Hours in a Library - New Edition, with Additions. Vol. II (of 3)
by Leslie Stephen
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Transcriber's Note: Obvious typographical errors have been corrected in this text. For a complete list, please see the bottom of this document.










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A book appeared not long ago of which it was the professed object to give to the modern generation of lazy readers the pith of Boswell's immortal biography. I shall, for sufficient reasons, refrain from discussing the merits of the performance. One remark, indeed, may be made in passing. The circle of readers to whom such a book is welcome must, of necessity, be limited. To the true lovers of Boswell it is, to say the least, superfluous; the gentlest omissions will always mangle some people's favourite passages, and additions, whatever skill they may display, necessarily injure that dramatic vivacity which is one of the great charms of the original. The most discreet of cicerones is an intruder when we open our old favourite, and, without further magic, retire into that delicious nook of eighteenth-century society. Upon those, again, who cannot appreciate the infinite humour of the original, the mere excision of the less lively pages will be thrown away. There remains only that narrow margin of readers whose appetites, languid but not extinct, can be titillated by the promise that they shall not have the trouble of making their own selection. Let us wish them good digestions, and, in spite of modern changes of fashion, more robust taste for the future. I would still hope that to many readers Boswell has been what he has certainly been to some, the first writer who gave them a love of English literature, and the most charming of all companions long after the bloom of novelty has departed. I subscribe most cheerfully to Mr. Lewes's statement that he estimates his acquaintances according to their estimate of Boswell. A man, indeed, may be a good Christian, and an excellent father of a family, without loving Johnson or Boswell, for a sense of humour is not one of the primary virtues. But Boswell's is one of the very few books which, after many years of familiarity, will still provoke a hearty laugh even in the solitude of a study; and the laughter is of that kind which does one good.

I do not wish, however, to pronounce one more eulogy upon an old friend, but to say a few words on a question which he sometimes suggests. Macaulay's well-known but provoking essay is more than usually lavish in overstrained paradoxes. He has explicitly declared that Boswell wrote one of the most charming of books because he was one of the greatest of fools. And his remarks suggest, if they do not implicitly assert, that Johnson wrote some of the most unreadable of books, although, if not because, he possessed one of the most vigorous intellects of the time. Carlyle has given a sufficient explanation of the first paradox; but the second may justify a little further inquiry. As a general rule, the talk of a great man is the reflection of his books. Nothing is so false as the common saying that the presence of a distinguished writer is generally disappointing. It exemplifies a very common delusion. People are so impressed by the disparity which sometimes occurs, that they take the exception for the rule. It is, of course, true that a man's verbal utterances may differ materially from his written utterances. He may, like Addison, be shy in company; he may, like many retired students, be slow in collecting his thoughts; or he may, like Goldsmith, be over-anxious to shine at all hazards. But a patient observer will even then detect the essential identity under superficial differences; and in the majority of cases, as in that of Macaulay himself, the talking and the writing are palpably and almost absurdly similar. The whole art of criticism consists in learning to know the human being who is partially revealed to us in his spoken or his written words. Whatever the means of communication, the problem is the same. The two methods of inquiry may supplement each other; but their substantial agreement is the test of their accuracy. If Johnson, as a writer, appears to us to be a mere windbag and manufacturer of sesquipedalian verbiage, whilst, as a talker, he appears to be one of the most genuine and deeply feeling of men, we may be sure that our analysis has been somewhere defective. The discrepancy is, of course, partly explained by the faults of Johnson's style; but the explanation only removes the difficulty a degree further. 'The style is the man' is a very excellent aphorism, though some eminent writers have lately pointed out that Buffon's original remark was le style c'est de l'homme. That only proves that, like many other good sayings, it has been polished and brought to perfection by the process of attrition in numerous minds, instead of being struck out at a blow by a solitary thinker. From a purely logical point of view, Buffon may be correct; but the very essence of an aphorism is that slight exaggeration which makes it more biting whilst less rigidly accurate. According to Buffon, the style might belong to a man as an acquisition rather than to natural growth. There are parasitical writers who, in the old phrase, have 'formed their style,' by the imitation of accepted models, and who have, therefore, possessed it only by right of appropriation. Boswell has a discussion as to the writers who may have served Johnson in this capacity. But, in fact, Johnson, like all other men of strong idiosyncrasy, formed his style as he formed his legs. The peculiarities of his limbs were in some degree the result of conscious efforts in walking, swimming, and 'buffeting with his books.' This development was doubtless more fully determined by the constitution which he brought into the world, and the circumstances under which he was brought up. And even that queer Johnsonese, which Macaulay supposes him to have adopted in accordance with a more definite literary theory, will probably appear to be the natural expression of certain innate tendencies, and of the mental atmosphere which he breathed from youth. To appreciate fairly the strangely cumbrous form of his written speech, we must penetrate more deeply than may at first sight seem necessary beneath the outer rind of this literary Behemoth. The difficulty of such spiritual dissection is, indeed, very great; but some little light may be thrown upon the subject by following out such indications as we possess.

The talking Johnson is sufficiently familiar to us. So far as Boswell needs an interpreter, Carlyle has done all that can be done. He has concentrated and explained what is diffused, and often unconsciously indicated in Boswell's pages. When reading Boswell, we are half ashamed of his power over our sympathies. It is like turning over a portfolio of sketches, caricatured, inadequate, and each giving only some imperfect aspect of the original. Macaulay's smart paradoxes only increase our perplexity by throwing the superficial contrasts into stronger relief. Carlyle, with true imaginative insight, gives us at once the essence of Johnson; he brings before our eyes the luminous body of which we had previously been conscious only by a series of imperfect images refracted through a number of distorting media. To render such a service effectually is the highest triumph of criticism; and it would be impertinent to say again in feebler language what Carlyle has expressed so forcibly. We may, however, recall certain general conclusions by way of preface to the problem which he has not expressly considered, how far Johnson succeeded in expressing himself through his writings.

The world, as Carlyle sees it, is composed, we all know, of two classes: there are 'the dull millions, who, as a dull flock, roll hither and thither, whithersoever they are led,' and there are a few superior natures who can see and can will. There are, in other words, the heroes, and those whose highest wisdom is to be hero-worshippers. Johnson's glory is that he belonged to the sacred band, though he could not claim within it the highest, or even a very high, rank. In the current dialect, therefore, he was 'nowise a clothes-horse or patent digester, but a genuine man.' Whatever the accuracy of the general doctrine, or of certain corollaries which are drawn from it, the application to Johnson explains one main condition of his power. Persons of colourless imagination may hold—nor will we dispute their verdict—that Carlyle overcharges his lights and shades, and brings his heroes into too startling a contrast with the vulgar herd. Yet it is undeniable that the great bulk of mankind are transmitters rather than originators of spiritual force. Most of us are necessarily condemned to express our thoughts in formulas which we have learnt from others and can but slightly tinge with our feeble personality. Nor, as a rule, are we even consistent disciples of any one school of thought. What we call our opinions are mere bundles of incoherent formulae, arbitrarily stitched together because our reasoning faculties are too dull to make inconsistency painful. Of the vast piles of books which load our libraries, ninety-nine hundredths and more are but printed echoes: and it is the rarest of pleasures to say, Here is a distinct record of impressions at first hand. We commonplace beings are hurried along in the crowd, living from hand to mouth on such slices of material and spiritual food as happen to drift in our direction, with little more power of taking an independent course, or of forming any general theory, than the polyps which are carried along by an oceanic current. Ask any man what he thinks of the world in which he is placed: whether, for example, it is on the whole a scene of happiness or misery, and he will either answer by some cut-and-dried fragments of what was once wisdom, or he will confine himself to a few incoherent details. He had a good dinner to-day and a bad toothache yesterday, and a family affliction or blessing the day before. But he is as incapable of summing up his impressions as an infant of performing an operation in the differential calculus. It is as rare as it is refreshing to find a man who can stand on his own legs and be conscious of his own feelings, who is sturdy enough to react as well as to transmit action, and lofty enough to raise himself above the hurrying crowd and have some distinct belief as to whence it is coming and whither it is going. Now Johnson, as one of the sturdiest of mankind, had the power due to a very distinct sentiment, if not to a very clear theory, about the world in which he lived. It had buffeted him severely enough, and he had formed a decisive estimate of its value. He was no man to be put off with mere phrases in place of opinions, or to accept doctrines which were not capable of expressing genuine emotion. To this it must be added that his emotions were as deep and tender as they were genuine. How sacred was his love for his old and ugly wife; how warm his sympathy wherever it could be effective; how manly the self-respect with which he guarded his dignity through all the temptations of Grub Street, need not be once more pointed out. Perhaps, however, it is worth while to notice the extreme rarity of such qualities. Many people, we think, love their fathers. Fortunately, that is true; but in how many people is filial affection strong enough to overpower the dread of eccentricity? How many men would have been capable of doing penance in Uttoxeter market years after their father's death for a long-passed act of disobedience? Most of us, again, would have a temporary emotion of pity for an outcast lying helplessly in the street. We should call the police, or send her in a cab to the workhouse, or, at least, write to the Times to denounce the defective arrangements of public charity. But it is perhaps better not to ask how many good Samaritans would take her on their shoulders to their own homes, care for her wants, and put her into a better way of life.

