Posts Tagged ‘Samuel Johnson’

Boswell and Johnson in Scotland

August 3, 2020

A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland
Samuel Johnson
(Penguin Classics, 1984) [1775]
120 p.

The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides
James Boswell
(MacMillan, 1936) [1785]
425 p.

I had desired to visit the Hebrides, or Western Islands of Scotland, so long, that I scarcely remember how the wish was originally excited; and was in the Autumn of the year 1773 induced to undertake the journey, by finding in Mr. Boswell a companion, whose acuteness would help my inquiry, and whose gaiety of conversation and civility of manners are sufficient to counteract the inconveniences of travel, in countries less hospitable than we have passed.

So began the famous journey that would carry the two companions first to Edinburgh, then north to Inverness, across the north, and to a sojourn of several months in the Hebrides. After returning home Johnson penned his fine book containing observations on the lands they had passed through, and Boswell, choosing the better part, penned his fine book containing observations on Johnson.

We may forget that the Scottish Highlands, at that time, were far removed, not just geographically, but culturally, from the London that Johnson knew. He may have professed that the country was one which could no longer satisfy those “whose curiosity pants for savage virtues and barbarous grandeur”, but by and large it was wild country, in which civilization, as Johnson recognized it, had a slender foothold, here and there, in the homes of Scottish Lairds. He had desired to visit, but was not strongly tempted to remain:

“Nobody born in any other parts of the world will choose this country for his residence.”

Nonetheless, his book is full of pithy observations on the beauty and merits of Scotland. The book might be profitably scoured by the Scottish tourism board in search of good pamphlet copy, as Johnson expounds on, for instance, the forests of Scotland:

A tree might be a show in Scotland as a horse in Venice.

or, on the charm of the landscapes:

An eye accustomed to flowery pastures and waving harvests is astonished and repelled by this wide extent of hopeless sterility.  The appearance is that of matter incapable of form or usefulness, dismissed by nature from her care and disinherited of her favours, left in its original elemental state, or quickened only with one sullen power of useless vegetation.

or, on the attractions of Scottish religion:

The malignant influence of Calvinism has blasted ceremony and decency together; and if the remembrance of papal superstition is obliterated, the monuments of papal piety are likewise effaced.

or, on the local produce grown by Scottish farmers:

Of vegetable fragrance or beauty they are not yet studious.  Few vows are made to Flora in the Hebrides.

or, on the Gaelic tongue:

It is the rude speech of a barbarous people, who had few thoughts to express, and were content, as they conceived grossly, to be grossly understood.

Johnson’s book, in fact, reads something like an anthropological study, albeit an unusually eloquent one, as he takes an interest in the beauty of Scottish women (“The ladies have as much beauty here as in other places”), marriage practices (“The question is, How many cows a young lady will bring her husband.”), and the veracity, or not, of second sight.

Interspersed with these observations are bits of advice for other travellers, including some that might surprise:

No man should travel unprovided with instruments for taking heights and distances.

Perhaps the most interesting stage of the journey for me was their visit, brief as it was, to Iona, which endeared itself to me when I visited many years ago. Johnson stated, far better than I could, why he honoured the place:

Whatever makes the past, the distant, or the future predominate over the present, advances us in the dignity of thinking beings.  Far from me and from my friends, be such frigid philosophy as may conduct us indifferent and unmoved over any ground which has been dignified by wisdom, bravery, or virtue.  That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona!

The Scottish sojourn came to an end eventually, and Boswell reports Johnson’s reaction when, for the first time in a long time, they saw again one of the signs of civilization: wagon tracks.

As we walked up from the shore, Dr Johnson’s heart was cheered by the sight of a road marked with cart-wheels, as on the main land; a thing which we had not seen for a long time. It gave us a pleasure similar to that which a traveller feels, when, whilst wandering on what he fears is a desert island, he perceives the print of human feet.

And so it was that Johnson returned, a little like an exile coming home, to the bosom of London and the English way of life.

These books are intermittently informative, but consistently rewarding, and the latter principally on account of Johnson. As in his Life Boswell captured many aphorisms and judgments, “of rich and choice expression”, uttered by his companion in the course of their travels, and preserved them for our benefit. I’ll conclude this post by sharing a few samples from the crop.

[On forgetfulness]
I mentioned to him, that a worthy gentleman of my acquaintance actually forgot his own name. JOHNSON. ‘Sir. that was a morbid oblivion.’

[On Homer]
JOHNSON. ‘…There are in Homer such characters of heroes, and combinations of qualities of heroes, that the united powers of mankind ever since have not produced any but what are to be found there.’

[On politeness]
He insisted that politeness was of great consequence in society. ‘It is,’ said he, ‘fictitious benevolence. It supplies the place of it amongst those who see each other only in publick, or but little. Depend upon it, the want of it never fails to produce something disagreeable to one or other. I have always applied to good breeding, what Addison in his Cato says of honour:

Honour’s a sacred tie; the law of Kings;  The noble mind’s distinguishing perfection,  That aids and strengthens Virtue where it meets her.  And imitates her actions where she is not.

[On authority]
Dr Johnson observed, that there had been great disputes about the spelling of Shakspear’s name; at last it was thought it would be settled by looking at the original copy of his will; but, upon examining it, he was found to have written it himself no less than three different ways.

[On human nature]
Lady M’Leod asked, if no man was naturally good. JOHNSON. ‘No, madam, no more than a wolf.’ BOSWELL. ‘Nor no woman, sir?’ JOHNSON. ‘No, sir.’ Lady M’Leod started at this, saying, in a low voice, ‘This is worse than Swift.’

