* * * Seven years, my Lord, have now passed 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, or one smile
of favor. Such treatment I did not expect, for I never had a patron
The shepherd in Vergil grew at last acquainted with Love, and
found him a native of the rocks.
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
encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take
of my labors, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed
till I am indifferent, and can not enjoy it; till I am a solitary, and
can not impart it; till I am known, and do not want it. I hope it is no
very cynical asperity not to confess obligations where no benefit has
been received, or to be unwilling that the public should consider me as
owing that to a patron which Providence has enabled me to do for myself.
Having carried on my work thus far with so little obligation to any
favorer of learning, I shall not be disappointed though I should
conclude it, should less be possible, with less; for I have been long
wakened from that dream of hope in which I once boasted myself with so
much exultation, my Lord.
Your Lordship's most humble, most
The critics, I believe, have made a
distinction between large men and great men.
Samuel Johnson was both. He was massive in intellect, colossal in culture,
prodigious in memory, weighed nigh three hundred pounds, and had
prejudices to match. He was possessed of a giant's strength, and
occasionally used it like a giant—for instance, when he felled an
offending bookseller with a folio.
Johnson was most unfortunate in his biographer. In picturing the great
writer, Boswell writes more entertainingly than Johnson ever did, and
thereby overtops his subject. And when in reply to the intimation that
Boswell was going to write his life, Johnson answered, "If I really
thought he was, I would take his," he spoke a jest in earnest.
Walking along Market Street in the city of Saint Louis, with a friend, not
long ago, my comrade suddenly stopped and excitedly pointed out a man
across the way—"Look quick—there he goes!" exclaimed my friend, "that man
with the derby and duster—see? That's the husband of Mrs. Lease of
Kansas!" And all I could say was, "God help him!"
Not but that Mrs. Lease is a most excellent and amiable lady; but the idea
of a man, made in the image of his Maker, being reduced to the social
state of a drone-bee is most depressing.
Among that worthy class of people referred to somewhat ironically as "the
reading public," Boswell is read, but Johnson never. And so sternly true
is the fact that many critics, set on a hair-trigger, aver that were it
not for Boswell no one would now know that a writer by the name of Johnson
ever lived. Yet the fact is, Boswell ruined the literary reputation of
Johnson by intimating that Johnson wrote Johnsonese; but that is a
Johnson never wrote Johnsonese. The piling up of reasons, the cumulation
of argument—setting off epigram against epigram—that mark Johnson's
literary style are its distinguishing features. He is profound, but always
lucid. And lucidity is just what modern Johnsonese lacks. The word was
coined by a man who had neither the patience to read Johnson nor the
ability to comprehend him. Only sophomores, and private secretaries who
write speeches for able Congressmen, write Johnsonese.
Quibblers possibly may arise and present Johnson's definition of
network—"anything reticulated or decussated at equal distances with
interstices between the intersections"—but with the quibbler we have no
time to dally. Some people insist on having their literature illustrated,
just as others refuse to attend lectures that are not reinforced by a
Johnson had a style that is stately, dignified, splendid. It moves from
point to point with absolute precision, and in it there is seldom anything
ambiguous, muddy, confused or uncertain. Get down a volume of "Lives of
the Poets," and prove my point for yourself, by opening at any page. It
was Boswell who set his own light, chatty and amusing gossip over against
the wise, stately diction of Johnson, and allowed Goldsmith to say, "Dear
Doctor, if you were to write a story about little fishes, you would make
them talk like whales," and the mud ball has stuck. The average man is
much more willing to take the wily Boswell's word for it than to read
Johnson for himself.
The balanced power of Johnson's English can not fail to delight the
student of letters who cares to interest himself in the matter of
sentence-building. Johnson handles a thought with such ease! He makes you
think of the circus "strong man" who tosses the cannon-ball, marked
"weight 250 lbs." What if the balls are sometimes only wood painted black!
