Chapter IX. Period VII. The Eighteenth Century, Pseudo-Classicism And The Beginnings Of Modern Romanticism (Page 3)
'London' but more sincere and very powerful. A little later Garrick, who had risen very much more rapidly and was now manager of Drury Lane theater, gave him substantial help by producing his early play 'Irene,' a representative pseudo-classical tragedy of which it has been said that a person with a highly developed sense of duty may be able to read it through.
Meanwhile, by an arrangement with leading booksellers, Johnson had entered on the largest, and, as it proved, the decisive, work of his life, the preparation of his 'Dictionary of the English Language.' The earliest mentionable English dictionary had appeared as far back as 1604,
'containing 3000 hard words ... gathered for the benefit and help of ladies, gentle women, or any other unskilful persons.' Others had followed; but none of them was comprehensive or satisfactory. Johnson, planning a far more thorough work, contracted to do it for L1575--scanty pay for himself and his copyists, the more so that the task occupied more than twice as much time as he had expected, over seven years. The result, then, of very great labor, the 'Dictionary' appeared in 1755. It had distinct limitations. The knowledge of Johnson's day was not adequate for tracing the history and etymology of words, and Johnson himself on being asked the reason for one of his numerous blunders could only reply, with his characteristic blunt frankness, 'sheer ignorance.' Moreover, he allowed his strong prejudices to intrude, even though he colored them with humor; for example in defining 'oats' as 'a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.' Jesting at himself he defined 'lexicographer' as 'a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge.' Nevertheless the work, though not creative literature, was a great and necessary one, and Johnson did it, on the whole, decidedly well. The
'Dictionary,' in successive enlargements, ultimately, though not until after Johnson's death, became the standard, and it gave him at once the definite headship of English literary life. Of course, it should be added, the English language has vastly expanded since his time, and Johnson's first edition contained only a tithe of the 400,000 words recorded in the latest edition of Webster (1910).
With the 'Dictionary' is connected one of the best-known incidents in English literary history. At the outset of the undertaking Johnson exerted himself to secure the patronage and financial aid of Lord Chesterfield, an elegant leader of fashion and of fashionable literature. At the time Chesterfield, not foreseeing the importance of the work, was coldly indifferent, but shortly before the Dictionary appeared, being better informed, he attempted to gain a share in the credit by commending it in a periodical. Johnson responded with a letter which is a perfect masterpiece of bitter but polished irony and which should be familiar to every student.
The hard labor of the 'Dictionary' had been the only remedy for Johnson's profound grief at the death of his wife, in 1752; and how intensively he could apply himself at need he showed again some years later when to pay his mother's funeral expenses he wrote in the evenings of a single week his
'Rasselas,' which in the guise of an Eastern tale is a series of philosophical discussions of life.
Great as were Johnson's labors during the eight years of preparation of the
'Dictionary' they made only a part of his activity. For about two years he earned a living income by carrying on the semi-weekly 'Rambler,' one of the numerous imitations of 'The Spectator.' He was not so well qualified as Addison or Steele for this work, but he repeated it some years later in
It was not until 1775 that Johnson received from Oxford the degree of LL.D. which gave him the title of 'Dr.,' now almost inseparable from his name; but his long battle with poverty had ended on the accession of George III in 1762, when the ministers, deciding to signalize the new reign by encouraging men of letters, granted Johnson a pension of L300 for life. In his Dictionary Johnson had contemptuously defined a pension thus: 'An allowance made to any one without an equivalent. In England, it is generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country.' This was embarrassing, but Johnson's friends rightly persuaded him to accept the pension, which he, at least, had certainly earned by services to society very far from treasonable. However, with the removal of financial pressure his natural indolence, increased by the strain of hardships and long-continued over-exertion, asserted itself in spite of his self-reproaches and frequent vows of amendment. Henceforth he wrote comparatively little but gave expression to his ideas in conversation, where his genius always showed most brilliantly. At the tavern meetings of 'The Club' (commonly referred to as 'The Literary Club'), of which Burke, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Goldsmith, Gibbon, and others, were members, he reigned unquestioned conversational monarch. Here or in other taverns with fewer friends he spent most of his nights, talking and drinking incredible quantities of tea, and going home in the small hours to lie abed until noon.