[On wickedness]
Wickedness is always easier than virtue; for it takes the short cut to every thing.

[On Leibniz]
No, sir, Leibnitz was as paltry a fellow as I know.

[On observing the Sabbath]
He said, ‘I do not like to read any thing on a Sunday, but what is theological.’

[On being the subject of controversy]
Dr Johnson said, ‘Nay, sir, do not complain. It is advantageous to an authour, that his book should be attacked as well as praised. Fame is a shuttlecock. If it be struck only at one end of the room, it will soon fall to the ground. To keep it up, it must be struck at both ends.’

[On shame]
Where there is yet shame, there may in time be virtue.

[On historical understanding]
The distance of a calamity from the present time seems to preclude the mind from contact or sympathy.

[On the value of money]
There are some advantages which money cannot buy, and which therefore no wise man will by the love of money be tempted to forego.

[On power and wealth]
Power and wealth supply the place of each other.  Power confers the ability of gratifying our desire without the consent of others.  Wealth enables us to obtain the consent of others to our gratification.  Power, simply considered, whatever it confers on one, must take from another.  Wealth enables its owner to give to others, by taking only from himself.  Power pleases the violent and proud: wealth delights the placid and the timorous.  Youth therefore flies at power, and age grovels after riches.

[On traditions, written and not]
Written learning is a fixed luminary, which, after the cloud that had hidden it has past away, is again bright in its proper station.  Tradition is but a meteor, which, if once it falls, cannot be rekindled.

[On books and language]
There may possibly be books without a polished language, but there can be no polished language without books.

[On wonder]
None but philosophers, nor they always, are struck with wonder, otherwise than by novelty.

[On civility in argument]
Treating your adversary with respect, is giving him an advantage to which he is not entitled. The greatest part of men cannot judge of reasoning, and are impressed by character; so that, if you allow your adversary a respectable character, they will think, that though you differ from him, you may be in the wrong. Sir, treating your adversary with respect, is striking soft in a battle.

A sketch of Samuel Johnson

January 10, 2020

Boswell gave us this generous portrait of his friend in The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785):

It may not be superfluous here to attempt a sketch of him. Let my readers then remember that he was a sincere and zealous Christian, of high Church of England and monarchical principles, which he would not tamely suffer to be questioned; steady and inflexible in maintaining the obligations of piety and virtue, both from a regard to the order of society, and from a veneration for the Great Source of all order; correct, nay stern in his taste; hard to please, and easily offended, impetuous and irritable in his temper, but of a most humane and benevolent heart; having a mind stored with a vast and various collection of learning and knowledge, which he communicated with peculiar perspicuity and force, in rich and choice expression.

He united a most logical head with a most fertile imagination, which gave him an extraordinary advantage in arguing; for he could reason close or wide, as he saw best for the moment. He could, when he chose it, be the greatest sophist that ever wielded a weapon in the schools of declamation; but he indulged this only in conversation; for he owned he sometimes talked for victory; he was too conscientious to make errour permanent and pernicious, by deliberately writing it. He was conscious of his superiority. He loved praise when it was brought to him; but was too proud to seek for it. He was somewhat susceptible of flattery.

His mind was so full of imagery, that he might have been perpetually a poet. It has been often remarked, that in his poetical pieces, which it is to be regretted are so few, because so excellent, his style is easier than in his prose. There is deception in this: it is not easier, but better suited to the dignity of verse; as one may dance with grace, whose motions, in ordinary walking—in the common step—are awkward.

He had a constitutional melancholy, the clouds of which darkened the brightness of his fancy, and gave a gloomy cast to his whole course of thinking: yet, though grave and awful in his deportment, when he thought it necessary or proper, he frequently indulged himself in pleasantry and sportive sallies. He was prone to superstition, but not to credulity. Though his imagination might incline him to a belief of the marvellous, and the mysterious, his vigorous reason examined the evidence with jealousy.

He had a loud voice, and a slow deliberate utterance, which no doubt gave some additional weight to the sterling metal of his conversation.

Johnson: Life of Swift

June 29, 2018

Life of Swift
Samuel Johnson
(Bigelow, Smith & Co, 1929) [c.1780]
50 p.

For me the appeal of Johnson’s Lives of the Poets is more Johnson than the poets. That said, Jonathan Swift was a man worthy of this great moralist’s attention. His Life begins with a chronological overview of the main events of Swift’s life and of his principle literary works, and then concludes with an appraisal of his personality and literary merits.

Swift was born in Ireland, and lived most of his life there, with occasional residence in England. He was a late bloomer; his first major literary work (“Dissensions in Athens and Rome”, now mostly forgotten) was not published until he was in his mid-30s. He earned his reputation as a critic and satirist, and became a sort of public figure without ever holding an official public office. Indeed, he entered into the life of a clergyman to earn his daily bread — something that I knew, but had forgotten, and was surprised to learn again. He eventually became the Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, a church of the Anglican-affiliated Church of Ireland, and “much against his will commenced Irishman for life”.

Although he had preferred to be in England than Ireland, he became a friend and champion of the Irish people against the English, putting his wit and his influence to work on their behalf. The famous essay “A Modest Proposal” (which Johnson does not mention) is an example of his method. For this advocacy he was widely admired by the Irish.

Swift’s was a difficult personality. Johnson describes him in this way:

He is querulous and fastidious, arrogant and malignant; he scarcely speaks of himself but with indignant lamentations, or of others but with insolent superiority when he is gay, and with angry contempt when he is gloomy.

