English Literature, Considered as an Interpreter of English History - Designed as a Manual of Instruction
by Henry Coppee
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In his novel of Amelia, we have a general autobiography of Fielding. Amelia, his wife, is lovely, chaste, and constant. Captain Booth—Fielding himself—is errant, guilty, generous, and repentant. We have besides in it many varieties of English life,—lords, clergymen, officers; Vauxhall and the masquerade; the sponging-house and its inmates, debtors and criminals,—all as Fielding saw and knew them.

The condition of the clergy is more clearly set forth in Fielding's novels than in the pages of Echard, Oldham, Wood, Macaulay, or Churchill Babington. So changed was their estate since the Reformation, that few high-born youths, except the weak or lame, took holy orders. Many clergymen worked during the week. One, says South, was a cobbler on weekdays, and preached on Sundays. Wilmot says: "We are struck by the phenomenon of a learned man sitting down to prove, with the help of logic, that a priest or a chaplain in a family is not a servant,"—Jeremy Collier: Essays on Pride and the Office of a Chaplain.

Fielding drew them and their condition from the life. Parson Adams is the most excellent of men. His cassock is ten years old; over it he dons a coarse white overcoat, and travels on foot to London to sell nine volumes of sermons, wherewithal to buy food for his family. He engages the innkeeper in serious talk; he does desperate battle to defend a young woman who has fallen into the hands of ruffians on the highway; and when he is arrested, his manuscript Eschylus is mistaken for a book of ciphers unfolding a dreadful plot against the government. This is a hit against the ignorance and want of education among the people; for it is some time before some one in the company thinks he saw such characters many years ago when he was young, and that it may be Greek. The incident of Parson Trulliber mistaking his fellow-priest for a pork-merchant, on account of his coarse garments, is excellent, but will not bear abbreviation. Adams is splattered by the huge, overfed swine, and ejaculates, "Nil habeo cum porcis; I am a clergyman, sir, and am not come to buy hogs!" The condition of a curate and the theology of the publican are set forth in the conversation between Parson Adams and the innkeeper.

The works of Fielding may be justly accused of describing immoral scenes and using lewd language; but even in this they are delineative of the manners and conversation of an age in which such men lived, such scenes occurred, such language was used. I liken the great realm of English prose fiction to some famous museum of art. The instructor of the young may carefully select what pictures to show them; but the student of English literature moves through the rooms and galleries, gazing, judging, approving, condemning, comparing. Genius may have soiled its canvas with what is prurient and vile; lascivious groups may stand side by side with pictures of saints and madonnas. To leave the figure, it is wise counsel to read on principle, and, armed with principle, to accept and imitate the good, and to reject the evil. Conscience gives the rule, and for every bane will give the antidote.

Of this school and period, Fielding is the greatest figure. One word as to his career. Passing through all social conditions,—first a country gentleman, living on or rather squandering his first wife's little fortune in following the hounds and entertaining the county; then a playwright, vegetating very seedily on the proceeds of his comedies; justice of the peace, and encountering, in his vocation, such characters as Jonathan Wild; drunken, licentious, unfaithful to his wife, but always—strange paradox of poor human nature—generous as the day; mourning with bitter tears the loss of his first wife, and then marrying her faithful maid-servant, that they may mourn for her together,—he seems to have been a rare mechanism without a governor. "Poor Harry Fielding!" And yet to this irregular, sinful character, we owe the inimitable portraitures of English life as it was, in Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones, and Amelia.

Fielding's habits, acting upon a naturally weak constitution, wore him out. He left England, and wandered to the English factory at Lisbon, where he died, in 1754, in the forty-eighth year of his age.

TOBIAS GEORGE SMOLLETT.—Smollett, the third in order and in rank of the novelists of his age, was born at Cardross, Dumbartonshire, in 1721, of a good family; but he had small means. After some schooling at Dumbarton and a university career at Glasgow, he was, from necessity, apprenticed to a surgeon. But as his grandfather, Sir James Smollett, on whom he depended, died, he left his master, at the age of eighteen, and, taking in his pocket a manuscript play he had thus early written,—The Regicides,—he made his way to London, the El Dorado of all youths with literary aspirations. The play was not accepted; but, through the knowledge obtained in the surgery, he received an appointment as surgeon's mate, and went out with Admiral Vernon's fated expedition to Carthagena in that capacity, and thus acquired a knowledge of the sea and of sailors which he was to use with great effect in his later writings. For a time he remained in the West Indies, where he fell in love with Miss Anne Lascelles, whom he afterwards married. In 1746 he returned to London, and, after an unsuccessful attempt to practise medicine, he threw himself with great vigor into the field of literature. He was a man of strange and antagonistic features, just and generous in theory, quarrelsome and overbearing in practice. From the year 1746 his pen seems to have been always busy. He first tried his hand on some satires, which gained for him numerous enemies; and in 1748 he produced his first novel, Roderick Random, which, in spite of its indecency, the world at once acknowledged to be a work of genius: the verisimilitude was perfect; every one recognized in the hero the type of many a young North countryman going out to seek his fortune. The variety is great, the scenes are more varied and real than those in Richardson and Fielding, the characters are numerous and vividly painted, and the keen sense of ridicule pervading the book makes it a broad jest from beginning to end. Historically, his delineations are valuable; for he describes a period in the annals of the British marine which has happily passed away,—a hard life in little stifling holds or forecastles, with hard fare,—a base life, for the sailor, oppressed on shipboard, was the prey of vile women and land-sharks when on shore. What pictures of prostitution and indecency! what obscenity of language! what drunken infernal orgies! We may shun the book as we would shun the company, and yet the one is the exact portraiture of the other.

Roderick Random was followed, in 1751, by Peregrine Pickle, a book in similar taste, but the characters in which are even more striking. The forms of Commodore Trunnion, Lieutenant Hatchway, Pipes the boatswain, and Ap Morgan the choleric Welsh surgeon, are as familiar to us now as at the first.

Smollett had now retired to Chelsea, where his facile pen was still hard at work. In 1753 appeared his Ferdinand Count Fathom, the portraiture of a complete villain, corresponding in character with Fielding's Jonathan Wild, but with a better moral.

About this time he translated Don Quixote; and although his version is still published, it is by no means true to the idiom of the language, nor to the higher purpose of Cervantes.

Passing by his Complete History of Authentic and Entertaining Voyages, we come to his History of England from the Descent of Julius Caesar to the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, in 1748. It is not a profound work; but it is so currently written, that, in lieu of better, the latter portion was taken to supplement Hume; as a work of less merit than either, that of Bissett was added in the later editions to supplement Smollett and Hume. For this history he is said to have received L2000.

In 1762 he issued The Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves, who, with his attendant, Captain Crowe, goes forth, in the style of Don Quixote and Sancho, to do the world. Smollett's forte was in the broadly humorous, and this is all that redeems this work from utter absurdity.

HUMPHREY CLINKER.—His last work of any importance, and perhaps his best, is The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker, described in a series of letters descriptive of this amusing imaginative journey. Mrs. Winifred, Tabitha, and, best of all, Lismahago, are rare characters, and in all respects, except its vulgarity, it was the prototype of Hood's exquisite Up the Rhine.

From the year 1756, Smollett edited, at intervals, various periodicals, and wrote what he thought very good poetry, now forgotten,—an Ode to Independence, after the Greek manner of strophe and antistrophe, not wanting in a noble spirit; and The Tears of Scotland, written on the occasion of the Duke of Cumberland's barbarities, in 1746, after the battle of Culloden:

Mourn, hapless Caledonia, mourn Thy banished peace, thy laurels torn! Thy sons, for valor long renowned, Lie slaughtered on thy native ground.

Smollett died abroad on the 21st of October, 1771. His health entirely broken, he had gone to Italy, and taken a cottage near Leghorn: a slight resuscitation was the consequence, and he had something in prospect to live for: he was the heir-at-law to the estate of Bonhill, worth L1000 per annum; but the remorseless archer would not wait for his fortune.



The Subjective School. Sterne—Sermons. Tristram Shandy. Sentimental Journey. Oliver Goldsmith. Poems—The Vicar. Histories, and Other Works. Mackenzie. The Man of Feeling.


