Samuel Johnson eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 173 pages of information about Samuel Johnson.

It remains to speak of Johnson’s position in literature.  For reasons sufficiently obvious, few men whose lives have been devoted to letters for an equal period, have left behind them such scanty and inadequate remains.  Johnson, as we have seen, worked only under the pressure of circumstances; a very small proportion of his latter life was devoted to literary employment.  The working hours of his earlier years were spent for the most part in productions which can hardly be called literary.  Seven years were devoted to the Dictionary, which, whatever its merits, could be a book only in the material sense of the word, and was of course destined to be soon superseded.  Much of his hack-work has doubtless passed into oblivion, and though the ordinary relic-worship has gathered together fragments enough to fill twelve decent octavo volumes (to which may be added the two volumes of parliamentary reports), the part which can be called alive may be compressed into very moderate compass.  Johnson may be considered as a poet, an essayist, a pamphleteer, a traveller, a critic, and a biographer.  Among his poems, the two imitations of Juvenal, especially the Vanity of Human Wishes, and a minor fragment or two, probably deserve more respect than would be conceded to them by adherents of modern schools.  His most ambitious work, Irene, can be read by men in whom a sense of duty has been abnormally developed.  Among the two hundred and odd essays of the Rambler, there is a fair proportion which will deserve, but will hardly obtain, respectful attention. Rasselas, one of the philosophical tales popular in the last century, gives the essence of much of the Rambler in a different form, and to these may be added the essay upon Soame Jenyns, which deals with the same absorbing question of human happiness.  The political pamphlets, and the Journey to the Hebrides, have a certain historical interest; but are otherwise readable only in particular passages.  Much of his criticism is pretty nearly obsolete; but the child of his old age—­the Lives of the Poets—­a book in which criticism and biography are combined, is an admirable performance in spite of serious defects.  It is the work that best reflects his mind, and intelligent readers who have once made its acquaintance, will be apt to turn it into a familiar companion.

If it is easy to assign the causes which limited the quantity of Johnson’s work, it is more curious to inquire what was the quality which once gained for it so much authority, and which now seems to have so far lost its savour.  The peculiar style which is associated with Johnson’s name must count for something in both processes.  The mannerism is strongly marked, and of course offensive; for by “mannerism,” as I understand the word, is meant the repetition of certain forms of language in obedience to blind habit and without reference to their propriety in the particular case.  Johnson’s sentences seem to be contorted, as his gigantic limbs used to twitch, by a kind of mechanical spasmodic action.  The most obvious peculiarity is the tendency which he noticed himself, to “use too big words and too many of them.”  He had to explain to Miss Reynolds that the Shakesperian line,—­

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Samuel Johnson from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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