Have we not been entertained? Read this specimen paragraph:
"Criticism is a study by which men grow important and formidable at very
small expense. The power of invention has been conferred by Nature upon
few, and the labor of learning those sciences which may by continuous
effort be obtained is too great to be willingly endured; but every man can
exert such judgment as he has upon the works of others; and he whom Nature
has made weak, and idleness keeps ignorant, may yet support his vanity by
the name of 'critic,'"
But the greatest literary light of his day has been thrown into the shadow
by a man whom no one suspected of being able to write entertainingly. In
the world of letters the great Cham exists only as a lesser luminary; just
as the once-noted novelist, George Henry Lewes, is now known only as the
husband of George Eliot.
And yet no one is so rash as to say that the name of Boswell would now be
known were it not for Johnson. And conversely (or otherwise), if it were
the proper place, I could show that were it not for George Henry Lewes we
should never have had "Adam Bede" or "The Mill on the Floss."
Boswell wrote the best "Life" ever written. Nothing like it was ever
written before; nothing to equal it has been written since. It has had
hundreds of imitators, but no competitors. Matthew Arnold said that no man
ever had so good a subject, but Arnold for the moment seemed to forget
that Hawkins, a professional literary man, published his "Life of Johnson"
long before Boswell's was sent to the printer—and who reads Hawkins?
Surely Boswell had a great subject, and he rises to the level of his theme
and makes the most of it. At times I have wondered if Boswell were not
really a genius so great and profound that he was willing to play the
fool, as Edgar in "Lear" plays the maniac, and allow himself to be snubbed
(in print) in order to make his telling point! Millionaires can well
afford to wear ragged coats. Second-rate man Boswell may have been, as he
himself so oft admits, yet as a biographer he stands first in the front
rank. But suppose his extreme ignorance was only the domino disguising a
cleverness so subtle that it was not discovered until after his death! And
what if he smiles now, as from out of Elysium he looks and beholds how, as
a writer, he has eclipsed old Ursa Major, and thus clipped the claws that
were ready for any chance Scot who might pass that way!
John Hay has suggested that possibly the insight, piquancy and calm wisdom
of Omar Khayyam are two-thirds essence of FitzGerald. If so, the joke is
on Omar, not on FitzGerald.
A dozen of Johnson's contemporaries wrote about him, and all make him out
a profound scholar, a deep philosopher, a facile writer. Boswell by his
innocent quoting and recounting makes his conversation outstrip all of his
other accomplishments. He reveals the man by the most skilful indirection,
and by leaving his guard down, often allows the reader to score a point.
And of all devices of writing folk, none is finer than to please the
reader by allowing him to pat himself on the back.
If a writer is too clever he repels. Shakespeare avoids the difficulty,
and proves himself the master by keeping out of sight; Renan wins by a
great show of modesty and deferential fairness; Boswell assumes an
artlessness and ignorance that were really not parts of his nature. Every
man who reads Boswell considers himself the superior of Boswell, and
therefore is perfectly at home. It is not pleasant to be in the society of
those who are much your superiors. Any man who sits in the company of
Samuel Pepys for a half-hour feels a sort of half-patronizing pity for
him, and therefore is happy, for to patronize is bliss.
If Boswell has reinforced fact with fiction, and given us art for truth,
then his character of Samuel Johnson is the most vividly conceived and
deeply etched in all the realm of books. But if he gives merely the simple
facts, then Boswell is no less a genius, for he has omitted the irrelevant
and inconsequential, and by playing off the excellent against the absurd,
he has placed his subject among the few great wits who have ever lived—a
man who wrote remarkably well, but talked infinitely better.
Montaigne advises young men that if they will fall in love, why, to fall
in love with women older than themselves. His argument is that a young and
pretty woman makes such a demand on a man's time and attention that she is
sure, eventually, to wear love to the warp. So the wise old Gascon
suggests that it is the part of wisdom to give your affection to one who
is both plain and elderly—one who is not suffering from a surfeit of love,
and one whose head has not been turned by flattery. "Young women," says
the philosopher, "demand attention as their right and often flout the
giver; whereas old women are very grateful."
Whether Samuel Johnson, of Lichfield, ever read Montaigne or not is a
question; but this we know, that when he was twenty-six he married the
Widow Porter, aged forty-nine.
Assuming that Johnson had read Montaigne and was mindful of his advice,
there were other excellent reasons why he did not link his fortunes with
those of a young and pretty woman.
