was observed by all who knew him that every pamphlet disturbed his quiet, and that his extreme irritability laid him open to perpetual vexation; but he wished to despise his critics, and therefore hoped he did despise them. As he happened to live in two reigns when the court paid little attention to poetry, he nursed in his mind a foolish disesteem of kings, and proclaims that ‘he never sees courts.’ Yet a little regard shown him by the Prince of Wales melted his obduracy; and he had not much to say when he was asked by his Royal Highness, ’How he could love a prince while he disliked kings.’”
Johnson’s best poetry is the versified expression of the tone of sentiment with which we are already familiar. The Vanity of Human Wishes is, perhaps, the finest poem written since Pope’s time and in Pope’s manner, with the exception of Goldsmith’s still finer performances. Johnson, it need hardly be said, has not Goldsmith’s exquisite fineness of touch and delicacy of sentiment. He is often ponderous and verbose, and one feels that the mode of expression is not that which is most congenial; and yet the vigour of thought makes itself felt through rather clumsy modes of utterance. Here is one of the best passages, in which he illustrates the vanity of military glory:—
On what foundation stands the warrior’s
How just his hopes let Swedish Charles decide;
A frame of adamant, a soul of fire,
No dangers fright him and no labours tire;
O’er love, o’er fear, extends his wide domain,
Unconquer’d lord of pleasure and of pain;
No joys to him pacific sceptres yield,
War sounds the trump, he rushes to the field;
Behold surrounding kings their powers combine,
And one capitulate, and one resign:
Peace courts his hand, but spreads her charms in vain.
“Think nothing gain’d,” he cries, “till nought remain;
On Moscow’s walls till Gothic standards fly,
And all be mine beneath the polar sky?”
The march begins in military state,
And nations on his eye suspended wait;
Stern Famine guards the solitary coast,
And Winter barricades the realms of Frost.
He comes, nor want nor cold his course delay—
Hide, blushing glory, hide Pultowa’s day!
The vanquish’d hero leaves his broken bands,
And shows his miseries in distant lands;
Condemn’d a needy supplicant to wait,
While ladies interpose and slaves debate—
But did not Chance at length her error mend?
Did no subverted empire mark his end?
Did rival monarchs give the fatal wound?
Or hostile millions press him to the ground?
His fall was destined to a barren strand,
A petty fortress and a dubious hand;
He left the name at which the world grew pale,
To point a moral and adorn a tale.
The concluding passage may also fitly conclude this survey of Johnson’s writings. The sentiment is less gloomy than is usual, but it gives the answer which he would have given in his calmer moods to the perplexed riddle of life; and, in some form or other, it is, perhaps, the best or the only answer that can be given:—