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“ The Idler." Letters to Warton. — Letters to Bennet
Langton. — Illness of Johnson's Mother. - Letters to her, and to Miss Porter. — His Mother's Death.
Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia.” — Miscellanies. - Excursion to Oxford. - Francis Barber. -John Wilkes. — Smollett. — Letter to Mrs. Montagu. — Mrs. Ogle. — Mylne the Architect.
The Idler is evidently the work of the same mind which produced the Rambler, but has less body and more spirit. It has more variety of real life, and greater facility of language. He describes the miseries of idleness, with the lively sensations of one who has felt them; and in his private memorandums while engaged in it, we find “This year I hope to learn diligence."(1) Many of these excellent essays were written as hastily as an ordinary letter. Mr. Langton remembers Johnson, when on a visit at Oxford, asking him one evening how long it was till the post went out; and on being told about half an hour, he exclaimed, “then we shall do very well." He
upon this instantly sat down and finished an Idler, which it was necessary should be in London the next
(1) Prayers and Meditations, p. 30.
day. Mr. Langton having signified a wish to read it, “ Sir, (said he) you shall not do more than I have done myself.” He then folded it up, and sent it off.
Yet there are in the Idler several papers which show as much profundity of thought, and labour of language, as any of this great man's writings. No. 14. “ Robbery of time;" No. 24. “ Thinking ;" No. 41. “ Death of a friend ;" No. 43. “ Flight of time;" No. 51. “ Domestic greatness unattainable ;" No. 52. “ Self-denial ;” No. 58. “ Actual, how short of fancied, excellence;" No. 89. “Physical evil moral good ;” and his concluding paper on “The horror of the last,” will prove this assertion. I know not why a motto, the usual trapping of periodical papers, is prefixed to very few of the Idlers, as I have heard Johnson commend the custom : and he never could be at a loss for one, his memory being stored with innumerable passages of the classics. In this series of essays he exhibits admirable instances of grave humour, of which he had an uncommon share. Nor on some occasions has he repressed that power of sophistry which he possessed in so eminent a degree.
In No. 11., he treats with the utmost contempt the opinion that our mental faculties depend, in some degree, upon the weather; an opinion, which they who have never experienced its truth are not to be envied, and of which he himself could not but be sensible, as the effects of weather upon him were very visible. Yet thus he declaims :
Surely, nothing is more reproachful to a being endowed with reason, than to resign its powers to the in
fluence of the air, and live in dependence on the weather and the wind for the only blessings which nature has put into our power, tranquillity and benevolence. This distinction of seasons is produced only by imagination operating on luxury. To temperance, every day is bright; and every hour is propitious to diligence. He that shall resolutely excite his faculties, or exert his virtues, will soon make himself superior to the seasons ; and may set at defiance the morning mist and the evening damp, the blasts of the east, and the clouds of the south.”
Alas! it is too certain, that where the frame has delicate fibres, and there is a fine sensibility, such influences of the air are irresistible. He might as well have bid defiance to the ague, the palsy, and all other bodily disorders. Such boasting of the mind is false elevation.
“ I think the Romans call it Stoicism." But in this number of his Idler his spirits seem to run riot (1); for in the wantonness of his disquisition he forgets, for a moment, even the reverence for that which he held in high respect; and describes “the attendant on a Court (2),” as one “whose business is to watch the looks of a being, weak and foolish as himself."
His unqualified ridicule of rhetorical gesture or action is not, surely, a test of truth; yet we cannot
(1) This doctrine of the little influence of the weather, however, seems to have been his fixed opinion: he often repeated it in conversation. See post, July 9. 1763. — C.
(2) See antè, p. 64. Mr. Boswell seems resolved to forget that Johnson's reverence for the court had not yet commenced. George II. was still alive, whom Johnson always abused, and sometimes very indecently. See antè, p. 164., and post, April 6. 1775.-C.
help admiring how well it is adapted to produce the effect which he wished :
“ Neither the judges of our laws, nor the representatives of our people, would be much affected by laboured gesticulations, or believe any man the more because he rolled his eyes, or puffed his cheeks, or spread abroad his arms, or stamped the ground, or thumped his breast; or turned his eyes sometimes to the ceiling, and sometimes to the floor."
A casual coincidence with other writers, adoption of a sentiment or image which has been found in the writings of another, and afterwards appears in the mind as one's own, is not unfrequent. The richness of Johnson's fancy, which could supply his page abundantly on all occasions, and the strength of his memory, which at once detected the real owner of any thought, made him less liable to the imputation of plagiarism than, perhaps, any of our writers. In the Idler, however, there is a paper, in which conversation is assimilated to a bowl of punch, where there is the same train of comparison as in a poem by Blacklock, in his collection published in 1756 ; in which a parallel is ingeniously drawn between human life and that liquor. It ends,
“Say, then, physicians of each kind,
Who cure the body or the mind,
Since punch and life so well agree?" To the Idler (1), when collected in volumes, he (1) The profits accruing from the sale of this paper, and the subscriptions which, from the year 1756, he was receiving for the edition of Shakspeare by him proposed, were the only known
added, beside the Essay on Epitaphs, and the Dissertation on those of Pope, an Essay on the Bravery of the English common Soldiers. He, however, omitted one of the original papers, which in the folio copy is No. 22. (1)
LETTER 57. TO THE REV. THOMAS WARTON.
“[London,] April 14. 1758. “ DEAR SIR, -Your notes upon my poet were very acceptable. I beg that you will be so kind as to continue your searches. It will be reputable to my work, and suitable to your professorship, to have something of yours in the notes. As you have given no directions about your name, I shall therefore put it. I wish your brother would take the same trouble. A commentary must arise from the fortuitous discoveries of many men in devious walks of literature. Some of your remarks are on plays already printed : but I purpose to add an Appendix of Notes, so that nothing comes too late.
means of his subsistence for a period of near four years, and we may suppose them hardly adequate to his wants, for, upon finding the balance of the account for the Dictionary against him, he quitted his house in Gough Square, and took chambers in Gray's Inn; and Mrs. Williams, upon this removal, fixed herself in lodgings at a boarding-school, in the neighbourhood of their former dwelling. — HAWKINS.
He retired to Gray's Inn, and soon removed to chambers in the Inner Temple Lane, where he lived in poverty, total idleness, and the pride of literature. Mr. Fitzherbert (the father of Lord St. Helen's), a man distinguished through life for his benevolence and other amiable qualities, used to say, that he paid a morning visit to Johnson, intending from his chambers to send a letter into the city; but, to his great surprise, he found an author by profession without pen, ink, or paper. The present Bishop of Salisbury was also among those who endeavoured, by constant attention, to soothe the cares of a mind which he knew to be afflicted with gloomy apprehensions. - MURPHY.
(1) This paper may be found in Stockdale's supplemental volume of Johnson's Miscellaneous Pieces.