“Your dutiful son,
Johnson managed to raise twelve guineas, six of them borrowed from his printer, to send to his dying mother. In order to gain money for her funeral expenses and some small debts, he wrote the story of Rasselas. It was composed in the evenings of a single week, and sent to press as it was written. He received L100 for this, perhaps the most successful of his minor writings, and L25 for a second edition. It was widely translated and universally admired. One of the strangest of literary coincidences is the contemporary appearance of this work and Voltaire’s Candide; to which, indeed, it bears in some respects so strong a resemblance that, but for Johnson’s apparent contradiction, we would suppose that he had at least heard some description of its design. The two stories, though widely differing in tone and style, are among the most powerful expressions of the melancholy produced in strong intellects by the sadness and sorrows of the world. The literary excellence of Candide has secured for it a wider and more enduring popularity than has fallen to the lot of Johnson’s far heavier production. But Rasselas is a book of singular force, and bears the most characteristic impression of Johnson’s peculiar temperament.
A great change was approaching in Johnson’s circumstances. When George III. came to the throne, it struck some of his advisers that it would be well, as Boswell puts it, to open “a new and brighter prospect to men of literary merit.” This commendable design was carried out by offering to Johnson a pension of three hundred a year. Considering that such men as Horace Walpole and his like were enjoying sinecures of more than twice as many thousands for being their father’s sons, the bounty does not strike one as excessively liberal. It seems to have been really intended as some set-off against other pensions bestowed upon various hangers-on of the Scotch prime minister, Bute. Johnson was coupled with the contemptible scribbler, Shebbeare, who had lately been in the pillory for a Jacobite libel (a “he-bear” and a “she-bear,” said the facetious newspapers), and when a few months afterwards a pension of L200 a year was given to the old actor, Sheridan, Johnson growled out that it was time for him to resign his own. Somebody kindly repeated the remark to Sheridan, who would never afterwards speak to Johnson.
The pension, though very welcome to Johnson, who seems to have been in real distress at the time, suggested some difficulty. Johnson had unluckily spoken of a pension in his Dictionary as “generally understood to mean pay given to a State hireling for treason to his country.” He was assured, however, that he did not come within the definition; and that the reward was given for what he had done, not for anything that he was expected to do. After some hesitation, Johnson consented to accept the payment thus offered without the direct suggestion