And, in another place:

His asperity continually increasing, condemned him to solitude; and his resentment of solitude sharpened his asperity.

He was a man whom few dared to cross, possessed of “a countenance sour and severe, which he seldom softened by any appearance of gaiety”. He was not given to laughter, but of course not entirely without humour; his Saharan-grade dry wit served his satirical talents. He was a religious man but he hid his devotions from the view even of his friends. He had a “dread of hypocrisy. Instead of wishing to seem better, he delighted in seeming worse than he was.” He carried on for many years an ambiguous relationship with a woman much his junior, Esther Johnson, whom some believed he had secretly married — Johnson certainly believed it. Upon his death he was buried beside her in his cathedral.

When we think of Swift, we probably think first of either “A Modest Proposal” or Gulliver’s Travels, the two works on which his fame largely rests. About Gulliver Johnson writes that

it was read by the high and the low, the learned and illiterate. Criticism was for a while lost in wonder; no rules of judgment were applied to a book written in open defiance of truth and regularity.

He does not specify how it was read by the illiterate, but the point is clear: it was a popular success that defied categorization. It is notable that in our time it is often classified as a children’s book, an indication that we still don’t really know what to make of it. In Swift’s poetry Johnson judges that “there is not much upon which the critic can exercise his powers” — perhaps a surprising judgment given that we are here reading from the Lives of the Poets, but so be it. I myself read a volume of Swift’s poetry a few years ago and I agree with Johnson. (Woe betide him who does not!)

For Johnson, Swift is principally admirable for his use of satire in just causes — he “showed that wit, confederated with truth, had such force as authority was unable to resist” — and for the distinctiveness of his literary voice, for

perhaps no writer can easily be found that has borrowed so little, or that, in all his excellences and all his defects, has so well maintained his claim to be considered as original.

**

As I said above, much of the appeal of reading Johnson comes from reading Johnson, whose pen drips aphorisms and pithy judgments as readily as trees drop leaves in an autumn wind. Here is a sampling:

[On criticism of public figures]
Where a wide system of conduct, and the whole of a public character, is laid open to inquiry, the accuser, having the choice of facts, must be very unskilful if he does not prevail.

[On irresolution]
He that knows not whither to go, is in no haste to move.

[On flattery]
He that is much flattered soon learns to flatter himself.

[On peculiar habits]
…singularity, as it implies a contempt of the general practice, is a kind of defiance which justly provokes the hostility of ridicule; he, therefore, who indulges peculiar habits, is worse than others, if he be not better.

[On fruit]
Almost everybody eats as much fruit as he can get, without any great inconvenience.

Johnson: Life of Savage

March 2, 2017

Life of Mr Richard Savage
Samuel Johnson
[1744]

On a bulk, in a cellar, or in a glass-house, among thieves and beggars, was to be found the author of “The Wanderer,” the man of exalted sentiments, extensive views, and curious observations; the man whose remarks on life might have assisted the statesman, whose ideas of virtue might have enlightened the moralist, whose eloquence might have influenced senates, and whose delicacy might have polished courts.

johnson-savageCases in which one reads a biography principally from an interest in the biographer are comparatively rare, but here is one. Nothing against Richard Savage, of course, who was a friend of Johnson’s and an accomplished poet who lived a noteworthy life, but I, at least, decided to read his biography mainly from a desire to spend time with Johnson.

Richard Savage came into the world the son of a vindictive woman who, in a strange reversal of natural inclination, did all in her power to ruin him from the outset, first by refusing to care for him, later by attempting to disinherit him and, later still, scheming to send him into exile. When a man and finding himself accused of a crime, his mother entered the lists to testify against his good character. He never knew the love and comfort of a home.

Johnson, in a sally of dry wit, traces the influence of this harsh childhood on his later vocation as a man of letters:

[He] was reduced to the utmost miseries of want, while he was endeavouring to awaken the affection of a mother. He was therefore obliged to seek some other means of support; and, having no profession, became by necessity an author.

Savage become a poet, specifically, though never a greatly successful one in the commercial markets, and, like Johnson himself, never quite successful at obtaining the patronage of the great. He lived the life of a vagabond, drifting from one “situation” to another, dependent on the charity of others for his basic needs. He was inconstant and heedless in his handling of money; writes Johnson:

To supply him with money was a hopeless attempt; for no sooner did he see himself master of a sum sufficient to set him free from care for a day than he became profuse and luxurious.

And he was generous not only to his friends. Johnson relates the story, already alluded to, of Savage’s arrest over a violent altercation, for which he stood trial under penalty of death. A woman testified falsely against him during the trial, yet, upon his eventual acquittal, she, being destitute, nonetheless approached him to beg assistance, to which he responded by giving her what money he had, on which act Johnson comments:

This is an action which in some ages would have made a saint, and perhaps in others a hero, and which, without any hyperbolical encomiums, must be allowed to be an instance of uncommon generosity, an act of complicated virtue, by which he at once relieved the poor, corrected the vicious, and forgave an enemy; by which he at once remitted the strongest provocations, and exercised the most ardent charity.

It is hard not to feel admiration and affection for a man capable of such a gesture, and Johnson certainly did feel both for him. He is praised especially for his good heart, keen intelligence, fine if modest poetic gift (Johnson is, as ever, an honest judge), and eloquent conversation. Yet such sentiments were not universally held, for Savage’s wayward manner of life, moral courage, and sharp wit variously earned him enemies in many quarters:

Those who thought themselves raised above him by the advantages of riches hated him because they found no protection from the petulance of his wit. Those who were esteemed for their writings feared him as a critic, and maligned him as a rival; and almost all the smaller wits were his professed enemies.