In the same age, and inspired by similar influences, there sprang up a widely-different school of novelists, which has been variously named as the Sentimental and the Subjective School. Richardson and Fielding depicted what they saw around them objectively, rather than the impressions made upon their individual sensitiveness. Both Sterne and Goldsmith were eminently subjective. They stand as a transparent medium between their works and the reader. The medium through which we see Tristram Shandy is a double lens,—one part of which is the distorted mind of the author, and the other the nondescript philosophy which he pilfered from Rabelais and Burton. The glass through which the Vicar of Wakefield is shown us is the good-nature and loving heart of Goldsmith, which brighten and gladden every creation of his pen. Thus it is that two men, otherwise essentially unlike, appear together as representatives of a school which was at once sentimental and subjective.

STERNE.—Lawrence Sterne was the son of an officer in the British army, and was born, in 1713, at Clonmel, in Ireland, where his father was stationed.

His father died not long afterwards, at Gibraltar, from the effect of a wound which he had received in a duel; and it is indicative of the code of honor in that day, that the duel was about a goose at the mess-table! What little Lawrence learned in his brief military experience was put to good use afterwards in his army reminiscences and portraitures in Tristram Shandy. No doubt My Uncle Toby and Corporal Trim are sketches from his early recollections. Aided by his mother's relations, he studied at Cambridge, and afterwards, without an inward call, but in accordance with the custom of the day, he entered into holy orders, and was presented to a living, of which he stood very much in need.

HIS SERMONS.—With no spirit for parochial work, it must be said that he published very forcible and devout sermons, and set before his people and the English world a pious standard of life, by which, however, he did not choose to measure his own: he preached, but did not practise. In a letter to Mr. Foley, he says: "I have made a good campaign in the field of the literati: ... two volumes of sermons which I shall print very soon will bring me a considerable sum.... 'Tis but a crown for sixteen sermons—dog cheap; but I am in quest of honor, not money."

These discourses abound in excellent instruction and in pithy expressions; but it is painful to see how often his pointed rebukes are undesignedly aimed at his own conduct. In one of them he says: "When such a man tells you that a thing goes against his conscience, always believe he means exactly the same thing as when he tells you it goes against his stomach—a present want of appetite being generally the true cause of both." In his discourse on The Forgiveness of Injuries, we have the following striking sentiment: "The brave only know how to forgive: it is the most refined and generous pitch of virtue human nature can arrive at. Cowards have done good and kind actions; cowards have even fought, nay, sometimes even conquered; but a coward never forgave." All readers of Tristram Shandy will recall his sermon on the text, "For we trust we have a good conscience," so affecting to Corporal Trim and so overwhelming to Dr. Slop.

But if his sermons are so pious and good, we look in vain into his entertaining Letters for a corresponding piety in his life. They are witty, jolly, occasionally licentious. They touch and adorn every topic except religion; and so it may be feared that all his religion was written, printed, bound, and sold by subscription, in those famous sermons, sixteen for a crown—"dog cheap!"

TRISTRAM SHANDY.—In 1759 appeared the first part of Tristram Shandy—a strange, desultory work, in which many of the curious bits of philosophy are taken from Montaigne, Burton, Rabelais, and others; but which has, besides, great originality in the handling and in the portraiture of characters. Much of what Sterne borrowed from these writers passed for his own in that day, when there were comparatively few readers of the authors mentioned. As to the charge of plagiarism, we may say that Sterne's hero is like the Gargantua of Rabelais in many particulars; but he is a man instead of a monster; while the chapter on Hobby-Horses is a reproduction, in a new form of crystallization, of Gargantua's wooden horses.

So, too, the entire theological cast of Tristram Shandy is that of the sixteenth century;—questions before the Sorbonne, the use of excommunication, and the like. Dr. Slop, the Roman Catholic surgeon of the family, is but a weak mouthpiece of his Church in the polemics of the story; for Sterne was a violent opponent of the Church of Rome in story as well as in sermon; and Obadiah, the stupid man-servant, is the lay figure who receives the curses which Dr. Slop reads,—"cursed in house and stable, garden and field and highway, in path or in wood, in the water or in the church." Whether the doctor was in earnest or not, Obadiah paid him fully by upsetting him and his pony with the coach-horse.

But in spite of the resemblance to Rabelais and a former age, it must be allowed that Tristram Shandy contains many of the richest pictures and fairest characters of the age in which it was written. Rural England is truthfully presented, and the political cast of the day is shown in his references to the war in Flanders. Among the sterling original portraits are those of Mr. Shandy, the country gentleman, controversial and consequential; Mrs. Shandy, the nonentity,—the Amelia Osborne and Mrs. Nickleby of her day; Yorick, the lukewarm, time-serving priest—Sterne himself: and these are only supplementary characters.

The sieges of towns in the Low Countries, then going on, are pleasantly connected with that most exquisite of characters, my Uncle Toby, who has a fortification in his garden,—sentry-box, cannon, and all,—and who follows the great movement on this petty scale from day to day, as the bulletins come in from the seat of war.

The Widow Wadman, with her artless wiles, and the "something in her eye," makes my Uncle Toby—who protests he can see nothing in the white—look, not without peril, "with might and main into the pupil." Ah, that sentry-box and the widow's tactics might have conquered many a more wary man than my Uncle Toby! and yet my Uncle Toby escaped.

Now, all these are real English characters, sketched from life by the hand of genius, and they become our friends and acquaintances forever. It seems as though Sterne, after a long and close study of Rabelais and Burton, had fancied that, with their aid, he might write a money-making book; but his own genius, rising superior to the plagiarism, took the project out of his venal hands; and from the antique learning and the incongruities which he had heaped together, bright and beautiful forms sprang forth like genii from the mine, to subsidize the tears and laughter of all future time. What an exquisite creation is my Uncle Toby!—a soldier in the van of battle, a man of honor and high tone in every-day life, a kind brother, a good master to Corporal Trim, simple as a child, benevolent as an angel. "Go, poor devil," quoth he to the fly which buzzed about his nose all dinner-time, "get thee gone; why should I hurt thee? This world is surely wide enough to hold both thee and me!"

And as for Corporal Trim, he is a host in himself. There is in the English literary portrait-gallery no other Uncle Toby, there is no other Corporal Trim. Hazlitt has not exaggerated in saying that the Story of Le Fevre is perhaps the finest in the English language. My Uncle Toby's conduct to the dying officer is the perfection of loving-kindness and charity.

THE SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY.—Sterne's Sentimental Journey, although charmingly written,—and this is said in spite of the preference of such a critic as Horace Walpole,—will not compare with Tristram Shandy: it is left unfinished, and is constantly suggestive of licentiousness.

Sterne's English is excellent and idiomatic, and has commended his works to the ordinary reader, who shrinks from the hyperlatinism of the time represented so strongly by Dr. Johnson and his followers. His wit, if sometimes artificial, is always acute; his sentiment is entirely artificial; "he is always protruding his sensibility, trying to play upon you as upon an instrument; more concerned that you should acknowledge his power than have any depth of feeling." Thackeray, whose opinion is just quoted, calls him "a great jester, not a great humorist." He had lived a careless, self-indulgent life, and was no honor to his profession. His death was like a retribution. In a mean lodging, with no friends but his bookseller, he died suddenly from hemorrhage. His funeral was hasty, and only attended by two persons; his burial was in an obscure graveyard; and his body was taken up by corpse-snatchers for the dissecting-room of the professor of anatomy at Cambridge,—alas, poor Yorick!