But occasionally even yet he aroused himself to effort. In 1765 appeared his long-promised edition of Shakspere. It displays in places much of the sound sense which is one of Johnson's most distinguishing merits, as in the terse exposure of the fallacies of the pseudo-classic theory of the three dramatic unities, and it made some interpretative contributions; but as a whole it was carelessly and slightly done. Johnson's last important production, his most important really literary work, was a series of 'Lives of the English Poets' from the middle of the seventeenth century, which he wrote for a publishers' collection of their works. The selection of poets was badly made by the publishers, so that many of the lives deal with very minor versifiers. Further, Johnson's indolence and prejudices are here again evident; often when he did not know the facts he did not take the trouble to investigate; a thorough Tory himself he was often unfair to men of Whig principles; and for poetry of the delicately imaginative and romantic sort his rather painfully practical mind had little appreciation. Nevertheless he was in many respects well fitted for the work, and some of the lives, such as those of Dryden, Pope, Addison and Swift, men in whom he took a real interest, are of high merit.
Johnson's last years were rendered gloomy, partly by the loss of friends, partly by ill-health and a deepening of his lifelong tendency to morbid depression. He had an almost insane shrinking from death and with it a pathetic apprehension of future punishment. His melancholy was perhaps the greater because of the manly courage and contempt for sentimentality which prevented him from complaining or discussing his distresses. His religious faith, also, in spite of all intellectual doubts, was strong, and he died calmly, in 1784. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Johnson's picturesque surface oddities have received undue attention, thanks largely to his friend and biographer Boswell. Nearly every one knows, for example, that he superstitiously made a practice of entering doorways in a certain manner and would rather turn back and come in again than fail in the observance; that he was careless, even slovenly, in dress and person, and once remarked frankly that he had no passion for clean linen; that he ate voraciously, with a half-animal eagerness; that in the intervals of talking he 'would make odd sounds, a half whistle, or a clucking like a hen's, and when he ended an argument would blow out his breath like a whale.' More important were his dogmatism of opinion, his intense prejudices, and the often seemingly brutal dictatorial violence with which he enforced them. Yet these things too were really on the surface. It is true that his nature was extremely conservative; that after a brief period of youthful free thinking he was fanatically loyal to the national Church and to the king (though theoretically he was a Jacobite, a supporter of the supplanted Stuarts as against the reigning House of Hanover); and that in conversation he was likely to roar down or scowl down all innovators and their defenders or silence them with such observations as, 'Sir, I perceive you are a vile Whig.' At worst it was not quite certain that he would not knock them down physically. Of women's preaching he curtly observed that it was like a dog walking on its hind legs: 'It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.' English insular narrowness certainly never had franker expression than in his exclamation: 'For anything I can see, all foreigners are fools.' For the American colonists who had presumed to rebel against their king his bitterness was sometimes almost frenzied; he characterized them as
'rascals, robbers and pirates.' His special antipathy to Scotland and its people led him to insult them repeatedly, though with some individual Scots he was on very friendly terms. Yet after all, many of these prejudices rested on important principles which were among the most solid foundations of Johnson's nature and largely explain his real greatness, namely on sound commonsense, moral and intellectual independence, and hatred of insincerity. There was really something to be said for his refusal to listen to the Americans' demand for liberty while they themselves held slaves. Living in a period of change, Johnson perceived that in many cases innovations prove dangerous and that the progress of society largely depends on the continuance of the established institutions in which the wisdom of the past is summed up. Of course in specific instances, perhaps in the majority of them, Johnson was wrong; but that does not alter the fact that he thought of himself as standing, and really did stand, for order against a freedom which is always more or less in danger of leading to anarchy.