Johnson doesn’t overlook his friend’s faults, and indeed part of the appeal of this biography is the combination of frank criticism and tender affection with which the biographer views his subject. Savage was a complex man, and his biographer is a match. It is precisely the manner in which he tempers justice with mercy that makes Johnson such a superb chronicler of a difficult life:

Those are no proper judges of his conduct who have slumbered away their time on the down of plenty; nor will any wise man easily presume to say, “Had I been in Savage’s condition, I should have lived or written better than Savage.”

**

One interested in reading some of Savage’s poetry might follow the link above to his poem “The Wanderer”, or, for a shorter example, to “The Bastard”, a witty, autobiographical ode to his ruthless mother:

O Mother, yet no Mother!—’tis to you,
My Thanks for such distinguish’d Claims are due.

**

The Life of Savage was written in 1744, one year after Savage’s death, and was later collected in Johnson’s Lives of the Poets.

**

In closing, here are several jewels of Johnsonian moral judgment and observation gleaned from these pages:

[Power and resentment]
Power and resentment are seldom strangers.

[Gratitude and resentment]
Those who had before paid their court to him without success soon returned the contempt which they had suffered; and they who had received favours from him, for of such favours as he could bestow he was very liberal, did not always remember them. So much more certain are the effects of resentment than of gratitude. It is not only to many more pleasing to recollect those faults which place others below them, than those virtues by which they are themselves comparatively depressed: but it is likewise more easy to neglect than to recompense. And though there are few who will practise a laborious virtue, there will never be wanting multitudes that will indulge in easy vice.

[Judgement and flattery]
He contented himself with the applause of men of judgment, and was somewhat disposed to exclude all those from the character of men of judgment who did not applaud him.

[Virtue, in love and in life]
The reigning error of his life was that he mistook the love for the practice of virtue, and was indeed not so much a good man as the friend of goodness.

[Judging degrees of understanding]
As many more can discover that a man is richer than that he is wiser than themselves, superiority of understanding is not so readily acknowledged as that of fortune.

Johnson: Preface to Shakespeare

April 23, 2016

Preface to Shakespeare
Samuel Johnsonshakespeare-234x300
[1765]

Johnson, together with George Steevens, edited and published an edition of Shakespeare’s plays in 1765, and included in it this prefatory essay, surely one of the most famous examples of literary criticism in English letters. I had previously read it, years ago, but, being a noted dullard, did not remember much about it, and I am happy to have had the opportunity to read it again.

johnsonThe first thing I’ll note is that Johnson’s views on Shakespeare are far from being boiler-plate. We’ve grown so accustomed to hearing Shakespeare spoken of in exclusively laudatory terms, as the greatest literary figure in history, as the Bard, that it can be a little shocking to read what Dr Johnson has to say:

The plots are often so loosely formed, that a very slight consideration may improve them, and so carelessly pursued, that he seems not always fully to comprehend his own design. He omits opportunities of instructing or delighting which the train of his story seems to force upon him, and apparently rejects those exhibitions which would be more affecting, for the sake of those which are more easy.

or, even more startling:

His declamations or set speeches are commonly cold and weak, for his power was the power of nature; when he endeavoured, like other tragick writers, to catch opportunities of amplification, and instead of inquiring what the occasion demanded, to show how much his stores of knowledge could supply, he seldom escapes without the pity or resentment of his reader.

That Shakespeare should be an author accused of writing “cold and weak” speeches seems almost comical, for is he not especially treasured for his famous speeches, and is there anyone to match him on that terrain? And Johnson makes other statements that are more or less the opposite of the received wisdom, such as that Shakespeare, the most eloquent man in England, was especially adept at capturing the texture and tones of common speech:

The dialogue of this authour is often so evidently determined by the incident which produces it, and is pursued with so much ease and simplicity, that it seems scarcely to claim the merit of fiction, but to have been gleaned by diligent selection out of common conversation, and common occurrences.

This is all intensely interesting, but I’m honestly not sure if it tells us something about Shakespeare or about Johnson, who goes on to argue that Shakespeare — the author of Othello, Hamlet, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and Julius Caesar — was a greater comedian than tragedian:

In his comick scenes, he seems to produce without labour, what no labour can improve. In tragedy he is always struggling after some occasion to be comick, but in comedy he seems to repose, or to luxuriate, as in a mode of thinking congenial to his nature. In his tragick scenes there is always something wanting, but his comedy often surpasses expectation or desire. His comedy pleases by the thoughts and the language, and his tragedy for the greater part by incident and action. His tragedy seems to be skill, his comedy to be instinct.