Johnson in his youth, as well as throughout life, was a Grind of the pure
type. The Grind is a fixture, a few being found at every University, even
unto this day. The present writer, once in a book of fiction, founded on
fact, took occasion to refer to the genus Grind, with Samuel Johnson in
mind, as follows: He is poor in purse, but great in frontal development.
He goes to school because he wishes to (no one ever "sent" a Grind to
college). He has a sallow skin, a watery eye, a shambling gait, but he has
the facts. His clothes are outgrown, his coat shiny, his linen a dull
ecru, his hands clammy. He reads a book as he walks, and when he bumps
into you, he always exculpates himself in Attic Greek.
This absent-mindedness and habit of reading on the street affords the
Sport (another college type) great opportunity for the playing of pranks.
It is very funny to walk along in front of a Grind who is reading as he
walks, and then suddenly stop and stoop, and let the Grind fall over you;
for the innocent Grind, thinking he has been at fault, is ever profuse in
Many years ago there was a Grind. A party of Sports saw him approaching,
deeply immersed in his book. "Look you," quoth the chief of the
Sports—"look you and observe him fall over me."
And they looked.
Onward blindly trudged the Grind, reading as he came. The Sport stepped
ahead of him, stooped, and —— one big foot of the Grind shot out and
kicked him into the gutter. Then the Grind continued his walk and his
reading without saying a word.
This incident is here recorded for the betterment of the Young, to show
them that things are not always what they seem.
Samuel Johnson, I have said, was a Grind of the pure type. He was so
nearsighted that he fell over chairs in drawing-rooms, and so awkward that
his long arms occasionally brushed the bric-a-brac from mantels. No lady's
train was safe if he was in the room. At gatherings of young people, if
Johnson appeared, his presence was at once the signal for mirth, of which
he was, of course, the unconscious object.
Johnson's face was scarred by the King's Evil, which even the touch of
Queen Anne had failed to cure. While a youth he talked aloud to himself—a
privilege that should be granted only to those advanced in years. He would
grunt out prayers and expletives at uncertain times, keep up a clucking
sound with his tongue, sway his big body from side to side, and drum a
tattoo upon his knee. Now and again would come a suppressed whistle, and
then a low humming sound, backed up by a vacant non-compos-mentis smile.
Another odd whim of Johnson's was, that he would never pass a lamp-post
without touching it, and would go back miles upon his way to repair an
omission. Surely great wit to madness is near allied.
This most strange young man was a boarder in the home of Mrs. Porter, when
her husband was alive, and the husband and boarder had been fast
friends—drawn together by a bookish bias.
Very naturally, when the husband passed away, the boarder sought to
console the bereaved landlady, and the result was as usual. And when, long
years after, Johnson would solemnly explain that it was a pure love-match
on both sides, the statement never failed to excite much needless and
ill-suppressed merriment on the part of the listeners. In mimicking the
endearments of Johnson and his "pretty creature"—so the admiring husband
called her—Garrick many years later added to his artistic reputation.
Unlike most literary men, Johnson was domestic, and his marriage was one
of the most happy events of his career. But to show that the philosophy of
Montaigne is not infallible, and that all signs fail in dry weather, it
may be stated that the bride proved by her conduct on her wedding-day that
she had some relish of the saltness of time in her cosmos, despite her
fifty summers and as many hard winters.
Said Johnson to Boswell, referring to the horseback-ride home after the
wedding-ceremony: "Sir, she had read the old romances, and had got into
her head the fantastical notion that a woman of spirit should use her
lover like a dog. So, sir, at first she told me that I rode too fast, and
she could not keep up with me; and when I rode a little slower, she passed
me, and complained that I lagged behind. I was not to be made the slave of
caprice; and I resolved to begin as I meant to end. I therefore pushed on
briskly, till I was fairly out of sight. The road lay between two hedges,
so I was sure she could not miss it; and I contrived that she should soon
come up with me. When she did I observed her to be in tears."
Shortly after his marriage, Johnson opened a private school for boys. To
operate a private school successfully implies a certain amount of skill in
the management of parents; but Johnson's uncouth manners and needlessly
blunt speech were appalling to those who had children who might possibly
be given to imitation.
