Imágenes de páginas

This he was, at all times, ready to admit ; and, therefore, declared, that, whenever he found a Scotchman, to whom an Englishman was as a Scotchman, that Scotchman should be as an Englishman to him. In this, surely, there was no rancour, no malevolence. The dissenters, on this side the Tweed, appeared to him in a different light. Their religion, he frequently said, was too worldly, too political, too restless and ambitious. The doctrine of cashiering kings, and erecting, on the ruins of the constitution, a new form of government, which lately issued from their pulpits, he always thought was, under a calm disguise, the principle that lay lurking in their hearts. He knew, that a wild democracy had overturned kings, lords, and commons; and that a set of republican fanatics, who would not bow at the name of Jesus, had taken possession of all the livings, and all the parishes in the kingdom. That those scenes of horror might never be renewed, was the ardent wish of Dr. Johnson ; and, though he apprehended no danger from Scotland, it is probable, that his dislike of calvinism mingled, sometimes, with his reflections on the natives of that country. The association of ideas could not be easily broken ; but it is well known, that he loved and respected many gentlemen from that part of the island. Dr. Robertson's History of Scotland, and Dr. Beattie's Essays, were subjects of his constant praise. Mr. Boswell, Dr. Rose, of Chiswick, Andrew Millar, Mr. Hamilton, the printer, and the late Mr. Strahan, were among his most intimate friends. Many others might be added to the list. He scorned to enter Scotland as a spy; though Hawkins, his biographer, and the professing defender of his fame, allowed himself leave to represent him in that ignoble character. He went into Scotland to survey men and manners. Antiquities, fossils, and minerals, were not within his province. He did not visit that country to settle the station of Roman camps, or the spot, where Galgacus fought the last battle for public liberty. The people, their customs, and the progress of literature, were his objects. The civilities which he received in the course of his tour, have been repaid with grateful acknowledgment, and, generally, with great elegance of expression. His crime is, that he found the country bare of trees, and he has stated the fact. This, Mr. Boswell, in his tour to the Hebrides, has told us, was resented, by his countrymen, with anger inflamed to rancour; but he admits that there are few trees on the east side of Scotland. Mr. Pennant, in his tour, says, that, in some parts of the eastern side of the country, he saw several large plantations of pine, planted by gentlemen near their seats ; and, in this respect, such a laudable spirit prevails, that, in another half-century, it never shall be said, “ To spy the nakedness of the land are you come." Johnson could not wait for that half-century, and, therefore, mentioned things as he found them. If, in any thing, he has been mistaken, he has made a fair apology, in the last paragraph of his book, avowing with candour: “ That he may have been surprised by modes of life, and appearances of nature, that are familiar to men of wider survey, and more varied conversation. Novelty and ignorance must always be reciprocal: and he is conscions that his thoughts on national manners, are the thoughts of one who has seen but little.”

The poems of Ossian made a part of Johnson's inquiry, during his residence in Scotland and the Hebrides. On his return to England, November, 1773, a storm seemed to be gathering over his head; but the cloud never burst, and the thunder never fell. -Ossian, it is well known, was presented to the public, as a translation from the Erse ; but that this was a fraud, Johnson declared, without hesitation. “ The Erse,” he says, was always oral only, and never a written language. The Welsh and the Irish were more cultivated. In Erse, there was not in the world a single manuscript a hundred years old. Martin, who, in the last century, published an account of the Western Islands, mentions Irish, but never Erse manuscripts, to be found in the islands in his time. The bards could not read ; if they could, they might, probably, have written. But the bard was a barbarian among barbarians, and, knowing nothing himself, lived with others that knew no more. If there is a manuscript from which the translation was made, in what age was it written, and where is it? If it was collected from oral recitation, it could only be in detached parts, and scattered fragments: the whole is too long to be remembered. Who put it together in its present form?" For these, and such like reasons, Johnson calls the whole an imposture. He adds, “ The editor, or author, never could show the original, nor can it be shown by any other. To revenge reasonable incredulity, by refusing evidence, is a degree of insolence with which the world is not yet acquainted; and stubborn audacity is the last refuge of guilt." This reasoning carries with it great weight. It roused the resentment of Mr. Macpherson. He sent a threatening letter to the author; and Johnson answered him in the rough phrase of stern defiance. The two heroes frowned at a distance, but never came to action.

In the year 1777, the misfortunes of Dr. Dodd excited his compassion. He wrote a speech for that unhappy man, when called up to receive judgment of death ; besides two petitions, one to the king, and another to the queen; and a sermon to be preached by Dodd to the convicts in Newgate. It may appear trifling to add, that, about the same time, he wrote a prologue to the comedy of a Word to the Wise, written by Hugh Kelly. The play, some years before, had been damned by a party on the first night. It was revived for the benefit of the author's widow. Mrs. Piozzi relates, that when Johnson was rallied for these exertions, so close to one another, his answer was,

“ When they come to me with a dying parson, and a dead stay-maker, what can a man do?”