This, too, is a fascinating judgement, and let’s pause a moment to appreciate how elegantly it is expressed (“produce without labour, what no labour can improve”). But I’m not sure if its contradiction of the common view tells us more about Johnson or about ourselves. I rather like what Johnson says here, though, because I do feel that our appreciation of Shakespeare as a comedian falls short of what he deserves, and partly so because we, as a culture, lack something, some spiritual capacity, that would allow us to produce comedy of comparable stature. I can’t resist quoting Chesterton, who echoed this point:

No audacious spirit has dreamed or dared to imitate Shakespeare’s comedy. No one has made any real attempt to recover the loves and the laughter of Elizabethan England. The low dark arches, the low strong pillars upon which Shakespeare’s temple rests we can all explore and handle. We can all get into his mere tragedy; we can all explore his dungeon and penetrate to his coal-cellar; but we stretch our hands and crane our necks in vain towards that height where the tall turrets of his levity are tossed towards the sky. Perhaps it is right that this should be so; properly understood, comedy is an even grander thing than tragedy. (The Illustrated London News, 27 April 1907)

Shakespeare has often been praised in our day for his even-handed approach to moral issues: Shakespeare doesn’t moralize, and all but disappears into his characters so that we’re never quite sure what he thinks. This quality might account for some of his appeal to an age seduced by moral relativism. Johnson perceives much the same quality in Shakespeare, but he is clear that this is a fault:

He sacrifices virtue to convenience, and is so much more careful to please than to instruct, that he seems to write without any moral purpose. From his writings indeed a system of social duty may be selected, for he that thinks reasonably must think morally; but his precepts and axioms drop casually from him; he makes no just distribution of good or evil, nor is always careful to shew in the virtuous a disapprobation of the wicked; he carries his persons indifferently through right and wrong, and at the close dismisses them without further care, and leaves their examples to operate by chance. This fault the barbarity of his age cannot extenuate; for it is always a writer’s duty to make the world better, and justice is a virtue independant on time or place.

Naturally it would be misleading to give the impression that Johnson makes none but critical remarks about his subject. Qualities which he selects for approbation are Shakespeare’s tonal range:

Shakespeare has united the powers of exciting laughter and sorrow not only in one mind, but in one composition. Almost all his plays are divided between serious and ludicrous characters, and, in the successive evolutions of the design, sometimes produce seriousness and sorrow, and sometimes levity and laughter.

and his talent for creating memorable characters:

Perhaps no poet ever kept his personages more distinct from each other.

Indeed, what author author, save perhaps Dickens, has given us an array of characters to match Hamlet, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Iago, Desdemona, Romeo, Juliet, Marc Antony, Bottom, Shylock, Miranda, King Lear, Falstaff, Prince Hal, Rosalind, Beatrice, and Benedict? Although in this connection Johnson also makes another judgment which I don’t quite know how to interpret:

In the writings of other poets a character is too often an individual; in those of Shakespeare it is commonly a species.

At first blush this seems to contradict his judgment immediately above, for are not individual characters more likely to be distinct from one another than are species? Well, perhaps not; species are, almost by definition, more different from one another than are individuals of the same species. I’ll hazard that the modern idiom of “he’s an individual” to denote his peculiar distinctiveness was not current in Johnson’s time.(Parenthetically, is it not wonderful to see “individual” used by Johnson with a slight perjorative sense. Let us raise a glass to old books.)

Moving on, we find another surprise: Johnson claims that the standard five-Act structure of Shakespearean drama is “void of authority,” and is merely a convenience introduced by editors. Can this really be so?

Not that we should speak disparagingly of the labours of editors, for Johnson reminds us how our possession of Shakespeare’s plays in anything like their current form and extent is largely due to the interventions of editors, the playwright himself having taken little interest in preserving his work:

It does not appear, that Shakespeare thought his works worthy of posterity, that he levied any ideal tribute upon future times, or had any further prospect, than of present popularity and present profit. When his plays had been acted, his hope was at an end; he solicited no addition of honour from the reader…

So careless was this great poet of future fame, that, though he retired to ease and plenty, while he was yet little “declined into the vale of years,” before he could be disgusted with fatigue, or disabled by infirmity, he made no collection of his works, nor desired to rescue those that had been already published from the depravations that obscured them, or secure to the rest a better destiny, by giving them to the world in their genuine state.

Of the plays which bear the name of Shakespeare in the late editions, the greater part were not published till about seven years after his death, and the few which appeared in his life are apparently thrust into the world without the care of the authour, and therefore probably without his knowledge.

There’s a delicious irony here, of course, that the most eminent literary man we have didn’t particularly care for literary eminence, and that our most famous writer should have cared so little for fame. Certainly it makes a marked contrast with the giants writing in other languages. (This interesting essay on Goethe brings out the contrasts well.)

***

Apart from these remarks specifically about Shakespeare, the Preface includes a number of characteristically Johnsonian — that is, characteristically pugnacious and eloquent — pronouncements about literature more generally.

We find, for instance, his famous dictum that

The end of writing is to instruct; the end of poetry is to instruct by pleasing.

Maybe. Or rather: yes, sometimes. I once knew someone who argued that the purpose of art was to provoke self-reflection and teach self-knowledge. Yes, sometimes. But art might also be for the sheer joy of it, or ad majorem Dei gloriam, and what goes for art in general goes for poetry in particular. I wonder what Johnson would have thought of T.S. Eliot?

Speaking of Eliot, if you’re sitting down with a gigantic scholarly edition of his poems and you’re wondering if you should just read the poetry or dig into the line-by-line commentary, Johnson has some advice:

Parts are not to be examined till the whole has been surveyed; there is a kind of intellectual remoteness necessary for the comprehension of any great work in its full design and its true proportions; a close approach shews the smaller niceties, but the beauty of the whole is discerned no longer.

And as one labours toward “the comprehension of any great work,” one is naturally always engaged in forming a judgement about its merits. Johnson gives his view of how such judgement is developed and matured:

Judgement, like other faculties, is improved by practice, and its advancement is hindered by submission to dictatorial decisions, as the memory grows torpid by the use of a table book. Some initiation is however necessary; of all skill, part is infused by precept, and part is obtained by habit.