OLIVER GOLDSMITH.—We have placed Goldsmith in immediate connection with Sterne as, like him, of the Subjective School, in his story of the Vicar of Wakefield and his numerous biographical and prose sketches; but he belongs to more than one literary school of his period. He was a poet, an essayist, a dramatist, and an historian; a writer who, in the words of his epitaph,—written by Dr. Johnson, and with no extravagant eulogium,—touched all subjects, and touched none that he did not adorn,—nullum quod tetigit non ornavit. His life was a strange melodrama, so varied with laughter and tears, so checkered with fame and misfortune, so resounding with songs pathetic and comic, that, were he an unknown hero, his adventures would be read with pleasure by all persons of sensibility. There is no better illustration of the subjective in literature. It is the man who is presented to us in his works, and who can no more be disjoined from them than the light from the vase, the beauties of which it discloses. As an essayist, he was of the school of Addison and Steele; but he has more ease of style and more humor than his teachers. As a dramatist, he had many and superior competitors in his own vein; and yet his plays still occupy the stage. As an historian, he was fluent but superficial; and yet the charm of his style and the easy flow of his narrative, have given his books currency as manuals of instruction. And although as a writer of fiction, or of truth gracefully veiled in the garments of fiction, he stands unrivalled in his beautiful and touching story of the incorruptible Vicar, yet this is his only complete story, and presents but one side of his literary character. Considering him first as a poet, we shall find that he is one of the Transition School, but that he has a beautiful originality: his poems appeal not to the initiated alone, but to human nature in all its conditions and guises; they are elevated and harmonious enough for the most fastidious taste, and simple and artless enough to please the rustic and the child. To say that he is the most popular writer in the whole course of English Literature thus far, is hardly to overstate his claims; and the principal reason is that, with a blundering and improvident nature, a want of dignity, a lack of coherence, he had a great heart, alive to human suffering; he was generous to a fault, true to the right, and ever seeking, if constantly failing, to direct and improve his own life, and these good characteristics are everywhere manifest in his works. A brief recital of the principal events in his career will throw light upon his works, and will do the best justice to his peculiar character.

Oliver Goldsmith was born at the little village of Pallas, in Ireland, where his father was a poor curate, on the 10th of November, 1728. There were nine children, of whom he was the fifth. His father afterwards moved to Lissoy, which the poet described, in his Deserted Village, as

Sweet Auburn, loveliest village of the plain, Where health and plenty cheered the laboring swain.

As his father was entirely unable to educate so numerous a family, Goldsmith owed his education partly to his uncle, the Rev. Thomas Contarini, and in part to his brother, the Rev. Henry Goldsmith, whom he cherished with the sincerest affection. An attack of the small-pox while he was a boy marked his face, and he was to most persons an unprepossessing child. He was ill-treated at school by larger boys, and afterwards at Trinity College, Dublin, which he entered as a sizar, by his tutor. He was idle, careless, and improvident: he left college without permission, but was taken back by his brother, and was finally graduated with a bachelor's degree, in 1749. His later professional studies were spasmodic and desultory: he tried law and medicine, and more than once gained a scanty support by teaching. Seized with a rambling spirit, he went to the Continent, and visited Holland, France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy; sometimes gaining a scanty livelihood by teaching English, and sometimes wandering without money, depending upon his flute to win a supper and bed from the rustics who lived on the highway. He obtained, it is said, the degree of Doctor of Medicine at Padua; and on his return to England, he went before a board of examiners to obtain the position of surgeon's mate in the army or navy. He was at this time so poor that he was obliged to borrow a suit of clothes to make a proper appearance before the examiners. He failed in his examination, and then, in despair, he pawned the borrowed clothes, to the great anger of the publisher who had lent them. This failure in his medical examination, unfortunate as it then seemed, secured him to literature. From that time his pen was constantly busy for the reviews and magazines. His first work was An Inquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe, which, at least, prepared the way for his future efforts. This appeared in 1759, and is characterized by general knowledge and polish of style.

HIS POEMS.—In 1764 he published The Traveller, a moralizing poem upon the condition of the people under the European governments. It was at once and entirely successful; philosophical, elegant, and harmonious, it is pitched in a key suited to the capacity of the world at large; and as, in the general comparison of nations, he found abundant reason for lauding England, it was esteemed patriotic, and was on that account popular. Many of its lines have been constantly quoted since.

In 1770 appeared his Deserted Village, which was even more popular than The Traveller; nor has this popularity flagged from that time down to the present day. It is full of exquisite pictures of rural life and manners. It is what it claims to be,—not an attempt at high art or epic, but a gallery of cabinet pictures of rare finish and detail, painted by the poet's heart and appealing to the sensibility of every reader. The world knows it by heart,—the portraiture of the village schoolmaster and his school; the beautiful picture of the country parson:

A man he was to all the country dear, And passing rich with forty pounds a year.

This latter is a worthy companion-piece to Chaucer's "poor persoune," and is, besides, a filial tribute to Goldsmith's father. So real are the characters and scenes, that the poem has been a popular subject for the artist. If in The Traveller he has been philosophical and didactic, in the Deserted Village he is only descriptive and tender. In no work is there a finer spirit of true charity, the love of man for God's sake,—like God himself, "no respecter of persons."

While in form and versification he is like Pope and the Artificial School, he has the sensibility to nature of Thomson, and the simplicity of feeling and thought of Wordsworth; and thus he stands between the two great poetic periods, partaking of the better nature of both.

THE VICAR OF WAKEFIELD.—Between the appearance of these two poems, in 1766, came forth that nonpareil of charming stories, The Vicar of Wakefield. It is so well known that we need not enter into an analysis of it. It is the story of a good vicar, of like passions with ourselves; not wanting in vanity and impetuosity, but shining in his Christian virtue like a star in the midst of accumulating misfortunes,—a man of immaculate honor and undying faith, preaching to his fellow-prisoners in the jail, surveying death without fear, and at last, like Job, restored to happiness, and yet maintaining his humility. It does not seem to have been constructed according to artificial rules, but rather to have been told extemporaneously, without effort and without ambition; and while this very fact has been the cause of some artistic faults and some improbabilities, it has also given it a peculiar charm, by contrast with such purely artificial constructions as the Rasselas of Johnson.

So doubtful was the publisher, who had bought the manuscript for L60, that he held it back for two years, until the name of the author had become known through The Traveller, and was thus a guarantee for its success. The Vicar of Wakefield has also an additional value in its delineation of manners, persons, and conditions in that day, and in its strictures upon the English penal law, in such terms and with such suggestions as seem a prophecy of the changes which have since taken place.

HISTORIES, AND OTHER WORKS.—Of Goldsmith's various histories it may be said that they are of value for the clear, if superficial, presentation of facts, and for their charm of style.

The best is, without doubt, The History of England; but the Histories of Greece and Rome, re-edited, are still used as text-books in many schools. The Vicar has been translated into most of the modern languages, and imitated by many writers since.

As an essayist, Goldsmith has been a great enricher of English history. His Chinese letters—for the idea of which he was indebted to the Lettres Persanes of Montesquieu—describe England in his day with the same vraisemblance which we have noticed in The Spectator. These were afterwards collected and published in a volume entitled The Citizen of the World. And besides the pleasure of biography, and the humor of the presentment, his Life of Beau Nash introduces us to Bath and its frequenters with historical power. The life at the Spring is one and a very valuable phase of English society.

As a dramatist, he was more than equalled by Sheridan; but his two plays, The Good-Natured Man and She Stoops to Conquer, are still favorites upon the stage.

The irregularities of Goldsmith's private life seem to have been rather defects in his character than intentional wrong-doings. Generous to a fault, squandering without thought what was due to his creditors, losing at play, he lived in continual pecuniary embarrassment, and died unhappy, with a debt of L1000, the existence of which led Johnson to ejaculate, "Was ever poet so trusted before?" He lived a bachelor; and the conclusion seems forced upon us that had he married a woman who could have controlled him, he, would have been a happier and more respectable man, but perhaps have done less for literature than he did.

While Goldsmith was a type and presenter of his age, and while he took no high flights in the intellectual realms, he so handled what the age presented that he must be allowed the claim of originality, both in his poems and in the Vicar; and he has had, even to the present day, hosts of imitators. Poems on college gala-days were for a long time faint reflections of his Traveller, and simple, causal stories of quiet life are the teeming progeny of the Vicar, in spite of the Whistonian controversy, and the epitaph of his living wife.

A few of his ballads and songs display great lyric power, but the most of his poetry is not lyric; it is rather a blending of the pastoral and epic with rare success. His minor poems are few, but favorites. Among these is the beautiful ballad entitled Edwin and Angelina, or The Hermit, which first appeared in The Vicar of Wakefield, but which has since been printed separately among his poems. Of its kind and class it has no superior. Retaliation is a humorous epitaph upon his friends and co-literati, hitting off their characteristics with truth and point; and The Haunch of Venison—upon which he did not dine—is an amusing incident which might have happened to any Londoner like himself, but which no one could have related so well as he.