In the lives of most eminent men we find much good feeling and honourable conduct; but it is an exception, even in the case of good men, when we find that a life has been shaped by other than the ordinary conventions, or that emotions have dared to overflow the well-worn channels of respectability. The love which we feel for Johnson is due to the fact that the pivots upon which his life turned are invariably noble motives, and not mere obedience to custom. More than one modern writer has expressed a fraternal affection for Addison, and it is justified by the kindly humour which breathes through his 'Essays.' But what anecdote of that most decorous and successful person touches our hearts or has the heroic ring of Johnson's wrestlings with adverse fortune? Addison showed how a Christian could die—when his life has run smoothly through pleasant places, secretaryships of state, and marriages with countesses, and when nothing—except a few overdoses of port wine—has shaken his nerves or ruffled his temper. A far deeper emotion rises at the deathbed of the rugged old pilgrim, who has fought his way to peace in spite of troubles within and without, who has been jeered in Vanity Fair and has descended into the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and escaped with pain and difficulty from the clutches of Giant Despair. When the last feelings of such a man are tender, solemn, and simple, we feel ourselves in a higher presence than that of an amiable gentleman who simply died, as he lived, with consummate decorum.

On turning, however, from Johnson's life to his writings, from Boswell to the 'Rambler,' it must be admitted that the shock is trying to our nerves. The 'Rambler' has, indeed, high merits. The impression which it made upon his own generation proves the fact; for the reputation, however temporary, was not won by a concession to the fashions of the day, but to the influence of a strong judgment uttering itself through uncouth forms. The melancholy which colours its pages is the melancholy of a noble nature. The tone of thought reminds us of Bishop Butler, whose writings, defaced by a style even more tiresome, though less pompous than Johnson's, have owed their enduring reputation to a philosophical acuteness in which Johnson was certainly very deficient. Both of these great men, however, impress us by their deep sense of the evils under which humanity suffers, and their rejection of the superficial optimism of the day. Butler's sadness, undoubtedly, is that of a recluse, and Johnson's that of a man of the world; but the sentiment is fundamentally the same. It may be added, too, that here, as elsewhere, Johnson speaks with the sincerity of a man drawing upon his own experience. He announces himself as a scholar thrust out upon the world rather by necessity than choice; and a large proportion of the papers dwell upon the various sufferings of the literary class. Nobody could speak more feelingly of those sufferings, as no one had a closer personal acquaintance with them. But allowing to Johnson whatever credit is due to the man who performs one more variation on the old theme, Vanitas vanitatum, we must in candour admit that the 'Rambler' has the one unpardonable fault: it is unreadable.

What an amazing turn it shows for commonplaces! That life is short, that marriages from mercenary motives produce unhappiness, that different men are virtuous in different degrees, that advice is generally ineffectual, that adversity has its uses, that fame is liable to suffer from detraction;—these and a host of other such maxims are of the kind upon which no genius and no depth of feeling can confer a momentary interest. Here and there, indeed, the pompous utterance invests them with an unlucky air of absurdity. 'Let no man from this time,' is the comment in one of his stories, 'suffer his felicity to depend on the death of his aunt.' Every actor, of course, uses the same dialect. A gay young gentleman tells us that he used to amuse his companions by giving them notice of his friends' oddities. 'Every man,' he says, 'has some habitual contortion of body, or established mode of expression, which never fails to excite mirth if it be pointed out to notice. By premonition of these particularities, I secured our pleasantry.' The feminine characters, Flirtillas, and Cleoras, and Euphelias, and Penthesileas, are, if possible, still more grotesque. Macaulay remarks that he wears the petticoat with as ill a grace as Falstaff himself. The reader, he thinks, will cry out with Sir Hugh, 'I like not when a 'oman has a great peard! I spy a great peard under her muffler.' Oddly enough Johnson gives the very same quotation; and goes on to warn his supposed correspondents that Phyllis must send no more letters from the Horse Guards; and that Belinda must 'resign her pretensions to female elegance till she has lived three weeks without hearing the politics of Button's Coffee House.' The Doctor was probably sensible enough of his own defects. And yet there is a still more wearisome set of articles. In emulation of the precedent set by Addison, Johnson indulges in the dreariest of allegories. Criticism, we are told, was the eldest daughter of Labour and Truth, but at last resigned in favour of Time, and left Prejudice and False Taste to reign in company with Fraud and Mischief. Then we have the genealogy of Wit and Learning, and of Satire, the Son of Wit and Malice, and an account of their various quarrels, and the decision of Jupiter. Neither are the histories of such semi-allegorical personages as Almamoulin, the son of Nouradin, or of Anningait and Ayut, the Greenland lovers, much more refreshing to modern readers. That Johnson possessed humour of no mean order, we know from Boswell; but no critic could have divined his power from the clumsy gambols in which he occasionally recreates himself. Perhaps his happiest effort is a dissertation upon the advantage of living in garrets; but the humour struggles and gasps dreadfully under the weight of words. 'There are,' he says, 'some who would continue blockheads' (the Alpine Club was not yet founded), 'even on the summit of the Andes or the Peak of Teneriffe. But let not any man be considered as unimprovable till this potent remedy has been tried; for perhaps he was found to be great only in a garret, as the joiner of Aretaeus was rational in no other place but his own shop.'

How could a man of real power write such unendurable stuff? Or how, indeed, could any man come to embody his thoughts in the style of which one other sentence will be a sufficient example? As it is afterwards nearly repeated, it may be supposed to have struck his fancy. The remarks of the philosophers who denounce temerity are, he says, 'too just to be disputed and too salutary to be rejected; but there is likewise some danger lest timorous prudence should be inculcated till courage and enterprise are wholly repressed and the mind congested in perpetual inactivity by the fatal influence of frigorifick wisdom.' Is there not some danger, we ask, that the mind will be benumbed into perpetual torpidity by the influence of this soporific sapience? It is still true, however, that this Johnsonese, so often burlesqued and ridiculed, was, as far as we can judge, a genuine product. Macaulay says that it is more offensive than the mannerism of Milton or Burke, because it is a mannerism adopted on principle and sustained by constant effort. Facts do not confirm the theory. Milton's prose style seems to be the result of a conscious effort to run English into classical moulds. Burke's mannerism does not appear in his early writings, and we can trace its development from the imitation of Bolingbroke to the last declamation against the Revolution. But Johnson seems to have written Johnsonese from his cradle. In his first original composition, the preface to Father Lobo's 'Abyssinia,' the style is as distinctive as in the 'Rambler.' The Parliamentary reports in the 'Gentleman's Magazine' make Pitt and Fox[1] express sentiments which are probably their own in language which is as unmistakably Johnson's. It is clear that his style, good or bad, was the same from his earliest efforts. It is only in his last book, the 'Lives of the Poets,' that the mannerism, though equally marked, is so far subdued as to be tolerable. What he himself called his habit of using 'too big words and too many of them' was no affectation, but as much the result of his special idiosyncrasy as his queer gruntings and twitchings. Sir Joshua Reynolds indeed maintained, and we may believe so attentive an observer, that his strange physical contortions were the result of bad habit, not of actual disease. Johnson, he said, could sit as still as other people when his attention was called to it. And possibly, if he had tried, he might have avoided the fault of making 'little fishes talk like whales.' But how did the bad habits arise? According to Boswell, Johnson professed to have 'formed his style' partly upon Sir W. Temple, and on 'Chambers's Proposal for his Dictionary.' The statement was obviously misinterpreted: but there is a glimmering of truth in the theory that the 'style was formed'—so far as those words have any meaning—on the 'giants of the seventeenth century,' and especially upon Sir Thomas Browne. Johnson's taste, in fact, had led him to the study of writers in many ways congenial to him. His favourite book, as we know, was Burton's 'Anatomy of Melancholy.' The pedantry of the older school did not repel him; the weighty thought rightly attracted him; and the more complex structure of sentence was perhaps a pleasant contrast to an ear saturated with the Gallicised neatness of Addison and Pope. Unluckily, the secret of the old majestic cadence was hopelessly lost. Johnson, though spiritually akin to the giants, was the firmest ally and subject of the dwarfish dynasty which supplanted them. The very faculty of hearing seems to change in obedience to some mysterious law at different stages of intellectual development; and that which to one generation is delicious music is to another a mere droning of bagpipes or the grinding of monotonous barrel-organs.

