Samuel Johnson eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 213 pages of information about Samuel Johnson.
of separate good and bad qualities, of which one half may be concealed without injury to the rest.  Johnson’s fits of bad temper, like Goldsmith’s blundering, must be unsparingly revealed by a biographer, because they are in fact expressions of the whole character.  It is necessary to take them into account in order really to understand either the merits or the shortcomings.  When they are softened or omitted, the whole story becomes an enigma, and we are often tempted to substitute some less creditable explanation of errors for the true one.  We should not do justice to Johnson’s intense tenderness, if we did not see how often it was masked by an irritability pardonable in itself, and not affecting the deeper springs of action.  To bring out the beauty of a character by means of its external oddities is the triumph of a kindly humourist; and Boswell would have acted as absurdly in suppressing Johnson’s weaknesses, as Sterne would have done had he made Uncle Toby a perfectly sound and rational person.  But to see this required an insight so rare that it is wanting in nearly all the biographers who have followed Boswell’s steps, and is the most conclusive proof that Boswell was a man of a higher intellectual capacity than has been generally admitted.



We have now reached the point at which Johnson’s life becomes distinctly visible through the eyes of a competent observer.  The last twenty years are those which are really familiar to us; and little remains but to give some brief selection of Boswell’s anecdotes.  The task, however, is a difficult one.  It is easy enough to make a selection of the gems of Boswell’s narrative; but it is also inevitable that, taken from their setting, they should lose the greatest part of their brilliance.  We lose all the quaint semiconscious touches of character which make the original so fascinating; and Boswell’s absurdities become less amusing when we are able to forget for an instant that the perpetrator is also the narrator.  The effort, however, must be made; and it will be best to premise a brief statement of the external conditions of the life.

From the time of the pension until his death, Johnson was elevated above the fear of poverty.  He had a pleasant refuge at the Thrales’, where much of his time was spent; and many friends gathered round him and regarded his utterances with even excessive admiration.  He had still frequent periods of profound depression.  His diaries reveal an inner life tormented by gloomy forebodings, by remorse for past indolence and futile resolutions of amendment; but he could always escape from himself to a society of friends and admirers.  His abandonment of wine seems to have improved his health and diminished the intensity of his melancholy fits.  His literary activity, however, nearly ceased.  He wrote a few political pamphlets in defence of Government, and after

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Samuel Johnson from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.