This seems of such general application for education in general that I think I’ll commit it to memory. Or maybe I’ll just write it here in this table book. What was I saying again?

Ah yes: the formation of judgement. I’ll close with Johnson’s views on how the collective judgement of readers through time gradually establishes particular literary works as masterpieces. Apparently he had never heard that it was all a conspiracy of white males to project their power. He writes:

…to works not raised upon principles demonstrative and scientifick, but appealing wholly to observation and experience, no other test can be applied than length of duration and continuance of esteem. What mankind have long possessed they have often examined and compared, and if they persist to value the possession, it is because frequent comparisons have confirmed opinion in its favour…

The reverence due to writings that have long subsisted arises therefore not from any credulous confidence in the superior wisdom of past ages, or gloomy persuasion of the degeneracy of mankind, but is the consequence of acknowledged and indubitable positions, that what has been longest known has been most considered, and what is most considered is best understood.

***

I hope it is clear from the length at which I have written that this Preface to Shakespeare is a very stimulating and enjoyable read. It is always a pleasure to spend time in the good Doctor’s company.

On Samuel Johnson

December 13, 2015

The Life of Johnson
James Boswell
(Everyman’s Library, 1993) [1791]
1344 p.

Samuel Johnson
W. Jackson Bate
(Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975)
668 p.

“Fate wings with ev’ry wish the afflictive dart”
— “The Vanity of Human Wishes”

Samuel Johnson is one of those rare figures who can take up a permanent place in one’s moral and imaginative life. A colossal genius, one of the English language’s great masters, a probing moralist, and a man of great personal courage and fortitude, one can walk around him and find something admirable from every vantage point. In his excellent biography, W. Jackson Bate comments that as our familiarity with Johnson improves “we begin to think of him as almost an allegorical figure, like “Valiant-for-Truth” in The Pilgrim’s Progress,” and this I have found to be quite true.

johnsonI dare say Johnson is unique in English letters for having a reputation derived to a very great extent from things he did not write down. We admire his writing, of course — his great Dictionary, his “Preface to Shakespeare”, his many moral essays, his novella Rassalas — but Johnson himself towers over his pen. And we know about Johnson the man principally through the massive Life which James Boswell assembled over the course of their long friendship, and in which, with quiet tenacity, he faithfully recorded Johnson’s conversation at table, among friends, or in London society, or at home. The Life is one of our great biographical treasure troves. For my private enjoyment I’ve assembled page after page of memorable quotations and winsome stories plundered from its pages.

In fact, so central has been Boswell’s role in bringing Johnson to later generations, it is a little startling to be reminded, as Bate reminds us, that Boswell did not meet Johnson until he (Johnson) was already in his 50s, and that over the 21 years of their friendship they were actually in one another’s company for only about 300 days (excluding their several months’ excursion to Scotland). Fully half of the Life covers just the last 8 years of Johnson’s life. There were social connections important to Johnson, such as that with the Thrale family, of which Boswell had little direct knowledge. Even the common honorific “Dr Johnson” is due mainly to Boswell’s influence; Johnson himself preferred to be called simply “Mr Johnson”. In this respect a biography like Bate’s is valuable for filling in the background and rounding out the figure.

To be fair, there is a good deal more to Bate’s biography than just “filling in” and “rounding out”. It is an ambitious effort to come to grips with Johnson in all of his considerable complexity. Because of the wider variety of sources informing it it arguably tells us more about Johnson than Boswell does. Bate is a sensitive reader, and seems to have a secure footing even when stepping through the murky waters of Johnson’s slough of despond. Having said that, in the end Boswell will bury all other biographers.

Johnson was praised in his own day for his originality (“He said even the commonest things in the newest manner”), his courage and honesty, his humour (“the size of a man’s understanding might always be justly measured by his mirth” [Johnson]), and his intellectual range. In his biography of Francis Bacon, Johnson described Bacon as “a strong mind operating upon life,” and admirers of Johnson have found the phrase just as apt when applied to Johnson himself. Boswell summarized this aspect of Johnson’s character thus:

“His superiority over other learned men consisted chiefly in what may be called the art of thinking, the art of using his mind; a certain continual power of seizing the useful substance of all that he knew, and exhibiting it in a clear and forcible manner; so that knowledge which we often see to be no better than lumber in men of dull understanding, was in him true, evident, and actual wisdom.”

Johnson suffered greatly throughout his life. He was, from childhood, afflicted with serious physical ailments, including blindness in one eye and more or less continual pain. Despite his intellectual gifts, his finances prevented his obtaining a university degree. He struggled with self-discipline, constantly renewing his resolve to rise early, work diligently, and retire early to bed, and constantly failing in his resolve. He battled a lasting fear of insanity, and suffered recurring black humours that today we would probably call depression. He was ever alert to the dangers proceeding from “the treachery of the human heart.” He combined a trust in Providence with an unsentimental appraisal of the hardships of living, and was known to become very angry with anyone who ventured to deny the unhappiness of life. Perhaps because of this suffering, he was generous and compassionate with those in need. He lived modestly, and took into his home a rotating group of destitute guests.

On 17 June 1783, Johnson suffered a paralytic stroke, an injury from which he was never to fully recover. Of this experience he wrote, rather endearingly, that “I was alarmed, and prayed God, that however he might afflict my body, he would spare my understanding. This prayer, that I might try the integrity of my faculties, I made in Latin verse.” Some months later, on 13 December 1784, he died. Boswell writes that it was William Gerard Hamilton who best expressed the feelings of Johnson’s friends upon his passing:

“He has made a chasm, which not only nothing can fill up, but which nothing has a tendency to fill up. — Johnson is dead. — Let us go to the next best: There is nobody. — no man can be said to put you in mind of Johnson.”

