Gateway to the Classics: English Literature for Boys and Girls by H. E. Marshall
English Literature for Boys and Girls by  H. E. Marshall

Johnson—The End of the Journey

"I SUPPED three nights ago with my friend Will Marvel. His affairs obliged him lately to take a journey into Devonshire, from which he has just returned. He knows me to be a very patient hearer, and was glad of my company, as it gave him an opportunity of disburdening himself, by a minute relation of the casualties of his expedition.

"Will is not one of those who go out and return with nothing to tell. He has a story of his travels, which will strike a home-bred citizen with horror, and has in ten days suffered so often the extremes of terror and joy, that he is in doubt whether he shall ever again expose either his body or his mind to such danger and fatigue.

"When he left London the morning was bright, and a fair day was promised. But Will is born to struggle with difficulties. That happened to him, which has sometimes, perhaps, happened to others. Before he had gone more than ten miles, it began to rain. What course was to be taken? His soul disdained to turn back. He did what the King of Prussia might have done; he flapped his hat, buttoned up his cape, and went forwards, fortifying his mind by the stoical consolation, that whatever is violent will be short."

So, with such adventures, the first day passes, and reaching his inn, after a good supper, Will Marvel goes to bed and sleeps soundly. But during the night he is wakened "by a shower beating against his windows with such violence as to threaten the dissolution of nature." Thus he knows that the next day will have its troubles. "He joined himself, however, to a company that was travelling the same way, and came safely to the place of dinner, though every step of his horse dashed the mud in the air."

In the afternoon he went on alone, passing "collections of water," puddles doubtless, the depth of which it was impossible to guess, and looking back upon the ride he marvels at his rash daring. "But what a man undertakes he must perform, and Marvel hates a coward at his heart.

"Few that lie warm in their beds think what others undergo, who have, perhaps, been as tenderly educated, and have as acute sensations as themselves. My friend was now to lodge the second night almost fifty miles from home, in a house which he never had seen before, among people to whom he was totally a stranger, not knowing whether the next man he should meet would prove good or bad; but seeing an inn of a good appearance, he rode resolutely into the yard; and knowing that respect is often paid in proportion as it is claimed, delivered his injunctions to the ostler with spirit, and, entering the house, called vigorously about him.

"On the third day up rose the sun and Mr. Marvel. His troubles and dangers were now such as he wishes no other man ever to encounter." The way was lonely, often for two miles together he met not a single soul with whom he could speak, and, looking at the bleak fields and naked trees, he wished himself safe home again. His only consolation was that he suffered these terrors of the way alone. Had, for instance, his friend the "Idler" been there he could have done nothing but lie down and die.

"At last the sun set and all the horrors of darkness came upon him. . . . Yet he went forward along a path which he could no longer see, sometimes rushing suddenly into water, and sometimes encumbered with stiff clay, ignorant whither he was going, and uncertain whether his next step might not be the last.

"In this dismal gloom of nocturnal peregrination his horse unexpectedly stood still. Marvel had heard many relations of the instinct of horses, and was in doubt what danger might be at hand. Sometimes he fancied that he was on the bank of a river still and deep, and sometimes that a dead body lay across the track. He sat still awhile to recollect his thoughts; and as he was about to alight and explore the darkness, out stepped a man with a lantern, and opened the turnpike. He hired a guide to the town, arrived in safety, and slept in quiet.

"The rest of his journey was nothing but danger. He climbed and descended precipices on which vulgar mortals tremble to look; he passed marshes like the Serbonian bog,  where armies whole have sunk; he forded rivers where the current roared like the Egre or the Severn; or ventured himself on bridges that trembled under him, from which he looked down on foaming whirlpools, or dreadful abysses; he wandered over houseless heaths, amidst all the rage of the elements, with the snow driving in his face, and the tempest howling in his ears.

"Such are the colours in which Marvel paints his adventures. He has accustomed himself to sounding words and hyperbolical images, till he has lost the power of true description. In a road, through which the heaviest carriages pass without difficulty, and the post-boy every day and night goes and returns, he meets with hardships like those which are endured in Siberian deserts, and missed nothing of romantic danger but a giant and a dragon. When his dreadful story is told in proper terms, it is only that the way was dirty in winter, and that he experienced the common vicissitudes of rain and sunshine."

I am afraid you will find a good many "too big" words in that. But if I changed them to others more simple you would get no idea of the way in which Johnson wrote, and I hope those you do not understand you will look up in the dictionary. It will not be Johnson's own dictionary, however, for that has grown old-fashioned, and its place has been taken by later ones. For some of Johnson's meanings were not correct, and when these mistakes were pointed out to him he was not in the least ashamed. Once a lady asked him how he came to say that the pastern was the knee of a horse, and he calmly replied, "Ignorance, madam, pure ignorance."  "Dictionaries are like watches," he said, "the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true."