He died in 1774, at the age of forty-five; but his fame—his better life—is more vigorous than ever. Washington Irving, whose writings are similar in style to those of Goldsmith, has extended and perpetuated his reputation in America by writing his Biography; a charming work, many touches of which seem almost autobiographical, as displaying the resemblance between the writer and his subject.

MACKENZIE.—From Sterne and Goldsmith we pass to Mackenzie, who, if not a conscious imitator of the former, is, at least, unconsciously formed upon the model of Sterne, without his genius, but also without his coarseness: in the management of his narrative, he is a medium between Sterne and Walter Scott; indeed, from his long life, he saw the period of both these authors, and his writings partake of the characteristics of both.

Henry Mackenzie was born at Edinburgh, in August, 1745, and lived until 1831, to the ripe age of eighty-six. He was educated at the University of Edinburgh, and afterwards studied law. He wrote some strong political pamphlets in favor of the Pitt government, for which he was rewarded with the office of comptroller of the taxes, which he held to the day of his death.

THE MAN OF FEELING.—In 1771 the world was equally astonished and delighted by the appearance of his first novel, The Man of Feeling. In this there are manifest tokens of his debt to Sterne's Sentimental Journey, in the journey of Harley, in the story of the beggar and his dog, and in somewhat of the same forced sensibility in the account of Harley's death.

In 1773 appeared his Man of the World which was in some sort a sequel to the Man of Feeling, but which wearies by the monotony of the plot.

In 1777 he published Julia de Roubigne, which, in the opinion of many, shares the palm with his first novel: the plot is more varied than that of the second, and the language is exceedingly harmonious—elegiac prose. The story is plaintive and painful: virtue is extolled, but made to suffer, in a domestic tragedy, which all readers would be glad to see ending differently.

At different times Mackenzie edited The Mirror and The Lounger, and he has been called the restorer of the Essay. His story of the venerable La Roche, contributed to The Mirror, is perhaps the best specimen of his powers as a sentimentalist: it portrays the influence of Christianity, as exhibited in the very face of infidelity, to support the soul in the sorest of trials—the death of an only and peerless daughter.

His contributions to the above-named periodicals were very numerous and popular.

The name of his first novel was applied to himself as a man. He was known as the man of feeling to the whole community. This was a misnomer: he was kind and affable; his evening parties were delightful; but he had nothing of the pathetic or sentimental about him. On the contrary, he was humorous, practical, and worldly-wise; very fond of field sports and athletic exercises. His sentiment—which has been variously criticized, by some as the perfection of moral pathos, and by others as lackadaisical and canting—may be said to have sprung rather from his observations of life and manners than to have welled spontaneously from any source within his own heart.

Sterne and Goldsmith will be read as long as the English language lasts, and their representative characters will be quoted as models and standards everywhere: Mackenzie is fast falling into an oblivion from which he will only be resuscitated by the historian of English Literature.



The Sceptical Age. David Hume. History of England. Metaphysics. Essay on Miracles. Robertson. Histories. Gibbon. The Decline and Fall.


History presents itself to the student in two forms: The first is chronicle, or a simple relation of facts and statistics; and the second, philosophical history, in which we use these facts and statistics in the consideration of cause and effect, and endeavor to extract a moral from the actions and events recorded. From pregnant causes the philosophic historian traces, at long distances, the important results; or, conversely, from the present condition of things—the good and evil around him—he runs back, sometimes remotely, to the causes from which they have sprung. Chronicle is very pleasing to read, and the reader may be, to some extent, his own philosopher; but the importance of history as a study is found in its philosophy.

As far down as the eighteenth century, almost everything in history partakes of the nature of chronicle. In that century, in obedience to the law of human progress, there sprang up in England and on the Continent the men who first made chronicle material for philosophy, and used philosophy to teach by example what to imitate and what to shun.

What were the circumstances which led, in the eighteenth century, to the simultaneous appearance of Hume, Gibbon, and Robertson, as the originators of a new school of history? Some of them have been already mentioned in treating of the antiquarian age. We have endeavored to show how the English literati—novelists, essayists, and poets—have been in part unconscious historians. It will also appear that the professed historians themselves have been, in a great measure, the creatures of English history. The fifteenth century was the period when the revival of letters took place, and a great spur was given to mental activity; but the world, like a child, was again learning rudiments, and finding out what it was, and what it possessed at that present time: it received the new classical culture presented to it at the fall of the lower empire, and was content to learn the existing, without endeavoring to create the new, or even to recompose the scattered fragments of the past. The eighteenth century saw a new revival: the world had become a man; great progress was reported in arts, in inventions, and in discoveries; science began to labor at the arduous but important task of classification; new theories of government and laws were propounded; the past was consulted that its experience might be applied; the partisan chronicles needed to be united and compared that truth might be elicited; the philosophic historian was required, and the people were ready to learn, and to criticize, what he produced.

I have ventured to call this the Sceptical Age. It had other characteristics: this was one. We use the word sceptical in its etymological sense: it was an age of inquiry, of doubt to be resolved. Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau, D'Alembert, and Diderot had founded a new school of universal inquiry, and from their bold investigations and startling theories sprang the society of the illuminati, and the race of thinkers. They went too far: they stabbed the truth as it lay in the grasp of error. From thinkers they became free-thinkers: from philosophers they became infidels, and some of them atheists. This was the age which produced "the triumvirate of British historians who," in the words of Montgomery, "exemplified in their very dissimilar styles the triple contrast of simplicity, elegance, and splendor."

Imbued with this spirit of the time, Hume undertook to write a History of England, which, with all its errors and faults, still ranks among the best efforts of English historians. Like the French philosophers, Hume was an infidel, and his scepticism appears in his writings; but, unlike them—for they were stanch reformers in government as well as infidels in faith—he who was an infidel was also an aristocrat in sentiment, and a consistent Tory his life long. In his history, with all the artifices of a philosopher, he takes the Jacobite side in the civil war.

HUME.—David Hume was born in Edinburgh on the 26th of April (O.S.), 1711. His life was without many vicissitudes of interest, but his efforts to achieve an enduring reputation on the most solid grounds, mark him as a notable example of patient industry, study, and economy. He led a studious, systematic, and consistent life.

Although of good family,—being a descendant of the Earl of Home,—he was in poor circumstances, and after some study of the law, and some unsuccessful literary ventures, he was obliged to seek employment as a means of livelihood. Thus he became tutor or keeper to the young Marquis of Annandale, who was insane. Abandoning this position in disgust, he was appointed secretary to General St. Clair in various embassies,—to Paris, Vienna, and Turin; everywhere hoarding his pay, until he became independent, "though," he says, "most of my friends were inclined to smile when I said so; in short, I was master of a thousand pounds."

His earliest work was a Treatise on Human Nature, published in 1738, which met with no success. Nothing discouraged thereat, in 1741 he issued a volume of Essays Moral and Political, the success of which emboldened him to publish, in 1748, his Inquiry Concerning the Human Understanding. These and other works were preparing his pen for its greater task, the material for which he was soon to find.

In 1752 he was appointed librarian to the Faculty of Advocates, not for the emolument, but with the real purpose of having entire control of the books and material in the library; and then he determined to write the History of England.

HISTORY OF ENGLAND.—He began with the accession of the Stuarts, in 1603, the period when the popular element, so long kept tranquil by the power and sex of Queen Elizabeth, was ready first to break out into open assertion. Hume's self-deception must have been rudely discovered to him; for he tells us, in an autobiography fortunately preserved, that he expected so dispassionately to steer clear of all existent parties, or, rather, to be so just to all, that he should gain universal approbation. "Miserable," he adds, "was my disappointment. I was assailed by one cry of reproach, disapprobation, and even detestation. English, Scotch, Irish, Whig and Tory, churchman and sectary, free-thinker and religionist, patriot and courtier, united, in their rage, against the man who had presumed to shed a generous tear for the fate of Charles I. and the Earl of Strafford." How far, too, this was ignorant invective, may be judged from the fact that in twelve months only forty-five copies of his work were sold.

However, he patiently continued his labor. The first volume, containing the reigns of James I. and Charles I, had been issued in 1754; his second, published in 1756, and containing the later history of the Commonwealth, of Charles II., and James II., and concluding with the revolution of 1688, was received with more favor, and "helped to buoy up its unfortunate brother." Then he worked backward: in 1759 he produced the reigns of the house of Tudor; and in 1761, the earlier history, completing his work, from the earliest times to 1688. The tide had now turned in his favor; the sales were large, and his pecuniary rewards greater than any historian had yet received.