It is a fitting encomium on a life well-lived.

Favourites of 2014: Books

January 2, 2015

With the advent of the new year, it is time to look back at 2014. Over the next week or so I’ll write a series of posts about my favourites of the books, music, and film that I encountered in the past 12 months. Actually, these posts are already written, but it will take some time to embellish them with little pictures.

I’ll begin today with books.

***

This year much of my reading was devoted to re-reading: I re-visited Virgil, Augustine, Dante, Cervantes, Shakespeare, and Dickens. This did not leave a great deal of time for other things, but from those slim pickings I offer a few brief recommendations.

aubrey-maturinA couple of years ago a friend told me that he had read the twenty-one volumes in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, and had enjoyed them so much that, upon completion, he had returned immediately to the first volume and read all twenty-one volumes again! His was perhaps an extreme case of Aubreyphilia, but he was not the first person whom I had heard praise these books in glowing terms, and so this year I set sail on my own voyage, reading the first half-dozen titles in the series. For the landsmen among us, the books chronicle the adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend and physician Stephen Maturin aboard His Majesty’s naval vessels during the Napoleonic Wars. O’Brian has been praised for his richly textured historical writing, and justly so, but the heart of the books is their portrayal, both separately and in friendship, of the two principals. They are wonderful characters. The books are not to be ranked with the greatest literature, but they are examples of compelling storytelling wedded to admirable craftsmanship. I am looking forward to reading another half-dozen or so volumes in the coming year.

hart-experienceMy favourite nonfiction of the year was David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. Hart mines the basic features of conscious experience, and even the very conditions for such experience, to exhibit what they reveal to us about God, or at least about a transcendent order surpassing those things in heaven and earth dreamed of by our modern Horatios. It is a serious book that gives the reader a good deal to grapple with, and beautifully written. I wrote extensively about the book, so I shant elaborate further here.

bate-johnsonMy runner-up is W. Jackson Bate’s much-praised biography Samuel Johnson, published in 1977. There is a temptation, even among Johnson’s admirers, to reduce him to a wit or a sage merely, but Bate wants to unfold for us the man in all of his complexity: his generous heart, his pride, his insecurities and fears, his depressions, his moral wisdom and piety, and, yes, his genius. It is a thoroughly engrossing portrait of a great man, which I hope to write about in more detail in the coming months.

**

I always enjoy looking at when the books I have been reading were written. Here is a histogram showing the original publication dates of those I read this year:

books2014

You can see Euripides and Virgil there on the left, then Augustine, then Dante, and so forth. Looking at that last bin, which counts books from the past hundred years, one might wonder how a father of two (now three!) small children, with a full-time job, and a wife working more-than-full-time, and a long commute, and a house to take care of, etc., etc. has time to read so many books! What is the secret of my success? I answer with just two words: Beatrix Potter. Remove those from consideration (as I have not considered any other of the many children’s books I read this year) and my numbers drop off drasti– but let’s not remove those from consideration.

An incident

October 13, 2014

W. Jackson Bate relates an episode from the life of Dr Johnson, drawing on the memoirs of Frances Reynolds, sister of Johnson’s friend Joshua Reynolds:

“An incident occurred shortly afterward — again at the Miss Cotterells’ — which both Reynolds and his sister thought amusingly characteristic. While Johnson was following some ladies upstairs on this visit, the housemaid, noticing his shabby dress, seized him by the shoulder and tried to pull him back, exclaiming, “Where are you going?” Startled into shame and anger, Johnson roared out like a bull, “What have I done?” Meanwhile a gentleman behind him quieted the maid, and Johnson “growled all the way up stairs, as well he might.”

Already chagrined, he became more offended when two ladies of rank suddenly arrived (the Duchess of Argyle and Lady Fitzroy), and the Miss Cotterells, engrossed in their titled visitors, neglected to introduce him or Reynolds. Inferring that this was because they were ashamed of him and Reynolds as “low company,” he sat for a while in silent meditation and then, “resolving to shock their supposed pride,” called out to Reynolds in a loud voice, “I wonder which of us two could get most money by his trade in one week, were we to work hard at it from morning to night.”

Chesterton on Chesterton

February 9, 2010

G.K. Chesterton: A Criticism (1908)
Anonymous [Cecil Chesterton] (Inkling Books, 2007)
179 p.  First reading.

To publish a critique of the thought and writings of G.K. Chesterton in 1908 might have seemed a little overhasty. At that early date only a few works of stature had appeared, with Heretics, The Man who was Thursday, and The Napoleon of Notting Hill preeminent among them.  This, one might think, was rather early and slender evidence on which to hang a character study.  Under normal circumstances that would be a sound conclusion, but these were not normal circumstances: the author of this anonymous study was none other than Chesterton’s own brother Cecil, who knew the man as well or better than anyone.  It is therefore a very interesting book, with good insight into Chesterton’s body of work — including the part that had not yet been written.

The key to understanding Chesterton, says Cecil, is to understand that he is a fighter and a romantic.  In everything he writes he has some opponent in mind whom he is seeking to persuade with his arguments and charm with his wit; he rarely writes simply to explain or describe; in everything he is a knight, riding out to meet the challenger with his own private trumpets sounding and banners flying.  This amiable combativeness suited him well, for he was temperamentally and intellectually inclined to defend causes which were, in his own time as much as in ours, lost, or at least losing:  he was an anti-imperialist, in the sense of being an unabashed nationalist; he loved Catholicism and defended it for many years before himself becoming a Catholic; and he was in revolt against the marching forces of modernity.