Only three pupils were secured, and but one of these received any benefit
from the tutor; and this benefit came, according to the scholar, from the
master's supplying an excellent object for ridicule.
This pupil's name was David Garrick.
The meeting with David Garrick was a pivotal point in the life of Johnson.
Johnson's mental and spiritual existence flowed on, separate and apart
from that of his wife. There was no meeting of the waters. His affection
for her was most tender and constant, but in quality it seemed to differ
but slightly from the sentiment he entertained toward "Hodge," his cat.
Hodge was fed on oysters that his owner could ill afford; and after
Johnson had spent the little fortune that belonged to his wife, the lady
was regaled on the best and choicest that his income, or credit, could
secure. But if one of those lightning-flashes of wit ever escaped him in
her direction, we do not know it. Garrick evidently was the first flint
that tried his steel. The distinctions of teacher and scholar were soon
lost between these two, and the lessons took the turn of a fusillade of
wit. They made comments on the authors they read, and comments on the
people they met, and criticized each other with encaustic remarks that
tested friendship to its extremest limit. And this continual skirmish that
would have made sworn foes of common men in a day revealed to each that
the other had the element of unexpectedness in his nature and was worth
Humor and melancholy go hand in hand; both are born of an extreme
sensitiveness, and the man who smiles at the trivial misfits of life
realizes also that all men who tread the earth are living under a sentence
of death, and that Fate has merely allowed them an indefinite, but
At the outset of Johnson's career, one can not but see that the
companionship and nimble wit of Garrick saved his ponderous and melancholy
mind from going into bankruptcy.
And now we find them: one twenty-eight, big, nearsighted, theoretical,
blundering; and the other twenty-one, slight, active, graceful, practical.
They were alike in this: they both loved books and were possessed of the
eager, earnest, receptive mind. To possess the hospitable mind! For what
greater blessing can one pray?
And then they were alike in other respects—they were desperately poor;
neither had an income; neither had a profession; both were ambitious.
Johnson had written a tragedy—"Irene"—and he had read it to Garrick
several times, and Garrick said it was good and should make a hit. But
Garrick didn't know much about tragedies—law was his bent—he had read law
for two years, off and on. They would go to London and seize fortune by
the scalp-lock. In London good lawyers were needed, and London was the
only place for a playwright.
They scraped together their pennies, borrowed a few more, got a single
letter of introduction between them to some person of unknown influence,
and started away, with the lacrimose blessings of the elderly bride, and
of Davy's mother.
They must have been a queer sight when the stage let them down at the
Strand—dusty, dirty, tired and scared by the babel of sounds and sights!
And no doubt Johnson's enormous size saved them from sundry insults and
divers taunts that otherwise might have come their way.
Those first few weeks in London were given to staring into shop-windows
and wandering, open-mouthed, up and down. No one wanted the tragedy—the
managers all sniffed at it. Little then did Davy dream, as they made their
way from the office of one theater-manager to that of another, that he
himself would some day own a theater and give the discarded play its first
setting. And little did he think that he would yet be the foremost actor
of his time, and his awkward mate the literary dictator of London. Oh!
this game of life is a great play! The blissful uncertainty of it all! The
ambitions, plans, strivings, heartaches, mad desires and vain reaching out
of empty arms! The tears, the bitter disappointments, the sleepless
nights, the echoes of prayers unheard, and the hollow hopelessness of love
turned to hate!
And then mayhap we do as Emerson did—go out into the woods, and all the
trees say, "Why so hot, my little man?"
Garrick, disappointed and undone at the thought of defeat in his chosen
profession, turned to commercial life and then to the theater. At his
first stage appearance he trembled with diffidence and all but fled in
fright. He persevered, for he could do nothing else. He arose step by
step, and honors, wealth and fame were his. Love came to him: he wedded
the woman of his choice. And after his death she survived for forty-three
years. She lived one hundred years, lacking two. Garrick was born in
Seventeen Hundred Sixteen; and his wife died in Eighteen Hundred
Twenty-two, which seems to bring the times of Johnson pretty close home to
us. Throughout her long life, she lived in the memory of the love that had
been hers; cherishing and protecting, idolizing, as did Mary Shelley, the
one name and that alone.