The Tory character of his work is very decided: he not only sheds a generous tear for the fate of Charles I., but conceals or glosses the villanies of Stuarts far worse than Charles. The liberties of England consist, in his eyes, of wise concessions made by the sovereign, rather than as the inalienable birthright of the English man.

He has also been charged with want of industry and honesty in the use of his materials—taking things at second-hand, without consulting original authorities which were within his reach, and thus falling into many mistakes, while placing in his marginal notes the names of the original authors. This charge is particularly just with reference to the Anglo-Saxon period, since so picturesquely described by Sharon Turner.

The first in order of the philosophical historians, he is rather a collector of facts than a skilful diviner with them. His style is sonorous and fluent, but not idiomatic. Dr. Johnson said, "His style is not English; the structure of his sentences is French,"—an opinion concurred in by the eminent critic, Lord Jeffrey.

But whatever the criticism, the History of Hume is a great work. He did what was never done before. For a long time his work stood alone; and even now it has the charm of a clear, connected narrative, which is still largely consulted by many who are forewarned of its errors and faults. And however unidiomatic his style, it is very graceful and flowing, and lends a peculiar charm to his narrative.

METAPHYSICS.—Of Hume as a philosopher, we need not here say much. He was acute, intelligent, and subtle; he was, in metaphysical language, "a sceptical nihilist." And here a distinction must be made between his religious tenets and his philosophical views,—a distinction so happily stated by Sir William Hamilton, that we present it in his words: "Though decidedly opposed to one and all of Hume's theological conclusions, I have no hesitation in asserting of his philosophical scepticism, that this was not only beneficial in its results, but, in the circumstances of the period, even a necessary step in the progress of Philosophy towards Truth." And again he says, "To Hume we owe the philosophy of Kant, and therefore also, in general, the later philosophy of Germany." "To Hume, in like manner, we owe the philosophy of Reid, and, consequently, what is now distinctively known in Europe as the Philosophy of the Scottish School." Great praise this from one of the greatest Christian philosophers of this century, and it shows Hume to have been more original as a philosopher than as an historian.

He is also greatly commended by Lord Brougham as a political economist. "His Political Discourses," says his lordship, "combine almost every excellence which can belong to such a performance.... Their great merit is their originality, and the new system of politics and political economy which they unfold."

MIRACLES.—The work in which is most fairly set forth his religious scepticism is his Essay on Miracles. In it he adopts the position of Locke, who had declared "that men should not believe any proposition that is contrary to reason, on the authority either of inspiration or of miracle; for the reality of the inspiration or of the miracle can only be established by reason." Before Hume, assaults on the miracles recorded in Scripture were numerous and varied. Spinoza and the Pantheistic School had started the question, "Are miracles possible?" and had taken the negative. Hume's question is, "Are miracles credible?" And as they are contrary to human experience, his answer is essentially that it must be always more probable that a miracle is false than that it is true; since it is not contrary to experience that witnesses are false or deceived. With him it is, therefore, a question of the preponderance of evidence, which he declares to be always against the miracle. This is not the place to discuss these topics. Archbishop Whately has practically illustrated the fallacy of Hume's reasoning, in a little book called Historic Doubts, relative to Napoleon Bonaparte, in which, with Hume's logic, he has proved, that the great emperor never lived; and Whately's successor in the archbishopric of Dublin, Dr. Trench, has given us some thoughtful words on the subject: "So long as we abide in the region of nature, miraculous and improbable, miraculous and incredible may be allowed to remain convertible terms; but once lift up the whole discussion into a higher region, once acknowledge aught higher than nature—a kingdom of God, and men the intended denizens of it—and the whole argument loses its strength and the force of its conclusions."

Hume's death occurred on the 25th of August, 1776. His scepticism, or philosophy as he called it, remained with him to the end. He even diverted himself with the prospect of the excuses he would make to Charon as he reached the fatal river, and is among the few doubters who have calmly approached the grave without that concern which the Christian's hope alone is generally able to dispel.

WILLIAM ROBERTSON.—the second of the great historians of the eighteenth century, although very different from the others in his personal life and in his creed,—was, like them, a representative and creature of the age. They form, indeed, a trio in literary character as well as in period; and we have letters from each to the others on the appearance of their works, showing that they form also what in the present day is called a "Mutual Admiration Society." They were above common envy: they recognized each other's excellence, and forbore to speak of each other's faults. As a philosopher, Hume was the greatest of the three; as an historian, the palm must be awarded to Gibbon. But Robertson surprises us most from the fact that a quiet Scotch pastor, who never travelled, should have attempted, and so gracefully treated, subjects of such general interest as those he handled.

William Robertson was the son of a Scottish minister, and was born at Borthwick, in Scotland, on September 19th, in the year 1721. He was a precocious child, and, after attending school at Dalkeith, he entered the University of Edinburgh at the age of twelve. At the age of twenty he was licensed to preach. He published, in 1755, a sermon on The Situation of the World at the Time of Christ's Appearance, which attracted attention; but he astonished the world by issuing, in 1759, his History of Scotland During the Reigns of Queen Mary, and of James VI. until his Accession to the Crown of England. This is undoubtedly his best work, but not of such general interest as his others. His materials were scanty, and he did not consult such as were in his reach with much assiduity. The invaluable records of the archives of Simancas were not then opened to the world, but he lived among the scenes of his narrative, and had the advantage of knowing all the traditions and of hearing all the vehement opinions pro and con upon the subjects of which he treated. The character of Queen Mary is drawn with a just but sympathetic hand, and his verdict is not so utterly denunciatory as that of Mr. Froude. Such was the popularity of this work, that in 1764 its author was appointed to the honorable office of Historiographer to His Majesty for Scotland. In 1769 he published his History of Charles V. Here was a new surprise. Whatever its faults, as afterwards discerned by the critics, it opened a new and brilliant page to the uninitiated reader, and increased his reputation very greatly. The history is preceded by a View of the Progress of Society in Europe from the Subversion of the Roman Empire to the Beginning of the Sixteenth Century. The best praise that can be given to this View is, that students have since used it as the most excellent summary of that kind existing. Of the history itself it may be said that, while it is greatly wanting in historic material in the interest of the narrative and the splendor of the pageantry of the imperial court, it marked a new era in historical delineations.

HISTORY OF AMERICA.—In 1777 appeared the first eight books of his History of America, to which, in 1778, he appended additions and corrections. The concluding books, the ninth and tenth, did not appear until 1796, when, three years after his death, they were issued by his son. As a connected narrative of so great an event in the world's history as the discovery of America, it stood quite alone. If, since that time, far better and fuller histories have appeared, we should not withhold our meed of praise from this excellent forerunner of them all. One great defect of this and the preceding work was his want of knowledge of the German and Spanish historians, and of the original papers then locked up in the archives of Simancas; later access to which has given such great value to the researches of Irving and Prescott and Sterling. Besides, Robertson lacked the life-giving power which is the property of true genius. His characters are automata gorgeously arrayed, but without breath; his style is fluent and sometimes sparkling, but in all respects he has been superseded, and his works remain only as curious representatives of the age to the literary student. One other work remains to be mentioned, and that is his Historical Disquisition Concerning the Knowledge which the Ancients had of India, and the Progress of Trade with that Country Prior to the Discovery of the Passage to it by the Cape of Good Hope. This is chiefly of value as it indicates the interest felt in England at the rise of the English Empire in India; but for real facts it has no value at all.

GIBBON.—Last in order of time, though far superior as an historian to Hume and Robertson, stands Edward Gibbon, the greatest historian England has produced, whether we regard the dignity of his style—antithetic and sonorous; the range of his subject—the history of a thousand years; the astonishing fidelity of his research in every department which contains historic materials; or the symmetry and completeness of his colossal work.

