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BLAKE, 'An Island in the Moon', c. 1784
Suction. ‘Aha’, To Dr. Johnson
Said Scipio Africanus,
‘Lift up my Roman Petticoat
And kiss my Roman Anus.’
73. John Courtenay, A Poetical Review of the
Literary and Moral Character of the late
Samuel Johnson LL.D.
Extracts from pp. 10–27.
Courtenay (1741–1816), M.P. for Tamworth and well known in the
Commons for his ironic wit, was a member of the ‘Literary Club’
and one to whom Boswell turned for advice about his Life of
Johnson (see Life, iv. 542, 557). Boswell quotes from the Poetical
Review (see No. 75). Courtenay’s poem is liberally provided with
notes. See Introduction, pp. 18, 31.
[illustrates the strange paradoxes in Johnson’s character.]
But who to blaze his frailties feels delight,
When the great Author rises to our sight?
When the pure tenour of his life we view,
Himself the bright exemplar that he drew?
Whose works console the good, instruct the wise,
And teach the soul to claim her kindred skies.
By grateful bards his name be ever sung,
Whose sterling touch has fix’d the English tongue!
Fortune’s dire weight, the patron’s cold disdain,
‘Shook off, like dew-drops from the lion’s mane;’
‘The incumbrances of fortune were shaken from his mind, like dew-drops from the
lion’s mane.’ Johnson’s Preface to his edition of Shakspeare.
THE CRITICAL HERITAGE
Unknown, unaided, in a friendless state,
Without one smile of favour from the great;
The bulky tome his curious care refines,
Till the great work in full perfection shines:
His wide research and patient skill displays
What scarce was sketch’d in ANNA’S golden days;
What only learning’s aggregated toil
Slowly accomplish’d in each foreign soil.
Yet to the mine though the rich coin he trace,
No current marks his early essays grace;
For in each page we find a massy store
Of English bullion mix’d with Latian ore:
In solemn pomp, with pedantry combin’d,
He vents the morbid sadness of his mind;
In scientifick phrase affects to smile,
Form’d on Brown’s turgid Latin-English style;
Where oft the abstract in stiff state presides,
And measur’d numbers, measur’d periods guides:
But all propriety his Ramblers mock,
When Betty prates from Newton and from Locke;
When no diversity we trace between
The lofty moralist and gay fifteen.† —
Yet genius still breaks through the encumbering phrase;
His taste we censure, but the work we praise:
There learning beams with fancy’s brilliant dyes,
Vivid as lights that gild the northern skies;
Man’s complex heart he bares to open day,
Clear as the prism unfolds the blended ray:
The picture from his mind assumes its hue,
The shade’s too dark, but the design still true.
Though Johnson’s merits thus I freely scan,
And paint the foibles of this wond’rous man;
Yet can I coolly read, and not admire,
The style of the Ramblers seems to have been formed on that of Sir Thomas
Brown’s Vulgar Errors and Christian Morals.
† See Victoria’s Letter, Rambler, No. 130. —‘I was never permitted to sleep till I had
passed through the cosmetick discipline, part of which was a regular lustration performed
with bean-flower water and may-dews; my hair was perfumed with a variety of unguents,
by some of which it was to be thickened, and by others to be curled. The softness of my
hands was secured by medicated gloves, and my bosom rubbed with a pomade prepared
by my mother, of virtue to discuss dimples, and clear discolorations.’
When Learning, Wit and Poetry conspire
To shed a radiance o’er his moral page,
And spread truth’s sacred light to many an age:
For all his works with innate lustre shine,
Strength all his own, and energy divine:
While through life’s maze he darts his piercing view,
His mind expansive to the object grew.
In judgment keen he acts the critick’s part,
By reason proves the feelings of the heart;
In thought profound, in nature’s study wise,
Shews from what source our fine sensations rise;
With truth, precision, fancy’s claims defines,
And throws new splendour o’er the poet’s lines.
When specious sophists with presumption scan
The source of evil, hidden still from man;†
Revive Arabian tales,‡ and vainly hope
To rival St. John, and his scholar, Pope;§
Though metaphysicks spread the gloom of night,
By reason’s star he guides our aching sight;
The bounds of knowledge marks; and points the way
To pathless wastes, where wilder’d sages stray;
Where, like a farthing linkboy, J[enyn]s stands,
And the dim torch drops from his feeble hands.
