Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

the widow of a Birmingham tradesman. The bride was forty-eight, the bridegroom not quite twenty-six. But Johnson declared long afterwards that it “was a love marriage on both sides," and the married life of the strangely assorted pair seems to have been very happy. “Tetty" had a fortune of about £800, and on this pecuniary basis Johnson set up a school at Edial, near Lichfield. He had only a few pupils (Boswell says three) one of whom was David Garrick. The school was soon seen to be a failure, and in the spring of 1737 Johnson and Garrick came to London to seek their fortunes.

Johnson brought with him part of a tragedy, “ Irene,” which it was his first business to finish. But the play did not see the light till 1749.

Several years' experience as a hack-writer, a doer of literary odd jobs, lay before Johnson. At that date journalism was not a lucrative profession, if, indeed, such a profession can be said to have existed at all. Although Johnson soon got work on Cave's“Gentleman's Magazine," one of the best of the monthly periodicals, he must have had a hard and anxious time for a year or so. However, Boswell thinks that in 1738 he was already earning “a tolerable livelihood.”2 In 1738 his wife joined him in London, and in 1738 too came honour as well as guineas. On the same morning as Pope's “ Epilogue to the Satires” appeared Johnson's “ London," an imitation of Juvenal's third satire. The work of the new writer was not eclipsed by that of the most illustrious literary man of the age, and in a week a new edition of Johnson's poem was called for. A life of Father Paul Sarpi, the historian of the Council of Trent, was his first important contribution to the “ Gentleman's Magazine," and afterwards (1739-43) he wrote for it short biographies of Drake, Blake,

1 Boswell, Bohn, i. 60.

Boswell, Bohn, i. 78.

Sydenham, and others, literary criticism and miscellaneous essays, and reported the debates in Parliament, or rather worked them up from such rough notes as could be furnished by persons paid to attend. In 1744 he produced a life of Richard Savage, a Bohemian literary man who had been his friend, and who had died the year before. This biography was afterwards embodied in the “Lives of the Poets."

In 1747 Johnson issued his “ Plan for a Dictionary of the English Language,” addressed to Philip Dormer, Earl of Chesterfield. The great dictionary, which was published by a group of booksellers, what would now-a-days be called a syndicate of publishers, occupied most of his time for the next seven years. He got little or no help from Chesterfield, and as he had to employ six clerks the expenses were considerable. Most of the 1,500 guineas which the booksellers had contracted to pay him were received on account before the work appeared.

“ The Vanity of Human Wishes,” an imitation of Juvenal's tenth satire, appeared in the January of 1749, and in February “Irene” was at length produced on the stage of Drury Lane by Garrick, who had deserted the law, for which he was intended, and had become the greatest actor and theatrical manager of the day. The tragedy was not a success, but thanks to the kindly zeal of Garrick, it ran for nine nights, and Johnson's share of the receipts, together with the payment for press rights, amounted to very nearly £300. From March, 1750, to March, 1752, he issued twice a week a periodical essay called the “ Rambler;” there existed many such imitations longo intervallo of the “Spectator," some grave and some gay, and Johnson's was the most serious of all. His wife, much loved and long lamented, died on the day on which the last “ Rambler” appeared. Although not very popular during its serial publication, it proved a great success when collected in

volumes, and on it was founded Johnson's reputation as a moralist.

In 1755 the Dictionary at last saw the light, in two great folio volumes. Since that day, philology has become scientific, and the crude etymologies of Johnson provoke the mirth of modern scholars. But his Dictionary is an enormous advance on its incomplete and unsatisfactory predecessors. Just before it appeared, when he began “to see land after having wandered in this vast sea of words,” i the University of Oxford granted him an M.A. degree, and he was now recognized as at the head of the literary world of London. He continued to write for the magazines, and to one of them, the weekly “Universal Chronicle,” contributed during 1758-1760 the series of essays known as the “ Idler.” His gloomy oriental story “ Rasselas” was written“ in the evenings of a single week,” in the early spring of 1759, in order “to defray the expense of his mother's funeral and pay some little debts which she had left.” 2 Besides these and miscellaneous reviews and essays, he wrote prefaces to books, dedications, addresses, and speeches.