Johnson and Garrick thoroughly respected and admired each other, yet they
often quarreled—they quarreled to the last. But when Davy had lain him
down in his last sleep, aged sixty-three, it was Johnson, aged seventy,
who wrote his epitaph, introducing into it the deathless sentence * * *
"by that stroke of death which has eclipsed the gaiety of nations, and
impoverished the public stock of harmless pleasure."
Three months in London and Johnson succeeded in getting a place on the
editorial staff of "The Gentleman's Magazine." Prosperity smiled, not
exactly a broad grin; but the expression was something better than a
stony, forbidding stare.
He made haste to go back to Lichfield after his "Letty," which name, by
the way, is an improvement on Betty, Betsy or Tetsy—being baby-talk for
They took modest lodgings in a third floor back, off Fleet Street, and
Johnson began that life of struggle against debt, ridicule and unkind
condition that was to continue for forty-seven years; never out of debt,
never free from attacks of enemies; a life of wordy warfare and inky
broadsides against cant, affectation and untruth—with the weapons of his
dialectics always kept well burnished by constant use; hated and loved;
jeered and praised; feared and idolized.
Coming out of his burrow one dark night, he encountered an old
beggar-woman who importuned him for alms. He was brushing past her, when
one of her exclamations caught his ear.
"Sir," said the woman, "I am an old struggler!"
"Madam," replied Johnson, "so am I!" And he gave her his last sixpence.
But life in London was cheap in those days—it is now if you know how to do
it, or else have to. Johnson used to maintain that for thirty pounds a
year one could live like a gentleman, and as proof would quote an
imaginary acquaintance who argued that ten pounds a year for clothes would
keep a man in good appearance; a garret could be hired for eighteen pence
a week, and if any one asked your address you could reply, "I am to be
found in such a place," Threepence laid out at a coffeehouse would enable
one to pass some hours a day in good company; dinner might be had for
sixpence, and supper you could do without. On clean-shirt day you could go
abroad and call on your lady friends. Among Johnson's first literary tasks
in London was the work of reporting the debates in Parliament. In order
that the best possible results might be obtained, he resorted to the
rather unique, but not entirely original, method of not attending
Parliament at all. Two or three young men would be sent to listen to the
debates; they would make notes giving the general drift of the argument,
and Johnson would write out the speech. His style was exactly suited to
this kind of work, being eminently rhetorical. And as at the time no
public record of proceedings was kept and Parliament did not allow the
press the liberty it now possesses—all being as it were clouded in
mysterious awe—these reports of debates were eagerly sought after. To
evade the law, a fictitious name was given the speaker, or his initials
used in such a way that the individual could be easily recognized by the
Some of Johnson's best work was done at this time, and in several
instances the speaker, not slow to appreciate a good thing, allowed the
matter to be reissued as his own. Long years after, a certain man was once
praising the speeches of Lord Chesterfield and was led on to make
explanations. He did so, naming two speeches, one of which he zealously
declared had the style of Cicero; the other that of Demosthenes. Johnson
becalmed the speaker by agreeing with him as to the excellence of the
speeches, and then adding, "I wrote them both."
The gruffness of Ursa Major should never be likened to that of the Sage of
Chelsea. Carlyle vented his spleen on the nearest object, as irate
gentlemen sometimes kick at the cat; but Johnson merely sparred for
points. When Miss Monckton undertook to refute his statements as to the
shallowness of Sterne by declaring that "Tristram Shandy" affected her to
tears, Johnson rolled himself into contortions, made an exasperating
grimace, and replied, "Why, dearest, that is because you are a dunce!"
Afterward, when reproached for the remark, he replied, "Madam, if I had
thought so, I surely would not have said it."