Assuming that a man can find perfect satisfaction in the versification of the 'Essay on Man,' we can understand his saying of 'Lycidas,' that 'the diction is harsh, the rhymes uncertain, and the numbers unpleasing.' In one of the 'Ramblers' we are informed that the accent in blank verse ought properly to rest upon every second syllable throughout the whole line. A little variety must, he admits, be allowed to avoid satiety; but all lines which do not go in the steady jog-trot of alternate beats as regularly as the piston of a steam engine, are more or less defective. This simple-minded system naturally makes wild work with the poetry of the 'mighty-mouthed inventor of harmonies.' Milton's harsh cadences are indeed excused on the odd ground that he who was 'vindicating the ways of God to man' might have been condemned for 'lavishing much of his attention upon syllables and sounds.' Moreover, the poor man did his best by introducing sounding proper names, even when they 'added little music to his poem:' an example of this feeble, though well-meant expedient, being the passage about the moon, which—

The Tuscan artist views, At evening, from the top of Fiesole Or in Valdarno, to descry new lands, &c.

This profanity passed at the time for orthodoxy. But the misfortune was, that Johnson, unhesitatingly subscribing to the rules of Queen Anne's critics, is always instinctively feeling after the grander effects of the old school. Nature prompts him to the stateliness of Milton, whilst Art orders him to deal out long and short syllables alternately, and to make them up in parcels of ten, and then tie the parcels together in pairs by the help of a rhyme. The natural utterance of a man of strong perceptions, but of unwieldy intellect, of a melancholy temperament, and capable of very deep, but not vivacious emotions, would be in stately and elaborate phrases. His style was not more distinctly a work of art than the style of Browne or Milton, but, unluckily, it was a work of bad art. He had the misfortune, not so rare as it may sound, to be born in the wrong century; and is, therefore, a giant in fetters; the amplitude of stride is still there, but it is checked into mechanical regularity. A similar phenomenon is observable in other writers of the time. The blank verse of Young, for example, is generally set to Pope's tune with the omission of the rhymes, whilst Thomson, revolting more or less consciously against the canons of his time, too often falls into mere pompous mouthing. Shaftesbury, in the previous generation, trying to write poetical prose, becomes as pedantic as Johnson, though in a different style; and Gibbon's mannerism is a familiar example of a similar escape from a monotonous simplicity into awkward complexity. Such writers are like men who have been chilled by what Johnson would call the 'frigorifick' influence of the classicism of their fathers, and whose numbed limbs move stiffly and awkwardly in a first attempt to regain the old liberty. The form, too, of the 'Rambler' is unfortunate. Johnson has always Addison before his eyes; to whom it was formerly the fashion to compare him for the same excellent reason which has recently suggested comparisons between Dickens and Thackeray—namely, that their works were published in the same external shape. Unluckily, Johnson gave too much excuse for the comparison by really imitating Addison. He has to make allegories, and to give lively sketches of feminine peculiarities, and to ridicule social foibles of which he was, at most, a distant observer. The inevitable consequence is, that though here and there we catch a glimpse of the genuine man, we are, generally, too much provoked by the awkwardness of his costume to be capable of enjoying, or even reading him.

In many of his writings, however, Johnson manages, almost entirely, to throw off these impediments. In his deep capacity for sympathy and reverence, we recognise some of the elements that go to the making of a poet. He is always a man of intuitions rather than of discursive intellect; often keen of vision, though wanting in analytical power. For poetry, indeed, as it is often understood now, or even as it was understood by Pope, he had little enough qualification. He had not the intellectual vivacity implied in the marvellously neat workmanship of Pope, and still less the delight in all natural and artistic beauty which we generally take to be essential to poetic excellence. His contempt for 'Lycidas' is sufficiently significant upon that head. Still more characteristic is the incapacity to understand Spenser, which comes out incidentally in his remarks upon some of those imitations, which even in the middle of the eighteenth century showed that sensibility to the purest form of poetry was not by any means extinct amongst us. But there is a poetry, though we sometimes seem to forget it, which is the natural expression of deep moral sentiment; and of this Johnson has written enough to reveal very genuine power. The touching verses upon the death of Levett are almost as pathetic as Cowper; and fragments of the two imitations of Juvenal have struck deep enough to be not quite forgotten. We still quote the lines about pointing a moral and adorning a tale, which conclude a really noble passage. We are too often reminded of his melancholy musings over the

Fears of the brave and follies of the wise,

and a few of the concluding lines of the 'Vanity of Human Wishes,' in which he answers the question whether man must of necessity

Roll darkling down the torrent of his fate,

in helplessness and ignorance, may have something of a familiar ring. We are to give thanks, he says,

For love, which scarce collective man can fill; For patience, sovereign o'er transmuted ill; For faith, that, panting for a happier seat, Counts death kind nature's signal for retreat; These goods for man, the laws of heaven ordain, These goods He grants, who grants the power to gain, With these celestial wisdom calms the mind, And makes the happiness she does not find.

These lines, and many others which might be quoted, are noble in expression, as well as lofty and tender in feeling. Johnson, like Wordsworth, or even more deeply than Wordsworth, had felt all the 'heavy and the weary weight of all this unintelligible world;' and, though he stumbles a little in the narrow limits of his versification, he bears himself nobly, and manages to put his heart into his poetry. Coleridge's paraphrase of the well-known lines, 'Let observation with extensive observation, observe mankind from China to Peru,' would prevent us from saying that he had thrown off his verbiage. He has not the felicity of Goldsmith's 'Traveller,' though he wrote one of the best couplets in that admirable poem; but his ponderous lines show genuine vigour, and can be excluded from poetry only by the help of an arbitrary classification.

The fullest expression, however, of Johnson's feeling is undoubtedly to be found in 'Rasselas.' The inevitable comparison with Voltaire's 'Candide,' which, by an odd coincidence, appeared almost simultaneously, suggests some curious reflections. The resemblance between the moral of the two books is so strong that, as Johnson remarked, it would have been difficult not to suppose that one had given a hint to the other but for the chronological difficulty. The contrast, indeed, is as marked as the likeness. 'Candide' is not adapted for family reading, whereas 'Rasselas' might be a textbook for young ladies studying English in a convent. 'Candide' is a marvel of clearness and vivacity; whereas to read 'Rasselas' is about as exhilarating as to wade knee-deep through a sandy desert. Voltaire and Johnson, however, the great sceptic and the last of the true old Tories, coincide pretty well in their view of the world, and in the remedy which they suggest. The world is, they agree, full of misery, and the optimism which would deny the reality of the misery is childish. Il faut cultiver notre jardin is the last word of 'Candide,' and Johnson's teaching, both here and elsewhere, may be summed up in the words 'Work, and don't whine.' It need not be considered here, nor, perhaps, is it quite plain, what speculative conclusions Voltaire meant to be drawn from his teaching. The peculiarity of Johnson is, that he is apparently indifferent to any such conclusion. A dogmatic assertion, that the world is on the whole a scene of misery, may be pressed into the service of different philosophies. Johnson asserted the opinion resolutely, both in writing and in conversation, but apparently never troubled himself with any inferences but such as have a directly practical tendency. He was no 'speculatist'—a word which now strikes us as having an American twang, but which was familiar to the lexicographer. His only excursion to the borders of such regions was in the very forcible review of Soane Jenyns, who had made a jaunty attempt to explain the origin of evil by the help of a few of Pope's epigrams. Johnson's sledge-hammer smashes his flimsy platitudes to pieces with an energy too good for such a foe. For speculation, properly so called, there was no need. The review, like 'Rasselas,' is simply a vigorous protest against the popular attempt to make things pleasant by a feeble dilution of the most watery kind of popular teaching. He has no trouble in remarking that the evils of poverty are not alleviated by calling it 'want of riches,' and that there is a poverty which involves want of necessaries. The offered consolation, indeed, came rather awkwardly from the elegant country gentleman to the poor scholar who had just known by experience what it was to live upon fourpence-halfpenny a day. Johnson resolutely looks facts in the face, and calls ugly things by their right names. Men, he tells us over and over again, are wretched, and there is no use in denying it. This doctrine appears in his familiar talk, and even in the papers which he meant to be light reading. He begins the prologue to a comedy with the words—

Pressed with the load of life, the weary mind Surveys the general toil of human kind.