Johnson's personality, too, cannot be fairly judged by its more grotesque expression. Beneath the rough surface he was a man not only of very vigorous intellect and great learning, but of sincere piety, a very warm heart, unusual sympathy and kindness, and the most unselfish, though eccentric, generosity. Fine ladies were often fascinated by him, and he was no stranger to good society. On himself, during his later years, he spent only a third part of his pension, giving away the rest to a small army of beneficiaries. Some of these persons, through no claim on him but their need, he had rescued from abject distress and supported in his own house, where, so far from being grateful, they quarreled among themselves, complained of the dinner, or even brought their children to live with them. Johnson himself was sometimes exasperated by their peevishness and even driven to take refuge from his own home in that 'of his wealthy friends the Thrales, where, indeed, he had a room of his own; but he never allowed any one else to criticize or speak harshly of them. In sum, no man was ever loved or respected more deeply, or with better reason, by those who really knew him, or more sincerely mourned when he died.
Johnson's importance as a conservative was greatest in his professional capacity of literary critic and bulwark of pseudo-classicism. In this case, except that a restraining influence is always salutary to hold a new movement from extremes, he was in opposition to the time-spirit; romanticism was destined to a complete triumph because it was the expression of vital forces which were necessary for the rejuvenation of literature. Yet it is true that romanticism carried with it much vague and insincere sentimentality, and it was partly against this that Johnson protested. Perhaps the twentieth-century mind is most dissatisfied with his lack of sympathy for the romantic return to an intimate appreciation of external Nature. Johnson was not blind to the charm of Nature and sometimes expresses it in his own writing; but for the most part his interest, like that of his pseudo-classical predecessors, was centered in the world of man. To him, as he flatly declared, Fleet Street, in the midst of the hurry of London life, was the most interesting place in the world.
In the substance of his work Johnson is most conspicuously, and of set purpose, a moralist. In all his writing, so far as the subject permitted, he aimed chiefly at the inculcation of virtue and the formation of character. His uncompromising resoluteness in this respect accounts for much of the dulness which it is useless to try to deny in his work. 'The Rambler' and 'The Idler' altogether lack Addison's lightness of touch and of humor; for Johnson, thoroughly Puritan at heart, and dealing generally with the issues of personal conduct and responsibility, can never greatly relax his seriousness, while Addison, a man of the world, is content if he can produce some effect on society as a whole. Again, a present-day reader can only smile when he finds Johnson in his Preface to Shakspere blaming the great dramatist for omitting opportunities of instructing and delighting, as if the best moral teachers were always explicit. But Johnson's moral and religious earnestness is essentially admirable, the more so because his deliberate view of the world was thoroughly pessimistic. His own long and unhappy experience had convinced him that life is for the most part a painful tribulation, to be endured with as much patience and courage as possible, under the consciousness of the duty of doing our best where God has put us and in the hope (though with Johnson not a confident hope) that we shall find our reward in another world.
It has long been a popular tradition, based largely on a superficial page of Macaulay, that Johnson's style always represents the extreme of ponderous pedantry. As usual, the tradition must be largely discounted. It is evident that Johnson talked, on the whole, better than he wrote, that the present stimulus of other active minds aroused him to a complete exertion of his powers, but that in writing, his indolence often allowed him to compose half sleepily, at a low pressure. In some of his works, especially 'The Rambler,' where, it has been jocosely suggested, he was exercising the polysyllables that he wished to put into his 'Dictionary,' he does employ a stilted Latinized vocabulary and a stilted style, with too much use of abstract phrases for concrete ones, too many long sentences, much inverted order, and over-elaborate balance. His style is always in some respects monotonous, with little use, for instance, as critics have pointed out, of any form of sentence but the direct declarative, and with few really imaginative figures of speech. In much of his writing, on the other hand, the most conspicuous things are power and strong effective exposition. He often uses short sentences, whether or not in contrast to his long ones, with full consciousness of their value; when he will take the trouble, no one can express ideas with clearer and more forceful brevity; and in a very large part of his work his style carries the finely tonic qualities of his clear and vigorous mind.
JAMES BOSWELL AND HIS 'LIFE OF JOHNSON.' It is an interesting paradox that while Johnson's reputation as the chief English man of letters of his age seems secure for all time, his works, for the most part, do not belong to the field of pure literature, and, further, have long ceased, almost altogether, to be read. His reputation is really due to the interest of his personality, and that is known chiefly by the most famous of all biographies, the life of him by James Boswell.
