Page images
PDF
EPUB

We have no disposition to find fault with Lord Brougham's estimate of Johnson's literary merits ; and what he says of the style of the great moralist is altogether discriminating and true. To Johnson's poetry he assigns a rank perhaps too high, if it be regarded as poetry ; but when we regard it as eloquent and powerful declamation, like that of Juvenal, against the vices and follies of the times, it certainly exhibits a striking union of deep feeling with majesty and might. He loved the regular cadences of verse, which he is said to have read in a very impressive way ; and we see, in fact, in his prose, that measured step and those balanced periods which would seem wearily formal and mechanical in any other, but which affect us differently in his case, because they are the natural expression of his mind. Some of his writings Lord Brougham characterizes as dull and finisy, in which he has reference principally to the Rambler and Idler, and seems to us to express a hasty and ill-considered opinion. Dull the Rambler may be, but Aimsy it is not ; it is dull to us because it was an ephemeral publication, which found readers and satisfied them in the day for which it was intended ; and, if it has lost its attraction, it is in the same predicament with the Spectator, which no one now thinks of sitting down to devour. That it was not wholly speculative and unpractical appears from the circumstance pointed out by Lord Brougham himself, that Johnson, in some of these light periodicals, has an able argument against imprisonment for debt and capital punishment, thus anticipating by three quarters of a century questions of great interest, which his own age cared little for, but which have become subjects of vast importance at the present day,

We fully accede to the justice of the opinion which pronounces the Lives of the Poets the best of Johnson's works. Some of these biographies are spoken of with contempt, for their prejudice and narrowness, by those who have never read them. Lord Brougham thinks the life of Milton, for example, does not deserve the censure usually cast upon it; and any one can see, that, while Johnson had no sympathy with Milton's politics, and was unable to appreciate the peculiar beauties of Lycidas, he assigns to the Paradise Lost a place among the highest efforts of the human mind. The life of Savage is here spoken of as overpraised, and that of Swift as most objectionable ; while. it is admitted that Johnson may have been so severe on the Dean of St. Patrick's because he was so untrue to the sacred profession, which, with his tastes and principles, he ought never to have assumed. As to Johnson's prejudices, whatever they were, they never worked in darkness; he always fearlessly avowed them ; while his clearheaded sagacity, his sharp critical discernment, his manly indignation at every thing unworthy, his occasionally profound discussions, and pointed and glittering remarks, giving life to the narrative which generally flows full with thought, and, among other attractions, his occasional solemnity and tenderness of feeling, these various merits are united in a work which will never lose its charm for intellectual readers so long as our language endures.

But Dr. Johnson's works of various kinds, excellent and instructive as they are, will be more or less esteemed as the literary fashion changes ; always sure, however, of readers of the higher order, however neglected by the light and trifling generation who disdain all things but new.

If they were lost and forgotten, his fame would rest securely on his conversation as Boswell has recorded it, which is unrivalled for its point, brilliancy, and strength; it is here that his clear and powerful mind makes the richest display of its activity, and the vast variety of its resources. It goes straight as a cannon-ball to the heart of every subject ; with intuitive discernment he sees the matter at once in all its bearings ; no mysticism nor illusion can stand for a moment before him ; but so far from giving a cold dissection of the question presented, his views are made interesting by the finest possible illustrations, and that quick sarcasm and playful humor, always at perfect command, in which he was never exceeded. We do not well understand on what authority Lord Brougham undertakes to place Swift before him. The Dean's range was limited, he says, but within it he must have been very great. It is true that he had that strong common sense and wit which are among the chief elements of success ; but we do not know that he had the overflowing abundance and easy command of his resources which conversation requires. Addison, too, he says, has left a great reputation of this kind, and Bolingbroke's superiority to all others cannot be doubted. But it seems to us, that he might as well exalt the social powers of Adam and Eve, who may have been great in conversation, for aught we know, though

all

the existing records of it are quite too few to sustain a confident opinion.

When Lord Brougham speaks of Johnson's conversation as no conversation in any proper sense of the word, as destitute of all'free interchange of thought, and allowing no free discussion of sentiments and opinions, he is evidently misled by Boswell's record, for that worthy did not care to set down any thing but what Johnson said ; the remarks of others were introduced only when they served as suggestions for his own. It would have been inhuman to require of him to treasure up the lifeless and indifferent things which were said, merely for the sake of keeping the entireness of the conversation. And yet the prominence which is thus given to the remarks of Johnson makes them appear oracular and dictatorial, as if to hear what he would say was the only object and concern of the whole party. Now Boswell had this feeling, - that it was the province of all others to listen, and Johnson's alone to speak; but others doubtless viewed the matter in a different light; and these were like all other conversations, in which each one took his share, while Johnson bore the most distinguished part, — as indeed he would, were he living in any circle of the present day. Let the attempt be made to record the sayings of any other master of conversation, — Sir James Mackintosh, for example, — and one easily sees that in these social efforts Johnson has no brother near his throne.