Once, at the house of Garrick, to the terror of every one, Burke
contradicted Johnson flatly, but Johnson's good sense revealed itself by
his making no show of resentment. Burke's experience was, it must be said,
exceptional. An equally exciting, but harmless occasion, was the only time
that the author of "Rasselas" met the man who wrote the "Wealth of
Nations," Johnson called Adam Smith a liar, and Smith promptly handed back
an epithet not in the Dictionary. Nevertheless, old Ursa spoke in an
affectionate praise of "Adam," as he called him thereafter, thus
recognizing the right of the other man to be frank if he cared to be.
Johnson wanted no privilege that he was not willing to grant to
others—except perhaps that of dictator of opinions.
When Blair asked Johnson if he thought any modern man could have written
"Ossian," Johnson replied, "Yes, sir—many men, many women, and many
children." And if Blair took umbrage at the remark, so much the worse for
We have recently heard of the Boston lady who died and went to Heaven, and
on being questioned by an archangel as to how she liked it, replied
languidly, "Very, very beautiful it all is!" And then sighed and added,
"But it is not Boston!" This story seems to illustrate that all tales have
their prototype, for Boswell tells of taking Doctor Johnson out to
Greenwich Park, and saying, "Now, now, isn't this fine!" But Johnson would
not enthuse; he only grunted, "All very fine—but it's not Fleet Street."
On another occasion when a Scotchman was dilating on the noble prospects
to be enjoyed among the hills of Scotland, Johnson called a halt by
saying, "Sir, let me tell you that the noblest prospect a Scotchman ever
sees is the highroad that leads him to England."
This seems to evince a strong prejudice toward Scotland, and several
Scots, with their usual plentiful lack of wit, have so solemnly written it
down. But the more sensible way is to conclude that the situation simply
afforded opportunity for a little harmless banter.
Another equally indisputable proof of prejudice is shown when Boswell
tells Johnson of the wonderful preaching of a Quaker woman. Johnson
listened in grim, cold silence and then exclaimed: "Sir, a woman's
preaching is like a dog's walking on its hind legs. It is not done well;
but you are surprised to find it done at all."
One of the leading encyclopedias, I see, says, "Doctor Johnson was one of
the greatest conversationalists of all time." The writer evidently does
not distinguish between talk, conversation and harangue. Johnson could
talk and he often harangued; but he was not a conversationalist. Neither
could he address a public assembly, and I do not find that he ever
attempted it. Good talkers are seldom orators. One reads with amusement
tinged with pity, of Carlyle's sleepless nights and cold, terror-fraught
anticipations of his Lord Rector's speech. In deliberative gatherings a
very small man could apply the snuffers to the great Dictator of Letters.
"Sir," said Doctor Johnson to a talkative politician, at a dinner-party,
"I perceive you are a vile Whig," and then he proceeded to demolish him.
Yet Johnson himself was a Whig, although he never knew it; just as he was
a liberal in religion, and yet was boastful of being a stanch Churchman.
Johnson's irritability never vented itself against the helpless. His
charity knew no limit—not even the bottom of his purse. When he had no
money to give, he borrowed it. And when his pension was three hundred
pounds a year, the Thrales could not figure out that he spent more than
seventy or eighty on himself. The rest went to his dependents. In his
latter days his home was a regular museum of waifs and strays. There was
Miss Williams, the ancient aristocratic spinster who came to London to
have an operation performed on one of her eyes. She came to Johnson's home
and remained ten years, because she had been a friend of his wife. This
claim was enough, and she slid into the head place in Johnson's household.
Her peevishness used to drive the old man, at times, into the street; but
that tongue of his, with its crushing retorts, was ever silent and tender
towards her. The poor creature became blind, and used to shock the finicky
Boswell by testing the fulness of the teacups with her finger.
Then there was a Mrs. Desmoulins and her daughter, who drifted down from
Lichfield and came to Johnson, because forty years before, he, too, had
lived in Lichfield. He gave them house-room, treated them as guests, and
each week left a half-guinea on the mantel of their room.
Then there was the broken-down Levett, and Francis Barber, who, coming as
a servant, remained as one of the family, because he was too old to work.