Impressive truth, in splendid fiction drest,||
Checks the vain wish, and calms the troubled breast;
O’er the dark mind a light celestial throws,
And sooths the angry passions to repose:
As oil effus’d illumes and smooths the deep,
When round the bark the swelling surges sweep.—
With various stores of erudition fraught,
The lively image, the deep-searching thought,
Slept in repose; —but when the moment press’d,
See his admirable Lives of the Poets, and particularly his Disquisition on
metaphysical and religious poetry.
† See his Review of Soame Jennings’s Essay on the Origin of Evil; a masterpiece
of composition, both for vigour of style and precision of ideas.
‡ Pope’s or rather Bolingbroke’s system was borrowed from the Arabian metaphysicians.
§ The scheme of the Essay on Man was given by Lord Bolingbroke to Pope.
|| See that sublime and beautiful Tale, The Prince of Abyssinia; and The Rambler, No.
65, 204, &c. &c.
THE CRITICAL HERITAGE
The bright ideas stood at once confess’d;
Instant his genius sped its vigorous rays,
And o’er the letter’d world diffus’d a blaze:
As womb’d with fire the cloud electrick flies,
And calmly o’er the horizon seems to rise;
Touch’d by the pointed steel, the lightning flows,
And all the expanse with rich effulgence glows.
Soft-ey’d compassion with a look benign,
His fervent vows he offer’d at thy shrine;
To guilt, to woe, the sacred debt was paid,
And helpless females bless’d his pious aid;
Snatch’d from disease, and want’s abandon’d crew,
Despair and anguish from their victims flew:
Hope’s soothing balm into their bosoms stole,
And tears of penitence restor’d the soul.
But hark, he sings! the strain ev’n Pope admires;
Indignant Virtue her own bard inspires;
Sublime as Juvenal, he pours his lays,
And with the Roman shares congenial praise:—
In glowing numbers now he fires the age,
And Shakspeare’s sun relumes the clouded stage.
So full his mind with images was fraught,
The rapid strains scarce claim’d a second thought;
And with like ease his vivid lines assume
The garb and dignity of ancient Rome.—
Let college versemen flat conceits express,
Trick’d out in splendid shreds of Virgil’s dress;
From playful Ovid cull the tinsel phrase,
And vapid notions hitch in pilfer’d lays;
Then with mosaick art the piece combine,
And boast the glitter of each dulcet line:
Johnson adventur’d boldly to transfuse
His vigorous sense into the Latian muse;
Aspir’d to shine by unreflected light,
And with a Roman’s ardour think and write.
He felt the tuneful Nine his breast inspire,
And, like a master, wak’d the soothing lyre:
Horatian strains a grateful heart proclaim,
See [Johnson’s] Prologue spoken by Mr. Garrick in 1747, on the opening of DruryLane theatre.
While Sky’s wild rocks resound his Thralia’s name.1 —
Hesperia’s plant, in some less skillful hands,
To bloom a while, factitious heat demands;
Though glowing Maro a faint warmth supplies,
The sickly blossom in the hot-house dies:
By Johnson’s genial culture, art, and toil,
Its root strikes deep, and owns the fost’ring soil;
Imbibes our sun through all its swelling veins,
And grows a native of Britannia’s plains.
How few distinguish’d of the studious train
At the gay board their empire can maintain!
In their own books intomb’d their wisdom lies;
Too dull for talk, their slow conceptions rise:
Yet the mute author, of his writings proud,
For wit unshewn claims homage from the crowd;
As thread-bare misers, by mean avarice school’d,
Expect obeisance from their hidden gold.—
In converse quick, impetuous Johnson press’d
His weighty logick, or sarcastick jest:
Strong in the chace, and nimble in the turns,
For victory still his fervid spirit burns;
Subtle when wrong, invincible when right,
Arm’d at all points, and glorying in his might,
Gladiator-like, he traverses the field,
And strength and skill compel the foe to yield.—
Yet have I seen him, with a milder air,
Encircled by the witty and the fair,
Ev’n in old age with placid mien rejoice
At beauty’s smile, and beauty’s flattering voice.—
With Reynolds’ pencil, vivid, bold, and true,
So fervent Boswell gives him to our view.