Though Lord Brougham, in his particular criticisms on Dr. Johnson's mind and character, is not always entirely

summary of the whole is given in terms to which no objection can be made. He says, that those who saw him but once

or twice formed an erroneous estimate of his temper, which was rather kindly and sociable, and not at all sullen or morose ; he allows that Johnson, to the last, had nothing of that severity and querulousness which the old are so apt to feel. He admits that he was friendly, actively so, in the highest degree, - that he was even imprudently charitable, that he was strictly and always just, that his love of truth was wonderful, in matters both small and great, and that his habitual piety, his sense of his own unworthiness, and his generally blameless life entitled him to a place among the good and great, while he showed his right appreciation of this world's honors by attaching more importance to his worth than to his fame. Certainly this is high praise, and such as few can ever

just, his

deserve. But we do not see in this writer the hearty sympathy with which Carlyle, for example, enters into the struga gles and sorrows of “brave old Samuel, » admires the heroism and manly independence of his bearing, and does not upbraid him with the coarseness of his manners, out of respect for the firm energy with which, through his dreary voyage of life, he forced his strained and shattered vessel, « built in the eclipse," through the dark and resisting sea.

Next in order is Adam Smith, who is represented in Croker's Boswell, the main characteristic of which is a brave neglect of dates and all kinds of precision, as having come in conflict with Johnson, when the latter was on his Northern tour. It is said that the subject of difference was Smith's account of Hume's last sickness ; that Johnson, with his usual benignity, told Smith that he lied, and that he of the Moral Sentiments, in return, applied to the moralist a term which properly belongs to younger branches of the canine race, and is not often, we believe, used in the best society with respect to them, — though of this we speak doubtfully, having no means in our solitary attic of knowing what refinements may have been introduced by the elegant literature of the day. It is a pity to disturb the story of this classical communion ; but as Johnson was in Scotland in 1773, and Hume died in 1776, it was certainly premature in the Doctor to take offence three years before offence was given. In fact, this slight anachronism brings the authenticity of the whole account into serious question; not, however, to the disparagement of Sir Walter Scott, whom Lord Brougham is inclined to blame for it. Heindeed reported it to Croker ; but he said distinctly that he had it from Professor John Millar, to whom, therefore, the responsibility belongs. It was no doubt an imaginative picture of what the meeting of these two great men, if they came together, was likely to have been, dealing with the future as Mr. Landor brings up the voices of the past.

Not much is known of the early days of Adam Smith, save that he was stolen by gypsies in his childhood, but soon happily rescued, and that his delicate health in youth drove him to the usual resource of books and study. Having obtained an exhibition for Baliol College, he spent seven years at Oxford, but afterwards retained

very

little reverence and affection for that time-honored institution. Of the enlargement of mind which then distinguished it some judg.

1

ment may be formed from the fact that he was sharply reprimanded for reading Hume's Treatise of Human Nature, and the ray of light which was struggling in at the keyhole was extinguished by taking such works away. At the age of twenty-nine, he filled the chair of Moral Philosophy in the University of Glasgow, a place for which he was admirably suited by his power of communication as well as by the habits of his mind, as he spoke with great fluency when once engaged in his subject, and was listened to with the enthusiasm which his ability, accompanied by a popular manner, might be expected to inspire. It is much to be regretted, that his lectures were destroyed by his own hand before he died. The course of Natural Theology was one which would have great interest for readers of the present day ; and such was the variety of suggestion always flowing from his active and fertile mind, that every part must have contained much to interest and instruct mankind.

It was in 1759 that Adam Smith published his Theory of Moral Sentiments, a work so eloquent and interesting that it could not fail to meet with immediate and general success. This was the case in Great Britain, though, as Grimm tells

it failed entirely in Paris, a region where moral sentiments are generally in but little demand. It is true that the leading principle of the work, resolving all moral approbation into sympathy, is quite too narrow to be true, as would be felt at once by any thoughtful reader ; but considered as a treatise on sympathy, or a view of some aspects of human nature, seen with searching discrimination, and presented in a rich and fascinating style, it would not be easy to say too much in its praise. One effect of the fame of this work was to recommend him to Charles Townshend, who had married the Duchess of Buccleuch, and who employed him to accompany the young duke, her son, upon his travels. This gave him an opportunity of forming an acquaintance with the eminent men upon the continent, and ultimately led to his appointment as a revenue officer, one of those splendid rewards of intellectual greatness which are held forth as bounty to such efforts in England, and of late in this country. There, the iron-headed wolves who rob and murder in the service of the state are heaped with estates, titles, and orders, while such men as Burns are made excisemen at the rate of seventy pounds a year. Here, men of fine talent and

US,

a

« PreviousContinue »