Like Hume, he has left us a sketch of his own life and labors, simple and dispassionate, from which it appears that he was born in London on the 27th of April, 1737; and, being of a good family, he had every advantage of education. Passing a short time at the University of Oxford, he stands in a small minority of those who can find no good in their Alma Mater. "To the University of Oxford," he says, "I acknowledge no obligation, and she will as cheerfully renounce me for a son as I am willing to disclaim her for a mother. I spent fourteen months at Magdalen College. They proved to be fourteen of the most idle and unprofitable months of my whole life." This singular experience may be contrasted with that of hundreds, but may be most fittingly illustrated by stating that of Dr. Lowth, a venerable contemporary of the historian. He speaks enthusiastically of the place where the student is able "to breathe the same atmosphere that had been breathed by Hooker and Chillingworth and Locke; to revel in its grand and well-ordered libraries; to form part of that academic society where emulation without envy, ambition without jealousy, contention without animosity, incited industry and awakened genius."

Gibbon, while still in his boyhood, had read with avidity ancient and modern history, and had written a juvenile paper on The Age of Sesostris, which was, at least, suggested by Voltaire's Siecle de Louis XIV.

Early interested, too, in the history of Christianity, his studies led him to become a Roman Catholic; but his belief was by no means stable. Sent by his father to Lausanne, in Switzerland, to be under the religious training of a Protestant minister, he changed his opinions, and became again a Protestant. His convictions, however, were once more shaken, and, at the last, he became a man of no creed, a sceptic of the school of Voltaire, a creature of the age of illumination. Many passages of his history display a sneering unbelief, which moves some persons more powerfully than the subtlest argument. This modern Platonist, beginning with sensation, evolves his philosophy from within,—from the finite mind; whereas human history can only be explained in the light of revelation, which gives to humanity faith, but which educes all science from the infinite—the mind of God.

The history written by Gibbon, called The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, begins with that empire in its best days, under Hadrian, and extends to the taking of Constantinople by the Turks, under Mohammed II., in 1453.

And this marvellous scope he has treated with a wonderful equality of research and power;—the world-absorbing empire, the origin and movements of the northern tribes and the Scythian marauders, the fall of the Western Empire, the history of the civil law, the establishment of the Gothic monarchies, the rise and spread of Mohammedanism, the obscurity of the middle age deepening into gloom, the crusades, the dawning of letters, and the inauguration of the modern era after the fall of Constantinople,—the detailed history of a thousand years. It is difficult to conceive that any one should suggest such a task to himself; it is astonishing to think that, with a dignified, self-reliant tenacity of purpose, it should have been completely achieved. It was an historic period, in which, in the words of Corneille, "Un grand destin commence un grand destin s'acheve." In many respects Gibbon's work stands alone; the general student must refer to Gibbon, because there is no other work to which he can refer. It was translated by Guizot into French, the first volume by Wenck into German (he died before completing it); and it was edited by Dean Milman in England.

The style of Gibbon is elegant and powerful; at first it is singularly pleasing, but as one reads it becomes too sonorous, and fatigues, as the crashing notes of a grand march tire the ear. His periods are antithetic; each contains a surprise and a witty point. His first two volumes have less of this stately magnificence, but in his later ones, in seeking to vindicate popular applause, he aims to shine, and perpetually labors for effect. Although not such a philosopher as Hume, his work is quite as philosophical as Hume's history, and he has been more faithful in the use of his materials. Guizot, while pointing out his errors, says he was struck, after "a second and attentive perusal," with "the immensity of his researches, the variety of his knowledge, and, above all, with that truly philosophical discrimination which judges the past as it would judge the present."

The danger to the unwary reader is from the sceptical bias of the author, which, while he states every important fact, leads him, by its manner of presentation, to warp it, or put it in a false light. Thus, for example, he has praise for paganism, and easy absolution for its sins; Mohammed walks the stage with a stately stride; Alaric overruns Europe to a grand quickstep; but Christianity awakens no enthusiasm, and receives no eulogium, although he describes its early struggles, its martyrdoms, its triumphs under Constantine, its gentle radiance during the dark ages, and its powerful awakening. Because he cannot believe, he cannot even be just.

In his special chapter on the rise and spread of Christianity, he gives a valuable summary of its history, and of the claims of the papacy, with perhaps a leaning towards the Latin Church. Gibbon finished his work at Lausanne on the 27th of June, 1787.

Its conception had come to his mind as he sat one evening amid the ruins of the Capitol at Rome, and heard the barefooted friars singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter. He had then thought of writing the decline and fall of the city of Rome, but soon expanded his view to the empire. This was in 1764. Nearly thirteen years afterwards, he wrote the last line of the last page in his garden-house at Lausanne, and reflected joyfully upon his recovered freedom and his permanent fame. His second thought, however, will fitly close this notice with a moral from his own lips: "My pride was soon humbled, and a sober melancholy was spread over my mind by the idea that I had taken an everlasting leave of an old and agreeable companion, and that whatever might be the future fate of my history, the life of the historian must be short and precarious."


James Boswell, 1740-1795: he was the son of a Scottish judge called Lord Auchinleck, from his estate. He studied law, and travelled, publishing, on his return, Journal of a Tour in Corsica. He appears to us a simple-hearted and amiable man, inquisitive, and exact in details. He became acquainted with Dr. Johnson in 1763, and conceived an immense admiration for him. In numerous visits to London, and in their tour to the Hebrides together, he noted Johnson's speech and actions, and, in 1791, published his life, which has already been characterized as the greatest biography ever written. Its value is manifold; not only is it a faithful portrait of the great writer, but, in the detailed record of his life, we have the wit, dogmatism, and learning of his hero, as expressing and illustrating the history of the age, quite as fully as the published works of Johnson. In return for this most valuable contribution to history and literature, the critics, one and all, have taxed their ingenuity to find strong words of ridicule and contempt for Boswell, and have done him great injustice. Because he bowed before the genius of Johnson, he was not a toady, nor a fool; at the worst, he was a fanatic, and a not always wise champion. Johnson was his king, and his loyalty was unqualified.

Horace Walpole, the Right Honorable, and afterwards Earl of Orford, 1717-1797: he was a wit, a satirist, and a most accomplished writer, who, notwithstanding, affected to despise literary fame. His paternity was doubted; but he enjoyed wealth and honors, and, by the possession of three sinecures, he lived a life of elegant leisure. He transformed a small house on the bank of the Thames, at Twickenham, into a miniature castle, called Strawberry Hill, which he filled with curiosities. He held a very versatile pen, and wrote much on many subjects. Among his desultory works are: Anecdotes of Painting in England, and AEdes Walpoliana, a description of the pictures at Houghton Hall, the seat of Sir Robert Walpole. He also ranks among the novelists, as the author of The Castle of Otranto, in which he deviates from the path of preceding writers of fiction—a sort of individual reaction from their portraitures of existing society to the marvellous and sensational. This work has been variously criticized; by some it has been considered a great flight of the imagination, but by most it is regarded as unnatural and full of "pasteboard machinery." He had immediate followers in this vein, among whom are Mrs. Aphra Behn, in her Old English Baron; and Ann Radcliffe, in The Romance of the Forest, and The Mysteries of Udolpho. Walpole also wrote a work entitled Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of Richard III. But his great value as a writer is to be found in his Memoirs and varied Correspondence, in which he presents photographs of the society in which he lives. Scott calls him "the best letter-writer in the language." Among the series of his letters, those of the greatest historical importance are those addressed to Sir Horace Mann, between 1760 and 1785. Of this series, Macaulay, who is his severest critic, says: "It forms a connected whole—a regular journal of what appeared to Walpole the most important transactions of the last twenty years of George II.'s reign. It contains much new information concerning the history of that time, the portion of English history of which common readers know the least."

John Lord Hervey, 1696-1743: he is known for his attempts in poetry, and for a large correspondence, since published; but his chief title to rank among the contributors to history is found in his Memoirs of the Court of George II. and Queen Caroline, which were not published until 1848. They give an unrivalled view of the court and of the royal household; and the variety of the topics, combined with the excellence of description, render them admirable as aids to understanding the history.