In every trait we see his mind expand;
The master rises by the pupil’s hand;
We love the writer, praise his happy vein,
Grac’d with the naiveté of the sage Montaigne.
Hence not alone are brighter parts display’d,
But ev’n the specks of character portray’d:
We see the Rambler with fastidious smile
Johnson wrote a Latin ode to Mrs Thrale in Skye on 6 September 1773. See Poems,
THE CRITICAL HERITAGE
Mark the lone tree, and note the heath-clad isle;
But when the heroick tale of Flora charms,
Deck’d in a kilt, he wields a chieftain’s arms:
The tuneful piper sounds a martial strain,
And Samuel sings, ‘The King shall have his ain’:
Two Georges in his loyal zeal are slur’d,
A gracious pension only saves the third!—
By Nature’s gifts ordain’d mankind to rule,
He, like a Titian, form’d his brilliant school;
And taught congenial spirits to excel,
While from his lips impressive wisdom fell.
Our boasted GOLDSMITH felt the sovereign sway;
To him we owe his sweet yet nervous lay.
To Fame’s proud cliff he bade our Raphael rise;
Hence REYNOLDS’ pen with REYNOLDS’ pencil vyes.
With Johnson’s flame melodious BURNEY glows,2
While the grand strain in smoother cadence flows.
And thou, MALONE,3 to critick learning dear,
Correct and elegant, refin’d, though clear,
By studying him, first form’d that classick taste,
Which high in Shakspeare’s fane thy statue plac’d.
Near Johnson STEEVENS4 stands, on scenick ground,
Acute, laborious, fertile, and profound.
Ingenious HAWKESWORTH5 to this school we owe,
And scarce the pupil from the tutor know.
Here early parts accomplish’d JONES6 sublimes,
And science blends with Asia’s lofty rhimes:
Harmonious JONES! who in his splendid strains
Sings Camdeo’s sports, on Agra’s flowery plains;
In Hindu fictions while we fondly trace
Love and the Muses, deck’d with Attick grace.
Amid these names can BOSWELL be forgot,
The celebrated Flora Macdonald. See Boswell’s Tour.
Dr Charles Burney (1726–1814), musician and author.
Edmond Malone (1741–1812), described by Boswell as ‘one of the best criticks of
our age’ (Life, v. 78 n. 5).
George Steevens (1736–1800), Shakespearean editor.
John Hawkesworth (1715?–73), edited the Adventurer.
Sir William Jones (1746–94), the distinguished orientalist, produced his Poesos
Asiaticae Commentariorum Libri Sex, 1774, at an early age.
Scarce by North Britons now esteem’d a Scot?
Who to the sage devoted from his youth,
Imbib’d from him the sacred love of truth;
The keen research, the exercise of mind,
And that best art, the art to know mankind.—
Nor was his energy confin’d alone
To friends around his philosophick throne;
Its influence wide improv’d our letter’d isle,
And lucid vigour mark’d the general style:
As Nile’s proud waves, swol’n from their oozy bed,
First o’er the neighbouring meads majestick spread;
Till gathering force, they more and more expand,
And with new virtue fertilise the land.
Thus sings the Muse, to Johnson’s memory just,
And scatters praise and censure o’er his dust;
For through each checker’d scene a contrast ran,
Too sad a proof, how great, how weak is man!
Though o’er his passions conscience held the rein,
He shook at dismal phantoms of the brain:
A boundless faith that noble mind debas’d,
By piercing wit, energick reason grac’d:
A generous Briton, yet he seem’d to hope
For James’s grandson, and for James’s Pope:
Though proudly splenetick, yet idly vain,
Accepted flattery, and dealt disdain.—
E’en shades like these, to brilliancy ally’d,
May comfort fools, and curb the Sage’s pride.
