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"The characters by which Waller intended to distinguish his writings are [elegance] sprightliness and dignity.
"Blossoms to be valued only as they [fetch] foretell fruits.
"Images such as the superficies of nature [easily] readily supplies.
"[His] Some applications [are sometimes] may be thought too remote and unconsequential.
"His images are [sometimes confused] not always distinct."
Against his Life of MILTON the hounds of Whiggism have opened in full cry. But of Milton's great excellence as a poet, where shall we find such a blazon as by the hand of Johnson? I shall select only the following passage concerning "Paradise Lost:"
Fancy can hardly forbear to conjecture with what temper Milton surveyed the silent progress of his work, and marked his reputation stealing its way in a kind of subterraneous current through fear and silence. I cannot but conceive him calm and confident, little disappointed, not at all dejected, relying on his own merit with steady consciousness, and waiting, without impatience, the vicissitudes of opinion, and the impartiality of a future generation."
Indeed even Dr. Towers, who may be considered as one of the warmest zealots of The Revolution Society itself, allows that "Johnson has spoken in the highest terms of the abilities of that great poet, and has bestowed on his principal poetical compositions the most honourable encomiums 8."
8 See "An Essay on the Life, Character, and Writings of Dr. Samuel Johnson," London, 1787; which is very well written, making a proper allowance for the democratical bigotry of its authour: whom I
That a man, who venerated the Church and Monarchy as Johnson did, should speak with a just abhorrence of Milton as a politician, or rather as a daring foe to good polity, was surely to be expected; and to those who censure him, I would recommend his commentary on Milton's celebrated complaint of his situation, when by the lenity of Charles the Second, "a lenity of which (as Johnson well observes) the world has had perhaps no other example, he, who had written in justification of the murder of his Sovereign, was safe under an Act of Oblivion." No sooner is he safe than he finds himself in danger, fallen on evil days and evil tongues, with darkness and with dangers compassed round. This darkness, had his eyes been better employed, had undoubtedly deserved compassion; but to add the mention of danger was ungrateful and unjust. He was fallen, indeed, on evil days; the time was come in which regicides could no longer boast their wickedness. But of evil tongues for Milton to complain required impudence at least equal to his other powers; Milton, whose warmest advocates must allow that he never spared any asperity of reproach or brutality of insolence."
I have, indeed, often wondered how Milton,
cannot however but admire for his liberality in speaking thus of my illustrious friend:
"He possessed extraordinary powers of understanding, which were much cultivated by study, and still more by meditation and reflection. His memory was remarkably retentive, his imagination uncommonly vigorous, and his judgment keen and penetrating. He had a strong sense of the importance of religion; his piety was sincere, and sometimes ardent; and his zeal for the interests of virtue was often manifested in his conversation and in his writings. The same energy which was displayed in his literary productions was exhibited also in his conversation, which was various, striking, and instructive; and perhaps no man ever equalled him for nervous and pointed repartees.
"His Dictionary, his moral Essays, and his productions in polite literature will convey useful instruction and elegant entertainment, as long as the language in which they are written shall be understood."
"an acrimonious and surly Republican","" a man who in his domestick relations was so severe and arbitrary '," and whose head was filled with the hardest and most dismal tenets of Calvinism, should have been such a poet; should not only have written with sublimity, but with beauty, and even gaiety; should have exquisitely painted the sweetest sensations of which our nature is capable; imaged the delicate raptures of connubial love; nay, seemed to be animated with all the spirit of revelry. It is a proof that in the human mind the departments of judgment and imagination, perception and temper, may sometimes be divided by strong partitions; and that the light and shade in the same character may be kept so distinct as never to be blended 2.
In the Life of Milton, Johnson took occasion to maintain his own and the general opinion of the excellence of rhyme over blank verse, in English poetry; and quotes this apposite illustration of it by "an ingenious critick," that it seems to be verse only to the eye3. The gentleman whom he thus characterizes is (as he told Mr. Seward) Mr. Lock, of Norbury Park, in Surrey, whose knowledge and taste in the fine arts is universally celebrated; with whose elegance of manners the writer of the present work has felt himself much impressed, and to whose virtues a common friend, who has known him long, and is not much addicted to flattery, gives the highest testimony.
9 Johnson's Life of Milton.
2 Mr. Malone thinks it is rather a proof that he felt nothing of those cheerful sensations which he has described: that on these topicks it is the poet, and not the man, that writes.
3 One of the most natural instances of the effect of blank verse occurred to the late Earl of Hopeton. His Lordship observed one of his shepherds poring in the fields upon Milton's "Paradise Lost;" and having asked him what book it was, the man answered, “ An't please your Lordship, this is a very odd sort of an authour: he would fain rhyme, but cannot get at it."
Various Readings in the Life of MILTON.
"I cannot find any meaning but this which [his most bigoted advocates] even kindness and reverence can give.
"[Perhaps no] scarcely any man ever wrote so much, and praised so few.
"A certain [rescue] preservative from oblivion. "Let me not be censured for this digression, as [contracted] pedantick or paradoxical.
"Socrates rather was of opinion that what we had to learn was how to [obtain and communicate happiness] do good and avoid evil.
"Its elegance [who can exhibit?] is less attainable."
I could, with pleasure, expatiate upon the masterly execution of the Life of DRYDEN, which we have seen was one of Johnson's literary projects at an early period, and which it is remarkable that, after desisting from it from a supposed scantiness of materials, he should, at an advanced age, have exhibited so amply.
His defence of that great poet against the illiberal attacks upon him, as if his embracing the Roman Catholick communion had been a timeserving measure, is a piece of reasoning at once able and candid. Indeed, Dryden himself, in his "Hind and Panther," hath given such a picture of his mind that they who know the anxiety for repose as to the awful subject of our state beyond the grave, though they may think his opinion ill founded, must think charitably of his sentiment:
"BUT, gracious GOD, how well dost thou provide
4 See Vol. III. page 70.
O! teach me to believe thee thus conceal'd,
Whom thou hast promised never to forsake.
Follow'd false lights; and when their glimpse was gone,
Be thine the glory, and be mine the shame.
Good life be now my task: my doubts are done;
In drawing Dryden's character, Johnson has given, though I suppose unintentionally, some touches of his own. Thus: "The power that predominated in his intellectual operations was rather strong reason than quick sensibility. Upon all occasions that were presented, he studied rather than felt; and produced sentiments not such as Nature enforces, but meditation supplies. With the simple and elemental passions as they spring separate in the mind, he seems not much acquainted. He is, therefore, with all his variety of excellence, not often pathetick'; and had so little sensibility of the power of effusions purely natural that he did not esteem them in others."
may indeed be observed that in all the numerous writings of Johnson, whether in prose or verse, and even in his Tragedy, of which the subject is the distress of an unfortunate Princess, there is not a single passage that ever drew a tear.
Various Readings in the Life of DRYDEN.
"The reason of this general perusal, Addison has attempted to [find in] derive from the delight which the mind feels in the investigation of
5 [It seems to me, that there are many pathetick passages in Johnson's works, both prose and verse. K.]