Sir William Blackstone, 1723-1780: a distinguished lawyer, he was an unwearied student of the history of the English statute law, and was on that account made Professor of Law in the University of Oxford. Some time a member of Parliament, he was afterwards appointed a judge. He edited Magna Charta and The Forest Charter of King John and Henry III. But his great work, one that has made his name famous, is The Commentaries on the Laws of England. Notwithstanding much envious criticism, it has maintained its place as a standard work. It has been again and again edited, and perhaps never better than by the Hon. George Sharswood, one of the Judges of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

Adam Smith, 1723-1790: this distinguished writer on political economy, the intelligent precursor of a system based upon the modern usage of nations, was educated at Glasgow and Oxford, and became in turn Professor of Logic and of Moral Philosophy in the University of Glasgow. His lecture courses in Moral Science contain the germs of his two principal works: 1. The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and 2. An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. The theory of the first has been superseded by the sounder views of later writers; but the second has conferred upon him enduring honor. In it he establishes as a principle that labor is the source of national wealth, and displays the value of division of labor. This work—written in clear, simple language, with copious illustrations—has had a wonderful influence upon the legislation and the commercial system of all civilized states since its issue, and has greatly conduced to the happiness of the human race. He wrote it in retirement, during a period of ten years. He astonished and instructed his period by presenting it with a new and necessary science.



Early Life and Career. London. Rambler and Idler. The Dictionary. Other Works. Lives of the Poets. Person and Character. Style. Junius.


Doctor Samuel Johnson was poet, dramatist, essayist, lexicographer, dogmatist, and critic, and, in this array of professional characters, played so distinguished a part in his day that he was long regarded as a prodigy in English literature. His influence has waned since his personality has grown dim, and his learning been superseded or overshadowed; but he still remains, and must always remain, the most prominent literary figure of his age; and this is in no small measure due to his good fortune in having such a champion and biographer as James Boswell. Johnson's Life by Boswell is without a rival among biographies: in the words of Macaulay: "Homer is not more decidedly the first of heroic poets; Shakspeare is not more decidedly the first of dramatists; Demosthenes is not more decidedly the first of orators, than Boswell is the first of biographers;" and Burke has said that Johnson appears far greater in Boswell's book than in his own. We thus know everything about Johnson, as we do not know about any other literary man, and this knowledge, due to his biographer, is at least one of the elements of Johnson's immense reputation.

He was born at Lichfield on the 18th of September, 1709. His father was a bookseller; and after having had a certain amount of knowledge "well beaten into him" by Mr. Hunter, young Johnson was for two years an assistant in his father's shop. But such was his aptitude for learning, that he was sent in 1728 to Pembroke College, Oxford. His youth was not a happy one: he was afflicted with scrofula, "which disfigured a countenance naturally well formed, and hurt his visual nerves so much that he did not see at all with one of his eyes." He had a morbid melancholy,—fits of dejection which made his life miserable. He was poor; and when, in 1731, his father died insolvent, he was obliged to leave the university without a degree. After fruitless attempts to establish a school, he married, in 1736, Mrs. Porter, a widow, who had L800. Rude and unprepossessing to others, she was sincerely loved by her husband, and deeply lamented when she died. In 1737 Johnson went to London in company with young Garrick, who had been one of his few pupils, and who was soon to fill the English world with his theatrical fame.

LONDON.—Johnson soon began to write for Cave's Gentleman's Magazine, and in 1738 he astonished Pope and the artificial poets by producing, in their best vein, his imitation of the third Satire of Juvenal, which he called London. This was his usher into the realm of literature. But he did not become prominent until he had reached his fiftieth year; he continued to struggle with gloom and poverty, too proud to seek patronage in an age when popular remuneration had not taken its place. In 1740 he was a reporter of the debates in parliament for Cave; and it is said that many of the indifferent speakers were astonished to read the next day the fine things which the reporter had placed in their mouths, which they had never uttered.

In 1749 he published his Vanity of Human Wishes, an imitation of the tenth Satire of Juvenal, which was as heartily welcomed as London had been. It is Juvenal applied to English and European history. It contains many lines familiar to us all; among them are the following:

Let observation with extended view Survey mankind from China to Peru.

In speaking of Charles XII., he says:

His fall was destined to a barren strand, A petty fortress and a dubious hand; He left a name at which the world grew pale, To point a moral or adorn a tale.

From Marlborough's eyes the streams of dotage flow, And Swift expires a driveller and a show.

In the same year he published his tragedy of Irene, which, notwithstanding the friendly efforts of Garrick, who was now manager of Drury Lane Theatre, was not successful. As a poet, Johnson was the perfection of the artificial school; and this very technical perfection was one of the causes of the reaction which was already beginning to sweep it away.

RAMBLER AND IDLER.—In 1750 he commenced The Rambler, a periodical like The Spectator, of which he wrote nearly all the articles, and which lived for two years. Solemn, didactic, and sonorous, it lacked the variety and genial humor which had characterized Addison and Steele. In 1758 he started The Idler, in the same vein, which also ran its respectable course for two years. In 1759 his mother died, and, in order to defray the expenses of her funeral, he wrote his story of Rasselas in the evenings of one week, for two editions of which he received L125. Full of moral aphorisms and instruction, this "Abyssinian tale" is entirely English in philosophy and fancy, and has not even the slight illusion of other Eastern tales in French and English, which were written about the same time, and which are very similar in form and matter. Of Rasselas, Hazlitt says: "It is the most melancholy and debilitating moral speculation that was ever put forth."

THE DICTIONARY.—As early as 1747 he had begun to write his English Dictionary, which, after eight years of incessant and unassisted labor, appeared in 1755. It was a noble thought, and produced a noble work—a work which filled an original vacancy. In France, a National Academy had undertaken a similar work; but this English giant had accomplished his labors alone. The amount of reading necessary to fix and illustrate his definitions was enormous, and the book is especially valuable from the apt and varied quotations from English authors. He established the language, as he found it, on a firm basis in signification and orthography. He laid the foundation upon which future lexicographers were to build; but he was ignorant of the Teutonic languages, from which so much of the structure and words of the English are taken, and thus is signally wanting in the scientific treatment of his subject. This is not to his discredit, for the science of language has had its origin in a later and modern time.

Perhaps nothing displays more fully the proud, sturdy, and self-reliant character of the man, than the eight years of incessant and unassisted labor upon this work.

His letter to Lord Chesterfield, declining his tardy patronage, after experiencing his earlier neglect, is a model of severe and yet respectful rebuke, and is to be regarded as one of the most significant events in his history. In it he says: "The notice you have been pleased to take of my labors, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent, and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary, and cannot impart it; till I am known, and do not want it. I hope it is no very cynical asperity not to confess obligation when no benefit has been received, or to be unwilling that the public should consider me as owing that to a patron which Providence has enabled me to do for myself." Living as he did in an age when the patronage of the great was wearing out, and public appreciation beginning to reward an author's toils, this manly letter gave another stab to the former, and hastened the progress of the latter.

OTHER WORKS.—The fame of Johnson was now fully established, and his labors were rewarded, in 1762, by the receipt of a pension of L300 from the government, which made him quite independent. It was then, in the very heyday of his reputation, that, in 1763, he became acquainted with James Boswell, to whom he at once became a Grand Lama; who took down the words as they dropped from his lips, and embalmed his fame.

In 1764 he issued his edition of Shakspeare, in eight octavo volumes, of which the best that can be said is, that it is not valuable as a commentary. A commentator must have something in common with his author; there was nothing congenial between Shakspeare and Johnson.

It was in 1773, that, urged by Boswell, he made his famous Journey to the Hebrides, or Western Islands of Scotland, of which he gave delightful descriptions in a series of letters to his friend Mrs. Thrale, which he afterwards wrote out in more pompous style for publication. The letters are current, witty, and simple; the published work is stilted and grandiloquent.

It is well known that he had no sympathy with the American colonies in their struggle against British oppression. When, in 1775, the Congress published their Resolutions and Address, he answered them in a prejudiced and illogical paper entitled Taxation no Tyranny. Notwithstanding its want of argument, it had the weight of his name and of a large party; but history has construed it by the animus of the writer, who had not long before declared of the colonists that they were "a race of convicts, and ought to be thankful for anything we allow them short of hanging."

As early as 1744 he had published a Life of the gifted but unhappy Savage, whom in his days of penury he had known, and with whom he had sympathized; but in 1781 appeared his Lives of the English Poets, with Critical Observations on their Works, and Lives of Sundry Eminent Persons.