In the 'Life of Savage' he makes the common remark that the lives of many of the greatest teachers of mankind have been miserable. The explanation to which he inclines is that they have not been more miserable than their neighbours, but that their misery has been more conspicuous. His melancholy view of life may have been caused simply by his unfortunate constitution; for everybody sees in the disease of his own liver a disorder of the universe; but it was also intensified by the natural reaction of a powerful nature against the fluent optimism of the time, which expressed itself in Pope's aphorism, Whatever is, is right. The strongest men of the time revolted against that attempt to cure a deep-seated disease by a few fine speeches. The form taken by Johnson's revolt is characteristic. His nature was too tender and too manly to incline to Swift's misanthropy. Men might be wretched, but he would not therefore revile them as filthy Yahoos. He was too reverent and cared too little for abstract thought to share the scepticism of Voltaire. In this miserable world the one worthy object of ambition is to do one's duty, and the one consolation deserving the name is to be found in religion. That Johnson's religious opinions sometimes took the form of rather grotesque superstition may be true; and it is easy enough to ridicule some of its manifestations. He took the creed of his day without much examination of the evidence upon which its dogmas rested; but a writer must be thoughtless indeed who should be more inclined to laugh at his superficial oddities, than to admire the reverent spirit and the brave self-respect with which he struggled through a painful life. The protest of 'Rasselas' against optimism is therefore widely different from the protest of Voltaire. The deep and genuine feeling of the Frenchman is concealed under smart assaults upon the dogmas of popular theology; the Englishman desires to impress upon us the futility of all human enjoyments, with a view to deepen the solemnity of our habitual tone of thought. It is true, indeed, that the evil is dwelt upon more forcibly than the remedy. The book is all the more impressive. We are almost appalled by the gloomy strength which sees so forcibly the misery of the world and rejects so unequivocally all the palliatives of sentiment and philosophy. The melancholy is intensified by the ponderous style, which suggests a man weary of a heavy burden. The air seems to be filled with what Johnson once called 'inspissated gloom.' 'Rasselas,' one may say, has a narrow escape of being a great book, though it is ill calculated for the hasty readers of to-day. Indeed, the defects are serious enough. The class of writing to which it belongs demands a certain dramatic picturesqueness to point the moral effectively. Not only the long-winded sentences, but the slow evolution of thought and the deliberation with which he works out his pictures of misery, make the general effect dull beside such books as 'Candide' or 'Gulliver's Travels.' A touch of epigrammatic exaggeration is very much needed; and yet anybody who has the courage to read it through will admit that Johnson is not an unworthy guide into those gloomy regions of imagination which we all visit sometimes, and which it is as well to visit in good company.

After his fashion, Johnson is a fair representative of Greatheart. His melancholy is distinguished from that of feebler men by the strength of the conviction that 'it will do no good to whine.' We know his view of the great prophet of the Revolutionary school. 'Rousseau,' he said, to Boswell's astonishment, 'is a very bad man. I would sooner sign a sentence for his transportation than that of any felon who has gone from the Old Bailey these many years. Yes, I should like to have him work in the plantations.' That is a fine specimen of the good Johnsonese prejudices of which we hear so much; and, of course, it is easy to infer that Johnson was an ignorant bigot, who had not in any degree taken the measure of the great moving forces of his time. Nothing, indeed, can be truer than that Johnson cared very little for the new gospel of the rights of man. His truly British contempt for all such fancies ('for anything I see,' he once said, 'foreigners are fools') is one of his strongest characteristics. Now, Rousseau and his like took a view of the world as it was quite as melancholy as Johnson's. They inferred that it ought to be turned upside down, assured that the millennium would begin as soon as a few revolutionary dogmas were accepted. All their remedies appeared to the excellent Doctor as so much of that cant of which it was a man's first duty to clear his mind. The evils of life were far too deeply seated to be caused or cured by kings or demagogues. One of the most popular commonplaces of the day was the mischief of luxury. That we were all on the high road to ruin on account of our wealth, our corruption, and the growth of the national debt, was the text of any number of political agitators. The whole of this talk was, to his mind, so much whining and cant. Luxury did no harm, and the mass of the people, as indeed was in one sense obvious enough, had only too little of it. The pet 'state of nature' of theorists was a silly figment. The genuine savage was little better than an animal; and a savage woman, whose contempt for civilised life had prompted her to escape to the forest, was simply a 'speaking cat.' The natural equality of mankind was mere moonshine. So far is it from being true, he says, that no two people can be together for half an hour without one acquiring an evident superiority over the other. Subordination is an essential element of human happiness. A Whig stinks in his nostrils because to his eye modern Whiggism is 'a negation of all principles.' As he said of Priestley's writings, it unsettles everything and settles nothing. 'He is a cursed Whig, a bottomless Whig as they all are now,' was his description apparently of Burke. Order, in fact, is a vital necessity; what particular form it may take matters comparatively little; and therefore all revolutionary dogmas were chimerical as an attack upon the inevitable conditions of life, and mischievous so far as productive of useless discontent. We need not ask what mixture of truth and falsehood there may be in these principles. Of course, a Radical, or even a respectable Whig, like Macaulay, who believed in the magical efficacy of the British Constitution, might shriek or laugh at such doctrine. Johnson's political pamphlets, besides the defects natural to a writer who was only a politician by accident, advocate the most retrograde doctrines. Nobody at the present day thinks that the Stamp Act was an admirable or justifiable measure; or would approve of telling the Americans that they ought to have been grateful for their long exemption instead of indignant at the imposition. 'We do not put a calf into the plough; we wait till he is an ox'—was not a judicious taunt. He was utterly wrong; and, if everybody who is utterly wrong in a political controversy deserves unmixed contempt, there is no more to be said for him. We might indeed argue that Johnson was in some ways entitled to the sympathy of enlightened people. His hatred of the Americans was complicated by his hatred of slave-owners. He anticipated Lincoln in proposing the emancipation of the negroes as a military measure. His uniform hatred for the slave trade scandalised poor Boswell, who held that its abolition would be equivalent to 'shutting the gates of mercy on mankind.' His language about the blundering tyranny of the English rule in Ireland would satisfy Mr. Froude, though he would hardly have loved a Home Ruler. He denounces the frequency of capital punishment and the harshness of imprisonment for debt, and he invokes a compassionate treatment of the outcasts of our streets as warmly as the more sentimental Goldsmith. His conservatism may be at times obtuse, but it is never of the cynical variety. He hates cruelty and injustice as righteously as he hates anarchy. Indeed, Johnson's contempt for mouthing agitators of the Wilkes and Junius variety is one which may be shared by most thinkers who would not accept his principles. There is a vigorous passage in the 'False Alarm' which is scarcely unjust to the patriots of the day. He describes the mode in which petitions are generally got up. They are sent from town to town, and the people flock to see what is to be sent to the king. 'One man signs because he hates the Papists; another because he has vowed destruction to the turnpikes; one because it will vex the parson; another because he owes his landlord nothing; one because he is rich; another because he is poor; one to show that he is not afraid, and another to show that he can write.' The people, he thinks, are as well off as they are likely to be under any form of government; and grievances about general warrants or the rights of juries in libel cases are not really felt so long as they have enough to eat and drink and wear. The error, we may probably say, was less in the contempt for a very shallow agitation than in the want of perception that deeper causes of discontent were accumulating in the background. Wilkes in himself was a worthless demagogue; but Wilkes was the straw carried by the rising tide of revolutionary sentiment, to which Johnson was entirely blind. Yet whatever we may think of his political philosophy, the value of these solid sturdy prejudices is undeniable. To the fact that Johnson was the typical representative of a large class of Englishmen, we owe it that the Society of Rights did not develop into a Jacobin Club. The fine phrases on which Frenchmen became intoxicated never turned the heads of men impervious to abstract theories and incapable of dropping substances for shadows. There are evils in each temperament; but it is as well that some men should carry into politics that rooted contempt for whining which lay so deep in Johnson's nature. He scorned the sickliness of the Rousseau school as, in spite of his constitutional melancholy, he scorned valetudinarianism whether of the bodily or the spiritual order. He saw evil enough in the world to be heartily, at times too roughly, impatient of all fine ladies who made a luxury of grief or of demagogues who shrieked about theoretical grievances which did not sensibly affect the happiness of one man in a thousand. The lady would not have time to nurse her sorrows if she had been a washerwoman; the grievances with which the demagogues yelled themselves hoarse could hardly be distinguished amidst the sorrows of the vast majority condemned to keep starvation at bay by unceasing labour. His incapacity for speculation makes his pamphlets worthless beside Burke's philosophical discourses; but the treatment, if wrong and defective on the theoretical side, is never contemptible. Here, as elsewhere, he judges by his intuitive aversions. He rejects too hastily whatever seems insipid or ill-flavoured to his spiritual appetite. Like all the shrewd and sensible part of mankind he condemns as mere moonshine what may be really the first faint dawn of a new daylight. But then his intuitions are noble, and his fundamental belief is the vital importance of order, of religion, and of morality, coupled with a profound conviction, surely not erroneous, that the chief sources of human suffering lie far deeper than any of the remedies proposed by constitution-mongers and fluent theorists. The literary version of these prejudices or principles is given most explicitly in the 'Lives of the Poets'—the book which is now the most readable of Johnson's performances, and which most frequently recalls his conversational style. Indeed, it is a thoroughly admirable book, and but for one or two defects might enjoy a much more decided popularity. It is full of shrewd sense and righteous as well as keen estimates of men and things. The 'Life of Savage,' written in earlier times, is the best existing portrait of that large class of authors who, in Johnson's phrase, 'hung loose upon society' in the days of the Georges. The Lives of Pope, Dryden, and others have scarcely been superseded, though much fuller information has since come to light; and they are all well worth reading. But the criticism, like the politics, is woefully out of date. Johnson's division between the shams and the realities deserves all respect in both cases, but in both cases he puts many things on the wrong side of the dividing line. His hearty contempt for sham pastorals and sham love-poetry will be probably shared by modern readers. 'Who will hear of sheep and goats and myrtle bowers and purling rivulets through five acts? Such scenes please barbarians in the dawn of literature, and children in the dawn of life, but will be for the most part thrown away as men grow wise and nations grow learned.' But elsewhere he blunders into terrible misapprehensions. Where he errs by simply repeating the accepted rules of the Pope school, he for once talks mere second-hand nonsense. But his independent judgments are interesting even when erroneous. His unlucky assault upon 'Lycidas,' already noticed, is generally dismissed with a pitying shrug of the shoulders. 'Among the flocks and copses and flowers appear the heathen deities; Jove and Phoebus, Neptune and AEolus, with a long train of mythological imagery, such as a college easily supplies. Nothing can less display knowledge, or less exercise invention, than to tell how a shepherd has lost his companion, and must now feed his flocks alone; how one god asks another god what has become of Lycidas, and how neither god can tell. He who thus grieves can excite no sympathy; he who thus praises will confer no honour.'