Boswell was a Scotch gentleman, born in 1740, the son of a judge who was also laird of the estate of Auchinleck in Ayrshire, near the English border. James Boswell studied law, but was never very serious in any regular activity. Early in life he became possessed by an extreme boyish-romantic admiration for Johnson's works and through them for their author, and at last in 1763 (only twenty years before Johnson's death) secured an introduction to him. Boswell took pains that acquaintance should soon ripen into intimacy, though it was not until nine years later that he could be much in Johnson's company. Indeed it appears from Boswell's account that they were personally together, all told, only during a total of one hundred and eighty days at intermittent intervals, plus a hundred more continuously when in 1773 they went on a tour to the Hebrides. Boswell, however, made a point of recording in minute detail, sometimes on the spot, all of Johnson's significant conversation to which he listened, and of collecting with the greatest care his letters and all possible information about him. He is the founder and still the most thorough representative of the modern method of accurate biographical writing. After Johnson's death he continued his researches, refusing to be hurried or disturbed by several hasty lives of his subject brought out by other persons, with the result that when his work appeared in 1791 it at once assumed the position among biographies which it has ever since occupied. Boswell lived only four years longer, sinking more and more under the habit of drunkenness which had marred the greater part of his life.
Boswell's character, though absolutely different from Johnson's, was perhaps as unusual a mixture. He was shallow, extremely vain, often childishly foolish, and disagreeably jealous of Johnson's other friends. Only extreme lack of personal dignity can account for the servility of his attitude toward Johnson and his acceptance of the countless rebuffs from his idol some of which he himself records and which would have driven any other man away in indignation. None the less he was good-hearted, and the other members of Johnson's circle, though they were often vexed by him and admitted him to 'The Club' only under virtual compulsion by Johnson, seem on the whole, in the upshot, to have liked him. Certainly it is only by force of real genius of some sort, never by a mere lucky chance, that a man achieves the acknowledged masterpiece in any line of work.
Boswell's genius, one is tempted to say, consists partly of his absorption in the worship of his hero; more largely, no doubt, in his inexhaustible devotion and patience. If the bulk of his book becomes tiresome to some readers, it nevertheless gives a picture of unrivalled fulness and life-likeness. Boswell aimed to be absolutely complete and truthful. When the excellent Hannah More entreated him to touch lightly on the less agreeable traits of his subject he replied flatly that he would not cut off Johnson's claws, nor make a tiger a cat to please anybody. The only very important qualification to be made is that Boswell was not altogether capable of appreciating the deeper side of Johnson's nature. It scarcely needs to be added that Boswell is a real literary artist. He knows how to emphasize, to secure variety, to bring out dramatic contrasts, and also to heighten without essentially falsifying, as artists must, giving point and color to what otherwise would seem thin and pale.
EDWARD GIBBON AND 'THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE.' The latter part of the eighteenth century produced not only the greatest of all biographies but also the history which can perhaps best claim the same rank, Edward Gibbon's 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.' History of the modern sort, aiming at minute scientific accuracy through wide collection of materials and painstaking research, and at vivid reproduction of the life, situations and characters of the past, had scarcely existed anywhere, before Gibbon, since classical times. The medieval chroniclers were mostly mere annalists, brief mechanical recorders of external events, and the few more philosophic historians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries do not attain the first rank. The way was partly prepared for Gibbon by two Scottish historians, his early contemporaries, the philosopher David Hume and the clergyman William Robertson, but they have little of his scientific conscientiousness.
Gibbon, the son of a country gentleman in Surrey, was born in 1737. From Westminster School he passed at the age of fifteen to Oxford. Ill-health and the wretched state of instruction at the university made his residence there, according to his own exaggerated account, largely unprofitable, but he remained for little more than a year; for, continuing the reading of theological works, in which he had become interested as a child, he was converted to Catholicism, and was hurried by his father to the care of a Protestant pastor in Lausanne, Switzerland. The pastor reconverted him in a year, but both conversions were merely intellectual, since Gibbon was of all men the most incapable of spiritual emotion. Later in life he became a philosophic sceptic. In Lausanne he fell in love with the girl who later actually married M. Necker, minister of finance under Louis XVI, and became the mother of the famous Mme. de Stael; but to Gibbon's father a foreign marriage was as impossible as a foreign religion, and the son, again, obediently yielded. He never again entertained the thought of marriage. In his five years of study at Lausanne he worked diligently and laid the broad foundation of the knowledge of Latin and Greek which was to be indispensable for his great work. His mature life, spent mostly on his ancestral estate in England and at a villa which he acquired in Lausanne, was as externally uneventful as that of most men of letters. He was for several years a captain in the English militia and later a member of Parliament and one of the Lords of Trade; all which positions were of course practically useful to him as a historian. He wrote a brief and interesting autobiography, which helps to reveal him as sincere and good-hearted, though cold and somewhat self-conceited, a rather formal man not of a large nature. He died in 1794.