LIVES OF THE POETS.—These comprise fifty-two poets, most of them little known at the present day, and thirteen eminent persons. Of historical value, as showing us the estimate of an age in which Johnson was an usher to the temple of Fame, they are now of little other value; those of his own school and coterie he could understand and eulogize. To Milton he accorded carefully measured praise, but could not do him full justice, from entire want of sympathy; the majesty of blank verse pentameters he could not appreciate, and from Milton's puritanism he recoiled with disgust.

Johnson died on the 13th of December, 1784, and was buried in Westminster Abbey; a flat stone with an inscription was placed over his grave: it was also designed to erect his monument there, but St. Paul's Cathedral was afterwards chosen as the place. There, a colossal figure represents the distinguished author, and a Latin epitaph, written by Dr. Parr, records his virtues and his achievements in literature.

PERSON AND CHARACTER.—A few words must suffice to give a summary of his character, and will exhibit some singular contrarieties. He had varied but not very profound learning; was earnest, self-satisfied, overbearing in argument, or, as Sir Walter Scott styles it, despotic. As distinguished for his powers of conversation as for his writings, he always talked ex cathedra, and was exceedingly impatient of opposition. Brutal in his word attacks, he concealed by tone and manner a generous heart. Grandiloquent in ordinary matters, he "made little fishes talk like whales."

Always swayed by religious influences, he was intolerant of the sects around him; habitually pious, he was not without superstition; he was not an unbeliever in ghostly apparitions, and had a great fear of death; he also had the touching mania—touching every post as he walked along the street, thereby to avoid some unknown evil.

Although of rural origin, he became a thorough London cockney, and his hatred of Scotchmen and dissenters is at once pitiful and ludicrous. His manners and gestures were uncouth and disagreeable. He devoured rather than eat his food, and was a remarkable tea-drinker; on one occasion, perhaps for bravado, taking twenty-five cups at a sitting.

Massive in figure, seamed with scrofulous scars and marks, seeing with but one eye, he had convulsive motions and twitches, and his slovenly dress added to the uncouthness and oddity of his appearance. In all respects he was an original, and even his defects and peculiarities seemed to conduce to make him famous.

Considered the first among the critics of his own day, later judgments have reversed his decisions; many of those whom he praised have sunk into obscurity, and those whom he failed to appreciate have been elevated to the highest pedestals in the literary House of Fame.

STYLE.—His style is full-sounding and antithetic, his periods are carefully balanced, his manner eminently respectable and good; but his words, very many of them of Latin derivation, constitute what the later critics have named Johnsonese, which is certainly capable of translation into plainer Saxon English, with good results. Thus, in speaking of Addison's style, he says: "It is pure without scrupulosity, and exact without apparent elaboration; ... he seeks no ambitious ornaments, and tries no hazardous innovations; his page is always luminous, but never blazes in unexpected splendor." Very numerous examples might be given of sentences most of the words in which might be replaced by simpler expressions with great advantage to the sound and to the sense.

As a critic, his word was law: his opinion was clearly and often severely expressed on literary men and literary subjects, and no great writer of his own or a past age escaped either his praise or his censure. Authors wrote with the fear of his criticism before their eyes; and his pompous diction was long imitated by men who, without this influence, would have written far better English. But, on the other hand, his honesty, his scholarship, his piety, and his championship of what was good and true, as depicted in his writings, made him a blessing to his time, and an honored and notable character in the noble line of English authors.

JUNIUS.—Among the most significant and instructive writings to the student of English history, in the earlier part of the reign of George III., is a series of letters written by a person, or by several persons in combination, whose nom de plume was Junius. These letters specified the errors and abuses of the government, were exceedingly bold in denunciation and bitter in invective. The letters of Junius were forty-four in number, and were addressed to Mr. Woodfall, the proprietor of The Public Advertiser, a London newspaper, in which they were published. Fifteen others in the same vein were signed Philo-Junius; and there are besides sixty-two notes addressed by Junius to his publisher.

The principal letters signed Junius were addressed to ministers directly, and the first, on the State of the Nation, was a manifesto of the grounds of his writing and his purpose. It was evident that a bold censor had sprung forth; one acquainted with the secret movements of the government, and with the foibles and faults of the principal statesmen: they writhed under his lash. Some of the more gifted attempted to answer him, and, as in the case of Sir William Draper, met with signal discomfiture. Vigorous efforts were made to discover the offender, but without success; and as to his first patriotic intentions he soon added personal spite, the writer found that his life would not be safe if his secret were discovered. The rage of parties has long since died away, and the writer or writers have long been in their graves, but the curious secret still remains, and has puzzled the brains of students to the present day. Allibone gives a list of forty-two persons to whom the letters were in whole or in part ascribed, among whom are Colonel Barre, Burke, Lord Chatham, General Charles Lee, Horne Tooke, Wilkes, Horace Walpole, Lord Lyttleton, Lord George Sackville, and Sir Philip Francis. Pamphlets and books have been written by hundreds upon this question of authorship, and it is not yet by any means definitely settled. The concurrence of the most intelligent investigators is in favor of Sir Philip Francis, because of the handwriting being like his, but slightly disguised; because he and Junius were alike intimate with the government workings in the state department and in the war department, and took notes of speeches in the House of Lords; because the letters came to an end just before Francis was sent to India; and because, indecisive as these claims are, they are stronger than those of any other suspected author. Macaulay adds to these: "One of the strongest reasons for believing that Francis was Junius is the moral resemblance between the two men."

It is interesting to notice that the ministry engaged Dr. Johnson to answer the forty-second letter, in which the king is especially arraigned. Johnson's answer, published in 1771, is entitled Thoughts on the Late Transactions respecting Falkland's Islands. Of Junius he says: "He cries havoc without reserve, and endeavors to let slip the dogs of foreign and civil war, ignorant whither they are going, and careless what maybe their prey." "It is not hard to be sarcastic in a mask; while he walks like Jack the giant-killer, in a coat of darkness, he may do much mischief with little strength." "Junius is an unusual phenomenon, on which some have gazed with wonder and some with terror; but wonder and terror are transitory passions. He will soon be more closely viewed, or more attentively examined, and what folly has taken for a comet, that from its flaming hair shook pestilence and war, inquiry will find to be only a meteor formed by the vapors of putrefying democracy, and kindled into flame by the effervescence of interest struggling with conviction, which, after having plunged its followers into a bog, will leave us inquiring why we regarded it."

Whatever the moral effect of the writings of Junius, as exhibited by silent influence in the lapse of years, the schemes he proposed and the party he championed alike failed of success. His farewell letter to Woodfall bears date the 19th of January, 1773. In that letter he declared that "he must be an idiot to write again; that he had meant well by the cause and the public; that both were given up; that there were not ten men who would act steadily together on any question."[35] But one thing is sure: he has enriched the literature with public letters of rare sagacity, extreme elegance of rhetoric and great logical force, and has presented a problem always curious and interesting for future students,—not yet solved, in spite of Mr. Chabot's recent book,[36] and every day becoming more difficult of solution,—Who was Junius?



The Eighteenth Century. James Macpherson. Ossian. Thomas Chatterton. His Poems. The Verdict. Suicide. The Cause.


The middle of the eighteenth century is marked as a period in which, while other forms of literature flourished, there arose a taste for historic research. Not content with the actual in poetry and essay and pamphlet, there was a looking back to gather up a record of what England had done and had been in the past, and to connect, in logical relation, her former with her latter glory. It was, as we have seen, the era of her great historians, Hume, Gibbon, and Robertson, who, upon the chronicles, and the abundant but scattered material, endeavored to construct philosophic history; it was the day of her greatest moralists, Adam Smith, Tucker, and Paley, and of research in metaphysics and political economy. In this period Bishop Percy collected the ancient English ballads, and also historic poems from the Chinese and the Runic; in it Warton wrote his history of poetry. Dr. Johnson, self-reliant and laborious, was producing his dictionary, and giving limits and coherence to the language. Mind was on the alert, not only subsidizing the present, but looking curiously into the past. I have ventured to call it the antiquarian age. In 1751, the Antiquarian Society of London was firmly established; men began to collect armor and relics: in this period grew up such an antiquary as Mr. Oldbuck, who curiously sought out every relic of the Roman times,—armor, fosses, and praetoria,—and found, with much that was real, many a fraud or delusion. It was an age which, in the words of old Walter Charleton, "despised the present as an innovation, and slighted the future, like the madman who fell in love with Cleopatra."

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