With some words, instead of giving the original meaning, he gave a personal meaning, that is he allowed his own sense of humor, feelings or politics, to color the meaning. For instance, he disliked the Scots, so for the meaning of Oats he gave, "A grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people." He disliked the Excise duty, so he called it "A hateful tax levied by wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid." For this last meaning he came very near being punished for libel.

When Johnson thought of beginning the dictionary he wrote about it to Lord Chesterfield, a great man and fine gentleman of the day. As the fashion was, Johnson had chosen this great man for his patron. But Lord Chesterfield, although his vanity was flattered at the idea of having a book dedicated to him, was too delicate a fine gentleman to wish to have anything to do with a man he considered poor. "He throws anywhere but down his throat," he said, "whatever he means to drink, and mangles what he means to carve. . . . The utmost I can do for him is to consider him a respectable Hottentot." So, when Johnson had called several times and been told that his lordship was not at home, or had been kept waiting for hours before he was received, he grew angry, and marched away never to return, vowing that he had done with patrons for ever.

The years went on, and Johnson saw nothing of his patron. When, however, the dictionary was nearly done, Lord Chesterfield let it be known that he would be pleased to have it dedicated to him. But Johnson would have none of it. He wrote a letter which was the "Blast of Doom, proclaiming into the ear of Lord Chesterfield, and, through him, of the listening world, that patronage would be no more!"

"Seven years, my Lord, have now passed," wrote Johnson, "since I waited in your outward rooms and was repulsed from your door; during which time I have been pushing on my work through difficulties of which it is useless to complain, and have brought it at last to the verge of publication without one act of assistance, one word of encouragement, and one smile of favour. Such treatment I did not expect, for I never had a patron before. . . .

"Is not a patron, my Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and when he has reached the ground cumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent, and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary, and cannot impart it; till I am known, and do not want it."

There was an end of patronage so far as Johnson was concerned, and it was the beginning of the end of it with others. Great Sam had roared, he had asserted himself, and with the publication of his dictionary he became "The Great Cham of literature."

He had by this time founded a club of literary men which met at "a famous beef-steak house," and here he lorded it over his fellows as his bulky namesake had done more than a hundred years before. In many ways there was a great likeness between these two. They were both big and stout (for Sam was now stout). They were loud-voiced and dictatorial. They both drank a great deal, but Ben, alas, drank wine overmuch, as was common in his day, while Sam drank endless cups of tea, seventeen or eighteen it might be at a sitting, indeed he called himself a hardened and shameless tea-drinker. But, above all, their likeness lies in the fact that they both dominated the literary men of their period; they were kings and rulers. They laid down the law and settled who was great and who little among the writers of the day. And it was not merely the friends around Johnson who heard him talk, who listened to his judgments about books and writers. The world outside listened, too, to what he had to say, and you will remember that it was he who utterly condemned Macpherson's pretended poems of Ossian, "that pious three-quarters fraud" of which you have already read in Chapter IV.

Johnson had always spent much of his time in taverns, and was now more than ever free to do so. For while he was still working at his dictionary he suffered a great grief in the death of his wife. He had loved her truly and never ceased to mourn her loss. But though he had lost his wife, he did not remain solitary in his home, for he opened his doors to a queer collection of waifs and strays—three women and a man, upon whom he took pity because no one else would. They were ungrateful and undeserving, and quarreled constantly among themselves, so that his home could have been no peaceful spot. "Williams hates everybody," he writes; "Levett hates Desmoulins and does not love Williams; Desmoulins hates them both; Poll loves none of them." It does not sound peaceful or happy.

Some years after the death of Johnson's wife his mother died at the age of ninety, and although he had not been with her for many years, that too was a grief. The poor lady had had very little to live on, and she left some debts. Johnson himself was still struggling with poverty. He had no money, so to pay his mother's few debts, and also the expenses of her funeral, he sat down to write a story. In a week he had finished Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia.

The story of Rasselas is that of a prince who is shut up in the Happy Valley until the time shall come for him to ascend the throne of his fathers. Everything was done to make life in the Happy Valley peaceful and joyful, but Rasselas grew weary of it; to him it became but a prison of pleasure, and at last, with his favorite sister, he escaped out into the world. The story tells then of their search for happiness. But perfect happiness they cannot find, and discovering this, they decide to return to the Happy Valley.

There is a vein of sadness throughout the book. It ends as it were with a big question mark, with a "conclusion in which nothing is concluded." For the position of the prince and his sister was unchanged, and they had not found what they sought. Is it to be found at all? The story is a revelation of Johnson himself. He never saw life joyously, and at times he had fits of deep melancholy which he fought against as against a madness. "I inherited," he said, "a vile melancholy from my father, which has made me mad all my life, at least not sober," and his long struggle with poverty helped to deepen this melancholy.

But a year or two after Rasselas  was written, a great change came in Johnson's life, which gave him comfort and security for the rest of his days. George III had come to the throne. He thought that he would like to do something for literature, and offered Johnson a pension of three hundred pounds a year.