Cecil attributes his spirited opposition to modernity to several factors.  There was, first, his love of tradition, which naturally disposed him to reject habits of thought that held tradition in contempt.  He was also opposed to the scepticism that he saw as both tending to obstruct clear thought and as serving to loosen the influence of the past on the present.  And he disbelieved the theory of progress from which “progressives” derived their own name and that of their favoured causes; revolutions, which appealed to Chesterton’s romantic spirit, were in his mind not properly intended to create a new utopia, but rather to help the world return to a sanity which it was always threatening to forsake; revolutions were properly restorative, not radical.

All of this is familiar territory to those who have spent time with Chesterton.  More surprising, to me at least, were the literary influences which Cecil names as having had an early formative influence on Chesterton.  Decisive, in Cecil’s mind, was Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. “He embraced passionately the three great articles of Whitman’s faith, the ultimate goodness of all things implying the acceptance of the basest and meanest no less than the noblest in life, the equality and solidarity of men, and the redemption of the world by comradeship.” Chesterton’s early poetry collection The Wild Knight was especially under the sway of Whitman.  I had not suspected the connection (and now I suppose I am obliged to dig out my copy of Whitman’s poem and actually read it).  Second in importance, though more obviously, was Stevenson, from whom he learned that fighting can be noble and romantic, “but only if you fight against odds”.

Cecil has some insightful remarks to make about Chesterton’s fiction.  He was “a born story-teller, but not a born novelist”.  It is an astute observation.  Chesterton never had the talent for characterization and close observation that are the novelist’s art.  His fiction was largely a draping of narrative garb over a bony conceptual skeleton.  “Mr. Chesterton’s intellect sees ideas more clearly than persons, yet his temperament leads him to think about ideas as romantically as romanticists think about persons.  He wants to give every idea a feather and a sword, and a trumpet to blow and a good ringing voice to speak.”  His best work (to the time at which he was writing) Cecil judged to be The Napoleon of Notting Hill (“because Wayne and Auberon are the two lobes of Mr. Chesterton’s brain”), and, on the non-fiction side, his literary study Charles Dickens (“because Dickens is the author whose way of looking at life was most like his own”).  Cecil remarks that Chesterton’s talents might be better served in another genre: the musical comedy!  It is an inspired idea, and it is a pity that Chesterton never took up his brother’s suggestion.

It may well be, however, that Chesterton did take another suggestion from this book.  In his discussion of Chesterton’s literary prospects, Cecil proposes that his talents might be well served by a character who is “a sort of transcendental Sherlock Holmes, who probes mysteries, not by attention to facts and clues, but by understanding the spiritual atmosphere”.  This, of course, is a fine description of Father Brown, three years before the first Father Brown stories appeared in print.

In his closing pages, Cecil makes a comparison that has frequently occurred to me, but which I cannot recall having seen in print before.  He marks a similarity between Chesterton and Dr. Johnson, who was “regarded in his own time as a classic and in ours as a contemporary”.  There is something very apt about the phrase when applied to Chesterton; he was in his own time an oddity in many ways, yet today he is, if not exactly a contemporary, then at least someone who continues to provoke and fascinate, long after he might have been expected to go gentle into that good night.

For someone with a more than passing interest in Chesterton, this is a very worthwhile book.  Though based, by the nature of the case, on relatively little direct literary evidence, the book makes more than its fair share of shrewd comments about Chesterton’s character and style (some of which are appended below). This edition of the book, published by Inkling Books to mark the centenary of the original publication, is supplemented by an interesting set of essays by, among others, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and Chesterton himself.  They include the essay in which Wells asked that, instead of simply criticizing others (as he had done in Heretics), Chesterton ought to state his own positive positions, a challenge that provoked Chesterton to write his wonderful book Orthodoxy.  The essay by Shaw invokes (for the first time in print?) the Chesterbelloc, that amiably pugnacious double-humped creature of legend. These essays make nice addenda to the main text. There are some odd variations in the weight of the book’s font, which I found a bit distracting, but basically the edition is very nicely done, and it is good to have this study back in print.

[Chestertonian paradox]
The typical Chestertonian paradox consists not in the inversion of a proverb, but in the deliberate presentation of some unusual and unpopular thesis with all its provocative features displayed, with all the consequences which are likely to startle or anger opponents insisted on to the point of wild exaggeration.

[Farce in Chesterton]
There is nothing more characteristic of G.K.C. than that he becomes farcical in proportion as he becomes serious.

[Chesterton as a writer]
To summarize Mr. Chesterton’s position as a writer we may say that, while he lacks the careful workmanship, the regard for true proportion, the sensitive aesthetic conscience which would make him a great artist, he has enough artistry for the work he wants to do, and a little to spare, and this is backed by so prodigious a stock of vital energy, by so much humour, imagination, pugnacity, and sense of romance, that one forgets the slips and defects in the great mass of achievement.  Probably, to Chesterton, at any rate, that achievement would be impossible without those defects.

[Quantity and quality]
Mr. Chesterton’s extraordinary versatility and copiousness of output is beyond question a danger to his permanent position in literature, if he cares to have one.  It is true that, considering the amount he writes, his level of work is remarkably high.  But, unless he controls his effervescent desire to write everything that comes into his head, he will never write the best that he might have written.