The circumstances under which the idea of his history first entered his mind were highly dramatic, though his own account of the incident is brief and colorless. He was sitting at vespers on the Capitoline Hill in Rome, the center of ancient Roman greatness, and the barefooted Catholic friars were singing the service of the hour in the shabby church which has long since supplanted the Roman Capitol. Suddenly his mind was impressed with the vast significance of the transformation, thus suggested, of the ancient world into the modern one, a process which has rightly been called the greatest of all historical themes. He straightway resolved to become its historian, but it was not until five years later that he really began the work. Then three years of steady application produced his first volume, in
1773, and fourteen years more the remaining five.
The first source of the greatness of Gibbon's work is his conscientious industry and scholarship. With unwearied patience he made himself thoroughly familiar with the great mass of materials, consisting largely of histories and works of general literature in many languages, belonging to the fourteen hundred years with which he dealt. But he had also the constructive power which selects, arranges, and proportions, the faculty of clear and systematic exposition, and the interpretative historical vision which perceives and makes clear the broad tendencies in the apparent chaos of mere events. Much new information has necessarily been discovered since Gibbon wrote, but he laid his foundation so deep and broad that though his work may be supplemented it can probably never be superseded, and stands in the opinion of competent critics without an equal in the whole field of history except perhaps for that of the Greek Thucydides. His one great deficiency is his lack of emotion. By intellectual processes he realizes and partly visualizes the past, with its dramatic scenes and moments, but he cannot throw himself into it (even if the material afforded by his authorities had permitted) with the passionate vivifying sympathy of later, romantic, historians. There are interest and power in his narratives of Julian's expedition into Assyria, of Zenobia's brilliant career, and of the capture of Constantinople by the Turks, but not the stirring power of Green or Froude or Macaulay. The most unfortunate result of this deficiency, however, is his lack of appreciation of the immense meaning of spiritual forces, most notoriously evident in the cold analysis, in his fifteenth chapter, of the reasons for the success of Christianity.
His style possesses much of the same virtues and limitations as his substance. He has left it on record that he composed each paragraph mentally as a whole before committing any part of it to paper, balancing and reshaping until it fully satisfied his sense of unity and rhythm. Something of formality and ponderousness quickly becomes evident in his style, together with a rather mannered use of potential instead of direct indicative verb forms; how his style compares with Johnson's and how far it should be called pseudo-classical, are interesting questions to consider. One appreciative description of it may be quoted: 'The language of Gibbon never flags; he walks forever as to the clash of arms, under an imperial banner; a military music animates his magnificent descriptions of battles, of sieges, of panoramic scenes of antique civilization.'
A longer eulogistic passage will sum up his achievement as a whole:
[Footnote: Edmund Gosse, 'History of Eighteenth Century Literature,' p.
'The historian of literature will scarcely reach the name of Edward Gibbon without emotion. It is not merely that with this name is associated one of the most splendid works which Europe produced in the eighteenth century, but that the character of the author, with all its limitations and even with all its faults, presents us with a typical specimen of the courage and singleheartedness of a great man of letters. Wholly devoted to scholarship without pedantry, and to his art without any of the petty vanity of the literary artist, the life of Gibbon was one long sacrifice to the purest literary enthusiasm. He lived to know, and to rebuild his knowledge in a shape as durable and as magnificent as a Greek temple. He was content for years and years to lie unseen, unheard of, while younger men rose past him into rapid reputation. No unworthy impatience to be famous, no sense of the uncertainty of life, no weariness or terror at the length or breadth of his self-imposed task, could induce him at any moment of weakness to give way to haste or discouragement in the persistent regular collection and digestion of his material or in the harmonious execution of every part of his design.... No man who honors the profession of letters, or regards with respect the higher and more enlightened forms of scholarship, will ever think without admiration of the noble genius of Gibbon.' It may be added that Gibbon is one of the conspicuous examples of a man whose success was made possible only by the possession and proper use of inherited wealth, with the leisure which it brings.