Johnson was now a man of fifty-four. He was acknowledged as the greatest man of letters of his day, yet he was still poor. Three hundred pounds seemed to him wealth, but he hesitated to accept it. He was an ardent Tory and hated the House of Hanover. In his dictionary he had called a pension "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." A pensioner he had said was "A slave of state hired by a stipend to obey his master." Was he then to become a traitor to his country and a slave of state?

But after a little persuasion Johnson yielded, as the pension would be given to him, he was told, not for anything that he would do, but for what he had done. "It is true," he said afterwards, with a smile, "that I cannot now curse the House of Hanover; nor would it be decent for me to drink King James's health in the wine that King George gives me money to pay for. But, sir, I think that the pleasure of cursing the House of Hanover, and drinking King James's health, are amply overbalanced by three hundred pounds a year."

Johnson had always been indolent. It was perhaps only poverty that had forced him to write, and now that he was comfortably provided for he became more indolent still. He reproached himself, made good resolutions, and prayed over this fault, but still he remained slothful and idle. He would lie abed till two o'clock, and sit up half the night talking, and an edition of Shakespeare which he had promised years before got no further on. An edition of another man's works often means a great deal of labor in making notes and comments. This is especially so if hundreds of years have passed since the book was first written and the language has had time to change, and Johnson felt little inclined for this labor. But at length he was goaded into working upon his Shakespeare by some spiteful verses on his idleness, written by a political enemy, and after long delay it appeared.

Just a little before this a young Scotsman named James Boswell got to know the great man. He worshiped Johnson and spent as much time with him as he could. It was a strange friendship which grew up between these two. The great man bullied and insulted yet loved the little man, and the little man accepted all the insults gladly, happy to be allowed to be near his hero on any conditions whatever. He treasured every word that Johnson spoke and noted his every action. Nothing was too small or trivial for his loving observation. He asked Johnson questions and made remarks, foolish or otherwise, in order to draw him out and make him talk, and afterwards he set down everything in a notebook.

And when Johnson was dead Boswell wrote his life. It is one of the most wonderful lives ever written—perhaps the most wonderful. And when we have read it we seem to know Johnson as well as if we had lived with him. We see and know him in all his greatness and all his littleness, in all his weakness and all his might.

It was with Boswell that Johnson made his most famous journey, his tour to Scotland. For, like his namesake, Ben, he too visited Scotland. But he traveled in a more comfortable manner, and his journey was a much longer one, for he went as far as the Hebrides. It was a wonderful expedition for a man of sixty-four, especially in those days when there were no trains and little ease in the way of traveling, and when much of it had to be done on rough ponies or in open boats.

On his return Johnson wrote an account of this journey which did not altogether please some of the Scots. But indeed, although Johnson did not love the Scots, there is little in his book at which to take offense.

Johnson's last work was a series of short lives of some of the English poets from the seventeenth century onwards. It is generally looked upon as his best. And although some of the poets of whom he wrote are almost forgotten, and although we may think that he was wrong in his criticisms of many of the others, this is the book of Johnson's which is still most read. For it must be owned that the great Sam is not much read now, although he is such an important figure in the history of our literature. It is as a person that we remember him, not as a writer. He stamped his personality, as it is called, upon his age. Boswell caught that personality and preserved it for us, so that, for generation after generation, Johnson lives as no other character in English literature lives. Boswell gave a new meaning to the word biographer, that is the writer of a life, and now when a great man has had no one to write his life well, we say "He lacks a Boswell."

Boswell after a time joined the famous club at which Johnson and his friends met together and talked. Johnson loved to argue, and he made a point of always getting the best of an argument. If he could not do so by reason, he simply roared his opponent down and silenced him by sheer rudeness. "There is no arguing with Johnson," said one of his friends, Oliver Goldsmith, "for when his pistol misses fire he knocks you down with the butt end of it."


"There is no arguing with Johnson," said Goldsmith, "for when his pistol misses fire he knocks you down with the butt end of it."

And perhaps Goldy, as Johnson called him, had to suffer more rudeness from him than any of his friends save Bozzy. Yet the three were often to be found together, and it was Goldsmith who said of Johnson, "No man alive has a more tender heart. He has nothing of the bear but his skin."

And indeed in Johnson's outward appearance there was much of the bear. He was a sloven in dress. His clothes were shabby and thrown on anyhow. "I have no passion for clean linen," he said himself. At table he made strange noises and ate greedily, yet in spite of all that, added to his noted temper and rude manners, men loved him and sought his company more than that of any other writer of his day, for "within that shaggy exterior of his there beat a heart warm as a mother's, soft as a little child's."

After Johnson received his pension we may look upon him as a lumbering vessel which has weathered many a strong sea and has now safely come to port. His life was henceforth easy. He received honorary degrees, first from Dublin and then from Oxford, so that he became Dr. Johnson. For two-and-twenty years he enjoyed his pension, his freedom and his honors; then, in 1784, surrounded by his friends, he died in London, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Books To Read

Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia.

A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland.

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