Of course every tyro in criticism has his answer ready; he can discourse about the aesthetic tendencies of the Renaissance period, and explain the necessity of placing one's self at a writer's point of view, and entering into the spirit of the time. He will add, perhaps, that 'Lycidas' is a test of poetical feeling, and that he who does not appreciate its exquisite melody has no music in his soul. The same writer who will tell us all this, and doubtless with perfect truth, would probably have adopted Pope or Johnson's theory with equal confidence if he had lived in the last century. 'Lycidas' repelled Johnson by incongruities, which, from his point of view, were certainly offensive. Most modern readers, I will venture to suggest, feel the same annoyances, though they have not the courage to avow them freely. If poetry is to be judged exclusively by the simplicity and force with which it expresses sincere emotion, 'Lycidas' would hardly convince us of Milton's profound sorrow for the death of King, and must be condemned accordingly. To the purely pictorial or musical effects of a poem Johnson was nearly blind; but that need not suggest a doubt as to the sincerity of his love for the poetry which came within the range of his own sympathies. Every critic is in effect criticising himself as well as his author; and I confess that to my mind an obviously sincere record of impressions, however one-sided they may be, is infinitely refreshing, as revealing at least the honesty of the writer. The ordinary run of criticism generally implies nothing but the extreme desire of the author to show that he is open to the very last new literary fashion. I should welcome a good assault upon Shakespeare which was not prompted by a love of singularity; and there are half-a-dozen popular idols—I have not the courage to name them—a genuine attack upon whom I could witness with entire equanimity, not to say some complacency. If Johnson's blunder in this case implied sheer stupidity, one can only say that honest stupidity is a much better thing than clever insincerity or fluent repetition of second-hand dogmas. But, in fact, this dislike of 'Lycidas,' and a good many instances of critical incapacity might be added, is merely a misapplication of a very sound principle. The hatred of cant and humbug and affectation of all vanity is a most salutary ingredient even in poetical criticism. Johnson, with his natural ignorance of that historical method, the exaltation of which threatens to become a part of our contemporary cant, made the pardonable blunder of supposing that what would have been gross affectation in Gray must have been affectation in Milton. His ear had been too much corrupted by the contemporary school to enable him to recognise beauties which would even have shone through some conscious affectation. He had the rare courage—for, even then, Milton was one of the tabooed poets—to say what he thought as forcibly as he could say it; and he has suffered the natural punishment of plain speaking. It must, of course, be admitted that a book embodying such principles is doomed to become more or less obsolete, like his political pamphlets. And yet, as significant of the writer's own character, as containing many passages of sound judgment, expressed in forcible language, it is still, if not a great book, really impressive within the limits of its capacity.

After this imperfect survey of Johnson's writings, it only remains to be noticed that all the most prominent peculiarities are the very same which give interest to his spoken utterances. The doctrine is the same, though the preacher's manner has changed. His melancholy is not so heavy-eyed and depressing in his talk, for we catch him at moments of excitement; but it is there, and sometimes breaks out emphatically and unexpectedly. The prospect of death often clouds his mind, and he bursts into tears when he thinks of his past sufferings. His hearty love of truth, and uncompromising hatred of cant in all its innumerable transmutations, prompt half his most characteristic sayings. His queer prejudices take a humorous form, and give a delightful zest to his conversation. His contempt for abstract speculation comes out when he vanquishes Berkeley, not with a grin, but by 'striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone.' His arguments, indeed, never seem to have owed much to such logic as implies systematic and continuous thought. He scarcely waits till his pistol misses fire to knock you down with the butt-end. The merit of his best sayings is not that they compress an argument into a phrase, but that they are vivid expressions of an intuitive judgment. In other words, they are always humorous rather than witty. He holds his own belief with so vigorous a grasp that all argumentative devices for loosening it seem to be thrown away. As Boswell says, he is through your body in an instant without any preliminary parade; he gives a deadly lunge, but cares little for skill of fence. 'We know we are free and there's an end of it,' is his characteristic summary of a perplexed bit of metaphysics; and he would evidently have no patience to wander through the labyrinths in which men like Jonathan Edwards delighted to perplex themselves. We should have been glad to see a fuller report of one of those conversations in which Burke 'wound into a subject like a serpent,' and contrast his method with Johnson's downright hitting. Boswell had not the power, even if he had the will, to give an adequate account of such a 'wit combat.'