Yet Learning’s sons, who o’er his foibles mourn,
To latest time shall fondly view his urn;
And wond’ring praise, to human frailties blind,
Talents and virtues of the brightest kind;
Revere the man, with various knowledge stor’d,
Who science, arts, and life’s whole scheme explor’d;
Who firmly scorn’d, when in a lowly state,
To flatter vice, or court the vain and great;
Whose heart still felt a sympathetick glow,
Prompt to relieve man’s variegated woe;
Who even shar’d his talents with his friends;
It is observable that Dr. Johnson did not prefix a dedication to any one of his various
THE CRITICAL HERITAGE
By noble means who aim’d at noble ends;
Whose ardent hope, intensely fixed on high,
Saw future bliss with intellectual eye.
Still in his breast Religion held her sway,
Disclosing visions of celestial day;
And gave his soul, amidst this world of strife,
The blest reversion of eternal life:
By this dispell’d, each doubt and horrour flies,
And calm at length in holy peace he dies.
The sculptur’d trophy, and imperial bust,
That proudly rise around his hallow’d dust,
Shall mould’ring fall, by Time’s slow hand decay’d,
But the bright meed of virtue ne’er shall fade.
Exulting Genius stamps his sacred name,
Enroll’d for ever in the dome of Fame.
74. Joseph Towers, An Essay on the Life,
Character, and Writings of Dr. Samuel Johnson
Extracts from the Essay, 6–8, 40–59, 101–2, 114–24.
See headnote to No. 41; see Introduction, pp. 32–3.
It was very pardonable in Mr. Tyers,1 and the other zealous friends of Dr.
Johnson, to speak somewhat too highly of his character. The warmth of
attachment to the memory of a deceased friend, was a sufficient apology
for their conduct. But positions must not too hastily be admitted, which
are not supported by fact, and which are not consistent with a just regard
‘Who noble ends by noble means obtains.’ Pope. [Essay on Man, 1v. 233.]
Thomas Tyers, A Biographical Sketch of Dr. Johnson, 1785 (in Johnsonian Miscellanies, ii).
to the honour of human nature. It seems also injurious to the interests
of religion and virtue, to represent Dr. Johnson as a pattern of human
excellence. Better models might undoubtedly be pointed out. He had
great virtues, but he had also too many striking and apparent faults, to
be considered as a proper object of indiscriminate imitation. Highly as
he thought of himself, his attachment to the interests of virtue was too
sincere to have suffered him to countenance such an opinion. When, in
his last illness, he said to his surrounding friends, ‘Don’t live such a life
as I have done,’2 he had no idea of being considered as a man of
exemplary piety and virtue. There have been many men, who were more
uniformly pious, and more uniformly benevolent, than Dr. Johnson, and
who had neither his arrogance, nor his bigotry; and such men, in a moral
and religious view, were superior characters. There were such men
before the death of this celebrated writer, and there can be no reasonable
doubt but that such men are yet remaining.
Having made these remarks, I think it here proper to observe, that
I am totally devoid of the least inclination to degrade injuriously the
character of Dr. Johnson; and that I only wish to see it equitably and
accurately ascertained, in such a manner as shall do justice to his real
excellencies, without injury to the interests either of virtue or of truth.
[comments follow on all Johnson’s major writings; it is possible only to give
His History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, which was published
in 1758, is elegantly written, and contains striking remarks upon
the vanity of human pursuits, and the unsatisfactory nature of
human enjoyments; together with a variety of acute observations on
men and manners. But the representations given in it of human life
are extremely gloomy, and more gloomy than are warranted by
truth or reason. The character of Imlac is well sustained, and his
enumeration of the qualifications of a poet is highly eloquent; but
in some of the conversations between Rasselas and Nekayah, the
princess is made too profound a philosopher. The character of the
Arabian chief, by whom Pekuah was captured, is well delineated; and
the disquisition concerning marriage is amusing and instructive. It is
observable, that in this work the reality of apparitions is strongly
maintained; and the remarks which it contains on disorders of the
intellect, and the dangerous prevalence of imagination, seem to have
taken their rise from those fears of some derangement of understanding,
Tyers, in Johnsonian Miscellanies, ii. 336.