We come now to the last of his literary labours. At the request of the booksellers, he undertook the Lives of the Poets. The first publication was in 1779, and the whole was completed in 1781. In a memorandum of that year, he says, some time in March he finished the Lives of the Poets, which he wrote in his usual way, dilatorily and hastily, unwilling to work, yet working with vigour and haste. In another place, he hopes they are written in such a manner, as may tend to the promotion of piety. That the history of so many men, who, in their different degrees, made themselves conspicuous in their time, was not written recently after their deaths, seems to be an omission that does no honour to the republic of letters. Their contemporaries, in general, looked on with calm indifference, and suffered wit and genius to vanish out of the world in total silence, unregarded and unlamented. Was there no friend to pay the tribute of a tear? No just observer of life to record the virtues of the deceased? Was even envy silent? It seemed to have been agreed, that if an author's works survived, the history of the man was to give no moral lesson to after-ages. If tradition told us that Ben Jonson went to the Devil tavern; that Shakespeare stole deer, and held the stirrup at play-house doors; that Dryden frequented Button's coffee-house; curiosity was lulled asleep, and biography forgot the best part of her function, which is, to instruct mankind by examples taken from the school of life. This task remained for Dr. Johnson, when years had rolled away; when the channels of information were, for the most part, choked up, and little remained besides doubtful anecdote, uncertain tradition, and vague report.

“ Nunc situs informis premit et deserta vetustas.” The value of biography has been better understood in other ages, and in other countries. Tacitus informs us, that to record the lives and characters of illustrious men, was the practice of the Roman authors, in the early periods of the republic. In France, the example has been followed. Fontenelle, D'Alembert, and monsieur Thomas, have left models in this kind of composition. They have embalmed the dead. But it is true, that they had incitements and advantages, even at a distant day, which could not, by any diligence, be obtained by Dr. Johnson. The wits of France had ample materials. They lived in a nation of critics, who had, at heart, the honour done to their country by their poets, their heroes, and their philosophers. They had, besides, an academy of belles-lettres, where genius was cultivated, refined, and encouraged. They had the tracts, the essays, and dissertations, which remain in the memoirs of the academy, and they had the speeches of the several members, delivered at their first admission to a seat in that learned assembly. In those speeches the new academician did ample justice to the memory of his predecessor; and though his harangue was decorated with the colours of eloquence, and was, for that reason, called panegyric, yet, being pronounced before qualified judges, who knew the talents, the conduct, and morals of the deceased, the speaker could not, with propriety, wander into the regions of fiction. The truth was known, before it was adorned. The academy saw the marble before the artist polished it. But this country has had no academy of literature. The public mind, for centuries, has been engrossed by party and faction; “ by the madness of many for the gain of a few;” by civil wars, religious dissensions, trade and commerce, and the arts of accumulating wealth. Amidst such attentions, who can wonder that cold praise has been often the only reward of merit? In this country, Dr. Nathaniel Hodges, who, like the good bishop of Marseilles, drew purer breath amidst the contagion of the plague in London, and, during the whole time, continued in the city, administering medical assistance, was suffered, as Johnson used to relate, with tears in his eyes, to die for debt, in a gaol. In this country, the man who brought the New river to London, was ruined by that noble project; and, in this country, Otway died for want, on Tower hill; Butler, the great

author of Hudibras, whose name can only die with the English language, was left to languish in poverty; the particulars of his life almost unknown, and scarce a vestige of him left, except his immortal poem. Had there been an academy of literature, the lives, at least, of those celebrated persons, would have been written for the benefit of posterity. Swift, it seems, had the idea of such an institution, and proposed it to lord Oxford; but whig and tory were more important objects. It is needless to dissemble, that Dr. Johnson, in the life of Roscommon, talks of the inutility of such a project. In this country,” he says, “an academy could be expected to do but little. If an academician's place were profitable, it would be given by interest; if attendance were gratuitous, it would be rarely paid, and no man would endure the least disgust. Unanimity is impossible, and debate would separate the assembly.” To this it may be sufficient to answer, that the Royal society has not been dissolved by sullen disgust; and the modern academy, at Somerset house, has already performed much, and promises more. Unanimity is not necessary to such an assembly. On the contrary, by difference of opinion, and collision of sentiment, the cause of literature would thrive and flourish. The true principles of criticism, the secret of fine writing, the investigation of antiquities, and other interesting subjects, might occasion a clash of opinions; but, in that contention, truth would receive illustration, and the essays of the several members would supply the memoirs of the academy. “ But," says Dr. Johnson,“ suppose the philological decree made and promulgated, what would be its authority? In abso lute government there is, sometimes, a general reverence paid to all that has the sanction of power the countenance of greatness. -How little this is the state of our country, needs not to be told. The edicts of an English academy would, probably, be read by many, only that they may be sure to disobey them. manners of the nation would deride authority, and, therefore, nothing is left, but that every writer should criticise himself.” This, surely, is not conclusive. It is by the standard of the best writers, that every man settles, for himself, his plan of legitimate composition; and since the authority of superior genius is acknowledged, that authority, which the individual obtains, would not be lessened by an association with others of distinguished ability. It may, therefore, be inferred, that an academy of literature would be an establishment highly useful, and an honour to litera

The present

« AnteriorContinuar »