That such a mind should express itself most forcibly in speech is intelligible enough. Conversation was to him not merely a contest, but a means of escape from himself. 'I may be cracking my joke,' he said to Boswell,'and cursing the sun: Sun, how I hate thy beams!' The phrase sounds exaggerated, but it was apparently his settled conviction that the only remedy for melancholy, except indeed the religious remedy, was in hard work or in the rapture of conversational strife. His little circle of friends called forth his humour as the House of Commons excited Chatham's eloquence; and both of them were inclined to mouth too much when deprived of the necessary stimulus. Chatham's set speeches were as pompous as Johnson's deliberate writing. Johnson and Chatham resemble the chemical bodies which acquire entirely new properties when raised beyond a certain degree of temperature. Indeed, we frequently meet touches of the conversational Johnson in his controversial writing. 'Taxation no Tyranny' is at moments almost as pithy as Swift, though the style is never so simple. The celebrated Letter to Chesterfield, and the letter in which he tells MacPherson that he will not be 'deterred from detecting what he thinks a cheat by the menaces of a ruffian,' are as good specimens of the smashing repartee as anything in Boswell's reports. Nor, indeed, does his pomposity sink to mere verbiage so often as might be supposed. It is by no means easy to translate his ponderous phrases into simple words without losing some of their meaning. The structure of the sentences is compact, though they are too elaborately balanced and stuffed with superfluous antitheses. The language might be simpler, but it is not a mere sham aggregation of words. His written style, however faulty in other respects, is neither slipshod nor ambiguous, and passes into his conversational style by imperceptible degrees. The radical identity is intelligible, though the superficial contrast is certainly curious. We may perhaps say that his century, unfavourable to him as a writer, gave just what he required for talking. If, as is sometimes said, the art of conversation is disappearing, it is because society has become too large and diffuse. The good talker, as indeed the good artist of every kind, depends upon the tacit co-operation of the social medium. The chorus, as Johnson has himself shown very well in one of the 'Ramblers,' is quite as essential as the main performer. Nobody talks well in London, because everybody has constantly to meet a fresh set of interlocutors, and is as much put out as a musician who has to be always learning a new instrument. A literary dictator has ceased to be a possibility, so far as direct personal influence is concerned. In the club, Johnson knew how every blow would tell, and in the rapid thrust and parry dropped the heavy style which muffled his utterances in print. He had to deal with concrete illustrations, instead of expanding into platitudinous generalities. The obsolete theories which impair the value of his criticism and his politics, become amusing in the form of pithy sayings, though they weary us when asserted in formal expositions. His greatest literary effort, the 'Dictionary,' has of necessity become antiquated in use, and, in spite of the intellectual vigour indicated, can hardly be commended for popular reading. And thus but for the inimitable Boswell, it must be admitted that Johnson would probably have sunk very deeply into oblivion. A few good sayings would have been preserved by Mrs. Thrale and others, or have been handed down by tradition, and doubtless assigned in process of time to Sydney Smith and other conversational celebrities. A few couplets from the 'Vanity of Human Wishes' would not yet have been submerged, and curious readers would have recognised the power of 'Rasselas,' and been delighted with some shrewd touches in the 'Lives of the Poets.' But with all desire to magnify critical insight, it must be admitted that that man would have shown singular penetration, and been regarded as an eccentric commentator, who had divined the humour and the fervour of mind which lay hid in the remains of the huge lexicographer. And yet when we have once recognised his power, we can see it everywhere indicated in his writings, though by an unfortunate fatality the style or the substance was always so deeply affected by the faults of the time, that the product is never thoroughly sound. His tenacious conservatism caused him to cling to decaying materials for the want of anything better, and he has suffered the natural penalty. He was a great force half wasted, so far as literature was concerned, because the fashionable costume of the day hampered the free exercises of his powers, and because the only creeds to which he could attach himself were in the phase of decline and inanition. A century earlier or later he might have succeeded in expressing himself through books as well as through his talk; but it is not given to us to choose the time of our birth, and some very awkward consequences follow.


[1] See, for example, the great debate on February 13, 1741.


It is nearly a century since George Crabbe, then a young man of five-and-twenty, put three pounds in his pocket and started from his native town of Aldborough, with a box of clothes and a case of surgical instruments, to make his fortune in London. Few men have attempted that adventure with less promising prospects. Any sensible adviser would have told him to prefer starvation in his native village to starvation in the back lanes of London. The adviser would, perhaps, have been vexed, but would not have been confuted, by Crabbe's good fortune. We should still recommend a youth not to jump into a river, though, of a thousand who try the experiment, one may happen to be rescued by a benevolent millionaire, and be put in the road to fortune. The chances against Crabbe were enormous. Literature, considered as a trade, is a good deal better at the present day than it was towards the end of the last century, and yet anyone who has an opportunity of comparing the failures with the successes, would be more apt to quote Chatterton than Crabbe as a precedent for youthful aspirants. Crabbe, indeed, might say for himself that literature was the only path open to him. His father was collector of salt duties at Aldborough, a position, as one may imagine, of no very great emolument. He had, however, given his son the chance of acquiring a smattering of 'scholarship,' in the sense in which that word is used by the less educated lower classes. To the slender store of learning acquired in a cheap country school, the lad managed to add such medical training as could be picked up during an apprenticeship in an apothecary's shop. With this provision of knowledge he tried to obtain practice in his native town. He failed to get any patients of the paying variety. Crabbe was clumsy and absent-minded to the end of his life. He had, moreover, a taste for botany, and the shrewd inhabitants of Aldborough, with that perverse tendency to draw inferences which is characteristic of people who cannot reason, argued that as he picked up his samples in the ditches, he ought to sell the medicines presumably compounded from them for nothing. In one way or other, poor Crabbe had sunk to the verge of distress. Of course, under these circumstances, he had fallen in love and engaged himself at the age of eighteen to a young lady, apparently as poor as himself. Of course, too, he called Miss Elmy 'Mira,' and addressed her in verses which occasionally appeared in the poet's corner of a certain 'Wheble's Magazine.' My Mira, said the young surgeon, in a style which must have been rather antiquated even in Aldborough—

My Mira, shepherds, is as fair As sylvan nymphs who haunt the vale; As sylphs who dwell in purest air, As fays who skim the dusky dale.

Moreover, he won a prize for a poem on Hope, and composed an 'Allegorical Fable' and a piece called 'The Atheist reclaimed;' and, in short, added plentifully to the vast rubbish-heap of old-world verses, now decayed beyond the industry of the most persevering of Dryasdusts. Nay, he even succeeded by some mysterious means in getting one of his poems published separately. It was called 'Inebriety,' and was an unblushing imitation of Pope. Here is a couplet by way of sample:—

Champagne the courtier drinks the spleen to chase, The colonel Burgundy, and Port his Grace.

From the satirical the poet diverges into the mock heroic:—

See Inebriety! her wand she waves, And lo! her pale, and lo! her purple slaves.

The interstices of the box of clothing which went with him from Aldborough to London were doubtless crammed with much waste paper scribbled over with these feeble echoes of Pope's Satires, and with appeals to nymphs, muses, and shepherds. Crabbe was one of those men who are born a generation after their natural epoch, and was as little accessible to the change of fashion in poetry as in costume. When, therefore, he finally resolved to hazard his own fate and Mira's upon the results of his London adventure, the literary goods at his disposal were already somewhat musty in character. The year 1780, in which he reached London, marks the very nadir of English poetry. From the days of Elizabeth to our own there has never been so absolutely barren a period. People had become fairly tired of the jingle of Pope's imitators, and the new era had not dawned. Goldsmith and Gray, both recently dead, serve to illustrate the condition in which the most exquisite polish and refinement of language has been developed until there is a danger of sterility. The 'Elegy' and the 'Deserted Village' are in their way inimitable poems: but we feel that the intellectual fibre of the poets has become dangerously delicate. The critical faculty could not be stimulated further without destroying all spontaneous impulse. The reaction to a more masculine and passionate school was imminent; and if the excellent Crabbe could have put into his box a few of Burns's lyrics, or even a copy of Cowper's 'Task,' one might have augured better for his prospects. But what chance was there for a man who could still be contentedly invoking the muse and stringing together mechanic echoes of Pope's couplets? How could he expect to charm the jaded faculties of a generation which was already beginning to heave and stir with a longing for some fresh excitement? For a year the fate which has overtaken so many rash literary adventurers seemed to be approaching steadily. One temporary gleam of good fortune cheered him for a time. He persuaded an enterprising publisher to bring out a poem called 'The Candidate,' which had some faint success, though ridiculed by the reviewers. Unluckily the publisher became bankrupt and Crabbe was thrown upon his resources—the poor three pounds and box of surgical instruments aforesaid. How he managed to hold out for a year is a mystery. It was lucky for him, as he intimates, that he had never heard of the fate of Chatterton, who had poisoned himself just ten years before. A Journal which he wrote for Mira is published in his Life, and gives an account of his feelings during three months of his cruel probation. He applies for a situation as amanuensis offered in an advertisement, and comforts himself on failing with the reflection that the advertiser was probably a sharper. He writes piteous letters to publishers, and gets, of course, the stereotyped reply with which the most amiable of publishers must damp the ardour of aspiring genius. The disappointment is not much softened by the publisher's statement that 'he does not mean by this to insinuate any want of merit in the poem, but rather a want of attention in the public.' Bit by bit his surgical instruments go to the pawnbroker. When one publisher sends his polite refusal poor Crabbe has only sixpence-farthing in the world, which, by the purchase of a pint of porter, is reduced to fourpence-halfpenny. The exchequer fills again by the disappearance of his wardrobe and his watch; but ebbs under a new temptation. He buys some odd volumes of Dryden for three-and-sixpence, and on coming home tears his only coat, which he manages to patch tolerably with a borrowed needle and thread, pretending, with a pathetic shift, that they are required to stitch together manuscripts instead of broadcloth. And so for a year the wolf creeps nearer the door, whilst Crabbe gallantly keeps up appearances and spirits, and yet he tries to preserve a show of good spirits in the Journal to Mira, and continues to labour at his versemaking. Perhaps, indeed, it may be regarded as a bad symptom that he is reduced to distracting his mind by making an analysis of a dull sermon. 'There is nothing particular in it,' he admits, but at least it is better, he thinks, to listen to a bad sermon than to the blasphemous rant of deistical societies. Indeed, Crabbe's spirit was totally unlike the desperate pride of Chatterton. He was of the patient enduring tribe, and comforts himself by religious meditations, which are, perhaps, rather commonplace in expression, but when read by the light of the distresses he was enduring, show a brave unembittered spirit, not to be easily respected too highly. Starvation seemed to be approaching; or, at least, the only alternative was the abandonment of his ambition, and acceptance, if he could get it, of the post of druggist's assistant. He had but one resource left; and that not of the most promising kind. Crabbe, amongst his other old-fashioned notions, had a strong belief in the traditional patron. Johnson might have given him some hints upon the subject; but luckily, as it turned out, he pursued what Chesterfield's correspondent would have thought the most hopeless of all courses. He wrote to Lord North, who was at that moment occupied in contemplating the final results of the ingenious policy by which America was lost to England, and probably consigned Crabbe's letter to the waste-paper basket. Then he tried the effect of a copy of verses, beginning:—