THE CRITICAL HERITAGE
and that morbid melancholy, with which Johnson was not unfrequently
The Idler, which was finished in the year 1760, has, perhaps, hardly yet
obtained the reputation which it deserves. It is not equal to the Rambler;
but it is, upon the whole, a very pleasing collection of essays, and there are
some papers in it of great excellence. Among the best papers in the Idler
are those on the robbery of time, on the retirement of Drugget, on the
imprisonment of debtors, on the uncertainty of friendship, admonitions on
the flight of time, the journey of Will Marvel, on the necessity of self-denial,
on the vanity of riches, on the decline of reputation, on the progress of arts
and language, on the fate of posthumous works, the history of translations,
on the sufficiency of the English language, and on the obstructions of
learning. Some of the characters in other papers are also well drawn; and
it is a circumstance rather curious, that the character of SOBER, in the 31st
number, should have been intended by Johnson, as Mrs. Piozzi informs us
it was,3 as a satirical description of himself.
His edition of SHAKESPEARE was published in the year 1765; it
had been long delayed; and, perhaps, at last, did not fully answer the
expectations of the public; but many of his notes are valuable, and the
short strictures at the end of the several plays are written with his usual
vigour. His preface is also a composition of great merit; though there
are parts of it which have somewhat of affectation, and somewhat of
inconsistency; but it contains many fine passages; and some of his
remarks respecting the unities of time and place are original, acute, and
rational. In characterizing the preceding commentators of our great
dramatic poet, he has treated Theobald with too much severity, and
appears not to have done him justice as an editor of Shakespeare; but
he is partial to Warburton, and speaks of the opponents of that prelate
with a degree of contempt which they certainly did not deserve. Since
the publication of Dr. Johnson’s edition of Shakespeare, our great
dramatic poet has been farther elucidated, and his plays enriched with
many valuable notes, by the successive labours of Mr. Steevens, Mr.
Malone, Mr. Reed, and other gentlemen.
Of the POLITICAL WRITINGS of Dr. Johnson, it would be injurious
to the interests of truth, and to the common rights of human nature, to
speak in terms of much commendation, in any other view except as to
their style. His False Alarm was published in 1770, and chiefly relates
Numbers 14, 16, 22, 23, 43, 49, 52, 59, 62, 63, 64, 65, 68, 69, 91, 94.
See Johnsonian Miscellanies, i. 178.
to the proceedings respecting Mr. Wilkes in the case of the Middlesex
election, and to the petitions and public meetings which were occasioned
by that transaction. His Falkland’s Islands appeared the following year,
and his Patriot in 1774. In the latter he ridiculed the pretensions to
patriotism of the leaders of the popular party, opposed the claims of the
colonies to be exempted from taxation by the British parliament, and
defended the Quebec act.
In these political productions many positions are laid down, in
admirable language, and in highly polished periods, which are
inconsistent with the principles of the English constitution, and
repugnant to the common rights of mankind. As a political writer, he
makes much more use of his rhetoric than of his logic, and often gives
his readers high sounding declamation instead of fair argument. And,
indeed, in characterizing those who differ from him in sentiment, he
seems sometimes to pay so little attention to truth, equity, or candour,
that, in perusing his pieces, we are inclined readily to assent to a
proposition of his own, that ‘there is no credit due to a rhetorician’s
account either of good or evil.’4 However we may respect the memory
of Johnson, and however unwilling we may be to speak of him with
harshness, those who impartially peruse his political publications will
be obliged to confess, that few party pamphlets have appeared in this
country, which contain greater malignity of misrepresentation. Even
Swift, who carried the rancour of party to a great height, hardly equalled
the malignity of Johnson’s representations of those who differed from
himself on political subjects. It seems difficult to suppose, that he could
seriously believe many things that he has advanced, concerning those
whose political sentiments were different from his own; and, if he did
not, it is still more difficult to vindicate his conduct.
The petitions presented to the King about the year 1769, and in which
many of the best and worthiest men in the kingdom undoubtedly
concurred, are represented by Dr. Johnson as containing ‘the sense only
of the profligate and dissolute.’5 And he was such an enemy to public
assemblies of the people, and so little inquired whether what he advanced
was truth in matters of this kind, that he maintained, that ‘meetings held
for directing representatives are seldom attended but by the idle and the
dissolute.’6 No man who had ever attended many meetings of that kind
could be of this opinion; and next to a man’s advancing things which he
knows to be false, is his asserting things which he cannot know to be true.
Life of Roger Ascham, in Works, 1792, xii. 321.
Works, viii. 92.
The Patriot, in Works, viii. 149.