A Miss Carmichael, in green spectacles and bombazine, carrying a cane,
completed what the Doctor called his "seraglio." Writing to Mrs. Thrale in
playful mood, telling of his household troubles, he says, "Williams hates
everybody; Levett hates Desmoulins, and does not love Williams; Desmoulins
hates them both; Poll loves none of them." And he, the great, gruff and
mighty Ursa Major, listened to all their woes, caring for them in
sickness, wiping the death-dew from their foreheads, wearing crape upon
his sleeve for them when dead.
This man tasted all the fame that is one man's due; he had all the money
he needed, or knew how to use; the coveted LL.D. came from his Alma Mater;
and the patronage from Lord Chesterfield, for which he craved, only that
he might fling it back. He was the friend and confidant of the great and
proud, deferred to by the King and sought out by those who prized the
far-reaching mind and subtle imagination—the things that link us with the
Infinite. The fear of hell and dread of death that haunted him in youth
and middle age, finally gave way to faith and trust. When partial
paralysis came to him at midnight, his sanity did not fail him, and
knowing the worst, he yet hesitated to disturb the other members of the
household, but went to sleep, philosophizing on the phenomena of the
case—alert for more knowledge, as was his wont. Morning came and being
speechless, he wrote on his ever-ready pad of paper and handing the sheet
to his servant, watched with amused glances the perplexity and terror of
the man. He next wrote to his friend, Mrs. Thrale, that letter, a classic
of wit and resignation, wherein he explains his condition and excuses
himself for not calling upon her and explaining the matter by word of
Such willingness to accept the inevitable is curative. He grew better and
recovered his speech. But old age is a disease that has no cure save
death. Johnson accepted the issue as a brave man should—thankful for the
gift of conscious life that had been his. When the last hour was nigh he
sent loving messages to his nearest friends, repeating their names over
one by one. His last recorded words were directed to a young woman who
called upon him, "God bless you, my dear."
And so he passed painlessly and quietly into the sleep that knows no
waking; pleased at last to know that his dust would rest in Westminster
Thus ended, as the day dies out of the western sky, this life, seemingly
so full of tempest and contradiction. The autumn of his life was full of
enjoyment, and no day passed but that some one, weak, weary and worn,
arose and called him blessed. Most of his wild imprecations and blustering
contradictions were reserved for those who fattened on such things, and
who came to be tossed and gored. In his spirit Socrates and Falstaff
joined hands. In his life there was a deal of gladness—far, far more than
of misery and unrest; which fact I believe is true of every life.
The Universe seems planned for good.
A world made up of such men as Samuel Johnson would be a wild chaos of
tasks undone. But since Nature has never sent but one such man, and more
than a century has passed since his death and we know not yet with whom to
compare him, we need have no fears. The world is held in place through the
opposition of forces: and the body of every healthy man is the
battle-ground of animal organisms that match strength against strength.
So, too, a healthy society always has these active and sturdy organisms,
which set in play other forces that hold in check their seeming excess.
That the Divine Energy should incarnate itself and find expression in the
form of a man, and that this man should inspire others to think and write,
to do and dare, is a subject the contemplation of which should make us
stand uncovered. The companionship of Johnson inspired Reynolds to better
painting, Garrick to stronger acting, Burke to more profound thinking—and
hundreds of others, too, quenched their thirst at the rock which he smote
whenever he discoursed or wrote.
Sympathy is the first essential to insight. So with sympathy, I pray,
behold this blundering giant, and you will see that the basis of his
character was a great Sincerity. He was honest—doggedly honest—and saw
with flashing vision the thing that was; and thither he followed,
crowding, pushing, knocking down whatsoever opinion or prejudice was in
the way. And so he ever struggled forward. But hate him not, for he is thy
brother—yea! he is brother to all who strive and reach forward toward the
Ideal. Shining through dust and disorder, now victorious, now eclipsed in
deepest gloom, in him is the light of genius; and this is never base, but
at the worst is admirable, lovable with pity. There was pride in his
heart, but no vanity; and he should be loved for this if for no other
reason: he had the courage to make an enemy. In his great heart were wild
burstings of affection, and a hunger for love that only the grave
requited. There, too, were fierce flashes of wrath, smothered in an hour
by the soft dew of pity. His faults and follies were manifold, as he often
lamented with tears; but the soul of the man was sublime in its
qualities—worldwide in its influence.