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“even sublime passages, have unquestionably “great merit; but if they be regarded merely “ as containing narrations of the lives, deli“neations of the characters, and strictures of “the several authors, they are far from being “always to be depended on.” He adds, “The characters are sometimes partial, and “ there is sometimes Too Much MALIGNITY “ of misrepresentation, to which, perhaps, “may be joined no inconsiderable portion of “ erroneous criticism.” The several clauses of this censure deserve to be answered as fully as the limits of this essay will permit.
In the first place, the facts are related upon the best intelligence, and the best vouchers that could be gleaned, after a great lapse of time. Probability was to be inferred from such materials as could be procured, and no man better understood the nature of historical evidence than Dr. J ohnson ; no man was more religiously an observer of truth. If his History is any where defective, it must be imputed to the want of better information, and the errours of uncertain tradition.
Ad nos vix tenuis famae prélabitur aura.
If the strictures on the works of the various authors are not always satisfactory, and if erroneous criticism may sometimes be suspected, who can hope that in matters of taste all shall agree? The instances in which the . public mind has differed from the positions advanced by the author, are few in number. It has been said, that justice has not been done to Swift; that Gay and Prior are undervalued ; and that Gray has been harshly treated. This charge, perhaps, ought not to be disputed. Johnson, it is well known, had conceived a prejudice against Swift. His friends trembled for him when he was writing that life, but were pleased, at last, to see it executed with temper and moderation. As to Prior, it is probable that he gave his real opinion, but an opinion that will not be adopted by men of lively fancy. With regard to Gray, when he condemns the apostrophe, in which Father Thames is desired to tell who drives the hoop, or tosses the ball, and then adds, that Father Thames had no better means of knowing than himself; when he compares the abrupt beginning of the first stanza of the bard to the ballad of Joh NNY ARMSTRONG., “Is there ever a man in all
Vol. I. N Scotland;"
“Scotland;” there are, perhaps, few friends
and afterwards a Commentary on every remarkable passage; and though it now appears that Mrs. Elizabeth Carter translated the foreign Critic, yet it is certain that Johnson encouraged the work, and, perhaps, imbibed those early prejudices which adhered to him to the end of his life. He shuddered at the idea of irreligion. Hence we are told in the Life of Pope, “Never were penury of know“ledge and vulgarity of sentiment so happily “disguised; Pope, in the chair of wisdom, “tells much that every man knows, and much “ that he did not know himself; and gives us “comfort in the position, that though man's “ a fool, yet God is wise ; that human ad“vantages are unstable; that our true honour “is, not to have a great part, but to act it “well; that virtue only is our own, and that “happiness is always in our power. The “ reader, when he meets all this in its new “ array, no longer knows the talk of his “mother and his nurse.” But may it not be said, that every system of ethics must or ought to terminate in plain and general maxims for the use of life? and, though in such axioms no discovery is made, does not the beauty of the moral theory consist in the premises, and the chain of reasoning that leads to the conclusion? May not truth, as Johnson himself says, be conveyed to the mind by a new train of intermediate images? Pope's doctrine about the ruling passion does not seem to be refuted, though it is called, in harsh terms, pernicious as well as false, tending to establish a kind of moral predestination, or over-ruling principle, which cannot be resisted. But Johnson was too easily alarmed in the cause of religion. Organized as the human race is, individuals have different inlets of perception, different powers of mind, and different sensations of pleasure and pain.
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All spread their charms, but charm not all alike,
Brumoy says, Pascal from his infancy felt himself a geometrician; and Vandyke, in like manner, was a painter. Shakspeare, who of all poets had the deepest insight into human
nature, was aware of a prevailing bias in the