Ah! Shelburne, blest with all that's good or great, T' adorn a rich or save a sinking State.

He added a letter saying that, as Lord North had not answered him, Lord Shelburne would probably be glad to supply the needs of a starving apothecary turned poet. Another copy of verses was enclosed, pointing out that Shelburne's reputed liberality would be repaid in the usual coin:

Then shall my grateful strains his ear rejoice, His name harmonious thrilled on Mira's voice; Round the reviving bays new sweets shall spring, And Shelburne's fame through laughing valleys ring!

Nobody can blame North and Shelburne for not acting the part of Good Samaritans. He, at least, may throw the first stone who has always taken the trouble to sift the grain from the chaff amidst all the begging letters which he has received, and who has never lamented that his benevolence outran his discretion. But there was one man in England at the time who had the rare union of qualities necessary for Crabbe's purpose. Burke is a name never to be mentioned without reverence; not only because Burke was incomparably the greatest of all English political writers, and a standing refutation of the theory which couples rhetorical excellence with intellectual emptiness, but also because he was a man whose glowing hatred of all injustice and sympathy for all suffering never evaporated in empty words. His fine literary perception enabled him to detect the genuine excellence which underlay the superficial triviality of Crabbe's verses. He discovered the genius where men like North and Shelburne might excusably see nothing but the mendicant versifier; and a benevolence still rarer than his critical ability forbade him to satisfy his conscience by the sacrifice of a five-pound note. When, by the one happy thought of his life, Crabbe appealed to Burke's sympathy, the poet was desperately endeavouring to get a poem through the press. But he owed fourteen pounds, and every application to friends as poor as himself, and to patrons upon whom he had no claims, had been unsuccessful. Nothing but ruin was before him. After writing to Burke he spent the night in pacing Westminster Bridge. The letter on which his fate hung is the more pathetic because it is free from those questionable poetical flourishes which had failed to conciliate his former patrons. It tells his story frankly and forcibly. Burke, however, was not a rich man, and was at one of the most exciting periods of his political career. His party was at last fighting its way to power by means of the general resentment against the gross mismanagement of their antagonists. A perfunctory discharge of the duty of charity would have been pardonable; but from the moment when Crabbe addressed Burke the poor man's fortune was made. Burke's glory rests upon services of much more importance to the world at large than even the preservation to the country of a man of genuine power. Yet there are few actions on which he could reflect with more unalloyed satisfaction; and the case is not a solitary one in Burke's history. A political triumph may often be only hastened a year or two by the efforts of even a great leader; but the salvage of a genius which would otherwise have been hopelessly wrecked in the deep waters of poverty is so much clear gain to mankind. One circumstance may be added as oddly characteristic of Crabbe. He always spoke of his benefactor with becoming gratitude: and many years afterwards Moore and Rogers thought that they might extract some interesting anecdotes of the great author from the now celebrated poet. Burke, as we know, was a man whom you would discover to be remarkable if you stood with him for five minutes under a haystack in a shower. Crabbe stayed in his house for months under circumstances most calculated to be impressive. Burke was at the height of his power and reputation; he was the first man of any distinction whom the poet had ever seen; the two men had long and intimate conversations, and Crabbe, it may be added, was a very keen observer of character. And yet all that Rogers and Moore could extract from him was a few 'vague generalities.' Moore suggests some explanation; but the fact seems to be that Crabbe was one of those simple, homespun characters, whose interests are strictly limited to their own peculiar sphere. Burke, when he pleased, could talk of oxen as well as politics, and doubtless adapted his conversation to the taste of the young poet. Probably, much more was said about the state of Burke's farm than about the prospects of the Whig party. Crabbe's powers of vision were as limited as they were keen, and the great qualities to which Burke owed his reputation could only exhibit themselves in a sphere to which Crabbe never rose. His attempt to draw a likeness of Burke under the name of 'Eugenius,' in the 'Borough,' is open to the objection that it would be nearly as applicable to Wilberforce, Howard, or Dr. Johnson. It is a mere complimentary daub, in which every remarkable feature of the original is blurred or altogether omitted.

The inward Crabbe remained to the end of his days what nature and education had already made him; the outward Crabbe, by the help of Burke, rapidly put on a more prosperous appearance. His poems were published and achieved success. He took orders and found patrons. Thurlow gave him L100, and afterwards presented him to two small livings, growling out with an oath that he was 'as like Parson Adams as twelve to a dozen.' The Duke of Rutland appointed him chaplain, a position in which he seems to have been singularly out of his element. Further patronage, however, made him independent, and he married his Mira and lived very happily ever afterwards. Perhaps, with his old-fashioned ideas, he would not quite have satisfied some clerical critics of the present day. His views about non-residence and pluralities seem to have been lax for the time; and his hearty dislike for dissent was coupled with a general dislike for enthusiasm of all kinds. He liked to ramble about after flowers and fossils, and to hammer away at his poems in a study where chaos reigned supreme. For twenty-two years after his first success as an author, he never managed to get a poem into a state fit for publication, though periodical conflagrations of masses of manuscript—too vast to be burnt in the chimney—testified to his continuous industry. His reappearance seems to have been caused chiefly by his desire to send a son to the University. His success was repeated, though a new school had arisen which knew not Pope. The youth who had been kindly received by Burke, Reynolds, and Johnson, came back from his country retreat to be lionised at Holland House, and be petted by Brougham and Moore, and Rogers and Campbell, and all the rising luminaries. He paid a visit to Scott contemporaneously with George IV., and pottered about the queer old wynds and closes of Edinburgh, which he preferred to the New Town, and apparently to Arthur's Seat, with a judicious caddie following to keep him out of mischief. A more tangible kind of homage was the receipt of L3,000 from Murray for his 'Tales of the Hall,' which so delighted him that he insisted on carrying the bills loose in his pocket till he could show them 'to his son John' in the country.[2] There, no doubt, he was most at home; and his parishioners gradually became attached to their 'Parson Adams,' in spite of his quaintnesses and some manful defiance of their prejudices. All women and children loved him, and he died at a good old age in 1832, having lived into a new order in many things, and been as little affected by the change as most men. The words with which he concludes the sketch of the Vicar in his 'Borough' are not inappropriate to himself:—

Nor one so old has left this world of sin More like the being that he entered in.