In 1762 he received a pension of £300 a year from the crown in recognition of his literary labours; and now at last at the age of fifty-three he was put beyond the need of daily toil for his daily bread. Henceforth he wrote comparatively little.

Although he wrote little, he talked much; and he became the centre of a brilliant group of eminent men who honoured him and loved his society. The famous Literary Club was. founded by Sir Joshua Reynolds and Johnson in 1764, and originally consisted of twelve members, among whom were Burke, Goldsmith, Topham Beauclerk (a dissipated man of fashion), Bennet Langton (a gentleman and a

i Boswell, Bohn, i. 216.

2 Boswell, Bohn, i. 269.

scholar with “a mind as exalted as his stature"), and Sir John Hawkins, the author of a “History of Music.” The numbers were afterwards increased several times; but in 1780 the maximum was fixed at forty. Boswell, Garrick, Gibbon, Sheridan, Percy, Adam Smith, Sir William Scott (Lord Stowell), Sir William Jones, and the Wartons, were amongst the early members. Until 1783 the club met at the “Turk’s Head” in Gerrard Street, Soho.

Johnson's conversation has been preserved for us by the zeal and industry of James Boswell, a young Scotch advocate, whose “Life of Dr. Johnson” is not only the best biography, but perhaps in the words of Macaulay “the most delightful narrative in the language.” Boswell was a bright, intelligent and amiable young man with a passion for pushing his acquaintance among interesting people. He was somewhat vain, and unaffectedly undignified, and there was about him a want of reserve which amounted to a kind of intellectual immodesty. But his weaknesses endear him to his readers, and his book is great just because he had the important qualifications of unsparing diligence and acute perception, real insight into character, true admiration for greatness, and the gift of easy and pleasant narration. Meeting Johnson in the May of 1763, he has left us a wonderful record of the last twenty-one years of the great man's life.

Johnson was a conversational gladiator; he talked, as he owned, for victory. He loved a paradox in conversation though he disliked it in print, because it made an immediate impression, and gave an instant opportunity for a battle of words. This made him glory in his prejudices and exaggerate them. In his view of life he was, to some extent, what we now call a pessimist; he suffered much from ill-health and depression. But he had “ a noble and a true conceit of god-like amity.” Surrounded by his friends, he appears like a Christian Socrates, a wise and tolerant old

great brJohnson's titat Mr. Thora charmir

man, mingling freely in the everyday enjoyment of his younger companions, without any dyspeptic protests against such of their pleasures as he thought fit not to share.

In 1765 he came to know Mr. Thrale, the proprietor of a great brewery, a rich man and a member of parliament. Much of Johnson's time during the next sixteen or seventeen years was spent at Mr. Thrale's house at Streatham. His wife, Hester Lynch Thrale, a charming little lady, full of high spirits, did much to make Johnson happy, and “his irregular habits” as Boswell says, were “lessened by association with an agreeable and well ordered family.” 1 The University of Dublin gave him the degree of LL.D. in the year 1765, and ten years afterwards his own University gave him a doctor's degree in laws. His edition of “Shakespeare” was published in 1765 with an important preface. In 1770 he produced a political pamphlet with reference to the expulsion of Wilkes from the House of Commons, the “False Alarm ;” this was next year followed by another, “ Thoughts on the Late Transactions respecting Falkland's Islands.” A third, “ Taxation no Tyranny,” 1775, main. tained the right of the British parliament to tax the American colonists. None of these produced any effect, however momentary.

At the age of sixty-four (1773), Johnson took with Boswell a long tour in the Highlands of Scotland and the Hebrides. This was quite an adventurous expedition for an unwieldy man of his years, at a time when roads and wheeled carriages were unknown in the islands; and the “Great Cham of Literature” underwent not only a great deal of discomfort, but some considerable danger. But he went through it all with patience and good humour; and he has left us an account of it in his “Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland” (1775), although most people

Boswell, Bohn, ii. 17.

« AnteriorContinuar »