EDMUND BURKE. The last great prose-writer of the eighteenth century, Edmund Burke, is also the greatest of English orators. Burke is the only writer primarily a statesman and orator who can be properly ranked among English authors of the first class. The reasons, operating in substantially the same way in all literature, are not hard to understand. The interests with which statesmen and orators deal are usually temporary; the spirit and style which give a spoken address the strongest appeal to an audience often have in them something of superficiality; and it is hard for the orator even to maintain his own mind on the higher level of rational thought and disinterested purpose. Occasionally, however, a man appears in public life who to the power of compelling speech and the personality on which it is based adds intellect, a philosophic temperament, and the real literary, poetic, quality. Such men were Demosthenes, Cicero, Webster, and at times Lincoln, and beside them in England stands Burke. It is certainly an interesting coincidence that the chief English representatives of four outlying regions of literature should have been closely contemporaneous--Johnson the moralist and hack writer, Boswell the biographer, Gibbon the historian, and Burke the orator.
Burke was born in Dublin in 1729 of mixed English and Irish parentage. Both strains contributed very important elements to his nature. As English we recognize his indomitable perseverance, practical good sense, and devotion to established principles; as largely Irish his spontaneous enthusiasm, ardent emotion, and disinterested idealism. Always brilliant, in his earlier years he was also desultory and somewhat lawless. From Trinity College in Dublin he crossed over to London and studied law, which he soon abandoned. In 1756 he began his career as an author with 'A Vindication of Natural Society,' a skilful satire on the philosophic writings which Bolingbroke (the friend of Swift and Pope) had put forth after his political fall and which, while nominally expressing the deistic principles of natural religion, were virtually antagonistic to all religious faith. Burke's 'Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas on the Sublime and Beautiful,' published the same year, and next in time after Dryden among important English treatises on esthetics, has lost all authority with the coming of the modern science of psychology, but it is at least sincere and interesting. Burke now formed his connection with Johnson and his circle. An unsatisfactory period as secretary to an official in Ireland proved prolog to the gift of a seat in Parliament from a Whig lord, and thus at the age of thirty-six Burke at last entered on the public life which was his proper sphere of action. Throughout his life, however, he continued to be involved in large debts and financial difficulties, the pressure of which on a less buoyant spirit would have been a very serious handicap.
As a politician and statesman Burke is one of the finest figures in English history. He was always a devoted Whig, because he believed that the party system was the only available basis for representative government; but he believed also, and truly, that the Whig party, controlled though it was by a limited and largely selfish oligarchy of wealthy nobles, was the only effective existing instrument of political and social righteousness. To this cause of public righteousness, especially to the championing of freedom, Burke's whole career was dedicated; he showed himself altogether possessed by the passion for truth and justice. Yet equally conspicuous was his insistence on respect for the practicable. Freedom and justice, he always declared, agreeing thus far with Johnson, must be secured not by hasty violence but under the forms of law, government, and religion which represent the best wisdom of past generations. Of any proposal he always asked not only whether it embodied abstract principles of right but whether it was workable and expedient in the existing circumstances and among actual men. No phrase could better describe Burke's spirit and activity than that which Matthew Arnold coined of him--'the generous application of ideas to life.' It was England's special misfortune that, lagging far behind him in both vision and sympathy, she did not allow him to save her from the greatest disaster of her history. Himself she repaid with the usual reformer's reward. Though he soon made himself 'the brains of the Whig party,' which at times nothing but his energy and ability held together, and though in consequence he was retained in Parliament virtually to the end of his life, he was never appointed to any office except that of Paymaster of the Forces, which he accepted after he had himself had the annual salary reduced from L25,000 to L4,000, and which he held for only a year.Next