The peculiar homeliness of Crabbe's character and poetry is excellently hit off in the 'Rejected Addresses,' and the lines beginning

John Richard William Alexander Dwyer Was footman to Justinian Stubbs, Esquire,

are probably more familiar to the present generation than any of the originals. 'Pope in the worsted stockings' is the title hit off for him by Horace Smith, and has about the same degree of truth as most smart sayings of the kind. The 'worsted stockings' at least are characteristic. Crabbe's son and biographer indicates some of the surroundings of his father's early life in a description of the uncle, a Mr. Tovell, with whom the poet's wife, the Mira of his Journal, passed her youth. He was a sturdy yeoman, living in an old house with a moat, a rookery, and fishponds. The hall was paved with black and white marble, and the staircase was of black oak, slippery as ice, with a chiming clock and a barrel-organ on the landing-places. The handsome drawing-room and dining-rooms were only used on grand occasions, such as the visit of a neighbouring peer. Mrs. Tovell jealously reserved for herself the duty of scrubbing these state apartments, and sent any servant to the right-about who dared to lay unhallowed hands upon them. The family sat habitually in the old-fashioned kitchen, by a huge open chimney, where the blaze of a whole pollard sometimes eclipsed the feeble glimmer of the single candle in an iron candlestick, intended to illuminate Mrs. Tovell's labours with the needle. Masters and servants, with any travelling tinker or ratcatcher, all dined together, and the nature of their meals has been described by Crabbe himself:—

But when the men beside their station took, The maidens with them, and with these the cook; When one huge wooden bowl before them stood, Filled with huge balls of farinaceous food; With bacon, mass saline, where never lean Beneath the brown and bristly rind was seen; When from a single horn the party drew Their copious draughts of heavy ale and new;

then, the poet goes on to intimate, squeamish persons might feel a little uncomfortable. After dinner followed a nap of precisely one hour. Then bottles appeared on the table, and neighbouring farmers, with faces rosy with brandy, drifted in for a chat. One of these heroes never went to bed sober, but scandalised all teetotallers by retaining all his powers and coursing after he was ninety. Bowl after bowl of punch was emptied, and the conversation took so convivial a character that Crabbe generally found it expedient to withdraw, though his son, who records these performances, was held to be too young to be injured, and the servants were too familiar for their presence to be a restraint.

It was in this household that the poet found his Mira. Crabbe's own father was apparently at a lower point of the social scale; and during his later years took to drinking and to flinging dishes about the room whenever he was out of temper. Crabbe always drew from the life; most of his characters might have joined in his father's drinking bouts, or told stories over Mr. Tovell's punchbowls. Doubtless a social order of the same kind survived till a later period in various corners of the island. The Tovells of to-day get their fashions from London, and their labourers, instead of dining with them in their kitchen, have taken to forming unions and making speeches about their rights. If, here and there, in some remote nooks we find an approximation to the coarse, hearty patriarchal mode of life, we regard it as a naturalist regards a puny modern reptile, the representative of gigantic lizards of old geological epochs. A sketch or two of its peculiarities, sufficiently softened and idealised to suit modern tastes, forms a picturesque background to a modern picture. Some of Miss Bronte's rough Yorkshiremen would have drunk punch with Mr. Tovell; and the farmers in the 'Mill on the Floss' are representatives of the same race, slightly degenerate, in so far as they are just conscious that a new cause of disturbance is setting into the quiet rural districts. Dandie Dinmont again is a relation of Crabbe's heroes, though the fresh air of the Cheviots and the stirring traditions of the old border life have conferred upon him a more poetical colouring. To get a realistic picture of country life as Crabbe saw it, we must go back to Squire Western, or to some of the roughly-hewn masses of flesh who sat to Hogarth. Perhaps it may be said that Miss Austen's delicate portrait of the more polished society, which took the waters at Bath, and occasionally paid a visit to London, implies a background of coarser manners and more brutal passions, which lay outside her peculiar province. The question naturally occurs to social philosophers, whether the improvement in the external decencies of life and the wider intellectual horizon of modern days prove a genuine advance over the rude and homely plenty of an earlier generation. I refer to such problems only to remark that Crabbe must be consulted by those who wish to look upon the seamy side of the time which he describes. He very soon dropped his nymphs and shepherds, and ceased to invoke the idyllic muse. In his long portrait gallery there are plenty of virtuous people, and some people intended to be refined; but features indicative of coarse animal passions, brutality, selfishness, and sensuality are drawn to the life, and the development of his stories is generally determined by some of the baser elements of human nature. 'Jesse and Colin' are described in one of the Tales; but they are not the Jesse and Colin of Dresden china. They are such rustics as ate fat bacon and drank 'heavy ale and new;' not the imaginary personages who exchanged amatory civilities in the old-fashioned pastorals ridiculed by Pope and Gay.

Crabbe's rough style is indicative of his general temper. It is in places at least the most slovenly and slipshod that was ever adopted by any true poet. The authors of the 'Rejected Addresses' had simply to copy, without attempting the impossible task of caricaturing. One of their familiar couplets, for example, runs thus:—

Emmanuel Jennings brought his youngest boy Up as a corn-cutter, a safe employ!

And here is the original Crabbe:—

Swallow, a poor attorney, brought his boy Up at his desk, and gave him his employ.

When boy cannot be made to rhyme with employ, Crabbe is very fond of dragging in a hoy. In the 'Parish Register' he introduces a narrative about a village grocer and his friend in these lines:—

Aged were both, that Dawkins, Ditchem this, Who much of marriage thought and much amiss.

Or to quote one more opening of a story:—

Counter and Clubb were men in trade, whose pains, Credit, and prudence, brought them constant gains; Partners and punctual, every friend agreed Counter and Clubb were men who must succeed.

But of such gems anyone may gather as many as he pleases by simply turning over Crabbe's pages. In one sense, they are rather pleasant than otherwise. They are so characteristic and put forward with such absolute simplicity that they have the same effect as a good old provincialism in the mouth of a genuine countryman. It must, however, be admitted that Crabbe's careful study of Pope had not initiated him in some of his master's secrets. The worsted stockings were uncommonly thick. If Pope's brilliance of style savours too much of affectation, Crabbe never manages to hit off an epigram in the whole of his poetry. The language seldom soars above the style which would be intelligible to the merest clodhopper; and we can understand how, when in his later years Crabbe was introduced to wits and men of the world, he generally held his peace, or, at most, let fall some bit of dry quiet humour. At rare intervals he remembers that a poet ought to indulge in a figure of speech, and laboriously compounds a simile which appears in his poetry like a bit of gold lace on a farmer's homespun coat. He confessed as much in answer to a shrewd criticism of Jeffrey's, saying that he generally thought of such illustrations and inserted them after he had finished his tale. Here is one of these deliberately-concocted ornaments, intended to explain the remark that the difference between the character of two brothers came out when they were living together quietly:—

As various colours in a painted ball, While it has rest are seen distinctly all; Till, whirl'd around by some exterior force, They all are blended in the rapid course; So in repose and not by passion swayed We saw the difference by their habits made; But, tried by strong emotions, they became Filled with one love, and were in heart the same.

The conceit is ingenious enough in one sense, but painfully ingenious. It requires some thought to catch the likeness suggested, and then it turns out to be purely superficial. The resemblance of such a writer to Pope obviously does not go deep. Crabbe imitates Pope because everybody imitated him at that day. He adopted Pope's metre because it had come to be almost the only recognised means of poetical expression. He stuck to it after his contemporaries had introduced new versification, partly because he was old-fashioned to the backbone and partly because he had none of those lofty inspirations which naturally generate new forms of melody. He seldom trusts himself to be lyrical, and when he does his versification is nearly as monotonous as it is in his narrative poetry. We must not expect to soar with Crabbe into any of the loftier regions; to see the world 'apparelled in celestial light,' or to descry

Such forms as glitter in the muses' ray, With orient hues, unborrowed of the sun.

We shall find no vehement outbursts of passion, breaking loose from the fetters of sacred convention. Crabbe is perfectly content with the British Constitution, with the Thirty-nine Articles, and all respectabilities in Church and State, and therefore he is quite content also with the good old jogtrot of the recognised metres; his language, halting invariably, and for the most part clumsy enough, is sufficiently differentiated from prose by the mould into which it is run, and he never wants to kick over the traces with his more excitable contemporaries.

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